“Real Fine China” by Ryan Burden
A new story by alumni Ryan Burden (fiction, ’13) appears online at JMWW:
Trevor, staring through the green film on the apartment window, watched two boys play on slick chromed skateboards. The boards flipped and hovered in blurring spirals between their feet as they tried to beat gravity. They were much older than Trevor, who was only seven, and they wouldn’t have let him play with them. But that was all right because he didn’t want to flip skateboards. He didn’t even want to go outside. In summer the cracks in the sidewalk gushed heat like the air that poured from his mother’s oven on Sundays when she baked bread. He preferred to stay indoors, away from the sun and the sour stink of water in the gutters.
“Trevor,” said his mother. “Come and say goodbye to Mr. Gorman.”
Trevor opened his mouth wide because it hurt in the back where he had clenched his teeth shut whenever one of the boys fell. He cringed at the gristly crackle of bones in his jaw.
Mr. Gorman’s hands were puffed up like the red leather cushions on their couch. “Always a pleasure,” he said.
Trevor’s mother smiled and Trevor went back to the window. For a time the two adults stood whispering by the door. Mr. Gorman’s voice was like the muffled rumble of a cement truck in an underground tunnel. Trevor heard the apartment door open with a rubbery sucking sound. Then it closed again and he could tell that Mr. Gorman had not left. Outside, the older boys took their shirts off and hung them like limp, wrinkled snakes around their sunburned necks.
His mother called him. Mr. Gorman lumbered off toward the kitchen. “I’m sorry, but I can’t take you out right now,” his mother said. “Why don’t you go down and sit with Gabriel for a while?”
Trevor didn’t like it when his mother sent him away, but it was mostly all right because Gabriel was always doing something more interesting. His sneakers were black with white stripes. They sat quietly, side by side, beneath his bed. His room had blue walls and a braided navy rug on the floor. The rug was made of something coarse that itched even through a thick pair of socks. In the corner a tall bookshelf held a set of encyclopedias, his math and science and history books, and a few complicated jigsaws that he’d put together and broken down so many times that some of the pieces were frayed and didn’t fit together anymore. Before he left the room he went to his desk, opened the middle drawer and got out the stiff blue typewriter cover. It was a bulky blue typewriter that Gabriel had given to him a week before. He was using it to write a summer school essay on William Count of Holland and the Fifth Crusade. It was slow going, but he liked the pause-and-snap of the typewriter’s keys better than the unpredictable scratch of a pen.
In the kitchen Mr. Gorman was saying something about the quality of fish at a certain restaurant. As Trevor passed through the room his mother touched his hair and told him to be back for lunch.
It was hot in the elevator. Hot enough to melt lead. He imagined that the car would lower him straight through the bottom of the building, straight through to where he wouldn’t see concrete anymore but mud and rock and dinosaur bones grinding past the elevator’s clouded windows. After a while the car would slide silently, in complete darkness, through caves of indeterminate size—blank spaces in the earth that might be narrow shafts or whole oceans of dank cool air. Finally, after a long ride, the elevator windows would fill with a warm lapping glow and he would hear the ringing of steel and find himself in the furnace where the fallen smith-God from the encyclopedia entry, ‘myth,’ hammered away at a suit of armor shiny as new tin-foil.
Instead, the car jerked to a stop as soon as it reached the basement and the doors opened into the shadowed cavern of the building’s foundation. Immediately he heard Gabriel singing in the voice he used that was half-singing and half-hum.
The room was lit by at least a hundred naked bulbs on braided black wires that disappeared into darkness overhead. They cast a glowering, orange sort of light. Around the edges of the room, pushed up against and toppling into one another, were many small mountains of junk. They made a wild tangle of shadow-branches and shadow-pools.
Gabriel said he had junk from 1949, the year he was born, but Trevor had never seen any of it because it was all buried under more recent debris. There were piles of dented aluminum appliances and stacks of candy-colored Bakelite dishes. There were plastic bins filled with warped and shattered records, moldering heaps of women’s dresses and decorative plates emblazoned with the faces of famous actors. There was a pile of stuffed animals that almost touched the suspended lights and a line of old snow skis that ran end to end along one wall like a progression of ocean waves.
Gabriel said stuff was heavier than dreams, so that while the building’s residents moved up in the world, their things sunk down and settled there like anchors in the dark. He’d said this to Trevor’s mother, who had told him that it wasn’t a very good metaphor because the sense in which the people were moving up was different from the one in which their stuff was moving down. Gabriel said that it wasn’t a metaphor.
Around the corner Gabriel hunched over a cardboard box bristling with thin metal rods. The bones of his back rose in ridges and peaks inside his shirt, which was yellow with sweat. As Trevor approached Gabriel coughed into his hand and wiped it on the seat of his pants. When he picked up singing again the tune had changed entirely.
“What is it?” said Trevor.
He had to wait for Gabriel to finish humming out the rest of the line. When he had done this he straightened and tapped the end of one rod rhythmically against the floor.
“No idea,” he said. “I can’t even say I know what it’s going to be.”
Gabriel had a scar that ran across his right ear and down to the end of his chin. When he thought hard his lips screwed up on that side and showed yellowed teeth like a crocodile’s. The scar split the top of his ear in half, and that ear was thicker all around than the other.
“Your mother send you down here again?”
Trevor gulped the basement air that late in summer tasted like rock sweat.
“She told me I could come.”
“Kind of her.”
He helped Gabriel drag the box of rods over to the workbench. On the bench was a long plastic gun, sleek and triggerless. Gabriel turned a knob on a tank under the bench and pressed a button on the gun and the end of it began to hiss.
“She got some new boyfriend, then,” Gabriel said.
“What’s he like?”
Gabriel stuck a thumbnail in his mouth and picked at his teeth. “Fat isn’t so bad, you know.”
“He’s got red hair. And his hands smell like fish.” When Gabriel grinned it was skin peeling back to show the bone underneath. When he laughed it was the same mellow hum as his singing.
“Must be a chef, then. All right now, stand back.”
Trevor sat at the end of the workbench and watched Gabriel heat the rods. Some of them he heated until they fell over limp and their ends nodded to the floor. Others he bent into snaking curves and hoops and unfinished rectangles. It was a long time before the rods ran out. Then there was something standing: a charred and rusted nest of metal with what seemed like every kind of shape from Trevor’s Introduction to Geometry book inside of it.
Gabriel leaned back against his workbench and sniffed. “I don’t know. What do you see?”
“A nest,” said Trevor.
Gabriel sniffed. “Yeah.”
He went to the corner to get the long hammer—the one with a head on it as big as Trevor’s own.
“Don’t worry. The fat man won’t last long,” Gabriel said. He hefted the hammer up over his head and after a few clattering strokes the statue was just metal again.
***His mother and Mr. Gorman were out at the movies. Trevor wasn’t invited but he wouldn’t have wanted to go with them in any case. The theater would be cold, the seats itchy, and his nose would be plugged with the greasy smell of popcorn butter. After the adults left he spent a long time watching a moving truck being unpacked across the street. All of the furniture was wrapped in blankets so that he couldn’t see anything but wooden claw-feet protruding from the plastic hems. He pretended that the men were unloading exotic animals and imagined what each would look like beneath its sheet. He tried his best, but still they all turned out looking like couches or dining room tables or arm chairs.
Then he got hungry and ate two packages of cupcakes. Then he felt too full of food and too far above ground.
Gabriel was at his workbench with two big buckets in front of him. He reached into one of them and scooped a fine white powder into a shallow metal bowl.
“No luck with the fat man?”
“They went to a movie,” Trevor said.
He watched Gabriel’s torn black sneaker toe-tapping against the circle of metal at the bottom of his stool. Gabriel reached into the other bucket and dropped a handful of birdseed into the bowl on top of the white powder. He picked up the bowl and started to sift the two of them together.
“Mrs. Middleton is carping on about pigeons on her roof,” he said, and took another scoop from the powder bucket. The thick parts of his ear were red and he would not look at Trevor. “That damn woman don’t have the brains god gave a rock.”
“What are the pigeons doing?”
“Nothing. Except keeping me busy.”
“Why is she complaining, then?”
“They make too much noise for her. That old biddy likes to sleep like she’s on General Hospital.”
Gabriel held the bowl to his nose, sniffed, then set it carefully on the bench and put the lids back onto the buckets. When he’d put the buckets back under the bench he looked down at Trevor with wild eyes. “How long is it ’til your mother gets back?”
***They had frozen pizza for dinner and Trevor told his mother about the pigeons.
“That’s not polite conversation,” she said. “Pigeons carry diseases.”
“They won’t let Mrs. Middleton sleep,” he told her.
“Women her age don’t sleep, anyway,” she said, and tipped the wine bottle upside down over her glass.
***When Trevor went to the basement the next day Gabriel wasn’t there. He waited quietly for a while and then began to wander.
In the corner near Gabriel’s bench there was a place where some shelves had fallen over a pile of wooden crates. Now the crates made a rough tunnel through a mound of vinyl cushions, broken lampshades and old musk-scented perfume bottles in curious shapes.
Trevor’s clothes kept catching on the errant tacks that held the crates together. One of them stabbed his thumb and he stopped crawling to suck away the blood. The washed-out glow from the hanging bulbs made shadows of the crate slats and for a moment he was in a medieval prison; the bars and nails were stern warnings to confess. His blood was like seawater, the pain was a torture. But he said nothing. He bore the rack, the wheel, the boot and the heretic’s fork, all without breaking. His inquisitors didn’t know what to do with him. They had to invent new methods—new devices, new trials—it was no use. They must let him die in peace.
But death was not so interesting, and he soon recovered. After struggling on a few feet more he came up against the pile of stuffed animals. Victims of the chamber, they were. No doubt less-courageous than he. They were a sad mess of contorted limbs, mashed faces and snowy blossoms of stuffing.
One at a time he pulled them out and pushed them through the crate slats until he had hollowed out a small, soft cave. He tucked himself up inside and stared at the serpentine eyes of a green plush dragon. In one of his books about Count William there was a story about a dragon, but Trevor didn’t believe it. He believed it when his mother told him that the world was a hard place when you were grown, and that he’d have to work hard if he ever wanted to live in the high building downtown where the windows had no panes and the glass was always cold. But he did not believe in dragons.
After a while the elevator doors shook open. Trevor could hear Gabriel’s step and someone else’s as well; someone with a shuffling, whispered gait. He heard Gabriel’s stool scrape across the concrete, then the staccato pop of a bucket being opened.
“Not you, man. Zhou. Zhou.”
It took Trevor a moment to recognize Gabriel’s voice. He spoke thick-tongued and fast.
The other man’s voice was deep and resonating like the croak of a bullfrog. “What you want with some zoo bowl? Probably full of monkey shit.”
Gabriel ratcheted the lid back onto his bucket. “Damnit Wilson, you got one thick head. Don’t you know anything about history?”
“I don’t waste my time with that kind of a thing.”
“I don’t see you wasting it on anything else.”
There was some more scraping of stools and then a sudden clatter as something fell from the bench.
“You should have these things hung up.”
Trevor pressed himself further into the wall of his cave. He thought he felt something with brush-like legs flutter across his arm, but he didn’t dare touch it.
“Look,” said Gabriel. “The Zhou’s a dynasty. Like Ming or Chang or any one of those.”
“I heard of Ming,” said the other.
The man’s voice made Trevor’s teeth hurt. It was the sound of an animal that lived deep underground.
“Damn right you did. They have it at the museum, same place they have the Zhou. This lady’s got one just like it. Same pattern and everything. Got little grains of rice in it. I mean real fine china, man.”
“So then, I can see it at the museum. What do I care if this lady upstairs has one?”
“You know how I know she has it? She gave it to me to catch water in. That’s right, dirty old roof-water from her goddamn skylight.”
“What were you doing at her skylight?”
“Looking for pigeons,” said Gabriel. “Says they won’t let her sleep.”
The frog-man made a gurgling noise like water spinning down a drain. “It’s her bowl, though.”
“She don’t deserve it! Using a beautiful old thing like that to catch roof-water!”
“Can’t do a thing about it, though. Listen, Gabe, you got too much of this bowl on your mind. Let’s go on over to Sugar’s and get us a drink.”
“You can pick a door, can’t you Wilson.”
Stool legs squealed against the concrete. “I’m no thief, now. You know that.”
“This ain’t stealing, it’s liberating.”
“Law makes no distinction.”
Trevor could hear Gabriel pacing, now. He heard various tools being picked up and set down. The fluttering on his arm started up again. It was definitely some kind of insect. He imagined the frog-man slurping it up with his tongue.
“Why don’t you help me, Wilson?”
“I wish I could.”
“You know you could.”
“Listen, let’s go on to Sugar’s. I can’t talk about damn bowls any longer.”
Slow steps turned back toward the elevator. Before the doors had closed Gabriel flipped the light switch and all the many bulbs went dark. Trevor listened to the elevator bells in a cave that was now entirely obscure. He thought he could see the afterglow of the dragon’s red eyes.
He was afraid to crawl back through the tunnel without light. He was afraid that the frog-man would be waiting for him at the other end with Gabriel’s hammer in his hand. He would wait until Trevor was almost out of the tunnel before saying “Real fine china, man,” and bashing Trevor’s skull to dust.
So he waited, breathing as slowly and shallowly as he possibly could. There were sounds in the silence that he couldn’t hear—subsonic grumbles as the building settled all around him; as the building or all the stuff in the building or both settled imperceptibly onto him in the dark.
***Later there was a bell. The elevator came back down and the hanging bulbs sent pricks of orange light through the cave walls.
“Trevor!” It was his mother’s voice. Hers sounded out of place down there, like the sound of music underwater.
Gabriel was with her. “You won’t find him here, Mrs. Kraft. I was just down here—”
“He isn’t allowed to go anywhere else.”
Trevor listened carefully and was glad when he couldn’t hear the shuffle of the frog-man’s feet.
“He wouldn’t come down here alone,” said Gabriel.
“I think I know him a little better than you.”
“He wouldn’t come down here alone,” said Gabriel, but more quietly this time.
Trevor knew they were circling the room by the sounds they made: the gritty shuffle of Gabriel’s shoes as he moved among the piles, the sharp worried breaths his mother took as she lifted herself up to look over and behind things, the clattering and scraping and thudding as they moved the pieces of junk aside.
For a moment the moving and tossing of pieces of junk stopped. There was only the flat-footed shuffle of Gabriel’s feet and the quick irregular tapping of his mother’s heels.
“He has to be here,” she said. “Where else would he go?”
Her voice was very close. Trevor picked his head up off the wall of the cave and slid over to look down the tunnel. He could see Gabriel’s thick legs and torn sneakers through the hole in the crates. Then suddenly the legs bent and there was Gabriel, his face twisted up and gray, his crocodile’s teeth protruding.
***”You heard me and Wilson talking,” Gabriel said. They were on the roof looking for pigeons. Gabriel had never let Trevor on the roof before.
Far below them the sound of car engines surrounded the gravel deck like a choppy sea. There was a path worn into the gravel and they followed it to the edge of the roof and to a black, rectangular box.
“I couldn’t hear anything,” Trevor said.
Gabriel took a screwdriver from his pocket and started digging at the top of the box, where Trevor couldn’t see.
“You know how his voice got so funny? Wilson, I mean.”
Gabriel grimaced and twisted the screwdriver until it made a kind of crunching sound. He pressed the flat of his hand against the screwdriver and lifted a dirty pane of glass.
“Long time ago someone found him where he wasn’t supposed to be. Couple of downtown fellas choked the hell out of him with a dog chain.” He tried to lift the glass further but it wouldn’t go up more than a foot or so. He reached his arm through up to his shoulder but got stuck when he tried to push it further.
“Goddamn,” he said. “A man’d need a barrel of oil to squeeze through there. Goddamn.”
He turned around and peered thoughtfully over the edge of the roof.
Trevor inched up to the edge and looked with him. On the sidewalk a man pushing a shopping cart looked up at him; drained cheeks shining above a black haze of a beard. A warm hand on his back. Gabriel’s eyes were two hard wet stones.
“How’d you like to make a dollar?”