S H O R T S T O R Y
A SHADOW IN POUGHKEEPSIE
b y r e g g i e p o c h é ~ s t. l o u i s, m i s s o u r i
WHILE CURTIS, Otti, and I had our coffee that morning, Mr. Snowdy, the manager of the halfway house, came up from behind and placed the keys to his Oldsmobile on the kitchen table. They were attached to a petrified rabbit’s foot, which was nearly bald and looked like a leathery, gray prune. “It needs gas,” Mr. Snowdy told me, “but don’t use any of that premium crap. It needs to run dirty if it runs at all. And don’t fill the tank up. Weight slows it down.” His slippers slapped on the linoleum as he walked away while fingering the old pair of cufflinks I had given him for letting me borrow the car. “I’ll be around,” he said.
“I know,” I replied. Mr. Snowdy was always around, dressed in what we called “permanent breakfast:” slippers and a terry robe—pen, reading glasses, and a pack of cigarettes in the pocket. “I’m a realist,” he said whenever we made fun of his threadbare pajama bottoms, which had become something of a morning ritual for us in the last two months. “What’s the use in changing?” But Curtis had been the kind to add in his own two cents immediately after while Otti only giggled with toast in his mouth. “You’re just a lazy old man,” he said that morning, like always. And Mr. Snowdy’s answer never changed, “Better than being a dope head.”
“What’s the point?” Curtis asked, tugging on my Goodwill necktie with his buttery fingers. “Don’t you know, Cochise, you’ll be a blue collar the rest of your life? You might as well have the word felon tattooed on your forehead.” I didn’t bother to answer, just put my cup in the sink and headed for the door, resumé in hand.
The three of us were the last of the ex-cons living in Mr. Snowdy’s halfway house, which had officially closed a month earlier. The state of Louisiana had decided that it would no longer subsidize private “group homes” and opted for building its own “prisoner rehabilitation centers” instead. “Which still look like jails no matter now many petunias are planted out front,” Mr. Snowdy had said after giving the news. “Cheap bastards.”
He had managed the halfway house for over thirty years but had lived there nearly his entire life, except for four years of combat in the Pacific. He inherited the place and the Oldsmobile from his father. “Your regular oddball minister,” Mr. Snowdy once said, who built the halfway house because he felt sorry for all those guys with no way to get started again. “And he loved to sit in his La-Z-Boy and listen to the stories they’d tell,” Mr. Snowdy had added. “Nothing fascinated the man more than a shiv in the kidney.”
For us, Remy Stebbins, a Hell’s Angel with Coke-bottle eyeglasses, had been the last one to tell a shiv story. He left, like most everyone in the house, for a place of his own. Others just forced themselves on girlfriends or family. Those of us who couldn’t afford the move, the newest ones in the house, namely the three sad sacks at the breakfast table, were allowed to stay for a really low rent until we saved enough. Enter my Goodwill tie.
It’s time to start walking tall again, I told myself as I lay in bed the night before, trying to figure out what the water stain on the ceiling resembled. Someone in the house had been crying for nearly two hours, that sort of muffled murmur that comes from over your shoulder when the casket is closed at the end of a wake. That type of crying can come from anyone. You can’t continue to take your time, I said to myself before I dozed off. You’re still in prison, minus the steel bars and cavity searches, but prison just the same. Those things can’t follow you, but others do.
In reality, prison is repetition, routine, and your coughs echoing in a bare room—Mr. Snowdy’s slippers keeping perfect time with the ticking of the kitchen clock. I could have told Curtis all this when he grabbed my tie that following morning, but he couldn’t have understood. Piecework at a hosiery factory was good enough for him. I wanted something more, something new to save me before my own tears became part of the routine. But the searching ended before it even began. This “something new” found me instead, packaged in a cardboard box wrapped in brown paper and left on the doorstep.
I tripped over it when I walked out the house that morning, the rabbit’s foot leaving a bloody scratch on my right palm, exactly over my lifeline. “Some jackass put a package right in front of the door,” I yelled to Mr. Snowdy, who was either doing the crosswords on the upstairs toilet or rummaging through one of our rooms for a lighter or a pack of matches.
“Is it from my mom?” Otti asked from the table. He had been expecting one of her care packages, which usually consisted of the TV Guide, shaving cream, chewing gum, and the little packets of dried shrimp he liked to snack on—diseased fingernails, according to Curtis. But the package wasn’t for Otti. My name had been printed in black magic marker: Mr. Andrew Mereaux, Esquire. No return address had been left, just a postmark for Poughkeepsie. And though the box hadn’t been much bigger than the little portable television Otti liked to move around the house, it weighed a ton. He had to help me carry it inside while Curtis only watched.
“Esquire? What’s that mean?” Otti asked.
“It means that someone thinks Cochise is a big shot,” Curtis laughed.
“Poog-keep-see?” Otti said. “Who do you know there?” His guess was as good as mine.
Otti and I brought the box into the living room. Curtis followed and then jumped into the minister’s old La-Z-Boy, its arms shredded years ago by Mr. Snowdy’s yellow cat, Chee-Wee, which had been recently stuffed and placed on the mantle. Andy Brock, who started working as a taxidermist a few weeks before he left the halfway house, had given it to Mr. Snowdy as a gift.
I had always thought of the mantle as a timeline of Mr. Snowdy’s life, dusty and filled with gaps. Much like my own. It started at the far left, where faded Boy Scout badges were displayed in a frame. Then came a high school graduation picture. A small black photo album with Japanese writing on the front followed that, a trophy Mr. Snowdy took off of a Japanese soldier in the Philippines. “The only one I ever killed up close,” he had said. I looked through the album once. The first picture was of a young Japanese soldier with a serious face standing in front of a paper wall. The rest were of parties and of what could have been family gatherings, but they weren’t candid snapshots like you’d find with an American family. Each photograph was deliberately composed; even the women’s silk kimonos looked stiff. I had found it odd that this album was followed by Chee-Wee, which ended the line at the right. So the end of the timeline went from a hero doing heroic things on the other side of the world to a stuffed yellow cat.
Mr. Snowdy shuffled up from behind us and pushed Curtis at the shoulder. “You two get off to work,” he said.
“Let’s just see what’s in Andrew’s box first,” Otti replied.
“It’s none of your business, anyway,” Mr. Snowdy said. “And that other one there,” he continued, pointing to Curtis, “is already a month behind on the rent, unless you want to start playing him at poker again.”
“We’ll be out in a minute, Methuselah,” Curtis said, grimacing and shifting his weight like a gorilla.
I began to cut open the box with one of Mr. Snowdy’s keys. “Don’t break the keychain!” he yelled. The cut on my palm still bled a little, so I awkwardly used the other hand. He would have had a fit if I had stained the rabbit’s foot.
The room was dark, just the way Mr. Snowdy liked it. Any light from the single bulb, which hung from a ceiling fan, was absorbed into the waxy varnish of the dark wall panels. “Otti, get the shades,” I said. The box was open by the time he had raised the second one, and he hurried back, looking like a wide-eyed kid at a grab bag. He reached in and pulled out a single, unused Band-Aid, nothing else. Curtis laughed. Mr. Snowdy walked away while mumbling something to himself.
“What! The damn thing felt like a bunch of bricks before,” Otti said and then turned the box upside down. The Band-Aid fluttered to the floor. “I must be crazy.”
“Just ask the old man. He knows crazy,” Curtis said, picking up the Band-Aid. “Hey Cochise, you can cover up your boo-boo with this.”
Mr. Snowdy entered again, retied the belt of his robe, and sat in front of the television. “Better get to work, boy,” he said to Otti. “It’ll be hard enough to make your quota as is. And don’t let that other one stop off for doughnuts.”
“Pay an old man pennies to squat in his dump, and he makes you his bitch,” Curtis said. “Come on, mamma’s boy.”
Curtis screamed like a chimpanzee when they left through the kitchen. “Pantyhose!” he yelled from the front yard. “We make pantyhose!”
I had been living with the two of them for nearly four months, after my release on a manslaughter conviction fifteen years before; shot an unarmed man who had broken into my apartment. Curtis, the oldest ex-con in the house, arrived there a month before I did. He wasn’t one to share his story; he even said that he once told a prison therapist to go and molest his inner child when things got too personal. But the story goes that Curtis served eight for something to do with cocaine. He had been arrested in the middle of Lake Pontchartrain while dumping kilo after kilo over the side of his boat.
Otti’s story wasn’t as glamorous. He had tried to put one in his temple after a bad weekend at a Biloxi casino, checked himself into a motel and drank two fifths of tequila. The bullet went through his headboard, through the wall, and through the top of his suitemate’s skull—negligent homicide. “Manslaughter, it sounds worse than murder,” he had said when we first compared our convictions. “Like something involving a machete and a grinding machine. Slaughter. The word sounds biblical.” The police caught Otti at his mom’s house in Opelousas a few days later, hiding in her linen closet. Otti, thirty-four and the youngest of us, received five years but served only four and was given a good-time release. He would have gone home long ago, but his mom had to sell her house because of the legal fees and a lawsuit and move into a retirement community on her Social Security checks.
So we were three regular losers who all went to prison for our stupidity. I had had a life before, more to lose than I would have ever guessed, but stupidity has no respect for how hard you work. I was a sixth-grade science teacher with a fiancé, a car, a nice apartment, and a loyal mutt of a dog. Funny how that’s all you need in life.
“You’re going to play with yourself all day?” Mr. Snowdy asked as I continued to puzzle over this box from Poughkeepsie. “You know, the car’s headlights don’t work. I want it back before dark.”
When I turned to leave, the box fell to the floor like a cartoon anvil, and a baseball-sized glass sphere rolled out and ran into the base of an old steamer trunk Mr. Snowdy used for an ottoman.
“What the hell are you doing?” he yelled.
“The box fell.”
“Box my ass!”
“And something came out of it. Look down.”
Mr. Snowdy bent over his lap. “It’s a goddamn paperweight,” the old man said and then tried to kick it over to me. It rolled like a deflated tire for a couple of feet and then stopped on its flat side. “A damn paperweight,” he said. “Put it back where you got it from.”
I placed the box on the steamer trunk. “There was nothing in it,” I said. “Otti even turned it over. Nothing.”
“Don’t be stupid,” the old man said. He repositioned his glasses and picked up Otti’s TV Guide and used it to swat the box to the floor. It hit louder than before, spewing out more paperweights like a busted piñata.
“Lord in the morning!” Mr. Snowdy yelled.
We sat there silently for a good two minutes. Mr. Snowdy chewed on the stem of his glasses and then wiggled it into his ear canal. Speak, I thought to myself; I can begin to make sense of this if he speaks. I picked up the first paperweight that had fallen and was shocked that I’d seen it before. I knew immediately that it belonged to me, just knew it, like its touch implanted a forgotten memory back into my mind—sixteen years into the past, before the manslaughter—a trip to Venice with Anna, my fiancé. “This is mine,” I told Mr. Snowdy. “My fiancé bought it for me.”
I had proposed to her in the morning, in front of St. Mark’s. Then she bought the paperweight in a glass shop that evening. “This reminds me of you,” she said, mimicking the tweet of her mother’s voice. Two pink flamingos, each with one leg, stood in a puddle of milky glass, which rested on the bottom of the ball. “Flamingos in Venice, of course,” Anna laughed. “Why would that be weird?” I kissed her in the square while a little Italian boy pointed and laughed before going back to chase pigeons. It was like being there all over again, except for one difference. We agreed to marry as soon as we got back to the states, which was a totally new memory, something that didn’t exist until I held that paperweight in my hand sixteen years later.
Mr. Snowdy, after watching in silence, turned in his chair and said, “What do you mean it’s yours?”
“I mean it’s mine. And there can’t be another one like it. I even recognize the cluster of air bubbles right there,” I said, pointing to a flamingo’s foot. “All my stuff was in storage but had been sold off years ago when the contract expired.”
He put his glasses back on his nose, took the paperweight from my hand, held it in front of his face, and stared. His forehead wrinkled, and he smiled. I had never seen the old man smile before. And his voice wavered as he spoke. “There’s a Venice in Florida, you answered her. You told her there’s a Venice, Florida. Pink flamingos for Florida. She laughed and said that Fed-Ex must’ve gotten confused.”
Mr. Snowdy handed the paperweight back to me. “Amazing…Pentecost!” he exclaimed. “Like a Holy Spirit injection in the brain! I remember it as if it had happened to me!”
He settled back down in his chair and looked up at me. “Odd,” he said in a calmer voice. “Something’s off. I remember it ending two different ways.”
“Me, too,” I said.
We went immediately for the pile of paperweights on the floor, handled each unique one. And even though I hadn’t owned any other paperweights besides the flamingo one, old memories flooded back just the same. The oldest, a paperweight with a suspended red carnation inside, showed a part of the summer I turned fifteen, the summer my father died. I sat in his car after my mother told me it would be mine. The rearview mirror had fallen from the windshield, so I tried to superglue it back. I held it against the glass for almost an hour to make sure it would stay. It did, but then I ripped it off and went inside. And yet again, something had changed. In addition to ripping the mirror off, I also saw myself leave it on and drive to the store for car wax.
“Why’d you pull it off?” Mr. Snowdy asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“How can it end two ways?”
“I don’t know.”
“Which ending is real?”
“I don’t know!” I yelled.
Mr. Snowdy put the paperweight back on the floor. “Looks like we’re both confused,” he said. That was until we picked up more memories. Like the one of the frantic mother from my old neighborhood in New Orleans’ Garden District. The paperweight itself had floating colored glass in the center—what could only be described as a multicolored pinecone, an oblong blue glob covered with spikes of red, yellow, and orange. I was about seventeen in this memory, had been sneaking a cigarette on the side of my house when she came up, asking if I’d seen her little boy playing in the neighborhood. I told her that I didn’t and went back to smoking. She continued going from house to house, and I felt like a complete bastard for not offering to help.
But the paperweight presented me with another possibility, an opposite. I now remembered putting out my cigarette and walking down the other end of the street. I found the boy up in a tree with his toy rifle. “I have to be very still and quiet,” he told me. “I’m a sniper.”
Maybe in the first memory, the boy wasn’t found. Maybe something bad had happened because I was the one meant to find him but failed. I thought back to gluing the mirror in my dad’s car. After I ripped it off, I went inside the house, threw the keys at my mother, and said that there was something wrong with her for pushing the car off on me so soon after his death. I had always wanted to apologize for that but lost my chance when she died seven years later. But when I went for the wax instead, I had enough time to calm down and did nothing I would regret.
Every paperweight gave memories like this, too many to explain. But each one showed me something I should have done, like marrying Anna before I had a chance to foul up my life for good.
Mr. Snowdy was the first to pick up the most important memory—held within concentric spheres of different colors, which fit into each other like Chinese boxes. He turned the paperweight on the palm of his hand and then looked at me with his mouth partially opened. “The robber,” he finally said, sweat dripping from his forehead. I took the memory in my hands and squeezed.
I walked down my apartment’s dark hallway with my dad’s old pistol in hand, just as I had remembered. I watched the robber—his jacket pockets stuffed with silverware—lower my VCR to the coffee table. When he stepped back, a thin strip of moonlight shined across his forehead. He slowly walked backwards towards the window and climbed out into the yard. I shot him in the back as he ran away, warranting my long incarceration.
“But the man broke into my home,” I had maintained in court. “So what if he was outside the apartment when I shot him?” I had felt threatened. I had nothing to be sorry for. That was until I went to prison. There, I met living, breathing men who didn’t deserve to take up space on this planet. The robber—Eddie Compass, I later learned—was a young father who needed to steal to support his children and his heroine addiction. But he could have had a chance to make things right. Who was I to bring death down on him? Of anything in my life, this was what I wanted to take back the most. That’s what the paperweight gave me: Eddie Compass living, the silverware catching the moonlight as he ran on through the night.
Mr. Snowdy and I finished every memory, two hundred and one in all, just before Curtis and Otti returned from work. We arranged them in chronological order on the desk and floor in my bedroom. Mr. Snowdy held the last two, one in each hand, while I made more room along the wall. It looked as if they were the only things maintaining his balance and keeping him from passing out on his back.
“My grandma used to tell me stories about what our shadows do while we sleep,” he said softly. “They slip away in the darkness and live their own lives at night. They drive shadow cars to work, and they go to shadow schools on shadow buses, everything you or I do. We taught them what they know about living, but they do it better because they’ve seen us make so many mistakes.”
He handed the last two paperweights over. First, the one of the robbery. And then the other, a crystal clear ball with nothing on the inside. The only memory it gave was of me taking the keys that morning—nothing more, nothing different. “Don’t tell those other two,” Mr. Snowdy said when he heard Curtis slam the mailbox at the end of the walk. “You don’t want them to know so much.” The old man looked completely worn out. Sweat soaked the hair around his ears and neck, and the bald spot at the top of his head shone more prominently. He kept trying to scratch the middle of his back and eventually had to settle for using the doorframe to the kitchen. “This old plug needs a woman,” Curtis said, catching him in the act. “Get any compliments on your tie, Cochise?” He handed Mr. Snowdy his rent money and sat down at the kitchen table across from Otti. “Food!” he yelled. “We need food!”
Mr. Snowdy usually ate in front of the television, but he joined the rest of us that day. We could expect Curtis to be relatively quiet at the table, but of course, he had to get one word in before eating. “Snot and tar,” he said. Then silence.
But I could hardly eat. What if all the memories were real, both versions? What if I didn’t just perceive them to be real? What if they just were? So how could I kill Eddie Compass and let him live? By spending the day absorbing these old and new memories, by getting reacquainted with an old life and finding an alternate one, I could hardly grasp one thing about myself. So I looked to the men around me, and it came. I could have been like any one of them. I could have been like Otti, who just wanted to be liked, or I could have been like Curtis, who survived off of being hated. But Mr. Snowdy was my end, beyond both hate and acceptance, which wallowed in the same regret I snorted in prison, the very same feeling that came with the gushing hole in Eddie’s back. At the dinner table, I felt good for the first time in years, good in that I seemed, in some way, to have lived a proper life after all.
Mr. Snowdy woke me from a deep, dreamless sleep at two in the morning to tell me of a dream he had had. He closed the door behind him, turned on the small desk lamp, and hovered over the glowing paperweights. “I dreamed that a cut on my hand had opened up, a cut just like yours,” he whispered, “and ivy vines grew out. Pretty soon, they covered my entire arm and then spread to the rest of my body. At first, I though I would smother, but things turned out fine.”
“What?” I said.
“I think we have to burn the box and smash all of these things,” he said.
“No. Why the hell would I do that?”
“They aren’t anything good.” Mr. Snowdy’s feet were bare, and a hole had been torn at the knee of his pajamas.
“How do you know?”
He picked up one of the paperweights, a solid yellow one that showed one of my first students, Sherry, a girl with dyslexia who cried almost daily. “Can’t you see?” he said. “I know as much as you do, and I can see.”
“See what?” I asked.
“That anybody can get a hold of them if they’re left here. It’s dangerous.”
“Get out of my room, you crazy old bastard.”
“Get out!” I yelled. And with that, Mr. Snowdy moved quickly and took me by the shoulders.
“They’re not safe. You have to break them. If someone else touches them, they won’t be just yours anymore. Do you see?”
“Get off!” I yelled. We struggled to the floor and rolled into the paperweights, which scattered in all directions like a billiard break. The old man’s head was soaked with sweat, and he smelled like wet cigarette butts. I found a bottle of lighter fluid and some matches in his robe pocket and threw them against the wall. The fluid sprinkled over my bed. Then my two housemates entered and pulled me off Mr. Snowdy. Otti helped him up while Curtis laughed. “I thought I was done with early morning rapes,” he said. The old man put the lighter fluid bottle on the desk, and the three of them went to their rooms. “The way I see it, your shadow gave you a gift,” he said before he closed my door. “But you don’t see how lucky you are. When you do, you’ll break them all.”
The house became quiet again, all but the low hum of the humidifier in Otti’s room. A little later, after I’d rearranged the paperweights, the crying, the same hushed sobs from the night before, started again. This time, we all knew who it was. I couldn’t get back to sleep, and I had already decided that the stain on the ceiling looked like a psychiatrist’s inkblot, something only the doctor himself can accurately identify. So I went to the paperweights and asked them flat out why they were there. Why tease me like that? Why make it feel so real? I threatened to smash them all to pieces if they didn’t show me. But nothing came. I sat back in bed and cursed the old man for getting to me, making me believe this whole shadow business. I began to think that maybe my shadow did take a hiatus while I was incarcerated and then lost track of me. In prison, you’re either under bright, annihilating lights or in a pitch-black cell, places where shadows can’t live.
Pretty soon afterwards, that thing cast upon my bedroom wall—the dark spot I had taken for granted, always assuming it looked like me—looked more like a poor forgery. I realized that murderers are men who have shamed their souls and sent them into exile.
Everything in Mr. Snowdy’s bedroom was the same tobacco-stained white, including the blanket he lay under, covered up to his neck. His pale-yellow face blended into a dingy pillow, and his gray hair seemed transparent. Only his swollen, red eyes stood out.
“What do you want?” he said, clearing his throat.
“You and I are the same,” I answered.
The old man sat up and reached for his glasses. “Right,” he said. “We both don’t have shadows.”
“That’s one way to put it,” I said. “And you’re too old to go finding yours. I know that.”
He smiled, blew on his lenses, and then wiped them with the sheet. “So now you know why you have to trash the paperweights?”
“I do,” I said. “Any of the men from this house would kill for what we have. They’d bash each other’s heads, anything they can do to remember another life, even a school teacher’s life.”
“Right!” he said excitedly. “Men like that don’t share.”
“I know,” I said. “I don’t think I would either.”
The old man looked at his wrinkled hands and rubbed over his knuckles. “I know I wouldn’t,” he said quietly.
“But I’m willing to share with you,” I reassured him. “Two sets of memories are too much for one man.”
“Thank you, Andrew,” he said. “You’re a good one.”
Our conversation ended there, and Mr. Snowdy handed me the keys to his Oldsmobile. “Remember not to fill it up all the way,” he said. I packed my bags, pocketed the clear, empty paperweight, locked my bedroom door, and placed a hammer outside his room. Then I got coffee to go and set out. Poughkeepsie seemed like a logical choice.
I keep the paperweight on the passenger seat and rub it from time to time. It’s not a crystal ball for looking into the future. Instead, it shows me what I am doing at that moment. I see myself massaging it while keeping my eyes on the road, and I know that I am going in the right direction. I don’t know who or what I’ll find when I get there, but for now, I’m convinced that I’m supposed to continue on. And if it turns out that nothing is at the end of the road, at least I can remember a better life and be happy with that.
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