The dark, grey fog lumbers across the stockyard. It is pushed forward by a breeze too tepid to kick up the damp leaves, and yet strong enough to moan like a distressed cow on the way to the slaughterhouse. The breeze knocks repeatedly against the rusted gates of the cattle pens; and in response, the hinges scream back like a cantankerous, old man forced out of his bed.
An old man and his distressed cow. The abandoned stockyard across the highway stretches out as far as the eye can see. To the left, there is an ugly, brick building that looks like something out of Auschwitz. To the right, there is an endless line of jail cells that used to house the condemned cattle. Nevertheless, in essence, there is just an old man and his distressed cow. The old man has been forced out of his bed; the cow from its cell; and they are shuffling with sunken brows towards the butcher’s bloodied knife.
Abandoned people, beasts, places. It does not matter what. If discarded, then it is dying. The fog turns its skin, or hide, or bricks clammy. The rain beats it down. The sun bakes what is left into that earth from which it came. People like to think that this is a natural cycle, but a cycle implies that what is baked into the earth comes back the next season. That is not quite true. Yes, something comes back, but it is not the same as what had been discarded earlier.
The truth of the matter is this: What is discarded is lost. It may take a while; but invariably the color fades, the hinges rust, the edifice cracks. We are left a while with dying memories. Then, we are left with nothing; except an old man and his distressed cow still heard in the dark, grey fog long after the bricks and the mortar have vanished.
Brett Sawyer pushes the curtain aside, so that he can see the billboard that hangs over the brick façade of the slaughterhouse. He has seen it a million times. He used to pelt it with rocks and broken glass back when he ran with a gang. He can imagine the image and the text on that billboard down to the smallest details. Nevertheless, Brett looks at the fading, pockmarked billboard, like he needs to remind himself that, indeed, there are constants still in his life.
The billboard features a freckled, redheaded boy munching on a hamburger. He looks like Howdy Doody, and Brett suspects that the billboard had been painted back in the 1950s. Since Brett is a man barely into his thirties, and since this is the year 2015, the 1950s may as well be 1492. Brett can read history. He can watch old television and films. Nevertheless, he had figured out before he had reached puberty that the past is just another one of those discarded things. It is lost. It is buried in the earth from which it came. It is not coming back, no matter how often we shed a tear over a glass of red wine and a smoldering cigarette for good, old fashioned nostalgia.
Howdy Doody is always creepy, but this is especially true of the version up there on that billboard. This Howdy Doody is all smiles, except the glint in his eyes suggests that you may be the red meat squished in between his hamburger buns the next time. The text beneath Howdy Doody: ‘Prime Cuts Heaven. Where Steers Meet Their Maker!’
If this is heaven, then I am going to give hell a second chance, Brett thinks with a weary smile on his otherwise beautiful, young face.
Brett looks at the dilapidated railroad tracks beyond the stockyard. He imagines the Midnight Special carrying beef paddies from this slaughterhouse heaven to a depot in hell. The train does not run anymore, since the bean counters figured out that heaven and hell are not far enough apart to necessitate a railroad. Indeed, the slow and heavy manner that that fog moos down there suggests heaven and hell are one and the same.
There is a triple knock on his door. Because the hinges loosened the last time he kicked in the door, the triple knock slams the doorframe three times against the chain.
Brett locks his arms in front of his chest, and looks back at the door. The disdain on his face says it all. He wants to smack the face of the idiot now clamoring to get his attention. If it is the landlady, then he may go a step further and turn her wrinkled, old face inside out. Mrs. McNutt owns several apartment buildings down this way; and yet she knows each and every one of her tenants. She pays particular attention to the ones she senses may be late in paying the monthly rent. She calls them ‘bums,’ and makes a point of shaking her walker whenever she points her gnarly right index finger at them.
Get lost, Brett whispers towards the door.
There is another triple knock. This time, the chain almost flies off the post, and the adjoining wall coughs up what looks like an asbestos cloud. Whoever is standing on the other side of that door intends to get inside his apartment no matter what he thinks.
Brett drags the curtain shut. His cheeks flash red with shame. The moment passes of course, but not before he looks and feels like a boy hiding a Playboy from his mother.
There is another triple knock. The knocker seems agitated now. The door looks like it is going to explode out from that wall at any moment. The worst part is that Mrs. McNutt will blame him for the broken door even if she is the one now knocking upon it.
Hold your horses, Brett calls back. I’m coming.
Brett wipes his palms on his ‘Namaste’ T-shirt and jeans, even though they are not outwardly dirty. Perhaps, he is wiping away that suicidal impulse he had felt when staring out at the stockyard. Perhaps, he is discarding a bad memory, letting the faded vision in his head turn into an imprint of sweat and tears on his clothes. Regardless, he wipes his palms with evident purpose, while his flip-flops clip-clop across the hard floor.
He releases the chain, and steps away from the door without bothering to find out who is there. He is much too tired to give a shit. Who knows? Perhaps, the knocker is a freaky serial killer; and Brett Sawyer is about to lose even his tenuous grip on life.
No such luck…
Beth Lansing steps into the apartment. Her dirty blond hair hangs over her pretty blue eyes. She wipes the hair away with her left hand, while carrying in her other hand an Albertson’s bag full of groceries. She does not say a word, even though the expression on her petulant, chubby face says that she would appreciate a hand, thank you so much.
Brett watches her out of the corner of his eye, while removing plates and utensils from the one cupboard in his kitchenette. He is not in the mood for her bullshit tonight. If she starts whining, or even looks at him in that cold and condescending manner that every girl perfects before she goes out on her first date, then he should not be blamed afterwards if he flips a switch.
Beth digs out two cartons. There is cashew pork in one, and rice noodles in the other. The rest of the groceries she sets aside for Brett to put away after she has left.
Beth sits at the two-person table, while Brett serves the pork and noodles on the plates. She hears the fog moan outside. It sounds like a sick animal. She wraps her arms around her denim hoodie, even though it is not now particularly cold inside the studio. She waits for Brett to sit across from her at the table. It takes a very long time for that to happen, maybe an eternity.