Excerpt from FOLLOW ME DOWN
By Kio Stark
(Red Lemonade, June 2011)
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 sycamore, 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, generally, 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 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 6, 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 really 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 greens 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.
One night, I get home from work in the late evening. Carlina is down on the corner in a bathing suit and shorts, her waist like the curve of a guitar. She’s fanning herself with a newspaper and talking to Julio, a short guy who watches over the corner. He’s got a big belly, an incongruous handlebar mustache. He’s always smiling but I don’t buy it at all. Now there’s music playing softly from someone’s open window. Julio and Carlina wave at me as I stand in the doorway shuffling through the mail. There’s an envelope that doesn’t belong here. It’s to “Hombre Cinco,” and it isn’t my address. I look closer. It’s dirty, the stamp is years out of date, the canceling marks are illegible now, there’s no way to know when it was mailed. It looks as though it were rescued from the dungeon of a dead letter office.
I should give it back to the postman. But I don’t.
The address on the envelope isn’t far away. A few blocks, down by the canal. Just off the industrial street where the whores walk at night. I have to wait until morning.
By the time I get out the door the next day, Julio’s already watching the corner, under cover of the burnt-out store’s fiberglass awning. “Hello mami,” he calls out. “You go to work?”
“Just a walk,” I tell him. I don’t like to linger with Julio. He starts asking questions. Who is my boyfriend and do I need any help around the house. I hurry down the street that fronts the canal.
The address I’m looking for is on a stub of a street, half a block long, cut short by the canal and a yellow diamond sign that says, simply, “END.”
There’s a sofa near the drooping fence that borders the canal. A man rises from it and staggers up to me. “Look at that face. I’m gonna marry you. I’m gonna buy you an apart- -no, a house. Gonna get a job, go back to school. Okay?”
“Okay,” I say, backing away from the sour stink of him. There’s no one else around. Even Julio is too far away to help me. The man keeps walking, muttering to himself.
He lurches away toward the empty park. When he’s out of sight, I turn back to the little street. One side is the solid wall of a warehouse, casement windows behind cast iron cages. The other side has three little townhouses with ugly siding, dirty white, hospital green, mud brown. I count the house numbers. Where a fourth would be, at the end of the street, is an empty lot. That’s the one I’m looking for.
I go down and grab the big steel lock that binds the gates with a rusty chain, rattle it a little as though it might give. It holds fast. The lot is narrow and deep. The pavement is going to seed as grass and weeds push up through the cracked blacktop. Ivy snakes through the links of the cyclone fence and into the razor wire that crowns it. There’s a great sprawling Paulownia tree shading the back, and smaller ones pushing up all around the edges, growing out of the paltry, toxic dirt. Those trees grow fast, but still, the lot must have been vacant for decades.
Maybe that’s all there is to it.
I keep the letter in my pocket and head for the post office. My fingers graze its surface, feeling the grit collected in its limbo years.
The line is long and slow. There’s a man up near the front of the impatient line, 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 almost at the door 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 pats him on the arm. “Just cross the street, honey.”
I would swear he is about to cry. The moment is frozen. I’m still six or seven people from the clerk’s window. I touch the letter in my pocket. I step out of the line. I’m keeping a secret I meant to turn loose. I hurry toward the door, just in time to hold it open for the man and his stroller. Up close I see it’s not tears he’s holding back. It’s rage.
The letter stays in my bag all day at work. At night, in my kitchen, I stare at the stove. It would be so simple. But a little steam and suddenly you’re a felon. I’m not sure yet. I slide the envelope between two fingers and feel the edges of something less pliable than the worn paper. It’s a rectangle. Thicker than a folded letter. A photograph.
My phone rings, and I pin the envelope onto the fridge with a tiny magnet, adding it to the haphazard collage of scraps and postcards. It works the wrong way, I always forget. Display a thing, and it becomes invisible.
You can take a look at the cover here.
© 2010 Kio Stark