Monday, February 13, 2012

The Selwyn

The Landlord stands in the line, dead weight hanging from my hand.  Once in awhile he casts a glance to the space of the sky that was occupied by our building.  On the other side of the square, another queue, longer than ours, waits in front of the bank.  In the empty lot the Christ actor walks around with a great wooden cross strapped to his back.  It must be eight feet tall built of railroad ties.  It drags along the ground.  At the OTB across the square there's just smoldering ruins now except for three cash windows untouched by the fire.  Everyone’s standing out in the open air, action goes on as if nothing happened.

Behind it is an old fortune teller storefront where they sell crack and heroin.  People of every stripe hurry up to the door, rap on the metal and then hustle away clutching their habit.  Two men light up just a few steps away from the door.  One, a tall skinny black guy with no shirt, just one tooth and a skeleton key chest takes three hits then coughs.  Although he must be a hundred feet away you feel the rattling cough in his chest echoing throughout the square.  He coughs for three full minutes.

Paper cups, posters torn down, discarded scaffolding, brick fragments, pieces of wall mortar, plastic spoons and forks, an empty box of Marlboros, a crushed Yoo-Hoo can, plyboards with nickel nails, half a pair of sunglasses beside the broken out bottom of a brown glass beer bottle, a pile of rat feces next to a plate of poison pellets, the feather of a bluejay and half a plastic straw with red, white and blue stripes.

It's past rush hour and all the people who work in the area have passed through and are gone.  Once in awhile you see someone walking quickly to the bus station or the subway.  A few people are looking to score.  Mostly it's just others lost, wandering around or standing in line.  There are handout lines, bank lines, the OTB lines and then down the street around the corner the people hanging out by the crack house, hovering around waiting their turn.

Someone in the crowd starts coughing, this wracking dry cough, like the end of an alcoholic hack when there's only guts.  It's an old woman, dressed like a bank teller with a bun haircut and a pinched face.  Her skirt is tattered and strands of her iron gray hair stand out, bloody pink spots on her cheeks.

A crowd forms around her.  People reach out to help.
"She's choking on the smoke!"  Someone shouts.
"Get her some water!"  The call goes out.
When the Landlord's reaches out to comfort her, his efforts are met with a withering look that stops him cold.

"I don't want any help," she coughs.
"I saw this happen to someone else," someone’s whispering.  "That same smell was in the air.  We were all standing around and suddenly Charlie starts coughing.  In a few minutes it was over."
"The coughing?"
"No, Charlie."

 The woman hears this, scowling at all of us, twitching terribly, like a cat trying to walk on snow.  Finally the Landlord's son grabs her, forces her mouth open and pours a cup of water down.  She spits in his face, wetting his chocolate-colored cheeks and turning his snowy white beard pink a bloody pink.  Flecks of bright pink blood dot his face, but he tries again and finally the woman stops coughing, and collapses.  Her head hits the sidewalk with an audible pop.

The Landlord's son hoists her up over his shoulder then sits her down, propped up against a wall.  On the newsreel above the square there are international and local headlines:
                         49 DIE IN MEXICAN CHURCH STAMPEDE

Kids run by, laughing, knocking into people in line, they shout and grab food out of people's hands.  The Landlord's son takes a swing at one.  But there are ten more, with bricks.  I dive in and try to pull him away but he's swinging and hollering.  Finally the storm passes.  The whole thing lasts fifteen seconds tops.  By the time the Landlord's son lies down the old woman we're engulfed.  You don't see the faces.  It's just fists and arms and feet, grunting, and all through this energy of panic that leaves you shaking, rubbing yourself all over to warm the chills that bite into your skin.

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