I Cower at Scaffolds and Squirrels

I got the same sort of feeling walking off the bike path and onto the grounds of this concrete plant that I got when I was real little and I would mechanically check my closet and under my bed twice before going to sleep, checking to make sure all the stuffed animals were in the same place I’d left them the night before, though even after dutifully doing my rounds I’d run and jump on my bed after flipping the lights off, the covers already pulled back to optimize lights-off-to-shelter time. That feeling. At least until I’d passed the piles of sand and the rows of mixers and walked thirty, forty feet up the black belt at the back of the plant–until I perched at the top looking down at it all. Then came freedom, novelty, maybe even power. And I used to be afraid of heights, too.

But that feeling on the ground…was I drawing from my last dregs of that extra sense kids have for the ineffable: Did I sense the spirit of that man who drunkenly fell from the same scaffold I was standing on, maybe two years back as he was climbing around with his buddies after a night out, and died on that scattered gravel down there? Or did I sense the inhuman, the monstrous—things we’ve created that have taken on lives outside of us that we can no longer control: metastatic industry,  closet-monsters, our other demons?

Did I sense that somehow by walking into the pipe-labyrinth of the factory I might become inhuman, too, losing myself in it? That its artifice might be contagious; that I might walk in but then both walk out and not; that maybe that man two years ago didn’t fall but was pushed by…something, though no one was above him; and that his friends, scrambling down, may have forgotten the myriad metal faces of the Pusher, the Legion, as they looked into their buddy’s all-too-human face opened on the pavement, so that they could never tell anyone that no, it wasn’t an accident?

Did I sense that seeing his open face from above was the only thing to save his slower friend—still climbing down when all the rest were already agape in horror on the pavement—from being pushed off the same way? And did that friend despair as he walked around town, hands in his pockets, blindly kicking rocks, desperately looking from face to face of passersby in search of one so open, so human as he saw that night but only seeing the backs of hands and cell phones or the upturned bottoms of bottles and cans and cups?

I walked back down the belt and ducked under the chain that blocked off the bottom, balancing myself with my beerless hand, and as I walked back out of the plant past the graffiti-coated freight boxes a voice called out to me from the woods across the bike path, “Hey, brother.” A short man in his late forties walked out from the trees holding an empty can of Bud Ice. “My name’s Lil’ Rick. I seen you someplace before.” Maybe he had, though I didn’t quite recognize him, but in any case I’d meant to drop this six-pack off at a friend’s house party four blocks ago but the lights were all out and what was I gonna do with that much beer? So Lil’ Rick and I went and sat at the edge of the woods and opened some beers with a lighter and talked.

“That’s a good spot you had up there. I seen you almost start walking back when you seen those people coming down the path, then turn around and climbed up. I feel you. Some nights that just ain’t it.”

He went on about why he’d come out to the woods, how his best friend was ex-navy and too damn hotheaded when he’s drunk and swung at him so Lil’Rick had to choke him out to keep them both from getting hurt, how he felt so bad about it that he couldn’t stand to be out in the town so he came out here and watched the animals walking.

“I been here all my life, and man, this whole place used to be just like that back there,” he thumbed back behind us, to the trees, “but they damn near took all of it down, now. So many motherfucking buildings.”

He used to go trapping with his grandpa right across the road, where it slopes down into new townhouses for a million miles or so. Caught a possum in a rabbit box one time, he said, and asked his grandpa what in hell they were gonna do with a possum, and his grandpa said, “We gonna eat it,” so they put the closed box in the laundry room, then came back maybe an hour later and the possum was gone. I asked him, “Maybe somebody else in the house saw it in there and felt bad for it?” But no.

“Wasn’t none of that back then. I don’t know how he got out, but that possum done slipped the box then slipped the closed door and left. Don’t ask me how.”

But now there was nowhere left to trap, and he worked at some local restaurants and came out to this bike path whenever he got the time and watched.

“Hey, you see that?”

Intense as he said it, I thought I was gonna see a ghost walking up out of a freight car.

“I never seen a albino possum before.”

That’s what it was, down on the railroad tracks sniffing around for the baby we’d seen pass by almost a half-hour ago, a white possum looking like the moon had coughed a fur ball in front of us. She went slow, sniffing every direction to make sure the scent was strongest where she would eventually walk, plodding along, fat enough she looked to be pregnant with another.

“Man, I don’t know how she survives out here, being that white. She got no camouflage.” And I had no idea either but we agreed that was best, something to keep us humble.

“That’s why I come out here. You sit and watch long enough, you’re gonna see something that’s just amazing. Deer, I seen whole families of deer running through out here, a big ol’ buck and a couple others and his little baby doe, run right out there,” he pointed at the railroad thirty feet on, where it raised above the path, “and raccoons, squirrels everywhere. Man, these squirrels around here are bold little fuckers. Run right up and steal your beer back there if you don’t watch it.”

I’d seen that before: squirrels taking bagels or chips that someone left to sit too long on a bench, even if the person wasn’t five feet away.

“They’re forced to get like that, you know? Like, we ain’t got no trees out here any more! So how the squirrels gonna live? Exactly. All this out here, out where you live and where that park is off Broyster, all that used to be just open woods. And what the hell is it now? Bunch of new houses. So the squirrels gonna keep getting ballsier.”

We talked for two more beers—slow ones, plodding along in all directions like that momma possum—with Lil’ Rick talking about he used to write all kinds of poetry back in grade school then about these poets he met in prison that could take a verse right off the top of their heads that’d make you cry like a baby, didn’t matter who you were, then about women, his ex-wife and his girlfriend, and I showed him some of Aitch’s art and he said, “She got a beautiful heart. I can see it,” and I read out to him her messages about punching some belligerent fuck outside a bar in Georgia and he said, “You better put a ring on it,” and I laughed and nodded for a long time until the 3 AM wind blew too cold for me and I passed him a couple beers for the road and walked home, watching deer sprint blind across roads and hearing squirrels kick pinecones from branches thirty, maybe forty feet up.

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