The Best People in the World (9 page)

BOOK: The Best People in the World
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I looked over at Alice.

Alice's shoulders were all hunched up. She seemed to be suffering some sort of attack. “Do we have some sort of destination in mind?” she asked.

“We are headed,” said Shiloh, “to an area of great hope.”

He directed Alice to a place where the street names were numbers you could count on your fingers and avenues were just letters of the alphabet. We'd reached the heart of the city, or so it seemed.

Some of the buildings were missing corners. Some had windows created with sledgehammers. I kept expecting some type of transformation in the landscape. The bombed-out ruin we moved through wasn't landscape but destination. Every block had a thin dog with gummy eyes and a crooked tail. People scooted down sidewalks with nervous, bouncy steps. Everything was veneered with spray paint. Guarding the windows were wooden grates, metal bars, vinyl sheeting, and grilles from cars. Alleys were stuffed with mattress coils and trash cans. Shiloh explained that society's future was being forged in this sacred neighborhood.

Shiloh asked Alice to slow down. While the landmarks were coming back to him, he was used to negotiating the area on foot.

We saw a man in track shorts sleeping beneath a card table. Later I watched a pair of twins, middle-aged women in sky blue pantsuits
and matching heels, hobble across a vacant lot toward something we thought might be a revival tent.

Finally, Shiloh had us let him out at a convenience store. The clerk eyeballed us through three-inch glass. Shiloh and the man had a conversation.

I wondered how a place could get so torn up without making the national news.

I said, “I don't think I will ever fall asleep on the island of Manhattan.”

Alice said, “People can get used to anything.”

I said, “That's a great disappointment.”

Shiloh exited the store. He opened my door and got in beside me. His fingers massaged the dash. “He's moved, apparently.”

“There are only nomads in the desert,” said Alice. Then, as if the mention of a desert jogged her memory, she spread another coat of Noxzema on her face.

“I could show you where we used to live, but you guys probably don't want to wander through a bunch of empty buildings.” He paused here, either to give us the chance to argue with him or so he could savor his defeat. He gave a little wave to the man in the store.

“I'm sorry,” I said.

“Tell me how to get out of this city,” said Alice.

“Whoa,” said Shiloh. “I know where he went.”

So we headed back up the island. Alice drove just on the acceptable side of recklessly. We headed up past Yankee Stadium where the dragon's teeth of flying pennants made me think of the Colisseum in Rome, and what a wonder that must have been while it was intact. I said, “Alice, doesn't that remind you of the Colisseum?” Shiloh said, “That's the spirit.”

All at once we arrived in a neighborhood indistinguishable from the one we'd left. The question, it seemed: did Shiloh's friends seek destruction or cause it?

Shiloh gave me an encouraging slap on the leg. “Let's hit the pavement.”

Alice found a parking space big enough that she could pull straight in.

Up on a stoop a woman dumped a saucepan of water on a toddler's head. They studied us as we stretched and twisted on the sidewalk. We probably looked as though we intended to perform an athletic feat. Shiloh popped the hood and wrenched some plastic part off the engine, putting it in his pocket. He dropped the hood and gave a signal that meant Alice and I should follow him.

I said good-bye to the car. I feared our circumstances might shortly dictate that I do something heroic or humiliating to ensure my safety. My heart beat, and only for me. Some of the streets were flooded with sunlight and others with shadow, and I didn't know, when the time came, which I would run to.

Shiloh pointed to the soaped windows of a storefront. Getting right up to the glass, we could see through to a room littered with broken floor tiles and skeins of gray lint. Limp rubber hoses hung from the walls. In the entranceway next to the laundromat, a narrow staircase led to a fire door.

We stood on the sidewalk and wondered what to do. We watched a boy on a bicycle tow a girl on roller skates. The girl wore tiny shorts; her knees touched, but not her thighs. She took a hand off the tow rope to give us a quick wave.

“Well?” Alice asked.

“This is the place,” said Shiloh, “or it's someplace else.” He held the door for us. I led the way. Alice followed, her hands on my hips either to guide me or to use me as a shield. If I paused, her hands urged me on.

The fire door was heavy and red and opened out. A man sitting on the floor just inside struggled to find his feet. He was high on some drug. His eyes and the rest of his face couldn't agree on which emotion to display. He was one person impersonating a throng.

Alice and I said, “Hey.”

Shiloh peeked around us to check the guy out. “This could be the place.”

“I shouldn't have let you in.” The sleeper searched his pockets for something.

“It's okay,” said Shiloh. “We're here for Parker.”

Alice studied a hallway of doors.

“You're not looking for me?”

I shook my head.

“Fifth floor.”

“That'd be the roof,” said Shiloh.

“You'll see.”

At the end of the hallway, we found another stairwell. I smelled bleach everywhere, but I didn't see anything that looked like it had been cleaned. When we reached the landing on the fourth floor, we found a ladder lashed to a trapdoor in the ceiling. Shiloh climbed up first, then Alice, then me. It was an ordinary roof with tarred machinery and bird shit and copper flashing tarnished green. Where a taller building abutted one side of the roof, something had made a great hole through the masonry. We walked through the hole into an abandoned bedroom.

“Recognize anything yet?” Alice asked.

A door opened and a girl walked in. A baby was held against the girl's shirt in a blanket sling. The girl could have been my age.

“Shiloh,” said my friend, extending his hand.

“We don't sweat names here,” said the girl. She looked down at the baby and kissed it on its head. Someone had tied the baby's hair into wispy braids.

“Where is here, exactly?” asked Alice.

The girl smiled. “This is Eden. Some people call it Eden East because of the other Eden, but they're not related. They call the other Eden ‘Left Eden' because it's in California, on the left coast, and because of what it means. Eden East doesn't mean anything.”

“We're looking for Parker,” said Shiloh.

“You and everyone else.”

“He and I are old friends,” bragged Shiloh.

“Parker's sure got a lot of friends,” observed the girl. She sighed. “My friend was supposed to be getting diapers.”

We followed the girl into a dim hallway. Scraps of clothes littered the floor. She led us past open doors connected to empty rooms. A
dog barked in a high, yappy voice. Pigeons slept on empty windowsills. Stepping through a pair of French doors, we found ourselves in front of a waiting elevator. Above us pebbly glass vaulted into a skylight. We got inside the elevator. The girl pulled down a safety gate. We could hear children playing. Somewhere a man counted by fives. The acoustics of the building were such that the elevator acted like a tin-can telephone. The cage descended past empty halls and dark doorways.

The cage shuddered when we'd reached the end of the line.

“We're at least two levels underground,” said Alice.

“Did you count? Because you shouldn't have counted. I should have said something.” The girl sounded disappointed in herself.

Shiloh said, “It's okay. I've been here before.”

The girl threw open the gate. She hit a switch and a grid of incandescent bulbs came popping on. The lights were protected by wire cages and mounted at regular intervals across the ceiling. It was a tremendous room, two parallel planes connecting in the distance, a vast hole in space.

We all said, “Wow!”

“Maybe you were thinking of somewhere else,” said the girl.

I watched the baby struggle to burrow toward a darker part of the girl's chest. The girl motioned for us to step out of the elevator. She had us wait there. Her sneakers squeaked on the clean cement as she minced across the open room. She disappeared behind a column and we didn't see her for a while.

“A lot can happen in a year's time,” said Shiloh.

Listening as the elevator pulled voices out of the air like some perfect radio, I had this irrational fear that I might overhear my own voice.

We heard footsteps long before we saw the people approaching.

That the girl wasn't carrying the baby anymore depressed me more than the stocky guy with the prospector's beard who accompanied her. Under all that hair I could make out a chin and a mouth, but nothing that might be called an expression. He looked younger than Shiloh. He might have been some freaknik farmer, except for his boots, not just any GI lace ups, but kangaroo-leather jump boots. It was no secret that
some of those guys had come back high-strung. The longer I looked at him, the more convinced I was that he was the genuine article.

“Your friend?” Alice asked.

“I don't know,” said Shiloh, who slouched his shoulders and tried to make himself look small.

The man stopped a few feet in front of us and spread his feet. His teeth peeked through his beard.

“I'll be fucked,” said the stranger. “An honest-to-goodness ghost.”

Shiloh stuck out his hand. “Hi, Parker.”

Instead of shaking hands Parker stepped forward and wrapped Shiloh in his arms. They thumped each other on the back.

The girl's look told us that she considered this reunion an immense waste of her time.

Parker released Shiloh, then took a step back in order to consider Alice.

“I'll call you Venus,” he told her.

“Alice,” said Alice.

“Venus,” said Parker, nodding.

“Give me a break,” said Alice.

“And this is Thomas,” said Shiloh. “He's a genius.”

I don't know where that came from, but it had an effect on Parker. He had to look at me all over again.

“What sort of genius are you, kid?” Parker put his arm around the unimpressed girl.

“He's crafty,” said Shiloh.

I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn't like meeting people in a place so hidden from the world. And I never expected Shiloh to know a guy like Parker.

Parker said, “I'm glad you made it.”

“It took us a while to find you,” said Shiloh.

“I'm keeping a low profile, but it hasn't stopped people from finding me.”

“Yeah,” said Shiloh.

Parker arched his eyebrows. All these thin lines, like paper cuts, showed on his forehead. “I mean lots of people.”

Parker solicited ohs from Alice and me.

“Everything's still cool, I hope,” said Shiloh.

The girl rolled her eyes, as though we were withholding her oxygen.

“Are things cool? Things are decidedly uncool. Choices have to be made. But you know what I say? Tomorrow isn't supposed to look like today.”

“Tell him why we're here,” said Alice.

“The thing is,” said Shiloh, “we're actually on our way to Vermont.”

Something passed across Parker's eyes. He turned toward the girl. “Why don't you go find your sister.”

She walked off. When she was out of earshot, Parker turned back to us. He broke into a gigantic smile. “Now that's smart. I wouldn't mind getting back to the basics myself. Things are falling apart around here. I don't mind telling you, my popularity isn't what it once was.”

Parker produced a pack of cigarettes from out of a jacket pocket. He lit one, took two puffs, and tossed it on the floor, ground it out under the toe of his boot. In the distance a single bulb inside a single cage flickered on and off.

“Maybe you're here to save me? I don't know.”

At the moment it seemed unlikely that we would be capable of rescuing ourselves.

“Can you believe I'm going back to Vermont?” asked Shiloh.

“Lots of folks have been heading up that way,” said Parker. “There's a new element. If I were you, I'd steer clear of them.”

“What do you mean by ‘element'?” asked Alice.

“He means people,” said Shiloh.

“I understand that,” said Alice. “I didn't think he was talking about carbon or salt. What sort of people?”

“You want an accounting?” asked Parker. “How about pushers, dopers, AWOL deserters, bail jumpers, along with every other type of conflict avoider you can imagine. Choose your friends wisely.”

“You don't need to plant ideas in their heads,” said Shiloh.

“How's it feel to be back at the scene of the crime?” asked Parker.

“Please,” said Shiloh, his voice sounding tiny all of a sudden.

Parker said, “The last time we saw each other, you had some choice words for me.”

“As you'll recall, I was out of my mind.”

Parker wrapped Shiloh in another bear hug. He said, “I accept your apology.” Then he kissed Shiloh smack on the lips.

I felt completely trapped. When the elevator cage lurched up the shaft, I felt even worse.

Parker said, “I'm touched that you'd bring your little friends by on your way up north.”

“I thought maybe you'd have an idea what's going on up there,” said Shiloh. “I thought you could get us pointed in a general direction.” When he reached the end of this appeal, Shiloh turned to Alice and gave her a look like: see how reasonable I can be?

Parker said, “I know people who can help you get settled. They're God's children. They're doing very positive things. They take in stray cats and runaways. It's all part of their faith. They can look after you while you get your feet under you. They're into charity cases.”

BOOK: The Best People in the World
6.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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