Roger was in the kitchen, on the phone with his ex, when I found it. A singed cutout of my mother as she’d been as a child. She wore bright yellow floaties but clung to the ledge of the pool, squinting into the light of some unseen sun with a great gap-toothed grin splayed over her face. The picture emerged from a pile of shattered glass and blackened wood, below the empty spot where the giant collage I had made used to hang on our living room wall. I picked it up and rubbed the ashes off her face until her cheeks were clean and rosy and her eyes again sparkled like tiny sapphires.
She had been beautiful, my mother, with strawberry blonde hair and a cute little upturned nose like a fairy. When I heard Roger hang up, I wiped the seed of a tear from my eye and tucked the photo into my wallet before turning to face him.
“You ready to take the bed?” he asked, then waved his phone vaguely. “I got to go get some diapers.”
Roger stood in the narrow doorway that connected the two rooms, the charred, brittle wallpaper peeling in long strips on either side of him. He had wide nostrils, eyes like flint, and a faint pink scar above his left eyebrow from where a pit bull had bit him in fifth grade. We hadn’t talked much since I left town, but he still took the day off work to help me do this.
“Yeah,” I said, pulling my gloves back on. “I’ll grab the front.”
We hauled the half-burnt mattress out of my mom’s torched apartment and onto Houston Street, into the aftermath of the worst snowstorm Washington County had seen in twelve years. It hit all of Pennsylvania and stretched into New York, making the long bus ride from the city even more miserable and the usually short trip from Pittsburgh to Washington last well over an hour. Even the viewing—in which my mother’s twice-baked ashes were displayed in a glossy burgundy urn beside a picture I hated, a picture of her too thin—dragged on and on because the heater in the little Baptist church broke halfway through the service. We could all see our breath in the pews as frosty webs stretched across the brightly stained glass and I had wished, to my shame, that I could simply sit down and paint it.
We dumped the couch next to the pile of garbage and other furniture, useless and beyond repair, among which were a few of my early originals heaped together with old toys and similar memorabilia—a stuffed dog I used to sleep with reduced to patches of black fur; three-fourths of a watercolor that now looked like a roiling sea of melted crayons; a glass rose that had fallen and cracked—things someone else might have mummified and kept but that I could no longer bear to look at. I turned instead to the scene before me, at once familiar yet so utterly foreign.
The street had been plowed and plowed again, creating a gaping black tear in the blanket of white that covered all. Most yards were mountains of snow tall enough to lose a child in. Long, slender icicles dripping from window ledges and powdery heaps overhanging gutters made many of the browning, rundown homes look strangely beautiful, like gingerbread houses without the gumdrops.
Roger’s little brother and his friends had built an igloo in the arctic remains of the Advanced Auto parking lot, the same way we had when we were younger, and hurled snowballs packed with ice at each other’s faces. Up the block, old Mr. Chuck shoveled the sidewalk in front of his house. The sound of scraping steel became a rhythmic whisper beneath the children’s laughter as we walked.
Roger cursed the cold, the Newport in his mouth flopping up and down like a metronome as he spoke, its smoldering cherry sucking all light from the grey day. He zipped his jacket up to his chin and shoved his cracked, black hands back into its deep pockets.
“Winter this bad up there?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, thinking of how I’d had to cancel my Basic Drawing class at Cooper Union even before I got the call because of this same blizzard. I kept my eyes down for the wind and watched wet spots cluster around the toes of my Timberlands. “Worse.”
We walked past Roger’s house and across Hannah Street to the guttered alley, its butchered cobblestone only just visible through the crisscrossed tire tracks beneath our boots. I could tell by the patterns where cars had slid on ice, or where some truck with huge chained tires had bullied its way through. Two fat, crusted mounds banked either side of the path, plowed up against abandoned brick buildings tagged with graffiti and indecipherable stains.
“When they fixing your car?” I asked.
“Soon as I get my income tax,” Roger said, shrugging. “No more waiting on my moms. No more Kayla’s fucking mouth.”
I had offered him my mom’s old Honda, the same one he picked me up in and for which I had no use, but he refused. Felt weird enough driving it to the Greyhound, he claimed, but I could tell it was a point of pride.
We came out on Harding Avenue, right in front of the green-railed bridge that curved over the creek in a little frown. When I was a child, I had imagined it as a monster, a sour old mouth snacking on children that tried to pass along the frozen muddy banks beneath it. Roger and Derek even buried me down there once, with stolen shovels, in a hole they dug up to my chest before someone caught us. When my mother asked what I was thinking I told her nothing, and then she said why must all men break my heart?
On the right side of the bridge, a small hill led up to the plaza that held the Unimart, Coin Laundry, Jackson-Hewitt, and Uncle Henry’s Fish Fry. Film-streaked cars lined the street, buried up to their door handles. Those who still had to go to work that morning had churned the snow black with their tires, revealing the dented beer cans, half-smoked Black & Mild’s, and discarded candy wrappers it had hidden. To our left though, across the bridge, Dead Man’s Hill stretched up toward the frosted houses on East Prospect Street, its giant, barren slope bleach white and unrelenting.
We used to sled down it when we were little, diving off our trashcan lids before plunging into the jagger-bushes and cattails that guarded the creek like old spears. I remembered us placing socks over our hands when we didn’t have gloves, which was better than nothing but still shit for packing snowballs. You could make them round and hard, but the wetness soaked through the thin cloth and left your hands red and stinging. Around that time I first started painting, when I realized colors could show how things hurt in the midst of happy.
We turned towards the plaza and saw a man in a puffy black bubble jacket standing outside the Unimart. He wore dark denim jeans, old boots, and a black beanie. His skin was like onyx. When he saw us, a pearly, crocodile grin spread across his naked face.
“This nigga,” Roger said.
He flicked his cigarette into the dirty snow and I realized it was Derek. He looked different without a beard. At first, my heart did that thing where it traps your breath between your skin and your throat. Then my hands curled to fists inside my pockets.
As we trudged through the parking lot, an old, haggard white guy in a heavy field coat approached him. They made an exchange. The man pocketed his drugs, turned left, and walked down the sidewalk towards the far end of the plaza, where a narrow passage led back to a huddle of dumpsters. I watched the fog of his breath plume over his head and fade as he turned the corner.
“When’d you get out?” Roger asked, dapping Derek up.
“Monday,” Derek said. His grin flattened into a thin black line when he met my eyes. “What up, James.”
“Shit,” I said.
I looked off towards the corner where the old man had turned. The last light above the old Coin Laundry flickered off and on like it had Tourette’s. It illuminated the snow in staccato flashes of stale yellow before finally sputtering out and giving way to the grey all around, neither light nor dark nor both.
“Ain’t it cold outside to be working?” Roger asked.
Derek snorted and hawked a thick wad of green phlegm into the snow. He looked at it for a moment, then ground it down with his toe.
“They out here.”
I grunted. Still the same old Derek, I thought, doing the same old stupid motherfucking shit. I saw the glint of the gold rope around his neck and I wanted to choke him with it.
“Yeah, well,” Roger said. “I got to grab these diapers, dog.”
“Bubba did tell me you had a baby,” Derek nodded. “Congratulations.”
Roger opened the Unimart door and a rusty brass bell announced our presence. Heat rushed over my body from the ceiling, and I looked up to find dust bunnies clinging to the vents, waving wildly. We snaked through the snack-filled aisles, boots dripping on the speckled linoleum. Roger stopped in front of a big green box of Pampers and frowned.
“Forty-five fucking dollars,” he said, unfolding to count crinkled bills while shaking his head. I grabbed a bottle of blue juice out of a steel-framed cooler. We used to get them two for a dollar in the heat of summer and post up on the bridge to talk cartoons, watching the older dudes drink forties on Bubba’s porch. Sometimes, if we drank them quickly, Derek would run over and get a few dollars so we could get some more.
“You want a drink?” I asked.
Roger said no, then looked at me the way he looked at my painting the first time I showed it to him: head cocked, eyes squinted, and lips slightly apart.
“You good?” he asked.
I shifted my gaze and caught my reflection in the refrigerator door. Mom used to say I clenched my jaw when I was angry, that when I was sad my eyes drooped like wet leaves.
“I’m good,” I said, thinking about her picture in my wallet—how happy that little girl had looked, and how free. For some reason, I decided right then that of all the salvage I would keep this alone.
Five years ago, about a week before my senior year of high school, Derek stabbed me in the ribs with a screwdriver behind the dumpsters out back of the plaza. The garbage stank like rotten milk and fish oil. Hundreds of fat black flies buzzed around, making maggots inside of a dead cat up the alley.
Derek had found the tool buried beneath some scrap on the side of the green dumpster I’d just banged his head off of, dropped him down beside like a bag of trash that would not fit. He came up with it like a knife, jabbed it into my flesh and fractured my fifth rib. It was a thin, grimy Phillips head that went four centimeters deep. I felt like a stack of papers being stapled by one of those big, industrial guns.
Derek’s face was swollen and bloody, but his crocodile grin came out miraculously unscathed. He watched me draw red fingers from my side and I think he expected me to fall or scream or run away. But I had told him to stop selling drugs to my mom. I had told him I would beat him to death, swear-to-god, and when I saw him walking down Houston Street I just knew he had come from my house.
It was only the fact that the cops came that saved us. Roger’s mom had seen me chase him into the alley and called them, told me later I’d had murder in my eyes. When they tased me I had been kicking Derek in the dick, unresponsive to their calls to stop. I only found out at the police station that he’d been unconscious.
Derek refused to press charges, so I got away with a misdemeanor and community service. But he had been carrying a half-ounce of heroin bagged up individually for distribution. They hit him with intent to deliver. Fuck the fact that he was seventeen with no priors, they sent him upstate. I had wanted to rip every single perfect tooth from Derek’s mouth, make him swallow them, but even I knew that that was some bullshit.
On the day Derek was sentenced to prison, I found out I got accepted into New York University. The admissions director for studio art thought my painting of kids sledding down Dead Man’s Hill was a “sad joy fraught with dark beauty.” I couldn’t even show the letter to my mom because she was smacked so far out of her mind that she had passed out with the stove on again. That day, at least, I came home in time to save her.
Roger hefted the box of diapers under his arm like a bundle of lumber, and we got in line behind an older white man in a trucker hat who was playing the lottery. I glanced through the door and watched Derek make another sale. This time to a young black chick who was pregnant.
I laid a fifty-dollar bill on Roger’s diapers and sat my juice on top of it. He sucked his teeth.
“You don’t got to take the car,” I said. “But this a Christmas present for my niece.”
Roger had eyes that seldom lit up, but when they did you got to see the little boy that used to live there. Still, he looked conflicted, like he felt guilty for accepting the money.
“Thanks,” he said at last, through a sigh that deflated his chest. He slid the fifty off the box and into his front pocket. I looked at Derek through the glass.
“I’ma go talk to this nigga, man.”
The bell shivered above me as I stepped into the grey cold. I approached Derek on the curb, pocketing my hands to avoid the sharp-toothed wind, hiding them from even myself. He glanced at me over his shoulder and sniffled, then went back to watching the cars inch by like metal slugs. We stood without speaking for a moment, soaking in the banshee howl as the wind rattled the loose aluminum street sign reading East Maiden against a splintered, carob telephone pole up the block.
“Why ain’t you snitch on me?” I asked.
Derek laughed. He looked at me, shook his head, and shrugged.
“You ain’t snitch neither.”
The police had threatened to bump my misdemeanor up to a felony unless I pressed charges against Derek for aggravated assault, so they could lock him up for longer, but I could not. My mom got the local chapter of the NAACP involved and they left me alone. She could do that, when most needed—snap out of her stupor and come fix all my shit like at school or with cops. It used to make me so mad. It felt like when there wasn’t a problem she had permission to shoot up, fuck my friends, and forget all about me.
“I heard about your mom,” Derek said. “Sorry.”
The bell rang. Roger stepped out and handed me the bag with my juice, eyeing me, then Derek, suspiciously. He lit another cigarette, clutching the box of diapers to his rib with his elbow and guarding the flame of his tarnished gold lighter with his other hand.
“Y’all kiss?” he asked.
We all three stood there for a moment, a blip really, laughing like the snow couldn’t stick. Derek cracked an old joke about Roger’s forehead, and it was all like it had been in the summer, when we were shirtless and muddy and jumped white boys for saying colored. But it was not summer, it was cold outside, and I still had to trash all the stuff in the basement.
“Be safe,” I told Derek before we left.
We walked back towards Roger’s house into a fresh gust of swirling snowflakes, and as we passed the bridge that led up to Prospect I saw a little white girl with the brightest blue eyes at the top of Dead Man’s Hill, tossing handfuls of snow in the air and trying to catch it on her outstretched tongue. She giggled and looked right at me, but was too far away to hear me tell her to put a coat on, that this is not the type of weather for swimming.
David Wade is a fiction writer from Washington, PA interested in rustbelt literature, hip hop, and speculative fiction. He is an MFA candidate at the University of Michigan, and can sometimes be found online @davidwadetv.