At the intersection of Howard and Madison is a pile of bricks more than two stories high. Kit and I stand across the street staring at the mountain, calculating how many buildings are actually gone. We decide on three. I could use the word epidemic to describe the swiftness which buildings disappear. I’ve collected a brick from almost every single one of them. The one we’re standing across from was a three-story building yesterday. We walked by it many times on our way to the bar, but only glanced at the crude drawing of a boy doing a karate kick.
I ask Kit to climb to the top. She has work gloves for such an occasion. The gloves are worn leather, maybe a pair found on a workbench at school or the thrift store in Essex. She stands with her hips out. Whoever demolished these buildings forgot to put up a chain-linked fence.
We climb slowly and use pipes as leverage. We look for small things to take home. Anything metal. Anything like a memento. We find dirty posters of women in pink bikinis holding beer bottles. The posters are water damaged which makes the women’s legs look like cellulite. The same posters hang in the bar we go to every night. Kit’s pockets are deep and she has a fist full of washers.
“Twelve,” she says. We will tie them together with a string. Kit spreads the washers between her fingers like opening a fan. She lists places she will hang them. I am distracted by a fight outside the bar. The bouncer, who laughed and then let me in with my fake Connecticut ID only two years ago, is inches from another woman’s face. I only see the back of her short, bleached haircut. I wonder how many fights she’s been in, how many fights I haven’t been in. I glance over at Kit whose cargo shorts reach below her knees. I look down at my own pants, green and covered in paint. With Kit the bagginess of your pants doesn’t matter. Just the number of pockets.
The woman the bouncer is arguing with has the same short hair but it’s blown-dry. She’s wearing a silk blouse. I know her from the pool table. I can’t hear what they’re saying, only that their voices are louder. Someone gets in between them, waving a portable phone. Sirens call out in the distance, but they could be headed anywhere in Baltimore.
Kit finds another washer and a hammer. “It’s strange they didn’t take things out of the building before demolishing it,” she says. “It’s like a gold mine.” The woman in the blouse steps back, ready to move forward again, but instead turns. Her hands at her sides as fists. Alone, she avoids the bricks on the sidewalk.
“Check this shit out,” Kit says. In her hand, she has a pool ball. The number 5.
“Some karate studio,” I say. She holds the ball up to the sky and moves her arm in an arch. The ball rests in her palm. She lines it up to the sun. Tonight it is large. The kind of orange that appears only in summer. The sun and the ball hover on the horizon before the sun drops slowly like the ball lingering on the edge of a gutter.
We climb down the mountain of bricks and walk over to the bar. The bouncer only nods at us.
The next night the pile of bricks is fenced off.
I climb the fence rather than go to the bar. I follow the same path though most of the appliances are gone. The toilets. The microwave. Even some of the pipes are gone. I watch the women outside the bar door. It’s Saturday, crowded and warm, so everyone is smoking outside.
I glance to see if Kit is walking down the street, but instead there’s another girl. “What are you doing up there?” she yells. She climbs the fence, pauses on top, and jumps down when I look at her. Says, “I’ve never done that before.”
I ask her if she means climb a fence. She asks if I think it’s safe and accidentally touches me as she sits. I pull away fast, but regret it. She folds her legs close to her chest. I want to tell her nothing is safe, but she’s looking into the giant hole next to us, wondering if we fall will the bricks fall on top of us. I know they will.
“Not really,” I say. “I’m sure the bricks sifted today.”
She asks if I go to the bar. I say, “Melons? It used to be a cop hangout.”
She says she hasn’t been yet. That she’s new in town.
“Everyone’s always drunk,” I say. “It’s boring.” We sit in silence for a while. I don’t ask her name. There’s a mystery to this. “Let’s pretend this is a castle,” I say.
“Are we explorers? What happens here?”
“Elephants march down Lombard.”
“My mom sent me here with a taser.”
I laugh. “People are always afraid, but this city is everything.”
On the way down the brick pile, we pull out pipes and pieces of metal and drop them over the fence. She climbs first and I hand her bricks. Our pants are covered in dust. Our hands too. A man with a shopping cart comes over. “Saving these?” he asks. His hands are dry and cracked and the girl helps him load the pipes into his cart. I fill my knapsack with the bricks.
“What are the bricks for?” she asks. I tell her for my collection. I ask for her number and pull out my flip-phone. She takes out a black marker and writes it on a brick. I slide the phone back in my pocket, hoping she didn’t see it.
“I’m going to the bar,” I say.
“I’m going home.” She points to the rowhouses one block down. She turns on her heels and waves. The man and I both watch her walk away.
“That’s one fine piece of ass,” he says.
I never know how to reply to these comments except that I was thinking the same thing.
Inside the bar, Kit is spinning washers. I sit next to her. “Where you been?” she asks. “You’re girlfriend has been giving me free drinks for an hour.” Kit means the bartender.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” I say. Kit suggests maybe I should stop sleeping with her then.
Tracy slides a whiskey shot and a bottle of beer in front of me. Kit licks her fingers. “It’s alright, the alcohol kills all the germs,” she says. Tracy asks where I’ve been. I tell her I was sitting on the pile of bricks.
“You’re such a loner,” Tracy says. “I don’t know why I like you.” I turn around on the bar stool with the shot glass. Someone has put money in the jukebox. A couple slow-dances around the empty floor to a K-Ci and JoJo song. They mouth the words to each other. The empty bar is comforting. I know it will be crowded in an hour. I can see myself in the mirror that lines the dance floor. I ask Tracy if she can cut hair.
She reaches over the bar. “I could,” she says. We make eye contact in the mirror. She gives my hair a gentle pull before wiping her hands on a dish towel. I watch her pour drinks and lean across the bar to whisper words into another woman’s ear. Then she pours two more shots, places two more beers in front of us.
“Gonna get you drunk tonight,” Tracy says. “Maybe you’ll say something. Tell me how you’re feeling.”
“Cal is always talking,” Kit says. Tracy looks me over like I’ve never said a word to her.
The DJ shows up. I want to dance but Kit glances around from girl to girl. She’s asking if she’s slept with that one. She doesn’t remember when she’s drinking and mine is the only reliable memory. My feet stick to the warped, slanted dance floor. Is it ever mopped? I imagine it mopped in the daylight, the afternoon light streaking through the windows. Are the windows clean? I can tell Tracy is watching me.
Kit grabs my hand and in two steps were on the dance floor. When I dance, I don’t want anyone to touch me unless it’s by accident. I hate the pulling. The creepy way someone slides her leg between mine. So I move a lot and dance away into the open spaces. Kit gets right in there, trying to touch as many women as possible.
This is how it goes. We dance. We sweat. We take the shots Tracy pours us. We spill them. We wipe our hands on our shirts. We break beer bottles. We request the songs we request every weekend. We make eye contact. We smile at girls. We groan when the lights turn on. We repeat it every weekend.
“We’re leaving,” I say.
Tracy says, “Give me a second to close.”
“Got something to do,” I say. She leans in, tries to kiss me on the mouth. It’s awkward because I pull my head away. She squints at me and goes to the other end of the bar, leaning over and close to another woman. The other woman kisses her on the cheek. We leave with glass bottles wrapped in paper towels. My backpack is heavy with bricks. We turn onto Charles and walk north to our apartment on the top floor of a rowhouse.
Later, my phone rings. It’s Tracy, but I don’t feel like answering. She sends a text asking if I’m coming to the bar the tomorrow night.
If you compare the streets in Baltimore to another city, they’d appear empty. Tonight, I stop in the convenience store and grab a tall boy. The cashier slides it into a paper bag. I tell him to have a good night. On the street there are only two other people and I walk past them. My co-workers say they worry about me because I walk alone. In the mornings, I stop for coffee and walk up Falls Road, past the Streetcar Museum, where the city keeps the salt for bad weather days, past the construction company and up past the empty mills. Only one man has turned around to ask me if I wanted a ride. Otherwise, it’s old men covering the streetcars in the rain, men welding behind chain-linked fences, or the man who builds the pathway and waves at me long before I get to him. Once at work, I answer an emergency domestic violence hotline. The walking reminds me that people want community. They want to connect.
I sip the tall boy. The condensation from the can seeps through the bag. I should’ve gotten two. The streetlights blink on and off before finally staying on. Up ahead the chain-link fence appears crooked like a crowd climbed over it all at once. I scan the numbers on the houses. Same brick. I sit on the stoop and chug the rest of the beer. Water falls to my side and splashes on the pavement. Leaning over the roof is the girl I met the other night. We make eye contact and she dumps another glass of water.
“Cleaning the dust out, she yells. Second floor. Climb through the window in the bathroom.” The bathroom window is small and leads to the fire escape between the rowhouses and I can see into the windows of the other apartments. At the top there is a ladder and a small metal door. The roof expands in front of me. The tar is still warm. It is a field. Something to run across. I wonder if fog sits on it in the mornings and as I move through it, would it move with me? The girl wipes the glasses out with a rag.
I peer over the edge. The water marks below have evaporated.
“Your bricks are gone,” she says. The lot is empty with a giant hole. “Where do they go?”
“Pack em up and resell them. Build another house.”
“A courtyard. Big and fancy.”
“Ironic that it was a front for prostitution then.”
“I thought it was a karate studio,” I say.
She laughs and says she was on the roof when it got busted. That the cops sat around flipping through their notebooks. The kids on the corner ran. Loitering got them thrown against the walls, but they weren’t selling anything but their bodies.
“Do you think you’ll tell me your name?” I ask. The girl smiles and continues the story about the bust. The cops brought the men out in handcuffs. They didn’t bring a bus so they put two by two in the back of the cars. Then they brought the girls out. It was cold that night and breath came from their mouths like steam.
“I watched from over there.” She points to the far corner. “That was a couple of months ago. Then the other day the bulldozers showed up.”
“Then you saw buildings fall?” I ask.
“No, they were just a pile when I got home.”
“I would like to see how they fall.” I take the glass she offers me. I don’t bother to ask her name again. We will keep it secret. It will be a game, peering at mail on the table, the last name next to the doorbell. I will learn other things, like how she organizes her silverware.
She stands and reaches her hands way above her head. “First the building looks like this. It’s built to be strong. Or it is built to make money.” She clenches her fists and her muscles tighten. “Then as people use it, the wood wears and the bricks dirty and everyone thinks it’s the buildings responsibility to clean itself. So no one cleans her.” Her white t-shirt hangs loosely. She motions for me to stand. “Then one day the house weighs too much and must be knocked down. It’s forgotten that the building was once something.”
“It’s about how to clench something real in your hands. This is what everybody wants,” she says.
“Skin,” I say.
She is quiet for a minute. We look each other over. We tell each other the story silently. How the machines are unloaded. How they are loud. She says, “The machine has claws and very slowly it rips the bricks away from the building.”
When I wake up, there’s empty beer cans on the counter and Kit is asleep on the other couch. I brush my teeth. It’s only 7 o’clock, but the sun is bright and streams through the windows. I grind coffee beans, but Kit doesn’t move. I hold a hot cup of coffee under her nose and still she doesn’t move. I press my fingers against her wrist and feel her pulse.
I cut string like I cut my own hair. It’s all uneven.
“Did you see this article?” Kit asks. She waves the newspaper. “Gay people getting married. It could pass.”
“I never thought about getting married,” I say. “I don’t even know if I believe in it.”
“Exactly. Because you never thought you could. You didn’t come home until 3 this morning,” she says. I think about the date, not even sure if it was a date, but she had shaped her arms and hands like a claw and showed me how the bricks were ripped away. I made my hands into claws too and eventually we tore down all the bricks in the city. We forgot about the wine. And then remembered it. Eventually leaned ourselves against the metal door. On the way home, I collected the pieces of conversation and silences and transcribed them on the back of the receipts in my pockets and walked back and slid them into the mailbox for the second floor apartment. No name, but stuck to the mailbox were those stickers teachers place on tests.
“I bet you’d get married if you could.” Kit stands up and brushes the yarn from the table. Her sleeve catches the dirt like a broom. The yarn is light and flies into the air before falling to the floor. “Confetti. I need fishing wire. Dancing confetti.”
“Right now? It’s almost midnight.”
Kit says everything is about to change. I pick the yarn off the floor. Kit goes to the other room and comes back with a handful of bills. She’s going to the corner store. I ask if they sell fishing line. “They sell beer. I got ten minutes to get there.”
While she’s gone, someone texts me to say another house went down. The next text is the address.
Bricks start to appear on the stoop, tucked behind the doorframe. One at a time. The messages give the address of where the bricks were found and the date, but no name. The notes are tied around the bricks with kitchen string. The space under the table is too crowded for more bricks so I pile them in my room. I have dreams about the floor caving in. Kit says it looks like we live inside a chimney.
Tracy suggests I should collect something lighter and smaller. She says this while sitting close to Kit on the couch. I swear she touches Kit’s leg. I turn around the brick with the girl’s phone number. The crispness of each number has turned soft, leaking into the surface. I pull out my phone and flip it open. I run my thumb over the keyboard. I consider leaving our date on the roof as it is. Hold onto it, locked away in my memory. Don’t let it sour. But I want to relive it.
I text her. She replies, “Come over. I rented a movie.”
It’s hard to describe this feeling, like my heart is too big for my chest. I am suddenly aware of my pressure points. No. Maybe it’s just pure happiness like a bicycle on an empty oneway street with nothing but the night sky. All sense of danger gone.
I hang around the apartment, quietly wrapping string around another washer. I swear Kit touches a piece of Tracy’s hair. I say, “Are you two hanging out now?”
They both turn red and I leave.
The girl answers the door and we crawl through the window in the bathroom. I follow her up the stairwell, past the still empty apartment, up the ladder and out onto the vast roof. “We’ll probably have to go back eventually,” she says. The computer has a low battery. There is a blanket and a container of hummus and crackers.
“Were you going to have a picnic by yourself,” I ask.
“I was going to sit on the couch by myself.” She studies me. I am suddenly aware that my clothes don’t match and my socks definitely don’t match, something Kit always tells me is charming, but then I notice one purple sock and one red sock as the girl sits cross-legged on the blanket. Fate, I think. Stupid, I think.
The movie is old. Black and white. We sit close to the screen because the sound doesn’t work so well. If this was any other person, I wouldn’t be able to stand the hot breath on my cheek. I would sit back, unable to hear the dialogue. And then bored, I would make an excuse to leave. But we chew crackers in each other’s ears and whisper about costumes. I don’t know why we whisper, except that we’re sitting so close together.
At 4 a.m., I wake up. My arm is asleep and I slowly slide it out from under the sleeping girl. I sit up and rub my arms. I wonder what hour the temperature dropped. The girl rolls over and presses her thumb to my chin. Her smile is half asleep. “Should we go inside,” she asks.
“It’s quiet up here,” I say. Her thumb moves upward along my jaw towards my ear. “I mean, there are the regular sounds. The normal sounds. But otherwise, nothing.”
“It is not quiet. The desert is quiet. Quiet has stars.”
I look up. “There are stars.”
“Those are not stars. When there are stars, they cover the night sky.” She sits up and covers the food. “Right now we outnumber them.”
“No, there are definitely three stars. And I only count two of us.”
She kisses me hard on the mouth. “You can stay if you want. Or you can go.”
I think about the walk home. The empty office buildings with the lights off. The closed restaurants. I’ve already spent most of the night, but waking up in the sunlight sounds serious. “Can I know your name even if I go home?”
“Dakota,” she says.
“Cal,” I say. “Caroline. But I go by Cal.”
She kisses me hard again. “Help me bring this stuff down.”
She lets me leave without the guilt and I am lightheaded. I am trying to forget my weaknesses. I run my fingers along the buildings. Metaphor, I think. I rub my chest and wonder how long it will continue to beat.
What I find laying on the living room floor are two t-shirts, two pair of jeans and four shoes. None of the windows are open and the air is thick with humidity and sweat. I can hear Kit saying she thought I wasn’t coming home. Her and Tracy are naked on the couch, but not making an effort to cover up. Probably because I have seen them both naked, but there is something about their stomachs touching and the sound their sweaty limbs make when Kit stands up that I feel nauseous about.
“I’m gonna go back outside,” I say and close the door behind me. Let’s try this again, I think.
I wait on the stoop, but ten minutes pass and ten more. I’m ready for bed, but it’s so close to sunrise that I decide it’s better to stay up. I tie and untie my shoe. I wonder how long they have been sleeping together. I wonder if I was in the way. I wonder what Dakota’s routine is in the morning. I think I need a routine.
The light in the sky is as slight as the movements I make to stay awake. From the stoop I can’t see the sun, but when I stand in the middle of the street, I see clear to the horizon. In the parking lot across the street, a fresh load of bricks, neatly packaged with hard plastic ties, has arrived. I wonder who is building what. Whether the bricks are new or recycled. The street is quiet. Light appears here. Light there. My finger is a wand and I point it to all the places I want the light to touch, but light does not appear in the places I point to. It only appears in the places I don’t.
“You found me out.” Dakota holds a brick extended in her arm. There is a note tied to it with string.
“I wasn’t trying to,” I say.
“This one is missing two of it’s corners. Perhaps it was in a fight,” she says.
I take the brick from her. “Will you stop bringing them now that I know,” I ask.
“The fun is out of it, isn’t it?”
She kisses me on the cheek and says something about later and catching the bus. I glance at her walking away to see if she turns around, but she doesn’t. I look up at the apartment windows and calculate the weight and the force with which I can throw the brick. If I’m strong enough to break the window. What sound it will make. I lift the brick to my shoulder and above my head. Kit lifts a window and stands in the frame. I point my finger at her window.
“Someone’s gonna honk at you,” she says.
Jess Pane is a bookseller in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared on Everyday Genius and she is the letters assistant for The Rumpus’ Letters in the Mail.