“How are you my friend?”
Marco picked up a broom from the supply cabinet. His eyes drank the light of a partially open door down the hall. He’d been in the basement since eight a.m. clearing out trash, mountains of it. Much of it was paper that had been piling up for the last several months. This is a goddamn fire hazard, the maintenance supervisor said. Marco was the new guy, just hired three weeks ago. He was given the coveted job of cleaning out the basement. His hair was covered in gray dust, making him appear old. The bristly mustache hanging above his lip, turning downwards at the corners, remained its brilliant black.
Marco hurried towards the door. He wanted to breathe the sun.
Marco stopped, turning away from the light.
“Yes my friend”
People knew his name. They sung it. It traveled like an arrow.
“Marco, I need you to clear out room 403”
Mr. Franklin was the maintenance supervisor. He had a policeman’s head and the body of a journeyman plumber. He carried a leather bound notebook containing work orders. Marco turned completely around. He followed Mr. Franklin.
“The guy in 403 died a couple days ago. I need you to go and clear out the room. Bag and tag the stuff in the unit”
“Willie…you know…older black guy”
Mr. Franklin handed Marco a key. Marco tried to remember the man. There were many older black men in the residential hotel.
“He was laying on the couch and died. It was three days before anybody noticed. The guy in unit next to him got this bad nasal problem…couldn’t smell a damn thing. A health worker found him when she came to visit”.
Marco shook his head and whispered something to himself. His thoughts were back home. He thought of his grandmother and how she walked, her steps heavy on the ground, leaving stories that the rains couldn’t wash away.
“I go upstairs”
Marco came to the bottom of the staircase. He distrusted elevators. He climbed the stairs, walking over each step like a stone in a river. He listened to the sounds. Each step had a different sound—squeaks, moans—muffled notes in a building made of parts long obsolete. He heard someone call his name as he ascended the stairs. He stopped. He looked down and saw a small circle of people gathered around a bald woman in a black robe. She gently tapped a metal gong. The sound made Marco stand still for a moment, as if he were being transported: His heart taking the form of those things that had been hollowed out, cavernous and holding every sound, even the sounds that one could not hear but feel. Marco had felt empty and collected all the unsaid words and suspicious glances of others —suspicion of his mother tongue and his immigration status– but also ambivalence of those who only saw him and people like him as subservient, entitled to treat an immigrant like him any way they pleased. All those sounds he kept inside waiting for the chance to free them. He finally reached the top of the staircase. 403 was at the far end of the hall. Marco walked, his keys jingling at his side.
In my country I walk in the mountains. I listen to the birds. They tell me if rain is coming. When the soldiers come, I hide. Sometimes I sneak away to the mountains and look at the sky. It is big. I feel like I could swim in it like water. I see every color in the sky and I close my eyes and sleep. The gunfire is loud; I wake and see only red like the flowers in my grandmother’s hands. I run so fast that I feel like my legs are running away from my body. Sometimes I feel like I have no legs, only eyes that see the beauty and the sadness of my country. Sometimes my eyes only see red mountains.
He put the key in the lock. It was stubborn. It clicked. He opened the door.
Marco stepped inside. The air was warm with maple and cigarettes. A kitchen table sat with jars and cups with burned on stains.
“Who is it?”
Marco saw the figure of a man sitting on a couch partially covered in shadows. It was a black man with grayish hair and a bright beard.
“I’m maintenance. They send me to clean. They tell me the man who live here die”.
“Man, do I look dead to you?
“You damn right I ain’t dead. I been living here for 20 years. Now get out of my room!”
Marco went downstairs to the maintenance office. The door was shut. Mr. Franklin was on the phone, gesturing with his hands. Marco waved but Mr. Franklin didn’t look at him. Mr. Franklin hung up the phone and motioned Marco to enter.
“I’m real busy right now”
Marco looked at the stack of papers on the desk. He felt small.
“There’s a man in the room”
“Who is he?”
“I don’t know. He’s sitting on the couch”
“Tell him to get out. We need to get that room clean for the new tenant”
Marco went back upstairs, this time trotting. He opened the door.
“You back for another visit?”
The man was standing now. He peered out the window at the expanse of a large brick building with faded advertisements.
“You have to leave, my friend”
The man looked at Marco for a moment then sank into the couch.
“They been telling me to leave all my life. Ain’t got no place to go…”
Marco watched the man lay back on the couch, struggling to lift his legs. A table with flimsy legs stood next to the couch. On it was a procession of pill bottles with faded expiration dates. Marco walked over to the man, leaned over.
“I help you”
Marco lifted the man’s legs and gently lay them atop a pillow at the ankles. The man craned his neck, searching for a comfortable spot. Marco looked at the pictures on another table, wrinkled black and white photos of young faces. Another picture showed a man in a suit on a stage, a dancer perhaps. The man looked at Marco through squinting eyes. He took a hold of Marco’s wrist.
“What’s your name, son?”
“No, no…your name?”
“My name is Marco”
“Where are you from?”
“Do you miss your home?”
Marco did not answer. He took the man’s hand in his own and lay it gently at his side.
“Can you get me a cup of water?”
In my country I live close to the river. I used to walk with my brother to the sound of the river. We would run with the river and the sound would cool our faces and we would swim with the fish. My brother, he was older. He loved to sing…his voice was like the river. I would listen and his songs flew like birds over the hills and trees. We would laugh, and he would chase me like the wind. Then the sounds of the guns came and the water no longer sang but stayed still in the color of the dead.
Marco found a glass in the sink. He rinsed and filled it. He saw a roach on the wall, climbing like a man scaling a mountain. Marco saw a plant, green with reddish leaves. He pressed his fingers into the dirt. It was dry and went under his fingernails. He poured water on the dirt and placed it on a windowsill. He brought the glass to the man.
“Thank you son”
Marco’s eyes fell on the picture of the man in a suit on a stage. He saw the man’s legs move and suddenly there was applause. He looked to the window and saw a bird’s flapping wings.
“I used to dance when I was young. I danced all over. I tapped, you know about tapping, right? I danced all over the country…down south and out west. I had women, lord how I had ‘em. My daughter, she grown. She’s a teacher somewhere down south. Let me get another sip of water”.
Marco raised the glass to the man’s lips. The man took the glass and drained it.
“My mother saw me running by the river one day. We were poor, real poor. She said my legs would take me places one day. Now my legs give me nothing but problems”.
The man sighed and looked up at the ceiling. Marco reached over and massaged the man’s legs.
In my country…
The man felt renewed. He smiled then stood. He danced. Marco sat and watched the man tap and bend and jump high until he reached the sky. Soon the man was the man in the picture, young again. Marco clapped as the man danced across the room. The man danced until it became dark. He sank back into the couch, gray hair and old bones. He closed his eyes and fell asleep.
Marco covered the man with a blanket. He opened the window and placed a glass of water on the sill. He lit a candle and placed it next to the glass. He looked out at a bird perched on a nearby sill. He filled the plastic bags with old clothes, pill bottles, papers, and garbage. He cleaned the bathroom and kitchen. He took the plastic bags to the basement storage room. He brought the apartment key back to the maintenance office.
“You finished with that room?” Mr. Franklin asked.
“Yes, I finish” Marco answered, handing back the key.
Marco put on his jacket and walked to the door. He opened it. The light washed over him. He thought about the man in the picture and about his grandmother back home. He looked out into the empty street. It was like a river. He walked and listened to the night, his legs taking him somewhere.
© 2009 Tony Robles