Avery, fifteen if he remembered right, sat on Boris' porch with his back against the wall. Mellody, Boris' teenage daughter, went back inside after telling her Pop that lunch was ready and stepping on Avery's foot. He considered tripping her, hoping she'd smash her teeth on the doorframe, but he merely raised a finger.
"Tell me I should stay," Avery said, unable to look at Boris as he spoke. He rubbed the outline of the marker in his jean pocket. Boris either ignored him or hadn't heard. The burned-out house across the street silently smoked.
The afternoon was humid, the wind dead. A blue-gray sky lingered over Little Falls like an iron weight. Two days remained before tornado weather would strike town, so Boris had said. Growing up right outside of Tornado Alley, Avery could tell from the almost static air that conditions would worsen that night. From the talk of those with radios and televisions, the severe weather would last a week - a week longer than he could survive in the streets. Heading for the city and begging for scraps and a dwelling was his only practical option if he wanted to live. It was a last resort, one he had thought of and Boris oddly supported. He wouldn't be leaving much if he disappeared from Little Falls: two dumpsters and a few trashcans that sometimes contained food, fish that rarely bit his line; they'd probably grown wise and left for clearer waters. And, not that it mattered much, there were no falls, little or big.
Boris and his family had resided in Little Falls their entire lives. Boris, his wife, his Mama, his three boys and two daughters lived in their sinking, two-story house. They survived on welfare checks and cash the boys earned from working the farms of families who claimed to be Little Falls' history, families residing there since the mid-1800s. Those who claimed to be any part of Little Falls, Boris had said, were a wheel short of a working wheelbarrow and had given up on a better life. Boris' wife and daughters tended the small gardens out back, tomatoes and potatoes. The boys usually worked on the Garrisons' farm, sleeping and eating there five days a week by Mr. Garrison's orders.
Boris rolled his wheelchair back against the door. His legs had been crushed in a farming accident. As Boris explained the incident at least twice a year to Avery: "Fainted in the blazing sun, fell off the tractor, legs ran right over, crushed, got up and hopped round and round, fainted again, woke, ran three mile, fainted, woke up with stubs." Between the fainting and waking, he remembered Mr. Garrison driving him to the hospital and firing him on the ride over. The hospital mailed them every other month, inquiring how they planned to pay for Boris' surgery, and included papers that detailed various payment options. Those bills, as Avery had seen most of Little Falls' residents do with their notices, burned over the stove or wherever else a fire could be lit. In the scorched skeletal remains of the house across the street, stacks of payment papers had been, undoubtedly, set afire. Ashes continued smoldering, gray billowing over the mostly untouched roof. Avery had been sleeping in the woods during the night blaze and was thankful; he had seen fire eat a building before.
"Satan cooking Little Falls into Hell a house at a time," Boris said, repeating himself and patting his thighs. Avery thought poverty and stubs would cut any man's cheer short. But no, he often found himself worse for wear after heeding Boris' unasked-for advice. And Boris would laugh and laugh at the misfortune he caused, tell Avery that he'd learn someday. Avery allowed this because Boris, when the man could, fed and sheltered him for lending a hand when needed. It wasn't charity. Avery earned his keep by helping Boris and offering the man a chuckle.
"Pop," Mellody hollered from inside, her voice rattling like a crow's. Avery dug his nails into the soft wood of the porch. "You're eating soon."
"'Soon' better taste like roast," Boris hollered back and slapped his wheels. "That right?" he said to Avery. "Better be eating roast today." He scratched his palm and was quiet a moment before he went on laughing.
Avery pulled his knees near his chest, then rested his arms on them. His stomach grumbled. He cursed himself; he had eaten the last two bites of a ham sandwich an hour ago, in disbelief that anyone from Little Falls had thrown the meal in the garbage. He hadn't eaten yesterday and had nearly vomited after downing the sandwich. Scavenging for food had become exhausting the past two years. Restaurants had lost business and closed their doors. The few remaining diners either shooed Avery from their establishments or locked their dumpsters. All they needed was some kid hurt or dead in their trash. Avery's promises to safely dig through the garbage fell on sympathetic but ultimately deaf ears. Boris had told him to steal a lock cutter and snip the locks. Avery tried, but an employee hounded him at each store. He had also, after Boris promised him two lunches, went job-hunting for a day, but most said his spindly body would make a good scarecrow and little else - others lacked the income to employ him. Aside from the convenience mart, Avery never stepped in those establishments again. If he saw any of the managers about town, he would blush and sidle away.
Avery struggled to hold an eye open, concentrating on a dirt mark at the waist of his white t-shirt. Many of his fruitless food searches had become midday naps. While steak and chicken and other food sometimes peppered his dreams, his sleep was usually dreamless.
His head bowed. The brim of his Kansas City Royals cap hit his forearm. His head lolled back, hat crooked, mouth and eyes slightly parted.
Boris nodded at him, as if his neck was stuck and he couldn't stop nodding. "Looking sorrier than last night's dinner, Martin."
"Not my name." He licked his thinned and cracked lips. He had been thinking of fire. "Not mine." The name Avery wasn't his either and had come from his first encounter with Boris. Avery had meant to say he was starving and tired when asked who he was, but stuttered and, Uh, very hungry, came out. Boris said Avery Hungry sounded odd but Avery looked odd so it fit. Avery kept the name because it did fit, yet Boris continually dubbed him as he pleased.
Boris said, "Much as I hate to say it, you're human, not a condition."
Boris gave a quick and throaty laugh. "Damn straight every day. Every night, every breath I got. World wants you believing you're a plague. You ain't. Maybe. Heard rumors you were touching my daughters and now they complaining about spots and growing real hungry."
Avery ignored him. "World made me. They should know my name if my looks don't yell it at them."
"The world shouldn't know nothing. Ain't gonna know nothing. Look there." He pointed at the smoldering house. "Look here." He pointed at the porch. The white boards were warped and blackening with rot. "Ain't no world gonna know about this. Best not to think of it. Get yourself worked into a grave that needn't be dug. Time comes, I'll dig your lot." His smile wavered, and his cheeks drew in as if realizing something unpleasant. Avery hated this face. It usually led Boris off in his own direction and left Avery alone.
Still, Avery pushed him further. "You're stubborn, not happy. You're uneducated. World stomped on you, same as it did me. I get along."
Boris squinted at him. "You get along." A grin widened. He took another drink of water from the jar he rested between his stubs; a rill spilled down his stubbly chin. Avery's stomach twisted whenever the boiled and refrigerated rainwater touched his own tongue. Boris said, "You're so educated, reading them old papers and monthlies. You're a regular Professor Martin."
Avery lowered his head and shook it. Arguing with Boris was like telling a cornered fox not to bite. A month ago, Boris had said that he needed a can of WD-40 from the mart and Avery had to get it; his wheels needed grease or they would seize, and Avery would have to carry him everywhere. Avery argued that Boris was lying and disregarded him. Then Boris began running into walls and curbs, claiming that the chair needed lube to keep straight. Avery finally agreed after Boris ran into his leg and dropped him. Boris said Miss Rose owed him a favor, so Avery could take the WD-40 without paying. Boris also said that Miss Rose played stupid with anyone but Boris, and no matter how dumb she seemed, Avery should see right through her. Avery refused, and Boris ran into him again. So he went. And Miss Rose did let him have it. She snatched the can from his hand as he tried leaving, and smacked him across the face with it. He returned with a black eye. Boris hooted like a cackling owl. "That'll learn you," Boris had said. "Miss Rose'll learn you."
Avery shook his head.
Boris coughed, then said, "Every day?"
"I'm," Avery said and broke off, his eyes heavy but tearless. "My stomach." He hugged his knees tighter. "How can I stay?"
Another shout from inside. "Pop."
Boris wheeled to the edge of the porch beside the wheelchair ramp. The wheel bearings rattled - Boris' cripple-call, he often joked - a good chair despite its bent armrests and saggy seat. His sons and Avery had pulled it from a tornado-wrecked house; Avery had eaten with Boris and family that night. "I ain't gonna tell you, you should. Storm hits, and you're gonna wish you moved." He paused as he brought his hands to his lap. Then he said, "If I had the food, I'd put you up. Might send you to fish the flooding street, but you could stay."
"I know," Avery said, stopping Boris from explaining himself. He actually had no idea what Boris would do if. "Place floods and you ain't swimming too far. Then what?"
"Me swimming." Boris rocked his wheelchair. "Me swimming." He scratched his chest between the part of his plaid button-up. "Don't worry yourself about Little Falls. Satan's ass crack needs a cleaning like everyone else's. Imagine Satan's about ready to wipe up the mess he made."
Before Boris could tell him, again, how Little Falls was located between Satan's ass cheeks - the two larger cities that bordered the town - Avery said, "There a difference if I move or try my luck here? I can hardly survive this dump, how …" He cleared his throat and sniffed, blinked. He told himself to stop talking, stop asking. His toes curled until they hurt. "How do I make it in another?" A charred chunk of wood fell from a rafter in the house across the street. It speared the ashes, and smoked puffed around it.
"Bigger places, bigger chances, bigger choices. You might find work. Might find a shelter. Maybe a more refined dumpster diner." He turned his head over his shoulder and grinned his mustard grin. His discolored teeth were almost bristly.
"Bigger places, bigger risks." Avery knew first hand what the city could take from a person. He kept it a secret that he had lived in the slums of the city over, Satan's right cheek, Owensville. The city had a population over a hundred thousand but bore its sores like everywhere else. The skid row he had lived near could fill Little Falls twice with drugs.
"Pop," Mellody said, holding the screen door open, "lunch's set." The tarnished doorframe matched her soil-stained apron that she wiped her free hand on.
"What's on the menu? Steak and bread rolls?" Boris wheeled around to face her.
Dark ringlets brushed over her eyes as she shook her head. "You want to believe that, be my guest. Don't whine when the cow tastes like crackers and the rolls like tomatoes." She turned to Avery before departing. The glance she shot him, chin lowered, corner of her mouth drawn in, eyes sharp as beaks, reminded him that there wasn't enough food for him. Not today. If she had her way, he assumed, not ever. The screen door whacked against the frame and bounced shut.
Avery watched Boris look from the door, to the wheelchair footrests, to him. His stomach ached at the thought of the ham sandwich. "I'm leaving."
"Don't know. Don't think I can beg."
Boris chuckled, and then, open-mouthed, licked his teeth and inhaled and exhaled. "You're too good for handouts. So you think. Too good for donations." He pushed his hand toward Avery, rubbing his fingers together. "Maybe you'll see. Day I stop helping you probably." He wheeled to the screen door and pulled it open. He caught the door with the right side of his chair before it closed. "You got that marker now. Just do like I said. Ain't no shame in it. No shame. The city, Martin. The city." The door bounced shut behind him. Avery pulled down the brim of his hat, shading his eyes and cutting off his view of the skeletal house. The city. Could he make the walk?
The dumpster was topped with a thin layer of cardboard. Avery wondered if the owners of Hollaran's Prized Patties and Pizzas knew that people would rummage through an unlocked dumpster. They had to know. Few survived in neighborhoods like this, a grease stain suburb of Owensville, without knowing where the shadows fell every minute of every day. But if they knew, did that mean they wanted to help him? Could help him? Avery flattened his feet from his tiptoes, transfixed on the pavement. At best, the food and shelter they provided would be temporary, and temporary prolonged his hunger, prolonged his thirst. Avery swung his head sideways, scaring a fly from his ear. He refocused on the dumpster and lifted the cover, his shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers throbbing. His bones felt as if they scraped together with each movement. His limbs hated him for the three-hour trek he had made from Little Falls to the suburb. The walk would have taken two hours had he not rested in the woods and fallen asleep.
He had decided to leave for the city before talking with Boris. The conversation was a goodbye of sorts, perhaps a "see you later," a restatement of what he already knew. Avery was digging his grave in Little Falls, and traveling to the city, while his body would allow it, was him setting the shovel aside. He could have become a drug runner, been offered a crapshoot Buick to drive between cities, but a drug runner was another shovel, a smaller one that briefly extended his life. He'd seen people lose their families and lives screwing with drugs. Meth, coke, heroin meant tossing in the towel and taking others with you, and Avery would grasp his towel until it was torn from him. The fly landed on his cheek, and he blew it off in two tired breaths.
He rose to his tiptoes, really examining the dumpster's contents, searching for a fair-sized box, something he could write on if he decided to beg. The sun cast a rectangle of white light through the opening, the inside of the dumpster heavily shadowed. He could hear Boris telling him, Jump in. Have a good look. Might be dog shit in there, might not. Hop on in there. He dropped the cover and swatted the fly. The dumpster smelled better than any in Little Falls - Little Falls' trash reeked of rotting meat - but that damn fly buzzing in his ear reminded him of every scolding he'd taken for dumpster diving. Each drone whispered, "You damn rat," or, "Get yourself killed," or, "Insurance liability." He knew little of insurance, but he understood that it didn't want him finding food and clothes in the trash.
Avery struck the fly with a sharp backhand and grabbed his left shoulder. He cupped his hand around it and pulled it towards his chest, thinking his arm would fall off if he released it. He crouched, arm hanging between his legs, teeth gently clenched. A line of drool descended from his lower lip. He released his arm and caught the spit and licked it from his palm. He wiped a finger beneath his nose and held it at eyelevel. A sliver of sweat was streaked across the cracked skin. He blinked, maybe twice. Then he rubbed the perspiration with his thumb, and touched the tip of his tongue to it. It tasted of the pennies he often sucked. He licked off the rest and then ran his fingers down his face, collecting the little sweat that had formed from the pain in his shoulder, and then licked his fingertips. His stomach cramped and then roared. He held his gut and bent forward, face twitching, lips never parting, a hand flat on the blacktop.
A minute went by before he could stand, which he did like an old man, lanky arms grabbing for the dumpster to support his jelly legs. After he had left Owensville at the age of eleven, after the orphanage had burned, he had learned that pain did things nothing else could. Until today, he hadn't sweated in weeks. And, four years ago, pain had shown him his real face; it had taught him how hard his balled fists were, how no one but himself would screw with his life.
Most of his memories were vague - he had decided his stomach had eaten them to sustain itself - but the night of the fire never left him. And the smoldering home in front of Boris' strengthened the memory as he tried ignoring it. He had never told Boris about the orphanage, but he wouldn't put it past the old trickster finding out and having a hand in burning down the neighbor's to remind him.
A tall man, puffy cheeks and a round chin like a muffin top, opened the backdoor, carrying black trash bags. A greasy and charbroiled aroma wafted into Avery's face. His lips parted. His stomach seemed to flip over. He clenched the dumpster rim, fingers throbbing. Thoughts of puking followed those of eating whatever food accompanied that smell.
The man's apron had pinkish and gray stains. He stepped down the two stairs, eyeing Avery, and opened the dumpster nearest the door and tossed the bags inside. The nametag pinned on his apron read, Phil. He studied Avery for a minute before saying, "Something you need?" His voice was more southern than Avery had expected and was straightforward, not hospitable nor hostile.
Avery's arms dropped to his sides. An image of how he must have looked chucked him under the chin, and he glanced at the gray brick wall on his right. Then he looked back at the man. He thought of a self-assertive expression - narrowed eyes, head straight, tongue between his teeth - but what came out was a distant gaze, head slightly cocked, droopy eyes, lips still parted.
Phil sniffed and wiped his nose with his forearm. "Deaf?" The right corner of his mouth curled with the word, sort of like a hooked bass.
"Can hear just fine," Avery said; his voice cracked. His throat burned like his shoulder had, but he restrained himself from grabbing it. "Looking for something."
Phil tilted his round chin to the dumpster. "Won't find it in there. Promise you that."
"How do you know?"
Phil's stare left Avery's face for the fists Avery had unwillingly balled at his sides. He loosened them.
"Go on." Phil's voice had a tinge of aggression now. "Get out of here. You won't like me I catch you rooting through the trash." He turned and went up the two stairs in one step. Another greasy waft spread over Avery's face when Phil opened the door, leaving it ajar, and returned inside. Avery imagined himself fisting fries into his mouth. He grabbed his stomach and burped and waited. He waited until his stomach unfurled.
Avery looked over the dumpster. Boris prodded him to jump in. Be quick about it, now. See if you can't find some WD-40 while you're digging through there. Boris laughed and laughed. Avery touched the marker in his pocket, and then the dumpster rim. He told himself, Walk away. "Leave," he said.
Avery turned the corner from the alley and moved alongside the building. He glanced away from his reflection in the diner windows, familiar with his hunched stature, sunken cheeks and knobby elbows. He reached the corner at the entrance of Hollaran's. His palms became clammy, and he looked at them, not seeing any sweat. He cleared his throat and staggered against the street sign. His tongue pulsed between his teeth, but the pain kneeled in comparison to his throat. Maybe he should go inside. He didn't expect a glass of water, if he could even stomach it. Worst that could happen, Phil would kick him out. Maybe he'd ask for a piece of cardboard, ask politely. Didn't need one. Didn't mean he'd use it. Boris ran into the back of his legs.
He went inside.
The open sign hanging from the handle clapped against the glass when the door shut. The stench of bleach overwhelmed the room, the smell of burgers and pizza and fries faint beneath the reek. The bleach doused the sickly effect the greasy odor had on Avery in the alley, and his stomach was silent. Short gray booths and a black and white tiled floor made up the interior of the place, the walls mostly white with gray borders. Red cartoon baskets with eyes and legs and arms, and loaded with hamburgers and pizzas, were painted on the walls. Girl baskets were marked with long eyelashes and curly fries for bangs.
No one manned the front counter, and the sole customers were two teenage girls, probably the same age as Avery. They shared a basket of fries, both with a pile of ketchup on separate napkins. Avery took a seat near the entrance. The girls were in the middle row of booths, three tables ahead of him. The girl with an afro had a deep and mature voice, and picked at the fries with a grin. She set a fry on her tongue, drew it in and chewed and chewed and chewed. The other girl's hand periodically rose to her face, carrying fries, but Avery couldn't see her actually shoving them into her mouth. This girl's flannel matched the tile, and her voice sounded childish.
The girls didn't pay him mind, as if a rawboned teenager at five-foot-seven and resembling a scarecrow was a common sight. His lips flinched at the thought of being normal, and then he realized how straight his face was, how straight it must always be.
At the orphanage he had stood in front of a mirror, helplessly smiling. He had stepped out of the shower and flexed his muscles for his reflection, picturing the tortoise from his favorite book of folktales. The tortoise was timid and gullible, and the Earth had tricked him into eating his own family. The tortoise, unable to live with having killed his family, asked the Earth to swallow him, and the Earth opened wide. Days and trials later, the tortoise escaped the Earth's stomach a man, his family at his side. With every shower, Avery thought of himself as the tortoise, and the shower as the Earth; he imagined himself becoming stronger, escaping the Earth time and time again. And that particular day, his strength had shown.
Outdoors after lunch, he had watched the other children have a pushup contest. Avery stood outside of the circle of kids, glimpsing the action between arms and bodies. One of the boys did twenty-seven, and Avery was certain he could do thirty. He edged around the others, commanding himself to ask if he could join. But if he lost, if they said no, how could he face himself? Lunch break ended with him keeping quiet, but after the shower he could still look in the mirror and smile at the new man looking back. He fought urges to punch his hand for not asking, but it wasn't every day that he stood at the border of action. Three steps, three imprints of his shoes in the grass, and he would have been inside that circle.
Flames blazing up the two-story orphanage tore through the memory. Then Avery saw fists crashing into Immanuel's face. Glistening red covered his knuckles and Immanuel's cheeks and now-pudding nose. The flames formed a halo around the second story, lighting the block like daytime.
Phil and a smaller man approached the front counter, talking about something inaudible. Avery flattened his fingers on the tabletop and slouched a little, but then sat noticeably straight when Boris told him to look like a man.
The devouring girl, her back to Avery, said Devin always checked out other girls. Devin had said, she said, he wouldn't have to if she slept with him. She pinched a bundle of fries and swiped them through the ketchup, once, twice, and they disappeared behind her face. "Am I not trying hard enough? Am I not interested? Is that it?"
Avery checked on Phil; he was gone, but the cashier was at the register. Avery shot a glance over his shoulder, then back to the front. Phil was approaching the cashier. Boris said, Go on up and ask him. Ask him for a stiff soda while you're at it.
The chewing girl laughed, beginning each laugh with a nah. Then, in her deep voice, she said, "Trina, you ain't sounding interested. I want that one." She reached for Trina's side of the basket and held up a fry the size of a night crawler. She wagged it over the basket and lurched forward with countless nah-laughs. "Bet it's like this." Trina flicked her limp wrists at her friend, hushing her. The girl's laughter died as she ran the fry through some ketchup, tipped her head back and lowered it into her mouth, biting it as it went in.
"I'm interested. I am." Trina's hand disappeared behind her face, then lowered, then raised and disappeared again.
Trina sort of squealed, sort of squawked at the question. "I'm interested, he's interested." Then she said, "Pitch in for a drink? What's in your pockets?"
"Bang-broke, girl," Trina's friend said, leaning back and reaching into her jean pocket; she jerked her hand up and down as if it was stuck. Her hand popped out, and she slapped it on the table. The sound of change clacked beneath her fingers. "How much you think I got?"
Enough to buy my Mellody some good looks, Boris said. Then: Where's the cardboard? Avery shuffled his feet. I don't need any, he almost said aloud.
Trina's hand disappeared behind her face, again. "Want a Coke?"
"Think I got forty cents? Sixty? Nah. I want a Hi-C."
"Let's get a Mello Mello." Trina snorted. "Hear that? Mello Yello. I'm nuts. I want one of them. Something to wash the salt from my teeth."
"I'm saying forty-nine." Trina's friend lifted her hand. She peeked at first and then stared at the change like she had uncovered a small animal. She began pointing at each coin, holding her finger at a distance as if they would nip at her.
"I'm getting a Coke." Trina scooped the coins from her friend's pointer finger and slid them off the table into her other hand. She headed for the front counter. Trina's friend glanced at the fries, and then at the empty seat in front of her. She belched and smiled.
Realizing he had been holding his breath, Avery exhaled.
At the counter, Phil stood over the cashier ringing in Trina's order. The cashier took the money, counted each cent by sliding them toward the register, dropped them in the drawer, and then closed the register. There was the sound of a receipt being printed, but no paper pushed out. The cashier filled a cup then handed it to Trina. She walked to the napkin dispenser, Phil watching her. She unrolled a little less than a foot, and tore it off, just before it seemed as if Phil might say Enough. Then Phil's gaze met Avery's. Avery saw flames and fists. Don't dawdle like a woman, Boris said.
Trina returned to the table and, after taking a drink, set the lidless cup in front of her friend. Phil disappeared, but only for a moment. He walked through the employee entrance from the back room. Avery watched his apron wrinkle at the knees with each step.
Phil stopped at the booth and turned his eyes from Avery to the window, wiping his hands on his apron. He looked back at Avery and pointed toward the door. "Customers only."
Avery turned toward the door and read the opposite side of the open sign. A black Cadillac drove toward the restaurant. The grill was missing, and rust had eaten away at the wheel wells, but the frame was spotless. Avery opened his mouth and said nothing.
"We don't give samples. Pay up if you want something or leave. I don't have sympathy for a man who won't get a job to make his wage."
The girls turned back to their fry basket when Avery glared at them. How old did Phil think he was? "Don't need nothing from you." Hell you don't, Boris said.
"Except my dumpster. You think there's gold in there? A golden tooth? Nothing's in there."
Avery looked over Phil's face, and then scanned down the man's body like a ladder, stopping at each rung until he reached the floor. Boris stared at him with his yellow teeth showing. Screw it, he thought. Fine. Don't mean jack. Never see him again. He folded his hands and pinched his palm. "Don't need the cardboard, but I could use a piece. One."
Phil watched the Cadillac creep by the restaurant; its paint job looked shoddy this close up. "Use it for what?"
Avery tried thinking of an excuse other than writing a panhandling message, but he saw a fiery halo and a pulpy face instead. Someone said, I'm leaving. Another said, Leave. "I guess nothing." Like a woman, boy.
Phil rapped his knuckles on the table. "You look like you got it bad, but I'll tell you what, we all got it bad."
Avery looked from Phil's beefy knuckles to his own upturned hands.
"We're in crap creek together." Phil nodded at him. "You know it."
Avery slid out of the booth and turned for the door. His throat welled with hot air. He thought about Phil's last words, wanting to make sense of them.
On the corner, Avery looked back toward the alley with the dumpster and then toward the inner city. The wind had picked up, ruffling his white t-shirt, shuffling garbage down the street and sidewalks. He considered stealing a piece of cardboard, now more out of spite, but he envisioned Phil waiting outside the back door for him. He wouldn't give Phil the pleasure of kicking him out a third time. Wouldn't see Phil again.
Avery caught something rushing at him in the corner of his eye. He put his arm over his face and turned away and crouched. Various colored leaflets blew by him, some skidding, some tumbling, none of them touching him. They had rushed him like a multi-colored line of soldiers. Inside, the girl's gawked at him, one pointing, the other blank-faced. The leaflets continued down the street. His eyelids fluttered, gaze shifting as if wary of another garbage assault. On a sagging porch, Boris was cackling, wheelchair rattling. Avery started toward the inner city, checking over his shoulder from time to time.
A half-block to the side of the park, Avery leaned against a red building. Clouds rolled in front of the sun regularly, casting large shadows over the grounds. A short and tree-lined walkway ran horizontally at the park's entrance. The walkway was brick with branches stretched over it. The branches steadily quivered, rattling their green leaves. Benches faced the walk on both sides and separated each tree. A mother, Avery guessed, sat with her boy on the furthest bench to the right, and watched people walk by, as if censoring the park. Her other son kicked around in the gravel surrounding the trees. An elderly man sat on a bench near the middle of the walkway, his legs apart, hands on his knees, gazing toward the parking lot. A few leaves spun to the ground.
After leaving the orphanage, Avery had slept in this park, until the cops found him beneath the small bridge arched across the stream and pinned flashlight beams to his face. He had lasted two weeks without the others. A little hungry was all. If he had gone with the cops, they would have returned him to the Sisters, where he would have been punished, where he would have stood at a distance from the children as they played - only this time they would be looking over their shoulders. So he hightailed it out of the park, thinking he could start over, somewhere no one knew him; he could become anyone. He spent the next four days in the woods, punching trees and eating stolen candy. On the fifth day he discovered Little Falls, desperately wanting a shower.
The shadow of the red building blanketed the parking lot where Avery had been. He would have scoped out the walkway from the lot, but after numerous glowers from people inside their vehicles, he left. A woman had noticeably locked her car doors as he walked past. Boris told him to knock on her window and tell her that he hoped she would leave, so he could steal her hubcaps. This section of town was near the midway point between the lower and upper classes but wasn't quite middle class. Avery saw these people as steps away from poorhouses and miles away from homeowners.
He stroked his thumb over the marker in his pocket, waiting for a sign that said he should leave. People wandered through the park, some going, some coming. If he begged now, a few people on the benches would see him as weak. But was a few an appropriate amount? Did a few mean he was wasting his effort? While Boris' schemes often left Avery embarrassed or bruised, he made sure Avery completely involved himself in every task. When the squirrel beneath the porch had scratched and bit Avery's hand as he gingerly reached through the floorboards, Boris jabbed him with a stick and said of course the squirrel would nip at him, but it would only nip once or twice if Avery just jammed his hand under there and grabbed the varmint.
Avery's vision blackened and his head dropped. He pushed on his eyelids. When he opened them, the sidewalk refocused in patches. He gazed at the park. He couldn't control how many people would sit at the walkway, but he could control whether or not he would beg. He had to remain focused. No shame in it.
He pulled out the dark pink marker and held it with an open hand. Boris said he had taken it from his daughters' jewelry box. Painted their nails with it, he had said, and then smirked when Avery asked if they had a black one. Damn Boris. Avery stared at the walkway and wished for four markers. He'd pitch one at the old man, the other three at the mother and her needy children. He began running through blazing rooms, and then hearing Immanuel tell the other boys that the drapes had burst into flames, exploding when he had held the lighter under them. The smoke was like an engulfing shadow, and he almost fell down the stairwell; and Immanuel sneered at him and pointed at the burning building. Avery yelled for other children, but sucking in smoke and coughing stifled his yells; and Immanuel yelped like a mutt when Avery yanked the collar of his shirt.
Avery had been so close to playing with the others during lunch break, not just talking to them during group projects. Days before, he had purposefully made eye contact with some of the kids playing five hundred with the football. He could have asked them to join. But Immanuel stole that from him, stole all his work, his could-be friends. And Immanuel bragged about it, bragged about the flames, about ruining Avery's life. So, the night the fire had roared and engulfed the orphanage, Avery called Immanuel away from the others, glared into his eyes, silently demanding an explanation, an apology, and then he pulled Immanuel behind a car, in a shadow, and worked him. Following the fire and ambulance and police, Avery watched the children shy away. The further back they stepped, the further back he stepped.
Avery's fist trembled, gripping the marker. He needed something to write on, then he could decide if he would write anything. That's what he needed. Unlike in the street, when he needed them to understand. He had pleaded for forgiveness from the children and the Sisters, told them Immanuel needed punishment for burning their home but not with fists. Never with fists. The other children looked like frightened silhouettes behind the Sisters. And then he stopped, his expression flat. He was supposed to be strong, stand up for his actions. These were the children he had wanted to play with? He envisioned screaming at them for not helping discipline Immanuel, clobbering them all. And then he ran.
He twisted his heel on the pavement. What would he write on? Boris, I don't have any cardboard. Save me, he thought and then chided himself for thinking that. But he repeated the command, picturing Boris in the backyard, overseeing the gardening and retelling stories and jokes that everyone had already heard. He had told Boris the tortoise folktale to show that he knew something the smart-mouthed man didn't, but Boris claimed he knew the tortoise personally. Boris also said the tortoise walked out of the Earth with ten new wives, nine of them sexy and big breasted, one of them ugly as Avery to scare away other men. Boris had to know everything. It was a silly story anyway, useless. But still Avery thought, Earth, swallow me now. Swallow me now. Earth. He grabbed his hip and stopped working his heel; his thigh throbbed.
He stretched his dirty-white shirt at the stomach. Boris had told him never to write on his clothes. No sense in it, he had said. Writing on a shirt was, for him and Avery, like etching an epitaph on a grave. New clothes didn't come seasonally like the birds, and writing on them ruined their bartering value. Cardboard and paper could be trashed. He needed a shirt.
But then, Avery thought, wasn't his appearance already a telling and lasting mark? Wouldn't writing about his condition anywhere be hammering in an already flush nail?
But some people needed a heavy pounding before they understood an obvious point. He thought of Little Falls, of the tortoise. He thought of Immanuel. Stormy weather was about to batter Little Falls again; maybe then more residents would leave. The tortoise had to suffer to be reminded that men were made of strength. Immanuel had to have his face pummeled so he understood not to screw with anyone else's life. Avery hadn't meant to break the kid's jaw, but if that's what it took.
A man with a ragged knapsack and a cane sat across from the old man. The old man didn't avert his gaze, just stared at the guy across from him. Avery chewed on his cheeks as the man set his knapsack on the bench beside himself. The man rolled up his pant legs and removed his shoes. Then he spread his arms over the backrest, and looked over his shoulder as if to see what the old man was seeing. He licked his teeth, turned forward, tipped back his hat.
The marker struck the ground and the cap burst. Avery stared at the exposed tip. He crouched and grabbed it, but he nearly fell as he rose. He squatted until his hand touched the wall and steadied himself as he stood.
Five people at the walkway. More than enough to witness him beg, more than a few. He pushed himself away from the building. He had to move before he curled into a ball. He had to write now.
The question became, what? The obvious answer? Tell them what they could see? Pound them? If showing did little good, what would telling prove? He held his fist to his stomach and thought about Boris' potatoes, Hollaran's greasy burgers, the girls soaking fries in ketchup. This he thought about, and his mouth remained dry, his stomach unmoved. He imagined shoving a slice of cheese-dripping pizza into his mouth, and then his stomach made a rumbling noise. He repeated: Don't puke. Don't puke. He saw fists, flames following them. He shouldered the building, one leg bent.
The old man eyed him. Avery forced himself to straighten, burped, and his eyes watered. His throat was blocked, but he knew he would collapse at the pain if he cleared it. The old man continued staring, and Avery thought, He knows. They know. They know already. Can't beg. No sense in it.
Like a woman, Boris said, sitting beside Avery with plates of food on his lap. He forked something chunky and watery and steamy into his mouth. Somehow it was chicken. He swished the chunk around before chewing it.
Avery rubbed his gut. They know, Boris, Avery said.
Boris pulled another plate closer. This one was a tuna sandwich, but it looked like human flesh turned inside out. Pissing and dawdling. He bit off a chunk. Eat. Eat, Boris said. Hungry. Hungry. A stringy piece of meat dangled below his chin. As he chewed, his expression seemed far-off and on the verge of a frown. Avery wanted Boris to grin for him, laugh at him. Boris slurped in the dangling meat.
Avery turned away, covered his mouth. No, Boris.
No? He spoke with a mouthful. No what? You're a waste.
Avery almost said, Don't leave. He squeezed the marker, wanted to tell Boris he didn't need him, and said, Hungry, Boris.
Hungry? Have scraps today. Take some.
He heard the plates scrape together. No. I'm not. He pictured the stringy flesh and watery chunks mixing in Boris' stomach.
Had it been so long since he had eaten a filling meal that he could no longer stomach food? Was he done eating? If he never ate, he'd die. If he did eat, he'd puke and lose whatever strength he had left. Was this possible? He rolled the marker in his hand. Fine. Pink dashes marked his fingers. Fine.
Without removing his shirt, Avery wrote, Not Hungry Now, across the front of it, each word above the next. He had begun writing the "A" for "Anymore" but couldn't remember how to spell it. He scribbled over the lines of every letter, darkening each word and drawing attention away from his shaky handwriting. He dropped the marker and headed toward the start of the path before he could reconsider. His statement would be his blow to their faces; they would know what they made. Each step undressed him and then picked his flesh to the bone.
At the beginning of the walkway, before the wavering shadows of branches began, Avery stopped. His lips rolled, chin trembled. He felt as if he had swallowed cement, and he scolded himself about crying. He didn't need their help, wasn't asking for it. He was telling them what they'd never otherwise know. World shouldn't know nothing. And with that thought, shoulders trembling, he began his walk. Swallow me, Earth. Swallow me.
He watched everything from the corners of his eyes, his head straight. The old man, who had been watching him approach, looked as if he was having trouble reading Avery's shirt. Bury me. The knapsack man opened his eyes and nodded and grinned. Avery wanted to look directly at him but avoided doing so. The man scrunched his toes, scraping his toenails on the gravel. His head tipped back.
Earth. The younger boy was kneeling behind a tree, peeking around it. Avery dug his nails into his thighs. He could run the child's head into the bark. Tree limbs clattered. Not hungry.
The mother either didn't care about or didn't notice her wide-eyed gawking. She lowered a half eaten sandwich behind her purse. The boy beside her had set his sandwich in his lap, grape jelly on his left cheek, and gripped the edge of the bench. His head was slightly tilted. No food now.
There was movement in the gravel behind Avery. Naked. Maybe someone was coming to escort him away, bring him food, a drink, hug him, all of which he'd shove off. His shoulders rose and fell heavily. His pants felt wet and stuck to him. Food vomit. He spun through stills of the flaming stairwell and bloody hands and fearful faces.
At the end of the walk, where brick met grass and the park expanded toward the playground, his vision blurred. He guessed he was crying, but he couldn't feel any tears. Eat nothing. He waited until a gust of wind calmed, and when no one approached or offered him help, cash or food, he said, "Swallow me now," and wondered if he was smiling.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Matt Athanasiou. All rights reserved.