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Waiting for the End of the World
By Madison Smartt Bell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Madison Smartt Bell
All rights reserved.
Recent rain shimmered on the sidewalk, on Broadway, Brooklyn, in early morning and before the heat. From the doorway of a tenement at the corner of Berry Street issued a boy astride a plastic horse with blue head, yellow saddle, and black wheels. Horse and rider fumbled down the stairway to the street with a tin wagon clattering behind, the wagon rust-flecked and frozen-wheeled and hitched with a cluster of old twine which passed from its handle through a jagged hole in the hindquarters of the horse. At the foot of the stairs the boy paused and then swung the horse toward Broadway. House keys were pinned to the plastic pommel of his saddle, for the boy lacked a whole pocket in the pair of shorts which was all he wore.
The rider moved east on Broadway, propelling his horse with bare feet, his feet distinguishing by instinct between the glittering of fresh raindrops and the sheen of the triangles of broken glass which littered the sidewalk. The wagon, its rear wheels not turning, scraped over the concrete. Behind this caravan a wild dog pack appeared, led by a dissolute German shepherd with a lame front leg. The pack made a formal pass at the door of the Broadway Diner, where a large man in white appeared like a cuckoo out of a clock, slinging dishwater. The lead dog avoided the splash with casual ease and moved the pack along Broadway. The dogs loped past the boy without one head turning to inspect him. The boy followed them more slowly, passing down the block and out of sight.
Within the half hour he was returning home, horse moving briskly, wagon loaded with prizes from the street: a square of mirror, barely chipped; four tapered dowels from an abandoned bedstead; a Superball, still live. On the north side of Broadway, Larkin was sitting in the doorway of his building, his first cup of coffee cradled in his hands, watching sunrise diffuse light along the street. He saw the boy guide his horse down Bedford Avenue and turn the corner, making good time. Larkin yawned and, opening his eyes again, he noticed that the boy had begun to miss beats with one leg, his left. The boy crossed his leg over his saddle and scrutinized the sole of his foot, went on, flinched, and stopped again. Glass in the foot, Larkin thought, wiping his eyes once more. The boy abandoned his horse and went at a queer fast limp toward the Berry Street tenement, already setting up a howl for mother.
Larkin's newly cleared eyes focused on the keys pinned to the plastic horse. Mentally he debated his policy of noninterference, then set his coffee on the doorsill and crossed the street. He took the horse by its plastic ear and went awkwardly stooping after the boy. Around the corner he could see him being received by a bag-shaped woman in a pink print dress.
Larkin stopped and straightened up and indicated the horse with its disregarded cargo. The woman spoke to him in Spanish, revealing snaggle teeth and no meaning he could discern.
"The keys," Larkin said.
The woman spoke again more rapidly, jerking one hand. The other held the boy tightly by his upper arm. Larkin had no Spanish.
"No habla," Larkin said. "No se habla." He bent and shook the key ring against the horse, making noise. The woman made a fast move for the keys and Larkin went away. Back on Bedford Avenue a small, unlucky-looking mouse was contemplating his coffee from a distance of inches, and Larkin flushed it into the street. He wondered if the boy would be whipped or comforted or both; so early in the morning, Larkin thought, and the world has already found room to accommodate this one small catastrophe known to me.
Some days later the boy was seen again in the street by Larkin, who guessed him age five or six. The boy appeared in high spirits and was indeed able to smash Larkin's third-floor window with the found Superball, thus making Larkin's own floor a hazard. Larkin returned the ball without resentment, though he was too afflicted with lassitude to sweep. He drew an imaginary semicircle around the broken glass and began spending more time on the roof.
Rooftop, Larkin studied the changing shades and values of the air. He lay faceup, four stories removed from the immediate swelter of the street, his horizon bounded on all sides only by the atmosphere. These were the last wasted days of August, and the sky more often than not was clear. Larkin lay for unnumbered hours, regarding its deep blue transparency.
Motionless and almost unblinking, Larkin cushioned his head on his hands. His knuckles and heels sank gently into the heat-softened tar of the roof, but his mind was parted from such sensations. Empty air spread over him in colors modulated by the passage of the sun. In the earliest hours of morning this air was flooded with mist which rose from the river three blocks distant. Sunrise brought spears of yellow light arching from the east, puncturing the mist and evaporating it. With absolute concentration, Larkin believed that he could see the individual particles of suspended water destroyed by the power of the light, and he could feel this process also in the dew drops on his face and hands which were the last to go. When all the mist was burned away, Larkin's vision was rejoined with the upper air.
With full day the sun curved to the south, out of Larkin's line of direct sight. The sky's color deepened across turquoise into richer blues, while Larkin stayed transfixed beneath it, imitating the thorough stillness which was all that he could see. Time measured itself by no seen motion but only in some few sounds which came in series to his ears: a raised voice or loud radio, a muted backfire from the street, the susurrus of trains coming down over the Williamsburg Bridge behind his building. The appearance of a bird or a drift of clouds irritated Larkin, who wanted only to watch the air perpetually blending into itself—condensation, evaporation, events without beginning or end. In the absence of any other visual fixture the dots coursing across his own eyeballs were sometimes capable of distracting him. On reasonable grounds he suspected the air itself to be subtly poisoned and he waited for some clear sign of this fact to appear.
At evening the sun was crushed against the western horizon and all its light appeared stained with blood. Larkin renewed contact with his body and rose smoothly to his feet. The sun was jammed into the Manhattan skyline as if caught in a row of broken teeth, and to Larkin the earth appeared to be tilted. He looked south to see the roofs and higher walls of Brooklyn flaring sharply into orange, then shifted his glance to the river, now dappled with misleading rose-colored light. Down on the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges the lamps were snapping alight like beads dropping onto a string. After a long full day of nothing, here was too much something. Larkin placed his hands over his eyes and caused it all to disappear into a quiet and furry darkness.
Apart from a little necessary eating, this was an average day for Larkin, in August 1982.
Wrapped in his well-practiced solitude, Larkin went into the street. He walked quickly south on Bedford Avenue with his eyes bent on the surface of the pavement. The asphalt was embedded with many a lost or discarded thing. Larkin zigzagged across the street, stalking a pattern of bottle caps like a bored crow, moving from one minute coincidence to the next. Because there had been a cold snap he wore a long dull-colored raincoat which guttered around his ankles in the persistent wind.
Four-story row houses lined the street on either side. Laundry wreathed the fire escapes of the few buildings that were not empty and sealed, but there were no faces at the windows, which were closed against the unseasonable cold. Larkin crossed the next street and turned left. He paused for a moment to inspect a black skull-and-crossbones drawn on a tenement wall. The legend beneath it was familiar to him: IF YOU DONT LIVE HERE DONT HANG OUT. Larkin was not tempted to linger.
He went east on Division Street and crossed a star-shaped intersection to reach a sizeable concrete triangle designated by a signboard as LOUISE SOBEL PARK. Sacred to the memory of Louise Sobel were three or four wasted trees and up to twenty concrete benches crowded together at nonsensical angles. Larkin sat down on one of these, first scraping away a pile of sacks and bottles with the side of his shoe. On the bench nearest him lay a wino snoring irregularly, with a knit hat pulled down to his upper lip.
Turning away, Larkin frisked his raincoat pockets for cigarettes or money and found neither. He removed his seat to another bench at the southeast vertex of Louise Sobel Park, from which Lee Avenue angled off at forty-five degrees into the territory of the mad Jews. Farther down, black-coated, shawled, and bearded figures floated through the limbo of their mystic world. This was someone else's dream. Larkin knew their rituals only from the changes in their movements on the street. He moved again, to a bench beneath a leafless sapling whose stunted limbs were festooned with bicycle tires.
Larkin rested the nape of his neck on the bench's top rail and stared into the meager heart of the bicycle tree. He credited Louise Sobel, whoever she may have been, with some sense of either humor or perversity. The park was paved up to the very bark of the trees and its surface was harder than the sidewalk or the street. But only in Louise Sobel Park could a tree, that incomparable work of God, grow bicycle tires all over itself.
A spatter of cold rain ended Larkin's rapture in the wonders of the world. He went quickly down Havemeyer Street with his head tucked into the collar of his coat. On South Eighth Street he entered a bodega and traded a subway token he had found in his watch pocket for five Marlboros and three dimes. He returned to Bedford Avenue with his hands clasped before him, sheltering the cigarettes from the rain.
In the cool of an evening Larkin walked north on Berry Street. His feet took impressions from the sidewalk through the thin soles of his shoes. He passed a school and a storm fence hung over with vines and doubled over to Wythe Avenue. Here the Esquire Shoe Polish factory raised a sheer gray wall stories above the other buildings on the block. Larkin walked through the factory's doorless entrance and picked up a short length of pipe he had hidden in a ruin of plaster the last time he had been in that place.
The stairs of the vacated Esquire factory rose through the middle of the building, flanked on either side by enormous high-ceilinged lofts. Little was left in these spaces except for the dank-smelling air. On a series of previous visits Larkin had combed every floor for any worthwhile bits of machinery that might still be drifting around in the dimness, but all that remained was not only bolted down but in most cases welded too. Larkin kept to the stairwell, mounting toward the roof. The empty chambers returned a twofold echo to his steps, and at every landing he stopped to let it die, listening.
Despite the pipe he always carried, he had never found the least stirring of human life inside the place. The only signs of other prowlers were a few piles of cans so ancient with rust that their labels could no longer be discerned. Larkin moved at his ease in the factory now, lugging his pipe and pausing to listen from habit alone.
The roof of the Esquire factory was wide, much cluttered with assorted rubble, and surfaced with thick bubbly asphalt. Moving toward the eastern balustrade, Larkin gave some attention to where he put his feet, since there were holes in the roof where one might lose a leg. He leaned against the retaining wall and lit a cigarette, hands cupped against the wind which came down hard from the shelterless sky. The flat roofs of Brooklyn spread out far below him, beyond all plausible geometry. The horizon was broken by two checkered water towers, flanked by the night's first stars and the dim figure of a crescent moon.
Larkin moved around the edge of the roof and skirted the stairwell. The wind had enough bite to chill his face. To the south he could see a long line of bridges; on the nearest a subway crawled like a bright centipede. He skipped to the next windbreak, the hutch over the elevator shaft. The elevator was long out of service and its cables hung motionless to the ground floor. Larkin lit a match and dropped it down the shaft, watching its decline into the dark. Then he moved away from the shaft housing and went to the western wall.
Far across the river the towers of Manhattan rose behind a dull brown line of project houses fronting on the water. The city skyline was backlit and tinged with red and gold by the retreating light of the sun. Larkin stood exposed to the wind, which plastered his ears to the side of his head. He stared at the enchanted city, which he well knew to be unreachable. More elusive than a simple mirage, it did not only recede before him but hid behind him and on either side, whenever he tried to enter it. However, this was reality, one of fifty-seven different kinds of decoration, according to the Hindus. Larkin was an apostle of half a dozen strange religions and believed them all. A careless sound behind him made him turn.
He raised his hands above the wall and the wind brought a shower of sparks from his cigarette, distractingly pretty in the deepening darkness, in which Larkin could see several thick shadows moving his way. He flicked the cigarette laterally along the wall and sidled in the opposite direction. The shadows wore leather vests with knee-length fringes, which Larkin remembered as the colors of a gang he'd never seen north of Division Street before, not that it mattered now.
He had no confidence in the pipe against such numbers. Larkin slipped softly toward the elevator shaft and when he had reached it he went behind the housing, dropped to his knees and crawled. He could hear a hiss of voices but it came no nearer. The shadows had moved away from the stairwell. When Larkin reached it, it was empty, and he left the building unhindered.
Toward the end of the month there was constant wind. It stood up from the river like a live thing, stretching out urgency to the east. This wind was air with a purpose. It crossed the vacant space intervening between the river and Larkin's roof to nag at his hair and clothing where he lay. Briefly disturbed by this change in his state, Larkin learned to conceive of himself as a stick or stone impervious to such harrying along its edges. Still the wind succeeded in altering things; it hurried Larkin's tranquil sky ahead of it.
He himself remained still while the wind hastened all around him. The sky in these days was fractured by motion; unfamiliar aircraft scored lines on its surface which were irregularly crossed by pigeons and the odd gull lost from the sea. Larkin was ill at ease in the new conditions. The air itself was shattered and seemed on the point of departure and in the flurry of its motion it could no longer capture light; fragmentary color rushed through it and was gone. Larkin wished for the wind to arrest itself for his inspection, but it afforded no visible figure to his eye.
Excerpted from Waiting for the End of the World by Madison Smartt Bell. Copyright © 1985 Madison Smartt Bell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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