Which of us… is to do the hard and dirty work for the rest — and for what pay?
Who is to do the pleasant and clean work, and for what pay?
—John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies, Lecture I (“Of Kings’ Treasures”)
“It brings a new meaning for ratatouille, I’ll tell you that,” says Allen to Jim, jostling the Have-A-Heart wire trap with the three frantic rats at him. Allen ends his comment with a high forced laugh, like he often does, Ha ha ha Ha ha! This thing that Allen does with the laugh always reminds Jim of the old Woody Woodpecker cartoon, although he knows it is a little different, a coincidence and not a copy.
Allen then pushes the wire cage right up against the front of the dust-caked sweatshirt that Jim’s wearing and Jim yelps, jumping backward, and the outside pant leg snags on some old plaster lathing, nearly landing him on his ass. After doing a half-hop dance, regaining his balance, he is still, squinting at Allen in the absurdly bright sunlight.
“Fuck you,” Jim says to Allen. Jim’s annoyed at the new rise of laughter from Allen, at almost falling into all this shit, the piles of old lathing and other debris that fills much of the street, along with the piles and stacks of piping and electrical wires and radiators, and all the dirty, nail-spotted studding, boards. Everything is covered with the dirt and dust of demolished houses.
Everything is covered with dirt and dust and the cloying sweet smell of old plaster that crumbles into sand and dust, and Jim is sick of it all.
“Nice dance,” Allen says, sniggering, waving the cage over his head, windmilling it until the rats are plastered against the bottom, making Jim think of astronaut training, for some reason, and of the old amusement park rides that he used to love as a kid, even if he always ended throwing up, it seemed. He starts laughing, looking at the circulating cage going round and round, and at Allen’s look of vacant glee, and Jim is smiling, shaking his head, and laughing, and coughing.
Not that Allen is much to look at. Jim thinks that he might have been good looking once, and it isn’t that Allen is probably that old, but he is cachectic, a word Jim knows only because he had once kind of dated a nursing student who was studying anorexia nervosa.
Well, emaciated, Jim thinks, Or haggard, gaunt.
Even though it is a very warm day, Jim and Allen are covered with a lot of clothing. Jim wears a filthy blue shirt with a torn button down collar laying up, turned up with one end flapping over what once was a dark green sweatshirt that says Squirrel Island. Over this, he wears a dirt- and soot- streaked sheet, knotted at the neck, which hangs over him like a cape of a kid playing at superhero. He has on a straw cowboy or farmer hat, and off its brim drapes a big piece of very crinkled silver mylar that was formerly part or all of a Happy Birthday balloon, taped and pinned and hanging from the brim, over his face.
The mylar makes it hard to see clearly, but he doesn’t go outside without it.
Allen is wearing his usual garb, a mechanics’ dark blue overalls and a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes and sunglasses. A small piece of cloth is tucked under the cap, in the back, like the cap of a foreign legion soldier in the old movies, but Jim can’t think of the word for that kind of cap, although he is pretty sure he knows it.
Even through the color of the mylar Jim can see that Allen’s cheeks and the skin around Allen’s ragged thin beard is badly sunburned. Some spots on his face have the look of sores, purple things.
“You should use a hood,” Jim says, the mylar crinkling and puffing with his breath. They are standing before a house, or what used to be a house. Much of its roof has been destroyed by fire, most of its vinyl siding on one side melted. Part of the front outside wall has already been removed, and all the doors and windows he can see have been taken out and he can see into the interior of the house through the large front opening. He looks back toward Allen, but Allen has his back to him, walking toward their cart that is still in the street, to put the rat cage in it. Jim can’t figure out if Allen is closer to his age, or in his thirties or forties. He once asked him but was told to mind his business.
Of course, he’s only met Allen. Jim finds himself wondering if it has even been a week since his re-assignment.
“You’re getting burned to shit,” Jim says, a little surprised by the whiny tone in his voice. Allen waves the comment off, not bothering to turn around. He pulls a folded square of canvas from the cart and then a plastic shopping bag. Allen steps back toward the house.
“Yo, pal,” Allen says, walking past Jim, into the house through where the front door used to be. Jim feels sweat running down his face and moves to wipe at it, but catches himself, stopping, startled by the ragged, dirt clogged cotton glove on his hand as he started to lift the mylar away from his brim.
They are in a residential neighborhood, one of the areas in Lowell that had had bad fires. Some of the houses are burned to the ground. At one of these, a crew of five is hauling away debris, their curses and shouts and talk carry in the quiet morning air. Each is wrapped in a cape of sheets or blankets that are fixed over their heads. As Jim watches, one of the crew, carrying a chest or metal cabinet of some kind, catches his sheet on a copper pipe that sticks up from the mostly collapsed house, and the snag pulls him down on to the debris with a ripping sound followed by a curse. Jim snorts.
Allen calls out from inside the house. “Let’s go!” he shouts.
Jim starts to go up the front steps into the house. Allen calls out again.
“Bring something!” he shouts, and Jim stops and goes back to the cart to get an old flat shovel and a broom and a couple of bunched tarps that have seen better days. When Jim walks into the house, Allen is sitting down against an inside wall, in shadow, cap off, eyes closed.
“You okay?” asks Jim, pulling his own hat off. His own face is covered by sparse new stubble, the same patchy new growth and color as his hair. “This must be the body I’m supposed to get,” says Jim, nudging Allen with his foot.
“I thought everyone knew breakfast is the most important meal,” Allen says, softly, eyes still closed, and grunts.
Jim slides down the wall to sit beside him. Allen grunts again, turns hard to look at Jim crowded beside him, and then fumbles a big plastic soda bottle filled with water from the plastic bag on his other side and then takes a drink from it.
Jim steals a glance at Allen. Allen’s eyes are closed again. Jim is always surprised when he sees how thin Allen is.
“Il fait chaud today, as they say,” says Jim, after a short silence in which he can hear the demolition noises and shouting next door. He takes the water bottle from Allen and drinks from it.
“No fuck,” says Allen, sitting forward off the wall, frowning at Jim. Then he leans his head back against the wall, shutting his eyes again. His lips are badly cracked and bleed in one spot.
Jim stands back up and walks further into the house. He stops and sniffs and smells the familiar odor of long dead bodies.
“Our destiny awaits,” he calls back to Allen, trying to sound hearty, joking, but his voice trembles and a sense of another place shadows him. Allen grunts again, standing up.
“The fuckers could have at least flagged the sons of bitches,” says Allen. “Fucking hide and seek,” he says, as he starts poking through the rooms on the first floor at the back of the house. There is another pile of copper pipes and some wiring in what used to be a kitchen. Pieces of baseboard radiators are pulled away from the broken open walls. Chunks of plaster and busted up parts of cabinets are scattered across the floor and a stainless steel sink is propped up against a box. Allen bends down to look at a tag tied to one of the pipes. “46,” he reads from the tag, calling out. “Which one is that?”
Jim is already is moving up the stairs. “What?” he calls back down.
“Whose team, 46?” Allen shouts.
Jim stops on the stairs. “Big Tits,” he says, quietly, to himself, picturing the woman clearly in his mind, relishing the sexual excitement that bubbles up in him, again surprised by how, despite being so beat and hungry all the time, he has never been so horny. Allen come through the doorway and looks at him. “You know,” says Jim, looking down at Allen and gesturing with his hands in front of his chest, large imaginary breasts. “The blond, huge tracts of land, the one with those really huge breasts, Carol, or Karen somebody.”
Allen grunts again. “The one you’ve been wasting your time on trying to get laid.”
“One of the ones,” Jim says, grinning.
“You’re unbelievable,” Allen says, shaking his head.
“Dare to win,” says Jim, grinning.
“Dare to lose,” replies Allen, shutting his eyes for a moment, leaning against the door jamb near the bottom of the stairs.
Jim snorts and hoists his tools and tarps and starts climbing up the stairs again. He goes into a bedroom that has already been emptied out. The walls here are heavily smudged by smoke. A window, still in its frame, has glass that is cracked and sooty, with pieces of the panes lying on the floor. The rotting smell is strong in the room. Jim moves to a small closet, its door ajar. He sees, inside it, three half desiccated corpses, all clumped together, a man, a woman, and a young child.
They look all clumped together. He stares at the mottled, marked flesh of the child, its belly cinched weirdly by the elastic waistband of the pajama, covered with still bright Disney characters. Jim is standing, staring down into the closet, so still that the light in the room begins to fade, the darkness circling in unnoticed from the edges of his vision, and Jim’s fingers are growing tighter and tighter on the shovel handle he is clutching, his hands squeezing down on the wood like his sight is squeezing the light, closing down, stepping back, and stepping back brings movement and the light, like a flare, and Jim is raising the shovel against it as if to ward it off.
Allen, who has stepped into the room, jerks his head back away from the back swing, and is shouting out a grunt or word of alarm, and almost catches the shovel with his hand, but freezes as the sound starts, a roar or groan pitching high from Jim’s throat with the forward swing of the shovel, which hits the closet doorframe with a cracking thud. “Hey!” shouts Allen, stepping forward and grabbing hold of the shovel shaft as it pitches back over Jim’s shoulder for another blow.
That night, even though he is bone-tired, Jim is feeling exhilarated, his exhaustion stuttering into a kind of sleepy excitement once he spots the small woman whose name he is pretty sure is Jenny, or Jennifer, through the glass of the red vinyl clad double doors that lead into the kitchen in the back of the place where he gets his meals. He had arrived at the tail end of the night schedule for dinner at the restaurant where he is assigned, he’s standing and continues to look through the small pane while he is eating the modest bowl of elbow macaroni dribbled with oil and a few beans, eating it in quick gulps, the bowl up to his face, pushing the food into his mouth as he peers around it hoping to catch sight of her again.
Behind him the shouts and talk of the other people eating has died down to a murmur, and when he turns to look toward the direction of a high broken laugh behind him, he sees that the large dim room is almost empty. The laugh comes from a gray-haired woman who sits with two men at one of the several tables pushed together to make one of several long rows that supply most of the seating. The laughing turns into a fit of coughing, and when the man sitting next to her leans away, Jim sees that she is red-faced and wild-eyed, even though she remains half-hidden by one of the old menus of the place, which she holds open in her hands. The man leans back toward her, blocking Jim’s view of the woman, and Jim sees the man also has a menu in his hand. The man’s menu is still in encased in a large red leatherette portfolio with the name of the restaurant printed in gold ink on the front. He gestures at something inside the big folder and says something in a low easy voice that Jim can’t make out and the woman shrieks again, starting her coughing anew. The other man sitting with them, across from them, a younger man, stands up quickly and says something that Jim can’t catch, except for what he thinks was shit!, with the younger man saying it with a harsh, sharp t before he snaps a bundle or jacket from off the back of his chair, toppling the chair over, and moving through the foyer doorway in stiff rapid steps. Jim hears another man sitting with two others, the only others left, halfway down the same row of tables, but near Jim, nearer to the back of the room. The man says, “That fucking joke again,” in a low, tight voice, and when Jim turns toward the man and his friends, he sees that they are staring at the coughing lady, and then, as if each was connected to the others, all three men turn and look at him. Jim glances away, back out over the room.
He’s wrong. There are other people in the dim space, still. There are two people with their heads down on the tables. There’s a teenage boy moving silently among the rows of tables, lifting a plate or bowl now and again, or picking at the table surface. In a banquette that starts a row of booths, a man is leaning back, perhaps asleep.
Jim hears the tight voiced man says to his friends, “In a minute, wait, it’ll be the coffee thing.” As if on cue the man sitting with the gray-haired lady throws up his arm and calls loudly, “Garcon! Another cup of coffee!” and the woman shrieks again and the sleeper raises his head and Jim catches the movement of one of the tight-voiced man’s friends grabbing at him as he starts from his chair going for the joke-maker.
The red vinyl double doors in the back swing open with a crash, revealing the squat middle-aged man who runs the place. He shouts out, even as he bends down to stop the doors open, “Finish up, people!” he yells, and he is straightening up and clapping his hands together, repeating his call. He turns and goes back into the kitchen. Jim sees the woman he thinks is named Jenny through the opened doors, standing at a big stainless steel sink. Jim feels a wonderful flush of excitement stir and he is standing up, bowl in hand, moving through the propped doors. Jim almost has to blink in the brighter light of the nearby lamps.
“More,” he says, in a small voice with a would-be British accent to it. He is standing just in the entrance to the kitchen. He watches Jenny’s back, crossed by apron strings over a sweaty tee-shirt. She works something around in one of the sinks. “More,” he says, increasing his volume and the child-like tone. He is holding his bowl in both hands, in front of him. “More, please, Sir.”
The young woman turns her head toward him, flinging a string of brown hair off her moist face as she does.
She responds in a kind of Huh?! grimace.
“It’s from Oliver,” Jim says with a smile.
“No seconds,” she says, already turned back to the sink.
He sees another person, a frail Asian man, back further in the work area. This man glances at him, then goes back to feeding pieces of cut-up boards into a large, jury-rigged cook stove on which sits big pots of steaming water. The smell of smoke and bleach are strong in the back. The teenager who was roaming the tables earlier comes out of the shadows of the dining area pushing a bus cart. Jim lays his bowl down on the mostly empty cart as it rolls past him and the boy nods solemnly at him. He nods back at him.
“No one back here,” says the woman he thinks is named Jenny without turning to look at him.
Her angel wings move under the limp shirt with a dizzying promise. He can see from where he stands the sway of one of her small breasts when she bends further over the sink. The sharp thin line of her cheek, the dark tendril of hair plastered at her temple, the sweat darkening the shirt’s armpits take his breath away. Something metal clatters loudly on the floor in the back, followed by a shout.
George, the manager, the hand-clapper, the shouter, comes racing out of the shadows in back, stopping at the big make-shift stove, and turns back toward the shadows, and then back to the man tending the stove. “Go take over the bread from Mrs. Butterfingers back there,” he says, and he turns again and begins yelling again at whoever is in the back, stopping for a moment when the person, a tiny black woman, steps around big shelves crammed with pots and racks and dishes on them. She is white with flour and her dark and pink hands are gummy with dough.
“You!” he shouts at her, even though she is standing no more than five feet from her. “You tend this goddamn fire and see if you can do that right, for Christ’s sake!” He turns back to the man. “Finish up the mixing,” George says to the man, reaching out to touch his arm, and Jim recognizes this other man, Lee, he thinks, from up in the work assignment office, he thinks, and Lee starts off without a word, but George is still holding on to his arm and Lee jerks to a stop. “How long boiling?” George asks him, jerking his head toward the pots of water. “Twenty minutes?” Lee nods no. “Ten minutes?” Lee shrugs, but nods yes. “Jesus,” George mutters, but he lets go of Lee’s arm and Lee disappears toward the back. George says to the small black woman, “Another twenty minutes, got it?” and then George sees Jim, who is back to looking at Jenny who has been at the sink ignoring all the commotion. “Who the hell are you?” George yells.
It takes Jim a moment to realize he is being spoken to. He takes his eyes from the tee-shirted woman’s back and looks at George. “I’m a customer,” Jim says with a smirk.
“You’re a goddamn comedian,” George says. “What the hell are you doing back here?”
“Hey,” Jim answers, with the start of a frown. “I’m talking with Jenny.”
“Ginny,” George says. The woman finally looks up from the sink and looks at George. George is looking at Jim.
“Ginny,” Jim says. “That’s what I said.”
“I told him no one’s supposed to be back here,” Ginny says to George who glances at her and then looks back at Jim.
“Yeah, you signed in recent,” George says, and then he points his finger at Jim. “You’re new right? Got signed here, what? A month, not even.”
Jim nods. “Jim,” Jim says.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” George says. “Jim.”
“Jim,” says George, thinking. “Now, let’s see,” George says, as calm as can be. “You’re up at Thorpe’s house, right?”
“Sure,” George says, starting to wave his hand, “what, that trapping thing.” George holds up the finger he’s been pointing with. “You’re a dead body guy, right?”
Jim nods. He sees Ginny looking at him without expression. He feels a flush sweep over his face.
“So who the fuck do you think you are?” George is saying, anger building.
“I,” Jim is saying, the words caught in his throat, his flush turning cold.
“Get the hell out of my kitchen!” George roars, his arms raised and his face turning even redder.
The next day has a muddy overcast to it, and the air feels chilled. Allen and Jim are halfway through their day’s schedule, even though they’ve been working less than two hours. Allen is trying to whistle, but his cracked lips emit only a hoarse hissing sound. Still, Allen seems to be feeling good, it seems to Jim, who wonders if Allen’s not so hungry because of the extra ration the rat credits bring from the thirty rats netted the day before.
“If you break out into song,” Jim says, breathing hard because he is at his turn pushing their cart, “I’m going to slap you.”
“Come on, Jimmy Boy,” says Allen. He’s not wearing his hat today because of the heavy overcast.
“Put on your hat,” Jim says. “You don’t listen too well, you’re still going to get burned.”
“I like my tan,” says Allen, going back to his would-be whistling for a moment.
“You’re still going to get fucking burned,” says Jim, tightly, from behind his mylar. He stops pushing the cart. Allen turns around and looks at him and laughs.
“Now, now, laddie boy,” Allen says, speaking with a fake Irish accent. “You’re worse than me poor dear muddy.”
“Jesus Christ,” says Jim. “How much do you think you can get away with?”
Allen hoots. “You think they’re going to demote me?”
“God damn it,” Jim replies, his voice softening. “You can’t work again and they are going to shit on you, nothing anymore.”
“I’ve told you a fucking million times, the U. V. is bad even when it’s like this,” Jim says, gesturing toward the brownish sky above.
“The way you talk Jimmy Boy, saints preserve us,” Allen replies, still fake Irish. “`Tis no way for a college boy to speak.”
“Shit,” says Jim, shaking his head, but now he’s almost smiling. He flips his mylar over the top of his brim to look at their day sheet. He looks around and then pulls the silvery plastic back over his face. He picks up the cart handles and turns the cart up a side street.
“And they said I’d need a degree to get a good job,” he says quietly, after they’ve been moving for a while.”
“The life of Reilly,” Allen says, from behind Jim.
“Yes,” continues Allen, falling right into it, “the life of Reilly, Reilly of the BRT.”
Jim has mixed feelings about Allen’s stories, his rantings about the fabled Body Removal Team man sometimes tends to set off disquieting, half-remembered images, ghost memories, not of the decay and filth and corpses, but of a life Jim tries very hard not to think about, the house he had shared with other Emerson College theater students, his friends, his fellow goofs. His smile fades in mid-stride, and he stops, letting go of the cart handles.
On the other hand, Jimmy likes how Allen gets animated.
Allen is now right beside him, pushing him away from the cart, but Jim picks up the handles and begins to push the cart onward. “Yes,” Allen is saying, in a loud voice, as they move down the street, “that time, he came across this guy in a basement, dead for sometime—”
Allen starts back in. “—Well, this guy was bad, I mean, it was damp in there, there was mold, there was slime, there —”
The cart’s wheels set up a creaking as the two hit a small rise in the street. A recycle crews is at the top of the slope with a small flat trailer full of windows, the group either trying to figure how best to negotiate the road or waiting for the two men to pass.
“— And, oh, he was smelly, like a sewer, worse than dead chili farts, bugs slithering through his eyeballs—”
“—Enough!” Jim shouts, putting down the cart, but he’s grinning.
“— Oh, yes!” Allen says, also shouting now, “and the bones were like pus, and his hair was full of spiders, and Reilly!” Allen shouts, almost screaming the name, “Reilly bends down and fishes a pack of smokes that’s in this guy’s pocket.”
“Gross!!” Jim screams, and then he pauses, before delivering the line: “Those smokes must have been stale!”
Allen is clutching the side of the cart, gasping with laughter, his hard-chapped lips spread in a wild grin and oozing a bit of blood.
In his sleep, in his dream, Jim is holding the head of someone, a young man that looks like one of his friends, but he doesn’t have a name for him, as if the man lying between his legs, on his back, stretching out before him, could be one of several people. He is holding the head gently in both of his hands, keeping the head straight, face up, his palms flat on each side of the man’s face, over his ears, his fingers touching the jaw bones, feeling every prick of the man’s stubble. The hair on the man’s head feels brittle to his touch, the weight of the head moving from nothing into a sudden leaden presence as he moves the head from the balance between his thighs with slight shifts to one side, then the other, dropping with the balance of the weight.
It is dark in his dream, the walls in the dimness seem cold, hard, there is a presence of objects all around him. He releases the head and it slumps against his thigh. He slowly runs his hand through his own hair, pulling his fingers through it, grasping his hair harder and harder, until the roots start popping, until the warm pain of it flares and he drops his hands to his side, opening his eyes, a big battery lamp casting a slight orange glow behind some boxes on the other side of the room. Suddenly he is seized with a desperate need to get the man’s weight off of him, a terror that moves him scrambling backward, sliding back until his back hits against the raw concrete foundation wall, straining, kicking away from the body, he hears the man’s head thunk against the concrete floor as it slips off his trembling knee, his palms pressing for purchase against the floor as he moves down the wall, deeper into the darkness, his heart thrashing in his chest with a desperate wildness, his back then pressing against something soft and he freezes.
He turns slowly toward the obstacle, his head moving unwillingly, as it pressed by other hands, his eyes rolling against the effort that turns him. A face looms up at him in the palest of light, a white sphere that sways close to his face until the two heads meet. The sound of the two heads touching together is like a crack of lightning. “Me too,” whispers the breath from this face, into his nostrils, enveloping him in a train of cold, and he’s scrabbling backward again, up against the wall again, his hand slapping down a big pile of magazines, sending them slipping forward on to the floor, his feet drawing under him, and he’s pushing, pushing against the wall, trying to leap upward, away.
Jim wakes. He has pushed the bedclothes down off the bed, half-sitting up against the wall behind his bed. One of the men who shares the room with Jim and two other men lies quiet in the false dawn light, on his own bed, staring at him, head still on his pillow, saying nothing.
It seems that whenever Allen isn’t in one of his quiet spells he likes to act crazy, and Jim always tries to enjoy it, going along with Allen’s goofs and antics, even trying some of his own to add to the entertainment. With another good rat catch the day before, Jim has managed breakfast rations two days in a row and is feeling quite good as he waits this morning on his usual corner for Allen. Even the fact that the overcast has built up into an even more brackish sky overnight, a cold dark sky that sheds a fine snow down upon the city, doesn’t bother Jim.
The first thing Jim notices is that despite the cold turn, Allen is still only wearing the overalls and baseball cap. “Aren’t you cold?” Jim asks as Allen approaches, pushing the cart. His own breath, he sees with mild interest, is forming steam as he talks. Jim wears a heavy jacket under his sheet.
Allen notices Jim’s hat, a cloth flap ear hat, pushed a bit back on his head, the mylar off the bottom edges of the hat, bunched up at top, tied with a piece of shoelace. “Great hat,” Allen mumbles.
Jim makes a funny face at him.
“Shit,” Allen says, not smiling. “I never wear a coat before Labor Day.” He looks up at the sky, shaking his head. “Unbelievable,” he says. His eyes look tired, his face, slack.
“That’s New England for you,” says Jim, happily. “Like Mark Twain said, if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.”
“I though Dick Albert of Channel Five News said that,” says Allen. Jim laughs.
Allen looks at him, puzzled.
“You’re kidding, right?” says Jim.
“Shit,” says Allen, annoyed. “I didn’t go to college, right?”
Jim sees that he’s pissed Allen off somehow, and he wants to share his good mood with him.
“Okay,” he says. “You know this one,” and he begins to recite, “A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye.—”
“— Great,” Allen grumbles, “I’m working with Horace again today.” He plops down on to the cart.
“Horatio,” Jim says, with a grin. He starts again:
A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead.
Jim grabs his draped sheet from his sides and shakes it at Allen. Allen just stares at him. Jim ignores him and continues, talking of stars with trains of fire, doomsday, and now Jim is really starting to ham it up, throwing a dramatic cast of his eyes toward the sky, rolling his eyes in mock terror.
“Christ,” grunts Allen.
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And preview to the –
But Jim stops, his brow creasing in a frown. “No, no, that’s not it,” he says quietly, and then, with a look of concentration, going over the lines in his head, he remembers.
“And prologue to the omen coming on,” Jim continues, “Have heaven and earth together demonstrated upon our climatures and country men.” Here he stops, and hunches forward, cupping his mouth. He says in a low stage whisper, “Enter Ghost.”
Allen, eyes closed, mutters, “Jesus,” but smiles a bit, and Jim continues his reciting.
“But soft! Lo, where it comes again! I’ll cross it, though it blast me. — Stay illusion!” he shouts, his arm fanning outward in a broad stroke. “If thou has any sound, or use of voice, Speak to me.” Jim cups his ear with a big sweeping motion. “If there be any good thing to be done, that may to thee do ease, and grace to me, speak to me.” He cups his ear again, even more dramatically. “If thou art privy to thy country’s fate, which happily foreknowing may avoid, O, speak! Or if thou hast uphoarded in thy life extorted treasure in the womb of earth (For which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death),” Jim stops and looks at Allen, who is now staring up the street through the light snow, and Jim clears his throat.
“Huh?” Allen grunts, turning back to Jim.
Jim, in another stage whispers says, “You’re missing your cock!”
“Huh?” Allen says again, but this time he is grinning and grabbing his crotch. “No I’m not,” he says. Jim looks at him with a patient expression.
“`The cock crows’,” Jim says. “Come on.”
Allen grunts again. “Cock-a-fuckadoodle-doo,” he says flatly. Jim gives him an annoyed look, but then switches back to character.
“Speak of it!” he gasps imploringly, gesturing with another broad sweep of his arm. “Stay and speak! — Stop it, Marcellus!” Jim ends by slowly dropping his arm and taking a deep bow. After he straightens up he says, sarcastically, “Gee, good rooster crow.” Allen grunts again.
“Fuck it,” Allen says with a grin, grunting as he gets on his feet. “I don’t have your schooling.”
Now Jim is swinging his arms and clapping his gloved hands together in the cold.
“You looked like a fucking hula dancer with that ear thing, with your hand,” Allen adds.
“Great,” says Jim, smirking. “A bad review.” He hears Allen burp.
“Ugh,” says Allen, a disgusted look on his face. “Some sort of barley shit this morning, or wallpaper paste,” he says, placing a hand on his chest. “I think there were even three raisins in it.”
Jim whistles. “That’s living,” he says, and then they start walking, heading to the place where they pick up their assignments and equipment. They stop when they see a group of sixteen or seventeen guards come racing around the corner. One of the men slips in a patch of slush, and his rifle, a single shot twenty-two, Jim thinks, goes clattering and skittering on the pavement, but the man grabs it up and races after the others.
“Shit,” says Allen, after the guards have gone past them. “May be busy today.”
As they had suspected, first from the guards and then, a short while later, when a long spell of muffled gunshots started up off to the south of the city where the old Rt. 495 Lowell Connector ran into it, the cold day had turned hectic. Even though it is mid-afternoon, the temperature is barely over forty degrees. They are stiff and cold and bone tired already from the clearing of casualties from the morning’s attack, having to make a long trip to cart the bodies back.
And they still have the day’s regular assignments to get to. Jim and Allen are pushing their just emptied cart back toward the place where they get their pick-up list. They had been sent out without it, ordered first thing that morning toward the attack with the other three crews.
They reach the storefront. They leave the cart out front and walk through the door over which the dead neon sign reads Teddy’s Shoes.
Allen shouts out, like he does every day when he walks in, “You have any triple EEE?!” The man who is their boss is standing at a counter at the back of the shop speaking to another man, but he turns when he hears Allen.
He snarls, red-faced, at them. “Where have you clowns been?!” he shouts. The man he has been talking to looks on, amused.
Allen’s eyes grown round, his face holds an expression of pure innocence. “Gosh,” he says, quietly, “we went to Mass.” The stranger laughs and the red-faced man frowns at him.
“Goddamn it,” their boss shouts again, looking back at Jim and Allen. “We found a whole goddamn basement full up on Fawle Street, I want you clowns up there to help Jim and Frank.”
“The basement’s full of flour,” says the stranger. Jim and Allen look at him. He shrugs. “Got overlooked somehow, probably because it’s two doors down from that old Portuguese bakery.” The man shrugs again.
“How many?” Jim asks.
“Jesus Christ,” the red-faced man whines. “How the fuck do I know? You tell me.” He turns his back on them, looking at some papers on the counter. “Christ,” he mutters.
“Where?” says Jim, tentatively. Joe, their boss, has a constantly red face that matches his temper.
“It’s flagged, for christsake,” Joe hisses, still looking at something on the counter.
“I’m going up there,” says the stranger. “The Costa Bakery.” He walks past Jim and Allen and steps outside.
Joe looks over his shoulder again. “Tomorrow’s a burning day,” he says.
“Shit, that’s right,” Jim says quietly, sighing, feeling even more exhausted as he turns to leave. Allen goes and picks out a sheet of paper Joe waves in his hand, over his shoulder, then he too steps outside.
“I want everything up there for the burning tomorrow!” Joe shouts after them from inside.
“Shit,” Allen says to Jim. “In this heat?”
Jim ignores him. The man who had been speaking with Joe is standing at the cart. He wears a clean down parka and pants that look pressed. He pulls a tweed walking cap out of his coat pocket and puts it on, pulling the parka hood over it. He puts on sunglasses. Allen looks at him.
“Don’t I know you?” Allen asks him.
The man starts to put out his hand and stops. “Um,” he says, looking at Allen, puzzled. He shakes his head. “The name is Dennis Priceman,” he says, when Allen keeps looking at him.
“Roses and Wine,” Allen says, flatly.
“Yeah?” Priceman says, his face clouding.
Allen laughs, or grunts. “Shit,” he says. “I know you. Biblically.” Priceman looks embarrassed and glances at Jim for a second. “Um,” he says again.
Allen laughs or grunts again. “Denny,” he says, flatly. Jim looks at Allen and then back to Denny.
“You used to drink Tequila Sunrises and you said I was a great dancer.” Allen says, tonelessly. Denny looks more embarrassed. Jim looks at each of them. “I used to wear this,” Allen says, flicking his red and scabby chin with one hand, “close-cropped.”
“Shit,” Dennis Priceman says after a moment. “You were a mechanic.” He stops. “Shit,” he says.
Jim, his mouth slightly open, keeps looking back and forth at them.
“Shit,” says Denny. “You look like shit.”
Allen grunts. “That’s all right, you never looked good.”
Denny grins a lopsided grin and laughs through his nose. “You bitch,” he says.
Jim looks back to Allen. “Shit,” he says. The three of them are just standing there in the cold. “Wow,” Jim says, “you’re gay.”
Allen grunts. “Fuck that,” he says after a moment. “I’m not even happy.”
The part of Lowell they walk to, with Denny walking alone ahead, had been a mix of businesses and old apartments and tenements on the south side of downtown. There is a lot of activity here, people moving around in groups and singly, most bundled up in a wild assortment of jackets, sweaters, coats, and blankets. There are a bunch of people doing electric line work up on the street poles. Denny waits for Jim and Allen and the cart to catch up before he points out the doorway in a low brick and concrete building. There is a red flag pinned to the jamb.
“We’re going to be getting some power down here pretty soon,” he says to the two, pointing at the workers with his chin. Jim notices that one of them is wearing a yellow hard hat.
“Won’t that be grand,” Allen says. Allen has been silent most of the way here, except for his coughing.
Denny ignores him. “We’re running it off the old Boott Mill generator,” he is saying. He laughs. “If the canals don’t freeze up.”
“What do you do?” Jim asks him.
“With Admin, right?” Allen says.
Denny looks at him, and grins. “It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it,” he says. “You mind my asking what you two are doing still on BRT?”
“It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it,” says Allen.
“Jesus,” Denny says.
“Okay,” says Allen. “Jim here, he’s got the college training for it.”
“What’s that?” asks Denny, turning to Jim. “English major?”
“Ow,” Jim says. “Close.”
“He’s only been here, less than two months,” Allen adds. Denny nods.
“What about you?” Denny asks Allen. “Jesus, you’re a mechanic, right?”
“I like the people I meet in this line of work,” Allen answers, staring at Denny.
“Okay,” Denny replies, after the silence gathers for too many moments. He turns toward the stairs going into the flagged doorway, walking around the other cart that sits by it. He goes into the building.
Another man peers out through the door at Allen and Jim. “Morning boys!” he shouts, waving his hand in a grand flourish. This man is named Jim too, from the other body removal team. He is a large man who has lost clumps of hair either from radiation or scurvy. He has been in Lowell for only about three weeks.
Denny, Jim, and Al step into the building.
Big Jim’s partner Frank sits on some boxes toward the back of the room. He waves once, limply, but says nothing. With the late afternoon and the heavy overcast it is dark inside the deep room, with light coming in from the open door and two small translucent and pebbled windows, the kind with wire-reinforcing in the glass.
“We’ve got lots of fun today, boys!” says big Jim, rubbing his hands together and wagging his mothy eyebrows over his fool’s grin.
Allen starts with a fit of coughing and sits down on a metal box in the middle of the room. Behind Frank, behind the jumble of cardboard cartons against the back, it is so dim that Allen can barely see the wall of empty metal shelves and bins.
Big Jim goes back out and then comes back in with an armload of cloths and tools which he lets fall from his arms. A cloud of dust spreads outward and up. Allen nods at him.
“How many?” Allen asks to the room.
“Puh uhn bow-day, ah-mees,” says big Jim. “Puh dew bow-days.”
“Jesus,” Allen mutters, looking at his Jim.
“Puh twah bow-days, ah-mees,” continues big Jim.
“How do we get to them?” asks Allen, speaking past Jim’s bulk, to Frank.
“Puh catrah bow-days, ah-mees.”
“Jesus, shitpants,” Allen says, annoyed. “We know all about your excellent handle of French.”
“Basement,” says Frank, pointing to an open trap door Allen hadn’t seen before because of the dimness. Denny is disappearing down a ladder, step by step.
“Looks like shots, but kinda hard to tell, I’d bet the first night.” Frank says, as he stands up. “Ask me, I say it was for all that flour. Whoever did it must have got caught in the crush later, or it wouldn’t still be sitting here.”
“Puh cease bow-days, ah —”
“— Shut the fuck up you asshole!” shouts Frank. Allen and Jim look at each other and smile.
Then Denny’s head appears at the basement trap, and everyone turns to him because he’s making this sort of coughing sound over and over again, ugh, ugh, from the top of his lungs. He stands partly up, holding a cloth over his nose and mouth, and tries to say something on his way outside, but manages only to hold a hand up before rushing past.
“Oh good,” Frank says, up, standing, peering down through the trap. “He left his light down there.”
The sun, what little there was, has set some time ago, but it doesn’t feel any colder. Allen and Jim are walking in the dark, heading back to their assigned Men’s Houses.
“Jesus, I’d love to have a cake made out of this,” Jim says, lifting the plastic shopping bag in which he carries his change of clothes and water bottle and a small paper bag of flour. Even though they are both beat, the haul of flour today makes Jim feel great.
“You know what you need for cake?” asks Allen. “You need oil, butter, eggs, flavorings, and baking powder. Forget it. Stick with biscuits. All you need there is the baking powder.”
“Aren’t you domestic, I never knew,” says Jim, smiling. Allen freezes, grabbing Jim’s arm hard.
“I hope that’s not a faggot joke,” Allen says in a harsh whisper. Jim just stares at Allen, amazed.
“Lighten up,” Jim says after a moment. Jim shrugs his arm until Allen releases it.
“Jesus,” says Jim.
Allen walks to the side of the street and lowers himself to the curb, shaking.
“Hey, Al,” Jim says softly, and he walks over to him and sits beside him on the curb. Allen is shaking very badly, his arms clasp his knees, his teeth chattering. They sit in silence for a few moments.
“You know why we got the flour?” Allen asks, his head still buried in his knees.
“Because you know that guy, uh, Dennis,” says Jim.
Al grunts. His shaking lessens. “Shit no,” he says. “It’s because he’s afraid and he gave it to me and you to keep quiet about how I know him.”
“He said that to you when you guys were talking?”
Allen picks his head up from his knees to look toward Jim, sideways. He grunts again. “I didn’t go to college, doesn’t mean I’m a stupid shit.” He straightens up, stretching out his knees. Then he laughs. “He works for one of the Board, for chrissake, one or another of the members, which I don’t know.”
“So you got friends in high places,” Jim snorts.
“What a fucking dickhead,” Al says, quietly.
Jim doesn’t know who Al is addressing, but he suspects it may be him.
“What,” Jim says.
“Being queer could queer it, except like that asshole is saying all this in some sort of fucking tango and not straight out, but it was clear enough, he made it clear enough,” Allen says. After a moment he adds, “As if I don’t fucking know it.” Allen stops again. “That’s how we got these little gifts. The carrot to the fucking stick,” Allen says.
Al looks up the dark street. “He threatened us.”
“Oh,” says Jim, falling silent.
“Hey,” Jim says after a while. “Some of my best friends were gay.”
“Shit,” Al says. “That’s what people said about Jews.”
Jim laughs. “And people say you have no sense of humor.”
“Shit,” Allen says. The two sit for a while. The light is all gone. Allen starts fishing in his bag. “That’s not all I got today,” he says, drawing something out.
“From Denny boy?” asks Jim, trying to see what Allen is holding. Jim is feeling the cold seep into his tired body up from the granite curbstone.
“Frank found a whole carton of cigarettes in a paper bag when he first got there,” says Allen. He’s unwrapping a pack, tearing off the cellophane in a practiced manner in the dark.
“Nobody’s supposed to keep stuff like that,” Jim says quietly.
“That’s way he gave me these,” Al says, then stops and a match flares and Jim sees Allen’s face as he lights two of the cigarettes, before the match is waved out. For a moment, in the flickering light, Allen’s face looks like a cadaver. Allen hands one of the cigarettes to Jim.
“What the hell,” says Jim, taking the lit cigarette, “what a time to start the habit.” He laughs when Allen smiles.
After they smoke for a little while in the silence and cold, Jim asks, “Frank only gave you one pack?” Allen doesn’t answer.
“Only one pack, Al?” Jim asks again.
“’Only one pack, Al?’” Allen mimics. Then he says, “Three packs, shithead. Keep this one. I didn’t have to say anything.” He hands Jim the opened pack.
“Thanks. This ought to be good for getting a date,” Jim says.
Allen grunts. “Shit,” he says, with a small laugh, “you’re unbelievable.” Jim nods in the dark.
After they’ve been sitting for a while, Allen says, quietly, “Just watch out how you play it.” He turns and looks toward Jim. “With the flour too.”
“Yeah. I could lose my chance to direct on Broadway.”
“Just don’t be stupid.”
They sit in silence and finish the cigarettes. After a few moments Allen taps Jim’s arm. “What are you, stingy with those butts? Give me one.” Jim snorts and hands Allen the pack. Allen lights another one and hands the pack back and Jim slips it back into a pocket under his sheet. Then Jim sees a man with a lantern turn into the street and start walking toward them. From the light of the lantern, he can see that the man is carrying a rifle, a guard.
“Shit,” says Jim, elbowing Allen who has laid back on to the sidewalk, eyes closed, smoking. “He’ll smell the smoke.” Allen sits slowly back up, holding the cigarette down, cupped in his hand.
“Hey,” the guard calls in greeting, when he is only a few yards away. “What’s up, guys? Where are you guys supposed to be?” He swings the lantern toward their faces, making Jim and Allen squint. He sniffs the air and then Allen brings the cigarette up to his lips and draws on it.
“Shit,” the guard says. “Where you guys get cigarettes?” The guard can’t be any older than he is, Jim thinks, early-, mid- twenties, at best. The guard puts the lantern down and takes a half-step back. Allen grunts.
“We just got off,” says Jim. “BRT.”
“Cleaners?” the guard says, thinking. “You’re not telling me you guys get cigarettes, bro,” his voice working its way toward authority. Allen grunts again and grounds out the stub under the sole of his shoe.
“Hey,” says Allen, quietly, “we don’t even get much food.” The guard looks from one to the other, their grimy faces and streaked clothing lit by the lantern.
“Want a smoke?” says Jim, suddenly, reaching past the sheet he has wrapped around himself, tugging at the zipper of his jacket. He pulls the pack from his shirt pocket. He makes a big production of fishing a cigarette out from the pack with his ungloved hand. He’s reaching forward to hand it to the guard and he says, casually, “Got `em off that group we just finished dropping off at the pit, what,” he says, looking to Allen, “up at Fawle Street, `bout, a dozen or so stiffs, couldn’t tell exactly `cause they’d been there so long.” All the while he’s talking, he’s holding the cigarette out toward the guard.
“Shit,” the guard says, staring at the cigarette in the lamp light. “They’re not good for you anyway,” the guard finally says, then the guard reaches down for the lantern and turns and walks off, the light from the lantern going bright then dim behind the guard’s strides. Jim and Allen watch him and his light disappear around a corner.
“Christ,” Allen says quietly, “that was beautiful.”
Jim lifts himself up, stands, and bows grandly from the waist.