The last storm of the winter was giving the old place a good pounding. Storms didn’t used to scare Skip, but nothing was the same since the quake and now he didn’t care if his brothers called him a pussy, he wasn’t going out in that. Donny, Frank and Butch left, heading out to see what kind of trouble they could scare up. Skip went back to his book and read the same paragraph twice before giving up.
He picked up the telephone receiver and put it down twice. He walked back and forth between the kitchen and the living room, checking the rolled up towels tucked into the bottom of the window sills. He touched the cold glass. He hated how his legs still picked up false vibrations. Skip had been pinned under a fallen door jamb for most of that horrifying night, although once the EMTs found him, they got him out pretty quickly.
The phone rang, scaring him. He let it ring a couple of times before picking up the receiver like it was a snake. Marissa’s calming voice dropped him into the chair. She was so good about checking in on him, making sure he was ok. He didn’t think she was doing so great herself, but she never let on. Whoever her husband was, Skip hoped the guy knew how lucky he was.
She’d been the one to crouch next to him, stroking his hair and face, while her male counterparts heaved that door jamb off Skip.
He didn’t know how to talk with women but it was a little easier with Marissa. For one thing, she seemed ok with long pauses in the conversation and didn’t rush to chatter into an opening silence. Even on the telephone they could sit quietly together. He watched the sleet hitting the window and noted that it was supposed to be nicer tomorrow. Marissa said that she had heard that, too. Skip wanted to ask if she was married, if she had kids, if she was happy but couldn’t find the right words.
At her end, Marissa was thinking that Skip was a good sort but it might be better to stop calling. Truth told she wasn’t paying very close attention to his halted starting and stopping. Even now she was furious about having given her blanket away. What had she been thinking? At first, when she first wrapped it around that ragged, terrified kid there’d been the most astonishing jolt of joy and certainty. This was the right thing to do. That lasted until the next day when, in a panic, she tried to track the kid down. No luck. Like a junkie lighting up specks of white lint just in case it wasn’t lint Marissa was holding one of her ordinary blankets over her lap, toying with the edge.
Then as Skip, in that kind of half charming half annoying way of his asked if she’d like to get together for coffee tomorrow after it warmed up a bit, she knew she wouldn’t be calling again. She made some excuse and hung up. Poor guy. She tossed the blanket aside.
At his end, Skip sat looking at the telephone like it had bitten him. Man, had he screwed that one up. He should have known not to push it. She wouldn’t be calling again. Skip walked over to the window and rested his head against the cold pane, absorbing the thousand tiny hits of sleet on the other side of the glass. Maybe he should try working on that report for Uncle Stanley again. It wasn’t as if his uncle cared much whether he turned it in or not but it might distract him.
The next day was that first glorious day when the smell of the air has changed. Everything was still gray and the wind still meant business but Skip could feel the shift. He ventured out to pick up this and that for Mother, her carefully written list in his pocket. After the quake, most people had moved away from that part of the city even if their buildings were among those still standing. Skip’s mother had called upon her older brother’s strong Christian sense of obligation and moved her four grown sons into Stanley’s mother-in-law house behind his own rather grand four bedroom monstrosity out beyond the freeway spur.
Skip had been working for Uncle Stanley since before graduating high school and, with the lack of decent jobs to be found anywhere, had resigned himself to what Mother called The Blessing. Moving into the house behind Uncle Stanley’s hadn’t helped. Skip’s brothers all worked as day laborers around the city and aspired to union membership. They left before the sun rose every day, sometimes returning two hours later already a little tipsy because, after all, if no one hired them to go out on a job may as well grab a couple of six packs. But when they worked, boy, you better believe they worked and no one could doubt that because they were the first to go on and on about it.
Skip took the bus down to where the stores were lined up in ugly strip malls. It was a long wait. He didn’t like to drive so it didn’t matter that his brothers always took the car. He did wish the bus stops out here were something more than a pole stuck into the grass by the side six lanes of almost violently fast traffic. The grass was still beat down and sickly yellow. There hadn’t been enough snow this year to protect it. But when he looked more closely, Skip saw the first brave shoots shoving to the surface.
A horn honking in front of him just about shocked him off his feet. It was his cousin, Pete, in the Lincoln Town Car Uncle Stanley let him drive. Pete wasn’t a bad sort although Skip could only take so much of his cousin’s inability to tolerate dead air. The guy never shut up. But a ride was a ride. Skip got in and got ready. Pete was already in mid-rant before Skip could fasten his seat belt and away they went. Pete had several auto-rants and this one was a favorite: how the poor were wrecking the entire system from the bottom up. The junkies and the porch monkeys and the welfare leeches and the drunks and the bimbos with a gang of kids who all had different fathers. Pete would monologue on like this for awhile which was easy enough to roll with and ignore but then he would demand an agreement. Skip used to argue but now he just nods and makes non-committal sounds here and there.
Pete dropped him off in front of the Easy Monday Laundromat over which was the headquarters of Uncle Stanley’s real estate empire. When Skip was little it had been kind of a cool treat to come here on Saturday afternoons while Mother did the grocery shopping although, even then, Uncle Stanley was kind of scary. It was worse now. Just getting the hang of Uncle Stanley’s unique approach to bookkeeping had been bad enough but then a year in Skip was given the second set of books to keep and that had been about the beginning of his insomnia. At least Uncle Stanley was out showing properties most of the time and it was just Stanley and the Rosita twins keeping each other company.
Rita and Anita Rosita had probably been real babes in their day but that day was long gone and here they still were tracking property statuses and rental income. They acted like they couldn’t speak English but Skip didn’t buy that. He saw how their eyes shifted when Uncle Stanley talked about how lazy and shiftless they were just like all immigrants. Skip didn’t push it. He kept their secret and was happy enough to be left alone in his corner overlooking the back parking lot of the strip mall.
At lunchtime Skip went down to the payphone outside the drugstore and tried Marissa’s number. When her answering machine came on, Skip hung up. Then on a whim he tried Stinky’s number. Stinky wasn’t even surprised to hear Skip’s voice. Nope, he wasn’t busy tonight. Sure, darts at The Pit sounded good, dude.
Skip grabbed a sandwich and was back at his desk when Uncle Stanley rolled in, expansive and loud. He’d closed a deal and brought bags of Chinese food for everyone. Rita and Anita wrinkled their noses and went out for burritos. Skip put his sandwich in the fridge for tomorrow and accepted a quart container of Moo Shu Pork. Uncle Stanley launched into the epic of this recently closed deal and Skip pretended to listen. He supposed he should call the brothers, let them know there was food to be had. But he didn’t. He ate his lunch, nodded and made the right sounds in the right places and went back to work after his uncle had satisfied himself.
Stinky picked Skip up at six in the same old pickup they’d ridden around in for most of their final year in high school. Skip wasn’t much of one to ditch school but he still had fond memories of listening to eight track tapes of Rush and smoking cheap Mexican pot. Stinky had skipped so many classes that last year that he didn’t graduate, but he came to graduation anyway, passing out joints and laughing at the losers in their stupid gowns.
They got to The Pit in time to catch the end of happy hour and were able to get a board without waiting. Stinky was about the same guy he’d been in school. He had worked hard to qualify for Social Security disability benefits and was still in the same dingy old place he’d lived in with his mom all his life. She was in some nursing home now and Stinky collected her check as well. It was the beginning of the month and drinks were on Stinky tonight. As they began the match Stinky started talking about the quake. This far uptown there weren’t many tall buildings so Skip took Stinky’s stories of valor and hardship with a grain or two of salt. Skip accepted that he was pretty much everyone’s audience of choice and let Stinky go to town.
Out in the night cars went back and forth. Already most hands on most steering wheels were steady again. Feet pressed down on gas pedals and non-driving mouth breathers gave everyone else the opportunity to feel superior. The more sensitive souls ventured out only when necessary and tried not to remember that staying home wasn’t safe either. Therapists in six counties were booked solid through the next year.
As Skip had figured it took Stinky several rounds of darts and drinks to get to something truthful. He wanted Skip to move in with him, to share expenses and to keep the monsters under the bed at night. Skip silently added that last bit but understood that his old friend was scared. He began to seriously consider the offer. He was 22 years old and embarrassed to tell people he still lived with his mother. His brothers, they bragged about it and about Mother’s cooking and how much money they saved. Embarrassment aside, wouldn’t it be great not to live with three loud-mouthed sometime teamsters who never got out of the bathroom and joked constantly about Skip’s virginity?
On the ride back to Uncle Stanley’s mother in law house, Skip ironed out some particulars and was pretty satisfied with the situation. He and Stinky shook on it. Stinky had a friend who had a friend with a box truck. They’d do the move on Saturday and Stinky said he could line up a couple of guys to help if they needed it. Skip didn’t think they would need much help. It wasn’t as if he was moving a whole household or anything.
Then he got to go into the house and tell Mother. He knew it was going to be operatic and was prepared to stand his ground. She wouldn’t be like this if any of the older ones were moving out. But oh, for goodness sake, the rending of garments and scattering of ashes was impressive. She even tried dragging Uncle Stanley into it but he was having none of it, pointing out Skip’s age and employment situation. Mother then pulled out all the stops, sobbing and collapsing in her room with the well-worn photo of Father held against her breast.
It snowed the morning of the move. To Skip’s surprise all three brothers pitched in and before noon he was sitting in his new bedroom, watching the snow drift down on the fire escape. Stinky let Skip have the old master bedroom, his mother’s room that still smelled of old lady and medications. But it was a nice, big room with two windows that looked out past the fire escape to the rubble of the collapsed factories. Some sporadic work had been started on clearing the mess after the quake, but due to the tanks and pipes and messed up infrastructure out under the wrecked factories, not much had been done there yet.
Skip sat on a box of books and just watched the snow. Stinky had gone into his part time job at the deli down the street. Skip’s feet felt like they were bolted to the floor and there was this spreading blankness that Skip watched without comment. The snow was beginning to stick to the jagged heaps of piled up bricks and the sky was getting lower, darker. Skip imagined what it was like out there. He thought about the generations of men who had given up their lives to line up out there and serve the lines basically becoming part of the factory itself. Machine parts, set in motion to serve the quarterly gains that had to happen. And then when the gains slipped the machine parts were tossed out. Skip’s father had been one of those unwanted parts.
By the time he was tossed out on the scrap heap he really was scrap. His body was bruised, broken, unworkable. His spirit, though, that had been hollowed out and corroded long before. Every morning, Ignatius, was up before the sun to have the food his wife made, shower and head out to the job. He bought that apartment with three bedrooms. He raised four strong healthy sons. His friends on the line were envious as their own bodies and souls got ground down daily, some who only had daughters, some who sickened and had no children at all. Iggie was considered a lucky man by everyone except Iggie.
With a start, Skip discovered it had gotten nearly dark and he was hungry. He looked down at his feet, moving one as an experiment. That worked. He rose, all creaky and stiff like his dad had always been for as long as Skip could remember. Skip had been fifteen when Iggie had a heart attack in the night and Mother woke up a widow.
It was disorienting and strange, going into Stinky’s kitchen and rooting around for something to eat. If he was back at home Mother would be fixing him something and asking him about his day. Was he crying? He found a can of soup in the cupboard and promised the empty kitchen to buy groceries tomorrow. Sitting at the big old kitchen table by the window and eating his soup, Skip kept thinking about the wrecked factories. What did Dads do today to raise strong healthy kids and buy decent sized apartments? Skip could work for Uncle Stanley for a hundred years and not be able to afford a mortgage.
After he’d eaten and cleaned up after himself, Skip found himself pulling on his coat and going out. He checked that he had his key. It was raw out, but with that sneaky March promise that this would not, could not last. He bowed his head into the wind and pushed down to the end of the street, making a left and heading out towards the factories. The houses thinned out and the few left out where the street changed from asphalt to large squares of concrete were dark and alone.
The ground was slightly spongy now, the winter iron releasing its months’ long grip. There was that smell. Skip and all the kids who grew up around here knew that stink from the time they were really little. The biggest of the factories had been long silenced by the time Skip and his generation had come along. And with spring softening the ground, the frozen poison from the ancient and forgotten tanks was expanding again.
There were barricades up but no one was around, so Skip slid through and kept going. What was that light he was seeing over to the side there? He paused. Laughter. Boys, not little boys. Teen age laughter and razzing. Any other night, Skip would have given the light and the raucous laughter a wide berth, but he kept moving slowly toward the only source of life out here.
Markie and the rest of the guys had stayed away for awhile after the quake but José showed up one night at the shelter set up by the Red Cross and found Markie clutching a ridiculously white blanket. They left with Ashley yelling at Markie’s back and went to find the other guys. At first it wasn’t so good out there. The heaps of twisted metal and broken bricks didn’t offer any good places to hang out and smoke pot. But it had been their place and it was going to be again.
They took to going out nearly every day. Ashley and baby Tracy got placed with a foster family over in the next county. Markie heard the social worker talking in the other room one night and that was when he split for real making sure he took that weird blanket with him. Mom had been bad enough. He wasn’t up for being a charity case in some loser’s apartment. José helped him hide out in different places, bringing him food and warm clothes. It seemed extra cold and wet this March but once he was tucked in behind some rubble with shelter over his head and wrapped in that blanket none of it touched him. He couldn’t remember ever sleeping better.
Sometimes he thought about how it had been for his stupid loser father living out on the street. That’s not how things were going to be for Markie.
Finally he and José found a hollowed out spot around towards the far side of what had been the button factory. It had never been one of the good spots but they knew it well enough and in pretty short order the two boys had set up a decent little space for Markie to bunk down in regularly. José lugged out a little wood burning stove he found in the wreckage back in the city and the other guys pitched in, too. Ronnie found a decent little cot and Mike snuck blankets and dishes out of his folks’ place. They never partied near Markie’s spot just in case.
So the night the nerd showed up, they were up in what was left of old Chevy Number Nine. Markie was aware of the nerd almost immediately, seeing the reflection of their fire on the nerd’s aviator glasses. He nudged José and the guys all stopped talking to look over at Skip who froze. The wind gusted and a couple of the more precariously placed bricks tumbled down. The guys cracked up to see the nerd jump like a scared little kid. Markie thought he recognized the poor idiot from back when he and Ashley used to ride buses around town to get away from Mom. He kind of dug how the nerd got all spooked but didn’t take off. Markie nodded to José who motioned to Skip.
“Whatcha scared of, four eyes? Come on. We don’t bite.” This got a bigger laugh than it should have but the guys were all on edge these days.
Skip stood there for a minute. He was ten years older than these kids but they were just like the bullies who had made middle school and then high school hell. Then one of them held out half a joint. Skip had never smoked pot and didn’t like how beer made him feel so he was more surprised than any of these tough kids when he walked over and took the offered joint.