September 2012

Slumming

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Nobody knew where Jason came from. He just started showing up, exotically gritty and broke, flattering the women, goading the men, grinning with disordered yellow teeth, his pale eyes watching everything and communicating nothing.

Chris hadn’t known him long, not to talk to. He’d seen him at the Entry and one time at a party where everyone watched in apprehension and envy as Jason danced bare chested in wild convulsive fits, leering like a hopeful sacrificial goat.

Two years out of college, Chris was the least feckless of his brothers so far, the golden boy looking at graduate schools, clerking in a law firm, the one who still might possibly do something illustrious in a tie. His parents tried to view these years as a natural breather. To him they felt more like a paralytic drift with no end in sight. Friends told him that his linoleum prints were artistic, he should sell them, that his fresh pasta was incredible, he could open a restaurant. He stole bar glasses and fumbled women. Each night after work he went out hoping for the sudden grasp of an undertow.

One late night, Chris was sitting half-wasted in a receptionist’s crowded apartment with his tie off and the sleeves of his fine gray office shirt rolled up, when Jason dropped down next to him for the first time ever and said,

“Hey. Nice shoes. Man, this music sucks.”

His breath was rotten with cigarettes and beer, but his presence, his casual voice, the glances of people around them, made Chris score a few points for himself. Jason leaned back against the wall, folding his arms, jacket sleeves riding up his thin white wrists, and said,

“See that guy over there? I think he wants to kill me.”

Chris looked across the room, met the grim eyes of a stocky blond stranger in a sweatshirt, and quickly looked away. Then he looked back, sizing the guy up, hoping for a little excitement. But the stranger was now staring at the top of the kitchen door frame with deep moral disgust. Annoyed, but not on his way over.

“Party’s winding down,” said Jason. “Want to get some fresh air?”

“Maybe,” said Chris. “Where?”

“I don’t know,” said Jason. He sat up and jiggled his leg, tapping the heel of his sneaker on the floor. “Go for a drive. Maybe down by the river. I got a six pack outside. You got a car?”

When Jason dropped into the passenger seat and shifted himself comfortable, the thick hammy smell of him mingling with his rank breath made Chris roll the window down at the first light. Jason cranked his down too. An icy wind roared into the car as they merged off the ramp onto the highway.

“Nice car!” shouted Jason.

“Thanks!” said Chris. It was a little red Honda, about 12 years old, with stained upholstery and a meandering crack in the bottom of the windshield.

“You had it long?”

“Yeah, a little while.”

“Yeah,” said Jason, rolling up his window halfway, “my wife took off with my car about a week ago.”

“Oh. Took off?” Chris didn’t even know he was married.

“Yeah,” said Jason, holding his hair back from his forehead, “we had a fight and she took off, probably went home.”

“So where’s home?”

“St. Cloud. I been stuck here ever since.”

“Can’t you call her?”

“She’s not answering the phone, man.”

“That sucks,” said Chris vaguely.

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve been trying to figure something out. So where you want to go?” asked Jason. He seemed out of character now, tediously polite.

“I thought you had a plan.”

“Sure, I know an interesting spot. You afraid of heights?”
Under Jason’s direction, they drove across the river, over the bridge with a full view of downtown, a glittering coronet of office space tipped and footed with nightlife, fenced by spotlit billboards for jewelry, perfume, insurance, and beer. On the other side, before the crouched night mystery of the neighborhoods beyond, there was a slender new outpost of wine bars, boutiques, and red brick condos along the high river bank. They parked uphill from it on a dark side street, walked down and turned onto the bright strip.

Jason shrank into himself again, shoulders hunched, walking fast, the partial six-pack held a little behind his thigh. Popcorn fragrance wafted out of a glaring cinema. Muffled shouts and shrieks of laughter over a dull regular thump echoed down the road from a sports bar, and piano notes sounded faintly from a restaurant as they passed. He led Chris across the restored cobbled street, under the faux-Victorian street lamps on the far curb, over the darkening margin of lawn, and pushed into the brush at the top of the river bank, under a line of high twisting bare-limbed oak trees. Near-blinded in the dark, skidding after Jason down the muddy bank through a lashing network of twigs, Chris saw a massive limestone piling loom up and there was the old iron deck bridge, a black multiplying cat’s cradle stretched out across the river. Jason didn’t look back.

Chris hadn’t done anything like this since high school when friends dared each other up the rusting ladders of abandoned grain elevators and water towers on the other side of the river, far downstream. He zipped his keys securely into his jacket pocket, and scrambled up the piling after Jason.

The first touch of the iron shocked him alert. He threw himself forward along the catwalk in a surge of energy and excitement, gripping the holds with strong and capable hands, strong enough to save him if his foot went through. They laughed and chattered affirmative mocking nonsense to each other, winging over the breath of fear.

Then Jason swung a leg over the railing, got a grip on a truss, and started crawling out and down. Chris stopped and stared. Jason looked back and yelled “you coming?”

Minutes later, Chris sat clutching a death-cold iron truss with both hands and legs as the Mississippi River roared underneath, a monstrous gleaming dark flood heaving and pitching big gray-white chunks of ice down toward the dam. The bridge thrummed faintly, as if the ghost of an ore train were thundering towards them, miles off. Jason was a phantasm in the gloom, a few trusses closer to the center of the bridge and one level down, whooping at the river and laughing a high forced laugh, his white face visible in flashes by the light filtering through the splintered wooden deck above.

Chris felt brave and chosen here, more daring than he’d imagined himself to be. But the warmth of the spring day was long gone, and the iron around him felt like January. Working his way out on this truss in his slippery lace-ups, lowering himself to a secure position facing outward with a clear view of the river, had left him shaking. He still had to do it all again in reverse, though up should be easier than down. He would wait another minute, and start back before he started to stiffen up, before he felt too tired.

Three seconds from here to the water? Maybe less.

Jason had climbed down a diagonal I beam to get where he was, beer and all, using nothing but friction. Chris didn’t see how he could get back up.

“You okay over there?” shouted Jason.

“Yeah!” Chris yelled back.

“Want a beer?”

“Sure!”

“Catch!”

It came hurtling up toward him, end over end. Chris shot out a hand, but snatched at the air, and turned to see the can arc down toward the torrent and vanish.

“Ah, you loser, that was my beer!” cried Jason. “You owe me one when we get back in!”

“Okay, let’s do that!” yelled Chris. “I’m freezing my ass off!”

“Come on, try again! Heads up!”

Another beer soared toward him, a dull silver meteor through the roaring darkness. Chris reached out for it, double-handed this time. He caught it, but his hands were slippery with flakes of ancient black paint and rust dust. It shot from his grasp, plummeted down, and this time he felt a shock of sickness, as if it had plunged into the pit of his stomach. He gripped the truss tight and tried to steady himself. A flash lit up Jason’s face, bright with derision.

“I’ll get the next one!” Chris yelled, “I’ve got it now!”

“You owe me a burger for that! This is the last one! You miss this one, I’m sleeping at your place tonight!”

This time, Chris saw the throw, tracked the can through the air, and put out his hand just in time. He smacked it out of the vibrating air, clamped it tight to his chest, felt his pulse pounding through it, and for a moment had the dizzy sensation of gripping his own cold metal-skinned heart.

Done with this now. He snapped the beer open, and drank it for appearances. Then he set down the empty can, grabbed the slanting beam above him and cautiously swiveled on his seat, feeling the dirt grind into his good office pants, struggling his legs over the beam to face himself toward the catwalk, shaking harder every second. He walked his hands up the I-beam next to him, reached for the railing of the catwalk, slid his feet along the beam, and stepped over.

“You going in?” shouted Jason. “I’ll meet you back there!”

Chris looked back, to see Jason, lined with light, grapple the beam over his head, get his leg over it, and start inching back up. Scared to watch, already thinking how he’d explain to the cops, his friends, his mom, he saw Jason’s foot skid, a desperate little scrabble for a purchase, and felt a sudden overwhelming jolt of nausea and animosity. He turned away, put his head down, gripped the railings and followed the catwalk back. Edging across to the piling and lowering himself to the slope were the final bad parts, he hated the feeling now, and resented even the chance that he might twist an ankle. He scrambled up the eroding path carved by all the other nutjobs, grabbing for any flimsy branch or sapling he could reach, until he was back on the lawn, the lights of fashionable nightlife across the road.

The knees of his trousers were wrecked. Sweat had soaked through his shirt. He wanted to go, but he grimly pulled out his phone and checked the time. Standing there in a posture of nonchalance, facing the dark trees, he told himself, ten minutes. That’s it. If he’s not back in ten minutes, you call 911, and go home.

Jason reappeared in less than five. He scrambled out of the bushes like an animal, or a child, glancing around rapidly, and was obviously relieved when he saw Chris still standing there. Chris put his phone away and made himself laugh.

“I can‘t believe you got back up that thing.”

“It’s no big deal,” said Jason, pulling himself together, hovering a few yards away. “I’ve done it before. If I want to fall in, I can jump.”

“So Jason,” said Chris. “I need to get home, I’ve got work in the morning. Where can I drop you?”

“Hey now,” said Jason. “You still owe me a burger.”

“It’s too late now, everything’s closing. Maybe some other time.”

“You know, I never got dinner.”

“Serious? I can drop you at the Embers uptown. Or there’s a McDonalds two blocks from here. Here, look, I’ll give you five bucks for the beer. Even?”

“Sure,” said Jason. He stepped forward, took the money, and crumpled it into his jacket pocket.

They walked back toward the lights, side by side. A crowd of disheveled people spilled out on the street in crumpled business wear and glinting jewelry, wrapping up their second eight hour shift. Chris hoped they were all strangers, and stayed on the river side, walking the curb until the end of the strip, where they turned uphill into the neighborhood.

Halfway up the block, a neon sign flashed: We Cash Checks, We Check Cash, 7 Days. The storefront underneath was dark, as were all the storefronts, the apartment doorways, the shuttered warehouse on the other side of the street.

“Can you give me a lift to St. Cloud?” asked Jason.

“St. Cloud? You kidding me?” said Chris, and picked up his pace. Long blocks in this area, this one stretched away up the hill, his car parked across the street by the distant intersection, colorless in a pool of yellow light.

“Thing is, you know man, I’ve been here for a week. I’d take the bus, but I don’t have the cash.”

“You’ve got enough friends, somebody could loan you bus fare.”

“Yeah. Remember that guy back at the party?”
“The guy who wanted to kill you.”

“He loaned me forty bucks three days ago. But when I got to the ticket office, it wasn’t enough. I thought I’d get more, but then I had to spend it.”

“You had to spend it.”

“I got hungry, asshole. And now he wants it back so I still don’t have bus fare and I owe him forty.”

“I’m not lending you money, if that’s what you mean.”

“You could run me back. Won’t take long. You know, you owe me man,” said Jason, grinning at him again, shaking Chris by the elbow. “And you know,” he said, holding on, hesitating, “you want me to do you a favor, I’ll do anything you want. Whatever you’re up for.”

Chris made eye contact, and got the gist. He pulled both elbows in.

“Not tonight,” he said, “I gotta go.”

“You gonna drop me downtown?” said Jason.

“I think I’m dropping you here,” said Chris, casually backing away toward his car. “Got to get home. Work in the morning.”

He had almost five yards between them. Jason wasn’t grinning anymore. The edges of his mouth were tight. He stared down at the peeling frame of an empty old store window with his hands shoved into his jeans pockets, his white throat and wrists gleaming out of the darkness between the flashes of orange neon like the flash of a fish’s underbelly turning over in deep water.  Something was shifting in him, something grievous and suppressed rising up.

“Okay then,” said Chris, “see ya.” He turned up the street, and walking fast, called back, “Thanks for the beer.”

He was about to cross over, when Jason hauled off and punched the old plate glass window. An alarm shrieked up into the night. Jason shrieked back and punched the window again. This time it shattered. Jason fell over, hugging himself, rolling in the glass. Chris turned around and ran. He thought he heard Jason shout something, but it wasn’t his name.

When he got to the intersection, he looked back and saw Jason, hunched, struggling down the sidewalk away from him, out of the lamplight, out of sight. Chris clenched his teeth and crossed the street to his car, glancing down to see if he looked suspicious, his dirty knees, he could always say he had to check his muffler. Car door open, getting in, door slammed and locked, key in the ignition, engine turned right over. He drove a big circle out of his way, listening for sirens, and then back across the river to his duplex, his front door, his silent living room, his rumpled bed, the alarm clock beside it on the floor.

The next night at the party the group was drinking Kirs and waiting for a late movie to start on TV. Chris was wedged deep in an armchair, grateful for the crowd of familiar strangers. At work that day he’d had a good talk with a partner about law school, the guy had taken him seriously. That felt like confirmation, progress, a patch of firm ground where he could rest. Then someone said, “Hey, did you hear about Jason?”

The vertigo came over him again, as if the floor was opening up beneath his feet. He didn’t let it show. “Something happen to him?” he said.

“Almost killed himself, man,” said the guy. “Put his fist through a window over by Riverplace.”

“What the hell for?” said another guy.

“I don’t know, probably trying to steal something. Cut himself bad though, up by the elbow, right in deep there.”

“Wow,” said someone else, with horrified relish.

“Geez,” said Chris.

“Didn’t you leave with him last night?” a woman asked him.

Chris shook his head slowly. “I gave him a ride. Dropped him off downtown. Must have happened later.”

“Cops found him by following the blood,” said the first guy. “Left a trail all along the sidewalk. Said if they hadn’t found him, he probably would have died.”

“Where’d you hear all this?” asked the woman, tucking up her feet on the couch.

“He called a friend of mine this morning, totally random,” said the guy. “Wanted her to bail him out, but she hardly even knows him. She told him not to call her anymore.”