Three-thirty came so quickly. By then, on the overhead speakers inside the Ground’s Edge, the Workman record had ended. Now it was The Dandy Warhols, telling him that he was Godless. He looked about the café and it was empty. Full of people, but empty.
Below him on the table’s coffee-ringed surface, overturned with a straining and lined spine, was the black-faced book of poems. On its closing cover, the following short verses lay, scratched with the point of a thumb tack to become stiff white words made flat on the shiny surface:
The tick-tock walk
Of a grandfather clock
One day will end,
One day will balk.
And the steady commands
Of its laden hands
Will turn, then rest,
‘Pon where it stands.
The tick-tock mock
Of that grandfather clock
Will some day cease
To even talk.
He could still hear the clock in his head as he read those words now. It had a rhythm and an audibility that he would probably live alongside right to the end.
He remembered writing the words and that felt like a million years earlier. An intern—what was her name? The giggling fifth graders. Right... Appreciation for Literature. She had made him come to the front of the class and recite his homework poem, one displaying a use of three major elements in poetic style. Only he hadn’t written one, hadn’t wanted to.
He had scratched “Tick-Tock” out on the back of his E.E. Cummings text in the ten or so minutes before his name was called. And that intern, Miss Rimbauer, was never the wiser. Course, as usual, everyone had laughed. She got flustered like she always did and he was made to sit down without identifying any of the key elements of poetic style. That was just as well. They had been laughing after all.
Alone with everybody, he sat until four, waiting on Caeli. That was when he finally realized there was a lecture he needed to attend. With no pay phone in the Ground, he had to run, full tilt, four blocks to the nearest public phone. He dialed the number of a classmate and begged her for the day’s notes, then hoofed it back to the crowded coffee place. She was nowhere, and his table had been stolen. He pawed at his brain with tired imaginary fingers and tried to convince himself he had not been at the telephone long enough that she would have come by and left already. He found a seat at the counter, this one a little closer to the door, declined a cup of coffee, and waited two more hours. She was worth that and more, he decided. But she never came. He stared down at those words, the tick-tock mock of a grandfather clock.
And he left feeling powerless.
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He reeled after that, for weeks and weeks. In his mind, he replayed their first day together over and over and he could never really understand what went wrong. He expected to come across her on the bus but she was never there and so he carried that dirty white mitten at the bottom of his book bag, everywhere he went. There was no reason in particular. So much time had passed by then that he stopped expecting to see her and he didn’t know what he would say anyway. He certainly didn’t expect to just walk up, hand her the thing, and everything would work out. That would be empty idealism according to Oliver.
But just outside a theatre at school, he saw her walking in a direction vaguely away from him. It was a brief glance, among the throng milling about, one that happened across her face and hair, but he was certain it was her—even though they had not made eye contact. In fact, she had not seen him at all; he was sure of that.
He wanted to run up to her, hold out his arms and blurt like a child, “I was there!” But he didn’t. She was with friends and they were talking hurriedly. Further embarrassment could be avoided. His eyes followed her as she turned off towards a set of lockers near the student center. He approached, cautiously, and saw her withdraw books from one and then walk off, eventually parting ways with her friends.
From his bag he withdrew the infamous white mitten. On a piece of note paper he scrawled, “But worlds are made of hello and goodbye.” It’s time for hello again. Then he added, quickly, without thinking, his phone number.
He curled up the paper and stuffed it inside the white mitten. Then, after stealing a roll of tape from an office down the hall, he pasted it with lengths of the stuff to her locker door.
Caeli called him that night. And they talked for hours. At first it was stifled. He was surprised to hear from her, and she was surprised to be holding that silly lost mitten. In truth, it had made her dial the numbers. It was, to her, the memory of a fantastic moment, and one that she hadn’t wanted to throw out. But still, she had discarded it. She said quietly, “You didn’t come...but it’s okay. No big deal.”
He wanted to interject, to explain, and to understand what had happened but he let it go. For the first time, he sensed the confrontation wouldn’t be worth it and he let it go. “You don’t take the bus to class anymore.”
“No. Some days, yeah. But my landlady, bless her heart, she lets me use her car since I promised to take her to appointments, get her pills and go to shopping the odd day.”
For a while, Sebastion circled what he really wanted to ask. He was holding the handset loosely to his ear and making small-talk. He did that routine until he couldn’t stop himself any longer. “Why did you get off the bus with me?”
“You said my greens pulled you in,” she answered, almost without any pause at all, nearly like she had been waiting for the question. “Well your blues did the same to me. I looked at them, at you, and knew that you meant every crazy word you said.”
They found their feet again, Sebastion and Caeli, quicker than either had thought possible. And in the coming weeks the white mitten, that fuzzy white mitten that neither of them could bring themselves to launder, had found its way between their two houses more times than could be counted. She left it in his mailbox with a note inside, quoting Cummings’ “I Have Found What You Are Like.”
It meandered back to Caeli at campus lot E4, clinging beneath her landlady’s wiper blade. Tucked inside on that day was a snatch of Cummings’ “In Just- Spring.” And, in a stroke of genius, Zeb thought, he found the mitt stuck on the end of a branch outside his bedroom window—the one on which Oliverthecrow usually sat. Contained in it that day, were two tickets to the symphony.
And so it went on like this, back and forth. The messages got ever longer, and the implications became ever more pronounced. If Sebastion had been asked, he would have said it was love. Or at least it should have been love.
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His father continued to hand Zeb the newspaper across the dinner table. And he continued to make offhanded remarks about the cost of tuition. They weren’t necessarily intentional, and certainly not mean, but they were always there. That newspaper nagged at him. It said to him, here. Do something. Do Anything. Like introducing himself to Caeli as Sebastion, and not Zeb, this was a faint but omnipresent indication of things rolling over. It made his eyes itch, made them irritated, and finally drove him to do just what dad’s subtle lack of eye contact had instructed. There was a quiet determination in the back corner of his thoughts to at least start paying a portion of his own way. The comments, offhanded as they may have been, were on the mark. Dad had stepped up and had paid for everything. Zeb’s first choice may not have been business classes at York but he was there, and it would land him in a good career. He owed his father a great deal for that at least. Didn’t he?
Jackson was visibly goaded when Zeb started blowing him off to spend time actually writing his papers, but he became nearly irate when Zeb announced he had a job at Painter’s Palette, an art supply store on North Bathurst. To him, it meant the duo was done. As much as he had struggled against it since Vivian had entered, then exited, the picture he now knew the team’s days of waking up at noon on school days in foreign bathtubs with water-thin blood were over. But for Jackson that seemed nearly okay. He clung less after that, and Sebastion would come to realize that Jack had meandered, subtly, into another world. For Jackie-O Sebastion’s new focus was just as well.
The pay at the Palette was terrible, minimum wage plus a nickel, but at least he could smell canvas, feel the metal tubes of acrylics and oils, and tell patrons which supplies to use with which techniques. That was something and it made him enjoy the work. Painter’s Palette was in the ground floor of an old red and tan brick brownstone that had a minor addition tacked on to the back for a stockroom. Stacks of canvas, rolls and pre-stretched, along with crates and boxes, sat in the long narrow room. It had a low tin roof, and walls of tan brick similar to the original construction, but obviously newer. The malevolent sun made it an oven on hot days and the dry air sat unstirred like the inside of a stifling coffin where every breath inhaled was a gag and every breath let out was a choke.
But for Zeb the smells were the thing. Sometimes the lack of ventilation made them hang in the still air and cling to the heat of it. And sometimes he would go back there during a slow moment and just sit on a box to take it into his lungs.
After an all-nighter and the arbitrarily dry introductory finance exam that followed, Zeb was feeling pent-up and overtired at the front desk of the Palette. His shift ended at nine and he was to meet Caeli at her place after that. But he was beginning to consider the alternative: sleep at home, alone.
The clouds that night were luminous, fraying cotton-candy patches drifting in front of a dark flannel sheet where pinprick holes winked and teased. The evening was cooling off as it got towards nine, but the store still held the day’s heat. He decided to head back to the tin and brick stockroom and sit for a moment to try and regain his composure. His heart always seemed to beat a little faster when he hadn’t had enough sleep. It was like it was trying to catch up. He wondered, briefly, if doubling or tripling up like that for a day would shorten his life by twelve hours or so. Maybe a heart only has so many beats, and if you use them up, they’re just gone. Then he laughed to himself: what an insane idea! Zeb, he said to himself, you need to go home and lay your head down—no Caels tonight. No, not tonight.
A moment later, he was sitting on a crate, trying to compose himself after his endless day, trying to tame the spinning of his worn brain. His elbows were propped on his knees, his hands holding his head up and shaking a little—like his too-fast heart, his hands always quivered a little when he hadn’t had sleep. And to confound matters, he was a long way off before another meal. There had been no one in the store for at least an hour so he figured he could get away with a moment’s peace here under the bare bulb behind the swinging stock door. Sitting in the back would be better than taking his rest up front. Sometimes the boss showed up near eight or so—Nathaniel Darlinger, that was, the slightly exaggerated and eccentric painter who owned the place. If Mr. Darlinger did come tonight it would be better that he found Zeb away from the counter in the back, than propped up on a stool near the front window where anyone could see him snoozing soundly. This way, at least, he could sit more comfortably and he would still hear the bell over the door if it rang, giving him enough time to snag a small box and head back out front, making it look like he was just fetching some stock to busy himself. He preferred it back here because it was good cover for Mr. Darlinger and because it was the one moment in his day when he could be absolutely and completely alone. But then there were the smells. Paint and thinner. The odor of metal tins and of canvas stock permeated this space. And that recharged him a little. If only a little.
A recollection came to him as he sat there, one he had nearly forgotten. But one he realized was actually always swimming just below the surface of things. It was always there, in the background, waiting to grab on to him in those lulls, those empty spaces when the everyday was at bay for an instant. And on this night, the memory rushed back at him like water; he was held in its grip. There was a sense of longing in it, a yearning to turn around now, to run back to it, and fix it.
There was a boy, younger than he, and Zeb was standing over him with his own large shadow falling across him. They were both outside in a cool, dark world, surrounded by whispering trees, on the edge of a moment that seemed forever ago and far away. But the memory of that Portuguese boy, looking up at him with teary eyes and disbelief, was interrupted by a scuffling noise—something completely in the present pulled him forward.
The sound came from down at the end of the stock room, close to the side doors, a set of metal ones that needed a key to disable the fire alarm that would ring if you pushed them open. There was a short pause and then the scuffle came again, a little louder, a little more pronounced.
Zeb shook off the memory of the dark-skinned little boy—he would do that a few more times in his life before it left him for good—and he got up from his crate. He crept along the main aisle way, his head tilting out from his body as if to peer around boxes and leaning canvas, and when he got to the end, he found a small black bird, clawing and gnawing with his beak on an old shred of cardboard. He was on the cement floor facing away from Zeb, bouncing the way birds do.
Oliverthecrow! No, it wasn’t Oliver, at least Zeb didn’t think it was. That didn’t seem to make sense; Oliverthecrow was restrained, almost passive. This bird was agitated, irritated. It was making an enemy of the cardboard scrap even though it was nearly twice his size. When the edgy little thing finally whirled half-way around to see Zeb looking at him on the other side of the boxes, it leapt into the air at him. CawCAWCAW, it screamed, and the sound was close in that little space. It swooped up towards him and he felt like the bird was going to spear him with his beak. When he moved his head in a reflex that seemed laughably ineffective, he swore its bristly feathers brushed a cheek.
His heart jumped and the startle the crow had thrown into him hooked on to every piece of his body, making already shaky extremities feel like they were coated in a layer of bees. He was now an anxious jellied thing with extra arms and legs that felt immediately clumsy. His heart beat in his neck and he could feel it in his wrists too. The bird paused on a high stack of boxes, fell silent for a moment, and Zeb looked up at it with his hands awkwardly held above his head like a shield. It looked yellow at that moment. Its beak and legs were still shiny black but the feathers all over, the ones that were black only a second before, were now completely yellow, a bright sickly shade, like someone had pinned the bird down and doused him in paint the color of a highlighting marker. The little crow’s eyes were a piercing shade of red and that made it an even more ghastly sight. Just as the comprehension that the bird was no longer midnight’s color as it should be, but instead a shrieking shade of gold with ill red eyes, it started cawing and screeching again, like Zeb was the troublemaker and not him.
The thing swooped at him once more, banged against a wall, then settled. It did this at length, each time making it more and more apparent that he would eventually hit him. Zeb did the only thing he could do: he reached for the nearest of the fire exit’s double doors and leaned his weight on the handle. The fire alarm rang out, a piercing, blaring cry that made the yellow crow seem subdued by comparison. The door swung open and banged against an exterior wall.
Zeb fell to the ground, covered his head, and peered through a crack in his arms. The crow swooped past him, into the open air of the night past the door. In his wake a little puff of cooler air wafted into the heat that had been consuming the stockroom. Zeb summoned the courage to look past the doorway to see where the yellow monstrosity had gone—to confirm that it was out of there and not coming back to torment him more. But when he looked to the doorway, the sight was an unbelievable landscape. Even with all the things he had seen in his short life, real and unreal, this seemed to be the most immediately extraordinary.
He stood and moved closer to let his mind comprehend what his eyes were staring at. He walked to the edge of the doorway and teetered on the wooden threshold. His hand instinctively reached out for the metal handle of the doorway, leaned on it, depressed it, and caused the fire alarm to plunge into an unexpected soundlessness. The absence of it came like a rush. But it was immediately followed by a new sound:
The intense, otherworldly, all-at-once caws of hundreds of black crows. Maybe even thousands of them.
They coated the back parking lot—a large gravel space shared by tenants of other buildings—with one lamppost that kept it awash in pinkish light. They were perched on adjoining building tops, on eaves, and window sills. They sat on the post, and on cars, trash cans and dumpsters. They were in rows on power lines and atop the wooden poles where couplers, joints, and dampeners sat in tangled confusion. They lined the branches of a giant elm tree that stood at the end of the lane, its arms reaching towards the moon and the navy blue of the sky. And they all screeched and cawed, a jabbering multitude of voices trying to be heard simultaneously.
Then the cacophony dropped nearly to silence.
Zeb swallowed. The pause lingered.
In a rush, and with renewed cawing, the birds, countless black bodies and wings, took flight with a huge whoosh of flapping movement. Some of them seemed to lunge at Zeb, he even flinched back. But they took to the sky, a giant wave, a covering of black shadows against the dark blue backdrop and the glowing-edged clouds. They blotted out the moon... and their voices could still be heard as they ascended.
END OF CHAPTER FOUR //