Down Time—Daniel Enderle
Thursday morning, as per routine, Andrew’s eyelids fluttered minutes before the alarm. The nicotine tinged gloom of his second floor back bedroom was tangible and perfect. Shades were drawn on the two sets of French doors leading to a screen porch that he had not ventured onto since the summer before last. Between them, an unplugged air conditioner choked the only real window. Very little of what passed for daylight in Baltimore ever reached this room and he liked it that way. He was, by nature, nocturnal but his job as an insurance functionary forced him to rise at this ungodly hour and stumble through each miserable weekday more zombie than vampire. By night, he stayed too late at the bar wearing motorcycle boots and a worn leather jacket. By day, he donned the garb of a corporate drone. The job was killing him, but it never occurred to him that any other existence was possible. He thought that nothing could prevent him from getting up and doing it again five days a week.
No wooden stake protruded from his chest so he kicked off the stale sheet and the wool blanket, wiggled his legs and determined that he had not turned into a bug or something equally as promising. Nope. Nothing for it but to get up and begin running down the pre-launch checklist. Number one – cigarettes. He shook the pack. His one Rain Man-like attribute was his ability to shake a pack and determine, without looking, how many he had left. Seven. Could be worse.
He’d laid them down for nearly five years after his twenty eighth birthday, but smokers got to leave their cubicles to go stand outside several times each day and management didn’t bitch about it. So he picked them up again. It was easy. Like a duck to water. Like riding a bike. Now, at thirty-four, he’d been smoking again for more than a year. Hardly ever lit the wrong end. He felt as if he had been working for the insurance company all his life.
The burning nail dangled from his lip as he shuffled, in his underwear, across the oriental carpet to the turntable. The carpet was old but nice. His mother had conspired with him to drag it from his parents’ attic on a visit home. It had lain up there for years but his father would never have sanctioned the transfer. The turntable was the only shiny thing in the room. Everything else, including the two armchairs and the bookcases, had been rescued from back alleys or the junk shops around Fells Point. However, it all hung together nicely. It was a good place to hunker down with the bong and the stereo. No street noise or news of the world penetrated the solid 19th century walls. The four floor brownstone began life as one big house and this had been the gentleman’s study. The fireplace still worked. The mantelpiece displayed two collections – one of votive candles and various dusty statues of Jesus with assorted saints all purchased during a six month buying frenzy that occurred when he and Ellen moved into this place six years earlier. The other collection was bullets – spent rounds found on the neighborhood sidewalks. Mostly nines and thirty-eights with a few forty-fives and some unidentified. A couple of old framed prints of colonial scenes and another of some European general on horseback hung on the walls. In between were punk rock posters. Iggy and the Stooges, the Dwarves, Surgery, New Bomb Turks, D.O.A.
Andrew dropped the needle on Johnny Thunders (Live in Japan) singing “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” All he listened to lately was Johnny. This tune always put him in mind of his high school girlfriend back in Texas. She didn’t make it to graduation. Johnny wasn’t exactly hitting the books these days either.
As usual, in the shower, he shaved, brushed his teeth and took a whiz. He needed a haircut. Except for underwear and socks, he put on the same clothes he had worn yesterday and the day before that.
The long dim hall led to a small afterthought of a kitchen crammed in next to the front room which had once been the lady’s parlor. The kitchen was about the size of the galley you might find on a tugboat. But no porthole. Except for the too large refrigerator, everything was circa 1925. Hieroglyphic linoleum, mint green tile, and a shallow sink with molded drain boards. The bulging trash bag was smelly.
As the water heated up and the toaster oven hummed, Andrew squinted into the front room. The tall bare windows blared daylight and hurt his eyes. It was a gray day. High overcast. The empty fireplace featured wilted silk flowers. It was white and so was the huge couch where Ellen lay, utterly still, wrapped in a quilt. She slept out here twelve or thirteen hours a day ever since she had broken up with him two months previously. She lacked the wherewithal to move out or do much of anything else. They no longer spoke.
He didn’t think about it much. He wasn’t thinking about it now. He ate a dry bagel and drank coffee with two per cent milk and four heaping spoonfuls of sugar.
Down on the sidewalk, Andrew flipped up the collar of his suit jacket against the breeze and lit another smoke. Five left. Before him lay a ten minute walk to the station and a twenty-five minute train ride to the office park. He would be fifteen minutes late which meant taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Best not to walk by the boss’s door. She was OK. Just bright enough to realize him as the only flicker of competence in her department. But he couldn’t forgive the memo she had circulated the previous month outlining the “delimema” faced by the company concerning the upcoming millennium bug. De Lime Ma. He posted that memo on the fabric wall by his monitor.
Heading down the block Andrew passed an old man in a bathrobe, standing on his front stoop, holding a folded newspaper and staring into the street. The Texan in Andrew compelled him to make eye contact and say, “ Hi There.” No response. The old guy looked quizzical and muttered to himself.
As usual, Andrew stepped off the corner and started to cut diagonally across the intersection but something brought him up short. He felt his hair rise. Something was way fucked up. A four inch wide crack ran right down the middle of the pavement. He stepped over it and turned around. It ran as far as he could see in both directions. A couple of people advanced on the sidewalks but they weren’t looking. Bathrobe guy had retreated inside. A fast moving car swerved past him and crossed the crack with a sharp chunk. Seven or eight inches wide now.
He stood, head down, near the middle of the intersection, for several minutes, focused on the anomaly just beneath his scuffed up Italian shoes. Steadily, the other side of the crack slid away from his toes. Now he could see down into it. His mind blanked out. He completely forgot about himself and his unsustainable existence. If he had reflected upon this fact, which he did not, he would have realized that this was only the second instance in his whole life that the relentless ticking of his time on earth had fallen silent. The other was the occasion of his first truly competent blowjob. Back in their early days, when he and Ellen talked and talked all the time.
With no forethought or deliberation, Andrew abandoned his commute to follow the crack towards downtown. It was still narrow enough that he could hop back and forth on either side of it. In the first block he passed a woman walking a Great Dane the size of a pony. The dog’s head was nearly level with hers. They did not look at Andrew or what was going on in the street. The trees were just beginning to bud.
By the end of the second block the gap yawned wide and sinister so he stuck to his side of the street. Beneath the asphalt lay concrete and, under that, bricks covered some very dark, square timbers punctuating lots of dirt. Sagging iron pipes ran lengthwise with the street. Some snapped pipes angled down into blackness. Others ran crossways dripping foul gray water. From a big one, a strong wide stream arced gracefully into the void. He smelled gas.
In the third block he took to the sidewalk, looking between parked cars, until he came to a bus stop where a ten or eleven year old black kid, wearing a long unzipped coat and holding a big book bag by the strap, stood with his mouth open as he eyed the now impressive crevice in the street. Andrew joined him and stood motionless until, suddenly, the cig burned him right between the fingers. Damn! It hurt. He flicked the butt into the darkness. Then the two of them stepped off the curb and peered right down into the chasm. There was no bottom to it. It smelled earthy and exuded dampness like a basement. Andrew licked his fingers.
The kid swung the bag and lofted it high above Andrew’s head where it seemed to hang for a second before plummeting straight down into the depths. They never heard it hit. They turned, smiled broadly at each other and broke into explosive laughter. Andrew felt it rumble deep in his chest. It had been a long time since he had laughed. He felt loose.
The kid said, “Hey man, gotta a square?” Like any smoker in Baltimore, Andrew fielded such demands so often that he had developed a stock response. Ordinarily, he would have replied, “No thanks, I’m trying to quit.” But Andrew was now feeling perfectly magnanimous and he pulled out one for each of them. Only three more. He lit the kid with his plastic lighter and said, “Here ya go, Shorty.” The kid inhaled deeply and blew smoke from his mouth and his nose simultaneously. “Don’t call me Shorty.” Andrew grinned and shook his head. He took off his tie.
He left the kid standing there pensive and silent and smoking. The homes were smaller now and made of brick. He passed a very old church. He encountered a few more pedestrians but no one else seemed to notice the impromptu canyon and how far away the row houses across the street now seemed to be. Then a green and white taxicab zoomed out of a side street, shot across the abyss, and smashed against the other side about six feet below grade before falling backwards towards Hell. It was, perhaps, the most splendid thing he had ever witnessed. He smiled, but he did not allow it to break his stride.
Leaving behind the residential neighborhoods, the street and the giant crack continued right down into the city, past tall buildings and fountains in small, grimy parks. Andrew entered a corner shop and emerged with a fresh pack and a forty ounce can of malt liquor wrapped in a snug paper bag. His crack had tapered now to the point where it might easily be misconstrued for standard-issue Baltimore infrastructure. It ran right across the plaza by the Inner Harbor, split the retaining wall and stopped just shy of the oily water. He sat down with his butt on the top of a wooden bench and his feet on the seat. He decided that, although he wouldn’t ever be going back to the office, he’d get a shoeshine that afternoon. Some watery sunlight spilled through the clouds onto the nearby Chesapeake Lightship and gleamed off the stacks of the old sugar refinery in the distance. His fingers still hurt and were blistered. He lit up and cracked the forty, and poured some on his fingers. He knew he was on the brink of a long downward spiral, but that was cool. He felt all right. He just needed a break. Some downtime.