Archive for the 'casualties' Category

in a cab

On the radio, there’s some talk show banter going on. A new study says men who kiss their wives every morning live five years longer than the ones who don’t.

The driver says to me, “I’d kiss my wife every morning if she’d let me!” He’s got a sweet laugh. A small guy, bundled against the cold. He touches his chin. “In fact this morning I told her this was her last chance to kiss my smooth cheek until summer. I’m gonna grow a beard to keep warm. Never had a beard before but I gotta do something, I freeze in these cars.”

“Did she kiss you?”

“Yeah, she’s a good girl, my wife. We couldn’t be more different. She reads books all the time, I don’t touch the stuff. I never even went to high school, but somehow we get along real good.”

We’re driving along the river, the traffic is slow. I’m watching his pitted face, his shy smile. “I met her in the car. A customer. I picked her up by the hospital and we talked so much I forgot where I was supposed to be driving her! She said that was alright. We had breakfast the next couple mornings and then she moved in. Eight years.”

He’s on a roll now, and I’ve no inclination to stop him. He’s telling the kind of stories I always think the cabbies might be making up. The kind that are a little too cute. But I believe him.

“I grew up over there,” he says, pointing across the river to a row of project towers. “I started dealing drugs when I was 12. I tell you, drugs gave me a good life. I had money, I went all over the world. I went places I don’t remember going but people tell me I was there.”

“Then I had to get cleaned up. My clock ran down. So here I am. I’m doing ok. I work, people work.”

This looks bitter on the page but he’s not. He is laughing his sweet laugh. He is, I find out later, dying slowly of the things you would expect. His liver, he says, but not his heart.


in the diner

Even in the diner it’s cold. I am alone with an hour to pass and the absence of connection. Which is to say, I left my phone at home. I sit here like my grandfather, dunking a tea bag in a second pour of hot water. I’m reading a book of poems about hell, and watching the lights of the cars passing by.

In the booth behind me, a forlorn girl tells her friend, “Everyone is getting married now.”

in the neighborhood

The afternoon light is bright and clear after days of a low grey sky. I take my camera out and walk my usual beat around the canal. The massive Paulownia trees that used to shade the empty lot at the end of my block have been torn down. I spend a while photographing their remnants, the stumps and branches still embedded in the rusty fence.

A couple approaches me, the man is wearing some kind of goggles. His hair is curly and springs out from under the goggle-strap. He starts talking. He asks which way to the big graveyard, and I point down the avenue, “It’s a long walk, though.”

“That’s ok, it gets rid of the stress.” The woman nods and pulls him by the hand, but he’s not done here, not at all. He reads my hoodie and asks, “What’s ‘wake up‘ is that a political thing?”

“No I just made it. Like, we should all wake up.” Before I’ve even finished he’s racing on, you have to imagine this, it’s unending, and utterly without inflection.

“Oh are you into Buddhism because I’ve been reading this guy who tells it all in stories about four animals and how you’re supposed to see your life like a movie and let it be in the past and that helps with the stress you know what I mean.” She tugs his arm again. “See here I go I’m not walking yet so it’s not helping with the stress and I guess we should go but I’m still talking.”

She’s tugging harder. She smiles at him, without frustration. She puts an arm on his shoulder and turns his body toward the avenue.

He’s wearing a varsity jacket, and when she pivots him around, I see that it’s got the name of my high school on the back. Not my year, I’m sure of it. I’d remember that.

by the bodega

When last I saw him he was baking in the hot sun, and his browned skin put me in mind of death. Now, as if revived by the chill air, he’s back in front of the far-corner bodega.

“Good luck to the peoples,” he says as I approach.

“Haven’t seen you here in a while, where’ve you been?” This may be the first complete sentence I’ve ever spoken to him. He’s always seemed one of those who’s better not encouraged.

He tips his gnarl-haired head sideways, it’s every animal’s gesture of harmlessness. Then he rights himself. “Got a quarter for a cigarette?”

He’s never asked me for anything in all these years. I dig in my pocket and hand him a shiny coin. “But where were you?” Now we have a transaction going, I’m thinking.

He looks askance again, and then all around him, as though a secret is coming the sidewalks can’t keep. “Good luck to the red lady,” he says, nodding at the air in front of him. I wait while a few people slip past me into the bodega.

He turns and looks me in the eye, takes a sip from his paper bag. “Good luck muchacha roja. No English. Good luck to the ladies and the gentlemen.”

on the sidewalk

What’s here this morning is an absence. The thin, grizzly drunk who occupies this corner or that one, and nobody pays him mind. He’s out there all day, in every season, his skin has thickened and tanned deeply by consequence. He sits and stands and sometimes drinks from a paper bag. When people pass by he slurs pleasantly, “God bless the peoples and the gentlemen and the ladies.” I realized at some point the blanket blessing came on account of his vision being too glazed to tell the difference. Sometimes he had fresh clothes, and other times they seemed stiffened and layered like the skin itself. Once he must have stepped outside the bounds that render him harmless; I saw some cops come pick him up. But when he slept on the quiet sidewalk around the corner, he blended in with the weeds sprouting between the sidewalk cracks, the dumpster that gave him shade.

You see, I’ve switched to the past tense. The thing is, the last time I saw him was a day of punishing heat, and he was curled and sprawled on the sidewalk in full sun, as if the body hadn’t the tension to maintain the sheltering tuck. I saw that he was breathing and left him alone. He had been the wanderer of a three block radius for years, looking always as though he existed at the edge between death and life, hollowed and overgrown. Why at this one moment would I interfere? A few other people passed by, paused to wait for the slowly moving chest, and walked on.

Now that I don’t see him around, I’m thinking back to that moment in the sun, to how severely dark his face was, darker than any tan an outdoor existence could produce. It was the darkness of the body dying, of systems shutting down.

I want to ask someone what happened. I don’t know who to ask.

on the avenue

Outside the halfway house, everyone is twitching.

on the corner

I know him and I don’t know him. When I moved here, he and his cousin used to sit in lawn chairs in front of the vacant lot, nodding out. They were lean and wolfish, even all slack in the creaking chairs. They were kind to me, protective when I passed by them on my way home late at night.

They both went away and only one came back: bowed, broken, swollen and aged. He is of the corner but doesn’t work there. He’s had his arm in a sling for a year now, and the other day I saw him pushing a roll of bills inside it, but he doesn’t have the sharp eyes of a lookout or the quick hands of a dealer’s boy, and he’s too old to be either. He’s fucked up too often to be part of the trade. But still, just like Dealer a few blocks away, he works the crowd on the corner and across the street in the courtyard of the projects like a street politician.

He asks me things. How’s my day, or where I’m going when I set off past the confines of his turf. There are things I want to ask him. Things like: what happened when you were gone that year, where is your cousin, what were you like before all this, why are you alone among the corner’s players such a gentleman, wanting nothing from me but a warm smile. There are things I want to ask him but I never do. There is some unspoken contract it would break. We’re neighbors. There are things it’s better not to know.

on the sidewalk

I have a neighbor who looks away whenever we pass on the sidewalk. He’s younger than he is old, and thin, and the thing about this man is the tremendous pouches under his eyes, sagging down to his sharp cheekbones. I imagine that he never sleeps. His landlady lives on the ground floor of his building, but it is him I see on the weekends tending to the things growing in barrels out front. Pulling weeds tenderly, pinching wilted flowers. Maybe he has made peace with his insomnia. Maybe the pockets beneath his eyes are filled with undreamt dreams.

at the post office

The line is long and slow, isn’t it always. The man in front of me is rocking a sleeping baby back and forth in a cheap stroller. He’s got the blackest hair and his skin is rosy brown. Finally it’s his turn, and there’s something a little frightened in the way he approaches the window. He’s holding out a tissuey paper, a carbon of some kind of official form. His words are soft and incomplete as he says to the clerk, “I need a photocopy. Can I do here?” She shakes her head. “No?” he asks, still a little hopeful. “I can not do that here?” The clerk waves him away.

He turns the stroller around and wheels it slowly toward the door. He’s looking at the paper in his hand. He’s navigating strange territory, things don’t work the way they work at home. He’s got the door open when a fat woman steps out of the line, clucking her tongue at the whole situation. “Over there,” she tells him, pointing out the window. “Across the street at the Arab store. They do it.” She patted him on the arm. “Just cross the street, honey.”

I swear he was about to cry.

in the neighborhood

I pass a man on the sidewalk you can tell is crazy just by looking. He’s got those eyes pinned permanently open in horror. A few steps on I hear him grunting behind me. I turn back. He’s holding out the mittens I have unwittingly dropped.

On the corner, two cuffed black teenagers are being folded into a cruiser by seven fat white cops.