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David Ryan

Talent

A block away from my apartment I run my hand through my hair and as it snags along the tangles suddenly the anger rises up in me and I donít care if Iím in public, I start to talk out loud.

Amigo, I say.

Compadre, I say.

Hola, I say, my fingers catching and pulling out the bits of food caught in my hair, the loose accumulation of this dayís lunch and early bird shiftsóhard flecks of corn tortilla, small clumps of jack cheese, black beans, pico de gallo, gathered and strung here and there like bits of tissue paper you sometimes see woven into birdsí nests. I start muttering chingado under my breath, cabrůn, and punta, the epithets running in a looping stream, words Iíve learned out of habit at this job; the words I learned too well; words the others call me when I pass them to get at another dish rack roller, or ask Orlando the head cook for my employee meal; the words they mouth when I catch one of their gazes through the steam.

At first when they hassled me I figured it was because I was the new employee, the yet-to-be-initiated. But every following day was a new initiation. I complained to Burt, the owner. He complained back, saying that he canít get good help, and the way he said help could have meant me, could have meant my tormentors.

I could pretty easily say that Iím between jobs if someone asked if I was working, and as far as Iím concerned Iíd be telling the truth. Dishwashing at Pollo Loco is like one of those between-jobs jobs. Iím not even that good at dishwashing. The problem is that the worse it gets, the more I am compelled to stay. Itís some sort of pride thing with me, or maybe a Calvinist gene that was never weeded out over time. Anyway, the only write-up Pollo Loco ever got was one that said we used mice in the fajitas instead of steak. We all knew that was just a rumor Burritovilla down the street had spread to get us out of our lease. But try telling that to your prospective customer.

I cross under the El tracks and a pickup truck swerves off the street seemingly to hit me, and I chalk another one up to the Gods of the Absurd, and it dawns on me that all thisóthe dishwashing gig, the daily hat dance in the kitchen, just about everything in my life right nowóitís all so ludicrous that someday, as they say, Iíll laugh about it. Then it dawns on me that by this measure my life has been ludicrous going on a year and a half, and that seems kind of long.

Goat, I say.

Fuckface, I say.

Son of a dog, I say. But the words sound better in Spanish.

As I cross Diversey I look up and see my sister Tammy up on our fire escape. She has her new telescope out. How strange the two of us must look when weíre outside together up there. She is immense. She waves to me, and as I wave back I feel something brush against the back of my head. I turn as if to greet a friend, because that is what it feels like at first, like someone friendly tousling my hair, and a black shape brushes against my face, and then another black shape flaps and swishes by, and then one of their beaks tears out a plug of hair and it is then that I realize the impossible. A pack of crows has lit on me, trying to get at the food lodged in my hair. Iím swinging my fists as I cross the street, batting them off, screaming. I continue screaming once I get inside my apartmentís foyer as the crows stand on the sidewalk and look through the glass door. Their beady eyes follow me as my scrunched-up face gradually goes back to normal and I turn and rise the stairs.

Howíd you get them to do that all together? Tammy says, climbing back in the window from the fire escape.

Itís some curse, I say. I canít get respect anywhere.

Yeah, she says. She goes over to the sofa and sits, and I try not to look like I notice her weight pressing over the sides, the folds of a near surreal amount of flesh that grows around her every day. You see, Tammy is what you would call a heavy girl. Perhaps surreal most of all because sheís only recently been like this. Itís still new to us both. Our two lives have hit a low, a pitch, a bottom, a nadir, for which neither one of us has been prepared.

Tammyís husband, Don, calls every once in a while. His voice is oily. I can hear his breath when he talks. Itís clotted with something. Not guilt, or regret, but something nearby the two.

How is she? heíll ask without a greeting. Then I hang up.

They had one of those picture-book marriages until she was diagnosed with the thyroid problems. She started taking correctivesógetting shots, pills, changing her diet every two or three weeks. She continued to grow. Don couldnít handle it. He started accusing her of things. Closet eating, closet growing, as if she would intentionally grow. Next thing I know sheís here, living with me. This all about a year ago. She goes to the doctor twice a week for monitoring. She cries sometimes. We donít talk about it.

Tammy works at the Odeon, a revival theater a few blocks away. Right now theyíre playing a Buster Keaton festival, in daily double features. Tammyís up for a promotion. Sheís put in for a management position or a job as the projectionistís apprentice. She told them either is fine.

She bought the telescope a few months ago. Ever since, when she comes home late at night from the theater, we pull it out onto the fire escape and look up at the sky, trying to find the same stars we saw the night before, or new ones, or any, for that matter. The telescope came with a pamphlet, Guide to Night Sky, but it was printed in Indonesia, where the telescope was assembled. All the stars are mapped for a different hemisphere. So we make up our own names for the stars. Real names like Clark Gable and Harry Houdini. Thereís no rule about having to use male movie stars, or none spoken, but Tammy prefers it that way. Sheíll sit all night on the fire escape, occasionally going, Look there, thereís one. Cary Grant, and maybe Iíll make a trumpet sound with my mouth or just say "Welcome" and usher in the newly named star out of boredom or just say nothing and listen to the traffic passing on the street below, an El train occasionally rattling by.

The thing is: We might get a few stars on really clear nights, but most of the time itís too overcast to see, or the city lights blot out the night. Itís rough going seeing much of anything except the planes taking off and landing over at OíHare, a blimp, maybe something that looks like a UFO.

 

 

Lately my job-related stress from Pollo Loco has been nearly too much to bear. I get out of the shower at home and wipe the steam from the mirror. I see the reflection of my face all balled up. I imagine Iím staring down the guys at work, and theyíre giving me flak. Then, bam! I start nailing each one with these insanely well-timed punches. I get completely worked up. Theyíre all unconscious when I open the bathroom door and step out of the steam into the hall.

Everyone in the kitchen at Pollo Loco is from Central and South America. They donít get along, any of them. The Guatemalans hate the Mexicans. The Mexicans hate the Guatemalans as well as the Nicaraguans, who mostly keep to themselves. As much as they dislike each other, they canít stand me. At first they thought I was just some fluke in the back, grinning behind my dish station. I thought I could warm them up by trying to communicate. I started asking about words. Slowly, they began to trust me and taught me some slang. I was a real hit for a while, spitting out the dirty words. Then I worked a full week of doubles and I think the steam damaged me, because one day in the middle of a lunch rush I couldnít stop laughing and spilling Spanish expletives. I called the Mexican cooks goats, goats, goats, todos, and everyone else everything else I could think of in my newly acquired tongue. Since then, they throw their dishes at me, call me the names they taught me, pour oil on the floor with the hope that Iíll slip and break something, and treat me as a kind of generalized lightning rod for their contempt.

Today a cycle has just come through the conveyor and Iím stacking the clean dishes and making this yipping sound in the steam because the plates are always too hot to touch. One of the cooks, MartŪn, comes over and just stares at me while Iím grabbing dishes and setting them in the rack. Iím saying yip, yip, yip, and when I glance up, heís standing over me, sneering. His face looks like it is carved out of mahogany. MartŪn was the first man I ever called a goat. His hair is thick and pulled back into a gunmetal ponytail. Heís got these crazy tattoos all over his arms, three little blue teardrops on his cheek. This man is an Aztec god, I decide. I set down the stack of plates Iím holding.

What, I say, figuring I might call his bluff.

His fist connects with my face, and thereís an electric flash. My feet slip a little on the greasy floor, but I catch my balance somehow on the countertop. I grab the hand sprayer and hit his eyes with hot water. He yells and then I slip again and this time I go down on the floor. Next thing I know half the kitchen staff is on me, kicking me, cursing in Spanish. Then I hear Burt yelling through the kitchen doors and then a mist comes over me and I donít see anything because I guess Iím out cold.

I come home with a giant lip, and my left eye is closed up. Nothing is broken. I didnít lose any teeth. I must be in shock because I feel strangely fortunate.

God, Tammy says from the couch when she sees me walk in.

íOd namn jobn, I say out of the side of my sore mouth like a really bad ventriloquist. She kind of grunts as she gets up and then comes over to me. I want to cry but I tried that on the way home and it hurt too much, so I just stand there.

 

 

At night Tammy sits out on the fire escape alone and looks through the telescope, while I sit on the couch inside and stare at the floor, debating whether or not Iíll ever go back into Pollo Loco. Even to pick up my check, Iím thinking. As I left it, Burt had fired MartŪn. The others I donít know about.

I get the feeling visibility is low, because I havenít heard Tammy naming any stars the whole night. I look out the window. Sheís staring down at the street. Then I realize today is the day she would have found out about her promotion.

I look over at the clock and it is two-twenty in the morning. Weíve both blown a perfectly good Friday night. She comes inside and stands in front of the sofa and looks down at me. She must be thinking the same thing.

Hey, she says.

Yeah, I say.

Letís get out of here, she says.

 

 

A few minutes later weíre standing at the front glass door of the movie theater. The ticket booth has a sign hung behind the glass that says, Closed Please Call Again. Tammy has keys and knows the security code because they have her open the place some mornings. She unlocks the door, tells me to wait a second, then goes inside. I see her punching some buttons on the wall. I look around. The few people out this late figure we work there, I guess. I hear the alarm pierce for a second or two and then stop. She comes to the door.

Come on, she says. I step inside and she locks the door behind me.

First thing, Tammy gets the popcorn machine going. Then she leads me into the theater, reaches inside a box, and hits a breaker, and the lights come on. Itís one of these old, long halls, like a ballroom, with little lamps illuminating rows of worn velvet seats, burgundy drapes hanging over the stage and on the surrounding walls; gargoyles with these glowing ruby eyes peer down from the tops of columns. The balcony above has its own dim, faux gas lamps, little orange bulbs that seem to float from up above. This is a theater from another era, one that should have gone out of business, and probably will soon, I figure. We go inside the door, pass the balcony, and climb some stairs that appear hidden behind a flap. At the top Tammy opens another door and weíre in the projection room. She shows me what to do, and then leaves the room. I hear the stairs creaking and then, through the window I see her running down the aisle toward the stage. She disappears inside a side door for a second, then reappears on the stage, in front of the curtain.

Okay, she yells.

The projector looks as old as the theater. Itís nearly my height and about four of me thick. Itís the largest projector I have ever seen. I flick it on and white light pours onto her onstage. Then I hit what she had called the "ta-da switch." The burgundy velvet curtains pull apart behind her and clear the screen.

She waves at me, then stands there, looking as if sheís not sure what to do next. So I stick my hands in front of the projector and start making shadow puppets with them in the light. She sees the giant shadow at her side and pretends sheís dancing with it. I make a rabbit head with long ears, but when I realize this isnít very realistic I make my hands into another animal. I donít know what kind, but it has two legs. Tammy curtsies, then starts singing herself, kind of la-la-ing, dancing in the light of the projector. Sheís actually a really good dancer. She goes from a tango, into a merengue, and then waltzes across the stage for a while. I can hear her feet shuffling, and a sort of humming over them in between catches of breath. We dance like this for a while until she stops abruptly. Even from as far back as I am I can see sheís winded. She waves off her arm at me, and then, as if the gesture of her arm has commanded it so, the projector dims and all of the lightsóthe hall, the gargoylesí glowing eyes, the seating lampsóeverythingógo black. I turn and bump into something, maybe the backside of the projector.

Hey, put the lights back on, Tammy shouts.

I didnít turn them off, I say, and then all I hear is Tammyís breath out front, her feet scuffling slightly off the stage.

Ben? she says.

Yeah, I say.

Whatís happened? she asks. Is someone else out there?

I hear her feet scuffle a little more, and then realize how quiet the hall is, how clearly I can hear the slightest sounds. The carpeting creaks as she makes her way toward the back. I fumble through the dark, down the stairs.

Where are you? she says, and I can tell that sheís not far from me.

Letís meet out in the foyer, I say. I keep waiting for my eyes to readjust, to squeeze even the smallest amount of light from the air, but it doesnít happen. Itís the kind of dark that thereís no readjusting to, so I stick close to the back wall and make my way in the direction of the foyer.

When I get there, Tammyís still wheezing, still trying to catch her breath. Through the front door there is little more than a hint of light that shines in from the moon. Certain alleyways disappear into the walls, the apartments along the street, the bars, and shops all seem hollowed out, like part of some uncovered buried city. As we cross the street I see an overhead El train gone dead fifty feet up on the tracks, a couple late-nighters pounding from inside on the windows.

This is so sci-fi, Tammy says. We keep walking and hear power failure alarms going off behind empty store windows all around us.

Christ, Tammy says.

Shouldnít we be looting or something? I say. Iíve never seen the city so dark, so reliant on simple moonlight. And then I see the sky.

Hurry up, Tammy says because sheís seen it, too, but sheís wheezing so I slow down a little so that she doesnít think Iím rushing her. At the apartment the stairs groan behind me as she slowly puts one foot above the other. At the top of the stairs I feel around for the keyhole on the door and eventually get the key in and open it. Inside, the room is lit blue-white from the moonlight coming in the window.

Tammy goes over to the window, slides it open, and grabs the telescope before she climbs out into the lighter dark. I can tell just looking up sheís seeing what weíve never seen before. She keeps crossing the telescope from one side of the sky to another. It looks as if the entire history of man could rain down at any moment. On the street below, a couple of drunks are making out or strangling each other, itís hard to tell which.

Itís amazing, Tammy says. I forgot how many there could be.

I climb out with her and sit. The sky looks as if itís been pricked a million times. There are too many stars to name.

I catch my reflection in the window. My face looks strange, unreal. It isnít bruised or swollen anywhere. The face in the window is fine. I open and close my mouth over and over. My mouth in the window begins to move like a hand puppet. I see Tammy behind my reflection. Lately, when Iíve joined her, the fire escape feels precarious underneath us, like at any moment it might tear from the brick and send us hurtling to the sidewalk below. Iím wondering what weíll do when she gets too big, when she wonít be able to climb in and out so easily, and then at all. As it is I can see her straining when she goes out. Which might explain why itís the first place she goes when she comes home. I wonder if she knows this, she must, and this explains why she comes out as often as she does: She comes out here every night because, right now, she can. The phone rings inside. In the window I see her reflection look at me with a question-mark expression on her face.

The phone keeps ringing.

You want me to get it? I ask her. Itís her ex, we both know it. No one else would call this late.

No, she says.

The skyís gone a deep blue, and Iím surprised at how quickly a paleness has spread over Lake Michigan.

You have the shittiest job, she says, laughing under her breath.

Yeah, I say. Iím grinning.

I meanóreally, she says.

Suddenly, the lights inside the apartment come on and all around us the streetlamps click and hum lit. A chorus of radios and televisions rattle, alarm, and rise from the windows around us. The resolution seems so arbitrary, so out-of-thin-air, and yet all along so certain. Scared off by the electricity, the phone stops ringing.

Which is how it is, I suppose: everything always arbitrary. In a few hours what Iíll do is this: Iíll go to work, get my check, and quit. Then Iíll get a proper book of the night sky. Iíll get a newspaper and look for a job, something new, different, in the help wanted section.

We left everything at the theater on, I sayóthe popcorn machine, and I forgot to shut off the film projector.

I donít care, she says.

The other thing Iíll do in a couple of hours is Iíll go out and get a glow-in-the-dark kit of stickers of stars and moons and planets and whole constellations. Iíll put them on all of our roomsí ceilings so that, when the time comes, Tammy can kick back and stare at them all night.

To hell with that place, she says.

Yeah, I say. Across the street the closed grate of the bodega is graffitied with a kind of desperation: crazed characters form words that I canít make out, their only meaning held tight by their creator, a guy I imagine who walks up to a wall, glancing furtively around him before he pulls the aerosol can out of his jacket, and sprays marz, or reve, or slowly paints a row of giant teeth, a nose, a pair of smiling cartoon eyes, maybe a hand reaching out, while a few blocks away a garbage truck shudders in the dark of the early morning.

 

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