The largemouth bass snapped back and forth on the line as Von pulled it out of the water, but after a minute he was able to get his hands around it. He dropped the still-shuddering fish in a plastic grocery bag, shouldered his pole, and began heading towards home. The stocked Prospect Park Lake was strictly catch and release, but the government had taken nine years of Von’s life; he figured he was entitled to take a fish now and then.
Von exited the park onto Lincoln Road, a homemade lure bouncing at the top of his pole. He carved his lures out of three-quarter-inch thick wooden dowels from the hardware store. The dowels were only about three bucks, including tax, and he could get at least ten lures out a three-foot stick. He didn’t know much about wood, having lived his life on concrete, but he thought the sticks were pine. Whatever the wood was, it was soft and easy to carve with his lock back knife, and once he got the shape right the lures floated pretty good. He drilled three holes in each one, then set the tops of fishhooks in them with a dab of epoxy.
Von used permanent markers to color the lures like real fish. He took a lot of time, giving each one eyes, unique back markings, and a colorful enough belly to attract predators. A man in the park, a younger white guy who’d admired Von’s lures, suggested he use oil paints to make them brighter, but Von was fine with markers. It wasn’t just that paint was more expensive; in prison he’d gotten used to making his crafts with a very limited set of supplies. And the marker-colored lures worked well enough. The morning’s catch proved that.
Von circled to his building’s back courtyard, and went down the steps into his cellar home. It wasn’t legally an apartment, because of the lack of light and ventilation. This fact, along with the jobs Von did for Mr. Carlson, the landlord, was why he was allowed to live there.
Despite it’s marginal status, Von’s apartment was not dreary; when he opened the door, he was greeted with hundreds of bright yellow daffodils. He made them himself from spent MetroCards gathered at the Prospect Park station. He cut them down to perfect squares using an X-Acto knife and ruler, then folded them up to create petals. They were attached to his wall with thumbtacks, the tops of which served as the flower’s pistils.
After cleaning the fish, Von stuffed the body cavity with a quartered lemon and some peeled garlic from a plastic jar. He laid the fish out on a piece of tin foil and put it in the oven to bake. While the food was cooking, Von cleaned and sorted his tackle. It was important to keep everything in good shape and organized. The fish was starting to smell nice when he heard a knock at the door. Ignoring it, he kept scrubbing his filet knife.
“Von.” The voice was muffled by the metal door, but still distinct. “I know you’re in there. I can smell that garbage cooking. Open the goddamn door.” Von didn’t move from the sink. Carlson had keys to every unit in the building, and would let himself in either way. There was no point in doing it for him.
Soon enough, there was a click, and Carlson came through the door in his double-breasted suit. Despite his paunch, he stepped into the room lightly, as if afraid something in the cellar might mar his loafers. He ran his hand over his hair without actually touching it. “What’s the matter, Vonny? You don’t open the door for me? We’re not friends anymore?”
“Busy cooking,” Von said. He twirled the filet knife in his fingers for one full rotation, before putting it on the rack to dry.
“Yeah, like I said, I can smell that.”
“Want to eat with me?” Carlson wrinkled his nose in response. Von didn’t understand that. He’d seen Carlson eat at the MacDonald’s on Empire Boulevard. How was that more appealing than fresh-caught fish?
“No time,” Carlson said. “We got a job. Eviction.” Von nodded and turned off the oven, leaving the fish inside. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too dried out by the time he got back.
“The building up on Rodgers. I got my car outside. Let’s go.” Grabbing his baseball bat from behind the door, Von followed Carlson out.
The two men stood in the entryway of Edwina Graham’s spacious one-bedroom apartment. This whole building was going condo, and the fact that an old woman had a controlled rent of $580 wasn’t going to stand in the way of that. She had held out for months, but Carlson had had enough. This was a multi-million dollar deal, for God’s sake.
“Manners take you through the world,” Mrs. Graham said, as Carlson and Von entered her living room uninvited.
“Yes ma’am,” Carlson said. “And up until this point I’ve been very polite. Up until this point.” Once again, Carlson reiterated his demand. Unless she could afford to buy the unit—which she clearly couldn’t—she had to leave. It was the twenty-seventh day of the month; she had until the thirtieth. Three more days.
“Mr. Carlson,” she pleaded. “Michael. You knew my son. You knew my Richard.” A framed portrait of the dead youth stood on the mantel of the long-ago plastered-over fireplace. The old woman looked to him for help.
“That’s absolutely, right, Mrs. Graham. I knew Rich. Which is why I’m offering you ten-thousand dollars from my own pocket, instead of turning you out on the street with nothing. This is an above-board transaction. You are relinquishing your tenancy of the apartment in exchange for a generous cash payment.”
“What am I going to do with ten thousand dollars?” Graham said. “That won’t cover half a year’s rent over here.” It was true; Carlson himself was renting one-bedroom units for two grand a month to young professionals moving into the neighborhood. But this was his final offer. He shrugged, and nodded at Von.
A row of matching bird figurines stood on the window sill. They were made out of a pale blue glass you couldn’t quite see through, and which was surprising cold to the touch when Von picked one up. He tossed it in the air and watched it fly for a moment before swing the bat. There was a crack like a .22 pistol firing, and blue shards scattered all over the parquet floor. Mrs. Graham put her palm over her mouth. She took a brush and dustpan off a hook by the door, but then thought better of it as Von continued his batting practice with the other four birds.
Von walked over to the mantle, and raised the bat once more. Across the room, Mrs. Graham flinched. Instead of swinging, Von jabbed the bat straight forward at the photograph, not hard enough to knock the picture over, but hard enough to crack the glass over the boy’s face. His mother started crying. Von felt bad for her, but he wasn’t doing this because he wanted to. He was just paying his rent. Mrs. Graham sat down at the table and signed the paper.
The fish in the oven was dry, but not ruined. With some pepper sauce it would taste fine. Von put a pot of rice on the stove to boil. He looked around his little room. In addition to the yellow flowers, it was decorated with several of his marker drawings, and a large fold-out poster showing the ice age mammals of the Alaskan tundra. His furnishings consisted of the wooden table, which he’d salvaged from a former tenant’s apartment, and an army cot, which he’d bought second-hand.
The room wasn’t all that different from his cell upstate at Clinton. Little Siberia, in Dannemora by the Canadian border. Von was at Rikers for over a year before his trial, then at Auburn for a few months, but he did the majority of his time at Clinton. It was the longest he’d ever lived in one building in his entire life: seven years and three months. Clinton was rough—both the inmates and the guards—but one benefit maximum security had over medium was that you slept in your own six by eight cell, not an open dormitory. There was a panic once that everyone was going to have to start doubling up, but in the end the plan only affected one cell block. The guards made sure you kept your cell neat and clean, which wasn’t a hardship, as that’s how Von would have wanted it anyways.
The last few years of Von’s bid, he was pretty calm. Forty hours a week he worked at his job, manufacturing polyester mattresses for military barracks, and he spent a good bit of his free time drawing pictures on big newsprint pads with color markers. A lot of them were wildlife scenes he recreated from old issues of National Geographic. The best works hung on the walls of his cell, and he gave a few to other inmates to decorate their own cells.
His one serious infraction during those last years was when he broke a fool’s jaw for entering his cell during the day without his permission. It didn’t even matter that the guy was probably trying to rip off one of Von’s few possessions, though that would have been worth a beating too. Von just couldn’t stand seeing someone in his space.
The young buck thought he was intimidating with a five-pointed crown on his neck, but he wasn’t so badass-looking when Von split his eyebrow with the first hook, or when his nose was bashed flat against the wall. He wasn’t so badass when Von had him cowering on the floor, his face covered in blood, trying to crawl under Von’s bed for protection. The guards dragged Von down to solitary; taking him away from his own cell was the cruelest punishment they had.
Von had to keep the whole building looking nice. Every morning he straightened up the trash and recycling in the gated area between the courtyard and the sidewalk. There were big plastic bags hanging on the fence: two for paper and cardboard, two for bottles and cans. Trash went in the row of garbage cans by the wall. People generally did the right thing, but sometimes they mixed the types of recycling, or sometimes they left their bags on the concrete instead of putting them in the right container. Sometimes the cans got knocked down, or the big bags fell off the fence from being overloaded. Von put it all in order.
People said good morning to Von as they left the building to go to work. He didn’t like to get distracted when he was doing something, but these were his neighbors so he made sure to nod and tell them to have a good day. Some of them were better-off people who’d moved into the area recently. Others were older families, regular people, what Carlson called “low income.” This building hadn’t been renovated yet, so Carlson let these families stay—provided they had Section 8 vouchers. He was going to get his money from somewhere.
If teenagers tried to hang out and drink on the building’s stoop, under the big plaster columns, Von ran them off. On the twenty-eight day of the month, a kid tried to get tough to show off for his friends. Von recognized one of the two friends, a boy who’d grown up in the building, but he’d never seen this cocky punk before.
“I asked you nicely the first time,” Von said, when the kids didn’t leave.
“So what if you did, motherfucker? What you gonna do about it?” The kid didn’t even stand up, just lounged back on his elbows so he was facing Von. His broad shoulders and long arms were powerful and manly, but his face was still smooth and childlike. He took a long swig from his forty-ounce bottle of beer and set it back down on the stoop. Von picked it up.
“Did I say you could have some, pops?” Von walked to the curb in two easy strides, and poured the contents down the sewer grate.
“What the hell, man? You owe me three bucks for that.” Now the kid stood up, pissed. He was as tall as Von, slighter, but probably faster. Von was still holding the empty bottle. He tossed it in the air, catching it by its conic neck. It had become a club.
“You want your bottle back, son?” Von asked, in a calm, even voice. He examined the bottle for a moment, letting the threat start to sink in, then quickly smashed the bottom against one of the building’s columns, putting a deadly edge on his weapon. “I could give it back to you, and call it even. What you think about that?” He took one step towards the three boys. They scattered, tripping over their sneakers as they made their escape.
Von felt foolish, left alone on the sidewalk, gripping a glass shard. He recycled the other bottles the kids had left behind, and got a broom and dustpan to clean up the broken glass.
All the in-between places were for Von. The stoop, sure, and the courtyard. The hallways. The roof. When he first came home, Von didn’t have anywhere to sleep, and he’d stay up on different rooftops in the neighborhood, rotating so nobody in any one building would take notice. He liked roofs. The solidity of a floor without the limits of walls.
A few months later, when he had just got his little room and was fixing it up—it had been storage space until Carlson gave him the keys—a woman in the building told him that the Target at the Junction would be the best place to get a cheap lamp. He found what he was looking for there, but ended up dropping the box and fleeing. The aisle was so narrow, and so long, and there were people blocking either side. He’d run all the way home and on up to the roof. Von’s building was the tallest on the block, nothing around it on any side at the top.
The twenty-ninth day of the month was too hot to spend in the basement—with no windows, the electric fan just pushed the same air around in a circle—so Von headed upstairs. He locked the roof door behind him. No one else could come up, unless they were determined enough to climb the rusty fire escape. When Von lay down, his body was below the parapet wall, and nobody could see that he was there.
The sun was warm, but there was enough cloud cover to keep it from being oppressive. Von watched the sparrows who made their homes in the crevices of the cinderblock stair bulkhead. They carried in twigs and little pieces of plastic and string that they could use to construct their nests. He took out a small pad and a few markers, and did his best to sketch the sparrows as they moved. Black squares were layered on brown squares, locking together into the pattern of feathers.
Von dozed off, waking when the rain started to fall on his face. He gathered up his pad and markers. The drops had soaked the paper, causing the ink to bleed, and his birds to disappear. The real birds huddled inside the cement caves.
The last day of the month, Carlson had Von back up at the same building on Rodgers, helping two Mexican guys pull the old cabinets and counters out of a recently vacated unit. It was true that Von was good at violence and intimidation, but he wasn’t a specialist in it. He would do whatever job he had to: demolition, construction, painting, deliveries. It was always surprising how demolition wasn’t any less work than construction. Prying and knocking took as much elbow grease as hammering; unscrewing was no different than screwing in.
Carlson had a dumpster parked in front of the building, so they could toss the debris right out the window. It wasn’t even a window now, just a square hole. The old windows had been scrapped, and someone was coming to install new ones the next day. They would be efficient, and hold the heat. At the end of the week, someone else would come and haul the dumpster away. Everything was on a deadline.
Von didn’t know all the details of Carlson’s dealings. The gist of it was that an investment company from out of state had bought the building, but kept Carlson’s firm on for both the renovation and ongoing building management. It wasn’t clear to Von if this was something Carlson had put together voluntarily, or something he was forced into. Carlson talked it up like it was a windfall, but why would he give up one of his buildings if someone didn’t have their hooks in him?
Von wondered when Carlson’s ownership of a couple buildings—he’d inherited them from his grandfather, and grown up in one of them—had gone from just a fact of possession to something as abstract and business-like as being a “firm”. Probably when Von was locked up; that’s when everything had changed. If he had just found a way to stay free, and never abandoned the neighborhood, everything wouldn’t have had to change. Well, maybe things weren’t really changing for Carlson so much. He’d found a way to cash out, without giving anything up. He’d still be around, long after all the tenants had switched over.
The day laborers were both from the same part of Sinaloa and they chatted about their neighboring hometowns as they worked. Von only understood a little bit of the Spanish, but he wasn’t a huge fan of casual conversation in general. The important thing was that they weren’t shirkers—Von couldn’t stand working with shirkers. Everyone had to earn their keep.
At lunch time, the two Sinaloans went up to the roof with the plastic containers of rice and meat they’d brought from home.
“Treinta minutos,” Von told them. “Understand? We got a lot of work to get done yet.” The men nodded. They didn’t exactly know how Von fit into anything, but they were used to taking orders. “And no drinking any cervezas on your break. I ain’t got time for any of that nonsense.”
It was hot and stuffy in the room, but Von didn’t want to deal with the men on the roof, or with anyone on the street, so he sat on the naked window sill, one leg in the house and one leg dangling in the air. His back was braced against the side of the window frame. For lunch, he’d brought a tuna fish sandwich and a carton of chocolate milk. He had never really eaten tuna fish before he went upstate, where it was available at the commissary and seen as both a treat and a currency. Guys downed tins of tuna, as well as mackerel, to load up on protein before they lifted weights. Eventually, Von gained a taste for it. As a kid, he’d always insist on peanut butter over tuna, though some weeks it just came down to whatever was in the box from the church.
When he was done eating, Von licked his fingers clean. Out of habit, he ran his index finger down the deep scar that stretched across his cheek. That was when he’d started turning into what he was, when he got the scar. Before that, he wasn’t a bad kid. He never even got into fights really. Fights were always going down, that’s how the neighborhood was, but he was more or less on the sidelines. Then a hand reached up, slashing wildly with a razor blade, and caught Von where he stood. He thought the scar would fade over time, but actually it thickened, and became more prominent when he grew facial hair everywhere but there. His shoulders broadened, and between that and the scar he had become something menacing. This was the body he would spend his life in, and he had had to find a way to inhabit it.
Sometimes he wondered what it would be like to live in a different body. Not like a woman or a smaller man, but like a fish or a bird. There were little hawks in the park—kites they were called—that flew just hard enough to balance against the wind, and hovered in the sky for hours. Von had seen snapping turtles in the park lake. They carried their houses on their backs.
He noticed Mrs. Graham standing downstairs by the curb. Her hair had been permed the day before and she wore a camel hair coat, even though it was far too warm for an overcoat. She faced the world with dignity. All her possessions were packed in garbage bags. A black livery service car pulled up. The driver got out and popped the trunk. Apparently there was no family member or friend to pick her up to take her wherever she was going, and she had to pay for a ride.
Von wanted to get her attention, to wave goodbye, to wish her good luck. But she wouldn’t understand; she would think he was mocking her. He wished she didn’t have to go. He wished he hadn’t had to make her go. Well, spit in one hand and wish in the other. Things were the way they were. Some people got to stay, and some people had to leave.