Issue No. 20 | Spring 2019
It is a community garden—for now—but in the winter of 1979, it was a building. Fallow and dilapidated, ruined yet hallowed, the building stood upon a hill between two abandoned lots—a crude depiction of the beliefs that promulgated the Forefather’s journey. Once it was a five-story walk-up that for generations housed affluent Jews, but after the construction of an expressway had granted them the ability to fly, those not given wings did what they’d always done when forced into an abandoned nest, live the danger. Some were forced to burn the building. While others… In the years following the fire, when the rain washed away the last bits of soot and debris, it seemed as if the city had turned a blind eye on the building. A relic of its former self, it stood tall and eclipsed the dramatic colors of the sky like a hallowed skeleton or a profound gravestone—either way, no one could decide which. But that wasn’t the reason dirty looks were given to it by passersby; or curses and profanities were delivered along with wads of phlegm at the mention of it by bitter members of the community. Nor was it a sufficient enough explanation for the sinister pursing of lips as they chucked cans of soda, cassette tapes, VHSs, beer bottles, Styrofoam receptacles from the Chinese spot down the block, bags of eaten potato chips, candy wrappers, car parts smeared with layers of oil, empty gasoline containers, newspapers, magazines, Nikes diminished and worn, Atari’s broken from over (and mal) use, televisions, unwanted furniture, damaged furniture, furniture infested with roaches, bed bugs and ants; toilets, tubs and sinks (both kitchen and bathroom) that seemed to hold within its structures the things only the nearby dandelions and fleabanes knew; plastic dolls with magnetic hair littered with dust; toys, or any of the other trashed they dumped: it was the smell. If its odor was any indication of its hallowed structure, then the residents’ actions was one of sacred devotion. Each day they breathed in that smell and were reminded of the stench of their condition, and so little by little, day by day, they inadvertently (and some deliberately) consecrated that space with defilement, as if it was the thing to do. And in that way the trash they heaped began to take upon the qualities of a profound relic and the smell the only hope that lay in waste: a reminder of the things responsible for their misfortunes.
It was in the winter of 1979 when Jim resided in the building. A man in his late twenties, at the time he was emaciated and pale, smelled to high heaven and, having returned to the Bronx four years earlier, a few months after the Vietnam War had ended, had that far-away look in his eyes that kept most residents at a distance. Though some recognized him as a long-lost member of their community, for the most part he was considered one more article of junk piled atop of the building’s steaming heap—so no one really took offense to him living there. Except for the occasions when his penis or buttocks were exposed through the rips in his pants, he bothered no one. Like the building, he was a reflection of some extension of themselves, a reminder that the whims of degradation could grasp them too. So they avoided him and ignored any and everything that came out of his mouth; especially what he said when he was drunk. For it was only then that he recounted the history that was too painful for them to bear, the one they were too weary to heed; it was then that he would recount the time when the war ended and he’d walked from Norfolk to Baltimore, on his way to New York, on a road where he encountered others like himself who were also trying to forget…
Fortunato, Hall and Arthur. Three veterans. Each spurned by a government that forced them into a fight they had no interest in fighting, which also forced them to lament the Ericas, Coras, Helens, and Cleos they’d lost as a result. Sad, but not bitter, together the three of them had traveled northwest from Richmond, with intentions of supplementing the horrors of the war by fulfilling their life-long Cadillac dreams. But in the summer of 1975, when Jim met them in Baltimore, they were heading east because, as they’d said: “They had finally given up on Detroit.” So they agreed to walk with him. And two hundred miles later, when they found themselves among the ruins of his once revered borough, with eyes that shone like glass, instead of receiving a homecoming that was befitted a soldier’s welcome, his mother took one look at them and threw them out onto the streets. At first Jim thought it was because the guilt of five hundred four souls were etched alongside those wrinkles in his face. Then, as they wandered about looking for shelter, he realized that it was also because his home—like many others—had become a vast cemetery (and they preponderant ghosts). Everywhere they looked there were buildings hollowed out and scorned, bodies disposed of along roads, and stretches and stretches of land comprised empty lots. In short, there were few reminders of the beauty lost to ruin. (No wonder his mother’s eyes were just as sad as his.) And it was at that moment he remembered the lessons he’d learned at William Lloyd Garrison elementary and finally understood what his third grade teacher meant when she said the borough’s founders had given up on the area some two hundred years ago when plans to sell the township as the site for the nation’s capital was ruined when the federal government purchased the swamp on the outskirt of the Potomac.
…the dream had ended then
Said so clearly that when that same teacher directed his attention to a textbook with W. G. Road’s painting of Theodore Roosevelt leading his Rough Riders to fight for that dream, the image was so familiar he attributed it to the time when he’d spent long summer afternoons sitting in the shade of the maple trees of McComb Dam Park engaged in exegeses of the Bible under the direction of his father, a keen young man who, before his death, had dedicated much of his time finding equivalences between the history that shaped his life with the books of Revelations…
Galloping out of his memory, the image followed him, then. And from that moment onward, as Jim and his companions moved from place to place, he noticed that the image was there. It was even there when they settled in various buildings a few blocks away from the ice factory. It fled too whenever authorities raided; wandered about the streets until word spread that another desperate tenant had set another mattress aflame; and together they waited until the ensuing conflagration decimated most of the walls and floors, save the stairwells and metallic railings, evicting everyone who lived there. Then the owner collected his insurance; most of the tenants were secured housing; and weeks later it became a temporary home for Jim and his companions.
And though they lived amongst the fauna and flora that grew out of the decay, they were glad to have relief from the torrents of their true tormentor: the sky. But having lived a solitary and itinerant life, they had come to learn and accept many things, and in the summer of 1977 it was already common knowledge that desolate buildings populated by “lower life forms” and nature for innumerable years were just neglected claims of property—so they always lived awaiting the inevitable.
But four years after their arrival, when another oil crisis signaled, for them, involvement in yet another war, and his companions’ desolation resulted in their flight—or hasty death—it was Jim who found himself alone, scouring the streets for shelter, other abandoned buildings and lots, and other forms of sheathed beauty—until, that is, he finally stumbled upon the building.
He said he took shelter in an apartment of one of the building’s top floors for a year. He ate when food was available—drink was always plenty—and though the crooked outlook of the world had devastated him he had not given into despair, but oblivion. He drank and drank and drank, unable to suppress the causes of his sorrows, and resigned to spend the rest of his days under the protection of the building’s dilapidated infrastructures; content to sitting in solitude, watching the changes of the weather.
Then one day, as he was sitting by the window taking in all the colors provided by a November sky, Jim had a vision. He said he’d just taken a swig from a bottle of absinthe when the three (or was it four?) strangers dressed in denim jeans and constructions boots (one was dressed in a three-piece suit) arrived in the apartment. The part where they stood was populated by shadows, yet the hair of one of them was so bright Jim swore its gleam engulfed them in a fiery aura. He’d stretched out his arms and offered them a drink, but the men wearing denim shook their heads—the one in the suit just looked upon him in astonishment. Then they walked down the length of the apartment’s hallway and disappeared as mysteriously as they’d arrived. Jim thought they were gone, but he could still hear their footsteps, like a faint echo—still, he didn’t move. And once it ceased, he stood before the window and to his surprise the moon had painted the sky with its silver presence.
Jim was confounded.
At first he thought it was nothing but a hallucinatory premonition brought on by fatigue, too much alcohol or a lack of food. But then a week later, when Jim awoke in a delirium, stirred from the same prophetic dream, he said it seemed that the first vision had plagued his subconscious and—as if atonement for his doubts of its divinity—his actual sight began to blur. He placed his hands on his face in a panic and wound about the room in an elephantine manner, but everything was so dark that after a few steps his foot landed on a rusty nail that jutted from the rotted wooden planks of the floor and he stumbled, headfirst, into a wall. Jim said he fell as fast as he moved and feeling exhausted and defeated he crawled toward the window near what used to be a kitchen and cried. His vision was lost to oblivion.
A few moments later he said he hobbled up and down the block with no apparent direction, holding onto the sides of his head—his eyes wide open. He moved as fast as his injured foot allowed him down one street before he stepped onto the road and, at one point, almost missed the front of a car, that is if the driver hadn’t honked as it passed. Afterward he jumped back on the sidewalk, his hands barely able to contain his rattling face, went back down the block where the building stood, stopping suddenly halfway towards its façade, when his head ceased its rattling, his eyes became wider, his face felt flushed, and he creased his lips in half-smile half-solemnity, and he said to the few passersby in protested disbelief,
(Though those passersby would later tell me how they were confounded by that encounter, the only thing they were certain about was the uncertainty of what they’d heard Jim say. Later, after innumerable retellings, it had morphed into different words, and perhaps the story, different meanings, when one of them parroted Jim’s expression, but added that “his voice was slurred,” so the last thing they swore they’d heard him exclaim was, “Jasper?”)
Then Jim disappeared into the building. He said he thought he would slip into his demise. But the following morning he awoke and, as if stirred from a terrible dream, he seemed even more determined to engage in the battle against his accursed blindness.
His mother had once told him of the fate that awaited those who refused to respond to god’s call of action during times of need. So remembering her warnings, he said he went out to complete the task he thought would cleanse him of his condition.
Employing the dexterity of a pallbearer, he moved through the streets searching trashcans, alleyways, abandoned buildings, and empty lots; and before dawn he returned, from his sojourns, with those companions who, sometimes with gravel-like voices, or sometimes with ankles that dragged because of their permanent rigidness, found solace in the reach of his arms.
He did this for almost a year and, the following October, after many members of the community had grown accustomed to his routine, he stopped, and by the end of the month remained in the confines of that solitary building.
Though visible from the street, through an enormous fissure that extended from the roof down the length of the entire building’s façade, Jim said he worked in secret in a niche of what was once considered the building’s basement—a small room in a far corner once reserved for the building’s furnace. Stacking bricks from a quarry that had formed in the rubble after the fire, he used a mixture of dirt and tar in lieu of mortar. He laid about thirteen rows of bricks along the door’s jamb and as he worked a thick coating of sulfuric dust and soot rose and, he imagined, in the light of day took on the hue of an amber sherry. He did not have a trowel, but he was fortunate enough to have found in the ruins several other tools and materials to complete his task, so he used two pieces of wood, which he fastened about his hands, instead. He did this for six days, and on the seventh day, when he was finished, Jim hammered a rusty nail at a level several inches above his chest and hung what he called a mask onto the corroded surface of the bricked wall. From a distance he said he looked at it with satisfaction. It was just as he imagined: the textures were rugged, the edges smoothly angled, the tight tendrils, which took on the consistency of copper, were resplendent and matched well with the ebony, ivory, ambers and crimsons. Upon further contemplation Jim discovered, in a sliver of copper that jutted from the corner of the mask, the miniscule reflection of a head. Located in the same spot where one would find a strange beauty mark or mole; a distorted image of the kinky hair that stood like a ragged crown atop of the head and the purple ponds that cradled two blood shot eyes. (His vision had returned.) Jim said he swayed back and forth, so the aberration grew and shrunk in size, making the image so ridiculous that once the comical effect was realized a smile was produced that broke into a fit of laughter. Later, when the excitement could no longer be contained in the small room, Jim said he climbed to a top floor of the building, opened a window and yelled in a cragged voice that pierced the midday air,
“Ya terminó: I made God!”
The loud noise from the traffic two stories below paused for a moment and Jim took it as a sign that the message had been delivered onto the people in the neighborhood. And before he walked back to the room that used to be a kitchen, he grinned, for in the far distance, above the pitter-patter of passersby and the occasional groaning of the local bus, was the laughter of some neighborhood children.
Jim said he was exhausted. So he slouched before the rusty radiator near an opened window and, despite his calm demeanor, seemed anxious until the moonlight came and fell gently upon his face. Then, with his head jutting out of the window he rummaged through the lapels of his tattered coat, found the small bottle of whisky he kept there and took a swig. And in the moonlight he seemed the perfect depiction of a statue—the permanent fixture set in the building’s foundation.
In the morning, Jim said he was still slouched before the radiator under the gleam of direct sunlight, when the sound of heavy footsteps and loud voices startled him into a momentary wakefulness. Jim could not distinguish what was said over the noise that galloped through the corridors, but when a door was forced open and three men wearing what he considered to be construction boots entered the apartment, and moments later a fourth man entered, cautiously, his voice muffled by something held over his mouth, Jim said he watched, as the dust rose in swirls around their legs and the speckles of debris clung to their clothing, with wide eyes.
Jim’s arms were outstretched.
But the men did not hear him. Instead they heard the rustling of mice and the crunching of insects crushed beneath the soles of their shoes. It was so dark within the apartment they almost didn’t see him sitting by the window, but once they did, his appearance gave claim to the pungent smell of human waste that impregnated the stagnant air. And after one of the men felt his arms and remarked that it was colder than a winter night, the other two picked him up with such rancor, like one would handle a bag filled with dead rats, and threw him out onto the street. There the warm concrete provided him with a sudden rush of euphoria, but Jim said he remained silent, for: he knew that they would discover God—plastered like an escutcheon on the face of that catacomb—along with those nameless souls upon which most of this life is sown.