by Jane Hertenstein
Riding down the street on her bike, lost in thought, she was suddenly brought back to the present by the flags at half-mast. Who died?
Then she remembered: the astronauts. The space shuttle Columbia had broken apart as it entered the atmosphere after a journey into space, killing all on board. She suddenly inhaled.
The breakup was making her especially sensitive and melancholy.
Breakup. Even that sounded too simple for what had happened. What had happened? One minute they were whole, together and the next they were broken, scattered into pieces.
She cruised to a stoplight and put down her foot. At the intersection was the snack shop where she and Travis had gone for soup after a protest. They had met in Chicago doing community activism, whatever that was, mostly fighting for fair housing, rent control, working at the neighborhood food pantry. In fact, that morning she’d been out on a run to deliver diapers to a young runaway staying with a friend of a friend. She noticed a For Sale sign plastered on the shop windows; the property was shuttered. Everything was going away.
Maybe not everything. The gangbangers were still around, hanging out at the play lot, wrapping the swings around the high bar and sniffing tally from rags. The summer before she had tried to recruit them to work in a neighborhood garden. They looked at her like what the fuck, as if she were putting something over on them. The idea of harvesting a tomato made no sense when they might be dead or in jail by the time it ripened. True. She herself had abandoned the project out of frustration. Stunted green tomatoes hardened and shriveled under the first frost.
Things take forever to change, the lesson of her life.
While waiting for the light to turn green, she puffed into her mitten-less hands to warm them up. She thought wistfully back to the bowls of hot soup she and Travis had shared. They were both vegetarians and loved the weekly special, a creamy Greek leek soup made with yogurt. She wasn’t sure if she missed Travis or the soup. Or that feeling—a sense of well-being.
Travis had taken off to visit his parents in Florida and hadn’t returned. He called and, borrowing a phrase from famous last words, said he might be gone for some time. After that the shuttle blew up. She looked up into the sky beginning to ripen into clouds, wondering if perhaps in Florida he was experiencing the same sky, the same one the astronauts vaporized into. The traffic light changed and she pushed off from the corner to cycle home.
As a couple they were so poor that going to Whole Foods to taste-test samples was a date. He surprised her with a table he’d crafted out of pallet wood. They used to troll the alleys looking for treasures put out with the trash. An extravagance—he’d bring her little oranges called Cuties, and stay the night. To escape their cold apartment, they’d ride the Green Line train to the Garfield Park Conservatory to wander under towering date palms that brushed the glass-domed ceiling. They liked to pretend they were in a palace.
One time they went when the corpse plant unexpectedly awakened from hibernation and bloomed, its smell that of rotting carrion, becoming an over-night sensation until the spadix collapsed and the flower closed up, for another seven years.
She wished for a hothouse, a dying smelly plant, Travis and old times. Why did she let him go?
Oh, yeah, it’d been her idea. That thing she said about things no longer working. Now she tried to recall what exactly she was talking about. What she meant to say was that she was afraid and felt like shit and wasn’t sure anymore about anything. She had spun her bad day into rage and struck out at him and her whole stupid life—
Now she was left with an extra house key.
She pulled into the gangway and walked her bike down the narrow space between two buildings. In the back were steps leading down to a basement, where she stored her bike. She’d complained to the landlord numerous times that the door was not getting locked properly. Other tenants weren’t taking the time to push it all the way closed.
On top of that, the other day, while carrying her bike down the stairs, a football-size rat had skittered across her shoe, scaring the bejesus out of her.
The neighborhood was in the midst of transition (one of the issues contributing to homelessness). The alley behind her building was war-torn, strewn with holes the size of a compact car, where the city was laying new pipe, and none too quickly. Streets & San had left a sheath of iron over a crater and a backhoe was now parked permanently next to the dumpster. All the jackhammering, pounding, and digging had addled the rats, rooting them out of all their hiding places and sending them in search of new homes. As a result, they were everywhere. Bold, even in broad daylight.
Hoisting her bike onto her shoulder, she wedged down the basement steps and maneuvered into the main room—where she came upon a drug deal.
To be fair she wasn’t exactly sure what a drug deal looked like, but she did recognize suspicious activity. The man and woman quickly pocketed something. She stood staring at them. “How did you get in here?”
“The door was open,” the man answered.
“We came in to get out of the cold,” the woman added.
She may have forgotten to make sure it latched when she left earlier that morning. In her firmest community-organizing voice she said, “Okay, folks, time to leave.”
It never occurred to her to be scared. She was more startled than anything. A bare lightbulb hung suspended from the ceiling left on all the time, its arc never reaching into the corners. The floor was reminiscent of a root cellar; she wasn’t sure if it was dirt or just really dirty cement. Brick walls extended three-quarters up until a slit of window level with the gangway let in at best dim natural light. It was a basement perfect for growing mushrooms—or for drug deals.
A shuffling behind her; she turned, expecting a rat. Instead it was a kid, not a kid, a man, maybe in his early 20s with one of those fancy beard shave designs. He had a stocking cap pulled low to his eyes. She noticed he had bumpy acne on his nose—and in his hand a knife.
“Oh, hey,” she muttered.
When she first encountered them, she had thought she would just let them go, now she wondered if they might just let her go. Reality was settling in, like the difference between a bad storm and a tornado, a whirlwind descending from the clouds creating a sudden updraft, crossing the boundary of possibility. This was really happening; her knees shook.
Or was it the ground above her. She realized the backhoe had started up. The steel plate covering the hole was shoved aside and dropped with a bone-rattling thud.
“Take off your coat,” the kid/man ordered her.
She was street-savvy enough to think he was checking to see if she was “carrying.” She’d worked with this type of character, and hoped he was the kind that talked tough, but was full of bluff. The gangsta with a heart of gold.
All last week she had skipped appointments to stay inside and watch TV, the wall-to-wall coverage of the disaster and the subsequent memorial service. We’re all astronauts, she thought, searching for what’s out there.
The problem was with her: Why couldn’t she just be happy? Why did she have to ruin things? It had to do with love; she was never quite sure. Was she in love or in a doppelganger of love, love’s best friend? She had been distracted by the overwhelming feeling growing inside of her, the kind where objects outside grow smaller, more distant. So that when she suggested they take a break, there was a trailing of smoke and vapor in the rearview mirror.
The guy with a beard stepped toward her, his dark eyes fierce. “Bitch, I said, take your coat off.”
She thought again about disappearing; where do we go when we aren’t here? Some say we are composed of stardust. This, she thought, was too easy, to go back to where we started. There must be a fourth or fifth dimension that the soul can slip into like an envelope under the door. And, if that were so, her heart must be filed away into some spare parts drawer, ready to be retrieved.
With one hand he pushed her. She stumbled backwards, falling. Her bike landed next to her. She scuttled deeper into the darkness, her hands collecting grit and grease. The man and woman acted like they might say something, intervene, but didn’t. Like a person drowning she pleaded with herself: If I make it out of here alive, I promise . . .
The biting and grinding overhead filled her ears, a kind of sonic backlash. She imagined the backhoe smashing chunks of asphalt, masticating the tar and stone with its steel teeth. The kid’s hand lingered at his crotch.
The man and woman said, “C’mon, man, let’s get outta here.”
The kid pulled out his dick. There was a musty smell of cold earth and diesel fuel in the corner. She squeezed her eyes shut. Things blow up, she got that, nothing seems to last. There are things we have absolutely no control over. Yet she wished/hoped to rewind, a way to reset.
She’d change her life. She’d go to Florida and find Travis.
Overhead was a scurrying; she sensed the rats were on the move, in tune to the earth diggers above. Suddenly the room convulsed. “Shit!” and “Fuck!” There was a scrambling of feet. She opened her eyes in time to see a rat swing down from a rusty pipe. The drug dealers fell over each other rushing up the stairs. Cold air wafted over her before the door slammed, catching. She sat for a second, then got up and brushed the seat of her pants. As if only interrupted, she retrieved her bike and locked it to a post.
Once outside she looked up at the purpling sky. It had begun to snow, the flakes like glittering stars. She held out her hand to catch them. As soon as they hit her palm, they melted. Pieces of him and her. How quickly we can disappear, and come back as something else. All is not lost.