Sunny Side

sunny

I was so used to the silence of late summer afternoons, when I could roll my hoop through the empty, sunlit piazzas without meeting another shadow, that at first I mistook the footsteps for the beat of a metronome spilling through an open window. It was only when I stood still and heard the sound getting louder that I recognized the old-fashioned shoe taps of leather oxfords, announcing to the hushed city that their owner did not belong here, not in this heat, and particularly not now, during this total siesta.

I ran to the edge of the piazza, stopping just short of the shadow as straight and solid as the red brick building that cast it.

“Someone’s coming,” I said.

The sliver of shade was barely wide enough to cover the wagon, strong light turning its chipped yellow paint to burnished gold. I could see a few greasy curls escape out the back and down the wooden steps propped on the ground. The god-in-ruins was still asleep, lying among the rotting fruit he would try to sell to tourists after dark.

I rolled my hoop towards him and watched it dissolve in the darkness. I considered risking the same fate to tug on his sleeve, but the footsteps were already near enough to wake him. The mess of curls moved, dislodging a grape that fell off the edge of the wagon and started oozing on the cobblestones.

“What time is it?” he said and squinted up at the clock before realizing half of it had crumbled off during a recent earthquake.

“Early enough to buy a ticket for the next train,” I said, calculating five to three by the angle of shadow.

The stranger must have turned into the piazza from a narrow side street because his steps lost their echo and he slowed down to take in his surroundings. I could tell the he was not the type to walk with banging steps. He kept a measured, if hesitant pace, as if embarrassed that the usual hum of bicycle wheels and conversation didn’t offset the sound of his shoe taps.

“Stay on the sunny side,” the god called after me as I weaved in and out of the dark arches of the colonnade, passing through quickly like I had seen fingers flick through candle flames.

The footsteps stopped. I waited for the stranger to notice a slight disruption in the colonnade’s perfect geometry and come closer so I could slip into the long, rectangular shadow of his suitcase. I imagined the other cities we would visit; the other siestas we would ignore; the stray bicycle wheels I would find to play with. But he stood still in the middle of the piazza, watching Ariadne adjust the stiff folds of her robe and let the sun and glowing brick facades warm up her marble pallor. It was as if this was the first time he had ever seen a statue sunbathing.

A train churned in the distance.

“No,” I wanted to tell him. “Buy your ticket and don’t look back.”

I tried to run towards him before he put down the suitcase, but the sun had already moved behind the buildings, diffusing my edges and leaving me to waste away in the afterglow.

Decoy

decoy

No one saw him arrive at the half-moon garden just south of Delancey, no one saw him hang his cage from one of the drainage pipes, but by the time the rest of us got there, the bamboo frame was already covered with silky, golden cloth that reflected the early morning sun.

“Is that the new bird, Chief?” I asked and placed my own thrush on a stone slab in the middle of the garden.

Chief nodded, watching ribbons of steam unfold from his coffee cup.

“But it’s from Shanghai,” he said with a grimace. “The young, wild ones straight from Guandong are hard to find these days.”

Between sips of coffee and the loud sighs of passing delivery trucks, we traced our steps back through the Taishan foothills, lush valleys where as children we used to lure songbirds with sticky gum. After fifty years of keeping songbirds, Chief was the one we turned to when our birds had dull feathers or timid voices. For us old birdkeepers, it was about drinking coffee, reminiscing, and escaping our wives’ complaints that our hobbies were too loud. But when we would walk the cages around the block on a Sunday afternoon, we knew that Chief’s last bird, a fierce hua mei with thick white and violet eyebrows, would have been a prize-winner back home.

Tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew.

The day was beginning to warm up and we uncovered the cages, feeding our birds sunlight one sliver at a time. A finch attacked the day with the pi-u pi-u pi-u of a violent video game hero, while a ringneck clamored for his owner to bring-bring-bring him a fresh batch of crickets, and a red-whiskered bulbul played a low whistle to one sparrow’s shrill will-will-will-ing.

Maybe it was because I used to isolating melodies, after so many years of playing in an orchestra, or maybe the other owners were too busy tending to their own birds, but I seemed to be the first to notice that Chief’s held a steady, unvarying melody at odds with the improvised riffs around it. As I listened closer, I heard that the bird wasn’t rounding off his notes, that he repeated the same sequence of sounds like a piano player practicing scales. But it was one of the loudest, and after the symphony waned into intermittent calls, other birdkeepers began to glance at Chief’s cage.

It was the one he always carried, with intricate carvings of wood and ivory, but inside was a species none of us had seen before. Red plastic eyes emitted a neon glow as the laquered body pitched forward and back on a set of tiny wheels, eventually coming to a full stop. Some of us averted our eyes as he walked up to the cage and wound it up again, and we all sat there like the lords of a long-lost China, wondering if our emperor had gone mad.

Souvenir

souvenir

Hours later, when I was on the phone trying to explain in broken Greek that I didn’t have the money to pay damages, I started to retrace my steps from that souvenir shop I reduced to dust. I got there late in the afternoon, after a day spent walking through labyrinthine ruins under the hot Cretan sun. Maybe it was the guide, a balding, middle aged man who emitted a powerful odor of overripe grapes, or the elderly ladies who kept staring up at me like some sort of beast, or the low ceilings that forced me to crouch, but I soon split from the tour group. I wandered up and down stone steps and raised platforms cut off by piles of stones before going underground to escape the heat. There, it seemed that the priest-king flaunted his triple-plumed diadem, the ladies whispered while twisting their maze-like curls, the bull-leapers taunted me with their acrobatic skills, and even the cup-bearers and slaves took pleasure in watching me struggle to find an end to those dark passageways.

By the time I got out, it was almost twilight and the air-conditioned mini bus that was supposed to drop me off at the hotel was already gone. I paced around the edge of the parking lot, nose in the fold-out map I picked up at the kiosk, until I heard something crash behind me.

I looked back to find that a rack of postcards had fallen over sideways and stacks of Mediterranean bays lay scattered along the sidewalk. I had hoped to escape unnoticed, but as I was trying to put them back without a crease, a head poked out among a row of fake marble philosophers.

“Can I help you find something, sir?”

“No, just browsing,” I said.

Under an awning that advertised authentic museum copies and disposable cameras, the souvenir shop was crammed with mugs, plaques, and miniature statues I was now obligated to admire. I tried to be delicate, I really did. But the gold-rimmed busts were lined up so closely together that I couldn’t help chip off a piece of Seneca as I picked him up. I continued to move through the tight isles, squeezing past a man watching his wife pick out a pair of sandals.

“Babe, let’s get out of here,” he said, smacking his gum so loud the sound reverberated across the vinegar bottles. I was leaving, too, now under the clerk’s watchful eye.

Maybe it was his stare that made me nervous, or the decorative plates that forced me to remember the bull-leapers and twisted curls that taunted me earlier, but before I reached the entrance I felt my elbow brush one of the countless urns. I looked at terra cotta fragments and dust particles illuminated by the twilight and knocked over another urn, then another. I kept going, running my fists through shelves, throwing a Minoan snake goddess against a tower of mugs, pulverizing Seneca’s face until his features became indistinguishable among the rubble. I didn’t stop until every last bottle bled and all the postcards were soaked in golden, oily fluid. Later, the clerk told me that the only thing I left intact was a bull’s head mounted on the wall.

Good Old Days

cup 2

That night, when Nostalgia knocked on my door just before dawn, I had just enough time to catch her coat as she slipped it off and staggered into my apartment. I held the plush, furry thing at arm’s length, hesitating to hang it up and let its cheap, floral perfume seep into my closet. Before I could make up my mind, she had knocked over my pot of geraniums on her way to the couch.

They were dead anyway, the petals crisped and browned for lack of light.

“My lecture notes are under your —,” I said, trailing off as she nestled deeper into the cushions.

“Coffee, dear. Extra milk, extra sugar,” she said.

I only drink my coffee black, I said, and didn’t have any of her extras on hand. But she was snoring heavily and I figured she wouldn’t mind if I draped the coat on my shoulders and aired the thing out. I was beginning to suffocate.

When I returned, holding one of those blue and white paper cups that I thought had all but disappeared from street cart circulation, she met me at the door, her long and lacquered nails digging through the thick fabric.

“You haven’t been mugged? Pickpocketed?”

I told her I hadn’t, but she rummaged through the deep pockets, pulling out takeout menus, yellowed ticker tape, and colorful handfuls of museum badges.

“I almost paid for the coffee with one of those,” I said as she tossed aside a transit token.

“You’re probably too young to know what they are,” she said.

I was about to disagree, and insist that the pink rubber ball that was now bouncing across my floor was a favorite at my childhood block parties, but she was silently counting dried blades of grass.

“There’s junk, and then there’s -”

“Remnants of the original High Line,” she said.

As I watched her sort through bagel crumbs and Broadway ticket stubs, tucking them back into pockets that seemed to contain multitudes, a garbage truck started to screech and puff outside.

“Remember the good old days, when mornings pulsated to the rhythms of George Gershwin and the world moved in black and white?”

She looked at me with contempt.

“Now you’re talking about a city that never existed.”

After she left, I watched her cross the street, cocooned in faded furs, and poured the cold coffee on my geraniums, hoping the milky fluid would revive them.

Wallflower

w

It was one of those weekday mornings in early spring when Marjorie and I could wander from chapel to chapter house with only security guards for company.

“I’ll be in the gift shop,” she said as I walked around the courtyard one last time, trailed by the light scent of citrus trees that leaned into the sunlight, leaves pressed against the glass. I kept my face down, watching the stone columns extend long shadows across the path, their grotesque faces dissolving at my feet. Just as I passed the tapestry room, a dense, almost putrid smell hit me.

It didn’t have the sharp alcohol touch of cheap perfume but was cloying and fleshy, like the exhalations of saints or the liquid distilled from their relics. Branches crackled under my feet and I could hear barking in the distance. I started backing up, looking for the courtyard, until I hit a low fence half-submerged in the millefleur overgrowth.

My hand brushed against the flimsy, splintered wood, leaving traces of red I thought was my own blood. But they tasted sweet and tart, like pomegranate juice.

One by one, I picked up a blue damask collar, silver chain, and pair of rusted iron letters left scattered in a patch of moss. I had just managed to make out “A” and “E” when I heard intense sniffing and looked up to find those same initials embroidered on the collar of a greyhound, all slender limbs and bared teeth.

At the sound of a horn, I started running. After every thorned bush I brushed out of my way and every berry that exploded underfoot, I expected to reach a clearing that looked down into the Hudson valley. By the time I reached the marble fountain and plunged my face and hands into the clear water, my skin was covered in a thick, viscous crust, the merciless onslaught of a thousand flowers.

“Now! Take the beast now!”

Before I shielded my eyes, blinded for a moment by the sun’s reflection on a spear pointed in my direction, I caught a glimpse of yellow silk stockings streaked with mud and a plumed hat missing half of its feathers.

“Walter! There you are,” Marjorie said. She was picking up a stack of postcards from the hardwood floor. “Look at what a mess you’ve made. Why are you running around like a wild animal? And what’s that?” She reached up and picked out a spiny branch of hawthorne from my sleeve.

Moth Man

moth

I don’t wear a hat anymore, not because it would be as old fashioned as putting on tailcoat or dangling a watch from a suit pocket. No, I don’t wear a hat because I don’t want to spend my nights trapped underground, my wooly wings fluttering against the doors of passing trains as I wander through dark tunnels in fear of touching the third rail.

The first time it happened I was waiting for the local in one of those underground stations that lets a few rays of battered moonlight through the grates on cloudless nights. Trains came less frequently after midnight, so I stood on the platform right on the yellow tape, watching the light glide across my fingers.

It took me a long time to trace the catalyst for my transformation, but, looking back on it above ground, I am almost certain it began with the hat. The light hit the edge of that platform at such an angle that all of me, my whole shadow, was contained within the perfect circle that lay at my feet. Somehow, the hat had tucked in all of my limbs, smoothed all of my sharp edges, so that I became an inverted pin, my gaze magnetized towards the moon.

What remains fixed in my mind, and makes me want to take that hat out of storage, was not how I scaled the faces of buildings, my shadow dragging behind me like the velvet cloak of an overdressed superhero. I did not think much of the slippery surface of windowpanes, or the smell of dinner escaping from a stranger’s half open window. No, what tempts me still was my unwavering belief that the moon is a hole at the top of the sky, and that if I climb far enough I will be able to poke my head through that opening and drink in the moonlight.

On that night the kiosk vendor had no such illusions. “Step back, sir,” I could hear him shout as I tumbled towards the ground, my tired wings fighting a losing battle against gravity.

“A pack of salted almonds and a water, please,” I said and examined the faces of magazine cover models to avoid his gaze. But he had a flashlight and pointed it directly at me so that when I gave him the money I thought, for a moment, that I was facing the moon, that I had come closer than I ever had before. He switched the flashlight off and left me blinking in a daze of pastel colors.

“Your eyes,” he said. “They’re black. The pupil, whites, everything.”

He was still staring, waiting for an explanation, so I cupped my right palm over my right eye and handed over a tear, my only possession, as precious to me as a bee’s sting.

“It’s pure enough to drink,” I said, and turned towards the approaching train.

Icehouse

ice

It was noon and cloudless when I pulled over next to the icehouse, wedged in the X formed by two dirt roads. I could hear the crunch of aluminum under my wheels, and, when I opened the door, picked up one of the thousands of bottle caps already crushed by the pick up trucks I had passed on my way through the desert.

“There’s more where that came from.”

The first thing I noticed was his socks, a checkerboard of neon squares set against the concrete porch shaded by a rusty corrugated tin overhang. He was sitting, trousers pulled up, next to a rotary phone, its wire snaking up the pale gray wall right through the three letters drawn in chalk: ICE. The drop shadows seemed an unnecessary, if ironic, touch.

“You sell beer?” I asked.

“No,” he laughed, twirling an ice pick between his fingers. “I just sit here watching these big blocks of ice melt and dry up in the sun.”

He had everything he needed to sell ice right from the porch: a chute built into the wall, a ball of twine, a cash register, and a fresh block that was starting to get soft around the edges. He even had a small note tacked above the chute that said “employees only,” as if I would chip off a piece and make away with it while he was inside. I followed him into a room that smelled of sweat and sawdust. It was dark, but I could make out faded Coca-Cola signs and the cloud-shaped stains left by storms that had seeped through the concrete.

“What if I told you that there’s a way to store your beer ice cold, in a box half the size of your freezer?”

He reached to hand me a bottle but stopped halfway and leaned against the counter, his figure framed by a jar of beef jerky on the left and another of hard boiled eggs on the right.

“Are you trying to sell me something?”

Flip a finger, and zing — there are your ice cubes, I was supposed to say, pointing to the brochure I had forgotten in the car. No need for a crowbar to get Frigidaire’s Quickube Tray out the refrigerator. You can get ice easily, instantly, I should have emphasized with all the enthusiasm my supervisor had demonstrated back in a cool, carpet-lined office.

“Just wondering if you’d be interested in a Frigidaire,” was all I could manage to say.

He took a long draft of beer and crushed the cap with his boot. Before I could make up my mind whether to retrieve the brochure, with its color-blocked couples marveling at crisp lettuce, or to stay and elaborate on the wonders of modern refrigeration, he said:

“Let me show you something.”

He lead me out back, past the closet-sized building made of plywood packing crates I assumed formed an outhouse. We were in the sun for a brief moment before stepping into a tangle of shadows cast by branches wider than the icehouse itself.

“It’s a mesquite,” he said. “Ancient. It’s tapped into a deep spring that has fed it for hundreds of years. That’s why it’s reached twice the normal height.”

We looked up through the leaves, silent and still in the deadwind, until the distant sound of bottle caps being crushed under car tires came to a stop.

“That’ll be a new delivery,” he said.

Gateway to the Continent

voyage

I got to Victoria station at quarter to eleven on a Friday with nothing but a small leather bag and the vague idea of getting out of London. The timetables and train routes spread out above me like the plot lines of so many of the paperback thrillers piled up on my bedside table. I could be in Paris by late afternoon, crossing the Alps the next day, and end up in Egypt before the weekend was over.

Bing bong! The Golden Arrow to Dover will depart from Platform 8 in 15 minutes. A soft, disembodied voice echoed against the steel rafters and glass roof. There was still time, I thought, to decide where to go, buy the ticket, and change my mind along the way.

“There’s really no one quite like Michelangelo.”

Before I could connect the voice to gray hair, sensible shoes, and a long carpet of a coat, the sickly sweet floral musk incapacitated my senses. It was almost as bad as my earliest memory of Victoria, when the air was fetid with soot, stale poison gas and gangrenous wounds.

“It’s so hard to find a man who can paint ceilings properly, you know,” her companion said and parked her suitcase in front of the map of Europe.

I started to pace around the platform, glancing at my watch every so often to give me a false sense of purpose. There was still time, I thought, to reach one platform and cross over to another.

“I thought about staying in the house to keep an eye on things. You know how oblivious Gerald can be. They could carry out his whole library and he wouldn’t notice. But the fumes are too much. I just hope the windows are open to let the place air out.”

While my eyes lingered over “ALL PARTS OF ITALY” under the London-Paris Express, I realized I would be following an Italian housepainter, not his Renaissance namesake. That morning, I had thought I would be decisive, deliberate in my decision to escape. Now, the bag I was holding seemed too light for the trip. My hands began to sweat against the leather handles. I had forgotten to pack a toothbrush. There was still time, I thought, to go home and pack it before returning to catch the Night Ferry train to Paris. Victoria at night was far more suited to the Grand Exit, anyway: cinematic goodbyes staged in sepia shadows, the distant glow of the city as you pulled out of the station.

The two women started moving and I followed their perfumed trail to Platform 8, watching their silhouettes disappear into white haze.

Bing bong! Ladies and gentleman, in consequence of fog, the Golden Arrow will be delayed.

There was still time, I thought, to return to my desk before the secretary began asking questions.

Tidbit

vilks

By dawn, she is ready to hunt. He watches from horseback, wrinkled brown hills stretching ahead, into a valley streaked with snow; she circles above, jesses trailing behind, higher, until her wings are a sliver against the cloudless blue sky. She sees every patch of snow, every tuft of grass, even the fur on his hat moving with the wind. Then, she folds her wings and drops, like a stone, aiming for the fox skin he ties to the back of his horse and drags across the flat plain.

Before he comes to a full stop, she opens her wings a few meters off the ground, steadying herself before she rips open the fox skin and sends bits of fur and straw stuffing flying. Soon, her feathers will be streaked with the gore of live prey. But even in this riot of dismemberment she is efficient, neat almost, in the way she finds her reward and leaves the rest untouched.

As he watches her gulp back the tidbit of meat hidden inside the straw, he sees a shadow pass over the rising sun and a hint of gold in an otherwise dull landscape. No, he thinks, eagles answer to no one. They remember no one. They look down in search of their dinner, not those who, for a time, helped them find it. And yet all week has been a test in proving the opposite: sleepless nights spent whispering to his new charge, trying to tame her with the sound of his voice, so that now, when he offers his arm again, she hops on willingly, silent and content.

Later, he will say, “She flew well today.” She shifts her weight with each sway of the horse, her talons making slight impressions through the cowhide glove. They are tired; the sun moves towards midday and they ride back to the winter camp filled with the bittersweet tang of coal smoke and curd cooking.

Tomorrow they will hunt again, but for now he must not tempt her with flight. He slips on a leather hood encrusted with gold braiding. Only he would notice the few gold threads missing. He looks up, hoping to see them woven into the wings of another eagle, released one night last spring after a few day’s famine and a butchered sheep left on top of a lonely mountain.

Jumpers

jumpers

Many years later, when I saw her again on a crowded subway car approaching Times Square, I thought back to the night when we both shared a piece of cardboard on the roof of a freight train moving through Mexico. Her hair was short now, much shorter than it was the first time I met her in Arriaga. We were staying the night in a chapel-turned-shelter, its white cement walls covered in faded posters promising salvation. She was as sleepless as I was.

“The ones who are the most restless are the ones fleeing,” she told me.

“Who are you fleeing from?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

At dawn we walked across the lawless and nameless countryside, avoiding checkpoints, and speaking little. The thick overgrowth gave way to loosely paved roads scattered with plastic bags that clung to the gates of cattle ranches. We reached the tracks at midday. I went looking for water in an abandoned rice cellar, and when I found her again, listening for the train, she smelled of grass and sweat.

“Your body is a credit card,” she said. “Cuerpomático. Use it to buy yourself a little safety.”

She gripped a piece of cardboard between her teeth, tucked a roll of string in her pocket, and we started running to match the speed of the coming train. I grabbed the ladder in front of the car and pulled my legs off before the wheels caught up. As I was climbing, I imagined her hair twisting in the machinery and pulling her head off, but she was the first to find a spot on the roof, hot to the touch, and claim it with the cardboard.

“For two,” she said, and we settled back-to-back. A few other migrants stared at us and shifted uncomfortably on the ridged fiberglass. Ankles tied to the holed surface, we crossed into Oaxaca at dusk, the clouds of mosquitos dissolving into the pine forest around us.

Now, when the subway car stopped between stations, before the conductor mumbled about a train directly ahead of us, I wondered if she, too, thought of the moment the freight train stopped and we saw flashlights blinking ahead of us. I wanted to ask her what happened after the garroteros shoved us with their rifles and asked for payment.

“The train is free,” was the last thing I remember her saying before they knocked me out. I wanted to tell her that if my ankles weren’t tied with her string, I would have slipped off the roof, sliced by the beast’s steel bite.

She was a tiny woman, folded between businessmen who rushed out at Times Square, and I lost sight of her on the platform. Before I could find out if she still traveled in shadows, if she still didn’t want to be noticed, the doors closed.