The Ghosts of Forgetting
1. Easy Does It.
Easy Ed’s brain was under siege, assaulted by an unidentified buzzing. His nervousness layered mystery onto its origin. He was too high and too edgy to think clearly. Everything was a vibrating blur. What he contemplated doing would either ruin his life or save it. Easy’s corpulent body seemed to shrink as the droning gathered into a whining bolt of shrillness that pierced his ears. The buzzing morphed into the tip of a drill that bored into his brain. He imagined pain even though pain was absent. Easy Ed tried unsuccessfully to inhale. He couldn’t even remember why the hell he was in the alley. He was a lost man.
Easy noticed the sweetness in the air despite the undercurrent of his rancid sweat. Breathing became a sticky affair. Everything adhered to Easy Ed’s light-brown skin – the chocolate vapor in the air from the candy factory, the decaying garbage strewn along the cobblestones, the random piles of dog shit huddled against the walls, all leached into his baby smooth skin. The stench heightened his fear, a bouquet that clung to his nose and finally, reluctantly, slid down his throat in thick dollops of dry bitterness. He swallowed, hoping to taste the courage necessary to rob Harry’s store.
Hanging between the alley of Harry’s shoe store and the old Woolworth building was a blanket of invisible mist. Candied aromas mingled with the fumes of the city, beckoning with their coy combination of sweetness and decay. Each breath Easy took was a conflict of competing expectations, like the come hither finger of a local streetwalker.
Tyler’s candy factory had a brick façade of renewal, giving this ugly blend of urban blight some purpose, some hope for the future of the neighborhood. The factory’s outer walls abutted Harry’s store in the rear, concealing the whirring vats of chocolate. Their vibrations often dislodged the carefully stacked shoes on the shelves in the basement of Harry’s store. The machines had been running full blast for the past six weeks preparing for the onslaught of Easter. Syrupy traces of sugar, cocoa and toasted nuts seeped through the gaps of the old brick walls like sweat escaping the pores of a fleeing thief. The smell hung over the narrow alley, a soft cotton coverlet stretched between the rooftops to dry. Even as the light of day faded into purple twilight, the drone of hungry yellow jackets persisted, marking their ravenous desire.
The lining of Ed’s stomach ran slick with the tacky spiciness of the ribs he had for dinner. Peeking under his shirt soaked with perspiration, he swore he could see trickles of sweat, shaded red with barbecue sauce. Leaning for rest against the crumbling walls he felt the rough edges of the bricks chafing his skin. He found himself rubbing his fleshy back against their sharp coolness like a cat craving the friction of concrete. Easy Ed stood there, sweating, worrying and staring at the cellar doors lying flush to the street, a remnant of old architecture and convenience. They waited, inviting him to enter and steal the riches held below. Gasses rumbled in his belly. Anxiety swirled them together, building pressure, until the creaks, groans and gasses from his body leaked into the fetid alley.
In his right hand he clutched the satchel that contained a small can of hairspray, two Bic lighters, and a flashlight. For the hundredth time he went over the layout of the basement in his mind. He visualized the path down the rickety oak stairs and then his route through the labyrinth of the cellar. He saw the wooden steps leading up to the main floor and the old safe tucked neatly into the back corner, hidden under the machine for grinding wedges and arches. Every time he pictured himself ascending the steps he heard the wood creak under his excess weight. When he would reach the fourth step, he’d lose patience, dash to the safe, open it and grab the money. The following minutes disappeared and the only image remaining was that of him handing over the money he owed to Doc later in the night. Only then could he breathe safely. Then and only then could he smile into the ugly face of Doc’s bodyguard Walker and not have to say a word.
But Harry wanted ashes, he wanted a fire and if Easy wanted the bonus money, then he would have to overcome his fear of smoke and flames. He knew it was a decision he might never make. It seemed beyond his ability to control his fear of fire. Hell, Easy couldn’t even imagine opening the safe and holding ten thousand dollars in his hands let alone starting a fire. He figured he would have to wait until that precise moment to understand his true level of desperation and whether his fear could be turned to commitment. Easy took a deep breath, felt in his pocket for the paper with the safe’s combination, and started to shuffle towards the metal cellar doors, eyes and ears alert for extraneous sounds or movement. His mind was heavy but his feet were surprisingly light.
The hurricane doors leading to the basement were built directly into the street, the corrugated iron pressed flat against the pitted asphalt of the alley. When buses or trolleys rolled over the cobblestones of the Avenue, the doors rattled and the shaking rebounded into the depths of the basement. They were the kind of doors kids loved to jump on, delighting in the deep echoes that bounced back and forth between the adjacent brick walls. Easy bent over and grasped the cold metal handles and lifted.
Just as Harry had promised, the doors weren’t bolted from the inside. Harry had told him they would tell the police that one of the stock boys had simply forgotten to slide the bolt across when closing up for the night. Easy wondered where Harry was right now and if he would ever see him again. He didn’t really care as long as the money was where Harry said it would be and as long as Harry got him the rest after the fire, if there was a fire. Easy told himself over and over that Harry was a man of his word.
Easy lifted the heavy metal door and shivered as the rush of damp air assaulted his body. The mustiness of the cellar, with odors reminiscent of tiled corners in unattended men’s urinals, mixed with the lingering chocolate and left Ed once again tasting the sourness of fear. Nervously he glanced around the alley one more time and then disappeared into the darkness, quietly closing the heavy door above his descending head. He walked down the four steps and paused, listening in the black dampness for any sounds foreign to this subterranean depository of children’s shoes. There was only silence, the thumping of his racing heart and the whirring of the vats from the candy factory.
Ed unzipped the satchel and removed the flashlight. He clicked it on, watching the beam sputter to life, illuminating one of the pictures of naked women the stock boys had stapled to the rafters to prevent the dust from falling onto their nappy hair. For the entire length of the basement the ceiling was covered with glossy photographs of buck-naked women, mostly white girls, in various poses of lascivious abandon. Easy Ed wondered what magazines these pictures came from because they were never in any he happened to leaf through. He figured the stock boys had better sources than he did.
He swung the flashlight across the papered ceiling, from one picture to the next; enjoying the play of light in his hands and the power it conferred to reveal these women, slowly, one at a time. It was a private peep show, like one of those curtained rooms in the neighborhood brothels. The eerie photos acquired a drama in the dead darkness that they never could possess during normal business hours.
Shining the beam on the women became an enjoyable game and Ed almost forgot what he was doing here. Then the light flickered, dimmed, yellowed and became a fuzzy glow that obscured rather than illuminated. “Shit,” he called into the darkness, realizing he had neglected to check the batteries when he grabbed the flashlight from Jamal’s desk last night. He shook the flashlight with growing futility as the light faded and he held nothing more than a dead metal cylinder in his sweaty palms. “Motherfucker,” he screamed, as he threw the flashlight in disgust against the far wall and listened to it clatter along the stone floor, rolling uselessly down the aisle of Converse high tops.
Bathed in darkness, fear rapidly coupled with uncertainty. Easy stood on the bottom landing and cursed silently for a good two minutes. Every foul-mouthed word he had ever heard passed from remembrance down into his throat. They lodged in the thickening phlegm at the back of his mouth before escaping into the damp silence. Each blasphemous word echoed against the walls and took him back to his childhood. Each word wore the black face of a man or woman who first shouted that epitaph in his presence. Each word bounced back at him with more force than the original utterance, accusing him of nonsense and stupidity. When Easy finished cursing, finished listening to the sharp profanity, finished telling himself what a predictable dumb-ass he was, he took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped the sweat off of his forehead. He figured he could make his way in the pitch-blackness when he cried out, “Easy, you dumb shit! There’s a lighter in the satchel.” Ed chuckled with nervous relief as he reached into the bag to grab the Bic. A twinkling flame soon illuminated the remaining step on the wooden staircase, and he slowly began to make his way through the back rooms of the basement.
Mice scurried ahead, their tiny nails rasping along the concrete floor, as Ed passed the old well dug into the back corner. A graduate student had once come to the store seeking permission to sift through the debris at the bottom of the dried well, claiming it dated back to the Revolutionary War. He had told them he was hoping to find artifacts and bones buried at the bottom, maybe even some medical instruments, because the building had served as a hospital during the Civil War. Since then, Easy had always steered clear of the well, even though it was covered up with heavy wooden planks. Skeletons always gave him the creeps.
As Ed moved closer to the steps leading upstairs he noticed the old-time fire extinguishers bolted to the rafters. Harry had once explained that the glass cones were encased in a wire mesh that was supposed to melt from the heat of the flames and then release this red chemical into the air and suck the oxygen out, depriving any fire of its sustenance. Ed wondered if he would get a chance to see them in action and then realized he hoped to be very far away when any fire might get hot enough to put them to the test.
The lighter became hot in his hands, forcing him to turn it off periodically to keep from burning his fingers. The blackness would then engulf and unsettle him. He was standing in darkness, trying to collect his courage, to gird himself for the final charge up the stairs to grab the money stashed in the safe. He patted his shirt pocket for the twentieth time, making certain the slip of paper with the combination was still there. Even though he knew no one was waiting for him upstairs, he shuddered violently with the thought that the police were expecting him; that they were leisurely standing around the safe, drinking coffee from paper cups and smoking cigarettes, telling jokes about this big-assed black guy who was about to try and rob the store. He imagined that Harry had reconsidered and tipped them off, telling them that Ed was a disgruntled employee who felt he deserved the money.
Ed took the deepest breath he ever remembered taking, flicked the lighter and pushed open the door to the main floor. He was greeted with nothing. There was only an eerie empty silence.
The shouting and angry tones of parents and children from earlier today had left the building. He could still faintly hear the residue of the cries of black babies reluctant to try on shoes. Shades of grey sputtered on the walls, shadows cast by the wavering flame of the lighter. Ed looked around and exhaled. He had made it. He had overcome his fears and made it. All that stood between him and another ten thousand dollars was the rusty safe and the dark trip back through the basement. He approached the safe with a growing confidence, believing he was in a movie, simply following the commands of a director.
Ed removed the folded slip of paper from his pocket and tried to read the numbers. Earlier in the day he had attempted to memorize them but the number of turns to the left and the right was confusing and now the numbers were invisible in the dark. He got the lighter back out and flicked it on. He read the numbers out loud and lay the paper on the safe. He could only use one hand as he turned the dial since he needed the other to keep the flame alive. He turned to twenty-six, twice to the left and then forty-two, twice to the right. Easy paused and rubbed the tips of his fingers together, because that was what safe crackers did in the movies. The last number was twelve, once to the left. He listened for the click as he hit the last digit and heard nothing; but through the tips of his fingers he sensed the resistance of the tumblers and stopped. His heart raced as he paused to wipe the moisture from his hands. He felt the need to relax and be reverential before he tried to open the safe. He wasn’t religious but he prayed silently. “Dear lord, please let this be right.” This was a huge moment in his very small life. If the money was there and if he got out of the building safely then he would have that new lease on life that was every struggling man’s dream. He had a chance to be even in the morning and even was a good place to begin. If he wanted to be ahead of the game, to reach beyond hope, to relent to the call of greed, then he would set the fire on the way out. Easy Ed wasn’t sure about the size of his balls.
He twisted the handle of the safe and breathed a sigh of relief as the door swung open on the old but still smooth hinges. He lit the lighter one more time and peered inside. Right where it was supposed to be rested a large stack of money. Ed had no doubt it was the correct amount. He grabbed the money and looked at it longingly. For an instant he considered running home and getting the other money and just blowing town but he understood he would never do that. He wasn’t made that way. He’d never run away. He had always stayed to face the consequences, always let whatever problems he had just roll off his back. Some people had mistaken his acquiescence for backbone, but he knew better. Easy had no backbone; only jelly lined his spine. He put the money in the satchel and stood up, ready to retrace his steps though the basement and escape into the night.