Joyland

a hub for short fiction

August: an excerpt from Follow Me Down

It’s dusk on a Saturday, I’m out walking. There’s a man, unsteady on his feet, with a long, curled-handle umbrella. He’s holding it up to his shoulder like a machine gun, staring down the barrel and swiveling abruptly, a jungle commando, pausing to catch his image in the scratched Plexiglas window of the bodega. A small boy wanders out of the store and stands a few feet away, watching. The man pivots slowly, beginning to grunt and growl before he comes around to face the boy. The boy pulls his arms around himself and waits to see where this is going. So do I. The man hunkers down and grunts his way toward the boy, the umbrella-gun carefully aimed. I’m weighing my slightness against the man’s new equilibrium. In case. Then, something invisible passes between them and the tension breaks. The boy giggles and runs behind a tree, peeking out. The man pulls a forty-ounce out of a pocket and sits down on the bodega steps. The evening begins.

In the projects, people are milling around, winding up to things that come later. There’s a butter-colored Cadillac parked out front. The door rests open and the song on the radio drifts out into the air. A man sits in the car with his feet on the curb. He’s wearing one of those old-man caps, and seems old enough to have earned it. He sings past the volume of the radio, his voice fluid, with just a little gravel in it. I smile at him, and he tips his hat. “That’s right, baby,” he says and meets up with the song again on a high, trailing note.

A few blocks away a man is leaning back against the side of his sedan, one arm stretched out above the door as though the car were his best girl. There’s a mambo playing, and all around the men are lifting beers swaddled in brown paper and shimmying in place, their heads thrown back with pleasure. Now he reaches into his pocket and scatters a handful of bright pennies in the empty street. A few small children rush over at the sound of fallen coins, squatting to gather them. He watches with pride at what he has caused. The other men keep dancing in place as the song changes key.

When full darkness settles in, the corner boys are practicing footwork with invisible basketballs, pivoting around each other. One takes a jump shot and his gaze follows it up to the shining moon. “Yo,” he says, “is the moon a planet?” He’s looking at the smallest of the boys, the wiry one who must be the answer man among them. Answer Man says, “The moon’s name is Maria.”

There’s a girl, I haven’t seen her since midsummer. Now she steps out her front door. Something has changed. She has grown into herself. She stretches and yawns, and takes her time settling down to sit on the top step. She tips her head one way, and then the other. She is utterly self-contained. Not fidgeting, not posing, not waiting. After a while the boys come slowly out of the dark, one by one. They sit at her feet and ignore each other. She gives the street an idle scan. Minutes pass. Nobody says a word.

The world is beautiful but I am not quite in it. I walk back home through the projects, there are flashing lights all around, ambulances and idling rigs. The firemen lumber under the weight of their gear. People on corners are spreading the news. Something has happened and these are the artifacts left behind by the thing that has happened. EMTs lean around an empty gurney on a pathway. Whatever went wrong has been taken away. In the middle of the courtyard lawn, one man in flannel pajamas and a do-rag stands and counts a handful of change.

I had a brother once. The last time he knocked on my door, I didn’t answer. He had been the light in my eyes, an earnest and unprotected boy, foolish and charming. I lost him to the city. The last time he knocked on my door was the day I left him behind.

On Sundays the whole neighborhood sleeps late. There must have been rain at dawn, for now the streets and the trees have taken on the darker hue and shimmer that the water leaves on their surfaces as it evaporates back into the sky. All the colors are rich and saturated, the peeling bark of the birches, the green weeds, the mangled red tricycle that sits on the curb awaiting the trashmen’s visit. I spool a roll of film into one of my old plastic toy cameras. It’s light and imprecise. My cameras are a good excuse to see the neighborhood, to stop and stare. The camera opens a space for that, and people always ask what I’m doing. They are puzzled, by the antiquated equipment and the things they see me shooting: the buildings and the places where the buildings used to be. The surface of the canal, lambent with marbled oil. The trees and weeds overtaking the things that man has left in his wake.

This morning I go first to the playground. There’s a young woman there who I know a little, Carlina. She’s tall and curvy and her clothes are always sculpted to set her roundness at best advantage. Even when she’s in sweats, as she is now. She’s watching her son, who is in constant motion, circling the playground and mounting its obstacles. He’s around six, I think. She waves. “You’re taking pictures again? What’s up with that?”

She asks me that every time she sees me with a camera. At first I tried to explain, I showed her some prints. But that’s not really what her questions are about. It’s the meaningless but meaningful conversation of the street. She is acknowledging me as familiar, as a known quantity. I return the gesture. “You guys are out early.”

“He’s hit a new surge of testosterone or something. If I don’t take him out and run him in the morning he’s hell all day long. Swings at everybody. Gets all pent-up and sinks his teeth in another kid’s arm. Jesus, men. You know?”

Take him out and run him. Like a dog or a horse. I just nod. Then I have an idea. I set the camera down on the flat edge of a bench and point it at the jungle gym, the speeding boy. I hold the shutter open for a long time, maybe a minute. The picture will be washed out with light, the physical structures barely visible. And the boy will be a blurred streak of motion, pure energy and light. I try it a few times, varying the time the shutter is open.

The boy’s mother turns away to take a phone call. She seems uncomfortable, tries to hustle the caller off the phone. “I’m not in a good place to talk. We’re outside. Hold on.”

She turns to me. “Can you watch him? I just have to deal with something.” She taps the phone. “Ten minutes. It’s one of those kind of delicate matters, you know?”

No problem, I tell her. I load another roll of film and keep shooting the boy’s flashing speed. When she comes back, he’s hanging upside-down from the monkey bars, resting. She hollers him over, in the commanding tone of mothers and generals. It works. He drops down and trots to her side. She waves at me. “Thanks,” she says and turns quickly back into the tall housing project building she lives in. I wait a while, watching, hoping for a rustle at a window that will show me which apartment is hers. But nothing happens. Eventually I move on.

I loop through the neighborhood, down by the canal and back. When I get home, my lover Jimmy is sitting on the stoop. He doesn’t like phones, he is undaunted by waiting. “I was in the neighborhood,” is what he says every time I find him like this. It’s a joke that’s always funny. He lives four blocks away.

He slides a hand around my calf as I climb the steps, and stands up to follow me into the house. I turn on the ceiling fans and a breeze picks up through the apartment, from the kitchen’s wide back windows out to the narrower ones overlooking the street.

In my living room, a mosaic of photographs covers one long wall. I add a few new ones every week or so, and I shuffle them around, reworking the schemes, seeing which rules make better compositions. Jimmy stands in front of the wall now, giving it his fullest scrutiny.

“You changed it. It’s by dominant color,” he observes, pointing at the wall. “The green of the plants. The gray of the fences and the empty buildings. The red of the bricks and the rust.”

“I think it’s too much,” I say.

“Too much how?”

“Too obvious.” I step back and consider the wall a moment. I don’t like the workings of my mind to be so easy to guess, but that’s only part of my discomfort. “You don’t see the pictures anymore, just a field of color. It blinds the eye to detail.”

“Never any people,” Jimmy says. It’s not the first time he’s observed this, and he’s pleased with himself.

“People are only interesting to me in motion,” I tell him. “But that’s not really why. This is about a world without people at all. After people. That’s what all these are,” I tell him. I’m pacing now in front of the wall, pointing, caught up in my own convictions. “These are the ruins we leave behind. The foolish pride of our skyscrapers and our factories, left empty and grown over with weeds.”

Jimmy sits down on the couch while I’m talking, and looks up at me, a little confused, a little smitten. “They’re pictures of impermanence,” he says, working it out. “You’re taking pictures of an idea.”

I chose Jimmy because I thought he was someone else. A nice guy who plays guitar and doesn’t think too hard about things. I had him all wrong, and that complicates my hours with him in a way that makes me shrink into myself. I suppress the uneasy feeling by kneeling down and unzipping his pants.

Early Monday morning, I’m hustling to the subway, squinting in the brightness. A man is sitting on an upturned milk crate, drinking coffee from a mug. He raises it in greeting. The incongruity of the street perch and the kitchen cup pull a grin out of me. He shakes his head. “A man could look at a smile like that for the rest of his life,” he says. I stop a moment. I like the look of this one. He’s got some Cherokee around the eyes, a lullaby voice, the rangy arms of a swimmer. He rocks a little on the milk crate, then holds out the mug. “Want a sip?” I’m late for work, the air is thick as a swamp. I laugh, and keep walking.

The city is shifting, it blurs, and then reforms itself whenever my back is turned. Now, I cut through an old neighborhood where the punks and squatters used to reign. Every time I come down here, something else is gone. This morning a man with a fine-boned face and an untucked shirt walks toward me, his arm angled out like a dandy’s. He comes closer and I see that he’s crying in a dry and quiet way as he walks, the face quivering and the eyes ringed red. Up close the cocked arm seems to be holding him up, no longer a flourish. It’s so early in the morning, it all bespeaks heartbreak. A final night, a last, fumbling exit, a sorrow that sinks like a stone.

It’s not just him. Everyone here is maimed. A pimply girl shuffles along, her head tipping back like a narcoleptic, she is nodding on something, coming unwound with each step. There’s a man dragging his leg along behind him like an unwanted burden. Then a skinny guy in high-tops with breasts bouncing under his t-shirt rushes into one of the doorways. A round woman who guides her electric wheelchair with flipper limbs whirs past an old man with a bandage around his neck like an ascot. An elegant woman with upswept hair and three fingers in a claw-shaped cast is telling a story to no one. Then the nodding girl doubles back, tucks herself into the shade of a ghetto palm and gives in to the sleep she can’t outrun.

I keep walking, as if motion might erase the morning’s purgatorial characters from my imagination. Now I’m really late, and a soft rain has begun to fall. I catch the express and arrive at the tallest building by the river, where I’m employed by an immense law firm. In the lobby, a janitor is rolling out a fresh mud rug. It still curls upward at the corners. He holds one down with his foot and looks sadly at the gray nap. It’s temporary, disposable. It’s there to protect the granite floors. But I think he looks at its fresh surface and sees only the coming loss. It will never be this perfect, this clean, again.

Upstairs on the highest floor is the dead zone, where I work. The colors are pale, all blonde wood and warm white paint. The spareness is only casually marred by personal clutter, against regulation. Otherwise it’s bloodless. From the window of my small room here, I can see the tips of a few buildings and miles of sky. The weather turns my mood as it changes the light across my desk. Flat and gray, bright and blinding. I am a proofreader. I look for mistakes. I gather errors. On the corner of my desk, there’s a stack of papers in a tray. I go through them, mark changes. The assistant comes to pick up the finished ones. She’s a little wobbly, with solid flesh rolling over the waist of her skirt, heels too high and narrow to support her width. But it’s not just the body, she’s a wobbly person. She lacks purpose. She wants to ask me questions, and she never does. She stands in the doorway watching, waiting for an invitation that never comes. I turn back to the window. I hear her breathing. I hear her finally turn and go, her heels clicking on the wooden floor like a 1950s starlet’s would. She never asks the things she wants to ask. No one here does. They used to. But I don’t talk.

On my way home, the subway is full of rancid energy, a collective bad mood, as if something might snap any second. I get off and wait for the next train. It’s better here, languid. First a woman stretches her arms out behind her and groans a little, releasing the day from her shoulders, pulling her shirt tight across her lovely round breasts. Then another woman shifts her weight and the waist of her skirt slides down past the knob of her hip, revealing a crescent of pale flesh. An Asian man with a boyish face and an elegant suit averts his eyes, shaking his head and smiling with incredulity at these wonders, and how he is expected to act as though he does not see them.

When I come back above ground into the closing day, a tall guy says to me, “You’re a beautiful lady, you just made my day walkin’ by here.”

Little guy crossing the street says, “Mine too.”

Tall guy calls out to him, “Right? You work all day, you deserve to see something beautiful.”

Little guy says, “It’s like the icing.”

By the high school, there are six antsy cops guarding the corners against some sinister potential I can’t perceive. The kids are milling around on the sidewalks. They’ve all grown great pillows of fat since I saw them last, it spills out of their tight clothes, and now their bodies take up as much of the sidewalk as their voices.

Around the corner on a side street, some girls are jumping Double Dutch, thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump, thump, “Ice cream soda pop cherries on top / how many boyfriends do you got?”

The next night at home I put on higher heels and lipstick and run back out to meet Natalie. She’s got an opening tonight. When I first arrived, I had a temp job proofing at the newspaper where Natalie works as a news photographer, and I have come to count on the balance of her rational view of the world, her calculated eye. Photojournalism happens on the street, but Natalie’s gallery work is something entirely different. It’s the earth itself, the soil and the empty surface of the land, shot from distances that can’t be measured. It’s topographic and mathematical. It soothes me.

The gallery is a far walk from the train. I pass a couple arguing. His voice breaks like a boy’s as he says, “Yeah, and what exactly did you do about it?” She stands silent, her head tipped away from him, chin askew. There’s nothing so impassable about her, but you can tell she’s going to win.

Out in front, in the soft, misty rain, people are smoking and talking with their hands. A very small woman in a curvy black dress is standing alone with her arms crossed, shiny black curls swinging around her bare shoulders. The man next to me says hello to her, and then to me. She smiles at both of us, it’s a friendly night, here in the rain. She seems both relieved and dismayed to have been noticed as a person who is waiting for something. I ask her why she’s standing around.

“My friend is very very late,” she tells me. Her shoulders rise and drop, punctuating her annoyance. She holds a palm up to the rain. She’s tapping her foot. She’s smiling through all of this. She’s performing something.

“You could wait inside,” I say, pointing at the massive plate glass windows that separate us from the party.

“Oh no,” she says. “I want to stay here and get even madder by the time he shows up.”

Now I get it. Now I’m interested. “What are you going to say when he does?”

She gives me a look that says, we’re in this together, we women, we know how this works, we know where the power lies. “I’m going to tell him,” she leans closer, “that he better buy me a drink before I’ll even say a word to him.”

We both laugh, and she whisks some of the dewdrops off her pretty arms. A taxi pulls up, a man in a nice shirt and nice shoes tumbles out. He seems earnest even in the way he unfolds himself from the taxi, eager and clumsy. It’s not what I expected at all. I look back at her, she winks at me as he brushes past me to greet her.