Black sunglasses on the dresser, neatly folded, left lens spiraled with spidery letter-shapes written in white. Spidery letter-shapes inked across the mirror above it, an elegant shambles of a paragraph, each line cramping, curling downward to the right, and the last of it trailing in curlicues down toward the bottom of the glass. Behind those lines his reflection, the massy bulk of him fitted in a black T-shirt, his beard a matted mahogany bush in the flat white light of the room, his hair, loosed, eaves of faintly waved curls still crimped from long confinement, all of it a leafless thicket about the upturned plug of his nose, round hillocks of his cheeks, the narrowed eyes, red and brown. “You didn’t tell me,” he says, a rusted croak.
“You didn’t want to know,” he says.
“How can you say that,” he says.
“You turned away,” he says.
“That’s a lie,” he says.
“You know that’s a lie. How can you say that.”
“You said that.” The tempo of his breathing’s picked up, tendrils of beard and mustache lofting, fluttering with each blowsy exhalation, until it catches, with a hitch. “You did it,” he says, a thready whisper, and his breath seeps from him in a slow settling sigh. “You did it,” he says. “You kept doing it. You knew. You always knew. You just didn’t want to know.”
He stands. He’s been sitting on a narrow bed, discreetly made, a threadbare blanket, beige, folded neatly at the head of it about a single pillow. The walls a dark green rumpled by old over-painted cracks and sagging plaster, the single window bare, warmed by pulsing neon light outside, then off, then on again, and when it’s off the weaker, palely yellow streetlight. Through that shifting scrim can just be seen the unlit windows set in other buildings. “You should’ve said,” he says, looking back and forth, his reflection, his shadow, on the glass.
“You stayed,” he says, stepping to one side. Away from the window, hand against the wall. There the bed, there the dresser, there the door, before him. “You didn’t leave,” he says. Another step. “You did not leave,” he says.
Those sunglasses tremble on the dresser, bounce, flip over as an arm springs up. His hands up pressing back his stiffly outright hair, as he watches the sunglasses rocking, slowing, stop.
“You need to get out of here,” says Philip Keightlinger.
Wings flutter and settle, a chirrup, a chime, the crackle of straw, a shift of weight, seed scatters to the floor. “Boy?” says a gruff voice. Hootings erupt, whitterings and clucks, a crowing whoop, chains rattle, wood creaks, shadows coil and lurch and spread, like wings. “Boy, it’s after six. I already got the coffee.” Hunkered over a figure shuffles under the low-hanging cages swaying, settling. Seed crunching under a heavy step. At the end of the sleeping porch a low table, a sleeping bag neatly rolled beside it, and on it a radio alarm clock, silent, unplugged. He rubs his bare head darkly bald over a crisp circle of white curls. “Right,” he says, turning, “he isn’t,” and stooped, shuffling, makes his way back through the sleeping cages.
Outside the susurrus of fallen rain, the dripping trickles, crinkling seep, the plops and chimes and a shivering gust-blown spatter from the trees, over the fence. By the door a cardboard box, under that flight of stairs bolted to the back of the old brick building. He leans out from under them, hand out, palm up, looking up, into the soft dark starless sky. A sullen haze, off that way, the lights of downtown. He squats, mindful of the mud, wrestling up the rain-soft box, squelch and plep, duck-walking back, pulling him upright, groan and glower.
Inside, through a cramped kitchen all scarred linoleum and dark cabinets, down a narrow hall lined with shelves, partitioned into cubbyholes, stuffed here and there with mismatched pairs of shoes. Clatter of a beaded curtain and up to a worktable mounded high with more shoes, where the old man sets the box. Brushing down the front of his coat. He gingerly pries up a soggy flap, reaches in to pull out a shoe, a black and brown leather football shoe, filthy, the collar of it worn to shreds above the heel. He tosses it on the pile, pulls out another, a cognac-colored wedge-heeled pump. Someone’s tapping at the door.
“Here,” he says, unlocking the door, swinging it open with a jingle of the bell, “here,” switching on the lights in the front window, George’s, say the letters painted in red and yellow in an arc across the glass. Shoes Repaired. A man in a brown and orange ski jacket pushes through the doorway, dingy red cooler in his hands, followed by a woman in a green rain slicker, carrying a plastic storage tub lined with custard-laden ramekins. “Over there,” says the old man, “on the counter,” as he steps out onto the sidewalk, “Hita!” he calls, to a woman coming down the sidewalk, brown coat wrapped about blue coveralls, long black hair under a kerchief. “Lend a hand?” He’s shaking out a ring of keys to find the one that opens the door of a powder-blue town car. The light of downtown off that way fading into the lightening overcast. He lifts a cardboard box from the front seat, printed over with little running coffee cups, and a spigot on one side. Hands it to the woman in the kerchief, and leans in to fetch out another. “I’ll get the donuts,” he’s saying.
The front room of the shop’s now filled, raincoats and overalls, uniforms brown and taupe and beige, styrofoam cups a-steam. “Better than ever I can remember,” says a man, his navy workshirt blazoned with a white patch, Atlas Facilities Maintenance, it says, under a stylized globe.
“First flush,” says a woman with grey-tinged curls, lifting a bar-shaped pastry from a big pink box. “It’ll all settle down, soon enough.”
“She’s been flushed all winter,” says a man in a denim jacket, munching something darkly chocolate under a white piped-icing pentagram, and “Have you seen the Bride?” says a man in brown and orange polyester, and “She’s no Bride,” says someone, and “No one sees the Princess,” says someone else, and “I hear she likes butterflies,” says a woman in a white formal shirt, bow tie unclipped about her neck. “I hear she’s beautiful,” says the man in brown and orange.
“Course she is,” says the old man to himself, filling a cup with coffee from one of the boxes on the counter.
“How are you, Gordon,” says the woman in the kerchief, her hand on his. He grunts, a gesture of his cup at the work table back there, the shoes, the half-open box. “Too much to do, and more on the way,” he says.
“You need some help,” she says, and he snorts. “Don’t we all,” he says, but the door’s opening again, the bell’s jingling again, and the laughter’s dying, sentences falter, stop, they’re looking down, away from the four men pushing into the front room. “Gordon,” says the one at the head of them, short and wide in a bulky cardigan, bald head ruddy.
“Dogstongue,” says Gordon. “You’re with the Gaffer now?” A man in a pea coat nods once, crisply. “Moving up in the world,” says Gordon.
“We just got done, putting a rose garden back together?” says Dogstongue. “For the Duchess?” He isn’t looking at Gordon, but about the room, the men and women in coveralls and uniforms, cups in hands, napkins, donuts. “And while I know you prefer the company of domestics,” he says, and none of them meet his gaze, “well.” Dogstongue smiles, then, at Gordon. “You always did have the cheapest coffee.”
Gordon looks about the room, at all of them silent, looking to him from the corners of downturned eyes. He sighs, turns his back, stumping around behind the counter. “Free country,” he says.
He isn’t the first person off the bus. He isn’t the last. Right there in the middle of them, coming down the steps, brown dungarees and a jacket of army-surplus green, an emaciated duffel slung from his shoulder. Rain loud on the great awning over them, and another bus snoring in the stall beside, all dark blue and grey, a leaping hound painted on the side. Seattle, says the sign on the front of it. Portland, says the sign on the front of the one they’re disembarking.
Around the corner of the low brick terminal, the flat roof extending out over the red brick sidewalk, glassy wet in streaks. He runs a hand through his black hair, looking about, greyly morning light, a woman dragging away a wheelie suitcase draped with a plastic garbage bag, somebody sitting over there, on a dry patch of brick, faded black denim and mud-caked boots, a big black broad-brimmed leather hat. A pale grey scrap of kitten tumbles about a bit of string before a cardboard sign. So he turns up the ragged collar of his jacket, heads down the sidewalk to squat, hold out a hand, wriggle his fingers. The kitten rears up paws spread to fall back against the sign. Letters carelessly scrawled across it say, Will Drink for Money.
“Cute cat,” he says.
“Oh, hey,” says the kid in black denim, looking up. Under that floppy brim a round face fuzzed by a sweep of ginger beard. “Thanks.”
He leans back, reaching into a pocket of his jacket, army-surplus green. Under the beak of his nose a pointed smile. He’s pulled out a pale green nylon wallet, ripped it open, the inside of it black, card slots empty, nothing tucked in the photo ID window. Slips from it a crisply single twenty-dollar bill and holds it up between them, his smile sharpening as the kid’s eyes widen.
“Nice hat,” he says.