Sleep in any odd alley came piecemeal to Chris Banntry (and never luck, he would add, if anything else.) He called it bonesleep or curbsleep, or a number of other things, just as long as minutes of it were sometimes accompanied by a kind darkness. He liked the minutes where his bones could soften for the merest of moments and his mind go blank and his stomach cease its horrible arguments, and the insects, the ants and other crawling enemies, might take a night off from arduous labors. The darkness, inevitably, could bring enemies of all sorts with it, or the strangest of friends.
That darkness now began its slow descent above him, coming down in the night of the alley. It came down in pieces like a filtered fog, a shapeless bank of blackness here, a neon fragment there, riding softly over the rich odors of garbage and dampness and illicit moisture making the alley an outhouse of smells. It was a place where gentle reveries and dreams and memories had trouble finding a way home. The dull thought came that all about him was just a piece of Asia away from Asia.
At his left hip the torment of a long-known ache continued its stubborn life. Long before dawn, he knew, the pain would waken him and say present, just as it had all the mornings since he’d first experienced it, jarring any dream of its leaving his body. Darkness was welcomed and the smells and the promised moments of ease now descending on him, and he tried not to think about the ants and their swarming tactics, how sometimes the legions of them came in that darkness in resolute waves, ready to take over the world.
Red brick and dark gray walls of the alley became brush and thick foliage as he looked at them, as they dimmed at the back scope of his eyeballs. The fire escape overhead seemed limbs of a perimeter tree, doorways loomed singularly as sentinels, and other forms were other bodies posted in the shadow and the shade. A breath of air was moist-laden. Smells became the old smells: wet, spent gunpowder, acrid, with a burnt diesel air in them; flesh smell and flesh rot touching everything; everything foul. In-country or out-of-country this was sleep making its approach, coming on, teasing, playing at the edges.
His stomach argued again, promised gas as violent as a grenade, then quieted itself, muffled the way Corporal Abersham had quieted a grenade with his body. At the back of his head the block of wood he had pushed into place humped like a bogman’s pillow. It only made a half promise of softness, only tolerated comfort. All it meant was Time, intervening Time. All it seemed was a clinging grasp of Asia. It was all for appearance’s sake. He dozed off while purple leaves matted into the edge of night.
Later, but not much at that, he knew he had slept fitfully again, at best. Asia had minimized its presence in the alley. At his hip the ache was saying, Hey, wake up! I’m still here! You don’t get rid of me that friggin’ easy!
Then he felt hands pushing him gently but more fully awake. Under his back the hard reality of cement stated its presence. His nostrils struggled for recognition, his eyes, and all his senses. The hands pushed again, softly but insistently, not jailer’s hands, not top kick’s hands, surely not the hands of an abusive stepfather deep in an Iowa cornfield. Soft hands, but insistent hands.
Dawn, what there was of it to that point, slithered down on him. Clouded in it was a face he did not know and a mouth speaking softly, slowly to him. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean any harm to you. I just want to help.” The soft hands left his side.
Chris Banntry yelled, “Who the hell are you? Get off my goddamn bed! This is my goddamn bed! This is my goddamn place!” The soft eyes were looking down at him. His own mouth tasted like shoes. His hip was a real aching bitch, talking down his leg, live as a streamer, a banner jiggling in a wafer breeze. On one leg an itch began its tenure. “Damn ants,” he said avowedly to himself as if someday there would be a payback. The soft face pulled back abruptly with alarm riding on it and Banntry swore he could smell fear rising from it, could taste it coming at him as if it were buttered popcorn steeped in the air.
“I just got lost. I wanted to help, and I just got lost. I don’t know where to go or what to do. I just got lost.” The voice was a match for the face, each full of entreaty, bland and dining room soft. Without a doubt, out-of-place this deep in Asia.
“So, you get in my bed, in my place. Are you a fag? What the hell you trying to do? I got enough goddamn trouble without you creeping in here.” For a moment the reality at his hip was a white pain, blossoming like Willie-Peter out of a detonating shell, reaching out the way petals do in time-delayed films. The contrast was not lost on him.
“I guess the hell you’re lost! I guess the hell you don’t get to wear that suit out of here either.” He felt the quick sense of provincialism rear its head in his threat, a bland threat, a threat he would never carry out, though he knew its possible enactment. His eyes darkened more, his thin lips pursed contemplatively, lined with mockery.
“I don’t care about the suit. I just got lost, but I was trying to help. Look,” Soft Face said as he reached into his pocket, “I’ve got some food here. It’s just what I could bring now, this time.” He spoke as if repeated attempts at journeys were to be made. From the pocket he withdrew a wrapped packet. “I have sandwiches for you.”
“For me?” Chris Banntry said. “How come they’re for me? You I’ve never seen before. What kind are they? D’ja spit in them for a joke?”
“Well, not for you in the beginning, but for someone like you, someone I knew I’d meet here. Well, I suppose you. And I did not spit in them. That’s disgusting!” The soft face hardened a measure. The voice had more breath behind it.
Chris Banntry took the packet. “You didn’t say what kind. What are they? Sandwiches gotta have a name. Sweet potato and mustard, whatever, you name it all the time.”
The packet was thick and wrapped in tin foil. Its edges were neat and trim, the folds square and even, subject to measurement. It had a promising heft. His stomach, he thought, should have been in anxious anticipation, but the grenade sat there, ominous, picking up some of the white heat. The head of Soft Face relaxed, tipped that knowledge, the mouth opened, the eyes begging acceptance.
Another fookin’ do-gooder, Chris thought.
“I made them myself. They’re tuna fish. I was going to make roast beef, but I decided not to.”
“Why?” Chris said. Slowly he began to peel back the neat edges. They were so neat he felt sacrilegious, unfolding secrets.
“Because I was afraid roast beef might be too difficult for chewing.” It was a firm and honest answer.
“You make sandwiches for me or one of my buddies and you think we got no goddamn teeth to chew them, like we live on liquids all the time. Drinking it up all the time. You think were just fookin’ trash. You bastards really give me a pain where the sun don’t shine.” Looking around he added, “And that’s not your only problem. Not by a longshot. I bet a dozen guys have already got dibs on your suit.” He made it sound like the real threat he had wanted it to be in the first place, a viable threat.
A rustling sound, paper or cardboard, perhaps coarse cloth, a shifting of one whole surface over another whole surface, emerged out of the alley depths. A cough came as apt as a punctuation mark from deeper in the unknown. Perhaps another sound was a can falling bell-like on edge against stone or the hard edging of a curb, a tinny echo riding free. A piece of daylight touched a brick wall over their heads, a dab of it, morning tilting itself into place. Chris Banntry let go of Asia as the odor of the tuna fish on rye stuck itself in his nostrils bayonet-strong.
“You’re one of them do-gooders, aren’t you? Getting social awareness. Getting off on doing one of your nice warm deeds for the day. A pain, man, a real pain. That’s what the hell you are, the whole fookin’ stinking mess of you. A royal pain in the ever-lovin’ ass. City’s full of your crap. Up to the ears with it! All out plain fookin’ crap!”
Yet rich tuna and rye lifted into his senses. His stomach fired up again and the battle for survival started anew. Only aromas assailed him, talked him out of voice while he breathed, while Soft Face looked imploringly at him, while the white heat at his hip began its insidious quest of the day, to gain and keep his attention despite what came on the horizon. It’s off to a hell of a start, he acknowledged to himself.
“You got a name, sandwich maker?”
“My name is Floyd Spahn.” Soft Face tried a weak smile with his name. It did not work.
“You a lefty?”
“No,” came the weak reply. “Do I have to be a lefty?”
“I’m jerking you off, man, pulling your chain. My mouth is full of crap and my gut is gonna bust and I had a rotten sleep last night and the goddamn ants are promising to eat me alive and I don’t want to eat your fookin’ handout. That’s just where I’m at for openers.”
“What do you live on? What do you eat?” Soft Face had blue eyes and a pony of a nose.
“On handouts, for Christ sakes! Ain’t you the fookin’ saint of all saints. But I don’t paint it all over the headlines. You ask too many questions. My ass is killing me. My leg is killing me. The ants are killing me. My bed’s been invaded. The fookin’ jungle’s like a cobweb all over the place and you want to write a fookin’ book. Life sure has its moments, don’t it?”
Banntry moved to another sitting position on the cement platform, uttered a string of profanities and moved again. His boots were thin, worn, with leather like that of an old baseball glove worn down by its games, by endless line drives. The pale jeans showed off their chlorine history, faded in spots, holes at the knees, shredded at ankle like straggly whiskers.
“Why’n’t you bring Egg fookin’ MacMuffin? It’s breakfast time, ain’t it?”
“I didn’t know what to do. I just brought these. It’s all messed up with me. I just wanted to help someone sometime. Maybe just one time, I don’t know. I don’t know why I came here. I just came. I just made the sandwiches and I came down here. I didn’t know where I was going and whom I was going to see. I didn’t know I was going to see you. I just did it. I did it on my own.” The thin jaw set itself a modicum of pride, a sense of accomplishment.
Banntry detected the quick sense of pride in the voice, or accomplishment. Turning his head and looking down the alley, he saw vague light crawling now on the opposite wall as if ivy were growing there on the tiers of bricks. He yelled, “Hey, Morgan!”
A deep-throated voice, megaphonic, James Earl Jones-ish, replied, “What you got there, man?” The voice rose from a shadow lingering yet in another corner, but there was no movement with it.
“What I got here, Morgan, is Beacon Hill Golden Arches come down to visit us.”
“I don’t mean no goddamn company, man,” the voice in the alley said, “I mean what you got there in that hand of yours you goin’ to put in that mouth of yours right ‘bout now.” There was a sense of minor movement, as if a Pacific platelet had shifted.
“Tuna, man, tuna on A-0ne fookin’ rye. He brought us tuna for breakfast, tuna right off a table on Beacon Hill, tuna with lettuce, tuna with mayo, goddamn tuna without any fookin’ coffee.” He turned to Soft Face and the blue eyes and the pony nose. “You got anything else in there, Lefty? Any crap I should be afraid of? That suit ain’t for long, you know. You’re in Asia now, man. That’s a continent of a whole new color!”
“Do you call this Little Asia, then?” Floyd Spahn smiled weakly, an insider’s smile being put on, one would think, and then shook his head. “Nothing else. I couldn’t do that. I could hardly do this.” He gestured about the alley, the stable nothingness, and the darkness still abiding in places, the living threats. His eyes were still full of surprise, as much question in them as one could ask.
Banntry spoke again. “C’mon, Morg. We got us breakfast and no java. Lefty here’s got something on his mind, social kind of, This Living Earth and whatever comes with it, you know. I guess we’re it.” He looked at the round face and the blue eyes and the pony nose and the thin hands crossed as if in pose in the lap of the young man sitting beside him. The suit was, even to an untrained eye, very expensive; dark gray, thin lines barely hinting at orange, a cut so neat it might have been painful, like a paper slice on a finger. In the breast pocket a straw, with the paper wrapper still on it, protruded like an afterthought. Banntry looked at the straw the way coaches or teachers elicit responses, his eyebrows raised in demand.
“I was going to bring some milk, but I forgot it. I left too fast. I made the sandwiches and I left too fast.” The eyes above the soft mouth and the voice seemed screened, an allowed opaqueness in residence. There was an almost doll-like quality pervading them, too fashioned, too temperate, the mild reserves barely touched. A dim light glowed somewhere in the body of them, as if only the parking lights were on. In the poor light, in the glimmer of the false dawn, the face was nearly apathetic, a moon of paled, ashen ivory full of nothing but apology, calculated meekness. Banntry had seen a thousand and one faces like it. He had never counted on them for anything, ever.
The rustling sound came again from the alley, from the shadow in a far corner, out of which walked a shadow of a tall black man in a long black coat.
“Tuna,” said the tall newcomer. “I’ll be damned. Tuna on rye, and for breakfast. Ain’t we something’ today. Ain’t we somethin’ special. Beacon Hill tuna on rye. Ain’t that A-fuckin’ well. I ain’t sure what lunch is goin’ to brin’, but I can tell you I can hardly wait none.” He stretched one hand toward Banntry. “Like I tole you last night, your lucky day comin’ up wit’ the sun this mornin’. Ain’t no way around it, Chris. You got some luck comin’ on you today.” His huge hand wrapped around a sandwich. “You got stars in the right attitude. They been gettin’ closer for you all week. You gettin’ shit lucky for a change. Did you tell him about his suit?” He looked directly at Banntry and then at the mild speaker, the evidence of threat unmistakably carried in his voice. “Them stars is different. Collision course for sure! Some thin’s just can’t be helped.” He bit and chewed and shrugged almost in one motion.
Chris Banntry bit into his sandwich. His teeth felt wired, his jaw felt tired. Out of practice, he thought. In a quick motion he brushed an ant off the backside of one hand and screamed another long string of profanities, picturing the world as a huge crawled-on-all-over dung ball.
The tall man in the black coat laughed loudly, the sounds rattling both in his throat and in the corners of the alley, guttural and somehow imperfect in their tone. “They’s better than worms, Chris. At least you can brush them off. When the worms get aholt of you, they own you for good and then some. It’s like plowin’ wit’ them. Just turn everythin’ over, right down to bone. Leave nothin’ but bone, like rocks in a dark field, skulls and empty sockets and leg bones and arms spilt all over creation, the way the good lord meant it to all end up. We’s just meat so’s the world can carry on without us when we go spoilin’. They’s call it legacy.
Chris Banntry chewed and swallowed and chewed some more. The range of his whole jaw felt better and the grenade in his stomach lay pinned for the moment. He motioned toward the gift bringer. “Thank you, Lefty, for the tuna. Morg here is probably goin’ to carry on for hours if we let him. Morning exercise or something like that. Give him an inch and he’ll take all your rope. Some guys call him Preacher. What I should do is call him late for tuna on rye. But he’s right, and so am I, about your suit. It’s a stick-out down here. Keep half a dozen guys drunk a whole week if they wanted.”
“I wouldn’t care if it were taken from me, as long as they gave me something else to wear.” The fear had left his voice. He stood up, as short as he was a bit taller than he was. “I have other suits. I could give them some, but not so as they could drink all week. That’s not a fair exchange. It’s not what I meant to do. Every day I feel useless. I keep thinking about all of this. It frightens me, just having everything right at hand. I’ve done nothing all my life, really nothing, and it frightens me. When I go I want to know I’ve done something for somebody else, for other people. My whole life has been a waste. I don’t do anything for anybody. When I’m trying to sleep at night, when all I can do is measure things, it hurts. It makes the night longer than it ought to be.”
His jaw hung slacker, his shoulders sagged.
Morgan said, “How much you like it where the sun don’t shine, Lefty?” His laughter followed like a bad echo.
The small body of the man shook out his response. “I’m not a gay, but I knew it would be like this. You think I’m just a joke, that I don’t count for anything. You think I want attention for this or something else just as horrible. Well, you’re wrong!” Light had lifted much of the shadow off him. Banntry saw there really was a bit of orange swimming in the lines of the suit, and the cut of the cloth was severe enough to have caused pain. Hair on the young man was razor clean, lines of the cut as severe as the suit had been cut. For a moment he thought the morning visitor might have been stamped out by a sheet metal die. Other copies of him were all around the city, hundreds of them, thousands of them, pressed from the same die, the same inordinate and clumsy power coming to bear to produce a mere echo, a flimsy sheet metal robot turned out for a quick spin around the old city. He snickered, “Casual is as casual does,” to himself.
“What’s down there?” Floyd Spahn said, tossing his head in the direction of the alley, a bit of dare riding on him like a meek metaphor, frail but seated in place.
“That’s Asia down there, Lefty. You don’t want to go too deep into Asia. Some time if you go too deep there’s no way to get rid of it. There’s leaves there big as a man’s shadow. Time sucked right up into all the roots. Claims in the air strong as birthmarks. It don’t just let go sometimes! I don’t just mean Hong Kong and Nippon and all their crap made out of plastic and cut glass and fookin’ shiny tin. There’s more than junk and jungle and islands and peninsulas. Asia hangs on too fookin’ long for most people. It’s a leech if there ever was one, and that’s an early warning for you, if you can let yourself hear it.”
“You said I shouldn’t have come here, but I’m doing all right, aren’t I? Now you’re telling me not to go down there. You’re eating my sandwiches and I appreciate that. It’s something I had to do and there are other things I have yet to do. You’ll have to try to understand me. I am not afraid. I came here, didn’t I? There is something special in all of this you might never understand.”
He stood up and the lines of the suit seemed straighter, and the light reflecting in his eyes fixed them with a faraway look, almost dreamy. He walked off into the lingering shadows of the alley. They swallowed him wholly and quickly.
Moments later there was a muffled noise in the alley, in the darkness that had not let go, a darkness half a world away. It sounded as if a sewer had been flushed or a sump hole drained. Then there was silence and air breathing on itself and light trying to find its way home.
“What was that?” Morgan said, craning his head perfunctorily.
“That,” Chris Banntry said, “that’s probably the end of Lefty’s Delicatessen.”
“Or Lefty’s Haberdashery,” Morgan added, over the remnants of tuna on rye and mayo against the back of his teeth as pure as oil, and daylight still lifting shadows from their places of rest.
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