This week’s Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “Death in the City.”
UPDATE: Now that the free week is over, you can read the rest of this story by downloading an ebook at Amazon and Smashwords. Then you can read it on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks.
This story is my homage to Sherwood Anderson’s story “Death in the Woods.”
Death in the City
The story is fueled by cans—empty, sticky, abandoned cans.
He was an old man who walked the back alleyways of my newly-adopted city, and he was a source of mystery and fear to me in my youth. The gaze of those who lived in this city often passed without resistance over people like him, residing on sidewalks and park benches. His name was Porter, and outside of his obituary, his story was known to no one. I feel the need to flesh out his tale as best I can, for a memorial, and—I must admit—for myself.
Before his death, he worked his way through the streets collecting used cans, pushing them one-by-one into the big black bag he carried, the bag wrapped tightly around his hand as if to ward off thieves and mischief-makers. Each day he brought the cans to the supermarket at the end of each day, a nickel a can, so he could buy a container of soup, maybe some lukewarm french fries, enough food to fill his caved-in belly for one more day. At night, his hunger pushed down, he covered himself in his big black bag and tried to sleep somewhere away from the dull eyes of the city people and the cold press of the changing seasons.
This shriveled man named Porter was black. Coming as I was from a small, insulated town on the Plains, he was the first black person I had ever seen, and I was eight years old.
He was short-legged and squat, with bristly grayish-black hair peeking out from under his stocking cap and covering his chin and cheeks. His squint was so pronounced that I wondered if he even had eyes. Perhaps he was nothing special, yet the image of this old black man burrowed into my thoughts and remained there as I grew up, until I this morning, when I happened across the tiny obituary in the city newspaper that is delivered to the small Midwestern town in which I now live (my departure from Porter’s city occurring a few short years ago).
His story can be summed up in this cold, uncaring manner: another death, another homeless man found, this time on a bench next to the river. His name was Porter. These few facts are the only I truly know, without speculation.
He spent his days in the parks and his nights huddled over the street grates of the city, no permanent address. I couldn’t picture him in a small one-room apartment, or one of the boarding houses in the old part of the city; my imagination did not stretch in that way. Everything else about this man, this Mr. Porter (the name tastes funny to me now, the knowledge of it fresh as the smudged newsprint on my fingers) was easily imaginable for the boy I was then. Surely this Porter was the man who moved through the background of my life like a black-skinned ghost.
Before I awoke to the paper this morning, I thought I understood his world of discarded cans and cold nights covered in a black garbage bag. But now I wonder.
A two-mile square of high-rise apartment complexes and office buildings that gave way to the shops and corner bars of the older section of the city made up his beat. Each dumpster pressed next to a building was another stop for him. Out of the corner of my eye, just at the edge of my hearing, would be a glimpse of black and a rustle of an oversized Glad bag, and there he would be, digging in the garbage. My family’s apartment stood on the southern edge of his work route.
He spent most of his time alone, and most days he filled his bag three times over. The clerks at the back of the grocery stores blanked out their faces when they saw his approach, speaking in short sentences to him, if at all. The syrupy-sweet aroma of the cans had long been intertwined with the old man’s own odor of unwashedness and sweat. With a sudden movement, the clerk pushed the six or seven dollars and change at him for his cans, ready for the old man to leave. But Porter stood there waiting until the young man or woman realized what the old man wanted; the youngsters behind the counter always forgot the bag. This moment of discomfort that he alone caused must have made Mr. Porter bitterly angry, or bitterly happy.
He didn’t live in this city all of his life, but only for the adult portion of it, the portion that seems to mean so much to the people who rush around inside the city. There are times in my own adult life when I find myself almost breathless with the need to be some other place, whether it is a return trip to my adopted city, or to my new town, miles from the crush of strangers on the narrow streets. When I look out the window of my car, the city people are just blurs, smears of color.
Porter knew a better place as a child. I envision him growing up in the strange, discomforting years of the Second World War, without his father, in a place better by far than where his body now rested. Every working morning his mother woke him and his sisters, fed them something bland and cold, and then left them with an elderly neighbor when she had to go to work. The woman from next door wouldn’t let him out of her sight, and she was always coughing. His mother’s wet, briny smell of plucked chickens and sweat at the end of the day made the young boy wince at first upon her return home, but he preferred his mother’s smell of hard labor to his neighbor’s stink of age and death.
The children at his school often teased him, but only slightly more than they teased anyone else. They called him Owl and laughed at his silence and his big, white-rimmed eyes. His reaction was not to fight back but to bury his face in a book and struggle with the sounding out of words.
Many days towards the end of his childhood, when the sun beat down across the fields of cotton or tobacco, he left the road leading to school and slipped into the fields. On hot, searing days he lay in the dirt, closed his eyes, and slept with the bittersweet aroma of tobacco in his nostrils, while the world turned blindly around him.
In this way he grew up, hidden and silent. In this way, the Porter I saw in my old city was created.
* * * * *
He had a girl he met after he dropped out of school, but she left him one day, and all that remained was his job at the mill and the sickness of his mother.
Work held an addictive momentum for him, and he didn’t want to stop. Time blurred past, with only an emptiness rising three times a day inside of him to remind him to stop working and eat.
“Bossman,” the other black men next to him on the line called him, laughing at the precise and efficient movements of his fingers on the equipment, watching him work through breaks without tiring. The other men convinced themselves that his silence was a way of insulting them, a way of holding himself above them, and they wanted to knock him down to their level. His tools may have gone missing, or a tack set into his seat for the rare times he sat until finally, he would lash out. His first wild punches must have hit home, until the rage left him, and the larger man finished the fight.
I wonder if the blows off his skin met resistance in muscle and sinew, or if the blows felt the give of worn flesh and brittle bones. I wonder if the larger men hit him until their knuckles bled.
“Why can’t you just ignore them?” his mother may have asked later, her hand holding a cold bottle of milk against the side of his face. The bruises were almost hidden in his black skin, dark discolorations that heightened the white of his wide eyes and the sharp angle of his jaw.
“If I let them say and do what they want to me, that’s worse than all this,” he said, turning his face so his swollen lip was angled up at his mother.
His mother nodded. She knew about fighting, especially the kind of fighting where the only other option besides fighting was dying, a small portion of a person’s body at a time. The tuberculosis or cancer or other bodily failure that would take her in the following year was already shortening her breath, and each morning was a battle just to get out of bed.
Young Porter began to lose his faith as his mother’s coughs—coughs that reminded him of their elderly neighbor, whose life had been wrung out of her years ago—racked her through the night. During this time, his sisters moved with their new husbands to new cities, miles away. When his mother died, Porter was left in an empty house that used to be cramped with too many people. It was now too big for one. He had never known his father.
Some friends convinced him to join them on a trip to the northern city. They would work at a juke joint at night, out of the sun and the mill’s heat, washing dishes or busing tables or learning to play an instrument. They would have all day to roam the city like tigers.
Or maybe not.
Maybe it was just him, on his own, searching for something besides hunger to drive his days and maintain his need to work. Maybe it was a reason known only to him.
I can’t let it rest at that.
Memories of the girl he used to see tickled in his thoughts at times, yet his anger at her sudden, unspoken departure kept him from traveling down the half-mile of dirt road to her door. Instead he gathered his belongings, visited his mother’s grave one final, dry-eyed time, and traveled north.
While living in the city, I remember sightings of him I had at different ages, pieces of my childhood that dropped behind me like spare change, a quarter here, a nickel there. His appearance never changed. He was at the borders of my vision always, even that night in July, when the two black boys took my wallet and held a knife in front of my face. I was thirteen years old. They pushed me to the ground, forcing the tears out of my eyes with sudden movements of the blade, nicking my arm. I cried out when my own emptied wallet hit me in the back of the head, thrown away like a used rag.
Later that same evening, led by my own frustrated helplessness as well as the same strange circular circumstances in which I had seen him countless times before (and after), I came across the man who was Porter. I glared at his dark skin and unkempt, black hair, and I felt suddenly older, more powerful.
I crept closer to him as he dug carefully and gingerly through the shifting contents of an oversized plastic garbage barrel, flies sticking to his beard, and my fists bled after the third time I struck his face.
* * * * *