Saturday, 29 September 2012

Joe's Attic

Joe’s Attic
            The first knock came about midway through a Rangers game on a warm but tolerable June afternoon.  Joe Garfield was asleep in his recliner, as was typical, and did not hear it.  His dog, an English Springer Spaniel named Nolan, did hear the knock but was not bothered.  Nolan lifted his head a moment and ever so slightly turned toward the front door.  The competing voices of the Rangers broadcast team lulled him back to sleep.
            No, Joe did not hear the first knock or the second and third.  He’d spent most of his military life around jet engines and his hearing was less than average, even for a man of eighty-two years.  The knocks ceased without Joe ever having realized it.  He twitched in his overstuffed recliner some, dreaming about a road trip with Millie from some time in the early sixties.  It was a dream he had often.  Sometimes they did not even speak but shared glances and knowing smiles.  He thought the dreams were Millie’s way of keeping in touch with him since she’d passed a decade prior.
            He startled awake, the memory of Millie’s smell fading into the scent of his living room, a place where they’d watched three children grow up.  Her essence changed with the seasons, cinnamon-flavored in cool weather and something like a honeydew melon in warmer months. The last image in his mind before regaining clarity was of Millie smiling as she received the cat’s eye sunglasses he’d bought for her on some anonymous voyage.  Such simple things made her happy, a single rose on an unexpected day, a night out at the drive-in, and even a pair of plastic sunglasses.
            Joe stretched, various bones popping, and yawned.  The yawn sent shivers down his spine which was briefly exhilarating.  His blue-gray eyes, nestled within a web of fine wrinkles, settled on the television.  As much as he loved Ranger baseball, it had been years since he’d managed to stay awake for an entire game.  Even their recent trip to the World Series was not enough to stimulate him into wakefulness.  The Rangers were up, which was good.
            Nolan eyed him from his spot on the couch and gave a slight whimper.
            “Outside, buddy?”
            Nolan wagged his tail but would not leave the couch until his own stretching regimen had been completed.  Joe had nearly seven decades on the dog but both of their bodies had seen better days.
            When Joe stood he felt the tyranny of years on his shoulders.  Those same shoulders that had ferried three children around the yard (and Millie a time or two) with such ease were slumped and cruelly angled.  The muscle was soft atop the bones that felt much lighter than they had in years past.
            Nolan followed Joe to the front door, a journey that required a few extra moments to stretch for both of them.
            Joe opened the door to find a man waiting there, smiling happily.  His first thought was salesman but that was a relic of his youth.  No salesman would waste the gas to drive along the poorly maintained farm roads to Joe’s house.  He then thought car trouble?
            “Howdy, what can I do you for?” Joe said.
            The man, still smiling, hesitated.  He was an older man but younger than Joe, wearing clothing that indicated he probably worked on one of the farms nearby.  He opened his mouth to speak but then stuttered and glanced over his shoulder.  With a deep breath that seemed to steady the man, he spoke finally.
            “I was wondering if I could take a look at your attic.”
            The man’s voice was a little strained, unidentifiable emotions leaking through in a few awkward fluctuations in pitch.
            Joe trusted most people until he was given a reason not to.  Still, the question robbed him of his ability to think for a few moments.  Nolan occupied the time by nuzzling the stranger’s thigh, a gesture the man appeared to appreciate.
            “My attic?  Well, I suppose so.  Are you from around here?  Renovating and looking for ideas?”
            His eyes fixed on the spaniel with a fondness Joe understood well.
            “Something like that,” the man said, patting Nolan on the head.
            Joe retreated inside his home and held the screen door open for the man to enter.  The man took two steps and waited. 
            “I had a dog like this when I was a boy,” he said.
            Joe was unable to see the man’s face as he spoke but it sounded as if he was crying or very near to it.
            “The attic is up the stairs.  Here, let me get you a lemonade and we can take a look together,” Joe said and shuffled towards the kitchen.
            From the kitchen, Joe called, “You a Rangers fan?”
            “The Rangers?  Oh, yes, I am.  Wish I could have seen them win a Series,” the man answered.
            Rummaging through the refrigerator Joe replied, “Oh there’s still time.  We have some good hitters.  Pitching is going to be the problem as it always is.  If this rotation holds up, though, it could be our year.”
            Joe did not hear the man’s footfalls as he scaled the steps.  He did not hear the brief squeal of the attic’s hinges as the man opened the door.  And, when he returned to the foot of the stairs with two frosty glasses of lemonade, the man was gone.
            “Hey, sir?  I got your lemonade right here.  Give me a sec and I’ll meet you up there.”
            Joe took the stairs one step at a time.  Nolan hobbled at a faster pace and sat in front of the attic door with his tail swishing the hardwood floors impatiently. 
            “You sure are fast!  Takes me a full minute to get up these stairs nowadays,” Joe said.
            There was no reply as the man was already gone.
            Joe stood at the top of the stairs with two glasses of lemonade in his wrinkled hands.  His white hair looked like pulled cotton atop his head, swaying with the breeze created whipping his head around in search of his guest. 
            There was no reply.  Joe placed the glasses on the banister and made brief eye contact with Nolan, saying without speaking that the dog was not to disturb the lemonade or risk his dinner if he did.  Joe pulled the attic door open and took a step in, slightly hunched over to allow for the low ceiling.  The light was not on but some sunlight filtered in through the windows.  The old man flipped the light switch and it hardly made a difference.  It was bright enough with the sunlight for Joe to see that he was alone.  The kids had retrieved most of their belongings over the years and so the population of boxes was minimal.  All that was left in the attic were things Joe found too painful to look at on a day to day basis, Millie’s clothes and cookware.
            “Am I going crazy?  Sir?” he whispered and then called out.
            Nolan entered the room with his head low and his tail carving a lazy curve in the dust on the floor.  He nudged Joe’s hand with his head and offered a single, half-hearted whimper.
            Joe sat in front of the television ten minutes later, having exchanged his lemonade (which Nolan drank happily) for a beer.  His eyes were fixated on the television but he did not follow the action of the game.  He did not hear the announcers or commercials despite the fact the TV trumpeted at maximum volume.  There were many things about growing old he did not like.  Growing old alone was the worst among them, but he also wondered if dementia might take root all at once.  Were there signs he’d missed?
            He drifted into a light slumber and when he woke it was dark.  Joe joined Nolan on the couch for the night.  Without allowing his mind to dwell on the matter for long, he decided he’d rather not sleep next to the attic, if just for that night.
            Joe woke to the sound of knocking.  Initially, he could only stare at the ceiling.  Nolan spooned Joe from the side and was still snoring.  Joe wondered, at once, if he was merely dreaming.  Even as he considered this the image of Millie in the garden and wearing her Rangers baseball cap, the last fragment of the dream he’d been having, faded away from his mind’s eye.
            He lifted Nolan’s paw from his chest and swiveled so that his feet contacted the floor.  He waited for another knock for a few seconds before deciding to investigate regardless.  The voyage to his front door was more urgent than the previous day.  He hummed as he walked in an effort to prevent his mind from thinking too hard about what might be waiting on the other side of the door.
            Joe grasped the brass just as he heard the sound of Nolan’s nails clicking across the wooden floor of the living room.  He waited for the dog to join him at his side before turning the knob.
            There were two people standing on his porch, both Mexican in appearance.  The fact that they were Mexican was not unusual for that part of Texas.  Some of Joe’s old friends said the town is turning brown in a way that indicated they were not happy with this fact.  Joe never minded the Mexicans or any other race.  They were hard workers who wanted to provide for their families.  Also, without Mexicans in town there would be no Mexican restaurants, a fact Joe often cited when arguing with his friends.
            The man offered his hand to shake and the woman’s back was facing Joe. 
            “What can I do you for?” Joe asked.
            He recognized the instant terror on the man’s face, a sign that he did not understand English.  Joe had seen it before and, unlike some of his friends (a dwindling number), he was not bothered by it.
            “Ayuda?” Joe offered, inquiring if help was needed.
            The man smiled, still nervous and unable to assemble the few English words he knew into a sentence that could describe his plight.  Instead he pointed a finger at something behind Joe’s back and nodded his head three times, gesturing as if to say up?
            “You want to go up the stairs?”
            The man only smiled and nodded his head in the same motion as before.  Joe turned his fingers into legs and mimicked walking upstairs to which the man nodded enthusiastically.  Joe was glad he was able to bridge the communication gap but disturbed at the man’s wishes.  Nolan pushed past his master and prodded the woman, whose back was still turned, with his wet nose.  The woman turned and revealed that, within her arms, she carried a small bundle, a baby.  The baby was still.
            “Perrito…” she whispered, and freed a hand to pet Nolan’s snout.
            “Baby okay?” Joe asked, pointing toward the bundle and offering a questioning thumbs up.
            The man did not replay but his sullen, downward gaze spoke for him.
            “Can we…” the woman spoke with a heavy accent.
            She nodded toward the staircase behind Joe.
            “You want to see the attic?” Joe asked.
            They both nodded without much confidence.
            Joe employed his fingers again, miming walking upstairs and then opening a door.  To this they nodded with more enthusiasm.  He stepped aside to allow the family into his home.  They waited at the foot of the stairs as the man had the previous afternoon.
            “Limonada?” Joe asked.
            The couple nodded in unison. 
            Joe’s mind was a network of random ideas, half-formed thoughts and questions.  He looked over his shoulder with about every third step as he shuffled to the kitchen.  The family stayed in the same spot at the bottom of the stairs until Joe opened the refrigerator.  The lemonade sat at the front and so it did not take as long to retrieve it.  He pulled out a beer for himself and left it on the counter. 
            Joe tried to collect the Spanish words he knew into a coherent sentence, something to do with Rangers baseball, as he carried the drinks out of the kitchen.  As the day before, there was no one waiting for him.  It was an eventuality he’d suspected but of which he’d hoped to be wrong. 
            He placed the glasses at the foot of the stairs and began his ascent, half stepping and half pulling himself up the flight.  Nolan waited for him, tail wagging, at the top of the stairs, facing the attic door.
            Joe entered the attic only after several minutes of contemplation.  If it was a fantasy how far did he want to pursue it?  The attic was unoccupied as it had been the day before, but Joe did not leave at once.  He strolled around the room with his hands on his hips, admiring his collection of Millie’s things. 
            Amid her various clothes, sun dresses and multitudes of t-shirts, Joe happened across a particular item that made him smile, although his lower lip trembled.  He liberated the Dallas Cowboys jersey from the mobile clothes rack.  It was an Emmitt Smith jersey, one she’d worn during their last Super Bowl win in 1995.  There was still a nacho cheese stain on the sleeve from where she’d inadvertently wiped her lips after a touchdown.
            Joe lingered in the attic for an hour, then two.  A dress would bring back the memory of a night out dancing.  The arthritis was so debilitating she spent most of her final years in a wheelchair.  Still, every few months Millie would take a few Tylenol and summon the energy to take Joe for a night of dancing.  She could only last a few songs and paid for that the next morning with pain and stiffness that would not abate until the afternoon.  But, for twenty minutes at the Senior Center, they were celebrities.
            Joe laughed in the attic, for hours, often with tears in his eyes.  Nolan accompanied him, sniffing clothes and other items Joe presented him.  Sometimes he wagged his tail as an old memory of Millie flashed in his mind. 
            Millie had found Nolan on the side of the road on a morning walk.  He was in a box with seven other puppies, all dead.  She carried the entire box home and buried Nolan’s litter mates.  That December, on a morning walk with a young, spry Nolan, Millie slipped on ice and fractured an ankle.  The arthritis took over from there and Millie never went on another morning walk after that day.
            Thirteen years later, Nolan was no longer young and spry.  But, he still remembered Millie and how the house filled with wonderful smells each time she cooked a meal. 
            Joe sat on the floor with a photo album in his lap, reliving memories he’d not visited in years.  Nolan slept beside him, dreaming of chasing rabbits in the fields surrounding the house.  Joe barely heard the knock when it did come.
            It is amazing how quickly people adapt to unusual circumstances.  Once your life falls into a pattern, regardless of how out of the ordinary that pattern may be, you cope.
            Most of the time Joe did not hear the knock.  Instead he went about his day watching baseball, drinking beer, and listening to old country music on his stereo.  He drove to town twice a week to get groceries and trade war stories at the VFW.  Almost every time he opened his front door or returned home from town there were people on his porch.  After the third occurrence he no longer wondered why they were there.  He’d open the door, smiling, and leave the room long enough for them to walk upstairs and into his attic.
            Nolan greeted each guest and relished the new sets of hands rubbing his head and patting his rump.  On lazy days Joe propped the door open with a rock and left a sign posted at the entryway which stated “The attic is upstairs to the right!  There’s lemonade in the fridge!”
            Joe spent more time in the attic looking at Millie’s things.  He dreamed of her more each night and during his daily baseball game naps.  Sometimes, when he thought about her enough, it was as if she was in the house with him, perhaps just in the other room.  Thinking about her brought her to life in a way, and made the time they had together seem more real.  With the renewed celebration of the life they’d had came a potent longing and his bed felt emptier each night.  Nolan dutifully occupied the space where Millie had slept and Joe woke most mornings to find his arm draped across his dog’s midsection, inspired by a dream in which Millie was still alive and laying beside him.
            Such was life for Joe that summer.  As time passed he ceased to question the obvious and resigned himself to the belief that people entered his house and disappeared inside his attic leaving behind not a trace.  It didn’t make sense to him but he also didn’t see any harm in it.  One morning at the end of August a guest appeared at his door that Joe recognized.  Randall had played tight end on the high school football team while Joe was a running back.  They had been acquaintances, friendly but not friends.
            “Randall?” Joe asked to the man who stood amid a crowd of six other people on the porch.
            Randall was the tallest among them and even carried a bit of his high school bulk on his body.  He looked younger somehow, not as stooped as he’d been when Joe last saw him.  He met eyes with Joe and in the first instant there was a flash of acknowledgement.
            “Randall is that…” Joe began.
            Joe remembered, then, reading the name Randall White in the obituary of the local newspaper and not making the connection to his classmate.  From that moment on things began to make sense to Joe, but in a way that left him torn between sympathy and apprehension.  He answered every knock he heard, without regard to the hour, and welcomed every visitor into his house.
            In September he loaded Nolan and a duffle bag up into the truck and drove to San Marcos, where the kids were getting together for his oldest, Teddy’s, birthday.  Teddy was turning sixty, a number that made Joe feel infinitely older.  Joe was able to immerse himself in the experience, his mind straying to the reality of what waited at home only occasionally. 
            On the drive back a flare of pain erupted in his chest that drained the strength from his left arm.  He pulled to the side of the road and the pain subsided somewhat, though he found it impossible to clench his left hand into a fist.  Had Millie been around the pair would have driven straight to the hospital.  Since she was not Joe decided to wash down a few aspirin with a beer and hope for the best.
            There was quite the herd waiting for him outside of his house, one hundred or more people congregated on or near his porch.  Nolan was unable to receive affection from each person as they filed into the house and walked up the stairs.
            The Rangers were doing well at the end of September and it seemed like another deep playoff run was inevitable.  On the last day of the season Joe fell asleep with Nolan beside him.  He woke to the sound of scratching, not the knocking to which he’d become accustomed.  Joe gently lifted his canine companion off of his lap and positioned him lengthwise on the couch.
            He opened the door to find Nolan on the porch, wagging his tail with renewed vigor.  The dog spun around and bolted into the yard, running in looping circles as he had as a puppy.  Joe smiled wide at that, for a moment.
            Realization washed over him and tears brimmed in his eyes, spilling over onto his cheeks.
            “Nolan?  No. No. No…” he whispered.
            He walked back to the living room and found Nolan on the couch, as still as Millie had been ten years previous.
            Nolan waited on the porch and seemed upset by the emotions of his master.  Nolan felt wonderful, like a young dog again.  He could run, a streak of black and white, and chase the rabbits that had grown too fast for him in the past several years.  His hips no longer hurt and his vision was no longer cloudy.
            “I can’t.  I can’t lose you, Nolan.  I can’t lose you.”
            Joe buried Nolan’s body right next to the house.  He couldn’t stand to have him any further away.
            In Joe’s dreams he danced with Millie and played fetch with Nolan.  He dreamed more often as the Rangers dominated their way to the World Series.  He usually lasted only until the third inning and woke up after the game had already ended.
            The parade of visitors did not end but Joe found it hard to be a considerate host.  He generally left the front door open and only interacted with the people he met as he came and went.  At night the house was quiet in a way he didn’t like.  Sleeping so much during the day he found rest elusive after dark.  And when he didn’t sleep he would simply listen, mostly to the sound of crickets in the grass.  In the silence between their songs he could sometimes hear a shuffle of feet or the abrupt squeak of his attic door opening and closing.
            Autumn came swiftly to Texas.  The grass dried up and the leaves turned the colors of fire.  The smell of burning wood greeted Joe on an afternoon he awoke on his porch with no recollection of how he’d come to be there.  He took a step inside of his house.  He heard the sound of the television; the Rangers were tied in the seventh inning of the last game of the World Series.
            “Joe?  Come upstairs.  You can watch the game with me and Nolan,” Millie’s voice called.
            Joe took a step up the stairs and hesitated.  It was a dream.  He leaned over the railing and recognized the white tufts of pulled-cotton hair poking over the top of the recliner.  A familiar hand rested on the arm of the chair with a slightly tilted beer bottle clutched in its fingers.
            “The game’s almost over, Joe!” Millie called.
            Nolan punctuated the statement with a youthful bark.
            Joe did not realize how nimbly he scaled the stairs, how normal his joints felt by this former challenge.  He opened the door to the attic and stepped inside.
            As he closed the door Millie said, “Look!  I don’t need that stupid old wheelchair anymore!  We can go dancing again!”
            The door clicked shut.

Sunday, 23 September 2012


     The smell of the inner-city stays with you.  It burrows into the denim of your jeans and fills the spreading lines that sprout from the corners of your eyes.  You can taste it.  It’s not the smog of the outskirts.  Not too many cars come around here.  It’s the fetor of sweat, of dying things thrown out with the Tuesday garbage.  It’s the reek of hopelessness, of trembling desperation.

     Here the changing of the seasons meets with little fanfare.  The gray clouds hang a little lower.  Instead of March showers to wash away the putrescence there is an ashen snowfall freezing it in place.
     I stared at my feet as I walked over the crumbling concrete.  You don’t make eye contact in this part of the city.  Eye contact is an invitation.  Eye contact is an indication of vitality, a silent declaration that you have something worth protecting.

     The building blended in well with its surroundings.  It was the color of shale, although not in the state of disrepair of its neighbors.  This part of the city was known as “The Grays” due to the color of its buildings.  It was an astute name for many other reasons.
     The Grays teemed with secrets.  People were good at keeping secrets.  It was a survival mechanism, but no less admirable.  However, secrets have their ways of coming to the surface, whispered through broken teeth, scrawled in blood on an alley wall.

     M. was not a secret to me.

     The building blended so well because that was its purpose.  It was in The Grays because it could exist nowhere else. 

     The letter M, in cursive, rested just above the door.  I grasped the knob, expecting to meet resistance, but it relented.

     The room I entered was about the size of an elevator.  The door slammed behind and a lock engaged.  The fluorescent lights flickered before I heard a burst of static.

     “Leave your driver’s license, social security card, and a hair sample.  Come back tomorrow at 10:17 AM.”

     I knew I was under surveillance and so simply nodded and did as I was told.  There was no ledge upon which I might place the required items so I left them on the carpeted floor.  As soon as this was done the door behind me opened and I was back in The Grays.
     I walked in the direction of my apartment.  Though I stared only at my own boots I felt the presence of another.  The man behind me threw his hands up in submission, his wild eyes staring at anything but my own.  He opened his mouth to speak but did not.  His single, maxillary incisor was the color of parchment paper.

     He put a hand out.

     I retrieved a five-dollar bill from my jacket pocket.  He smiled and the tooth slid over his lower lip, coming to rest in the dimple above his chin. 

     From my other pocket I withdrew a switchblade.

     He frowned and offered both palms again.
     “I want you to remember me.  I want you to remember the nice man who gave you five dollars.  Carve my initials in your arm so I know you will remember me forever.  J-A-K.”

     He pivoted as if to run away and then looked at the yellowed bruises along the inside of his elbows.  When I tossed him the knife he caught it.  Tears rolled across the hard angles of his coffee-colored cheeks.

     “That wasn’t so hard,” I said.

     He handed me the knife, his chest heaving, and took the bill.  For one brief moment his eyes locked on mine. 

     I returned to M.  the next day at 10:17 AM.  When I opened the door I found a syringe still wrapped in plastic.

     “Leave a blood sample.  Come back at 11:32 AM tomorrow.”

     It was, in fact, an elevator.  When the doors parted, after descending for what felt like a minute, the contrast to The Grays could not have been more severe.  The room was expansive, filled with abstract art pieces and various furnishings.   Well-dressed men mingled, sipping wines and liquors, and laughed in a manner that spoke to their stature.  For these men, hunting elephants from the safety of a Jeep no longer sufficed.

     I approached the only individual who seemed to be an employee, a man younger than myself with thin, blond hair parted down the middle.  Before I spoke he motioned with his eyes to enter a door located behind his desk.

     The office was spacious yet cozy.  A log hissed and popped in the fireplace before me.

     “What brings you to M.?”
     The man seated behind the desk was small in frame and of voice.  He seemed on the verge of being consumed by his padded, burgundy office chair.

     “I would like to supply.”

     “Times are tough, aren’t they?”
     His moustache twitched like a feeding rat’s whiskers.

     “Yes.  Not easy for a working man like myself.”

     “Now that the war’s over,” he clarified.

     I nodded.

     “Still, there are opportunities for men with your skillset,” he said, reclining in his chair.

     I noticed my own picture on his desk as well as various other documents relating to my prior, lawful life.  There were pictures of my children also, taken more recently than even I could recall them. 
     “Yes, many opportunities in The Grays, but I suspect you might be looking for more intricate work.”

     He took me to the holding area.  The guests, as he called them, were segregated by value.  At the high end was a reality TV star I thought I recognized, sleeping on a cot. 

     “Business never slows around here.  Our clients are always willing to pay for the experience of M.

     At the low end was a naked black man cowering in the corner of a bare room.  He held a single, yellow tooth in his hand.

     “How much would a supplier get for that man?”

     He looked over my shoulder.

     “Him?  Oh, about five dollars.”