by Michael Corrao
I sat on the sidewalk; smoked cigarettes. I never put fewer than two in my mouth because I figure the time combined is worth more than the time separate. You can’t tax two things like you tax one thing. The sidewalk was black and gray with powder brown cracks. The ground was opening up and I thought it would swallow me up, but I didn’t want the world to think I was scared of it so I just sat still and took drags as they came to me.
“Hit the road jack and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more.” I sang through the smoke screen. Ray Charles played along between my ears. The sidewalk was cold and broken. I felt the damp earth against my ass; small veins soaking into my pants.
Two cops in blue stood over me and I asked them, “Did my mother send you?” They told me they didn’t know who I was or who my mother was. I stood up and one of them smacked his nightstick against my knee. I told him I was trying to stand. He said I should stay seated.
“Wanna cig? I think I can manage to bum one or two,” I said. The first cop was winding up to hit me again, but the second one stopped him. They talked amongst themselves for a second, then the first shrugged and the two of them sat down on either side of me. I passed one a cigarette and then the other. They lit their own and got comfortable.
“I was trying to look up at the stars, but I think someone must’ve stolen them, because I’m not seeing any. You two ought to try catching ‘em; should be easy to find them. Look for someone bright—bright future, bright complexion—and arrest them. Something new for the two of you,” I said.
“We arrested a couple of white boys up on Third Street,” one said.
“I don’t remember if those two were white or brown. They might’ve been brown. I’m not sure it really matters. They didn’t steal anything. They were just a couple of rats is all,” the other said.
“I don’t think you found them yet. I think you need to go off looking for ‘em. Take a smoke break then head back out on the beat and pick up a couple of star-stealers—star-killers—whatever they are. It’s not right.”
“You don’t know the job. Leave it to us.”
“Right, right, right,” I nodded, “You two ever see a mom walking around here? Doesn’t have to be mine; was though. You’d know her off the first sight. She’d be walking around with roof shingles and maybe a couple of hammers on her.”
“We saw a couple of guys working in construction today, no women though.” The officer took a long drag of the cigarette. I flipped open the pack and pulled out two more for myself and lit them.
“There was one woman over there,” the other said. “She wasn’t wearing a hard hat, but she was there. I don’t know. She might have been one of the suits for the company or the building complex.”
I checked my watch and said, “Too bad, too bad. I’ve been looking around for her, not finding her. Thought she might’ve sent the two of you over to apologize. Too bad.”
“If she’s gone missing, we can have you walk over to the station with us and fill out some paperwork. I don’t know how much it’ll do for you, but it’s worth a shot.”
“Good to hear that.” I stood up, “Not sure that I’m gonna take you up on the paperwork, but I’ll head down to the station with the two of you either way.”
“Why’s that,” the officer asked.
“Both you two have been sitting here for a little too long, taking a break from work, smoking on the ground. I’m taking the both of you in for loitering; making a citizen’s arrest, if I can.” I waved my hand and the two of them stood up—flicking their cigarette butts into the street. “Can I borrow those cuffs,” I said to the first one. He nodded and took them off of his belt. I clipped them onto his hands then did the same to the other one, “Where’s the station?” The latter officer took the lead.
Five blocks down the street, I followed behind the two of them, swinging their nightsticks on either side of me. They spent the walk muttering and murmuring to one another. I’d slap a baton against one’s arm and they’d stop for a couple seconds, then they’d get back to it.
We got to the police station and I wasn’t impressed. The walls were some boring type of beige and the doors were Plexiglas holding metal bars. It didn’t say ‘police’ in big letters anywhere which was a shame because I thought it ought to. When we were standing at the top of the steps—in front of the entryway—the two cops stopped and told me they’d cover the rest of the process, which was good of them. I’m not much for paperwork. They walked in and I watched for a moment as the other officers took them by the cuffs and pulled the two of them into the jail area.
Then I was at a downtown bus station and things felt a little different. The platform was decrepit and empty except for a woman with a stroller and an old man reading a pocket book. The woman had a pocket-book, it wasn’t his. I smiled and gestured to the latter and then walked up to the geezer. He was coughing and sniffling every thirty seconds or so.
“You ever seen a Warhol?” I asked.
He looked up and squinted, “I think everyone has by now.”
“Well if we take the six down Oak then we can be at the art gallery by ten. I think they’ve got Rothkos too. Like Rothko? Lovely colors, when he puts them together.”
“I don’t know if I have the time to look at art right now.”
“It’s all nonsense.” The number six bus pulled up beside us and I ushered him quickly. He tucked his pocket book into his coat. We sat down beside one another. “What’s your name?”
“Henry,” he said.
“Right. I figured you’d be a Henry. It’s a strong, plain name. Sturdy. Who do you like to look at? If it isn’t Warhol or Rothko.”
“When I was young my mother showed me a lot of Picasso paintings and I thought they were all very lovely things. I remember the one with the man playing the guitar always made me so deeply sad and fulfilled. It was very powerful.”
I nodded and then leaned back against the rigid seat. Looking around the bus, I noticed it was more populated than the station’d been. A couple of hooded kids sat in a pack near the back. They were all in black and stick slim. Out front of the bus was another woman with another stroller across from a couple holding hands. They looked like a couple of well-off visitors from uptown—maybe came down for a date night, maybe not. The old man continued to sniffle on and on. I leaned over and gave him a bit of his coat, he obliged and used it as a handkerchief. Out the window, we passed a couple of dancers that were slowly and melodically moving along the sidewalk. Henry pointed at them, tapping his fingers against the glass. The bus stopped and I pulled him out quickly.
The art gallery was closed, which was expected. The easy bit about that was that the owners never bothered locking it. The logic was present. If you put a close sign, people make assumptions. Most people did, but my reading skills aren’t what they used to be, so I stepped in. Henry had a little trouble at first, but I told him to close his eyes and guided him to the door. It helped him when the words weren’t there anymore.
I flicked on the lights and grabbed a couple of pamphlets for the two of us. We walked through the gallery, setting on the wood floor between long white halls filled end to end with canvas—some blank, some not. In a side room, I spotted a Rothko. It was swelled in deep blue.
“I don’t get it,” Henry said. I didn’t either. Paintings are always nonsense to me. No one was around though, so I figured I could use the moment to try and get a grasp of things. I gave Henry my cigarettes and walked up to the painting and rotated it around.
“Do ya get it now?” I asked.
Henry shook his head no. I rotated it some more. I asked again and he shook his head again. We went on until it was back where it started. I nabbed my cigarettes back from the old man and said: “I don’t know about you—I do—but I think I have a pretty good idea of how it all works now. He’s sad upright, apathetic on his side, and happy when he’s wrong side down. I think the painting’s relatable. He might’ve intended it that way.”
Henry nodded, “I don’t think I understand art very well. Maybe I just don’t understand Rothko.”
“You get it or you don’t, Henry.”
“I know, I know,” he said. I picked up the painting and set it on the floor. We sat on either side of it and twiddled our thumbs and got comfortable with the thing. I played with the unlit cigarette while Henry took deep breaths and looked at the wooden framing under the canvas.
“You feeling acquainted and all?” I asked.
“I don’t think I’d feel acquainted with it even if we slept together.”
“You’re a traditional man, Henry.”
“I don’t know whether or not you mean that in a good way.”
“I think the statement is neutral on its own. The way you say it is important here.”
“How did you say it?”
“I said it neutrally. Didn’t put any gusto behind it; no bravado there.”
“What does that mean?”
I ran my hands through my hair and checked my watch, “Do you feel acquainted yet? I’m getting a bit bored and I don’t feel like sticking around. The place is turning to trash.” Henry looked at me quizzically, then he didn’t.
“I don’t know what that means. I won’t be comfortable with it; it’s never going to happen,” Henry shook his head. I grabbed the canvas and set it closer to the wall, then I took the switchblade out of my back pocket and cut along the wood frame. Henry’s eyes got wide; I gave him the painting.
“Take it home and introduce yourself. Get initiated and all that. You two should be good together, just take the time to see how things go. I’ll call you in the morning about it.”
Henry reluctantly took the painting and tucked it under his coat. We stood up and went out the front door. I made sure the sign still said ‘closed’ across—just in case anyone thought of breaking in and robbing the place.
I walked him to the train and then we split off from one another. It was early morning and time was turning around. I walked around a couple of the blocks that were posted up in downtown until I ran into one of those mechanical psychics; the wires were all frayed out of the side panels and the paint was freshly chipping.
I asked her: “Where can I find a couple of soup cans around here?”
She said: “If you’re looking for romance, the grocery store is around the corner and the cinema is two blocks south.”
I could see we weren’t on the same page, so I kicked the side panels and walked away. She tried screaming at me, but the wires were getting a little heated so she had to calm down instead. When I passed the grocery store I laughed in its face and kept moving. The doors were sliding opened and closed without justification. Around the corner, I took a break outside a closed down Nickelodeon and sat down on the sidewalk. It wasn’t wet or cracked; the cement slabs felt fresh—still sinking into the mud and tar. My phone rang and I ignored it.
“I feel uninspired,” I said. A young woman in a trench coat sat down next to me. I glanced at her through the side of my eye. I said: “I feel uninspired.” She nodded and took an exaggerated breath.
“Have you tried futzing with your pencils and pens,” she said.
I felt around my pockets; they were empty and I pulled them out to show her, but when I did she just shook her head and exaggerated her breath again. “What’s the next step?”
She felt around her own pockets and pulled out a lighter. I handed her mouth a cigarette and then gave one to myself. She lit her own and I lit my own. “I think step two is to bum out a cig and then step three is to bum the rest of the pack. God loves a kind man, I’ve been told.”
“How old are you?” I handed over my pack.
“Something like twenty or thirty. It varies from day to day.”
“Ever been older than your parents?”
“Some days I am, some days I’m not. It varies.”
“Is there a step three?”
“Got a phone call lately?”
“Not one that I’ve answered.”
“You should answer it. Might be god or jesus or some other icon.” The woman’s phone rang and she pulled it out quickly. It tucked itself away under her hair and she nodded along to the cadence of the other voices. Then she hung up and put her phone away, “That was someone, they told me you’re too far gone. You’ve got some wrinkles on your face. Tired people are useless people; they aren’t real.”
She stood up. I tried to ask for another cigarette, but she left instead. My watch wasn’t working so I sat still for another hour or so and tried to sleep. It worked for a little bit, then a businessman came by and stumbled over my feet. He called me a twat and I thought he wanted me to get breakfast, so I walked back to the mechanical psychic and asked: “Where should I get breakfast?”
She said: “Some relationships take time and you shouldn’t rush them.”
There was a donut shop a couple minutes north. I stumbled around brownstones until I was in front of it. All of the outside walls were paneled in chalkboard—covered in colored words. I walked in and the inside was the same deal. It was walls covered in sidewalk graffiti, a couple of tables, and a counter lined with glass shelves and donuts. I walked up to the clerk.
“Do you guys serve breakfast?” I asked.
“We’re a donut shop, sir,” he said.
“Do you have anything heavier than breakfast?”
The clerk thought to himself for a moment and then ducked under the counter. He shuffled through the drawers—I could see the top corners from in front. Then he stood up with a tray of donuts. “These are the dinner donuts I’ve been working on. I don’t have the right paperwork to sell them all this early.” He set the tray on top of the counter.
“List ‘em off for me, willya?”
“Right,” the clerk waved his hand over the tray, “we have chicken, imitation crab, ratatouille, crème brulée, chocolate glazed, scallop, 8 oz. New York strip, and spaghetto.”
“Spaghetti?” I said.
“Spaghetto. It’s singular. The filling on this one is a single spaghetto running in a ring around the middle. It’s genius. The topping is marinara and the sprinkles are very tiny sausages.” He turned the tray appropriately so the spaghetto donut was on full display. I looked closely at it.
“I think I’ll have the chocolate glazed. It feels like the realest out of them.”
“It’s the best seller on the dinner menu. I’ve been polling customers.”
“Can I get it for breakfast?”
“I’m sorry, it’s the only one that’s not available for breakfast,” he said.
“I’ll take the ratatouille then.”
“That’s just a display donut, it’s made of plastic. But believe me, the real one will look exactly like that. Would you like to reserve it?”
“No, I think I’ll just take a different donut.” I pointed to the crème brulée and he shook his head. I sighed and said: “Which of these are display donuts?” He waved his hand over all of them except the chocolate glazed and the spaghetto. “We usually don’t prepare the dinner donuts until three o’clock.”
“The chocolate glazed isn’t available for breakfast?” He shook his head no. “I’ll have the spaghetto then, I guess.” The clerk smiled and put the donut in a bag and rang up the register.
“Five dollars,” he said.
I thought it was a bit excessive so I nabbed the donut and flipped the tray. He bent over to clean up the mess and I walked out the door. There was a bit of chalk on the sidewalk, I tripped over it and splattered the donut. When I stood up, the bag was soaked in marinara. I was a bit upset so I threw the thing against the chalkboard and wrote ‘fresh Italian hell’ on the wall. I think Dante’d be proud of me; we’d get along and understand each other.
My phone rang and the number was a lone ‘2’ so I answered it.
“Rothko and I spent the night together and we made love and I think that I now understand him.”
I smiled, “Henry, you’re a traditional man. Not a real one, but still a tangible one.”
“It’s like we’ve never met.”
“Call me an invitation to the wedding, Henry.”
“You’re an invitation to the wedding.”
“I’ll see you in the summer.” I hung up the phone and wandered down downtown. It was late enough at night and early enough in the morning that I thought I ought to be in a smoky club somewhere. Stories made it the place to be. I know one around here, but I was a little out of orientation: the mechanical psychic was a couple minutes one way and she wasn’t by the club, she was by the cinema. The cinema was opposite the theaters and so going north put me here and east of here was the Buddhist type clubs. I turned the corner and sauntered down the block. Then I was at the nightclub.
I walked in and everything was smoky. The music was stuck in soft, smooth jazz. No one was dancing so I grabbed a table to myself. The waiters swung by and I caught one by the sleeve and ordered a couple of gins. He obliged and grabbed me the bartender. They offered me the bottle and cups so I took both. A woman walked up to the stage—behind the microphone stand.
She took a deep breath and said: “I’m scared of the movies, they’ve been stealing my soul since I was up all night with the Downey Prince. What a shame, what a shame, what a shame. I thought I’d be on Bleecker Street but it closed before I was born. So I invited the prince back to my place but he said that it was nothing: a greaser’s palace. I didn’t know what that meant, so I panicked and took his shirt. I told him I’d mail it back; he said to use priority mail; I put it on a plane—economy class. I sent a love letter to him with 34 x’s and a lonely o. He said I should make a movie and I told him I’d steal a camera if I could. ‘Do you read the Times?’ he asked. ‘I think I might be running out.’”
The lot of us in the seats were snapping; the woman bowed slightly then pulled out a piece of paper and looked it over. She read it to the microphone: “I talked to god on the phone and he told me I wasn’t real. I told him I have wrinkles, so it can’t be the case.”
Another round of snapping. I took a couple swigs of my gin and then checked the time. It was early enough to sleep, so I got comfortable in my chair and watched the lady go on and on. Pretended I was taking pictures each time I blinked until her face disappeared altogether.
Next morning, I woke up alone outside the club, slouched down under the door with my wrist tied to the push-bar. The woman from the night before sat next me cross-legged, fiddling with an empty pack, tapping her foot against the concrete.
“When did you start working here?” she asked.
“I’m not sure whether or not I do.”
“Are you a poet?”
I shrugged, started patting myself down. Found a pack in my left sock and a lighter in my right, which I brought up to my chest, managing to push two bent cigarettes into my mouth. I lit them and took a long drag; the pack dropped on the ground next to me.
The woman grabbed it and darted away. I wanted to chase after her, but my hand was still chained to the door, so I thought I oughta sit around for a bit longer, enjoy the drags, maybe wait for another set of cops to come around and get the day going again.
In the meantime, I sang along by myself, occasionally looking up pant-legs of the people who walked past giving me smug looks, “Hit the road jack and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more—”
Michael Corrao is a student at the University of Minnesota studying English and Film. When he isn’t writing, he enjoys spending time with friends and watching old movies. His work can be found in publications such as Thrice, Eureka, Potluck, Century, and Ivory Tower. Michael is a Cleaver Emerging Artist.
Image credit: Darius Anton on Unsplash