Harmon awoke with the rising of the light. He ran his hands through his hair, wild and dark as raven-down. He stretched and cracked his neck and leaned out on the tips of his toes til he fell to the floor, catching himself before his face collided with the spotless concrete of his tea and smoke-scented basement. He did a push-up and then one hundred and then twenty more. At one hundred and twenty he started to waver and dropped to his shoulder and rolled over on his back, breathing heavy as a cat howled from somewhere outside. Shortly thereafter, something else howled. Coon from the sound of it. He checked the time. 7:00 AM sharp. He’d an hour to make it to work. He rose and looked to his mobile phone, outdated by the standards of the day. Tense. Anxious. Expectant. It’d been two weeks since Harmon had dropped Lyla off with Serena. Only phone calls he’d gotten were from his boss and his bank to let him know that his account had gone inactive and would be closed if it continued to remain so.
He fancied he were being impatient, she’d call, he told himself, she always did. They used to speak for hours every other day. Hang out on the regular. Increasingly, that was becoming a rarity. Now they’d speak but once every other week, if that. They’d meet up once a month or every other. Harmon shook himself from reverie, stretched and leapt up to the exposed crossbeam of the basement ceiling and started doing pull ups. A sudden implacable fury permeating his soma. He hit fifty and dropped, muscles afire. A pleasurable pain. He looked in the old mirror that had been left in the basement by the previous owner; his pale-yet-tanning form, all sharp, angular lines and surging veins, was alien to him. It occurred to him he’d not looked at his own reflection for over a month. There were no other mirrors in the house. He tensed his half-naked body before the mirror with his arms at his sides; his opaque green eyes vacuous. Glassy. Like liquid emerald’s encased in amber.
He showered, dressed and walked up the stairs to the living room where Sprawls was sitting, drinking his bottom-shelf beer and smoking a joint that smelled of mildew. The odious scent of the rough rolled sheet permeated the room and Harmon braced himself against any outward show of displeasure as Sprawls took a sip before speaking.
“Morning. You been up all night?”
“Stayed up writing.”
“Come up with anything good?”
Sprawls nodded and offered his roommate the joint. Harmon waved the offer and poured himself a cup of coffee, waiting for the reedy black man to continue. After a shrug and a lengthy toke he did so.
“Got this nice blues line, man. Need you to cook up some lyrics for it.”
“We’ve been writing songs for a year now. When we gonna start playing places?”
“What kinda places?”
“Dunno. Bars. Somewhere with an audience.”
“I been busy, man.”
“You work at a failing print shop with one reliable client.”
“Yeah, well, its a very demanding client. Why you always so impatient?”
“Not impatient. Just think we’ve come up with some good work. Must be that stuff you’re smoking.”
“Meaning it makes you lazy as shit.”
“What’s your fucking problem, man?”
“Didn’t have one til you started snappin.”
Sprawls shook his shiny, bald head, rolled his bloodshot eyes and took another drag, knocking back his beer. He flipped on the television.
As Harmon went to take a sip of his coffee Sprawl spoke up suddenly, “Rent is due soon.”
“You have it?”
“So you don’t have it?”
“No. Not now, I don’t. Will once Swain pays me.”
“You want to stay in my house you’d better fucking have it on time.”
“What do you mean ‘your’ house?”
“My name on the deed.”
Harmon didn’t respond and took another sip of the coffee, inhaling the soothing Colombian scent. Then he spoke up with a ill-concealed vexation.
“I thought we were friends, Richard.”
Sprawls perked up, no one except Harmon ever called him ‘Richard.’ He’d taken on the moniker ‘Sprawls’ after getting released from prison.
“We are. Weird thing to say.”
“You just threatened to throw me out of our house.”
Sprawls took a toke. Body limp. Eyes shifting from the TV screen to the man behind the kitchen counter.
“Because its MY name on the deed.”
“I’ll have the money.”
Harmon furrowed his brows. Sprawls was barely there.
“So am I. I’ll have it.”
“Cool. See ya.”
He may as well have said, “Whatever.”
Harmon finished his coffee and let out the house, got in his beaten and sun-scrubbed car, lit up a cigarette, cracked the window and hit the gas and drove down the cratered roads of the suburban neighborhood to the end of the northern-most street whereupon he spied a gang of toughs hanging about between two peeling and dilapidated houses that looked like over-sized shoe-boxes. The toughs were black and mostly middle-aged with cheap shirts and expensive sneakers. Harmon had seen them hanging around before and knew that they weren’t locals. They looked expectant and worried. Moving back and forth in wordless perambulations, tight little circles of uncertainty. Some smoked and others listened to their MP3 players on their phones. Harmon figured they were on business. Waiting for a drop-off. The area had changed after The Cartel moved across the border, peddling flesh and pills. He looked out the window again as he pulled to a stop at the red light; could have ran it but he liked the ritual of the thing, the stop and smoke and stare, at the gray, seething clouds, like great ethereal snakes, at the birds whirling swarm-tactically against the thermals, at the black outsiders with their baggy pants and bad tattoos and vacant expressions, at the drop off from the rise and the vast mechanical expanse of the abandoned plant below; coal breakers, they used to call them, sorting and processing sites for anthracite, bitumen and lignite. A place where children once labored under the auspices of strong-willed industrialists. From his metallic perch he could see strange forms moving where none should be, glassy-eyed and furtive amongst the shattered and rain-worn rocks of the coal breaker’s ruin.
The zombie apocalypse had already happened and it hadn’t even made the front page. Pharmacology, the vector for a self-inflicted scourge. The pharmacist-as-pusher. The citizen as outcast.
Harmon took a long, soothing drag and watched the addict-vagabonds moving in strange undulations against the dessicated corpse of the iron giant. He wondered if the once-mighty site of unparalleled industry could be rehabilitated, reanimated, summoned forth from its fetid slumber by some creative recourse to technological necromancy. The thought filled his bosom as his whirring clockwork mind with a sense of unrealized majesty.
The landscape before him transformed into a field of great ranging towers, like the fangs of some titanic canine, arcing towards the sky as if in hunger of the moon. The junkies and lean-tos vanished beneath the furious blaring of steam-engines charting the fruits of the coal breaker by rail-lines to every corner of the world and all those beyond it. Their rumbling stacks searing the acrid wind with staccato puffs of smoke, pitch and gray and fading out into particulates imperceptible to the eyes of Man. He saw high-rises crop up around the coal breaker and many more behind it. A metropolis. A megalopolis. A ecumenopolis. A city so great it were as a geological force unto itself, that shook the very foundations of the earth, reverberating the magmous core with the song of its creators; echoing out unto the very stars which were the builders’ own to claim.
Harmon’s reverie was broken when the light turned green. He paused a moment and looked out the driver-side window, away from the coal break, to the right, to the shoe-box houses and the would-be gangbangers stoop-shouldered and sag-pants’d as a troop of hispanics walked up to them, plain-clothed and colorful.
“The fuck you lookin’ at, white boy?”
Harmon said nothing and methodically flicked his half-smoked cigarette out the window, where it landed with a hissing sputter at the caitiff’s feet. He refocused his attention to the road as a muted “motherfucker” echoed briefly behind the rambling, metal wagon.
Harmon arrived at work five minutes late. His daydream’s heady alcahest the generative nexus of his tardiness. Eric Swain folded his thick and hairy arms before his chest and shook his head, short-cropped hair copper with the rising sun.
“I know it. Got distracted.”
“Got to daydreaming.”
Swain smiled slightly, wryly and shook his head fractionally and spoke slowly.
“Coulda lied. Traffic jam, or something.”
“I suppose. Ain’t many cars on the road though.”
“How would I have known?”
“You wouldn’t, but I would.”
Swain shook his head again, like a horse chasing off flies and then looked skyward, squinting his sunglassed eyes gainst the relentless rays of the effulgent sphere and then turned.
“Well. Come on.”
“I’ll ensure it doesn’t happen again. Much as I’m able.”
“What? Being late? Hell… you’re the only reliable hand I’ve got other than Daryl.”
“I don’t think Daryl likes me.”
“Daryl doesn’t like anybody. You said ensure.”
“My wife bought me some Ensure,” the duo moved over the front lawn to the unfinished house’s driveway where stood a stack of roofing tiles, Swain reached up and removed a bottle,” Its like a protein-shake type of thing,” he shook the bottle,” Said it’ll help me keep it off the middle,” he patted his rounded gut and smiled again, “Guess’n I could do with that.”
“Guess’n so.” Harmon scanned the neat and brightly colored packaging of the protein shake. It was delightfully designed. Beautiful in its simplicity. Bright blue swooshing up in a thick line at the top and bottom bracketed in the middle by off-white with the brand name strikingly colored in stylized typeface just below the thick, upper blue swoosh. He thought of all the work that had gone into the bottle’s design; he thought of the graphic design team that had spent weeks or months choosing an appropriate typeface, modifying it, colorizing it, sketching out drafts in some aromatic coffee house, of the plastic manufacturers which had crafted the bottle to be as ergonomic as possible and of the alchemists, shuttered away in their corporate laboratories judiciously mixing and remixing various tinctures so as to strike the right balance in taste and texture. Harmon fancied it likely that more cognitive energy had been distilled in the creation of that single drink than would be expended by most of those that drank it in a month. The apprehension of such industrious creativity flooded his mind with mirth. He looked up to the roof he would shortly help to build and for the first time in a very long time, he felt pure and unmitigated joy.
Harmon was fifteen minutes on the bare roof of the house before, Andy Flint, the last of the crew arrived. He conversed with Swain briskly. Agitation the whole of their forms. Then Flint scaled the ladder to the roof and grabbed a sponge-pad to walk on to ensure he had some tractable footing such that he did not, in venturing out upon that perilous peak, slid off upon the slick, shiny wood or newly nail tiles and tumble out unto the void and there slam his skull upon the concrete drive below. Harmon recalled last winter when they had been working a roof in the middle of winter in the downtown area. The ice made the sponges near-useless and Swain, running a small operation and lacking the funds for harnesses, bid his crew work across the frozen tile. Harmon had overexerted himself and fallen flat upon his back some near twenty feet off the roof. He’d landed in some shrubs and lay their for a long while, stunned and unable to breathe. When Swain asked him if he was alright he had grunted and raised his left arm skyward, thumb extended upwards.
“Harmon.” Andy replied, nodding dully as he scuttled up to the middle of the roof on his sponge-pad, wrinkled jeans scrapping against the sun-faded plywood like sandpaper on snakeskin. He was jittery and tense. His eyes bloodshot and ringed with owlish circles.
“Can you hand me that bag of tiles?”
“Fuckin’ all of them, man. All of them. Sonsofbitches, every one.”
Harmon paused a moment and watched the man curse under his breath and then returned to his work. He didn’t like to chat when he was focused on a task. Andy’s dour mood was ruining the atmosphere of creation. He wanted to dash lizard like across the roof as he built it up under the hot and ceaseless sun with nothing but the creaking of the renovated house and the sonorous opera of the wind. The chatter was breaking his concentration.
“Told me I’d be fired if I was late again. Just like that. Hell, I been working here just as long as you and they still treat me like I’m some… I don’t know… like I’m wet-behind the ears. Like I’m some kinda fuckup.”
“You shouldn’t pay so much heed to what people say when they’re angry.”
“A-fucking-men, man, a-fucking-men.”
Andy smiled awkwardly. He was twitchy and kept scratching himself, flexing his fingers and rubbing his arms in between nailing down the tiles, as if they were assailed by an army of invisible ants. Drugs. Uppers. Harmon wasn’t sure what particular kind, but he could tell the man was on something. He’d had a history of substance abuse, didn’t like to talk about it. Harmon didn’t want to ask. He was focused on the roof. Shortly, Daryl’s crass voice boomed out from the far-side of the rooftop.
“What are you two faggots talking about?”
“Just shooting the shit,” Andy responded irritably.
Daryl stood up high, as if to show his dominance over the peaked surface, “Well, you sure are filled with shit, Andy, so I’m sure you got a whole lot of it to shot.”
Andy leapt up, furious.
“You’re always talking down to me.”
Daryl loosed a cackle and shook his head.
“Why you gotta be such a drama queen.”
“You keep talking.”
“Keep on it.”
“Hows that girl friend a yours? The flat-chested one.”
“Shut it, Daryl.”
“Might have mosquitoes bites but she sure is pretty. Almost as pretty as that sweet thing our man Harmon’s saddled with. Nice curves on that one. Hows is she doing, Harmon?”
“Oh look at ole Andy. He’s hopping mad. Look, what I said about your girl – its not an insult. If my mug was as ugly as yours I’d take whatever lay I could get.”
“Shut your fucking mouth.”
“Or what? You’ll shut it for me?”
Tremors of rage shook the hammer in Andy’s hand. His knuckles going white about the red-taped handle. Daryl pointed to the hammer, his tone sobering.
“You so much as swing that in my direction you will regret it.”
Harmon turned around his visage impassive and rose to his knees and slowly placed his hand upon Andy’s arm which clutched the hammer.
“Enough. We got work to do. Client is expecting us to finish this roof today.”
After a moment of tense silence Andy and Daryl moved off to opposite ends of the roof as the neophytes clamber up the ladder, bags of tile upon their straining backs.
After work Andy sided up to Harmon where he lay upon his back counting his pay on a patch of cool-shaded grass neath a willow in the backyard of the client’s house. To either side of the tree rose up thick hedges, ill-kept and somewhere a cat meow’d. Andy explained his cousin was unable to pick him up and asked if Harmon could give him a ride. Harmon looked around. Only Swain and Daryl remained, the neophytes all having departed the moment the boss had allowed it. Swain was talking to his wife, planning a dinner-outing for the night. There was no point in Andy asking Daryl. Harmon nodded, saying nothing and asked for but a moments patience. He liked the feel of the grass upon his skin. The moss of the willow upon his neck. He closed his eyes and inhaled and opened them and watched a dragonfly land upon one of the upper branches of the willow and he thought of the construction of the creature and then a facsimile all of copper and brass and steam and coal and fire. A great clockwork dragonfly and he upon it, skipping over the clouds with reckless enthusiasm and a conqueror’s cry. Then he shook himself from reverie, removed his keys and rose.
Cherry of Harmon’s cigarette flickered like furnace coal upon the windshield. Andy sat in the passenger’s seat. Sullen. Ashamed.
“Just wanted to thank you.”
“Its no trouble at all.”
Andy nodded appreciatively and then looked out the red-tinged passenger’s window; some youths were ambling about a basketball court; to the left, a old woman sat upon her porch drinking from a mason jar as a cat the size of a small dog twined about her blue-veined legs. Harmon’s eyes were fixed to the road. He did not need to look out the window. He had memorized every house. Every sign. Every road-turning. Only the inhabitants thereof remained a mystery to him. There was no map, mental or otherwise could encapsulate them. A thin black man passed a young white woman upon the sidewalk before the house of the woman with the mason jar. Neither looked into the eyes of the other and they passed beside each other with wordlessly apathy as if the other were nothing more than a clump of grass. Harmon found it strange and unsettling how so many people could live in such close proximity for so long and yet almost never look or speak to one another. They came and went like ghosts under the setting sun.
“If you died in a crash, but some of your organs could be saved and transplanted, would you want them to be?”
Andy, arched a brow, confused and startled by the sudden query.
“Uh. Dunno. Why?”
“Just something I get to thinking about whenever I drive.”
“I don’t think I’d want my insides inside someone else.”
Harmon tilted his head up and took a drag of his cigarette and mulled his own question around in his mind and answered with measured tones.
“I used to think that way. Used to think it was weird.”
“Now I don’t. If I were to get pancaked – say, right up the road, before I pull in to your drive – bam, flattened; but one of my organs, say, a lung, remained intact and could be transplanted to some patient that needed it, I think whoever can should scoop it out, put it on ice. I wouldn’t need it, being a pancake and all. I’m not a pharaoh.”
Andy considered the driver’s words and then puckered up his mouth and nodded as if sense had been made of the thing.
“Makes sense I suppose. Less’n you’re religious in some kinda way.”
“Everyone is religious in some kinda way.”
“Thought you were an atheist?”
“So are the Taoists, but no one calls them that.”
“Caint say as I know much bout no Tao.”
They rode in silence back to Andy’s house where it stood like a fat skeleton against the pale, bony light of the slowly ascendant moon. Andy thanked the driver again and got out and strode up past the confederate flag which hung over the low-hanging porch, covered over in blankets and beer cans and rickety rocking chairs and flower pots and then vanished there within.