After my dog George ran away, I sat on the couch and watched five minutes of the Cavs game, then decided I should go find him. I put my jacket and scarf on. I stood outside and whistled, and he didn’t come.
I walked out in the cold. The wind off the lake was heavy and full, like a bath faucet or a fire hose. When it hit my face, I squinted so I wouldn’t tear up, but sometimes I still teared up and it came out of the corners of my eyes and went across my cheeks into my earholes. In the city, there are people and lights and a lot of cars so you don’t think it’s going to be cold. People live here. They wouldn’t stand for it. I saw my breath, filtered through my scarf, in grey and blue clouds. The snow here was colder than usual, greyer than snow should be, grey against the night sky. My boots were construction, not winter, and one pair of socks didn’t do much, almost nothing. I felt like I was wearing sandals, or nothing.
I missed Los Angeles. I missed my salt‐bleached shutters that gaped at the Pacific. I missed the viejos who sat on the front porch of my duplex and talked shit about me in Spanish until I learned to speak it. I missed the teenage cashiers with their first mustaches at the bodega who gave me free cigarettes because I bought them 40s. I missed Mimi who went to school in San Diego and always found her way to my apartment during breaks and summers, but never introduced me to her parents because I wasn’t Vietnamese. I missed working on sets and getting high with the sound and light crews after we wrapped. I missed the missed calls from the Midwest. There was a distance there.
I passed Erie Lake Fry and it smelled like hydrogenated vegetable oils and meats. The sidewalk was steeped with stains of fried fish and hot sauce and grease. I walked past the grocery store where I bought Saturday morning milk. The apartments next door were for lease with big handwritten signs that had read “ACT QUIK CALL NOW” for the last three years. The city was fighting a losing battle against its suicidal tendencies. It had one hand reaching for a bandage and the other pinching a razor. I wanted a drink and a humid room.
The ground in front of Louie’s was wet, and the salt rocks crunched under the soles of my boots. The door was thin and windowed, cut into the corner of the building. I nodded to a man with a beard trying to light a cigarette in the gusts, and pushed the door and walked in. Louie’s was built of bricks and alcohol with punch card‐calloused fingers. The bar lined the back wall. On the left were booths that soften in the summer heat and stick to post‐shift sweat and skin. The light was yellow, thick, and filtered through candy‐colored, ceiling‐hung lampshades of stained glass, the same as those of the city churches. Tin signs preached the gospel of Rocky Colavito (may he one day rest in peace, says Joe the bartender) and Jameson, neat. The floor was coated and polished by work boots. There were tall circular tables to stand around, but folks mostly sat at the small, short ones with room for two or four or one. The bar was warm and smelled like beer and men. Fathers and fathers’ fathers drank here.
I sat down at a stool and the seat of my jeans was cold. “That scarf makes you look like an idiot,” growled Joe, with wrinkles in his forehead. Joe didn’t serve colorful drinks and was at least sixty. His voice was like buffed granite and his grey hair was always sweaty and slicked back.
I pulled down the scarf. Joe poured me a beer from the tap and put it down on the bar. The Cavs were down seven halfway through the third. I put my head down on my arms and watched them lose, sideways. I wondered if George was hungry yet.
“Sit up, pretty boy,” Joe said, “Don’t lie on my bar unless you’re drunk.” I sat back up and took a long drink and the beer tasted good. Joe once told me that beer tasted the best when you’d been sucking down dust instead of air.
At the warehouse where I worked, the floor was hard lain cold concrete and covered in plastic powder and plastic bits that cracked like peanut shells or shotgun casings under boots. The new shifters started out wearing particulate masks. The vets told them to keep them, it’s good for the lungs, but no one kept that advice. All of us still wore the goggles, though; wore them 6 to 6 and left shift with twelve‐hour marks, red, wide, deep and permanent until tomorrows. Catching a chip of plastic to the eye wasn’t a joke, and that advice was taken to heart. Won’t kill you, doesn’t make you stronger, just blinds. Blinds. Plastics – cut ‘em up, ship ‘em out, go home and drink and sleep.
I coughed and Joe stood facing me. “You look like someone stole your Christmas presents, kid.”
I looked at him and shrugged.
“You always got that sad face on, always the sad looking face.” Joe wiped his hands on his dirtied shirt.
“You dying or something?”
“No, I’m not dying,” I mumbled.
“Your father dying?”
“Your mother dying?”
“My mother’s been dead for a year and a half.”
“Alright, then, so why you always with the sad face?” I looked at him, and then gestured at the little TV sitting mute at the end of the bar.
“Because the Cavs can’t win a goddamn game,” I said.
He squinted at me, then picked up a dirty rag and a rocks glass and started wiping it off.
“You’re a piece of work, pretty boy.” He walked to the other side of the bar.
I looked at myself in the mirror for twenty seconds. My skin was paler than it had once been. The color of my hair faded fast with the sun so in the summer they called me Sandy or Sand at the warehouse instead of Andrew or Andy. “Look at Sandy boy over here,” they would say. But it was January, sunless, and my hair was dark, almost brown. I hadn’t shaved in a few days. The snow stuck to the scruff on my cheeks and neck when I walked outside.
Joe poured me another beer and said nothing.
I thought of my mother. She wasn’t a drinker, but drank a lot when she was younger, a kid, a teenager. I think that’s why she understood, patiently, when I called her, drunk, at fourteen, or seventeen, or twenty. She was calm, as mothers are. My sisters, her daughters, thought she was a saint. She went to church and sang loudly. She never married. She planned itineraries to Los Angeles that never happened.
When they said that she only had a few weeks left, my flight back to Cleveland was one way. I was twenty five. We spoke with lawyers and insurance men and my sisters and I moved our things out of the house we’d rented since I was twelve. It took her sixteen months to die.
My sister Josie moved to Columbus to go to college. My sister Tanya decided it wasn’t for her, and she moved into a house on the west side with nine roommates and four dogs. I stayed with a girl I had dated in high school who had never left the city. She worked as a receptionist for a salon and did a lot of drugs. Her name was Yasmine and she told me she loved me. I moved out.
Jack, a man who worked at the warehouse, walked into Louie’s and saw me at the bar. He clasped my shoulder with his hands that felt like paws and sat in the stool next to me. He shook one finger at Joe, who poured him a beer.
Jack was a big man and had been working the warehouse for thirty five years, since high school. He used to play football and weighed twice what I weighed. He was wearing a tan jacket with our company name on the sleeve like a war tattoo. There was a dark blue hooded sweater underneath and the hood was down, covering the back of his neck. His boots were the same as mine. I shook his hand, and it was cold and strong and dry.
Joe placed the beer down in front of him. “You know this sad motherfucker, Jack?” he asked.
Jack laughed and looked at me and smacked my back. “Naw, he ain’t sad,” Jack said, “He’s just a worker, Joe, a worker bee.” He drew out the “bee” with a smile. “We all got those eyes.” Jack nodded and looked my way, then slapped the back of my head twice. “His just look sadder cuz he still got that California pretty in ‘em.” They laughed. “Joe, you seen Chuck and them tonight?”
Joe shook his head, “Not yet, Jackie, not yet.” He tapped the counter twice and went back to drying glasses.
Jack drank his beer and looked at me. “How’re you, Andrew?”
“Good,” I said, “Good.” I thought of George.
“Good, still good. Still in Tremont, still waiting at Maria’s.” Tanya had moved in with a man who looked like a boxer and sold cocaine. She’s doing okay. “How’s Celine?” That’s his wife.
He looked back toward the door and nodded. “Celine. She’s good, she’s good.” He looked at the television and saw the score, gestured with his hand, exasperated, and said, “Fucking Cavs, man.” He shifted in his seat. His voice felt like loud whispers that touched sound. “Hey, I need a cigarette you want a cigarette?”
“Sure,” I said. Jack looked at Joe and pointed to his drink to say ‘this is still mine.’ We walked outside, and Jack took out two cigarettes and lit mine, then his. We stood, hunkered, like steel.
In the road the wind picked up a wall of snow and the air became dense with it and the grey rinsed the street. The wall turned to wild animals and ghosts and monuments and they swept and erased the tire treads in the unplowed intersection. I blinked and it all became just snow again, falling from the sky.
“You ever thought about moving, Jack?”
“No.” Jack took a big drag of his cigarette, then laughed, sputtering and dry. “Ha, naw, that’s a goddamn lie. My mama left for Atlanta and my brother did too, after the navy. Think about going south every time they call.” Jack said ‘Atlanta’ without the t’s.
“Why haven’t you left?” He shrugged and took another smoke and spoke with it still in his lungs, his voice higher.
“Something familiar, I guess.”
“Familiar.” I nodded, and smoked and looked at the blinking red hand on the crosswalk sign.
“These old haunts, Andrew,” Jack said, his teeth tightening, inhaling. “This street is my family. The grey is my uncle and the snow is my nephew and the fuckin’ Browns are my cousins, first and second.” He laughed and I did, too. He looked down and kicked some ice off the curb. “Or maybe that’s a lie, just something I tell myself to hear it said.”
“Maybe.” I kicked at some ice, too.
“I just mean, you know, we tell ourselves what we need to tell ourselves to, you know, to swallow tough pills. This city’s a tough pill, man. Warehouse is, too. Just gotta swallow those pills, though, otherwise you’ll go crazy.”
“Some pills turn you crazy, Jack.”
Jack pulled a drag and squinted into the streetlights and thought, then nodded. “Not much you can do at that point, then.”
“Yeah.” I thought about pills and medicine and my mother. Neither of us said anything
and I looked at my boots and kicked some more ice.
Jack turned his head to me. “You got a girl?”
I was not expecting that question and I laughed.
“Naw, Jack, I don’t have a girl.”
“Cuz I know some real good girls, you know, nice girls, friends of Celine, your age even, about.”
“I’m all set, man, I appreciate the thought.” I thought I might take him up on it another time. I smiled to myself.
A Geo Prizm parked across the street and three older men slowly spilled out of it. They wore layers of jackets emblazoned with union names and dark sweaters made of cotton and flannel. Like big, slow bears they lumbered towards us, where they greeted Jack with knowing handshakes and grunts and me with nods. They went inside. Jack took a long drag and flicked the cigarette into the snow, then turned to face me. He put his left hand on my right shoulder and pointed at my face. “Think on it, kid,” he said, “I know some nice girls.” He smacked my shoulder twice, again, and pushed the door back in to Louie’s.
I finished my cigarette and walked back inside. Jack had taken his beer and gone to stand with the three men down by the television talking to Joe. One of them told a loud joke about Polish women and the others laughed, brash, wheezy, golden, infinite. Their smiles were vintage and came from a place I didn’t know. The counter shook from Jack’s pounding fists. The Cavs were down sixteen with two minutes left. I put my hand on the bar. It was etched with deep, dark marks like a tree or a face. I put my fingers along a carved vein and slid through it until I reached the edge. Many men had lived and died here.
I looked up and saw Joe and told him I wanted a whiskey double. “What’s the call?” he asked.
“From the rail, Joe,” I said, “From the rail.” He poured me a shot of bottom shelf and it tasted perfect.
On my way home I kept my eyes open wide for George. The city was a patchwork of ‘No Trespassing’ signs and metal and love and rusted gears and rusted hope. We were old, grim friends. I remembered the spring, when I forgot about Januaries and my eyes, which had sunk into the snow banks, shone bright and naïve. I drove to the places where Cleveland becomes Ohio and sat in the fields, the endless frozen fields.