Rowan is gone and I am alone in the warehouse, but he still talks to me through the buildings. Buildings that are old and uncared for and ugly, with rust or brickrot growing on them, with glassless, empty windows. They are the buildings in the lots around our warehouse, where he knows I’ll see them. And I do see them. I hear their language; I am careful to listen.
DOOP, they all say. This is Rowan’s word, painted in big, pink, bubblegum letters at the tops of the abandoned factories and mills. They are caution-taped and will be torn down soon. Rowan has always liked the ugly things the most, the things that are easily forgotten. Like our swing set in the backwoods back home, our place that no one else knows about, where I let him touch me for the first time and I touched him. Our warehouse is caution-taped, too. I woke up one morning, soon after Rowan had left, and found the yellow plastic in an X across the front door. Every day, more bulldozers and backhoes and men in white hats arrive in the vacant lot across from me. There is a line of port-a-potties against the fence. I wake up and take the freight elevator to the roof where Rowan and I often sat when we first arrived in the city. First, I count all the DOOP’ I can see, to make sure they’re still there. Already one is missing. They’ve torn down the nail factory, where one of Rowan’s first DOOPs crept lovely down one of the smokestacks. I glare at the construction crews. I search for where they’ve hidden the dynamite. They don’t know that I’m in the warehouse. I keep myself hidden. I’d like to sneak in and light it off, watch the fireworks. I imagine Rowan watching, too, knowing that it’s me.
I know Rowan. I can see him in the city. At night, he scales the buildings until there is no more of them to scale, and he is up there and looking over the glimmering city like no one else will ever again. This is when he talks to me. He takes the backpack off, carefully, one strap at a time, and kneels down. He takes the can of paint – popstar pink and white for the accents – fixes the spray nozzle, shakes it, and does his work. Every building the same way, calling out to me. I know soon he will give me a sign, let me know where to find him, and we will be together again.
I have a job as a caretaker. I split the days with Amelia, a pale, frail girl who doesn’t say much, taking care of an old widower named Mr. Fisher. I work the afternoon shift, and by the time I get to his apartment by the park he’s already in bed, where he stays for most of the evening. I make him grilled cheeses and give him his pills and bathe him, if he asks for it. I am not squeamish. Sometimes, if the weather is nice, I wheel him around Washington Park, and we watch the people enjoying themselves. Even though I’m new to the city, I relish the fact that they don’t know it like I do. They are afraid of our warehouse, of the dark buildings and their narrow, intricate allies.
As I push him under the oak trees, Mr. Fisher tells me about his late wife, Regina. He keeps a picture of her on his nightstand. Her face in the faded picture is stern, stoic. He tells me about the time he took her to see Carmen at Music Hall. How beautiful she looked in a black dress. I tell him about Rowan. I leave out the part about the warehouse because Amelia doesn’t know about it, and I don’t want her to tell our boss. She thinks I live with my parents in the suburbs. Instead, I tell him about how we grew up together. How we knew we loved each other by second grade. I tell him about the blue-grey light of morning at the bus stop as we waited together. Sometimes I do tell him secrets. I tell him that we came to the city because his Uncle Ed died and his Aunt Cleo lost her mind. The night we left she gave him such a black eye that it was sealed shut for three days. He nods and reaches to pat my hand with his. His skin is almost translucent. He is old and he will die soon. When he does, I will take the picture of Regina and keep it forever.
I can see Rowan’s DOOPs in the afternoons as I walk to work. There’s a route I’ve figured out where I can see them all. The one on the brewery, underneath a cornice on the back corner, the one on the curb beside the slaughterhouse, which he soaked with the paint so that it dripped to look like it was washing into the sewer below. I pass the rubble of the nail factory and mourn for the one that has fallen. The day after it happened, I lifted stone after stone, sorting through exposed rebar to try to find a piece of it, but found nothing. Other, hidden DOOPs I keep for myself. There’s also the tiny one on the rim of the trash-can by the skatepark, only a block from Mr. Fisher’s. This one he did in white-out. I imagine him doing this one looking the way he was when I last saw him, the day before I woke up alone: shirtless, with his spine curved and prominent like something prehistoric, long-hair unruly. I study the swab-strokes of the white-out as I pass. Sometimes I trace the loops of the two O’s, but then I have to use my pocket hand sanitizer before I get to Mr. Fisher’s because he’s old and can’t handle germs.
The boys in the skatepark – also shirtless, sweaty and shiny in the heat – stand their boards kicked up to their shins. Rowan made friends with them when we came to the city. They watch me warily, stopping their skating as I pass by. I ask them where Rowan is.
“He doesn’t want you,” they say.
“We aren’t telling you nothing.”
They don’t understand, and I forgive them.
Sometimes I lift a few of Mr. Fisher’s medicines for myself. Sometimes I jiggle out a few more pills than his dose and pocket them, or put them in my mouth right then and there. Amelia and I keep a medbook, a little pocket pad of paper tucked into the medicine cabinet, and Amelia knows that I fudge the numbers because she writes angry little question marks in the margins, and she occasionally gives me little daring looks in the hallway when we change shifts.
I take the medicine at night when I go out into the city. This city is a city of hills looping up from the river like the bends in a long-slumbering dragon. Our warehouse is on one of these hills, and beneath the stars I walk down the sidewalk until it levels out on Vine Street and the city begins, my head spinning. I sometimes imagine that the city is filled with people who worship the dragon. Who gild its long, serpentine body with offerings of buildings and roads and slow-glittering-red towers of light and who send offerings of people up to live in the buildings and drive on the roads and look at the lights, and on still nights like this when the river is glinting and the slow, red lights pulse above it, the dragon is happy. On nights like this I sneak out of the warehouse, thinking of Rowan.
I leave him things in places I know he’ll visit. I walk all the way down Vine Street, passing all the nice shops that skirt the skyscrapers in the middle of downtown, the ones with names like Arnold’s and Atavola and Frachesca. I hold these names in my mouth like wafers, and they get soggy. Good names, but not worthy of being written on buildings. Too light and full of air.
I carry a backpack with some waterbottles and some granola bars and a bottle of aspirin. I go to the DOOPs like a pilgrim, and I leave the supplies: little piles of shiny snacks in wrappers with water-bottle pillars beside. I leave one single granola bar on the lid of the skatepark trashcan with the white-out DOOP, which is always gone by morning. I leave a pile on the fire escape of the brewery. I climb the fire-escape of an apartment building and leave a waterbottle and granola bars on the ledge of the roof. The ones I left the last time are gone, and my heart jumps. This is Rowan’s place. This is our place. The view of the city is tempting. I can see the twinkling lights of the cars on Vine Street and the buildings and all the rest of it out of the corner of my eye, but I try not to look. These are Rowan’s views, not mine.
I loop back to our warehouse.
There is a group of people across the street, gathered near the fence of the empty lot. They’re huddled on the sidewalk, throwing handfuls of dice out of cups and onto the pavement. One of them looks up and waves. He is a dark figure and the empty lot with the foreman’s trailer and the port-a-potties opens behind him. I wave back. They’re on the curb where Rowan and I first arrived, his Uncle Ed’s Oldsmobile heaving after the speed of the highway. The lot was empty then, just a stretch of dust and weeds. Rowan sat in the driver’s seat, clenching the steering wheel and rocking back and forth, his swollen eye disfiguring his silhouette. My feet vibrated from the rumble of the highway and my hands shook with the memory of striking his Aunt Cleo, clutching her shirt in one hand and bringing my other, in a fist, into her face over and over. All of our belongings lay sprawled in four Hefty Bags across the back seat. The warehouse rose up before us like a temple.
We stared at it, feeling the invitation of its many, black window.
“We’ll sleep here tonight,” he said, nodding at the steering wheel, turning the car off. The motor ticked and settled.
“Okay,” I said, pulling him close.
I wake the next morning to construction sounds. Across the street, they swarm over the slaughterhouse. Men in white helmets and neon green shirts working on scaffolds, fitting the building with dynamite. A crane with a pendulous wrecking ball perches next to it. They must have brought it in during the wee hours. All of this underneath the DOOP on the smokestack, which no one notices but me. I see them from the open window of my room, the one I used to share with Rowan.
I exit the room and go out into the main floor of the warehouse. It’s filled with ephemera of the lives of others. Rowan and I have explored all of it. There are rooms of desks and chairs, weight-sets, mattresses, a leopard-print stool that I took on our second day and put in our room, children’s toys, all of people’s infinite minutia ends up here. I go to the corner and enter the freight elevator, wanting to get a better view of the construction. The elevator runs up and down the entire warehouse.
Through the slatted door, I see the all the floors passing before me like vertical movie frames, the random splay of objects on every floor, accumulating dust. The floors in the warehouse are stacked like coins. Our lives are stacked like coins, too, I think. Mine and Rowan’s together. Waiting for the bus together as kids, meeting in the morning at his Uncle Ed’s, her trailer still tucked into the fold of the hill, blue in the dawn. I can hear his Aunt Cleo yelling in the background, Rowan wincing, hoping the bus comes soon. His Uncle Ed dying, Rowan weeping, afterward, at the swing-set in the woods, asking me to promise to always be with him, not to leave him alone. That night his driving us down the mountain and into town, into the parking lot of Dollar General, the sodium lamps above us. Rowan kissing me and touching me, asking me to love him forever, telling me he will. The cursive of his hands. Each of these things is a coin on top of the other, a stack of memories.
I watch them tear down the slaughterhouse. I close my eyes when the blasts go off, though I can feel them in my feet, the force of destructing climbing up my legs. I watch the wrecking ball topple what is left after the dynamite. The smokestack with the DOOP is one of the last things to crumble. I stay on the roof all morning, and my face and arms get sunburned.
“He had a bad day today,” Amelia tells me in the afternoon. She is shedding in the foyer of Mr. Fisher’s apartment, changing from her nurse’s Keds into a pair of tennis shoes, pulling a bandie from her hair, removing a ring of keys from a small blue carabiner at her belt. I watch as her hair falls free around her shoulders. The keys are for Mr. Fisher’s: the front door, the medicine cabinet.
“Me too,” I tell her.
She touches my arm. When she takes her hand away, it leaves a white mark on my skin. “What happened?” she says.
“Did you know they’re going to tear down the warehouse on Walnut?” I ask.
“I heard they’re redoing the whole area,” she says. “What does it matter?”
“Where’s Mr. Fisher?”
“Taking a nap.” She says hands me the key ring. I reach for it, but she stops short, gives me a look.
“Did you do the medicine count yesterday?”
I shrug, snatch the keys from her hand.
Amelia narrows her eyes. “Just take extra care of him today, all right?” She gathers her things quickly.
Before she’s out the door I say her name and she turns, holding her Keds against her chest. “When do you think he’s going to die?” I ask, and her face sours.
I never wanted to leave the warehouse. I still don’t. It was Rowan who grew restless. I wanted to make a life among all of the things, but he became claustrophobic. He began venturing into the city more, was gone for longer periods of time. One night he did not return until morning. This was the night of the first DOOP. He took me up the freight elevator and pointed to the smokestack of the nail factory. He revealed that he’d done others, elsewhere, but that this was his best one. I didn’t ask him what it meant. It felt like a gift, and those you don’t question.
Later that day he claimed that we needed to move somewhere else. “To live here properly,” was the way he put it. He said he’d been looking at a few places, that he had some friends who could maybe take us in for the time being.
I didn’t want to live with his friends. I wanted to live with him, right here.
He became frustrated. He snapped a candle off the neck of a wine bottle and threw it out the open window. I heard it shatter on the street below. Someone outside yelled in surprise.
This was when I made the mistake: I threatened to call his Aunt Cleo, to tell her where we were. He left after that, and in the morning I was alone.
Now, Amelia is gone and I am alone in the apartment with Mr. Fisher. I remove a bandie from my wrist and put my hair up. Then I go into the kitchen and retrieve the loaf of bread, cheese, butter, garlic powder. I can see Mr. Fisher is sleeping in his bedroom, barely a shape under the sheets. He is the kind of old man that shrinks into himself. He doesn’t breathe well. I make myself a grilled cheese and sit at his cramped breakfast table, eating slowly, looking down at the people in the park.
I finish the grilled cheese and sit for a while. Then I click on the burner and heat the pan up again. I make another grilled cheese, a little burnt this time because I am distracted by sirens that go by in the street, by images of our warehouse being torn down. I put the grilled cheese on the same plate I used for myself. I place that on a tray with a glass of water and go to Mr. Fisher, who sleeps with the sheet all the way up to his chin, like a child.
I hold the tray under his nose. “Wake up, Mr. Fisher,” I say, sweetly. “It’s me. Dinner time. And then we’ll take your medicine.”
He rustles in his sheets.
“Are you late today?” he says, groggily.
I put the tray on his ensheeted lap and go to the picture of his wife. She’s there, glowering in her wooden chair. I think of all the things she knew.
“I saw her today,” I tell him.
Mr. Fisher squints at the picture, then stares puzzled into his grilled cheese. He wrings his hands. “Regina?” he says.
“Yes,” I say, “I saw her in the park on my way over. She was wearing that same dress.” I hold Mr. Fisher’s hand. “She looked beautiful,” I say.
It’s six o’clock and sun is going. Gray light and you cannot see the shadows on the floor. Mr. Fisher gazes out his window at an oak tree. This is one of his favorite pastimes, watching its leaf-language. It’s October, but the leaves are still all green. All green.
I sit beside him while Mr. Fisher goes to sleep. The lonely last bit of light clings to the room, and as it exits I watch his face get blurrier and blurrier. His breathing slows, and there is that long, easy sigh as he drifts off. I hope he dreams of his wife, as I dream of Rowan. You’d think he were being whisked away by some bandit of memory, and he is.
Later, I am hurrying down the sidewalk, away from Mr. Fisher’s and toward Vine Street. A handful of pills clink chalkily, cheerily in my pocket. I turn left onto Vine Street, toward the warehouse, but there’s some kind of concert going on in an open bar before me, and I run into people and music spilling out onto the street. It’s full dark now, and I have my hand in my pocket, clutching some of the pills. I take them furtively to my mouth. I need to see my DOOPs, to visit them, to make sure they’re there, and I’m telling this to strangers, pushing past them and trying to shut out the music, but it seems endless coming out of the mouth of the bar into the street, and it’s like I’m walking nowhere and pushing very hard and I can hear myself saying, “move out, move out,” and I can see the crowd rippling around me, and suddenly something gives way and I find myself in the bar where the music is playing.
It’s dim and blue, and there doesn’t seem to be a stage. The band is just playing right in the middle of everyone. Three guys looking like skeletons are playing guitars, and people press in around them. I recognize this as the kind of place Rowan would go to when we first moved into the warehouse. They’re thrashing and swaying, and the lead singer has long hair and fingernails painted black. He wails into the microphone, leaning back and forth with it, each time getting closer and closer tipping.
I fight my way past bodies and make it to the bar. I am incredibly thirsty. I order an apple juice.
“What?” the bartender leans over the bar, his face in a scowl of confusion. He cups his hand over his ear.
“Apple juice,” I say calmly but loudly.
He sets a small glass of liquid on the table in front of me and turns away for a moment. I snatch the glass and disappear back into the crowd.
I make my way to a corner by the window, and here is Amelia, facing the music. She’s with someone, a guy who looks like he could be in the band himself, who, in fact, is craning over the crowd to see the music. For a moment, in the dark, I think that it’s Rowan – the height, the thinness – and I freeze up, thinking this isn’t right, not at all, but it’s not, and everything inside me loosens up. I drink my small glass of liquid in one gulp. It’s not apple juice. I touch Amelia on the back.
“Hey,” Amelia says, surprised to see me, “what are you doing? How is Mr. Fisher?”
I flash her a wild grin. The pills have taken effect. “How can we know?” I say. “We’re not there.”
“What are you doing here?”
“They’re going to tear down the warehouse on Walnut,” I tell her. It’s going to happen tomorrow, I can feel it. My hand is gripping hers. We both look at it. I let go.
“You already told me that,” she says. I can tell she wishes that she hadn’t seen me here.
“Who’s this?” I point at the guy she’s with, who’s looking at me now. My finger is close to the zipper on his sweatshirt. I watch it dangle and glitter with the blue of the bar signs.
“His name is Ryan. This is my boyfriend.”
“What’s up?” Ryan says, and turns back to the music.
“Rowan?” I shout. “Did you say Rowan?” The music is deafening.
Amelia says, “Ryan! I said Ryan!”
“What babe?” Ryan says, leaning down and kissing Amelia on the top of her head.
“She thought your name was Rowan,” Amelia says.
“Rowan?” Ryan says. “I know that guy. Tall? Long hair? Does a lot of graffiti?” He’s nodding with his own words, and I feel dizzy. The band announces that they need a drink and will be back to play in a few. A brighter light comes on and people begin pushing between us to get to the bar.
“I’m looking for Rowan,” I begin, but then I see Ryan’s eyes widen like an animal.
“Nevermind,” he says quickly. He shifts his feet, shoves his hands into his sweatshirt pockets.
“I’m going for a drink,” Ryan says, and follows the others to the bar.
Amelia takes my arm. “You don’t look so good,” she says, “maybe we should take you home.”
I don’t want to talk to Amelia. I want to talk to Ryan, to ask him where Rowan is. I want to tell him that we’re going to live together, that I’ve decided. I pull away from her, but I don’t know where to turn. The band is starting up again. They’re strumming their instruments. The singer throws his hair back. I can see Ryan’s head above the rest of the crowd, somewhere far away.
Amelia is tugging on my sleeve again, saying my name over and over. She isn’t so bad, I think, really, and I feel sorry for putting her through all that stuff with the med-count. I worm out of my jacket and leave it in her hands. I make for the door. I am going to see my DOOPs one last time, before they’re gone. All of them, beautiful and pink and unreal. Rowan’s words, just for me. Then I will find my way to the warehouse. I will duck under the caution tape and crawl inside. I’ll curl up and sleep on the first floor, underneath all of the things above me, across from the bulldozers. I will wait for Rowan until I cannot any longer.
I hear Amelia, Amelia calling, but I am almost away.
Austin Baurichter received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Kentucky, where he taught writing and served as fiction editor for the university’s literary journal, New Limestone Review. He lives with his wife and daughter in Williamsburg, Ohio.
Eve Wood is a visual artist in Los Angeles. Her drawings and paintings have been shown both nationally and internationally. Most recently she was represented by LA Projects and Western Project. Her work can be seen in The Artists’ Prison, which was published by Keanu Reeves’ X Artists’ Books.