Monday, July 19, 2010

Swiftly, And Then...

But nothing had seemed out of the ordinary, not even the old woman sitting on the marble steps in the foyer the day before. She was fanning herself with a magazine and humming some sort of hymn about knowing neither the day nor the hour. In fact, wasn’t that her yearly routine? Yes. The residents in the building were not surprised when they spotted her on their approach to the double glass doors, slouching in her summer print; occupying the space in the corner of the stairs with grace, like the aging black sovereigns that one heard existed in centuries past, but could not quite visualize; or as might have been conceptualized in a painting created by an artist that never had and never would actually witness such living greatness. Yet, the old lady was great in her way; she had lived a lengthy life and deserved some title. She was a sweet old thing really; harmless by most accounts, and seemed always satisfied to be just where she was. They all nodded in her direction whenever they passed through the front doors, and she nodded back.

The nurse expected to come across the elderly woman on her way back in from her day shift. She was ready to greet her with the appropriate degree of deference, while perhaps letting a mild curiosity about the woman play in her smile. She anticipated the hike up the flights of stairs leading to the fifth floor, with her clenching the rail like a rope, blowing full breaths from a body that was not unaccustomed to labor, and marking with each quiet pant, a task that required her attention; the grandchildren would have likely been in need of some item or other and then, she would have had to see how her daughter was making out in the heat, pregnant as she was. It was true that July had only now started, but the humidity had climbed to such a high degree that the young flower buds that were striving to decorate the garden in the building’s entranceway fell over and passed out. Nonetheless, the nurse arrived to find that the old woman had relinquished her place by the door. And that gave her a shock despite her knowledge of the circumstances that had suddenly summoned her home.

It was the first true symbol of the change that had smashed into her routine and demolished everything; this vacancy on the stairs that even the light was beginning to withdraw from, leaving only the pale bare stone. The call had reached her at work. A frantic voice astounded her with the news that her daughter’s body had been discovered motionless on the bed and, that by that hour, the child inside had followed its mother; that the authorities had already come to fetch out the dead; and an aunt had already taken from the apartment the children whose mother had suddenly departed from them. She must have ravaged her mind for an image of her daughter talking and moving. What had they talked about? She would try to remember. As the vehicle drove to the address, she was statue still, thinking that at any moment it would disintegrate into ash with her in it, willing it to happen. But nothing happened and nothing changed. People moved about on the avenues as if this catastrophe was not upon them all; cars and buses moved; planes soared too high for the caving earth to vacuum them in and swallow them; trains still ascended like fountains out of the underground with compartments in tact, and the sun continued to blaze its punishment upon her. It was only the old woman that had vanished; the first true symbol of the change.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The View From Upstairs

Rows of support beams join at the ends to make the shape of a triangle; white holiday lights drop and hang from them like frills in midair. On the wall, there is a glitzy banner that reads King of Kings. The air is thickest on the balcony, where it smells something like lotion and sweat, and the mourners sit shoulder-to-shoulder, fanning themselves and rocking as the singer sings. There is a widescreen view of the casket from that height and the wreaths propped up like individual portraits around it. A mother’s life has ended; mother and senior member of the church; mother and former resident of one of the public housing towers that surround the place of worship. Mother’s children flank the front row, holding on to one another. Her mostly teenage grandchildren are squeezed between other relatives in the pews. They seem displaced and slightly perplexed. The singer steps forward and vibrates the room with her contralto. There are voices of accord calling out from every corner. One of the surviving daughters jumps to her feet and lifts her hands upward. It is an act of supplication. She surrenders sorrow with a deep groan and her arms give way, pulling her body forward. A family member joins her to support her weight. On the left, her brother’s shoulders quake under his wife’s consoling arm. Further left, her sister slumps, weeping and speaking to the departed with her head sagging over the back of the bench. Mature women ushers that have been on post at nearby tables, rush the entire line with fans and water and boxes of tissue. The leading member of the Women’s League climbs the stage. She is a contemporary of the deceased and presses on her cane with effort. She reaches frail fingers to the microphone and nods to the string of reverends that are presiding like a panel of judges with pocketbooks at their feet. She acknowledges the pastor with a lowered chin and then faces the congregation with a scroll in hand. She draws a deep breath and unfolds The Resolution of the Dead. The parishioners rise.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Slasher

The men over whom the officer was custodian had faces that resembled those of her brothers and cousins, her uncles and lost loves, and if she let herself think of it; her two sons. She prayed they would never breathe the air within those walls. It was a frosty and impersonal place to which she reported day after day, but she had settled into the routine of the thing more than a decade ago. She knew why it was possible to be deemed mother and savior one day, and a bitch that warranted spit in her face the next. In her time, she had invited many a miscreant to a tumble outside the path of the security cameras, and because of that, there was always a “Ms.” placed ahead of her name.

The woman believed that the brain adjusted to any condition it was subjected to for a continuous period of time, making the abnormal seem standard. But then, normalcy was generally defined by circumstance and the disposition of the company doing the defining; this was what she had come to understand. It had taken only a tiny fraction of her eighteen years on the job to become used to working in confined spaces, passing through rows of metal gates, identifying individuals by number and housing location, and locking every door behind her with a large key. It was as natural now as opening her eyes and seeing light. She could watch a security team brawl with an inmate while eating a muffin.

The day had been just like all the others. The officer sat monitoring the moving waves of brown with a dead look in her eyes. As usual, this collection of men reminded her of something that she could not yet bring herself to think about; that disturbing thing that was the root cause of their detainment in the place to begin with. She pushed it out of her mind. A young man approached her with his jeans hanging low. She motioned with her hands for him to pull them up and he complied. He smiled and she thought it odd somehow. This child, not much older than her own, seemed to already be installed there. She was moved by him. The woman suppressed her warmth like smoke just inhaled; letting it hover in a place he could not see.

His chances must have been slim from the very start, she thought, a function of his environment. He stood in front of her with his hands at his side. How courteous he was, she thought, and deferential in addressing her, and when she handed him the pen he requested, she noticed that his fingernails were clean. She was moved by him. She imagined in that smile, a boy that was loved well and loved deeply. She saw in his strut, a man that would likely make a mother out of an eager young girl; this child, not much older than her own. She was moved by him and wished to hug him and reassure him and lament the future that would not be his.

“He just got done with a hundred and forty days in the box,” the woman’s partner suddenly said, leaning near to her ear as if he were catching a whiff of her sweet sentiments. She turned a questioning glance towards him. “Yeah,” the man continued, “he went down for fighting in the yard; carved up a bunch of dudes’ faces something terrible, and he cut them up and down.” There was a pause. She let her gaze reach the young man in the corner, where he was leaning over a table writing meticulous lines across a sheet of paper. “They had to lock him down,” the man said again, “they seized a five inch blade from him. That kid is a monster. He’s a lieutenant in his gang, you know, a slasher.” There was another pause. The woman squinted and tightened her jaw before repeating her partner’s words. “A slasher?”

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sophisticated Gentleman: Nonchalant

He could swing razors with a comparable degree of competence and he knew how to punch a torso sideways so as to take the wind out of it. This was knowledge that he shared with quite a few of his peers, but that was neither here nor there: For he had extracted himself from the process even before he understood how self-destructive it actually was and how murderous it was of his culture and the bloodlines that were sinking inside of it. He remembered being eighteen and in college, of all places, with salt in his eyes and vinegar in his mouth, always carrying around the feeling of wanting to batter something, walking on marble for the first time. He too had been battered in various ways, some of which he would not disclose, and wished to show as well as describe the sensation of being kicked in the mouth and stomped in the back by eleven or so designer sneakers. He remembered being eighteen and running around with a bunch of other loose youngsters who delighted in smoking bush and drinking vodka, and reciting lyrics to rap masterpieces late into the night. He remembered being eighteen and visiting the young women in the dorm rooms, recounting with much exaggeration the things that had transpired there and cursing, always cursing, loudly or in a murmur, defiantly or in amusement. He remembered being eighteen and roving across the terrain with the other young bulls in college, of all places, picking fights with others and sharing frustration on a plate.

And still he had managed to extract himself before he was fully aware that his was an old feeling, formed out of ingredients that had merged somewhere in the belly of a ship to make an explosion with a big bang. Cultivated over time, it was transplanted from dingy building walls to ivied stone gates, where the unwelcome were greeted with a handshake and a smile and an expectation of a stay that would not outlast the year. There, outside the city limits, the misguided young bulls entangled themselves and stepped hoof-first into every ensnarement that had been carefully laid out for them. It was the nature of the time within which he lived, a period that demanded stealth and quick-wittedness and perseverance and on top of that, called for luck, lots and lots of luck: For he had only missed by pinches the fate that would be doled out to the others – attendees at institutions of a different sort. And now even that unfortunate lot would claim him a success because there was parchment with his name on it, and letters for which he would owe a fee for many years to come. How could he disagree with them? He did not delude himself with any misplaced feelings of self-importance or blindly blame them for their circumstances. He was just in a daze really; sitting at a bar with some comely woman, smelling expensive perfume and the cigar smoke rise, staring blankly at the athletes darting across the plasma screen, hearing the latest hip hop music play, lifting a glass of vodka to take that perfunctory sip, noticing the diamonds shine, and never thinking, refusing to think.

Monday, February 22, 2010

In The Timing

Who can account for the things time does to the body, the mind and the essence both hold within? Who can account for anything? And what does it matter when the day draws to its close? There was a woman in the back room who could expound upon the question. She was knowledgeable about most things after having come up against them for almost a century. She was not one to make much of a fuss. She had become a Grand Master at adaptability in her time, and she still liked to have her nails painted. She would hold her hands out and describe the color; some kind of pinkish shade that the home attendant was partial to. She herself could take it or leave it, she said. And that is how it was.

The woman’s humming could be heard from the kitchen. One peek around the corner would reveal her wrapped in a glossy red shawl, with head tied and arms folded, and feet crisscrossed across the bed, looking through her spectacles at the television screen or hanging over the open book placed delicately in her lap. Smoke rose in the kitchen and there was the sound of a sizzle. There were vegetables softening slowly in a pot and bits of fish waiting to be fried up with the pieces of chopped garlic and scallions already simmering in the oil. The taste was all in the timing the cook had said.

He stood against the counter, moving a spoon around in the frying pan. The lady shifted in her chair, not far from him, she raised meat from her plate and tasted it. The couple was having a conversation. They spoke to each other and also to a nephew who observed them from the edge of the dining table. They feigned contradiction of each other’s perspective. They chided each other in that way spouses can after two or three decades have passed; where words that sound stern are aglow with a character that is much warmer and thicker for the love enfolding it. They called on the young observer for input, but did not particularly expect any.

Someone made a roguish remark and there was an eruption of laughter. The occupants in the room slapped hands on surfaces, dropped utensils on metal, and made the floor rattle. The matriarch called from her quarters in the back that the joke must have been a sweet one. And the couple gave smiles that must have been identical some twenty years before. At twilight, some short evening ago, when they walked with arms linked and hearts associated, connected and hopeful in ways they could not truly communicate; discreetly overwhelmed by what they shared between them. There were no costs to be paid just yet, in whatever capacity; no relatives crowding round to weigh in on matters only of concern to the participants in the marriage. Only the two, just the pair; strolling and grinning; strolling and clinging.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Angela II

She tapped an acrylic tune on the desk as she monitored the men who were signing the logbook by the entrance. The radio stood upright a few inches away from her fingers and barked every few minutes, making sounds that did not really concern her for the time being. No sort of pandemonium had broken out in the hallways or in any of the remote housing areas. It was still early in the day. Some of the inmates that were filing into the room looked as if they had just been pulled from sleep and added to the general smell of something like stale bread floating into the area.

Angela peered over her designer glasses to the corner in the back of the room. Her partner stood at the door on the offensive, with her body set to support her weight, one hand impatiently beckoning the men in and an unchangeable frown on her face. After the entire group had stepped inside, she walked around the front of the desk and sat at the chair to Angela’s left. They whispered an observation to each other and giggled.

When Angela had slipped from her bed that morning, only four hours had passed since midnight; she showered and dressed so as not to break the silence. She bade her customary farewell to the man in the bed, but he did not respond. He seemed to still be wrapped under the covers with the words they had exchanged at dinner. It was becoming a pattern she would have to cut off at the head. She would think about this on the gradually congesting highway. She would focus on it as she adjusted her uniform in the locker room. She would be distracted by the thought as she moved through the sliding metal gates that opened into the long hallway.

She pulled herself back into the present. There was something very uneven about the environment at the moment; the feel was off. Angela looked out unto the floor. The men were sitting around calmly, some at the typewriters, and others were facing the wall-mounted computer screens. Something was off. But she could not deliberate about it fully; one of the younger inmates walked over to the desk to request a pencil.

Angela opened the drawer and, at the same time, reached for the identification card that the youngster would be using as collateral. What was it that she noticed in his eyes? Angela looked around the drawer for a pencil. Suddenly, there was a loud thud. Angela’s eyes flew up. She saw that four bodies were making a fence in front of her desk. Through the spaces she could see where the commotion was coming from. A chair had been overturned. A table was flipped to the side. A fight was taking place.

Two inmates battered each other at first before one of the strugglers fell and was set upon by a gang of men. Angela clawed for her radio. Someone had moved it. She heard her partner cursing loudly and saw her jump from her chair. Angela sprang for the phone as a hand quickly pulled it from the desk. She made a move for the crowd, but could not find a path. The bodies were locking her and the other officer in. Angela yelled from behind the body-barricade to the horde that was kicking the crumpled figure on the floor. She tried, without success, to push past the row of backs in front of her. They anticipated all of her maneuvering and prevented it. Angela could hear her partner shouting some instruction to her regarding the door. She felt for the keys at her waist. It was a futile effort. Someone was already standing against the door, barring it.

The woman felt as if her mind was not working fast enough. She must have tugged at the toxic spray on her belt at the same time her partner did. But there would not be as much as a puff from the small steel cans. The bodies disbanded even before the threat of a first blast. The plan had already been executed and the group stepped up to the wall, placed their palms on it, and spread their legs.

Blood and dust mixed around the man that was sprawled out on the floor. Angela saw her radio on the counter and was finally free to rush to it and set off the alarm. A security team would soon be dispatched to the area. She shook her head and sighed, stepping in the direction of the fallen combatant. The other woman was screaming orders to the room’s occupants to hold their positions on the wall. The men had no intention of moving now that the deed was done, however.