Here’s my Southern Legitimacy Statement: At my school you could use ACC Tournament Friday as an excused absence. You just needed a note from your mom: “Please excuse Johnny from class on Friday. He was watching the basketball.” I’m also Southern enough to worry that people I know will read this story and decide not to invite me to their cookout.
A Dog Wants Simple Things
He rode the bus every day. 28 was the bus. It would take him to the MARTA station, where the blue train would take him to work. At work they would tell him things to do, and he would do them. Sometimes he could not understand the words they were speaking, but he understood what they were saying anyway. Like a dog barking. You could understand what a dog was saying, what a dog wanted. A dog wants simple things.
Sometimes at work when he wasn’t busy he watched the Mexicans next door. The Mexicans were building, always building. They didn’t mind if he stood and watched for a long time. They didn’t try to talk to him.
After work he would go home. That bus was 28 also. But on the other side of the street. He would put his MARTA pass on the dresser. Sometimes he would sit on the bed and think of things, or think of nothing. The lamp made little lights in his eyes that he could still see with his eyes closed. Sometimes he would think of things, or sometimes not. The best times were when he thought of the things to put in his space.
The headphones man was his friend. When the headphones man got on the MARTA train he would walk from one end of the train to the other. He would say whaddup, pimp? And then he would give him a dap. Except when a police officer was already on the train. Then the headphones man would get right back off again without giving a dap to anyone. But one day the headphones man gave him something special. It was a cigarette lighter with a picture of a woman on it. She was on both sides and you could see her boobies. When he turned the wheel with his thumb it went zrrt zrrt zrrt. And the boobies were there. It was a thing to put in his space.
When he went to his space it was after work. He did not take the shovel with him because the shovel was already there. He did not want them to see him walking with the shovel. So he left it, so it would always already be there when he went. He went into the woods. The woods were there. It was a dirt path that went into the woods from the corner of the parking lot near Building 100. No one saw.
The woods led to the creek. There was the sewer right-of-way. The men came every year in the summer with the bush-hogger and made it clear again. The sewer manholes stuck up out of the ground with the manhole covers on top. His fingers did not fit into the holes in the covers. The holes had sharp edges and he could not lift them. Cold smell came from the holes.
The sewer pipe crossed the creek. The green paint was peeling in some places, and there was rust. It was scratchy there, and cold when he sat on the pipe like it was a horse. He heard the trickle of the creek and saw the sandy creekbottom through the water.
His space was across the sewer pipe. No one ever went there. That’s why it was his space. He had brought all of the things with him, through the blackberry briars and across the sewer pipe. The tarp covered the door. Branches covered the tarp. No one could see.
One day the crackheads burned down Building 300. The crackheads didn’t mean to burn it down, but they did. Because they were crackheads. Crackheads wanted simple things too. Simple but hard. Complicated. After a while men came to work on Building 300. They brought their own Mexicans. These were different Mexicans, but he watched them too. But the Mexicans stopped one day and didn’t come back. Miss Ann said there wasn’t any more money to keep fixing Building 300.
The Mexicans left things. Tools and wood and pipe and things. He did not know what all the things were called. But he knew what they did. He took some things into the woods and across the sewer pipe. He knew what they were for. He built.
He moved the branches and the tarp. He smelled the earth in the air. It was dark. He had put in wires like the Mexicans, but there was nothing to connect them to. There was no box. But he put in drains. And the floor. And the plastic. And the vents. And the frame pieces that were like chicken bones. The way they hold the skin out.
He looked at the lighter. Zrrt zrrt. The boobies were not for him. He knew. The TV rappers had women with boobies and big ol’ fat butts. They were not for him. The shiny cars were not for him. They were rollin’ on 24s. The headphones man said he was getting 24s for his ride. But headphones man was always riding the train though. There were women with their boobies on the train too sometimes. But covered up. He could not touch them. They were not for him.
Miss Ann once told him that women had special private spaces too. They were not for him to touch. He understood. He did not want anyone else in his space either.
He would dig a new space in the wall for the lighter. He knew exactly where it needed to go. There were green army men, and dolls, and little pictures. Some things were just pieces of colored plastic or smooth metal. He didn’t always know what the things were. But he had known where each of them needed to go.
He did it. He did it that one time. He was sorry. Sort of sorry but. She had to know. She had to know what it was like to have someone in your space. This was his space.
She had helped him. After Mama died she had helped him to get the room in Building 100. Took him to meet Miss Ann. Helped him to get his job. Helped him to get his MARTA pass. It was a special one, for special people like him.
She followed him there that one time. She ought not have done that. He had to make her know what it was like. She tried to talk to him but her language was not something he could understand. She was talking but he could not understand. Like a dog. But she ought not have done that. He had to make her know. He did it. She never came back any more.
He found a picture of the Virgin Mary. He knew that was who it was. It was Jesus’ mama. Miss Ann said maybe the Mexicans left it. The Mexicans really liked the Virgin Mary. She always wore blue. He put the picture in his space. He made a special place for it. Mama never wore blue.
He made a special place. He knew where to dig. The shovel was already there.