My sneakers are battered,
Their ragged rubber graffitied
With shallow musings of the teenaged mind.
Archaic doodles of hearts long ago broken,
And names of “best friends” long forgotten,
All scrawl across their surface
Like wrinkles in the face of a diner waitress,
Once the prettiest girl in school,
Now reduced to grimy singles and packs of cheap smokes.
Their soles are worn thin like spider silk slung from an abandoned tree house,
Providing my feet with only flimsy protection
From piercing wind and biting asphalt.
My sneakers are battered,
Calico canvas corroding.
Mismatched patterns that once danced gaily across my feet now draw back
From the light,
Like Notre Dame’s hunchback in the bell tower,
Beneath the nineteen year old grime of
And railroad bridges.
(The familiar childhood stomping grounds).
My sneakers are battered,
Brave veterans from a bloody nineteen-year-old war.
Always beneath me, melding with my sole
Through times good
(That first kiss),
(Being abandoned, left to walk home in rain…again)
And times ugly,
(Baseballs taken to the face).
Threadbare shabbiness worn as attestation
To my, our, journey.
And through their calico corroding and their rubber rotted
For the thrill of life’s brutal uphill battles,
For a new adventure with an old friend,
Hungering to once again meld with my soul.
Body As Burial Ground
I have become Thumbelina,
to make myself less of a target,
from monsters inside my bones.
But I can’t defend myself against this foe
that’s been protecting me for 15 years
decided to bury me alive.
Everyone talks about curing this disease,
but this disease and I―
we are one.
There is no antigen within my body
bursting cartilage like five-day old balloons
and slashing tendons like car tires.
I am rebelling.
My body is declaring war.
They are my generals telling my army:
“Slit the throats of your men
and bury yourselves in secret
How can I go to war with my bones?
How can I fight inside my blood?
Tell me how it is
I can kill myself
without making a graveyard
of this body.
I’ll never forget that first semester in Pittsburgh, beginning of sophomore year. For me, that autumn will always be the Fall of Filth, a time when just stepping into the hall caked my feet with ashy-brown grime; when I couldn’t get clean; when a disheveled, oil-damp turkey slept under my car, in a cramped lot across the street from a cheap Pakistani pizzeria. When I first met the Watchdog and glimpsed the near edge of his secrets.
I’d lived in Johnstown the year before, and at nineteen, I didn’t exactly put much thought into my future. I still believed everything would work itself out, like it always had in high school when my parents kept everything flowing. That’s how I ended up living about a mile from campus, in the basement of a Centre Avenue fallout shelter.
The place stank of rotting garbage from the dumpsters just outside my bedroom window, and passersby could see everything I did when I thought I was alone. None of that really mattered; it just sort of came with the territory. But one day, I got back from class and tried to wash Pittsburgh’s residue off my sticky skin only to discover the congested shower wouldn’t drain. Itching, soapy, upset, I wrapped a towel around myself and called maintenance.
I still didn’t have a working shower when the building’s plumber finally showed up three days later. He blamed me for clogging the drainpipe before a quick check showed it was clear. Frowning, he took one of those 50’ snakes from his tool bag and started feeding it through the pipes. Hoping the plumber couldn’t smell my pot’s sickly sweet miasma, I sat outside the bathroom mulling over my misfortune. In my addled state, I was convinced the turkey living under my car had somehow crawled into my pipes, gotten stuck, drowned: a jumble of meat jamming the tubes like a fat kid at a water park. I thought I remembered hearing a clatter a few nights back, a sound as frantic and tragic as Charlie Parker near the end.
About three minutes into his examination, the plumber stood. That’s when I heard news worse than any of my stoned fantasies: “Don’t cut no ice, but I got ’bout three feet inna yer drain fer I hit somepin’ hard, jano? Maybe concrete. I daht yer pipe’s hooked up at all, an’ I can’t do nothin’ fer ya. Molahta ideas, so…see ya!” And he left, just like that.
Two days later I met the Watchdog.
I remember that day’s ache violently crippled me; even at nineteen, my back had started eating itself, twisting and contorting into its current shape. I was trudging up Neville Avenue’s incline when a lanky black man crossed the street and joined me. First impressions told me he was homeless: nobody with a place to keep his things would be wearing such a heavy hoody in that humidity. That year I wore enormous noise-cancelling Bose headphones to keep people from talking to me, but I could tell he didn’t care. I reluctantly uncovered my ears. His speech, delivered so rapidly I knew he gave it often, confirmed my suspicions.
“Yo, ma name’s James Oates; people call me the Watchdog. I’m a bit down on ma luck lately: I got no place ta live. I just sorta make ma rounds in Oakland and Shadyside, protectin’ students and tourists, keepin’ the streets safe. What yer name?” As he said this, his hand waggled, index and middle fingers crossed to form a “W,” his personal gang sign.
I told him my name was Ben. He smiled, not ashamed to display a junkie’s cracked, rotting teeth. “Nice ta mee’cha, Ben. Like I say, I’m a little down on ma luck, and I was wond’rin’ if you could spare me four fiddy. I ain’t eaten in three days, an’ I really want some Lulu honey-barbeque wings.” He pantomimed eating a plate of wings, lips smacking, flecks of spit getting caught in his scraggly beard. “Ya ever try Lulu wings? They boneless an’ so tasty. Mmm-umm, I can taste em already! But I need four fiddy ta get me some.”
You have to remember how I lived that fall. It didn’t matter that I knew he wouldn’t spend my money on wings: Lulu’s was a noodle joint that didn’t even serve wings. And I suspected he wasn’t wearing those sleeves just to keep himself warm at night. Still, I reached into my wallet and gave the man a $20. His face lit up like the Waterfront, and when he shook my hand I felt his gratitude. Nonetheless, I made sure he couldn’t see me entering my bunker.
I next saw the Watchdog about three days later, while scouring South Craig for some grub. Unhesitatingly approaching me, he repeated his earlier speech verbatim, right down to the “four fiddy” and the forced fast, scratching his arms all the while. He called me Chris this time, acting like we were comrades in some ceaseless conflict. It didn’t seem worth it to correct him. His clothes hadn’t changed; his beard hadn’t grown, either. I thought that was odd, but then, everything about this man screamed odd. A hospital bracelet stole my attention. After I scrounged up a spare five, I lowered the headphones around my neck and said, “Okay, I’ll bite. What’s with the bracelet?”
“Hm? Oh, this. Yeah. Nothin’ too serious, I jus’ got mugged th’ otha day. They broke two-a ma ribs, but on’y a bit. It was worse the las’ time… Did I ever tell ya ‘bout the bullet touchin’ m’spine?”
My eyes widened. “What!? No, Watchdog, you never told me about the bullet lodged in your back! Are you okay? Did the doctors get it out?”
“No, it still there. It don’t hurt though. I was walkin’ in East Liberty, jus’ mindin’ ma business, when I heard pops like kids was lightin’ off fireworks. Then I felt somethin’ hit ma back, like they throw a rock at me. I started runnin’, not wantin’ to get ma head split by no rocks. Later, I’s with ma gurl, ya know what I’m sayin’, an’ she run her hand all up ma back, and she start freakin’! So I goes to the E.R., and they all like, ‘Sir, dijya know you was shot?’ and I told em, ‘Hell no!’ They says, ‘Well, sir, ya got a bullet touchin’ yer spine!’”
“Holy shit, Watchdog!”
“Yeah. But I got it covered now. They ain’t muggin’ me no mo’.”
He loosed his rotten smile again and produced the biggest pocket knife I’ve ever seen. The Watchdog had abnormally bulky hands, like the strongman on the Strange Days cover, but the grip protruded a solid inch past each end as he palmed the knife. With another of his characteristic hand waggles, a brutal eight inch blade angled at my throat. Scratched, chipped, rusted, caked near its base with some brownish substance I only hoped was dirt, the blade repulsed me. He gripped the thing and offered me its hilt, which had lost half its rubber casing long ago: a few measly clumps of glue clung like snot to the tarnished steel. Thinking about fingerprints and what he might do with such a weapon, I declined his offer. Shrugging, the Watchdog tenderly replaced the blade and hid the knife once more in his tattered jeans. Doing so, he pulled another knife from his pocket, smaller but equally worn, and handed it to me, no longer accepting my refusal.
“Ya been good ta me… Wan’cha ta keep this. Protec’ yo’self when I ain’t aroun’.”
The look in his crazed, mahogany eyes as he handed me the knife told me just how little I knew about the world at nineteen. I was so flabbergasted I gave him another $4.57 before we parted. The Watchdog had all my money, so I went home hungry and sobered but packing. I felt soiled but knew bathing wouldn’t help. Besides, I never wanted to use that shower again. Just thinking about those disconnected pipes and that plumber’s disjointed Pittsburgese made my back ache.