Fiction by Michael Deagler
“Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting Heaven…”
– W. B. Yeats
SUDDENLY I SEE the cold ceilingless illusion of the sky—it is just an illusion, right? A screen of light to stop the cosmos from distracting us all day—there, above Somerset Street, in Kensington, in Philadelphia, just beyond the rooftops and the cantilever bridge. It stares back at me as I fall through the air, blanker than a bed sheet. Blanker than a clean cotton tee. Brother Galusha asked me to make the leap: well, I made the leap and now I’m falling. Now I’m dropping like a cankered pigeon to the asphalt below, and the sky has nothing for me.
But we need the sky, don’t we? We’d go mad if we had to stare at the stars—at infinity—all day. So God blocks it out half the time. He only wants us half-mad.
So I was only half-mad when I grabbed the baggie of Suboxone from allegedly murderous Qey while he dug through his Chinese take-out bag for ketchup packets. Snatched it from among weeds like I didn’t believe I was visible. Where do these impulses come from? Qey was on top of the stoop and the pills were poorly hidden at the bottom and I snuck around from the side and plucked them like a pomegranate. Then I ran.
Theft is sinful, but so is withholding. “The children of the Lord must not hoard the resources of today but share them in the scandalous and perfect confidence that He will provide for them tomorrow,” said Brother Galusha. “Know this, Brother Jim.”
Brother Galusha thinks my name is Jim Thorpe. It isn’t. I’m from the town Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. He got this mixed up on the day we met. The fault may have been mine, though, looking back. I was floating and muttering and his questions confused me.
Maybe I’m floating right now. If you slow everything down, I’m just floating ever so gently forty feet toward the ground. I may even live if I land on my legs.
This is a ghost story. I’m one of the ghosts but there are scarier ones than me. If that’s what you’re looking for, I’ll name you some names. Codo is a cheat and Ginty is a rapist. Tawny’s used her knife on dates when she didn’t need to. Qey would be truly, legally murderous if the witnesses hadn’t all overdosed and gone to paradise. I was never like that. I mostly kept to myself. I knew who had the strong product, and I could point them out to potential customers for a couple bucks. Sometimes I sold needles. Sometimes I sold socks. I paid for things when I could and only stole when circumstance required it. But everyone steals. To live is to thieve. Do you have to be good in this life? Is it enough to do no evil?
I was a wretched of the earth, Brother Galusha informed me. The radical Christians of the New Monastic Way came into Kensington and reclaimed one of the trinities on Somerset Street, and then the old barber shop. They cleaned it out, fixed the leaks, re-glazed the windows, gave everything a new coat of paint. They started ladling out soup to all us wretcheds on the corners. “Do you know where you are?” Brother Galusha asked me as I slurped up his chicken broth. This was last week. I told him I was in Kensington in North Philadelphia. “This is Calcutta,” he said, spindly arms spread to encompass the corners and storefronts and the elevated rail stop above. He often spoke rhetorically like that. “These are the abandoned vestiges of empire.”
Brother Galusha was a hillwilliam out of alpine Tennessee: long, lank, goateed and dreadlocked. His dreads dangled out from beneath his bandanna like some holy squid tentacles of the Lord. All the brothers and sisters of the New Monastic Way shared this loamy look: simple loose-fitting clothes in neutral colors and long hair tied up on top of their heads like they had been grown in a vegetable garden, yanked fully-formed from the soil like rutabagas. I grew rutabagas once. “We’re here to help and live among you,” Brother Galusha said.
Now, I am a wretched of the air. I leapt back-first, like I was falling into a baptismal font. My faith was not strong so much as my thoughts ceased to materialize. I had one foot over the railing, then two, then I turned my back on the world and I pushed out with my skinny, creaky earth-legs. I launched upward, explosive, like an exaltation of larks in the warm, gentle, everlasting light of the sun. It was, one might say, hubristic.
I should not have robbed Qey, but I was weak. I needed to mitigate the sickness, and I knew Qey had the subs. I could have robbed Harker, but I didn’t. Harker had the dope. Do I get credit for that, at least? Baggie in hand, I bounded across Kensington Avenue, cars honking, pedestrians stepping clear, Qey bellowing behind me. I had a good head start on him. Qey is a big man, built for intimidation rather than speed. Before he was on his feet I was across the street, hare-like in my bobbing and weaving, weighing my escape routes. I should have turned the corner and beat a wide circle back to the squat house, or sprinted down Somerset far enough for Qey to give up his pursuit, but instead I started up the stairs to the elevated rail station. I think the act was aspirational.
Right now, I wish I knew how to control the way my body falls through space. It seems as though I will land on my side, shatter my left arm or more. I’m too shocked to be afraid.
I truly cannot remember my real name right now, at this moment. It can’t really be Jim Thorpe, can it? That was the town’s name. I remember it was written big on a sign. Could it be both our names? Was I named after the town? We had sky there, too: Coal Country sky, stark and stiff as a shirt starched for Mass. It was right there when you got up in the morning, and the rest of the day as well.
Not like Kensington. There’s no sky under the El. Only asphalt and pavement, brick and steel and dark window glass, street pharmacists and samplers and ladies selling themselves, drive-thru customers and kids on ATVs, chicken and Chinese and cheap, sweet wine. You can curl up in a house with your paradise of choice and let the minutes stretch into sleepy weeks. The universe ends with the walls of your room. All the fear trickles away like ice from an idling car. Life makes joyous nonsense again. It’s like you’ve crawled back into that warm, sightless, soundless sea where you lived before birth, where you’ll go after death. Like you’re floating in eternity.
I don’t recall the specifics of how I came to live under the El. Or when, exactly. Specifics make me anxious. There was a small house, I know, before all this. A woman I told I loved, who had a lot of questions and furniture. An office during the day. Business classes at night. But all of that mostly just got in the way of life. It was too complicated for me.
“We must subsist like the lily and the sparrow,” said Brother Galusha. “In simplicity.” Today is simple. Yesterday and tomorrow are complications.
Away from Qey I scampered up two flights of stairs, shoving past commuters who shot me looks of annoyance or wariness. I hopped the turnstile as the teller squawked in his booth. I was on the southbound side of the station, the side for passengers travelling to Center City. If I got there, I could get to anywhere: Wilmington or Atlantic City, DC or New York. No more Calcutta. Not this Calcutta, at least.
For four days Brother Galusha came to visit me in the room where I squatted and floated in the backroom of a house on D Street. Other people lived there too, people with voices like woodblocks, but I stayed in the back and they mostly left me alone. Brother Galusha would bring me soup and ask me questions and talk to me about the Lord and all the plans he had for us. I didn’t speak a lot. I was gladder for the soup than the gospel, but Brother Galusha was a kind man with a tender voice and I didn’t mind him so much.
“The whole of the world could believe in the Resurrection of the Body, but this would change nothing,” Brother Galusha said. “We must live the Resurrection of the Body. We think we can bring the dead back to life with epinephrine or defibrillators, but they will remain dead until a person breathes new life into them. I can tell you, Brother Jim, that there is life after death, but can you tell me if there is life before death?”
We had a pomegranate tree, that woman and I, though it was years from bearing fruit. It was behind the small house, and there was a small garden plot, too, where we grew rutabagas, lettuce and pumpkins. The pumpkin vines would sprawl out and choke everything with their shady, muffling leaves. “You need a full patch to grow pumpkins,” I heard her call from the back door. “What are we going to do about all these pumpkins?”
On the fourth day Brother Galusha decided that the Lord would like it if I got clean. I agreed. I wanted it, too. I did. Who doesn’t? He brought me back with him to the barbershop that the Christians had made their mission and said I could sleep in the back room until other accommodations could be found. “This is Brother Jim Thorpe,” he said to everyone as we walked through the door. “Brother Jim is about to make his leap toward sobriety. His leap toward faith.”
The town Jim Thorpe was not always called Jim Thorpe. It had another name once, though I can’t remember what it was. It was re-named after a famous man who was buried there. He wasn’t born there, and never lived there, and didn’t die there, even, but he was buried there, and they named the town after him. They took him into their earth and they prized his bones.
When the brothers and sisters baptized me, it was as Jim Thorpe. I suppose that is my name now, too, before the Lord. Before God.
I mentioned God. I believe in God, and not only because I’m falling through the air. And I don’t mean Brother Galusha’s Lord of Resurrection: I believe in a God of space and silence. He’s the one who made this sky. I’ve seen him before, in the faces of people who acted as though they couldn’t hear what I was saying to them. Strangers, yes, people on the street, but also people that I knew well, or at least that believed I knew. Maybe they saw God in my face. Frustration amuses him, this God. He’s hands-off. Laissez-faire.
It only took a minute for Qey to join me on the platform. He popped a token in the turnstile like any law-abiding citizen and stepped out into the light of the landing, calm. It was only then that I realized how foolishly I had chosen my course of departure: there was nowhere to go. The train that puttered toward the station was still far down the track and Qey would be on me before it reached us. I crouched and hurried down the platform as far as I could. I watched the train advance impossibly slow.
I spent three days at the barber shop in withdrawal. The Christians don’t believe in weaning off of opiates. Three days, unbroken by anything you could call sleep. It’s the longest I’ve been clean in three years. They set up a cot for me in the back and gave me new clothes: the monastic baggy sweatshirt and pants in the humble grays and browns of their fellowship. I got a shower from the hose spigot out back and washed weeks of grime and stink from my body. They gave me a toothbrush and a comb. They gave me soup and thin tea. They sat and spoke to me, different ones, throughout the day: kind, quiet, humorless people with broad, open faces and innocent eyes. They were like curious children to me. They asked me about myself, but I didn’t have much to say to them. I asked one woman if I needed to tell them my sins. “The Lord knows your sins and has already forgiven you,” she said. “He loves you, Brother Jim.”
The hate hung on Qey’s face as he spotted me attempting to blend in with the wall near the end of the platform. It was well past rush hour, and there weren’t enough people around to disappear in plain sight. He advanced in quick, heavy strides, and I stood still, considering. If I gave back the pills I might get away with a mild beating: a blow to the head, a few kicks to the torso while I was on the ground. I had seen enough of Qey’s retribution on the corners. He was impulsive and brutal, but not sadistic. Not like some. A few punches and kicks. I’d survived as much in the past.
Then Qey pulled his gun from his waistband. He was a mere thirty feet from me down the platform. I knew the gun. Qey was proud of his Beretta 81. He would flash it around with little provocation. People on the platform were gasping and running. A beating suddenly seemed unlikely.
Three days I was clean. A shame, for them to be the final three.
I mentioned business classes before. That was a euphemism. Or a lie, really, one that I used to tell the woman I told I loved. She thought I went to business school at night, but really I had a baby with this other woman in Jersey. A baby girl. They end up costing about the same, school and a kid. They’re both too expensive in the end.
It was evil of me, that whole thing. I know that.
What did we name her?
I turned and smacked into an old woman on the platform: stooped, startled, swaddled in felt and wool, seemingly unaware of what was transpiring. “Heavens,” she said to me, like my mother would say, like she loved me. “I’m so sorry,” I told her. “Sorry.”
I left Jim Thorpe because it was a dead-end town with a dead man’s name and I was a young man and alive. I left the barbershop this morning with an ache in my bones and a feverish ambition in my brain, with no plan, just following my feet. Not because I was weak, though I know that I am weak. I left to be strong, to be new, to be me—the real me, whatever my name is. I needed to run on my weak, shaky legs, to run somewhere far away from my weak, shaky body and all the dead things that clung to it like cankers in a pigeon’s throat. Who wouldn’t run? Who hasn’t?
The platform ended and I leapt down onto the track itself, where the rails were suspended high above the street. The grade was uneven and slowed my pace, and I had to pick my way from tie to tie. The train approached, though now it seemed to be moving much faster, bearing down on me as hatefully as Qey. It had yet to even sound its whistle to shoo me from its path, as though it wanted me to stay put, as though it meant to devour me. I thought there would be a shoulder, or a nook, or a gap in the ties: somewhere to duck into as the train passed by. There were only rails and railings. I ran along them, ran idiotically toward the train that sped toward me. I waited for the bark of Qey’s Beretta and the crash of the shot into my back. If I went down on the rails, the train could have me.
I chose her name, my daughter. I did. I had wanted to give her that.
First, finally, came the screech-owl-hoot of the train whistle. A warning.
And then the lightning crack of Qey’s gun. Though nothing knocked me down. A miss.
All I was doing was getting out of their way. That’s how it’s always been with me. Instinct took over, adrenaline. Faith, even, maybe. I stopped thinking. I moved.
I was at the railing, one foot over, then the other, made the leap. I launched backward from the elevated railway forty feet up in the air. That’s what got me here, to this moment, to this end.
Last night I slept, in a way, a sleep that was not sleep. Not for long, and not deeply, and I felt ever-conscious of the shadows moving across the walls. I dreamt of ghosts and ghostly places, woke disoriented and shivering. One of the rutabaga sisters was sitting nearby stitching up a hole in a threadbare sweatshirt. I asked her where we were. “Somewhere on the way to paradise,” she said. But that was not a place I ever wanted to go.
And I’m not afraid, even now that the pitch of my body suggests that I will land with my head. There’s simply not enough time. The sky is staring at me, like it’s waiting to hear if I’ve learned anything, if I have anything left to say.
I’ll say: I miss the world. I did not love it like I should’ve. I miss Jim Thorpe and knowing how it was. I miss the woman, the garden, the baby girl. I’ll confess to all of that.
But couldn’t you give me something beautiful, here, at the end? Shouldn’t something be flashing before my eyes? A quick stereoscope-spin of my moments, my life, such as it was? Or someone else’s, even? Any life at all? There isn’t anything here.
Michael Deagler lives in Philadelphia. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, the Minnesota Review, Buffalo Almanack, the Yalobusha Review, and elsewhere. Visit him at michaeldeagler.com.