Jimmy shakes his massive head and frowns. “Are you kidding me, bro? You don’t listen so good, do you?” When I don’t respond, he adds, “Don’t talk so good either.”
We sit side by side on a bench in the locker room. Tying our laces. Most of the other guys are already in their uniforms.
“This dude,” Jimmy says, projecting like an actor on a stage. “Gets hired off the street like a damn unicorn and then comes in wearing some roach-stompers.”
A couple of the other guys laugh, but most of them ignore Jimmy. They seem annoyed by him, and suspicious of me.
“And those socks,” he says, shaking his head again. “White’s no bueno. They gotta be black or they gotta be brown. UPS is military, bro. Atten-hut!” He stiffens and salutes.
I don’t say anything.
“For real, get you some new shoes, quick, or your feet are fucked. I mean, they gonna end up fucked anyway, but still—”
“This is just a gig, man,” I tell him. “I’m not here to collect a pension or anything.”
“Bro, what the hell, lower your voice when you say some shit like that. People kill for these jobs.”
The buzz of other conversations fills the room. As some guys start leaving, it slowly drains away.
Jimmy gives me a meaningful look. “You run fast, bro?” His head tilts left and then right, as if his neck can’t hold it. “Fucking dog chased me in Bushwick. German shepherd. Looked like a sweetheart at first but then”—snap—“went rabid just like that.”
More guys file out of the locker room. The morning meeting is downstairs.
“You run fast, bro?” Jimmy repeats. I nod. I do run fast.
He smirks in approval and stands. Makes his hands into blades and pumps his arms, slicing the air around him. “You see anything looking pissed-off, you dip,” he says. “Anything don’t look right, run away. Be safe. Anything too sweet? Don’t trust that either. Back to the truck lickety-split and slam the door shut, you hear me?”
My shoes—cheap oxfords, faux leather—are dull and worn. They squeeze the hell out of my feet, pinch my toes into curls. I’ve had them since I was a teenager. The last time I wore them was the last time I set foot in a church. In memory of my cousin. Troy. Jimmy’s snapping his fingers at me. “You be nice to the loaders, okay? Make life easy and kiss their ass if need be. And in the truck, it’s gotta be like clockwork. No dillydallying or we’ll never make all our drops. We’re not out there to make friends.”
He stands and hovers over me. “All right. Let’s head down. Bosses gonna yell at you for those socks, but it might be tomorrow. They love to get you for the shit you did wrong yesterday.”
I swallow the wad of spit in my mouth. We go downstairs and get screamed at. Whatever the reasons are, I haven’t a clue. It’s my first day on the job.
For a while, I work with Jimmy. Some of the other guys want him to slave me real bad, knock the unicorn down a few pegs, but he treats me okay. He continues to clown me about my shoes though. And all his little rules, I discover, are just for me. He does whatever the hell he wants.
Checks start rolling in and blisters begin to erupt, but I still don’t buy a new pair. Before long I’m on my own. I make drops. I’m courteous. I get to know faces and they get to know mine.
I make a lot of deliveries to a flower shop on Wyckoff, close to where the L and M trains rumble by overhead. I arrive early in the morning, when buckets of fresh water are arranged here and there, waiting to be filled. Mirrors multiply the potted plants for sale, so going inside feels like stepping into a meadow, lush with greenery. Aloe and snake, peace lilies and philodendron. I know what most of them are, but knowing stuff like that doesn’t really mean anything.
One of the faces I get to know belongs to a woman who works there, a face that makes me lean in toward it the next time. After a while, my courtesy starts getting away from me, growing bit by bit into something else, something I don’t know how to control. The smiles linger. The looks lengthen, deepen. Dizzy from the color and fragrance of the shop, I start pretending that the deliveries are presents, masses of blooms just for her. I joke about a secret admirer. The other woman there, the owner apparently, older and white, with alarmingly small teeth and prominent gums, clearly thinks it’s corny. That’s probably right. She smiles when she signs but rolls her eyes. The one I pretend with though, she’s cool, she plays. But one day she changes the stakes of the game. She says the least a man giving gifts can do is know a lady’s name. I hesitate before asking, but she tells it to me anyhow. Zoelle.
She has baby locs, fuzzy sideburns, a gaze that won’t flinch. The stormy hands of the eighth-grade girls who liked to play-fight with me and Troy in the parking lot after school—quick hands that sudden and seize the air—and I am waiting an especially long time for the delivery to be inspected on the Friday morning when those hands pluck a pink tea rose from a diamond-shaped dish on the counter and let it drop into my palm. The rose’s stem, snapped, is just a couple of inches long.
Zoelle’s eyes are on me. She laughs, cracks her knuckles with her thumbs. “All that flirting,” she says, “and you actually have no idea what to do.”
The pink of the rose is so pale it’s almost white. I can’t help but smile. “Don’t think anyone ever gave me a flower before.” “Little kids like to yank off the petals,” she says. She rests her elbows on the counter and points at the flower, starts using her inside voice: “But what you can do is act like it’s a ticket.”
The words seem to come before I choose to say them. “A ticket for what?”
She bites her bottom lip and then puckers her mouth, scrutinizes my worth. Finally she asks if I’ve ever checked out the murals in Bushwick.
A feeling then of being swept up, engulfed. So deeply lost in the meadow you surrender all sense of not only where you are but also, briefly, who. Which means you’ll do just about anything. When she suggests a plan for us, I say yes. She reminds me to bring my ticket.
Sunday. Time off work has become peculiar. It feels wrong not spending ten-plus hours a day in uniform, or in the truck, or watching the other guys chop it up. The mirror shows I’ve already lost a few pounds in the August heat. Only one old T-shirt shows off my chest and shoulders the way I want. The jeans I put on sag too much off my ass, the style back when Troy and I were boys.
On the kitchen counter, next to my hot plate, sits a shallow ceramic bowl. The kind cats drink from. The pink rose lies in the water, its stem angled like a tiny straw. Before I head out to meet Zoelle, I pick it up with my finger and thumb. On the wet side the petals hang loose, darkening a bit at their edges.
She stands cheerful and sweating with a tote bag on her shoulder, near one of the murals. Looks good as hell in her tight shorts and tank top. The mural depicts two women, twins, with rainbow arches for eyebrows, pursed red lips, and lettered dresses. One dress repeats the phrase when it all goes to shit; on the other come back to art recurs. I give Zoelle the rose. She teases me about its appearance, but says the ticket is still valid. As we walk, she spins it by its stem. When she asks about me, I tell her a few things. I left college, drifted for a while, went back later, but it still didn’t work out. She asks why. “Too expensive,” I say. “Wasn’t what I expected. I wasn’t any good.” Not sure which of those is most true. She waits for me to say more. Then she says working UPS must be cool, the way it unlocks the city for you. I tell her it’s decent. It pays the rent, pays off the loans. Gives medical and dental, vision.
She fills the quiet that follows. Tells me she likes how often the murals change. She considered studying art or history at Brown but her parents guilted her into an economics degree. She came to New York, her dream, but hated her corporate job, so she quit and worked for a while at a dive. If you think about it, she says, tending bar isn’t all that different from selling flowers, the way people rush in because of joy or trouble and open up to you about their lives. Her grandparents, she explains, grew flowers and vegetables behind their little house, close to a lake in Ohio. She loved visiting them, digging in the ground, planting. Her favorite blossoms right now are French marigolds. She has an idea of starting a community garden. There’s a vacant lot in her neighborhood she has an eye on. Her mother and father, no surprise, hate the idea, think it’s another instance of her getting distracted. They give her bougie Negro speeches, she says. She’s an only child, so they can focus their full attention on controlling her life. They’re still married, her parents, though she isn’t sure they love each other anymore. Or maybe, she says, it’s just that love loses its color after a while.
The low roofs of old factories and warehouses and woodshops leave us little to no shade. My body begins to ripen, a slight armpitty odor threading up into my nostrils. The street art calls, and I retreat into it. There’s some political commentary, about the violence of the government or the military or the police, but most of it is more whimsical in nature. Two skeletons soul-kiss, in defiance of death. A pirate-mystic wears a patch over his third eye. A cartoon sex worker, nude save for a floppy white hat, her skin two shades lighter than cobalt, her nipples the vivid pink of bubble gum. In one mural, with the likeness of Salvador Dalí, the illustration of a giant open hand extends several feet out from the bottom of the wall onto the sidewalk. For a while Zoelle and I stand together on the meat of the palm. Dipping her own hand, she lays the unraveling rose gently into her bag.
“What’s your favorite so far?” she asks. “Let me guess. Slutty Smurfette.”
I force a smile.
She laughs and calls me nasty, touches my shoulder.
The other people out on the tour thicken into a crowd, their sticky electric skins passing close. Zoelle tells me to say more about myself. She asks what I went back to school to study.
“Doesn’t matter,” I say. “What I tried to do, it wasn’t me.” Then, when she looks at me funny, I add, “Don’t worry, I read and stuff. I’m not a dummy.”
“Nobody called you a dummy.”
“I’m just saying.”
“Saying what?” she asks. “So far you haven’t said much of anything.”
“Just taking it all in,” I tell her. There’s exhaustion in my voice.
We keep walking but farther apart now, the gap between us widened by the plated armor of my silence.
After a while she perks up. She touches my forearm and says, “Hey, so what’s your porn name?”
I give her a look.
“If you were a porn star—you know, an adult film actor—what would your name be?” She rubs her chin and narrows her eyes, exaggerating the poses of a thinker. “It has to be connected to your interests, but also cheesy as hell,” she says, and then waits for a few beats. Everyone around us is talking, talking, talking. “Okay, it looks like I’m up first,” she says. “I bet it’s already taken, but mine would be something like May Flowers.”
I fake a laugh to punctuate her joke. To end it. But she keeps going. She keeps reaching for me and I keep drawing back.
“Would you watch May Flowers get down? You would, wouldn’t you?” Elevator eyes. “Dirty boy, I see you.”
I shake my head and shrug.
“Come on, loosen up,” she says. “It’s just a game.”
I tell her I can’t think of anything.
“Well here’s what I’m thinking. You make special deliveries, and here’s poor lonesome housewife May. She opens the door and there you are standing on the welcome mat, an enormous package in your hands. And then—”
“Look, just so you know, I’m not trying to drive a delivery truck forever or anything.”
Zoelle stops midstride and adjusts the tote bag on her shoulder. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she says.
“You said interests.”
“Well what are your interests?”
I shake my head and she watches me for a while. Without my uniform, without the counter of the flower shop between us and my truck parked and waiting on the corner, being with her feels reckless. For a while neither of us says a word. Not speaking feels like the reason we can keep walking together.
A bit later, we pass another mural that catches my eye: the wings of an angel stark against a field of sapphire blue. Zoelle notices me staring at it. As we stand there, a white girl poses between the wings for her friend. “You next,” Zoelle says. “Go on, I’ll take a picture.”
The fact is, the mural bothers me. The human scale of it. My mind prefers to imagine angels differently, poised much larger, with fiery eyes and multiple wings. Like seraphim, closer to the horror and magnitude of a god.
When Zoelle repeats herself, I hear myself saying, “You know what I hated as a kid? I hated those cartoons where one of the characters dies and their spirit flickers up from the body, with a little halo and a harp and a long white gown.” As kids, Troy and I would watch cartoons together on Saturday mornings. “It makes your eyes float off with the spirit and everything,” I say. “Following it all the way up to heaven. Meanwhile the actual fact of the matter is lying right there in front of you. The dead meat.”
The pavement shimmers like the surface of water, hot enough to burn. I swipe my tongue across my upper lip, tasting salt, and look up at Zoelle. She makes a little grunt, a sound I’ve heard many times from my mother and my aunts. Then she hooks her thumbs into her belt loops, grinning in a rueful way that really hits me. It feels like she’s offering me an out, a chance to say Yes, this is how I am, but she’s still offering me a chance with her too.
“Sorry,” I mumble. Then I find myself saying, “I think I’m just nervous, you know?”
She shifts her weight onto one jutting hip. “Is this about where I went to school? Or the fact that you dropped out? I don’t care. I’m not out here to compare résumés. I just want to enjoy myself.” Different people are standing in front of the wings now, two women who appear to be a couple. “This doesn’t have to be difficult,” she says, her gaze drifting away from the mural and directly into my eyes. “It’s summer, we’re both young, we both look good. Relax. I’m not trying to fall in love. Let’s just keep it simple and have fun.”
Then we both laugh, marking a kind of agreement. She asks if I’m hungry, mentions a good pizza place not too far away. We walk for a bit. She smiles up at me and says I’m lucky she’s intrigued by the silent type. A little later, as we diagonally cross an intersection, I tell her I thought of a name.
“Finally,” she says. “May’s been waiting. So lay it on her. But it better be good.”
“May Flowers,” I say, hesitating, “meet Pierce Tulips.”
Her head jerks back in response. “Oh my god, that is disgusting,” she says. “That is awful. It’s perfect.” And then she cracks up, nearly doubled over from her ringing laughter. When she catches her breath, she tells me she loves it. She says she knew I had it in me. Our bodies make contact again as she links her arm with mine. It feels good to be touched. “You know what,” she says, “let’s skip the pizza.” She wants to show me the lot she’s been looking at for the community garden. Then we can go to her place. She has beer. We can order in.
Jimmy and the other old heads compare injuries—sprained ankles, slipped discs, torn ligaments—and tell us new guys that soon enough time will come for our bodies. As if it isn’t always in pursuit. They let us know which addresses ship sex toys, show us how to open and reseal the boxes. They goof around with the dildos and plugs. One of the them fits a strap-on over his shorts, jokes that he visits Jimmy’s mother twice a week, illustrates how he does it to her. Everyone else, even Jimmy, laughs at the gross display. When I tell him it’s not right, that it’s people’s private business, he tells me to lighten up.
Zoelle and I agree to keep things casual, but we see each other often over the next couple of weeks, mornings at the shop, where she gets playfully wide-eyed at the sight of my legs in the brown uniform shorts and makes fun of my shoes; or nights and weekends on the streets, taking the long walks she likes, exploring one neighborhood or another, and then she starts bringing me to the dive where she used to work, which acts as a way station, a place to drink past the uncomfortable lulls in conversation until we’re ready to go, never to my place, always to hers, where I rub her sore feet and say I’m too shy to let her touch mine, where she massages my shoulders instead, and my back, where we undress and become other versions of ourselves and fuck. At the bar she tells me about the guy who keeps coming in looking for a special rose, his “baby give me one more chance” rose. She tells me about the woman who comes in to order flowers for her dying father and starts sobbing right there in the shop, and when Zoelle tries to comfort her, she interrupts and says, “No, you don’t understand. I’ve never been happier. He’s finally going to be gone. You must get this exactly right: I want the most festive arrangements you have.” She tells me she did some research and found out the vacant lot she showed me that first day is publicly owned. She’s started talking to neighbors and the local community board about putting together a proposal for the garden. “It’s real,” she says, excited, “it can really happen.” Usually, when she asks what I’m thinking, I don’t say much of anything. Sometimes I don’t answer at all.
The bartender, Zoelle’s old coworker, a dark long-limbed woman with weary grinning eyes, pours us plenty of drinks we don’t pay for, and the din of the shabby bar—the manic disclosures and lustful intimations, the percussive sounds of wood and glass, the piped-in music seeping into the fissures of silence— brings me back to the summer when I was fifteen and Troy and I worked as waiters for tips and under-the-table cash at the restaurant his father co-owned on City Island. It was a family place, where even the white people wanted you to make conversation and joke around, not just take their orders, serve their food, and disappear. The money we made then seemed like a fortune, a treasure we valued all the more for its element of secrecy, and we didn’t have to spend any of it to taste scallops, oysters, and clam chowder for the first time. My uncle would get supplies from the pink-faced men at the bait and tackle store and he taught us to fish for porgy, flounder, and bass. Troy and I took long walks through what seemed like a maze of Victorian houses, and when we got hungry for something other than seafood we went to Lola’s Delights for scoops of red velvet ice cream or milkshakes made with freshly baked slices of pie. We would sneak onto party boats, where we sometimes sipped the cheap champagne and always tried to out-dance each other, pop-locking while the white people cheered us on. My cousin was the better dancer, much better, but not when he drank too much. He would stumble or lose his rhythm, apparently oblivious that he was doing so, undisturbed by his body’s confused movements, smiling as the cheers turned into mockery at his expense. It’s a scary thing to witness, this transformation of laughter, from an expression of joy you’re helpless against into a weapon deliberately honed and hurled. Whenever this happened, I would forfeit the battle and grip Troy in a hug. I didn’t want to see him making an ass of himself, and I didn’t want to enjoy an advantage over a fool. But Troy, oblivious as he was, and competitive, didn’t like this one bit. Once, as I hugged him, his muscles jumped and he flung me off. He had made himself bigger, the way you’re supposed to when you encounter a bear in the wild. Then, with that mocking laughter surrounding us, he started to dance again, with something like arrogance on his face. When I decided I wouldn’t dance with him anymore, he said, “Come on, stop being such a bitch,” repeating it like the refrain of an angry song.
“Earth to Pierce. Hello, Earth to Pierce.” Zoelle’s swirling her drink in my face. “Where’d you go?”
“Nowhere at all.”
“Well, May needs a little attention here.”
I apologize. She stills her hand on my knee, asks if I’m ready to go.
One night, Zoelle calls and asks, with odd excitement in her voice, how I am, how work was. We haven’t seen each other in a couple of days. I tell her about Jimmy’s latest “trials,” his disciplinary appointments with the managers and supervisors and union reps, one a couple of weeks ago for slaving his new helper and going off solo to enjoy roti during business hours, and another last week for wearing a Basquiat shirt, a nonregulation white T-shirt, while on the job. Before I go on, she interrupts and tells me she has a surprise. She’s going to take me to see something special. A tour of the world’s oldest subway tunnel. She says she loves places like that. Old places. I tell her I do too.
The person running the tours is a portly white guy in a baseball cap. He wears a plaid flannel shirt more suited for the beginning of winter. An orange safety vest that sits over the mounds of his chest like the top of a bikini. He explains over the noise of passing traffic that the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel was built back in the 1840s and then sealed up for over a century. Then he rediscovered it and began running tours. Zoelle and I, along with a dozen others, watch him work himself damp and musty as he places a number of traffic cones in the street and uses a steel hook to pry open and lift away the cover of a manhole.
“We’re going down there?” I ask.
Zoelle looks at me. “It’s a tunnel, genius.”
The tour guide connects a portable generator to wiring that goes into the open manhole. Once he gets a ladder situated, he descends from the surface and the group follows. We step down and down and end up in a chilly space dimly illuminated by a series of light bulbs just above our heads. We have to stand more or less in a straight line. The walls pressing on either side of us are thickly packed with mounds of faded dirt. In his high-pitched voice the guide explains that he guessed the tunnel’s location from old maps and newspaper articles. When he first came down, the dirt went all the way across, from wall to wall, leaving so little room at the top that he had to crawl on his belly, with an oxygen tank on his back in case there was no air, proceeding by slow inches in the pitch-dark. Later, he and other guys cleared out the dirt by hand to create the space we now stand in. It’s tough to imagine it ever being any tighter than it is.
“You okay?” Zoelle asks. Her face is full of shadows and hollows.
I clutch two of her fingers and turn away.
“Isn’t this crazy?” she says. “I love it.”
One by one, we duck through a hole edged in orange spray paint, an opening blasted out of a concrete wall over twenty years ago by the guide. We emerge in a longer, somewhat wider area, the grim tunnel itself, with masses of tapered bedrock on either side and an extended stretch of arched brick above.
“This was the end of the line of the LIRR,” the guide says. “Half a mile that way and you hit the East River. Sixty years before you get the subway system, you got this. And what this is, folks, is innovation.” His voice deepens when he goes on to quote a poet, Walt Whitman: “The old tunnel, that used to lie there under ground, a passage of Acheron-like solemnity and darkness, now all closed and filled up, and soon to be utterly forgotten, with all its reminiscences.”
“Hey,” Zoelle whispers to me, “what’s wrong.”
A few people in the group nod and murmur in appreciation, begin to follow the guide as he brings up the topic of Freemasons. They’re getting farther away from us. I haven’t moved. Sweat stings my eyes. I tell Zoelle I’ve seen enough.
“You’re hurting me,” she says.
I glance at her strange face. “This place is freaking me out.”
“You’re hurting me,” she repeats. And then she snatches her fingers from my fist and hides them in the nook of her neck.
On the way to her place, I’m especially quiet. Zoelle keeps asking if I’m angry at her, and I keep shaking my head no. At the apartment, we drink beer, sitting on her bed without speaking. She breaks the silence by asking if I’m claustrophobic or something, but answers her own question, saying of course not and making a joke about how tiny her studio is. She asks if we should stop going places together. She can just invite me over when she wants my company. That would be fine with her, she says. I shrug in response. She tries asking other questions, easy surface-level questions about what I’m feeling or thinking, what I want to do now. “I’m just trying to have a normal human conversation with you,” she says. “That’s all I’m ever trying to do.” That’s all. But to me it feels impossible. I’m sealed shut.
In some ways, this time is no different from any other time we go to her apartment. Alone together, in that private space, compacted between those four walls, it becomes excruciating. My silence, her careful attempts to draw me out. All we can manage, most times, even when we rub the aching parts of each other’s bodies, is halting small talk, and the awkwardness of it resounds in our ears. But if we arrive drunk enough, or drink enough after we’ve arrived, we quicken past all that, or skip it entirely. In bed, naked, we both speak and we both listen. We learn a little more about each other. I learn, after the first few times, that she wants to roughen the sex. I learn, after she says it, that she likes a hand tightened around her throat. I learn, after she does it, that I like my face slapped. We’ve been silly, saying the names we made up among the murals. But mostly we say other names, names we impose on each other, names we insist on for ourselves. Names that sting and bruise. I learn her names, the ones that turn her on, names for someone who is there, in bed, only to be a body, only to be of use. She learns my names too, and I learn that there are more of them than I knew, names for someone who is filth, someone who is base, someone who isn’t fit to exist, or who doesn’t exist at all. We play our roles. We learn each other’s secret names, and say them, but neither of us learns the reasons they exist. We don’t say if there are any, beyond the kink itself, beyond the raw pleasure of play. Maybe, in her case, there aren’t any reasons. I guess it’s possible that there aren’t any in mine.
But now, in bed, she gasps in a startling way, her eyes panic, and when I loosen my hand, I notice she’s been rapidly one-two-three tapping my hip. This is the action we established, the signal to stop, and when I remove my hand from her throat, she also utters, between coughs and more gasps, the established word. When I ask what she needs, if she’s in pain, she shakes her head, gestures toward the kitchen, for water. She’s sitting up when I come back, drinks the entire glass at once. After some moments she asks, more calmly than I expect, what happened, if I didn’t feel her taps on my hip, if I couldn’t tell things were crossing the line. I sit beside her, and she takes my hand.
“I just got carried away,” I say.
“What do you mean, you got carried away?”
“You asked me what happened. I got carried away.”
Zoelle releases my hand. “That’s not good enough,” she says. “If we’re gonna keep doing what we’re doing, cool, maybe I’m still down, but this is the way it has to work. I need to feel safe. So I need you to talk to me, right now, about what happened.”
A feeling of embarrassment falls over me. At first I think she’s the one doing it, a casual lover making excessive demands and humiliating me, but that isn’t it. What just happened between us is casting a light on everything that has happened between us, and it seems clear now. Despite my efforts not to, I’ve been constantly exposing myself, exposing my shame and cowardice to her at every turn.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
I rub my eyes and draw back wet fists. “Nothing,” I say.
Zoelle stares at me, and then slowly shakes her head, her expression full of disappointment and confusion, as if I’ve taken something from her. She goes to the bathroom. The toilet flushes, and for a long time water runs in the sink. When she returns, she lies down facing away from me, completing the arc of her refusal. I lie down too, with my body against hers. It’s getting darker one minute earlier every day, but daylight still glows behind her blinds. She lets me put my arm around her. Then I begin to speak, I try to explain. But I can’t start with any precision, I can’t begin where she wants me to. I tell it in a way I never have before, all of it. The words pour out of me as I confess.
Back when my cousin Troy was alive, I tell her, before we put his body into the ground, back when he and I traveled from Mosholu Parkway east across the Bronx toward City Island, often, in the spring or summer or fall months, we would skip off the Bx29 bus just after it crossed Pelham Bridge into the park and together, walking on the edge, follow a trail with horses and their riders to a clearing obscured by trees, and there, difficult to find within the abundance of wood anemones, trout lilies, daylilies, blue violets, cutleaf toothwort, mugwort, garlic mustard, and knotweed, was a hidden place whose actual history and name Troy would never know: Bartow Station. Built of brick and stone, it was full of gaping holes, both doorless and roofless, abandoned, with no glass left in any of its arched windows. We climbed or stared into these holes and speculated about the fire that must have happened there. Looking up to where the chimney pointed at the mood of the sky, we grabbed the slender trunks of the trees that grew in the interior, if the open ruin could be said to have an interior. On every side the walls were brightly burned with graffiti, and to look closely at it we navigated a litter of scrapped metal, white plastic buckets, step- ladders, tipped wheelbarrows, and several lengths of blue lumber. When it was autumn and the skinny trees were stripped naked, each step we took crackled. Only the sound of our footfalls or our voices, or the horn of a train plunging across the tracks nearby, would disturb the quiet. Whenever the strong smell of fresh paint would penetrate the rot and leap into our noses, Troy would wonder aloud about the people who had been there the night before. He was drawn to the most legible declarations of who they were, the tags made in monochrome, and to the names cleanly thrown up using two or three colors and simple bubble lettering. One day, he pointed to a tag written in black letters, interlocking and angular. If I’m remembering it right, the tag read SCAM. Troy loved these signatures, told me we should learn how to make them so we too could have our names up on walls. But I had no interest in announcing myself in that way. I had no ambitions then of being an artist. The pieces I liked at the old station were mad with color, intricate, complicated. The arrows, spikes, curves, and overlapping layers made them difficult to read. I could stare at one for a very long time, fascinated, and come away with no clear sense of what it actually said or meant. When Troy and I stood next to each other, studying the walls in our respective postures, I imagined what we might have looked like to a passenger speeding by: not two different boys, but one caught mid-gesture, a brief illusion of motion.
When I stop talking, Zoelle stays quiet for a moment, her back still to me. “You said he died.” Her voice low.
“He got hit,” I tell her. “Tracks run right by the station and curve in both directions, so if a train comes . . .”
“My god,” she whispers.
Troy and I decided to go to Bartow Station at night, I tell her, on the way back home from City Island, in hopes of seeing an artist or two there emblazoning their names. We’d been drinking to celebrate. He had turned seventeen the day before. I’d had enough, and he’d had plenty. I was the one who got us the booze. We hadn’t brought enough light, so it was difficult to see, and we didn’t go the way we normally went. But in time, I spotted the tracks. Told him I was sure we were getting close and began walking between the rails. When he hesitated, I grinned. I teased him. I told him a train was five million pounds of clanging steel. I told him we’d notice one coming a mile away. I cursed at him and told him to stop being such a bitch. I called him bitch and I called him other names. Punk. Pussy. I called him weak. I rushed ahead and finally, to prove me wrong, he followed. Soon we were side by side, hiking up our jeans. The air was crisp. We traded insults in horrible freestyles as we walked, our choruses of drunk laughter oddly muffled by the corridor of trees. When it happened, I felt the light behind us, I heard the sudden blaring, the screeching. I turned and froze, but then a hard force on my back, a shove, sent me to the ground. I looked up, just in time to see Troy spin from being struck. The impact was like a sound inside of my own chest. I found my light and ran to where he had fallen. I crouched over him. He clung to the earth, grabbing it with his fingers and with the toes in his shoes. With his ear pressed down, he seemed to be listening to the earth too. I searched for pain, waited for him to cry out, but he didn’t. His face, turned toward me, smiled. Then, under the smile, began the slow pooling of dark blood. But I stayed with him, I stayed until I couldn’t, until his body began its arrhythmic jerking. He seized the earth again with his limbs and spasmed. The urge to hold him, to reassure him with my touch, jolted through me, but doing so was impossible. He already wasn’t Troy anymore. I ran instead. I didn’t run to the train though. I didn’t even shout for help. I ran away, as hard and as fast as I could, until I reached Bartow Station. I collapsed onto its floor of leaf litter, staring at what I couldn’t see, sheltering myself.
The next week, when I’m done driving for the day, Jimmy plops down next to me in the locker room. Leans over with his elbows on his thighs. “Tell me something good,” he says.
I shake my head no.
He exhales loudly. Word is he had yet another trial that morning.
“You’ll skate by,” I say. “As usual.”
“Not so sure about that.”
“What you do this time?” I ask.
“Stole some shit. Defaced some fucking property. Wholly unprecedented crimes in the annals of the United Parcel Service. Sons of bitches. As if the bosses themselves aren’t thieves and destroyers.”
He goes on and on about double standards, about injustice. It gets under my skin. I don’t give a damn about the bosses, I say. I tell him they don’t even cross my mind.
Jimmy looks at me. “What,” he says, “you’re so free? You do whatever you damn well please? Fuck outta here. As if we aren’t all bossed by something.”
We stare at each other until I push air through my nose. He lowers his face to one hand. Holds this pose for a while. A show of pity might comfort him, or it might enrage him. It’s hard to say.
“Listen to me,” he says, sitting up, raising the block of his head back onto his shoulders. “Remember this. Shit rolls downhill, always. You hear me, bro? You hear me? Remember that. Shit rolls downhill and then you’re buried in it.”
I’m right about Jimmy. He ends up getting another talking-to, but there are no real consequences. It is what it is.
I still make deliveries to the flower shop. Once in a while I see Zoelle there, or just a piece of her in the back, ducking behind a cooler to avoid me. But then after a couple weeks I don’t see her at all. The owner doesn’t smile when she signs anymore. And when I ask about Zoelle one morning she just glares at me and walks off.
Sometimes, even though it’s out of the way of my route, I take the truck over to Zoelle’s neighborhood to check out the vacant lot. I drive slowly past, expecting every time to see the beginnings of her garden, but it’s always the same. Brown dirt, weeds, patches of dry grass. Nothing has changed. I make my drops. I go home. When I wake up one morning it hits me: The job isn’t half bad. The driving soothes, it casts a spell. The hours are long and my feet still hurt, but the days fill up with these harmless glimpses into other people’s lives. And they manage, by a sort of alchemy, to add up to something that feels close to good. I like the daily practice of being polite, of exchanging pleasantries like flipped nickels. Kindness without consequence. I smile and the strangers of the city smile, and then, until next time, we absolutely forget about each other.
Still, that last day with Zoelle comes to me a lot. When I’m done talking, she flings my arm off of her. She makes herself bigger, the way you’re supposed to when you encounter a bear in the wild. She stands up from the bed and tells me I’ve told her an awful story, such a sad and awful story, possibly one of the worst she’s ever heard, but she doesn’t understand how it has anything to do with us. Don’t I see I need help, she asks, professional help? My need for it shouldn’t be her burden, and it won’t be anymore. She says I’m just like the lake by her grandparents’ house. It freezes every winter and people walk on the gorgeous shell of ice until it begins to crack. They fall in. Many of them never make it back out. She won’t be one of those people. She says it’s a thing about being a man, isn’t it? To be so stingy that way, to deny even a sip of yourself, to deny and deny and deny until one day it all comes out as a violence, like water spewing forth from a hose. She tries a million ways of telling me about myself, but nothing gets through. “I never wanted much from you,” she says wearily, “but it’s not okay that you’ve never given me a thing.” It’s true. Even when I showed up with flowers it was make-believe. My mistake was acting as if I had anything at all to offer.
“Are you apologizing or are you letting yourself off the hook?” she asks. “It could have been so simple, but I can’t trust you.”
“No,” I tell her, “you can’t.”
And then she says goodbye.
What I say to her now, many days as I drive my truck or lie on my mattress or lace up my old shoes, is this: I’m sorry I hurt you. Maybe I’ll get that help you talked about. I think about it a lot. If I go ahead and do it, I guess I’ll have you to thank, but honestly I doubt I’ll do it anytime soon. I’ve also been considering what else you said, and I believe I know what is true: I’m not a lake. I’m just the small space I’m trapped in. And I hate it, I really do. I know it means that I’m afraid. Cowardly. But right now, the only other option I have is Bartow Station. This is a better kind of lonely than running back there on my own.
Editors’ Note: Excerpt taken from WITNESS (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August 1, 2023). Copyright ©2023 by Jamel Brinkley.