We were sitting on a platform surrounded by water with no land in sight. The air was crisp and still and it was good. My dangling foot was the only thing moving for miles and the starlit sky reflected perfectly in the shiny black water. It seemed like the stars were all around us. We were somehow holding hands and after a short burst of shooting stars the earth melted away at our sides and it was as if we were floating in space.
In a way, we all are.
It started out as the kind of trip that needed real flashlights instead of apps. Almost none of us knew where we were going and there was no moon. There was only the fog of our breath, bare trees, and old roads. Nick called out from up ahead, "Hol-lee shite. We finally made it! The barn is just down this gravel path." I heard rocks slip behind me. Sam cried out, "OZARK!" and everyone laughed. Ozark was the perfect expletive for anyone who had just spent four hours lost on the back roads of Missouri looking for a party.
The barn was down that path and the party was just beyond in a 10 acre clearing that was already packed with people. Headlights and bonfires lit the field and girls danced in truck beds and guys watched and literally hollered. Everyone was young and dumb and by time we arrived I was stupid drunk. I smiled, threw my arms up and broke away from my friends. I was meeting people. I think I met everyone but most importantly, I met her. I never did ask her name.
She was pretty and all I know for sure is she asked why I had a box of wine. I pulled the silver bag out of the box and yelled, "Because it is SPACE WINE!" She asked if I had ever been to space and I said no and she asked if I'd like to and I said yeah. She paused to really look at me. Her bottom lip caught on her left lateral incisor and her eyes were green and she said, "Come with me?" She paused to touch my antecubital fossa, "I have something for you."
Then we were in her shitty car and listening to bands I didn't know. I kept stopping myself from asking where we were going or why her left arm was in a cast. She threw trash out her window and drove quickly. Soon we were off main roads and driving past "no trespassing" signs. She stopped at a gate and got out to open it. I thought maybe I should run but I didn't. We drove up what seemed like old coal mining roads. Up and up and then she stopped and turned off the car.
"Can you swim?" she asked.
"Good. Get out."
There were wires and concrete buildings. We were at some sort of electric plant at the top of an Ozark mountain in the middle of nowhere. It was dark. The only sound was gravel crushing under our shoes.
"What is this place?" I asked.
"It is kind of a gigantic battery." She said. "The electric company pumps water into the upper reservoir at night and then uses it to push turbines during the day. It is offline right now." She pointed to a ladder that led up the side of the reservoir. "We are going up there."
At the top was a thin section of concrete that jutted into the water like a pier. We walked to the very end and sat next to each other. The reservoir was full almost to the top and we must have been on the tallest mountain in the area. There was nothing to see but sky and what seemed like the biggest infinity pool ever built.
I started to say something. She raised her index finger to pouted lips and said, "shhhhhhhhhh, just watch."
That was my second trip to outer space.
I thought about that night while I was sitting on a rooftop, waiting for the sun to rise. I always loved being in the sky. I guess that's why I spent those lost days on roofs instead of somewhere else. The sun was rising and a ladder popped up from below. Solid boots clanged up ladder rungs.
"How long have you been up here?" my boss asked.
"A while." I replied, "Is it time to begin?"
He threw me a scraper and with one fluid motion I grabbed it out of the air and started tearing off shingles. There was a rhythm to it - scrape-lift-pull-throw, scrape-lift-pull-throw, scrape-lift-pull-throw, scrape-lift-pull-throw. A good roofer could annihilate one square every three minutes. I was faster back then. The second pass was to pull fragments and nails. The sun had come back to us and painted the air over our heads in a washed out blue gradient. Streaks of light shot out though low clouds like searchlights looking for (what?) in this suburban town. The third pass drove leftover nails flat into the plywood. Clean slate, good foundation. The sun was higher now and turned dew to steam and made my boots stick, like walking on some sort of rancid taffy. Tar paper rolled across the roof and we got to work.
Set-square-roll-tack, set-square-roll-tack, set-square-roll-tack, set-square-roll-tack. Cut. Done.
A break for water. Warm water that tasted like the inside of an old, plastic cooler. The sun was baking and we were back on the roof, kneepads and boots, setting shingles. More noise, more rhythm, this time a symphony of tack-tack-tack drop, tack-tack-tack drop, tack-tack-tack drop. Three hits per shingle. 50 shingles in a square and we were on a 45 square roof. I listened and counted. 6,750 tacks with an average of 12 nail gun misfires per square. 500 nails per clip gave pause to reload before another set of tack-tack-tack until the edge. Edges meant cut shingles and typically 2 nails but edges slowed the rhythm and any trash was pushed over the edge. The process continued and my mind went blank. I had already quit counting as we broke for a quick lunch of cool coffee, funyuns and pork rinds and right back up on the roof with more tack-tack-tack. Thinking stopped.
When I came to, I noticed a truck idling in the driveway. My cheap Casio watch said 1:09 PM and we only had 9 Squares to go. TACK-TACK-TACK drop. The driver was in his air-conditioned cab and talked on speaker phone. We called him boss even if he wasn't. Formalities don't matter much in this business. Roofers. We started early to avoid the heat. We drank from hoses and generally did our best to lay low. Stats on this crew: 67% were less than 8 months out of prison. Median age - 24.5 years. 93% drink. 23% were illegal. One was an animal. Meth-amphetamines? weed? heroin? cocaine? Yes. I stood on the roof’s edge and watched ‘boss’ mouth words into his phone. I was dizzy with heat and shaking for something to drink and I waved and swayed. The first breeze of the day evaporated the sweat on my neck and my soaked shirt pulled away from my skin.
He rolled his window down and yelled, "Ese. Come down here, por favor."
So, I did. 14 rungs down the ladder and I walked in the shade and stood on his passenger side where there was more shade. His window came down slowly and cool air (smelled of tobacco and Cool Water or maybe Drakkar Noir or maybe Polo. I'm not sure.) rushed from the cab and twisted into the heat which further twisted into the sun's heat. Cycle, repeat.
"How's it going up there, Chief?" he asked.
"Are you going to finish today?"
"Yes, sir. The underlayment was in good shape and we didn't find any leaks. We will be done by three or four at the latest." I said.
He tilted his head, just a bit, “Well then, ok. How is the crew today?"
"We're doing very well, thank you. Pablo's back is healing nicely. I think he'll be 100% in a week or two."
"That was a nasty fall, wasn't it?" he said.
"Yes." I said.
He paused, just for a bit and then said, "Do you mind if I ask you a question?"
"I don't know how to ask this, but you don't talk like you look. How is your accent so good?"
"I'm from Madison.” I said. “Adopted when I was a baby. My parents are white as can be."
"That explains a lot. What are you doing out here working on roofs, then?" he asked.
"I found my biological parents a few years ago in Mexico and I have a brother. He needs money to go to school, so I'm out here working and sending the money home to him. A couple of the guys on this crew know my real family."
—-- this is not yet written: The man, who confesses to being adopted, also, says he never met his biological parents and asks how this kid found his. —--
He handed me an envelope. "Here's tomorrow's job. Take care."
The man put his truck in reverse and backed down the driveway. 14 rungs and I was on the roof. 1:19pm. 9 squares to go. TACK-TACK-TACK. drop. TACK-TACK-TACK-SNAP. I shouldn't have said Madison. TACK-SNAP-SNAP. A cloud broke the sun. SNAP-SNAP-SNAP. My hangover was finally going away. SNAP-SNAP-SNAP. water. scrape. place. tack tack tack. scrape. place. tack tack, etc.
Thinking didn’t stop.
I promised not to tell.
Why did I say Madison?
I should have changed the names.
Why can't I tell?
She was gone.
and, she was gone.
I felt like something inside was snapping.
Why the hell not.
8 more squares to go...
(note, this part has not been edited at all, it is even in the wrong tense)
He left and I worked the rest of the day. Now I'm here on a futon mattress spread on the floor, trying to sleep. My hands hurt. I hurt. I'm no where near sleep. I think:
I shouldn't have said Madison.
So, I get up. Our room is dark but the moon is out so I can see just well enough to pull on my jeans, find my glasses and hat, and get to the door without crashing into anything or stepping on anyone. Five of us share this room. It isn't a big deal if i wake anyone up but I don't want to hassle anyone and it'll be better when they realize I'm gone. They'll wonder when I left and I like that for some reason. It strikes me. Some sort of mystery. I guess. It is silly, i know, but I try. Always try. Pocket check: Wallet. Keys. Phone. Ear plugs. Rock.
Jacket on. Door open. I slip outside and slowly pull the door closed. I keep the door handle turned and release it slowly so the catch doesn't click. Slight squeak, but definitely nothing loud enough for anyone to care.
Porch to steps to driveway to sidewalk to the corner. The crew shares a small apartment in a large complex. So many dumpsters. They don't even try to hide them. Cars are parked everywhere. Orderly, in spaces, but again, like the dumpsters. So many cars. Walking around this place alone at night makes my stomach sick and my balls tingle. I stop, turn around, and walk.
Corner to sidewalk to driveway to steps to porch. I'm back at the apartment where I open the door slowly, silently. I'm nervous, I guess. There isn't really a good way to say this, but I have to poop. So, I do. I brush my teeth slowly, shake the water off the toothbrush and put it in my pocket. Silently down the hall to the kitchen. I grab my phone charger and stuff it in my pocket. I climb on the counter to reach far behind the refrigerator and up in the crack between the cabinet and wall. My envelope. My savings. All the cash I have. Now I'm at the front door. I silence my phone and put it in airplane mode.
Again, door to porch to steps to driveway to sidewalk to the corner. The moon is higher in the sky. Fucking moon. Hanging there, looking over us with its fat, white, judging face. Coming as going as it pleases, cowering behind clouds in storms. It doesn't even make its own light. It just reflects. Whatever, fucking moon.
I guess I have a plan.
I'm not very good at sleeping which is why I take walks on so many nights. The subdivision next to the apartments is a big one whose houses were built in the sixties or seventies. They all have three bedrooms and a garage and are either a ranch or a 2 story. Some houses are set on the lot at 90 degrees which makes it almost seem like there are four different floor plans. There aren't. There are 172 ranch homes and 97 two-story. 212 are 100% siding. One is stucco. The rest have some brick but are mostly siding. 57 homes are on larger lots that allow for either a two car garage or 1 car garage plus a dining room. While walking around you can get a pretty good idea the builder wasn't up for giving the buyers too many options.
Over the years, people have added on porches, window treatments, landscaping, and decks but it's hard to get any sense of individuality in this _neighborhood. The cynic in me says everyone inside these houses are exactly the same, but I know better.
The area around here is completely flat. There are no walk-out basements. However, some people put a basement door in their house by digging a hole, forming concrete stairs and adding a small drain. I like how flat it is because some nights I run. Runners seem to be less suspicious and I like that.
Tonight I'm headed to 5678 Pine Street whose porch light burned out late last month. I arrive and do a quick 360 to see if anyone is watching. No one. I sprint up to the side of the house next to the garage and sit up against the house.
Here, I wait. The woman who lives here tends to get home late and she's more into cats than dogs. It's just after midnight and she isn't home. So, I sit cross legged, or Indian style as they said in elementary school which gives me some fantods so I lie supine and then semi-supine parallel to the house; against the house.
A mosquito buzzes in my ear and my balls are tingling and my heart rate is up and i hear a truck and the garage door opens. Headlights flash on the neighbors house and disappear as her blue Ford Explorer rumbles and squeaks its way into the garage. I roll to my hands and knees and crawl quickly to the corner of her house. I peek around the corner and catch the taillight as her truck finishes going in. I follow it in on the passenger side staying low and moving quickly with my head up to watch the mirror making sure I'm not in it. She keeps hers pointed high so I'm in the clear. The truck stops and she clicks it into park and I roll underneath. The exhaust is 2" from my face and the heat from the catalytic converter is almost burning my left leg. The truck turns off and I hear her shuffling for her purse or bags or whatever. I don't care. I don't move.
The exhaust snaps and pops in my ear as it cools.
She steps out of her truck and slams the door. Not a very dainty girl, this one. She drags her left foot a bit. Her shoes clip, clop and slide 12 steps where she stops. She pulls open the door to her house, hits the garage door opener, shuts off the light and slams the door. She is gone but I can't tell 100% if she locked it behind her.
I slip from under the truck. I'm sweaty and my back is dusty and it is completely dark. I can't see anything and I have to be extremely careful not to make any noise. After all these years, I'm pretty good at it. I sit up and take off my t-shirt and pull out my phone. I use it as a flashlight as brush the dust off my shirt. There is no grease and that makes me happy. I double check my phone. It is still in airplane mode. I find a bare spot on the wall where I can lean and sit quietly and in the dark and sit and breathe.
And sit for an hour.
And sit for another hour.
I feel good. It is time so I get up and put on my shirt. This garage and the house is completely quiet. I am quiet, relaxed, clean and dry. I walk around the truck 16 steps to the door using my phone for a flashlight. With my hand around the knob I pause. I don't know if you've noticed, but pretty much every door knob has some play in it. A light click as the mechanism engages. So, I twist slowly and just a bit until it catches. I still haven't made a sound. This is good.
She didn't lock the door. That makes me happy. I twist the knob just enough to get the door to open and push slowly. It doesn't squeak. That makes me happy. I'm in her kitchen. The light is on over the sink. It looks dim like a single 40 watt light bulb covered in a dusty fixture that has been hanging in a kitchen for 25 years. The glass seems slightly browned, maybe. I imagine taking the damp dishrag that is hanging off the faucet, running some warm, soapy water in the sink while carefully dismantling this light fixture. I take it off the ceiling. Soak its parts for a while. I imagine myself and some soapy water scrubbing years of sticky off that light so it can glow a clean, white light again.
I look to the left. There's her purse. They always throw them down right by the door. In the purse: wallet, girl shit, and keys. That makes me happy. The litter box is next to the door. Fuck that. I slip her keys out of this ridiculously large, fake brown leather bag. Her key ring is equally ridiculous. So many keys and fucking picture frames and souvenirs and crap carabiners that couldn't support Kate Moss. It is hard to keep the mess quiet, but my hands are big. There is a course listing for some nights school sitting here. bent backward at the spine with blue ink pen circling the words, "Pre-Nursing Workshop," over and over again to where the paper was almost worn through.
I left the kitchen door open, I always do. I go through the doorway and I'm in the garage, again. Now that there's a little light, I notice a bike leaning against the wall. I need that. I close the door silently behind me. And use my phone as a flashlight, again. As quietly as I can, I put the bike in the truck. I slip the truck key off the ring and carefully set the mess of keys and rings et al. on the ground for her. No need to hassle her any more than I already have. I walk around and open the driver's door, quickly shutting off the dome light.
I'm standing on the door sill, now. I can reach the garage door opener's manual release from here so I pull it slowly and it pops a little louder than they usually do. I'm out of the truck now and at the garage door.
There's no question about it. Garage doors are fucking loud. There's pretty much no way to open one without making noise. The trick here is to go slow. Think you're going slow? Go slower. However, we're facing the street so we should be moving as fast as possible. I don't want to be hanging out where any car driving by can see me so I'm hoping no one drives by.
No one does.
I'm back in the truck.
Key off... Well, no. Duh. you can't turn the key off in an automatic unless it is in park. I can't open the door with they key in the ignition without the warning chime banging to let everyone know I'm there.
Window down. Truck in park. Key off.
I get out. I reach in the window to turn the key on. Now, a big stretch to get it in neutral. Son of a bitch. You can't put a car in neutral without a foot on the brake.
I'm out of practice.
The garage door is hanging open, I'm futzing around like an idiot. I'm stealing a truck. Every time I put it in park or neutral I hit the brakes. That means the brake lights are flashing through the open garage door like beacons. Nice. I look around. There's a piece of 2x4 that's about 4' long. I lift the front bumper (and the truck) as much as I can and wedge the wood underneath. I grab a lawn furniture cushion and put it underneath.
I'm back in the truck. Key on. Foot on brake. Neutral. Foot off the brake. I bounce backward against the seat like a little kid trying to get the shopping cart to roll and it goes. The truck is moving. Fuck this flat-assed subdivision. The 2x4 hit squarely on the cushion. Not a sound.
Half way down the driveway I open the door. The chime is going nuts, but I should be good now. I hop out and start pushing. Down the driveway, on to the street, a left turn and I'm in front of the neighbor's house. I start the truck, throw it in drive and go. I'm confident she didn't wake up. No one usually notices until the morning, anyway, and no one saw me. Poor girl.
I'm driving 2 mph above the speed limit. Stopping at stop signs, but not lagging. Right on red? Why not, but only after coming to a complete stop. I worry about traffic cameras and anything else that may catch my face. Cameras are everywhere and I know there are three for every one I notice. Stores, businesses, Department of Transportation… Whatever. I stop to tell myself that this is a stolen car, not a murder but I am still very careful.
What's the next thing on the agenda? Find another Ford Explorer with the same body style as this one.
I drive through neighborhoods. I choose subdivisions that are dense with cars and have small houses that are close together and maybe a little ratty. You always try to steal a common car so you can do this:
I spot a red Ford Explorer that looks a lot like the one I'm in. I park one street over where there are no lights. I slip out, unscrew the license plates from my truck and hop fences and run until i'm underneath the red truck. I lie underneath because no one driving by notices someone under a car. They do, however, notice some Mexican guy hunched over behind a car stealing its plates. No one drives by, tonight. I have the red truck's plates in my hand. My trucks are in their place. I roll from under the truck, run, and hop more fences until I'm at my truck. I put the plates on and drive off.
Now I'm on the highway. 62 mph in a 60. I don't know of one person who has noticed their license plates got swapped until they get pulled over and are on the ground getting cuffed for driving a stolen car. That means I'm driving a truck with plates that are completely legit and probably will be for at least a few days. My odds are better, now. I'm finally relaxed and I'm guessing this thing holds about 20 gallons of gas. The gauge reads 3/4 of a tank. These things probably get about 16 mpg. That's 240 miles. The black sky is lightening up a bit. 240 miles is plenty.
I'll make it.
And suddenly, I am here.
I drive up a long gravel driveway, slowly. The day has broken but the fog is still here and the gravel pops and snaps and pings against the bottom of this girl's truck. The driveway is flanked by scrawny woods filled with invasive species that are choking out the cedars and elms. I get to the patch of Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) and now I'm back being a kid coming up here for the week and using the birch as a landmark. The birches meant we were here after that brutal, eleven hour drive. The woods quickly end and now I'm driving up to the white wood siding house that sits alone in an open field. The house is in good repair, but it could use some paint, a little landscaping, and new shingles. It is a two story farmhouse that looks as if it was missing its wood shutters and a porch, even thought it never had either. I always thought a wrap-around porch with a screened-in area out back would suit the house perfectly. Instead, there is a simple, blue door at ground-level and six plain white windows with a worn out grey roof and mildew and a wasps nest under the single bulb light that hung over the door.
I keep driving.
A sharp right turn through a grown-in entrance to the woods. Downhill. Switching left and right until I'm at the gigantic pole barn that sits low and flat nuzzled in these trees like it grew along with them. Or, maybe like it pushed its way here, invading the trees' space like kudzu and honeysuckle. I put the truck in park, turn it off, and get out. The air is thick and cool, sun is heating tree tops and the barn's dark, moldy roof. I stretch and realize I'm hungry, now. Just like that, you get in a place and can suddenly feel again. I start remembering, too:
I've played a little game since I was a kid. I like to look at people. People on the street. People sitting in the subway. Saleswomen pushing cheap furniture. Tired men cleaning toilets. I like to look at them and try to understand what they see when they close their eyes. I imagine all the places they go. I pretend to know all the things in their head they see when they're all alone.
I have a plan. I will go up to that farm house, open some sort of canned food, sit at that old computer and show you exactly what happens when I close my eyes.
This is what I see.
This is to a girl.