THE WIND … BLOWING IN THE SAME BARE PLACE
A Shades of Gray Story
For the listener, who listens in the snow, and nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.
The boy huddled in his bed, his knees drawn up, his face buried in his arms.
He willed himself invisible – as if that were possible. What had she called him? You fat, stupid, sweaty– Nothing he should be allowed to repeat. Nothing he could tell his teacher, even though she promised she’d stay late every day if anybody needed special help. She walked up and down the aisles, handing out new pencils while she talked. Her voice was all whispery and sweet like … like a hot doughnut. He’d had one once. Ducked under the counter, snatched it off the conveyer belt right after it passed under that waterfall of icing, slamming out the bakery door before anybody saw him with it, wolfed it down running. The smell of it, the way it pillowed in his hand, it seemed to … to give itself to him. It was perfect. And he didn’t even feel guilty for stealing, he needed it so.
But he’d laughed out loud at her words, that coarse bark he knew better than to use. Like puppets on strings, everybody in the room twisted around to stare at him. Worse, right in front of him, turned so both her hands gripped the back of her seat, Sharla Washington curled her lip and sniffed.
I know I stink! he wanted to cry. I know I’m wearing the same shirt as yesterday and the day before and last Friday too. If I had a clean one, don’t you think I’d wear it?
It had been a white shirt once, stiff with starch the first time he’d buttoned it on and so bright it almost hurt to look at it. Now he didn’t know the name for the color it was. The sleeves were too short and so tight at the cuffs, he couldn’t roll them up. Sharla sniffed again, louder this time, so he kicked her chair – hard enough for her chin to bounce off the top slat, hard enough that tears glassed her eyes. The teacher looked at him then. And frowned.
* * *
Nobody tagged him for Seven-Up if it rained and they had to stay inside. On sunny days, he stood against the playground fence, watching them team up and troop off without him. Not him! someone would squeal. He’ll just slow us down. Get everybody confused! And he was too heavy for the seesaws. If a teacher marched somebody over to take the opposite seat, when he got on, they’d fly up and hang in the air, their feet swinging back and forth. He couldn’t get off, because then they’d smash to the ground and if somebody got hurt, he’s spend the rest of the day outside the principal’s office waiting for his mother. He did that often enough. Everything he did was wrong. Half the time she wouldn’t show up and he’d still be sitting there when the bell rang. But half the time she would … and that was worse.
You look out for your little brother, you hear? she said that day. Or else. You get my meaning? She stooped to run her hands over Tavon’s face and shoulders, letting him pepper her nose and forehead with smacking kisses.
He nodded and grabbed his brother’s hand before he could step off the curb into traffic. Hoping she would remember to smile at him, he looked back at her, but already she was dragging up the steps. And when she slammed the door, its rectangle of cloudy glass shook. The crack in it spidered. He’d have to tape some cardboard over it pretty soon. It was delivery day and Mister Burt would give him a box, a nice thick one, one those big jars of pickles came in.
* * *
After … she lay in her room in the dark three whole days. Quiet! she snarled when he called her name from the doorway. Leave me alone. I’ve wasted enough time on you. She smelled as sharp as the edge on her voice.
* * *
There was a splintered scrub on Macombs Street – it might have been a tree once, he guessed – and it had little berries on it, silvery blue-gray balls clumped at the end of its only branch. Out since morning without breakfast or lunch, he pinched one between his fingers and bit down on it. It was her – bitter and stinging, hot like the pop of wasps against the ceiling in the hall where he slept.
* * *
That morning, he watched the clock, knowing how to tell time just enough so that when the little hand touched the ten, he went in to shake her awake. The church was five blocks away. We gotta go, Momma. Preacher said be there by eleven, said that ferry won’t wait. She opened her eyes and the dream leached from her face.
He couldn’t keep up with her on the way back. Before they left for the graveyard, the preacher’s wife gave him a new pair of shoes, but they were too tight and rubbed his heels raw. She said to wet them down and stuff balled-up newspaper inside to stretch them out, but Momma hissed that was just plain dumb, that everybody knew Thom McAn shoes fell apart, you step in one puddle. He hauled the steps, the hurt like a match held too close to his skin. No matter how hard he banged on the locked door, no matter how loud he yelled, she wouldn’t let him in. It was dark when he heard the deadbolt turn, when he heaved himself up off the stoop, his shoes in one hand, easing the door open with the other. He limped to the kitchen and scraped a chair to the middle of the room. Standing on it, he flailed for the frayed pull-string that brought only the dimmest light, the bare bulb grimed with grease and the baked-on carcasses of dark brown bugs.
Take this, Marcus, Mr. Burt had whispered, handing him a paper bag with a big box of crackers and a jar of peanut butter in it. Hide it in plain sight. High up in a kitchen cabinet. Push it all the way to the back. Don’t eat it in one sitting, now. You hear me? But once he tore into the wrapper, the crackers went soft if he left any for later. He looked inside. One stack left.
* * *
She wouldn’t come out of the bedroom and he forgot to go to school.
* * *
Police cars shrieked by and woke him up. He woke up again when she sat down. The metal bedsprings sighed under her pale weight. Her hand curled on the played-out sheets. He reached for her. I’m sorry. Sorry, Momma.
She allowed the briefest touch, a bloodless promise. Look at you, she said, snatching back the covers. Just look. What good you ever gonna be to me? You’ll be lucky to sweat for your living with what you got upstairs. Worthless piece of … She turned away, further away. Tavon … she keened. Why? Why??
But Momma, I told him to stay put! Mr. Burt gave me a dollar to carry his boxes to the back. He just ran out, right out in the street. I didn’t– It wasn’t my–
Don’t you use that tone of voice with me! None of this would have happened if you’d done what you were told!
* * *
Can I live with you, Mr. Burt? I’ll work hard everyday. Be real quiet. I won’t bother you none. I can sleep in the storeroom. I can–
Where’s your mama, Marcus?
You telling me you’re living there all by your lonesome?
He shrugged and looked at the floor.
You going to school? First grade’s real important.
He shrugged again.
Well, I’m sorry to say this, but that’s not how things work. You move in with us and soon enough the state’ll come after you. They’ll put you in a home somewhere, I reckon.
Tears burned in his throat and there was a pain in his stomach, like the front of it was stuck to the back. Head down, he rammed into a pyramid of cans stacked in the aisleway. Whirling from that, arms swinging, he swiped a shelf of boxes to the floor – pink and purple bubble gum cigars, red-tipped candy cigarettes. Mr. Burt leaned his elbows on the counter and covered his face with his hands.
Come on upstairs, then, he said, once he raised his head. Get you a bath, boy! You’re a mess. Rhonda’ll fix you up with some clean clothes, get you something to eat. Skirting debris, he picked his way to the front door, flipped the lock, then the sign in the window.
You’re not mad? Stupid, stupid, stupid, he said to himself. You’re not gonna make me clean this up?
I said, come on, Marcus. Hurry up now. I got to go to a meeting.
* * *
Rhonda had found him a new white shirt, big enough, too big, really. She’d rolled back the cuffs once and the sleeves billowed out over his wrists. You’ll grow into it soon enough, I’m betting, she said. Then she rubbed his head with her knuckles and smiled. Her smile was pretty, as pretty as his teacher’s.
* * *
What is this place? He was too scared to even look around the room and he sure couldn’t look at the man. He swallowed hard to keep from crying, wishing he were back in Mr. Burt’s kitchen. Upstairs. Up lots and lots of stairs. He was cold. He wished he had a coat.
Winslow thinks very highly of you, Marcus, the man said. He thinks you might like to live with us.
He couldn’t think of what to say. He hooked his fingers around the pole of a floor lamp, imagined shoving it to the ground, imagined the tiny chips of colored glass flying all over. Who’s Winslow? he managed.
Winslow. Winslow Burt.
How old are you, son?
Seven … almost.
The man nodded. Good. Seven … almost … is the perfect age. Perfect. Now we all work down here, Marcus. We have to … help each other. There’s a boy here, a special boy, who needs looking after. He’s just a baby now, but perhaps you might … The man paused and tipped his head. Ah, yes, he’s on his way.
What’s wrong with him? he couldn’t stop himself from asking. The woman carrying the baby’s basket scowled.
Not a thing, the man said. Nothing that matters. But we have to keep him safe and this place a secret. Will you help us, Marcus? Stay with us and keep him safe? You’ll be a brother to him.
A dark-haired boy crawled from beneath the man’s desk and on hands and knees, stared up at him. Big, big brover, he said. Then, Go fwim?
The man put a hand on his shoulder and something smoothed out inside. Well?
Okay, I guess. But I don’t wanna be Marcus anymore.
The man’s eyebrows arched. You don’t? Well, all right. What shall we call you?
His name, he said, with a jut of his jaw. Mr. Burt’s.
It felt good. Right. New. Yeah. Winslow.
* * *
“It’s so quiet here.” The woman … Vincent’s woman … stood in his doorway. She was covered in grit, as was he, but on her … on her, it was beautiful. “The pipes don’t come down this corridor.”
“Well,” he said from the edge of his bed. “I don’t get that many phone calls.”
She laughed and the sound of it was a Fourth of July sparkler lit in the room. Stars sizzled and danced in the air. But when she asked, “May I come in?” he couldn’t even look at her.
A layer of dust had settled on his bedside table, on his dresser. That’s crazy, he thought. Dirt can’t travel that far. His shirt was gray with the same dust. He was proud of that shirt, proud how it made him look, creamy white against his coffee skin. Soft. Made for him, from another time and place. He fingered the sleeve. It was ripped now, blasted with pebbled soot, suffered with a thousand tiny cuts, rank still with his hopelessness. He rubbed his face, his palms coarse sandpaper. It’s me, he thought. I brought it with me.
“Kipper needs you,” she said.
No preamble. No make-nice. Just her voice … shiny-satin, arrow-true. How do you know what Kipper needs? he almost snapped. You don’t know him. These aren’t your people, they’re mine! he nearly bellowed. “Right,” he said, unconvinced.
“Vincent told me. Told me Kipper asked for you.”
Vincent. Just the way she says his name. He closed his eyes. ‘Show me what to do, and I’ll do it’, she’d said.
“I came to tell you. You have to know. It was you I heard.” Somehow she was at his side, her hand somehow on his arm. “Above. In my mind, in my heart. The sound of your pick, your strength. Your will. Yours.” Against his rough cheek, her lips brushed soft … so soft. “Thank you, Winslow. For saving them.”
She was so close – as close as she’d been in the tunnel, crouched at his side. I have to see.
Every word he reached for skittered aside.
A rustling in the corridor, a long, soft stride … and Vincent was there, his arms wide for her, calling for her. “There you are.”
For her …The pain was back, the hollow, needy stomach. And long after she pulled away, he guarded the place she’d touched, his hand cupped over the spot as if a rare butterfly rested there.
* * *
The boy huddled, sobbing, in his bed, his knees drawn up, his face buried in his arms.
“Kipper?” Every word, every single word he’d vowed never to say to a child of his own, to any child, to anyone, he’d said today. “I didn’t mean what I said. It wasn’t your fault. I was scared. So scared I’d lose them, that I’d lose everything. I’m sorry. I … I love you, baby boy. Please, please forgive me.”
* * *
Bundled in his arms, well into night, Kipper’s tears were dwindled to hiccups; his own dried to a salt crust. “Come on then”, he said. “Get you a bath, boy! Fix you up with some clean clothes, something to eat. Cause we’re a mess, baby. We’re a mess. You and me both.”
Opening Quotation: Wallace Stephens. The Snow Man.
Jamie’s story – Still Can’t Say Goodbye – dovetails with Winslow’s.
GOOD TO READ
Fan Fiction Sites
ON THESE WALLS
Fan Art Sites