Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
A light gray Ford with a dusty black hardtop is stopped in the street before an intersection. Both the driver’s and the passenger’s doors are wide open. A large man, heavy-set, thick hands, thick neck like a boxer, crouches in front of the car. At his feet lies a small dog. The dog is dead. A scuffed and ripped white plastic bag is tied like a bib about the animal’s neck. Black blood coagulates at its nose and runs in the folds of the plastic, and its eye, fully dilated, stares absently at the car that struck it.
Across the street a man sits watching in the doorway of an apartment building, propping the door open with his chair. A newspaper rests unopened on his lap. He leans backward so that the chair is tilted and his head is in shadow. Standing in darkness, in the lobby behind him, a boy buttons his shirt, watching his reflection in the door. Behind the boy is a staircase. As he smoothes his shirt into his trousers he turns toward the doorway, sunlight striking his face and shoulders as he peers indifferently into the street.
Newspaper saturated with rings of petrol covers the dog. The man pulls the paper over the dog’s head so that the whole animal, except its tail, is covered. Twisting out from under the newspaper, and tied to the dog’s tail, is a singed rope with six pierced and blackened oil cans fastened along its length. There is a strong and peppery whiff of gasoline about the dog. With disgust the man stands upright and pulls a paper tissue from his pocket. Heads, arms, and elbows begin to appear at windows in the apartments flanking the road, pressing against bowed and ripped screens.
The man with the newspaper has gone. Standing behind the empty chair the boy leans against the wooden door frame, hands folded, quiet, watching.
Having covered the dog the driver returns to his car, wanting only to get away. Rolling the tissue into a ball, he switches it nervously from hand to hand.
“Hey, mister. Hey. You can’t just leave it there.” A woman leans out into the street. “You can’t leave it in the middle of the street.” She is wearing a dress, faded and blue, with a pattern of large white chrysanthemums. Her stiff black hair is pulled back by a broad blue butterfly clasp. Shielding herself with the screen door she points at the dog. Her arm is long and slender, a deep ruddy black.
“That puppy just ran out here, and it was on fire.” The man shakes his head. Refusing to touch the dog, he sits heavily back into the car, one foot on the street as he searches through papers on the dashboard for something to wipe his hands on.
“Hey.” Her hand stays level. The woman’s face shines with sweat, a paper fan is tucked under the shoulder strap of her dress.
“It isn’t my dog,” the driver replies, closing the car door.
“It isn’t my dog either,” the woman complains, “but you can’t leave it there.” She snaps her fingers and the driver turns back toward her, her stare holding him fast.
The man with the newspaper has returned to the doorway, and stands close behind the boy in the white shirt. Still watching the street he stealthily slips his hand into the boy’s trouser pocket. It is a small gesture, so small that having seen it, I cannot be sure that it has happened until the boy steps down onto the pavement and the man’s hand slips out of his pocket.
Blood, wet and black, seeps quickly into the newspaper and puddles down the street, winding between the grit and the sand in the road. The man starts up his car and backs slowly up the street. The woman shakes her head, and calls resentfully after him. “It’s not my damn dog.”
Closing the screen door behind her, the woman walks into the road. Squatting on her haunches, she lightly lifts the newspaper. Her dress pulls tightly over her knees. The dog’s tan hindquarters are bloody and scorched.
The woman curses and complains again that the puppy is not hers. She shakes her head and gently pats the air above the sorry package. As she scoops the dog up into her arms, the blackened cans clatter dull and flat against themselves.
Across the street, the door is closed, the lobby is empty; both the boy and the man have gone.
A broad flat of sunlight reflects into the restaurant causing me to squint at the waiter. I cannot see his face or his hands as he sets the coffee on the table. The air is thick and adhesive and full of light. A fax from my brother curls over the lip of the saucer and sticks to the side of my hand. The paper is buckled, and I have not yet had the heart to read it. A sweet and pungent steam rises from the small coffee cup; the smell is reviving. It is a relief to come here. I am unable to work at the hotel.
A slender elderly man, with a shock of white hair, sits in shadow by the door reading a newspaper. He holds the paper stiffly up and out almost as a barrier to repel the heat, and turns the pages without bending his elbows, closing the entire newspaper as if it were stiff and hinged. Curled in the shade under his chair is a small tan-colored dog.
Sunlight cuts obliquely across the narrow room, halving the tables, the checkerboard mosaic floor, and the white milk tiles along the walls, dividing the room into bright watery sunlight and deep shade. At the back of the restaurant, almost in darkness, two waiters rearrange a second room, lifting the tables up and over between rows of chairs to form one long table. Apart from the man with the newspaper, I am the only customer.
Condensation runs quickly down the water glass and over my fingers. I am surprised by the waiter’s hand, barely a shadow as it crosses the painfully bright white of the tablecloth. As he reaches to refill my coffee cup his starched cuff catches the glass. The glass tilts forward out of my hand and water slops onto the table. In an attempt to both stand up and step back, I jolt the table. The glass falls abruptly free from his cuff and strikes the coffee cup. Hot coffee gutters across the linen cloth, running over the fax and onto my trousers. A purple stain blooms instantly across the paper, obliterating the text. The waiter leans quickly forward, hands cupped to prevent more coffee from pouring onto me. Light shines up from the table to the young waiter’s face, and though I cannot be certain, I feel sure that I have seen him before.
“It was my fault.” I apologize and nudge the table with the flat of my hand. “I should have caught it, I had my hand on the glass.” The waiter pauses, as if startled by my accent. Purple dye seeps through the fax paper and into the tablecloth. My notebook is drenched, fresh ink spangles across the open pages.
“Let me get you some towels,” he offers. The coffee has stained his shirt-cuffs.
“I’m afraid I’m soaked.” I apologize again.
The waiter wipes his hands clean on the tablecloth and smiles at the broad wet patch on my crotch. “Here, we can dry those in the kitchen.” He picks up my notebook and I follow him across the restaurant, weaving between tables and chairs, holding my damp trousers away from my skin, pinched between finger and thumb. In the back room the two waiters set down a table and spread out a cloth, working quickly and quietly together.
The waiter swings back the kitchen door and holds it open for me. The kitchen is as large as the restaurant, with shiny and scratched quilted tin lining the stoves, refrigerators, and cabinets. Thick white plates and bowls are stacked in tall slinky columns on a cabinet facing the door. There are two men in the kitchen. One stands beside a sink scrubbing vegetables; the other, a tall thin man dressed in a short-sleeved shirt, apron, and checkered trousers, looks up and smiles at the waiter as he enters the kitchen.
“Hey,” he calls for the boy’s attention.
“What’s up?” The waiter sets my notebook down beside the sink. The front of his shirt is soiled with coffee grounds. The stained linen sticks to his stomach, pink and hairless and wet. “For me?” He points at his stomach.
The chef fractionally inclines his head, birdlike, and smiles again.
“Up? Up?” he repeats, imitating the boy. He does not speak English.
“Up. Food. What’s up?” The waiter points at the diced mushrooms and onion on the cutting board, and then points at his mouth.
The chef nods and arches his eyebrows, suddenly serious. Untucking a towel folded about his belt he offers it to the boy, insisting that he take it.
Another waiter returns to the kitchen. Leaning through the double doors he briskly sorts through a basket of tablecloths. “Why aren’t your tables ready?” he asks, looking directly at the boy. They are perhaps the same age. “Change your shirt and get back out here. I’m not covering for you.”
The door snaps behind him as he returns to the restaurant.
“I hope I don’t get you into trouble,” I apologize.
The waiter indifferently tilts his head and rinses the cloth in the sink. His neck and cheeks are flushed red. The Mexican washing vegetables steps quietly aside without being asked and returns to the sink when the boy is done.
“There’s the bathroom.” The waiter hands me the towel and points at a door across the kitchen.
We busily clean and dry ourselves standing together by the door, the boy apparently unbothered or unaware of how close we are standing. His short hair is heavily oiled and still tracked with the lines of a comb. He is sweating slightly. The chef looks up frequently from his cutting board; each time he smiles and nods at the boy.
“How are your pants?” the waiter asks. “Here.” He hands me another towel, thicker than the first. Above the door is a small fan fastened to the wall by a wire armature. He reaches up and twists the armature so that the fan faces down. “I’ve had to do this a couple of times.” There is a switch beside the door. The fan clicks against its buckled guard as it gathers speed, and warm, stale air billows down upon us.
The waiter squats down to wipe his trouser legs. “Your first time in Chicago?” He looks up at me.
I nod again.
“Where are you staying.”
“At the Halifax.” I point at the door in the vague direction of the hotel.
“I know it.”
The dog nudges through the kitchen door and pauses, keeping its eyes on the chef, waiting to be shooed away. Squeezing between me and the waiter, it skips past my hand, cowering as I reach to pat it, and walks a full slow circle around an island of stoves. The chef turns and, seeing the dog, whistles and claps his hands. The animal nonchalantly completes its route and trots slowly back into the restaurant.
“Not a very friendly dog,” I say.
The waiter reaches up to redirect the fan.
“The dog. I said he isn’t very friendly.”
“She’s old, and she shouldn’t be in here.” He shrugs and smiles, and stepping away from me he untucks his shirt from his trousers. He tosses the dish towel back into the sink and walks to the bathroom at the back of the kitchen.
I wait in the kitchen until my trousers are almost dry. The chef ignores me, it seems deliberately, and talks to the Mexican in Spanish, but the man does not reply. Pushing the mushrooms to the side of the cutting board, he places the knife carefully in the sink and then walks purposefully into the restaurant. I try to picture the boy in an attempt to place him; I have seen him somewhere else. But already he has dissolved into parts: small brutish ears, a narrow nose, a thick neck, broad and rounded shoulders, and blunt square hands. It is only when I recall the strange looseness of his arms, a slack swing as he walks, that I remember. I have seen him at the railway station.
The waiter is still in the bathroom, and on the pretext of thanking him I walk up to the door. The bathroom door is ajar. The room is dark, and the boy stands in front of a sink and mirror, half dressed, his shirt tossed onto the floor. A fresh, clean-pressed shirt hangs from a towel rack beside the sink. Sunlight streams from a small square window above the mirror and falls flat across his shoulders, chest, and stomach; his skin shines as white as polished silver. Dust rises and sparks in the darkness. He moves his head in a particular way, to the side, as if stretching, and I realize that in his hands, resting on the side of the sink, is my notebook, my diary. I watch as he slowly turns the pages, reading the notes that I have kept about the prostitutes at the station.
“Adrian,” a voice calls from the kitchen. “Come and clean this table. Now.”
I step quickly out of the doorway, but the boy has already turned, surprised by the voice and surprised to see me watching him. One of the waiters is leaning through the kitchen door. The boy pushes quickly past me, buttoning his shirt. Behind the island of stoves I can see the dog’s tail wagging, but not the dog.
“Watch the front.” The waiter holds the door open for the boy, and they both return to the restaurant. I retrieve my notebook from beside the sink and wait, unsure of what to do. Sheets of paper towel have been layered between the pages. The waiter returns carrying the tablecloth and my jacket in one hand, coffee cup in the other. I study his face to read some reaction, but he gives nothing away. He seems relaxed, completely untroubled. As he sets my jacket down a postcard slips out from the lapel pocket. He pauses for a moment and I pull the card out to hold his attention.
“It’s a postcard from my sister.” I hold the card up. “Happy Birthday Paul, much love, kisses, Katherine,” is inscribed on the back. On the front is a drawing of T. E. Lawrence. I have received the same image as a birthday card from her as long as I can remember. “She thinks he looks like me.” The waiter looks up from the card and studies my face. There is no recognition in his eyes. “I don’t believe her either.” I place the card down on the table. But the waiter picks it up. “You can keep it if you like,” I say. The waiter hesitates, then, without thanking me, he curves the card in his hands and slips it into his pocket. Walking across the kitchen he checks the coffee machine.
The chef returns to the kitchen. “Nice.” He smiles at the boy. “Nice.”
The waiter picks up a full coffeepot and smiles back at the chef out of courtesy or interest, I cannot tell. “You’re my girlfriend aren’t you? Aren’t you my girlfriend?”
The chef cocks his head, aware that he is being teased, and seems for a moment genuinely hurt. But as the boy walks past, he squeezes the chef’s elbow and the man again smiles broadly.
The boy backs through the double doors, shielding the coffeepot with his arm as he turns toward the restaurant. As the door swings to behind him he looks back over his shoulder, and with his head not fully turned he quickly cocks an eyebrow and winks.
I have spent the whole day at the hotel, determined to work. A second fax has arrived asking me to respond to the first, along with a third fax notifying me that a package will be arriving overnight. The bulk of the shipping happens in October and I must confirm the schedules. I must, it reads, complete what I have started. But my room is small. Two entire walls are glass, and by midday the air-conditioning cannot compete with the intense heat magnified by the windows. I have set a work table beside the bed, but I am distracted, as stupid as it sounds, by the boy’s wink, and the afternoon is spent pacing lethargically back and forth between the bed, the television, and the desk.
By four o’clock I have written only three brief letters: two personal and one business. In each I have described the view from my room. Immediately to the east is the flat and leaden Lake Michigan and an expressway, and to the south, about five miles distant, are the blunt towers of downtown Chicago. In the past week I have taken several walks and discovered, within a six-block radius of the Halifax, several restaurants (three Mexican, one Vietnamese), a launderette, a barber shop, and four liquor stores. The supermarket has recently closed, and there is only one small corner shop, a super mercado, and a Mexican bakery. There is a synagogue and a baptist church with a billboard—”Christ died for our sins”—which faces away from the hotel toward the expressway. The hotel faces Clark Street, and except for the billboard, most of the signage is in Spanish. West of Clark the neighborhood is Mexican.
In my brother’s letter I have doggedly refused to respond to any business inquiries. Instead I have described the journey, the forced friendliness of strangers, and my troubles at the airport: one piece of luggage arrived late and was delivered to the hotel with no apology or explanation. To my sister I have described a city grown so large and so boundless that like lichen, patches of it are dead. Only in the letter to my sister have I described the railway station beside the hotel, which is a haunt for male prostitutes and thugs. I have described the wild prairie grass that grows in pockets on the station’s sloped glass roof, and the boys at the station house steps, sauntering late at night, in and out of view between the stout stone columns.
At five o’clock another boy returns to the station, and finally, frustrated with the room, I persuade myself that there would be little harm in taking another walk.
Behind the station is a vacant yard, a flat gravel plain overgrown with thistle and clover. The fence about the yard has been pulled down, and most sections of it lie flat to the ground. Except for irregular stacks of railroad ties, there is no boundary between the station yard and the scrubland behind the hotel. There is a sweet scent in the yards. The wasteland is thick with heat and flies and bees.
A young boy, Mexican or Puerto Rican, I cannot tell, stands beside a car at the foot of the station house steps, and points ahead at the hotel. The car rolls slowly forward and the boy walks beside it, treading carefully through the scrub and debris.
I stand aside to allow both the car and the boy passage. The boy watches the path ahead of him, looking purposefully past me. He is older than I had imagined, perhaps 17, and his skin has an even, olive hue, as smooth as a child’s. There is a slight uneven stubble on his chin. Inside the car is an older man, perhaps 30, 35, clean-shaven except for a small sharp beard. One arm hangs out of the window, fingers tapping to a tune on the radio that he has just turned off. Neither of them talk. On the man’s arm, plumped by resting on the door, is a tattoo of an eagle.
The car turns out of view behind the wing of the hotel, and the boy stops beside a line of dumpsters and looks candidly back toward me. We watch each other until he walks away, toward the building and the car.
The building folds around a loading dock. A corrugated tin roof extends out over the courtyard, protecting and concealing the car from view. Collapsed cardboard boxes and crates litter the enclosure. The lower windows of the hotel’s kitchens are closed and barred and painted white. The upper windows are also closed, many of them blocked with air conditioners.
The boy is pressed facedown against the car’s black bonnet as if he is being arrested, his arms are stretched out in front of him, and his shirt is hitched up over his shoulders. He is standing on tip-toe, his shorts loosely hooked about one ankle. The man is immediately behind him, fully dressed, thrusting so hard against the boy that the car jolts. The man’s hair is black, crow black, greasy against the boy’s soft skin. Losing his momentum, the man stands upright and rolls up his undershirt, still pin- ning the boy to the car with his hips. His arms are tanned and his back is white. A small gold cross on a slender chain catches in his shirt as he pulls it over his head, and it falls between his shoulder blades. With his undershirt wrapped around one hand, he leans back over the boy, nudging his legs apart with his knees. One hand grasping the boy’s hair, he begins to thrust again in fierce, rapid bursts.
Turning to walk back through the yard, I am surprised to see the boy from the restaurant standing close, less than ten steps behind me. I exclaim in surprise, and he places his finger to his mouth. I had not heard him approach. His mouth is set in a smile, the clipped smile of a parent who has caught their child doing something wrong, but somehow endearing. Embarrassed, I step past him, stirring flies up from the scrub, and the boy turns to watch me, still smiling. His shirt is untucked and unbuttoned, and he stands with his hands deep in his pockets, squinting into the sun.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.