Fiction: Peter Christopher
Campfires of the Dead and the Living is a collection of short fiction by Peter Christopher. This volume contains The Living—an unpublished collection of stories written between 1990 and 2004—and Campfires of the Dead—Christopher’s first collection, out of print for more than three decades and originally published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1989.
In his newsletter, Plot Spoiler, Chuck Palahniuk named “The Living” as his “favorite story therein.” That story, previously unpublished until 11:11’s new edition of Peter Christopher‘s fiction, is now live on HFR for your reading pleasure.
I lived. Because of the rain and the cold and where I was, I walked and ran. The blowing rain rattled storefront gates, poured into the darkened buildings where hardly anybody lived. Neon now and then was the only light sunk into all that darkness. Neon was slicked on the black street in the shapes of puddles. I hurried. I ran for as long as I could and there was no one around. No junkies drifted in the darkness with the rise and fall of smack in their veins. No men were standing around a trash barrel with flames leaping out. There was no one for a long time, and then there was.
A man was up ahead, staggering at me in the rain as if he was drunk, or hurt in some way. He was wearing a suit coat under a long overcoat, both open to the roaring night. As he made his way closer to me, I could see his necktie blowing loose. He tripped up to me and stopped. I looked into his wet face and he looked into mine. I pushed past him, splashed past him. His blond hair whipping about his face in the wind and the rain was the same as I had remembered, his face was the same. His eyes and his mouth were what it was about him that looked so different to me.
The rain turned to snow in the little time it took for me to cross the street. Flakes as big as baby fists struck at me from out of the darkness. Snowflakes held wet on my eyelashes. The snow brought a new light to the darkness, and that light was the same as the dying flesh of Christ. Something like that, or something else. I was tired. I was afraid.
It was him.
I knew it was him, or his ghost.
I turned and looked. He was down the street, already farther along than I thought he would be, or could be, in the little time I had taken to pass him. Farther down than a dead man should be is what I thought. I really didn’t know. I stopped and watched as he slipped and fell to his hands and knees in a puddle that seemed to have filled up around him. His necktie hung down as if hanging him, drowning him. I watched as the snow covered him and the raw blackness of the street. I watched as he pulled himself up and stumbled on in the blinding night.
The last time I saw him alive was in the hospital. The redheaded nurse behind the counter was doing three or four things at once: talking on the phone, giving directions to an orderly wearing a big diamond stud in his nose while pushing a gurney loaded with a mutilated birthday cake and balloons of various bright colors, reading a patient’s chart pulled part way from a manila folder, those kind of things, when the nurse said into the phone, “That’s all very well and good for you to say, Mrs. Vitello, but as far as I’m concerned, we’re doing the best we can. Now, hold on,” and then the nurse said to me, “Okay, officer, I know who you’re here for. Just do what you have to do and keep out of my hair.”
Not too long ago on the subway train, a skinny guy wearing a hospital name bracelet and slippers made of green tissue paper shuffled over to me minding my own business. He pointed to a scar puckering fat from his ear to his throat. I don’t know why, but I thought that the wisdom of a whole life would come corkscrewing up out of his scar, as it might out of another mouth, in time to help me live or die. Instead, he said to me more or less what they always say to me.
“Hey, I know you, man,” he said. “I can smell you out, and you either cop or con just let loose of the joint.”
This sort of thing happens to me often, and almost always with somebody I have never seen before, some big dark guy or another one of the trembling lost or hunted coming up to me, falling into step alongside, and telling me about how he has gone straight, clean, etc. The way I look with my Boston Blackie moustache is one reason why. My hanging around cop shops for more than ten years while working for newspapers is also probably why. All the murdered and the murderers, the jumpers, the cutters, the torch jobs, the drive-bys, the drownings, the motorcycle wrecks and the car wrecks that I saw and wrote about are the biggest reasons why I guess so many of these slaughtered souls must think I am the law.
The nurse in charge that night, when she first looked up at me from all that she was doing, had the kind of face that promised me what everybody wants–I could still remember then what everybody wants–before that face–beautiful, powerful–composed itself back to dealing with the dull terror of working in a hospital. Before I could plead for an explanation from her of absolutely everything, the nurse said to me what she said–wrongly believing, I guess, that I looked like a cop, or like someone who had a clue.
I went down the dirty corridor from room to room in that place of no more pretending.
In the first room, a woman, I could not tell you her age, somewhere in her middle twenties, moaned from a bed. Her legs were covered with scabs, with clots of dried blood and pus under a shroud of sheet, which I went over to and lifted. The smell from under the sheet was the same as rotting meat found furry black on the kitchen counter after coming home from a long vacation. She moaned even more when I lowered the sheet.
In another room where the tile floor was one big drain, there was a boy with a bluish head, a massive head and a body shrunken to the size of a baby’s body. The boy was wired to a machine that beeped. The boy’s head could have been another balloon getting bluer and bluer, a balloon the orderly had somehow forgotten to wheel off on the gurney with the cake wreck and the other balloons. The boy looked back at me with what I wanted to believe was a kind of blaming hatred.
The one I had come for, other than for myself, was in the last room I looked in. I can tell you his name now. He was my friend, and he was the one behind the cloth partition I pulled aside. He was not dead, not yet. The back of his head was held together with gauze pads. A respirator mask was taped over his nose and mouth. The sound was of his breathing amplified as Bret’s lungs billowed open with oxygen, the respirator machine loudly clicking on and off with every breath. His rising and falling chest was narrow and white.
As I said, I had worked for newspapers for a long time. I had educated myself by studying the daily police blotter. One lesson I still remember was of the jumper pulled from an iced-up river. The hook had snagged deep in the dead man’s mouth, yanking up half a grin along with the heavy rest of him. His hair swung icy, throwing droplets of melting river water. His long hair swung the same way his frozen-hard body swung from the chain and the shining grappling hook. He was dragged up hand over hand by three cursing, gasping cops standing on a bridge. The cops hauled him up clunking hard, smacking things, and dumped him on the steel girders of the bridge: a human person about to become part of the grainy landscape, a photograph for the daily newspaper that almost no one reads anymore. I had taken several photographs before I realized he was someone I knew. He was the owner of the gas station on the corner near where I was living at the time. He had been a big, backslapping kind of a guy who a month before had changed the oil, the points and plugs in my four-hundred dollar Buick, and had told me that a coffee black, and a ten were enough to cover the job. I found out later that what he’d done to himself was over his woman. He sure was something to see. His eyes were gone, eaten by something. Most of one cheek and the muscle underneath flapped to show bone laid back bare and white by the hook. His hands were swollen a purpling-blue darker than the skin of the big-headed boy in the hospital, closer to the color of ice water in my grandmother’s heavy glass tumblers kept wrapped in old newspapers. Ice water flowed off him. Water trickled from out of his mouth and out of his socks the color of river weeds. A minnow gilled its last after flipping onto the bridge from somewhere inside his coveralls. I flinched when something twisted itself from out of the dead man’s mouth in a way I had thought was his tongue, or more water, something twisting and moving in such a way that I thought more hook was somehow ripping free before I understood that what was wriggling out of the dead man’s mouth and down his chest, trailing long wisps of flesh, was an eel whose head a cop crunched off with a boot.
“Shit, we could eat that,” one of the cops had said. Another cop blew a fart of laughter. Everybody on the bridge laughed.
Doing that kind of work, I learned a thing or two and I saw some of the dead. There was no doubt about it, their faces were very different from any living person I have ever seen: their eyes open, their mouths open, the weight of them. But they were all empty. When you are with the dead, there is the forgotten knowledge that you soon remember, the little flurry of discovery you might laugh about, that nothing much matters except that you are breathing and alive.
My friend Bret was alive from the pure oxygen pumping into his brain. I was about to put my hand against the whiteness of his chest when I looked up and saw the orderly watching me from the shadows of the corridor. I saw his diamond nose stud gleaming, catching and throwing light from some hidden source whose origin I could not find in the very real darkness of that place. Before I could ask the orderly anything about the light his diamond had captured and lost, he walked away singing, softly, gloriously. The darkness closed up around us again while I heard the orderly’s voice going softer and softer until I heard only the whooshing and clicking of the respirator. It was then that I remembered what it was we all want that the nurse’s face had for an instant both asked for and promised me: the hope of perfect understanding and acceptance. I wondered what this scene must look like to someone else, how we must have looked like a photograph of people you don’t want to have anything to do with. As if from the corridor, I could see myself as maybe the orderly had seen me, sitting on the bed with my hand outstretched and shaking over Bret’s chest. I saw myself wanting Bret to rise and look at me from wherever it was he had gone. After a while, after I had once more lost faith in myself, I pretended Bret was no farther away from me than the other side of the jagged line you sometimes see drawn through a comic strip panel in a newspaper.
I don’t know much about this night and the next early morning, other than that we were both alive when I sat on his bed in the hospital in the darkness. I know the memory–the weight within me of what was, and what no longer is–and I wonder how so far, after everything, I have remained among the living and not among the dead.
For a while, all of us lived together at 107th Street. Both the street, 107th at Amsterdam, and the building we lived in, were the kinds of places you either came to at the very beginning or at the very end of something. I think all of us–Bill, J.D., Bret and myself–believed something big was going to happen to us. We were either at the start of some wonderful opportunity or of some terrible injury; like someone down to his last dollar in change finding a twenty in the ripped lining of an old coat, or someone who has lost all control of a fast moving car just as he enters the dreamy understanding of oh, no, my head is smashing through the windshield. I think I knew even then that we were already casualties helping each other as I waited for the end.
In those days, the street was owned by drug dealers and their boys, who, I know for a fact, have murdered people the same as you or me for a night’s beer money. My first week living on that street I saw three people get shot. I don’t mean just hearing gunshots, which was something we heard all night every night, with the pops, booms, the crackling of automatic gunfire louder and more frequent near dawn. What I mean is, I saw murder on a hot afternoon two days after I had moved to 107th Street when the sidewalk on Amsterdam Avenue was crowded with sweaty people on their way home from work. A tricked-out car squealed smoking tires along the avenue while four or five handguns and shotguns jutted out of the car’s windows. Rap music pounded from the car with the bass rumbling so loudly that I could feel the vibrations in my teeth and bones. To the sound of that mauling music, I saw one of the dealer boys, sitting lookout on a crate across from where I was walking, get jacked right out of his sneakers by the slapping slugs. Another boy, shot and bleeding from his mouth, crawled along the sidewalk. I ran without looking back. Flowers, hand-written notes, Virgin Mary prayer cards, were underfoot on that short stretch of Amsterdam Avenue for a week or two after I saw this happen, as they were after other things happened too, none of which appeared in any of the newspapers.
The night after I saw the drive-by, I was looking out the dirty windows of the tenement where we lived when I saw three men chasing another man. One of the chasers pointed a handgun and shot the first man, who tripped wounded and fell between the sidewalk and a parked car. The shooter walked up to the fallen man, rested the handgun on the man’s chest with an easy, almost negligent grace, and fired two more shots. From where I was crouching by the window, I could see the man’s shirt burning in circles of blue fire. His killers laughed and acted out for one another their roles in putting him down while they strolled back to the corner bodega and to the line of buyers trapped in their own burning circles–the blue glowing bowls of their crack pipes wrapped in tin foil, wraiths not yet released from their bodies clapping and whistling for the celebrating, high-fiving killers.
The tenement we lived in was about the same as most of the tenement buildings on the block. The only way in or out, other than to go out a window and down a fire escape or up to the roof, was the broken, hard-banging front door. Once inside the building, you noticed how the doors to most of the apartments were covered with steel plating to protect the dealers, the Dominicans and Cubans and Puerto Ricans, the young and rarely innocent and the very old, the old getting older fast and young getting stronger, the few ancient Irish left behind who would dodder, blinded, onto the streets only around noon for the little cans of cat food they survived on. Even at noon, the stairwell in our building was dark, the light bulbs on every landing broken so you could not see the bodies brushing wet against you in the darkness until their skin was against your skin. You could not at first see the faces of the men, and the women on their knees in front of the men, and then you could. You could see the men gaping, their tongues out and their eyes rolling as if they were being hanged, or drowned. Their faces would bob under into deeper shadow, twist back up so I could again see their faces, their mouths grunting and gasping and calling out. From the darkness of another landing, hidden, or not, I watched and breathed in the sweat and cat piss smells, the cooling crack smell the same as incense used at funerals.
I would watch their resurrection to the seeming impossibility of this human life.
The apartment we lived in was long and narrow as if an old subway car had run off the nearby IRT Broadway tracks and was buried in a collapsing building in Spanish Harlem. Cast iron pipes ran under the ceiling and down the walls. The pipes, the walls, the floor, were covered with six or seven layers of flaking paint. Every stick of furniture was broken. The carpet was napped-up where bullets had traveled through the ceiling of the apartment below, bullets splintering through the floorboards before whapping, caught, in the rotting carpet. Cigarette smoke had been blown over everything for years and years.
There were other things too, things that I have never told anyone before now, a sense of something, others, I could somehow feel, really feel, and sometimes see, as if these others were the afterimage burning on the tube of an old black and white television. There was what remained of a boy studying a leather-bound book in the wavering circle of a sputtering oil lamp, pimps wearing bowler hats and fur-collared coats while snapping down cards, drunks huddled together over a bucket of sudsy bathtub beer: all dead for many years by the time we lived there, and yet something of each of them remained in those rooms, their ghosts, or whatever you want to call them, that I felt as suffocation, a slipping under into the layers and layers of lives long ago and yet somehow present.
Every moment I was there, I knew my life was the same as the smoke and the dust settled thick over the lampshades, over everything in the apartment. The dust of years somehow lost sifted through my veins.
As for the others during our time together at that place, I can only say what happened to them. Bill soon married and got out. J.D. left to travel around. Bret turned twenty-two or twenty-three, something like that. I waited, and ate rotting fruit. I was at the end of what I had had with a woman. I had run around on her and when she caught me she tried to claw my eyes out, which I could take. Her being near forty and desperate for a baby is what got to me. Her desperation, along with two or three other things– my not having much money, and little chance of getting any, my fear, were what brought me to 107th Street.
Before he was ash and bone scattered by his family over a grassy hill in the park, before the light from that diamond, Bret was someone who lived in the bigger back room of our tenement apartment. Why there at 107th Street? I would like to ask him that now, and why then, as if somehow knowing those answers could tell me anything. I am not sure why Bret was living there. His youth, and his wanting some sort of adventure maybe, his not knowing what he wanted and trying to find his way. I know he was someone I was not necessarily looking to find, with his silliness–a cheese doodle in his shorts as if he had a tiny hard on–with his stories and laughter and his Alissa girl. Together, holding hands, Bret and Alissa would stroll to the corner bodega for ice cream at one o’clock in the morning. We would tell them not to go. They held hands as if they were children who believed what they had read in some book of fairy tales and they skipped over those bloody sidewalks past dealer boys in hooded sweatshirts who waited there to hunt them down and eat them, who wanted to turn their small- town goodness, their innocence, into predatory flesh and bones.
Even during the day, when the Irish old timers, starving without a sound, would venture fearfully from their seven-dollar rooms into the blazing sunlight of the world, Bret stood out as if he was a gleaming, blond stalk of Indiana corn suddenly poking up through a crack in the street. He was a boy from a music video version of the world. When we walked those streets and sidewalks together, I could see how the dealers and their younger runners, the junkies, the ranting panhandler who would sometimes hang by his legs from a telephone pole on the corner, naked and drunk, would all watch Bret, trying to figure out what he was doing and why he was with a cop. They would wait for an opening before coming up to us, try bumming coin or cigs, and say things to me like, “Chief, I got friends, I got real friends, who know I’m okay.”
Another time, we were walking back to where we lived when a junkie, bleeding all over as if he’d been the loser in an ice-pick fight, stumbled up to us. The bleeder went toe to toe with Bret and laid this out, “If you don’t eat me right now, you’re meat, dead meat.”
I would tell them once, just once, as I told the bleeder that time, and they would startle away from us before taking a sudden interest in a tied shoelace, or their fingernails, or a mailbox. Who can honestly, truly blame any of them for trying? What I guess they saw in Bret was his yearning, his belief that things would somehow work out and everything in life that he wanted to do was still very much possible. The truth is, I no longer know what they saw in him. Maybe they saw in Bret what I saw in Bret. The drug market on 107th Street at Amsterdam Avenue is like any other place–life eating life. What is different there is how fast the whole thing happens. Kill one dealer and three more take over.
Sometimes, when I was alone in that place where we lived and wondering where the people who knew me when I was knowable were, I would go into Bret’s room and look at his things. His neckties, his shirts and pants, were all cleaned and pressed and hanging on a clothes rack. On the desk were photographs, snapshots of Alissa, a pack of bubble gum, a tin ray gun that whirred and lit up when you pulled the trigger, an Indiana University pen and pencil set, stamps and coins and picture postcards, Star Trek action figures, a plastic snow globe, things a boy would have who had a whole life to dream into.
I would shake the globe and watch what were supposed to be snowflakes, glitter flakes, blurring around what were supposed to be the famous buildings of New York. Fake snow settled over the fake, tiny city. I would shake the globe again and watch the silvery flakes swirl around what I wanted to believe was the magnitude of God’s love where God sees everything and sees the good despite everything.
Outside our tenement apartment, the forests were far away and I was no longer any good with a gun. On the sidewalks and on the streets, the summer heat and everything else were murderous.
There was the time we met at La Bella China, or Casa China, one of the three or four places near where we lived where we could have two eggs any way we wanted, also rice and beans, a basket of the hot bread that they make the delicious Sandwich Cubanos with, a soda and a couple of coffees or a cafe con leche with caramel when somebody else was buying, all brought to our table by lovely Latina-China girls, who smiled at us–the whole amazing thing for four or five dollars. We had already eaten, Bill and I had already eaten, with Bret finding us after Bill had picked- up the check. Bret was wearing some kind of overhauls or bibbed shorts that afternoon, the kind of sunsuit you might see on a toddler, on my two-year-old nephew Aaron standing at his and his sister’s toy box, and not on a man, not on a white man, and not on streets where school girls slashed you with razor blades. I saw this happen to an old man early one evening after I had gotten my rotting oranges. I stepped around his spraying blood. From what I could tell, the four girls cut the old man, razored him some bleeding lines through his thin windbreaker because he had the audacity to wear his white skin while carrying home a carton of milk and the Sunday newspapers after the sun had gone down. Everybody in La Rosita or Flora De Mayo or wherever it was we were eating that afternoon, was looking at Bret, the Latina-China girls gawking at him in his outfit before they turned away while holding their long hair over their mouths to hide their laughter.
I said to Bret something like, “Bret, all you need to complete your little get-up is a big bonnet, and then we can call you Baby Huey.”
The way he looked, his blonding height, his little bibbed shorts, and the meanness I had said to him, broke up everybody in the place. He really did look like a big baby needing only a rattle and a nippled bottle to finish the joke. Everybody, all the killers, and hustlers, the waitresses, the down-and-outers, the insane, were laughing at him. Bret was laughing too and his laughter was as real as the smell of pork chops frying and the cafe con leche hot on our tongues, or as the loveliness of those Latina-China girls talking to me with my not understanding a word they said, and not caring, just feeling less like a poor leper in their presence, in the grace they gave us.
There was also the time not long after the time we had all laughed at Bret. I had been eating little more than fruit for over two weeks, losing pounds fast. I was down from 197 pounds to 162, losing more than I wanted or needed to lose. Fresh fruit is good for what I have, the doctors tell me, and the rotting fruit I was eating went as far as anything went on the twenty-dollar bill my grandmother had sent me from the change she would find in the washing machines and dryers while working her three, ten- hour days a week at the Thrifty-Bundle Laundromat.
I have no doubt my grandmother can whip your grandmother.
She could then and she can now.
She was eighty-four then, slopping piles of laundry in scalding water and bleach, lifting bags of stinking clothes weighing almost as much as she weighed so she could send me that twenty. I was down to the change sliding along the top of my tilting-broken chest of drawers. When the Koreans running the fruit stands would quit trying to smell me out for a cop and turn their backs, I would gouge down a banana peel, dig a thumb deep into an already over-ripe peach or plum, so they might sell the damaged fruit to me cheaper, which is what they usually did for my not stealing from them outright. One night, when they did not want to put up with my clumsiness and I did not have the guts to steal their fruit, and when the change from the last twenty my grandmother had earned the hard way and had sent me was about all gone, I dragged myself hungry back to where we lived. I let myself in, felt along the walls to the room where I slept with a hunting knife under my pillow. I sneaked a little light on. On the bed, on my tattered blanket, and under Bret’s snow globe, was the miracle of a hundred dollars as if given to me by the god inside that little plastic world.
There was also the time we were sitting in our apartment in the darkness. We had been watching the street below from one of the windows in the front room. We were watching the dealers selling their three-dollar vials of Black Top crack cocaine they kept in the frame of a stripped car under a shot-out streetlight. Many of the buyers were bent nearly double in their agony, little more than shadows pushing bodies before them until they could hide somewhere and take a smokey hit. We sat watching, doing nothing, dredging up brief dreams. We were voices floating in the darkness once in a while.
“Do you feel it too?” Bret asked.
“Feel what?” I said.
Bret didn’t say anything. I could see him–his face and his hands in the dark. A light was coming from him, out of him, so that I could see him even in the full darkness of that place where so much was and was not hidden to me.
“Feel what?” I said, knowing of the boy under the light of that oil lamp I told you about, and about the others in their time and ours, and not telling him, and not telling Bret how as a newspaperman I would sometimes sneak into the darkroom after the day’s paper had been put to bed. I would print up some of the day’s photographs on special paper I would hold to diffused light. I would watch the silver halide crystals cluster into the darkening ghosts of Rotarians at their weekly luncheon, a young fisherman holding high his prize-winning fish, two girls sitting headless in their father’s car the older girl had failed to drive under a tractor trailer.
“It’s the crazy feeling that I’m being called, but I’m not answering,” Bret said.
“Called to what, by what?” I asked, looking at him, his flesh luminous in the darkness.
“I don’t know,” Bret said. “I told you, I’m not answering.”
As I told you, I moved to 107th Street after my girlfriend went wild wanting a baby–something to keep herself less alone for a little longer, something I know would have had me closing in even faster on more cowardice. When she got even wilder, angrier, after finding what I had written to another woman, Eva told me, “I hope your cancer kills you.”
What I have not told you is that despite her scars, her beauty was such that before I left I smashed around at my Charlie Parker and Puccini music with a hammer. I ate a big pot of black beans and garlic and then cleared out for good.
At the newspapers I worked for, death was something poked at from the safe distance of words that meant very little, words such as, “died unexpectedly,” or “passed away suddenly.” My editors told me this was done out of respect for the family. Most newspaperman I knew tried to do the best they could on the obits they worked on, getting all the so-called facts in, a summary of somebody’s whole life in six or ten inches of column space in the fifteen or thirty or forty-five minutes we had before deadline.
Most of us try to stay away from the hard knowledge of what really happens when we die as if we are innocent bystanders to even our own lives. We try to carry on as if nothing as bad as death will ever happen to us. If we are lucky, just more dates and names and other messy print will come off on our hands from the back page of the newspaper’s second section, after the weather and before sports. We will continue reading of wars done, loves done, lives done.
I have tried to come up with words that might show you how he died. The words used by his doctor are like the sun in winter, something I can see, but not feel.
His brain quit, closed down, could no longer do anything more with the oxygen pumping into his lungs from the respirator, and he died.
A cop was the one who told me much later, after everything, what happened.
“Yeah, we pinched the fucks, but we couldn’t get nothing to stick,” the cop told me in return for something I once did for him so way-back-when that neither of us could remember what the something was. The cop told me this some time after I had gotten away from 107th Street and I was living in an office I had to leave during the day and come back to at night after business hours were over. This was after Bret had moved with Alissa to one of the better neighborhoods where he should have been safe, where he should have made it. Another something that I have forgotten to tell you is how Bret was also looking for work at the time he gave me the hundred dollars he left under the snow globe on my bed, and how I am sure he could have more than used the money. He never said anything to me about paying him back, paying him for what he had given me that had kept me from joining the ranks of the dead with their faces looking the same as ice painted yellow while they knocked on the walls of that place where we had all lived together.
The cop told me Bret and Alissa had returned from running in the park. They had gone for a run on a day that I believe I really do remember, that I want to remember, as one of those days at the end of summer when sunlight and shadows are large and all around you, the light and shadows larger than the high rise buildings, the falling light and shadows so seemingly absolute, with those shadows moving slowly, absolutely, while there is the dry leaf smell, the lazy quiet, the almost Paradisal heat. The cop told me that following their late afternoon run in the park, Bret and Alissa had stopped at a grocery store. Bret was seen by witnesses as he stood outside the store in the shade of the building, eating a popsicle, plastic grocery bags at his feet. Witnesses also later told the cops how Bret was seen minding his own business when two young men walking by went out of their way to kick the grocery bags, sending apples and oranges rolling along the sidewalk and into the gutter. Bret said something to them. The bigger one hit Bret. The bigger one walked up to Bret and sucker punched him. Bret fell and struck the back of his head on the sidewalk. Alissa was coming out of the store when she saw Bret go down, saw the two young men running from what they had done to her toy collector, her laugher, cheese doodler, who was already twitching colder by the time she held him.
They got his killer, the cop told me. The cops got the guy and locked him up and saw he had no record, no warrants, nothing, and a grand jury agreed the killer did not have intent to murder, so the courts and the cops sent him home. The killer went home to work behind the counter in his old man’s delicatessen a few blocks from his victory over a popsicle eater. Bret became blowing ash, little shards and knobs of bone scattered under trees in Central Park, his soul leaking away into sunlight.
The doors to the subway car closed behind me. I had pushed my way on in a hurry yesterday morning and I was the last one in the car before the doors closed. I held on, late for work, and watched a cop leaning up against a door at the other end of the subway car. There was something about the cop, who was most likely half my age, which made him look older than his years. I could see what they see in me in him, but I am not a cop. I am not a newspaperman anymore and I have not worked for news- papers for a long time. I am an office boy closing in on forty, who, once in a while, will get up the courage to steal books from where I work to sell for train fare or to eat a little better. What I could see in the cop was that we had both seen a lot of things and we had both come to understand how most things do not work. Most things do not come close to working as they should and none of them can be saved.
The train car we were in whammed along and I watched the cop and some others: paperback readers, a man working a pencil at a crossword puzzle, briefcase carriers, sleepers, a young woman hiding behind sunglasses, all of them looking a lot braver than I feel. Not one of them was letting on how they were tiny nerve-ending bundles of terror, stunned hearts and minds, neither loved nor loving. None of us, whatever we were or were not, had the imagination to scream. I watched a woman with three sleeping kids and a gigantic bag of laundry.
I could be making up what I am about to say, but I seem to remember this as true. The name of the laundromat where my grandmother worked was changed and named after her. The Thrifty-Bundle Laundromat was changed to the Rose Maroni Laundromat and Car Wash, or it was just the car wash they named after her, or they named the day the car wash opened Rose Maroni Day. Whatever happened for her should have. All of whatever happened and more should be true for her. She is the same as Bret was, somebody who is not afraid to love straight on through.
The train clattered underground and came out again quieter. The girl with sunglasses was watching me, I could tell she was. I stared back at her until she took off her sunglasses. Alissa, appearing a lot different from just having her dark hair cut wavy short, different from the photographs and snapshots of her that had been on Bret’s desk, looked at me and did not say anything. When she did, she said, “I know you.”
I talked, talked, talked from my small mouth while the train hurtled on. I talked and the last tiny words I remember saying to her were, “You know, I’ve been thinking about him.”
She smiled at me, at my meagerness, and she put her sunglasses back on. The braking wheels screamed the subway train to a stop. The train doors opened and we got off together. I kissed her hair before she walked away into what was left of her young life, already old with sadness. Seeing her like this, her dignity, her very real bravery, was better to me than eating steak. I watched her walk away until I could not see her anymore, and I was again reminded how there is never any answer good enough, never any consolation.
Last night, I dreamed I was walking in darkness. I woke in the coldness of my empty room and from where I lay in bed looking out the window, I could see there was little light from the sky. In my dream, I was walking in a place of absolutely no light and I was afraid. Snow was beginning to fall. Snow filled the darkness with a pale light as if the faintest kind of blessing. I looked closer, and instead of snowflakes, fetuses no larger than snowflakes were falling all around me. I held out my hand. Tiny fetuses floated into my hand. I looked down and I could see their tiny feet, their tiny hands and heads. But in my dream, I knew they were fetuses and I knew they were alive. I could see their blind eyes, their chests rising as they drew breath, the beating of their tiny, bulging hearts through the milky skin of their nakedness. I could see their mouths opening greedily for the sweet, hot milk of life, and I was no longer afraid.
Peter Christopher taught at Georgia Southern University for many years and was a recipient of a 1991 National Endowment of the Arts fellowship in creative writing. Though only Campfires of the Dead was published during his lifetime, through his teaching, mentorship, and friendships, Christopher had a lasting impact on writers Harry Crews, Gordon Lish, and Chuck Palahniuk among others.
Copyright © Carolyn Altman, 2022. Printed with permission from 11:11 Press.