The Shadow Knows the Corner, the Corner Knows the Dust
posted Aug 8, 2007
Here is a small city in the north of Spain. Around here are the towns Americans imagine, when they imagine the towns here. In September, this place is a place to be. It is green and smells old and clean in a way our nursing homes have robbed us of. He lived for a little while in a room just big enough for a bed, a water closet and a desk. He loved the room without ever knowing which way the window was facing. This is a love of place only we have learned to feel. Your lives without this love are secret pities we harbor.; Outside was a blacktop soccer field where he’d watch the boys and men play in the afternoon. Bad ham and white bread and table wine, the noise of a fan with no guard.
He fell in with a few American kids around the city. On the weekends, they would take the bus to the coast just to sleep out on the beach. German men played badminton naked there during the day, but at night it was cool and up the bluff there was a town, made up of a few stores along the road. The people of the countryside, women with long gray hairs on their faces, peasants and pilgrims, smoked dark tobacco and laughed. Wash down Dramamine, sink into the rocking diesel, the asphalt road through the hills.
They walked around the in the daytime, and waded nipple-deep into the cold saltwater. Some of the kids had gear for traveling. He slept in a wool blanket, curled against a big, soft woman with a Mississippi mouth. He would wake to a world of green. Everything save the sea and the sky and the sand was green, like he used to imagine Ireland. The rest was simple grey.
Not long after moving in, he was asked to leave his rooming house. His Spanish was too weak to argue, so he left for the beach with everything rolled up in the wool blanket.
He took the bus out to the little town above the beach. The waiters in the hotel café squeezed the orange juice fresh. They spoke to him in Gallego, mocking his Mexican accent, and practiced their English—a scratchy quilt of brand new cussing. He ate there every afternoon, taking away an unlabeled jug of fresh green wine every night. He was careful not to overtip.
Evergreens and palms grew side-by-side.
There he slept alone, between the fog and the blanket. He would wake up stiff and damp, with sand in his teeth and dew dotting the hair at the back of his neck. Rolling the wine bottles into his blanket, he walked down the shore, to a little stand that sold boiled sea-food. He traded the bottles for a little plate of squid or whitefish. He gave his watch to a peasant in a tweed scally cap. He stripped off his clothes and waded out a way. He splashed around, and felt the prickled sea-things wash against his legs. Naked and waist deep, shivering and stiff, he shit into the Atlantic.
He was sitting on the little peninsula, leaned against the stone ruins of a house, with a bottle of wine, when the American kids returned. They offered him a little room in their flat, recently vacated by a college student who had returned home, dragging his first broken heart and his study abroad beard back to Indianapolis, leaving six months rent behind. He agreed. To speak English again, to break bottles on pavement, the thought of these small reliefs caught him off-guard. To avoid weeping, he was forced to turn his head and exhale forcibly. It was easy to drink port wine and imagine letters home in that close room. The newly minted man from Indiana had left behind a small wake of boyhood flotsam. Three month’s rent in CDs and a $30 set of headphones, a few sheets of notebook paper, a trashcan to spit tobacco juice in, and a few bottles in the refrigerator. A couple easy things make time seem easy, too. And they were good times, near as he could figure.
Sometimes, like all of us do, he pretended he was in prison. He sat at the foot of the bed with the wool blanket and pillow cast off onto the floor. He sat naked on the naked mattress. He did push ups along side the bed, his nipples tweaking cold tile. He killed the roaches and notched one, two, three, four marks and a slash in the desktop. When he drained a bottle, he padded down the hall to the kitchen, forgetting the penitentiary code of his idle.
These idle things get lost easily. Sometimes he’d look around for the sort of backwash humans let flow into the places they’ve been. He’d peak under the bed or in the one drawer of the desk, in the closet among socks with no pairs. He found a shell casing, a seashell, and a laminated notecard with a Fahrenheit to Celsius conversion table written in blocky architects’ script. He sometimes found traces of country songs collected in the corners near the ceiling. Of course he found other things, too.
There was a small window high above the radiator, near the ceiling. Usually he left it shut. It opened to the hallway that ran down the center of the flat. Across the hall another window opened, and through these open windows, he’d stage conversations with the kid across the hall, who would stand on a chair and lean out his window while he spoke in a loud voice, shirtless and tattooed.
The room was under the staircase. The tattooed kid’s alarm woke him every morning. Sometimes he went back to sleep, other times he put on black socks and boxers and went down the hall to the kitchen to make breakfast with the kid, other days he didn’t do anything at all but lay and look at the slope of the staircase above his bed. Once he bought a cheap linen tapestry. He tacked it to the slope of the stairway above his bed and spent a lot of time looking at it. But, it grew distracting. He took it down and piled it and his favorite hat out in the back veranda and burned them both with a good squirt of Zippo fuel and a little too much theatre. The next day, he went to the hat store and bought himself a new black Kangol. For a while after that, he quit drinking port and things seemed to subside a little.
Under the stairs he heard everyone come and go, spitting their dirty Galician, or lisping with the peninsular accent. He understood most of what they said, and knew a lot about the way they took the stair at different hours of the night or day. His hat hung on a rack next to the window, with a yellow fisherman’s slicker. The landlady let gravity get the best of her garlicky weight on her way down the stairs, and when she did the raindrops shook off his hat and coat and pissed away on the radiator. Whenever she came around, he faked sleep and threw a sheet over himself and the stains on the mattress. Sometimes she came in, to explain how the washing machine worked, or to collect rent. He never saw her, but certainly she had spied him coming and going, from her perch on the third floor.
When I moved in, all this was still there. I threw out the clothes, and the poems, and kept the rest. The second night I was there, I found the tattooed kid on the veranda, crying gracefully over a small fire of clothes and notebook paper. I didn’t bother him. But when he saw me, he asked if he could borrow a CD from the man’s little pile, and he played it on the little grey radio in the kitchen. I poured two water glasses of thick port and tossed the hat out the window onto the flames.
Later, when the tattooed kid left, I gave him the CDs. In return, he gave me a picture of a girl, maybe seventeen, and really in her peach. In the photo, she is walking away down the middle of a street, with her head tilted to the right, and maybe turned a little to look at something up over her left shoulder. There is a canopy of what I’d guess are sweetgum trees and it is evening, and cool. Along the street, cars are parked, yards mown, and the porches of your life line up for the roll call of an almost divine comfort. She has straight hair the color of almonds bouncing with her step. I cannot see her face, but all of us who have seen it must know she is not smiling, but is happy. Also, let me say this…her ass is as lovely as the face of god.
I have lost this photo, somewhere between then and now, but it was tacked to the wall for all the time I lived in that room. Still, I just lived there - there in a little room, in a flat, in a house, in the north of Spain. What sort of things do we leave behind us in these rooms, where we have nested and slept? The hardest night of a life happened there, if there is everywhere you’ve ever been. The wind across the shore rolls the sand. The grey waves of the Atlantic sweep away our traces, the dust of our lives, the shadows we’d like to leave there. But in these rooms, we sink into the plaster and wear away the tile. On the table, the grease from your elbows has stained the wood. The smoke from your dark tobacco still colors the corners, muffling the sounds gathered there, drinking the leftover lamplight. We can never leave. There is no prettier place.
© 2007 Stevie Davis