Matthew Blasi was born in Manhattan, NY in 1980. He received his Bachelors' degree in English with honors from the University of Florida, and is currently in the Masters in Fine Arts program for fiction writing at Rutgers University. His previously published works include short stories and essays. He is currently at work on his first novel and resides in Collingswood, New Jersey.
When I'm discharged from the V.A. hospital, I tell them I'd like to stay a little longer. The nurse asks, Don't you have somewhere to go?
No, I tell her. I don't think so.
She reads from a clipboard: Walter Mineke. Concussive trauma to the brain. No living family, no contacts listed. Address on license was rented, no longer valid. She gives me my driver's license and two hundred dollars. She tells me the government will send me a check every month as soon as I give them an address. She tells me my memory will come back in time. Maybe.
I ask her what that means. She shrugs.
She says, I'm sorry, sweetie, but there's vets coming in every day. We need the bed. Here. She gives me a card with the name of a hotel on it. It's cheap, she says. Go there tonight.
I say okay. And out I go. Goodbye. Good luck.
The door closes.
My name is. Walter Mineke?
The landlord looks at me from across the desk. He says, Eighty dollars a week. No pets. No smoking.
We take the stairs to fifth floor and he says, You'll like it. Meet your neighbors. We get a lot from the hospitals and clinics in the area. He gives me the key at the door to my room, 5-C. He goes back down the hall. Over his shoulder he says, Keep the noise down at night.
I wait in the lobby for the elevator. It doesn't come. A man and a woman come in carrying grocery bags, and the man says, It's broken. It's not coming.
I'm Louis. This is my wife, Mai. He smiles at her.
It's been out for two years, says the woman.
Are you our new neighbor? asks Louis. Fifth floor, 5-C, right? Come up and have coffee with us. Tell us about yourself.
I say okay. And thank you. I follow them up the stairs and into their apartment. Mai makes coffee. Louis asks me where I'm from. I don't remember. Do I have family? No. Not living. Friends? I don't know. I remember some things and not others. I came here because it was cheap and I needed a place to pull together. He asks if I was in the war and I tell him I think so, yes. I have dreams and sometimes I see things. Clouds and deserts and explosions.
Fireballs bloom and wither, desert flowers. Then the hospital, then here.
Louis says, I was in a hospital for a while, too. My head, you see. My mind. But I'm better. Mai was patient. Mai waited.
He smiles at his wife and she smiles back.
Where I live is falling apart. Every stair creaks. The banister is missing railings, the stairs are missing steps. There are tiles missing in the shower, black mold thick on the grout. The light fixtures spark sometimes. The wires hiss behind the walls. I turn on the radio and it fades from music to popping static.
Annie lives down the hall. I meet her because I hear her coughing through the thin walls. I knock on her door and ask her if she's all right. She opens the door with a cigarette in her hand. I tell her there's no smoking. She laughs.
That's right, she says, and takes a drag. There isn't.
She walks back into her room and the door is open. I go in and sit on a chair. The bed is unmade. There are pears molding in a glass bowl near the sink.
There are empty liquor bottles and dirty glasses on the counter. The walls are yellow from cigarette smoke. She coughs and sweats. It's summer. She has the windows open, but no breeze comes in.
She sits on the edge of the bed and stares out the window. I watch her cigarette burn.
Louis thinks God is in the wings of sparrows.
It's true, he tells me. There is, what's the word? Geometry, he says, nodding. Sacred geometry. In stone, in birds, in everything. You watch them fly and you will see it. He stands at his window and points into the trees, and we follow them with our eyes when they fly away. He draws charts in notebooks, diagrams and pictures of bird wings, spread and folded. He says, Simple lines of motion, the way air and the wing work. What's the word?
Louis, says Mai from the doorway. She looks at her husband, then goes into another room.
He's quiet for a moment before he says, Do you like birds?
I tell him that I do. I love birds. I tell him he's right. I think you can see God in the birds if anywhere. There He goes, flying over rooftops, shitting on cars. There He is, watching, laughing. Indifferent.
Never indifferent, says Louis. He shakes his head. Never. Vigilant, but never indifferent. You can't watch something that close without learning to love it.
Or hate it.
Louis raises a finger. Or love it.
Annie is pretty and too thin. Nervous. Her fingers are long and delicate. She sweats all the time, like everyone else in the building. Her hair is blond, but not naturally. The roots are darker, closer to her. I see her every day and after a few weeks I ask her why she's here.
Old bruises kiss her arms over soft blue veins. They never go away. Her hands shake as she lifts her cigarette. She says, I used to have some bad habits.
Now I'm paying for it.
I touch the bruises and tell her I understand. That's what it's like, sometimes, trying to remember what happened. Like bruises flashing across the surface of my brain.
She's quiet for a while, then she stands in front of me and says, Do you like me, Walter?
I tell her I do. She puts out her cigarette and takes my hand and turns off the light.
There's water in the hall. I follow it back to Loius' apartment. When he lets me into his apartment, he and Mai are wearing bright yellow galoshes. Their apartment is flooded because their hot water heater burst. Mai is on the phone with the landlord. Louis tells me that he and Mai have been arguing. He shows me why.
I'm lucky, he says, that my work's above the water level. His diagrams and drawings cover the living room walls, reach into the kitchen. His hands are inky black. Shaky ink wings climb his arms. Eagles, he says, falcons, sparrows. Kings of the sky. What does it all mean? I'm doing important work. I'm trying to understand things, just for once, and she doesn't get that.
Mai hangs up the phone and leaves, slamming the door.
Annie and I stand in the hall, elevator doors pried open, looking down into the dark, quiet shaft. They were like that when I moved in two years ago, she says. Broken. No way up or down except the hard way.
We take the stairs to the roof and watch the sun bloat red and heavy in the sky. It sinks into the buildings. The city melts into color, into fire. Annie coughs from the climb and spits a bloody wad over the side.
I say, I remembered something today. From Iraq. What I did there. My job.
Annie lights a cigarette. Want to tell me?
I nod. Demolitions. I blew things up.
I make spread my fingers as far apart as I can. I make a noise with my mouth. I say, Everything.
There is a hole, a bruise on my brain, only it's bigger than the elevator shaft, darker. Meaner. Me looking down on me looking up. The doctors told me things would come back jumbled. I'm confused. It doesn't make sense. At night, the building creaks less, the roaches are glitters of light on hard chitinous shells over the counter, over the dishes in the sink. They drag light like the stars across the sky, only faster, more vulnerable. I can hear sparrows in the trees, singing, watching. I listen to Annie's rough breathing as she sleeps beside me. I reach back and touch the scar on the back of my head and stare into the hole inside me. It offers up puzzle pieces.
Annie always says, Everyone has to have their night.
Tonight, I'm younger, in the Army, serving in Iraq for I don't know what or why. I never did even if I thought there was a reason once. I'm good with bombs, det cords, things that come apart and never go back together. The smell of plastique is always on my hands. I place the charges and something goes wrong. The bomb goes off and I'm too close. Then there's deafness that stretches and becomes the bruise on my brain like the skin of too-ripe fruit.
Then the flies, tickling my face, lapping at the blood while I lie in the street.
Tonight, Annie sleeps beside me. Jagged breathing. I hear Louis and Mai arguing down the hall.
Tonight, I remember lying in the street and looking at the rubble. The building is a hole. So am I.
Mai answers the door and says, Louis isn't here.
She storms through the apartment and tears the wallpaper down and throws it into the halls along with Louis' papers and clothes. She says, When you see him, tell him to come and get his stuff.
Annie's apartment is empty. The landlord asks, didn't I hear?
I tell him I didn't. I was out all night looking for Louis, but I didn't find him.
The landlord says an ambulance came last night and took her away. He found her passed out in the hall in front of my door burning with fever. He tells me the name of the hospital and I go upstairs to call them. Annie's asleep. The nurse tells me that I can visit tomorrow.
What's wrong? I ask.
The nurse sighs. Severe pneumonia. And she's had it before, so there will be scarring on her lungs. She'll have trouble breathing.
What does it mean?
It means she'll live, the nurse says. But she'll never be well.
I ask to speak to her and the nurse puts her on. Annie says, Walter? Her voice cracks. She's quiet for a while collecting herself. She says, Do you think you can take care of me when I get out? Just for a little while.
Yes, I say. I tell her I'll move her things into my room. And when she comes out we can find another place. A bigger place with a working elevator. She laughs.
I tell her I have to go and that I'll visit tomorrow. She tells me she doesn't want me go. She cries softly. But it's just for the night, I tell her. Just tonight.
Louis calls me in the morning and tells me to meet him in the park. When I arrive, he's sitting on a bench, holding his things, his clothes and the wallpaper he wrote on, torn into scraps. The ripped edges of wings and beaks, like dead birds in the gutter. He says, It's over. Mai threw me out.
She said it was the last time. The last straw.
She says I'm not getting better. She says I'm getting sick again. He nods. She's right.
Ink wings spread across his hands, climb his arms. Ink birds alight on his cheeks, flutter on his eyelids.
He says, Why birds? Why wings? He shrugs.
Why bombs, I wonder. Why bruises?
He says, Because for them flight is not always escape. It's life.
He stands up and says, I'm going back to the hospital. I'll miss you, Walter. Maybe you'll visit. I'd like that. And I really do think He's in the wings. God, I mean. Perfect and sacred. And scared, like all of us. He turns around and walks out of the park. Scraps of wallpaper trail behind him, twisting on the breeze, taking flight.
It means I'll live, but I'll never be the same.