They call me Balazar. I do not know why. I am old. Irrefutably old. And oh, how the years have poured through me. I have plucked the flesh of the immortals, scarred the tongues of those who speak my name, plundered their bones. I have wept for the stains I leave upon their torn breasts, but my tears are not sincere. I am not cruel. My work is fast, my appetite fierce. I watch them. They do not see.
They call me Balazar. I do not know why.
Our pale naked chests caught the moonlight. We were primitive mammals, drinking from her pool. Unsentimental, there were no aftermaths to consider, no consequences to chasten our arousals. Freely belligerent, we scraped the raw off mountains and ran roughshod over untidy hearts. We did not care. We were boys.
We cured ourselves with thought and shame, and retreated from Pan’s doom. But not all; some joined his legion and drink still from the pool, naked boys in aged skin.
The placidness of doom. That’s what my grandmother called it. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now. It is in that moment when fear of the inevitable comes to light. “Gram,” I said. “How can you be calm when the worst is happening?” She would not say. Maybe she did not know how to explain it because it hadn’t fully come to her yet.
She knew inevitable. She had seven grandchildren and four of them were born out of wedlock. Back then, that was a black mark upon her name, but mostly it was against her no-account kin. Gram knew those children would grow up, get tangled in their own messes, and move on to face whatever dirtiness still lived inside them. None of them were worth a damn near as I can tell, but she loved us equally.
She lived most of her life as if she were lifting sacks of grain, toting us from one place to another, always tired, but not yawping about it. She kept lifting us up and setting us down in a comfortable place, even if that place wasn’t as comfortable as we would have liked. Her heart would break every time one of us left for good, or got jailed, or made pregnant, or turned out as worthless as she expected. She carried us the best she could.
Every Sunday morning, she would spread us on the living room floor and tell us Bible stories after breakfast, about Moses and Jesus and Job. I think she liked Job most of all, because it was like a mean joke you were allowed to tell. Job was a man who kept slipping on the banana peels God set before him, but he didn’t cuss his troubles. He went on stepping on those dang peels and he didn’t turn mean. Even a boy like me could figure out what she was saying: it was the placidness of doom. Everything will turn out all right if you don’t bare your teeth. It was a good story, and some of us learned it better than others. I reckon I took it to heart.
After the Bible stories, she would parcel out the Sunday funny pages. We would not snatch them from each other, or scatter the papers, or holler “my turn, my turn”. We would read them carefully, and then retell the funny parts in funny voices. Gram would sit in her ladder-back, hands on her knees, lean forward, and watch us laugh. I think that was her most favorite time of day. The inevitability of doom, for her, was far away in those moments, though surely she knew it was waiting on her, and for the rest of us. But there was calmness in her eyes. She didn’t call it doom. She called it life, and sometimes it could be good.
Thank you for reading, and may you have a calm and fruitful 2017
It was a dry cold, a mean cold. November flew in on a broom and bared her teeth. Cigarette butts in the alley, the same color as the leaves, and a boy was down there, sleeping under his field jacket, his head resting on cardboard. A drunk or another castaway, she couldn’t say. She was 42-years-old and had seen her share of both. She even loved them when they allowed, but they rarely did. They knew they would disappoint.
Morning seeped through the clouds, like cream funneling through cheesecloth. She stood on her balcony, coffee cup in hand. She wore her bathrobe and fuzzy Garfield slippers, and she shivered. But it was real, no mask, no artifice. This was her. Cold, but alive, sniffing the air like a deer. Baggage under the eyes, a firestorm of tumbled hair, still smelling of sleep. Alive-time before she dressed up for the world. She stared at the passed-out boy, stared at the wall across the alley. Lego windows set in brick, perfect squares of department store curtains, the fluid shapes behind them, 60-watt light illuminating an out-of-focus movie-of-the-week. Or movie-of-the-day. It was always the same cast, the same predictable story, and everyone was an extra in the story of their own lives. Fuck it.
She saw the other boy. Seventeen, maybe younger. And he was different. He was… beautiful. Was that the right word? Luminous. Yes.
Oh, David, is that you? Her coffee cup tumbled to the pavement and she did not feel it pass from her fingers.
The conversation between the sheets was adequate but hardly seismic. She studied him as he slept. He wore a conquering smirk on his face. His shoulders and hairless chest were gym-perfect, but that ridiculous hipster aesthetic, the facial hair, the man-bun, turned him into a Lost Boy. It was all an act, all of it, from the seduction, to the greedy kisses in the hallway, to the fumble of buttons and zippers. A one-nighter, and this is what was left: a sleeping boy-man, with sunshine pouring over his face like honey, and the critical mass of anxiety. She was the other woman now. And this boy, this boy, he showed her his ring right off, displayed it like a puffed-up boy scout, ready to earn his merit badge for Junior Infidelity. He dared her to snub him. She used that softness of mind and turned it against him, checkmate in five. He’d be faltering at the door before he finished his ristretto, wondering how his life turned to ash.
She ran her hand against her thigh, smooth pink violated by thick scar. Something old, something deep. He didn’t notice.
Samuel told me that a man needs to move on from the things that he’s lost, that the smell of grief never goes away.
He had that smell, you know? Lonesomeness was in his pores. Every man has a smell underneath the soap and aftershave. Maybe you’re different, who knows? But you have a different smell. You smell like dollar bills and big-ticket whiskey.
Maybe you smell something on me. Something under the perfume. Maybe you smell a whore. I’m no lamb, but I’m not what you think. Samuel may be a rough plank of wood to you, but he was more. He knew how to treat a lady. He’d hold the door for me. If it rained, he’d give me his jacket. He wouldn’t kiss me in public, but he wanted to. He was a gent. Men like you would have smirked. Stared at my legs and winked at your pals. Samuel, though… he said nice things and meant them. He didn’t play at it. When he wanted me, he’d tell me. I want you, he’d say. Just like that. He wouldn’t hold my hand, but I know he wanted to. He wanted to hold me in the middle of 5th Avenue, he wanted to kiss me in front of Woolworth’s. Did he love me? Sure he did, but he never said it out loud. He didn’t have to. I could smell it on him, you know? Did you ever know anything that good? I guess all you smell is a whore. That’s okay. You can think whatever you want. I know who he was, and I’ll move on. I can still smell him, and it won’t go away.
The streets were never lush, let’s get that out of the way. But there were wide leafy canopies in the summer. There was the slanginess of pavement, the jangle of noise. There were twilight games of kick-the-can, there were men in khaki shorts who camped in canvas lawn chairs, talking baseball and air conditioners they couldn’t afford. There were delivery trucks belching their way to McLaughlin’s corner store. There were stacks of newspapers tied down with yellow rope on the corners of Briar and Chatham Streets. Here, yes, there was a vivaciousness of people populating their hive, and if you turned your head you might miss something. The ice cream truck came by every Wednesday at two o’clock, chiming the illusion of magic, and kids scrambled for nickels and pennies before it drove away, soon, too soon, hurry! There was the familiarity of time and light, and those well-trod paths between screen door and street, and kids burst from the doors wearing the same homogeneous tennis shoes. Everything about it was home, an insulated place of being and belonging. And then it fades, fades like the heart, fades like that first awkward kiss, fades like the wooden seats of a swing set. It never leaves, but it’s never the same. You come back twenty, twenty-five years later and it’s an old photograph that doesn’t line up with what you know. It’s choking weeds and peeling vinyl siding, and the voices are different, the names are different, the contours of familiarity are different. The bones have shifted from what you remember. It’s lonely, but maybe that’s okay. Still, though, it aches to recognize that it’s all gone and that the only place where it survives is in your head. And remember: the streets were never that lush.