Michael vomited at dinner again. It was horrible to see him like that, so repulsive and pitiful. The sound and smell of it made cold wet hands slap at my spine, the false-jocular kind of slap you feel through to your chest. Michael was so handsome that we all thought he’d be able to do anything, like maybe be in movies. At thirty-five he had smooth thick brown hair and an elegant, masculine face. Though he was born in Massachusetts, he had a British aura about him, like James Bond or someone like that.
We all lived together in a shoddy old duplex that rattled when you walked because the floorboards were made of something like plywood. It was miserable and beautiful. Auntie and Davey had lived here five years. Two years ago, I turned seventeen and left my parents’ house and came here because the rent was dirt-cheap. Laureen moved out last year and Auntie posted an ad for her room in the Pennysaver. Then Michael came around and his good looks were so unbelievable that Auntie let him move in right away, and let him stay even after she found out he was dealing. He called her ‘Nana’ and she spent all her money on bail. They were perfect for each other.
Being around Michael made Auntie manic. After a few months, when the pattern became apparent, I told Auntie that I didn’t think this was a good environment for Davey, and she said “Fuck off.” She’d taken to smoking a pack of Virginia Slims everyday. After six months of this her cockatoo was dead from nicotine poisoning and liver disease brought on from a thirty year diet of stale, cheap supermarket birdseed. The white bird had once been her darling, but she had Michael throw its heavy, smoke-stained body in the kitchen garbage. Only Davey cried. The next day some sort of sanitation official came around and said for us not to put animal corpses in the trash.
Davey’s birthday was during the first week in June. His eighth birthday had a weird, wet heat to it and the impression of a coming storm. Auntie didn’t make any attempt to observe Davey’s special day. I went into the low ceilinged, windowless room off the dining room—Auntie called it the parlor. She refused to sit in the living room because we had to keep the windows open to prevent suffocation in the heat and she said the exhaust from the fourteen wheelers made her lightheaded. This, of course, was bullshit.
Auntie was sitting in the parlor and Davey was drawing on the wall. He was eight now and should have known better but Auntie had never disciplined him for it and the wall was a mess of crayon scribbles stopping at four feet up from the base molding. It actually drew your eye right to it, giving the room an artistic focal point. Other than Auntie’s chair, and the lead glass ashtray on its plush arm, there wasn’t a single object in the room.
“You forgot his birthday,” I said to her. From the floor, Davey looked up at me but he didn’t say anything. He returned to scribbling with a fist of broken crayons, throwing strength into it as though it were an athletic feat. He fiercely ground waxy crayon into the green-painted plaster.
“So what?” She looked at me with her wrinkled face and exhaled smoke. “What do you care?” Her silk skirt was covered with ash. She’d had Davey at the age of fifty. He was supposed to be a miracle baby. Then her husband was arrested for fraud, and they lost the house on ten acres. Then, to top it off, her husband shot himself and Auntie stopped giving a shit about Davey. She rented rooms in the top floor of this filthy duplex to drifters and losers and slackers like myself and gave Davey a mattress in the walk-in closet to sleep on.
I went into the hall. From between the slats of the louvered door to his room, you could hear Michael blasting Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade’ on his sound system. The volume was nearly blinding in the hall. Even out in the street you could hear it, laced with distant thunder.
I got my bike from the muddy lawn and started to ride.
There’s a certain odor that pervades the older neighborhoods of mid-Atlantic lower class suburbia on balmy nights. At dusk here on the rotting edges of the city you can smell it: ranch houses inhabited by smokers for decades, so that the smoke has permeated every crevice and the smell wafts into the street. This odor tangles with another, less distinct, less tangible, like an old memory: something like wet cardboard, mud, and rotten leaves.
Then there is the sweaty odor of rain on the hot blacktop, splattering its fat drops. I was near Laureen’s so I decided to go there. I hadn’t been planning to head in her direction but now that I thought about it, it seemed that had been the plan all along.
“Peter,” called Laureen from the balcony as I came up the walk, my glasses sliding on my nose in the rain. She was drinking beer on the balcony with her roommates, smoking and making a ruckus playing the stereo.
Inside Kailee and Janine were cooking spaghetti. They were damp-skinned from the steam rising out of the pot. Molly came from the shower with a burst of apple blossom and vanilla scent. A National Geographic show about hornets played on the television. I sat on the roughly upholstered couch and the girls brought me a plate of spaghetti.
Laureen came in with her ashtray and a can of beer. Through the window, the violet and green colored storm moved away. Night came on.
“Auntie’s losing it,” I said.
“That crazy old bitch,” said Laureen.
Some people came in at the bottom of the stairs. The door slammed. Darren, his mane of heavy dreads bouncing on his shoulders, had a case of beer and half a bottle of bourbon. Kailee threw down her dish of noodles and went to him. He had a friend with him, too, a slim boy with long sand-colored hair falling in a fringe over his eyes. He wore a small, tight t-shirt and jeans as tight as skin.
“Oh,” said Laureen. “This is Jack.” The boy smiled shyly and lowered himself to the floor, tucking his knees under his chin. Laureen got the bourbon from Darren and made glasses of bourbon and seven. A hornet on the television bit off a cicada’s head.
Down the hall, Molly came out of her room and the smell of her vanilla perfume surrounded us all. She shrieked to see Darren and me. Jack scrambled to his feet. Molly hugged us all like she hadn’t seen us in years. Her wet, black hair smelled like her shampoo.
“Let’s party,” said Laureen. “Let’s drink away this miserable reality.”
The apartment lit up with electricity, hornets, music. On the balcony, the night felt tropical. Rattling, stereo-thumping cars raced by on the bleak, black street and vagrant children wandered and hollered in the alleys. I drained my glass and it slipped through my fingers into the shrubs below.
I went back in. Glasses and empty beer cans lined up on the counter. I looked in the cabinets; they were empty. The clutter of cleaning bottles under the sink yielded a stack of plastic cups: more bourbon for me. My face sweated and my glasses slid on my nose and cheeks. My hair felt greasy (a layer of frustration clung to me). My joints were loose with alcohol.
Laureen and everyone sat in her room, bathed in the spider-light of her black light fixture. Kailee and Janine sat on the daybed and Jack sat on the floor, his long legs folded under his delicate chin, his face upturned, his smile timid. They all passed around the snake-shaped bong.
I sat on the floor, looking around at everyone. Our skin glowed violet. Jack’s nails on the rough carpet were bluish and pearlescent. My fingertips touched his and he smiled at me. Under the fringe of his long hair his eyes were sleepy and long-lashed.
It didn’t seem like much time passed but it did. We passed the snake and smoked and drank. Molly and Darren came in and we all laughed and laughed. Jack lay back on the floor, propped on his elbows. His slinky body gleamed.
“Oh, you are all so wonderful!” he laughed. His voice was soft. “I’m so glad Darren had me come by.”
People started talking about their jobs and how terrible they were. Jack sat up and looked at me, looked at all of us. “I work at the Sunrise Bread factory, with all these elderly Korean women. I’m starting to learn Korean but I miss…”
Laureen said, “I work at the Telesales center. Telemarketing! It makes me want to shoot myself. But anything’s better than living with Auntie.”
I chewed on the rim of the plastic cup. On the bed Kailee and Janine lay piled on top of each other. What time could it be? I stood up and went out to lie on the wet lawn. I could smell the tangy smoke all over me and the coolness of the Earth at night pressed itself at my cheek.
The next day I couldn’t stop thinking about Jack. I lay in bed for a long time just thinking about his hair falling over his eyes and imagining myself touching his bony hips. I reached for some comic books and looked through them for a while but it wasn’t any good; ‘Scheherazade’ was too damn loud.
I got up and found some clothes on the floor and put them on. The clock on the Microwave oven in the kitchen said 3:42pm. The whole place was blistering hot and the swelling waves of percussion and violin made me feel like I was being pulled up by my hair. Davey was wailing away in his closet, naked because of the heat, but you could barely hear him with Michael’s music blasting.
“Why don’t you make him turn that sound system down a notch?” I said to Auntie, and she said, “Why don’t you fuck off?” At least he wasn’t blasting Mozart. All that harpsichord makes me want to tear my eardrums out.
I went and got my bicycle and started riding and by the time I got to the industrial park I was drenched in sweat and my clothes were sticking to me. I could hardly see to ride because my glasses kept sliding down my nose.
I biked around the industrial park until I found the Sunrise Bakery, all the way in the back of the place adjacent a barren area of scrubby plants and dead grass. I rode right up to the door and threw down my bike and went in.
The place smelled like yeast and sounded like machinery. Flour covered everything. A little Korean woman came up to the counter and looked at me.
“Is Jack here?” I said.
“Jack, yes. Jack. Come with me.” I followed her around the counter and past some conveyer belts where other Korean women were forming piles of dough. In the back of the facility Jack stood pushing at knobs on a huge mixer. A lump of dough the size of a small child rolled around inside.
“Peter!” he said over the thumping and grinding of the machines.
“When do you get out of here?” I said loudly.
“In thirty minutes!” he said.
I went and sat on the sidewalk out front until he was finished. The sky was a thick, milky-white kind of color. There were some dumpsters at the edge of the parking lot and some pot holes full of rainwater. I watched a flock of grackles splash about happily in the water and play with bits of garbage, chattering to each other and flittering around. Then Jack came out and I picked up my bike and we started to walk.
Flour dusted his hair. “Do you know anywhere we can go?” he said. I shrugged. I wanted to take him to my room but I wasn’t daring enough to be that forward. “I know where we can go,” he said eagerly. He brushed his bangs out of his face and smiled his shy smile at me. He led me through that barren field. I rolled the bike along beside us, over the patches of gravel and dead grass. There was a place we came to after about five minutes, a spot where the land sloped down around some little bunchy trees. There was some trash—car parts and tires—lying around but it wasn’t really that bad.
“See this tree?” Jack put his hand on the trunk of a small twisted tree. “It’s a cedar. It looks like a Joshua tree, I think.”
We sat down on a tire under the tree. “Do you want to smoke?” I asked, and he said sure.&nbbout smoking up, which she prohibited in the lease despite the fact that her daily chain smoking probably did more damage to her lungs than the occasional joint could ever claim.
I stood in the hall and pounded and rattled Michael’s door. I didn’t mean to sound hostile—I just knew simply that I had to make a racket or he wouldn’t be able to hear me over the music. I didn’t have anything against Michael—he had his problems, surely, and it wasn’t his fault that Auntie was so enamored of him. You can’t blame him for that. But somewhere, in the course of that moment or so I spent banging on his door, the thought crept into my mind that he might not be okay, physically—he did pass out from time to time. So I pushed the door open and went into the music, which was so magnified in the room that it seemed to come apart in my ears, becoming purely bone-rattling vibrations.
And there was Michael, stretched out on his mattress, vomit smeared on his face. His kit and some needles were tossed around. He wasn’t breathing; he was dead.
We should have known!
I’d never known anyone who’d died before, so of course I’d never been in the presence of a dead body. I stood for a moment, just staring at Michael, and then I went back to my room. Jack and I got dressed and went downstairs and called the police.
Auntie was furious. She followed me up to my room and hollered at me as I got my stash out of my underwear drawer and continued to holler as I flushed it down the toilet. She looked at Jack, who stood against the wall looking concerned and went, “Who the hell are you?” But I felt terrible for her. She only peeked once into Michael’s room, her face crumpling. How wretched it must be at fifty-eight to pour all your love on a junkie who can’t even reimburse you for bail, who can’t even pay his rent.
Then the police came in, and the ambulance drove up. The sirens got Davey worked up and he ran upstairs to my room. Jack sat on the floor and Davey sat on his lap and we told him jokes and distracted him as the police did their work. Outside, the neighbors came and stood out on their stoops and a bunch of ratty, summer-sweaty children came and stood around on our lawn and watched them haul out Michael’s body, on a stretcher and under a sheet.
After Michael was taken away, the police wanted to talk to Auntie. It was only nine at night and the kids on the lawn were dispersing to their various cul-de-sacs to play kickball under the moonlight.
“Let’s go see Laureen and tell her what happened,” I said. “She’ll flip out.” I looked at Davey and thought that it was probably best if we brought him with us for now.
“Do you want to go visit your sister?” Jack asked him, and Davey sniffled. “Okay,” he said.
Jack and I each took one of Davey’s hands and we walked together in the middle of the street toward Laureen’s apartment. The humid air smelled sweaty and the dark sky lit up from time to time with heat lightning. I thought that I should have felt wretched, but I didn’t. On the contrary, everything felt beautiful. My life was on the brink of change; I was aware that this was the turning point.
Ginger Walker was born in Alaska and grew up in Virginia. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University. Her work has been published in Five Points and Frantic Egg. She currently lives near Washington, DC.
Copyright 2005, Ginger Walker. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.