Miles Varana - "Milwaukee"


 

If they had bothered to look outside, they would’ve seen the cluttered streets of Milwaukee teetering up from the vast, melancholy plane of Lake Michigan. But they didn’t. They stayed up all hours in the apartment, eating cereal and omelets and smoking cigarettes and watching The Daily Show reruns and Harold and Maude in the darkness, until the rambling walls closed in around them, already half crumbled, and the world poured in.

When Stuart woke up a little before noon, he was alone. Todd- if that was really his name- had disappeared without a trace. There had been something strange and wonderful about Todd, thought Stuart as he examined the frost that crept over the window pane like a spider’s web. Under normal circumstances, a guy named Todd could be expected to provide a smile, a “howdy neighbor,” and a short-notice lawnmower loan, assuming the Todd lived in the suburbs, as Todds almost invariably did. These had not been normal circumstances, however, and Todd had provided much more than a short-notice lawnmower loan. This Todd had carried a flask in the left pocket of his ragged jacket and a radically abridged edition of the Bhagavad Gita in his right. His green eyes were steeped in manic wisdom, and when Stuart asked where he was from, he laughed a shrill vibrato and replied, “Not far.”

Stuart rummaged through the cabinets above the sink in hopes of locating some cereal, but came up empty-handed. Their shenanigans had certainly put a dent in his living supplies. Rent was due in a couple weeks and he was out of cash, but that was nothing a little extra contract work at the paper couldn’t fix. He was a photographer, and a damn good one. Stuart didn’t work in journalism full time- he was primarily focused on his career as an artist- but he had to get by somehow, and exhibitions rarely paid as well as he would’ve liked. He shot op-ed material for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, one of the largest papers in Wisconsin, and as he liked to remind people, one of the most progressive. There was nothing on his phone from work, so he put on a Pixies album and made spaghetti breakfast. Afterwards, he downed some Advil and made a half-hearted attempt to tidy the apartment. Much to his relief, the phone rang before he could make much progress. The caller wasn’t the Journal-Sentinel, but rather Mrs. Althea Wainkrantz, his landlord. Mrs. Althea Wainkrantz’ grandfather had been the original owner of the building, a Gilded Age hotel called The Lombard, which had fallen on hard times in the 70s and undergone renovations for use as an apartment complex. As the lone resident under sixty, and thus the super of the building, Stuart often found himself being terrorized by Mrs. Althea Wainkrantz, who lived in a suite occupying the entire top floor.

“Hello, Mrs. Wainkrantz,” answered Stuart.

“Hello, Stuart,” replied Mrs. Althea Wainkrantz.

“Is it the drain again?”

“No. This is, ah, something else,” she paused. Stuart could hear one of Mrs. Althea Wainkrantz’ three Siamese cats purring on the other end. “This is a special job.” Stuart sighed quietly.

“Should I fetch the toilet snake?”

“No. I need you to get something from the attic.”

“The attic?”

“Yes. You are aware that there is an attic in this building?”

“I… Yes, I am aware.” Stuart had never heard of anyone going up to the attic. It contained the private property of Mrs. Althea Wainkrantz, but as far as he knew, it was sealed. Several years earlier, when Stuart’s tenure as super was still green, health department officials, who suspected the attic of harboring asbestos, had attempted to gain entrance to the space. They had been quickly rebuffed by Mrs. Althea Wainkrantz, whose extreme severity made up for her lack of legal precedence in the matter.

“The door is located on the landing at the top of the stairs adjacent to my suite.” Mrs. Althea Wainkrantz stopped to cough, then continued. “I will leave the key outside my door.”

“Okay,” Stuart said, nervously aware of the fact that she hadn’t mentioned the object she required. “Then what?”

“Then you will retrieve a photograph that is sitting atop a hoosier cabinet in the center of the space.”

“A hoosier cabinet?” Asked Stuart.

“It is like a chest of drawers, only with more drawers. There is a large skylight located directly above the hoosier cabinet. The photo is in a silver frame. It is the only photo you will find. Please leave it outside my door.”

“Who’s it of?” Stuart asked.

“It’s the only photo you will find. You won’t miss it.” Replied Mrs. Althea Wainkrantz, and hung up.

As Stuart made his way up the old carpeted stairway, he wondered why she couldn’t get it herself. Perhaps she was simply too frail in her old age. He found the key waiting for him on the doormat outside Mrs. Althea Wainkrantz’ suite. It was a corroded iron monstrosity that looked like it might open a crypt somewhere. Stuart inserted the key into the lock, and, with significant effort, opened the trapdoor. He climbed the ladder that slid down and found himself in a place that had gone untouched for decades. Slivers of sunlight from several skylights fell along the creaky floorboards, bathing ancient layers of intricate, forgetful dust in angelic light. The attic was an eclectic study of the 20th century. Rolled-up shag carpets lay piled alongside boxes filled with WWII recruitment posters and naked stacks of silver tableware, which bore the elaborate crest of the former hotel and spoke of a time when dinner was served at long tables and eaten in the stony silence of coal fed nights. He made his way to the center of the room, where the pattern of haphazard storage gave way to a carefully arranged seating area. An oak coffee table sat atop a faded turn-of-the-century carpet, generously sandwiched between two Victorian fainting couches of lush, moth-eaten velvet. At one end of the table sat an armchair. At the other end stood the cabinet that Mrs. Althea Wainkrantz had spoken of. The hoosier cabinet was taller than Stuart. Its curvy rosewood body was adorned with a variety of brass handles, knobs, stems, and fittings, which jutted out proudly like ornate war medals on a decrepit hero’s quivering chest. Stuart glanced around him again. This was an amazing place, he thought. He wondered how it would look on camera. On the porcelain counter of the hoosier, Stuart found the picture that Mrs. Althea Wainkrantz had requested. The frame was a silver entanglement of carved monkey silhouettes, climbing over each other frantically in an effort to reach the top. Their mouths were a raucous cacophony of howls. The glass itself was so grimy that Stuart had to wet his shirt with spit and wipe off the surface in order to make out the image behind it. What he found was startling. Even at a young age- perhaps sixteen- Mrs. Althea Wainkrantz was instantly recognizable. She was sitting atop the hood of an expensive-looking car in a pretty dress, her hair hanging in a tight braid. She was holding hands with a boy of about her age who wore a white t-shirt and greased back hair. Something about the boy’s hard arms and work boots made Stuart guess that it hadn’t been his car. Stuart was about to pick up the picture and leave when he noticed the other item on the counter. It was a banana-yellow rotary phone, curiously free of dust. Stuart bent closer to examine it. The black numbers on the phone were small and raised as if in braille. The phone had two coiled banana-yellow cables. One curled limply atop the desk and attached to the receiver, the other wrapped around the hoosier and disappeared into a hole drilled into the floorboards. Out of whimsy, Stuart picked up the receiver and listened. His breath caught in his chest when he heard it: a dial tone.

 

Several days passed in rapid succession. Stuart spent his afternoons wandering the streets that surrounded his building on a hunt for the material that would crown his next exhibition. He ignored the usual poetry of rusting sheet metal and abandoned steam gauges, searching instead for a humanity that certain critics alleged his previous work had lacked. But with each passing day, the city seemed emptier. Streets that had once echoed with the rhythms of laughter and machinery fell silent in the gloom of late autumn. There were always bums, of course, but they seemed quieter, cleaner, and less photogenic than he remembered. Stuart tried his best to bring out nuanced eccentricities of their destitution, but they cooperated poorly. “Hang your head like this,” he would say, and show them with his own head. “No, don’t smile. Don’t put down the bags. The bags are important.” His efforts proved to be in vain. Apparently all the good bums had headed south for the winter. Stuart spent his nights in bars and bowling alleys, which, although starved for patrons, played their music at such a crushing volume that Stuart, nursing his drink in the corner, could have carried on a long conversation with himself without being noticed. He wished that the majority of his college friends hadn’t moved to California and Canada and all the other nice places they had indeed moved to. He waited for Todd to call, but it didn’t happen. His phone was silent. His remaining friends didn’t call, his aging father didn’t call, even Mrs. Althea Wainkrantz didn’t call.

 

On a Tuesday, Stuart got a text from his boss saying that the paper had work for him. He arrived late, and his part-time colleagues were all in the conference room having a meeting that he had forgotten about. He sat down in the only chair available. His bony knees stuck out through the holes in his jeans, his big Converse-clad feet sprawled out to either side on the coffee-stained carpet.

“Remember,” his boss was saying, “not to call me Mr. Gunderson. It’s Jim. From now on, if any of you call me Mr. Gunderson instead of Jim, you’ll have to put a dollar in the pizza jar.”

“Next item?” Asked Karen, Mr. Gunderson’s secretary. Stuart had once overheard Mr. Gunderson telling Karen that “it wouldn’t hurt to wear some perfume.”

“Sure, Karen.” Smiled Mr. Gunderson.

“Item six: Christmas party.” Read Karen eagerly. Mr. Gunderson cleared his throat and ran a casual hand through his hair.

“Well, how much have we raised?” He asked.

Karen’s hand shot up. “About a hundred dollars. Out of a total goal of five hundred.”

“We’re one fifth of the way there,” declared Mr. Gunderson.

“That’s twenty percent,” pointed out Joe, the sports correspondent.

“Very good, Joe. It is twenty percent,” said Mr. Gunderson, pausing again to clear his throat. “People, we’ve only got five months to go till Christmas.”

 

After the meeting, Erin, the head photographer, called Stuart into her office. He mentally prepared himself for another stint shooting the scene of whatever suburban murder Mr. Gunderson thought was the most titillating this week. Erin was always smoking in her office, a habit she kept secret by closing her inward facing blinds, opening her outward facing windows, and running several dryer sheet-equipped fans she had placed in strategic positions. She lit one up, and Stuart followed suit.

“Stuart,” she told him, “you care. Like, you really give a fuck.”

“Of course I do,” replied Stuart. “How can you live in this world and not care?”

“I mean, you worked for Rolling Stone, right?” Erin inhaled and let the smoke drift out of her thrice-pierced nostrils.

“For a while.”

“They really give a fuck over there. They really do.”

“It’s like anywhere else. Some do, some don’t, some are nothing more than a bunch of goddamn glorified paparazzos.”

“Well,” said Erin, “it is a business. The point is, you give a fuck. That’s why I’m giving you this story.”

“What story?”

Erin grinned. “Raymond’s writing it. It’s called ‘A City in Decline.’”

Stuart found his sometimes partner, Raymond, in the cubicle they shared. Raymond was fiftyish, bald, and fat. His side of the cubicle was filled not with pictures of family, but with glossy diagrams of golden stag beetles and long nosed weevils that he had carefully cut out of magazines. He had told Stuart that he had aspired to be a Jungian entomologist in his youth, but that his grades hadn’t been good enough to make the cut. Stuart didn’t believe this, mostly because he had never heard of a Jungian entomologist and doubted such people existed. Raymond had also told Stuart that he was gay. Stuart didn’t believe this either. He suspected that Raymond was pretending to be gay so that he didn’t have to explain that his lack of a wife and family was due to his being bald, fat, and obsessed with insects. Raymond usually wrote filler pieces about municipal outreach programs and good samaritans, so Stuart found himself somewhat confused by Raymond’s sudden decision to work on something interesting for a change.

“I have something for you, kiddo.” Raymond often referred to Stuart as “kiddo.” Stuart believed that Raymond used this deprecatory term because, knowing that Stuart was actually gay, he wanted to dispel the uncomfortable possibility of attraction between them in the false context of his own gayness.

“‘A City in Decline?” Stuart asked cheerfully.

“Yes, but that’s not what I was talking about.”

“Whatcha got, Raymundo?”

“As I’ve informed you in the past, I prefer just Raymond.”

“No problem, Ray. Whatcha got?” Stuart watched as his colleague struggled not to correct his use of ‘Ray.’ Raymond cleared his throat.

“A fellow stopped by this morning looking for you. Todd. A pal of yours?”

“No, not a pal,” Stuart said. “Whatcha got?”

“Oh,” Raymond fidgeted slightly in his seat.“Here, kiddo.” He reached into one of his desk drawers and handed Raymond a single leather glove. “Todd said you forgot this.”

Stuart was confused. This wasn’t his glove at all. In fact, he thought he remembered Todd wearing it when they had met in the park. He laid it down on his desk, which was entirely clean due to the irregularity of its use. While Raymond looked on from behind his horn rimmed glasses, Stuart examined the glove, trying to ascertain its significance. Was this some inside joke he had forgotten in the haze of those nights? He tried it on. The inside was lined with soft fur, the real deal- rabbit or sable- not some faux PETA crap. The outside of the glove was black leather. It had been nice once, in a bond villain sort of way, but years of frozen air had reduced what was once the sleek extension of a calculated hand to a twisted mess of scales, cracked and inarticulate, evidently shed at last by a reptile that no longer needed it. Stuart wondered what Todd was trying to tell him. He pulled the glove onto his right hand. It fit perfectly.

 

The bus home was filled with freaks, as usual. Riding the bus reminded Stuart of something he’d once read in a Tolstoy novel: “To learn about a society, look who it puts in its prisons.” He thought that perhaps this should be changed to: “To learn about a society, look who rides its buses.” Across from him sat a man in a tattered suit holding an orange box of cat litter. The box read “So Phresh Advanced Odor Control Scoopable Cat Litter.” The man made eye contact with Stuart and slowly reached into the box, drawing out a sandwich which Stuart’s discerning eyes recognized as pastrami-on-rye. Still looking into Stuart’s eyes, the man began to tear into the sandwich with evident satisfaction. This, Stuart thought, would make a great picture. And, of course, he didn’t have his camera with him.

That night, as he lay on the dirty carpet drinking vodka with Pepsi and watching Casablanca, Stuart found himself thinking about the phone in the attic. He drifted up the old staircase, guided by the rope of moonlight that illuminated the gently curving wooden handrails, wondering if Mrs. Althea Wainkrantz, who had not contacted him in nearly a week, would hear him above her. He climbed the ladder to the attic slowly and methodically, one step at a time, careful not to drop the bottle that he carried with him in his still-gloved right hand. Sitting in the armchair that faced the hoosier cabinet across the coffee table, the image of Mrs. Althea Wainkrantz and her young lover flashed into his mind. Stuart considered those hard arms, straining against the sleeves of that white t-shirt to express something lost in the foggy minutia of generations. And then, abruptly, he remembered Todd’s arms. Todd’s arms had been hard, too, but they were twisted and wiry, like the roots of a leafless tree. An unholy stigmata of needle marks crawled up the skin like lunatic embroidery, like Beatnik braille, like a howling, writhing chain of silver monkeys climbing over each other in a frantic effort to reach fresh veins.

 

Stuart and Raymond traipsed along the elevated concrete walkways that criss-crossed the endless grid of industry that was the city’s south shoreline. They had finished their official tour of the Miller Brewing Company, but had decided to take a look around for themselves. In the morning light, the colossal shadows of the bottling plants and breweries fell indifferently over empty fields and parking lots. Stuart was unusually silent, and so was Raymond, who was perspiring profusely and wore a heavy, brooding expression on his unshaved visage. Stuart wondered if his partner was about to have a stroke. Stuart hadn’t slept all night. He stared out at the lake, which was dark and restless today. Large freighter ships slid torpidly along the horizon, carrying coal and limestone and Christmas trees South to Chicagoland and beyond. The low banter of their horns was just audible over the raucous cries of the birds on the rocks along the shoreline. Stuart thought he knew what the glove meant now, but it was too early for accurate testing. He could do nothing except wait.

“Lets hold up there for minute,” said Raymond, pointing to a small structure up ahead. He had seen the same thing that Stuart had: dark clouds gathering over the lake, carrying the same November tempest that had sunk the Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior some forty years earlier. Stuart wasn’t worried about sinking, but he was carrying several thousand dollars worth of sensitive equipment. They were too far to make it back to the car in time, so they climbed down from the walkway and ducked beneath the alcove of a long-abandoned electrical substation.

“I wonder if it’s locked?” Stuart thought aloud. Raymond said nothing. Stuart tried the door, and to his surprise, it opened. It was dark inside the substation, and the odor of urine and rust met him in the doorway. He fumbled around for a light switch beside the entrance, and to his continued surprise, it also worked. The fluorescent lights turned on one by one in long caged rows. They were of the intensely white, intensely bright variety that seem to appear exclusively in operating theaters and inner city high schools. Flies went bravely to their deaths by the thousands for the God-like glory of those lights. The concrete floors were lined with refuse; disembodied transformer boxes, rotted wooden pallets, overturned fifty gallon drums. It was near the far end of the small substation that Stuart found the shot he’d been looking for. A pair of threadbare tennis shoes, perfectly spaced to correspond to their hypothetical owner’s feet, laid facing the end of a long strip of conveyor belt that was rolled out like a gala carpet ready to welcome a gaggle of celebrities. Stuart knew he had found the brilliant centerpiece for his next collection. He realized that now that his work hadn’t been lacking evidence of humanity, as the critics said, but rather, evidence of humanity’s disappearance. Dimly, he heard Raymond enter, closing the door behind him. Stuart shuffled around, carefully stepping over contorted scraps of metal in search of the perfect frame. He found it. As Stuart raised his camera, he felt the hand on the small of his back.

“So, kiddo, I’ve been thinking…”

Stuart turned around. He looked into Raymond’s bespectacled eyes. The pupils were like clotted ink, like lumps of unburned coal. Above them, the incipient storm began its conversation with the roof. Raymond placed a tender hand on Stuart’s shoulder and leaned in for a kiss. He smelled of onions and Old Spice. Stuart drew back, and Raymond leaned in again.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Kiss me, Stuart.”

“No, I’ve never looked at you that way. I didn’t even think you actually liked men.”

“Oh, I like them. I’ve always desired them. Kiss me, kiddo.” Raymond moved towards Stuart, who took a shaky half-step back.

“No.”

“I want you to kiss me, kiddo.”

“No, Raymond.”

“Please,” murmured Raymond, suddenly looking down at the concrete floor. “Please. No one has ever done it with me. I just want to try it.” His voice was a broken monotone.

“What the fuck is wrong with your head, old man?”

“Please,” said Raymond again. “You’re so young and talented. You have everything. I don’t have anything. My beetles, they died.”

“I’m sorry Raymond, but you’re freaking me the fuck out.”

“Please.”

“Fuck you.”

“Stuart, please. Please, Stuart.”

“No,” Stuart spat on the floor. “I’m going home. Give me the keys.” Raymond didn’t say anything for a few seconds. He was shaking.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. Then, very slowly, he reached into his backpack. Stuart saw the stainless steel butt of the gun emerge in Raymond’s hand, and he reacted with a speed he didn’t know he possessed, swinging the camera as hard as he could, lense first, into Raymond’s sweaty face. Under the force of the blow, Raymond’s broad form crumbled like a ragdoll. Stuart advanced and raised the camera, ready to strike again. Raymond made a whimpering sound and shrank away. The glass lense had shattered on impact, embedding long shards in Raymond’s doughy face, which was also bled from a severely broken nose.

“Please,” he moaned. “Please. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

It was then that Stuart looked down. Raymond’s hand clutched the keys to the company car. There was no gun in sight.

“Please, don’t kill me.” Moaned Raymond. “I’m sorry.”

Later, Stuart awoke in the darkness of the attic. The phone was ringing. He removed the glove from his right hand and reached for the receiver.

 

Miles Varana’s work has appeared in a variety of publications, most recently SOFTBLOW, After the Pause, Chicago Literati, Yellow Chair Review, and Clear Poetry. He has worked previously as a staff reader and managing editor at Hawai’i Pacific Review. Miles lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he enjoys rainy days, naps, and copious amounts of sushi.