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May 19, 2017

“Don’t you ever wonder what she does with all of them bottles and cans?” The boy took a long sip of his Pepsi before he handed it to his friend. Mama said no caffeine after school, stick to the 7 UP, but he needed a buzz after being glued to his desk all day. He took the soda from his friend, drained it but for all of two swigs, as not to be rude. “I don’t know. Maybe she recycles them?”

He passed back the can, and the taller boy straightened up out of his slouch as he siphoned the last bit of sugar out of the can.  “Nah. She never takes anything to the bin. I only see her bring bags of cans in, never out. Ain’t stealing them either. That dumpster is locked. I checked.”  Archer had been living in the complex for two years, which made him an expert in Beau’s eyes, since he never lived in an apartment more than six months what with all of his parents moving from one shoe box to another, least that was how he felt, curled up on the sofa at night.

He missed his grandma, kinda wished he had somebody like #209 to spy on, maybe help her with her mail or cats or whatever. Used to go to his grandma’s every Friday so his parents could get away, although they never went anywhere special ‘cept maybe the levee to get high or maybe a buffet or matinee. He didn’t care, though, because Grandma made Fridays special: baking cookies, looking at old magazines, making collages out of them, and sometimes, they’d go to her next door neighbor’s house for lemonade and cookies. He’d help weed Mabel’s tiny garden while she and Grandma talked shop about refinishing furniture because believe it or not, she was handy like that, didn’t need Grandpa to help, although she wouldn’t have complained if he offered. He died in some war, couldn’t remember which one, would have to ask Grandma again, try to not look like an idiot and hurt her feelings because once again he forgot.

“Uh, Beau? Dude, you alright?”  Archer waved a hand in front of his eyes. Beau shook his head and rubbed the sweat of the can off on his jeans. “Aw, sorry man. Just thinking about what you said. She probably makes things out of the bottles, like rocket ships. The ones we made in fifth grade, remember?”

Archer laughed and jabbed him in the ribs. “That’s baby stuff, and ‘sides, she’s old. She don’t got time for that shit. She prolly needs them for money.”

Beau thought rockets were cool, but whatever. No need to argue with his thickheaded friend. “Uh, why don’t we just go ask if we can help her sometime, then we could see her house, maybe find a clue?”  He missed watching The Sherlock Holmes mysteries with Grams, too. Why did she have to up and move? God. What’s so great about stinking Florida?

“You’re brilliant! Yeah, let’s do it. Lemme think, she always has them on Fridays. Yeah, Fridays. Wanna ask her next time?”  Archer had tossed the empty Pepsi can in a trash bin on his stoop. Beau nodded. “For sure, that’d be dope. Well, gotta get home. Chores, you know.”

“On a Friday? No way, man. My parents get high, and I just watch whatever I want on TV. You sure you don’t wanna stay for dinner?”  Archer had stood up and started watering a plant. Beau wanted to laugh at his attempt to look productive in light of Beau’s responsible nature, but he also wanted to be a good friend.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t. Parents might ground me if I don’t do the housework. Maybe next time. Thanks, man.”  Beau bumped fists with Archer, then carefully ran down the steps. “See you sometime tomorrow.”

“Yeah, bro. I’ll let you know if #209 be doing anything sketch like.”

“Same here. Later.”  Beau walked off to the right, looped a left, then took another right past the magnolia bushes to his family’s apartment, which overlooked the dingy pool and manager’s office. He knew people by watching them get their mail, but it wasn’t really his thing to spy on his neighbors. He’d rather stay busy making stuff, or maybe cook something good to eat if his parents trusted him with such a task, and with their schedules, they usually wouldn’t turn down a home-cooked meal.

As he trudged up the steps to his apartment, he made sure to sweep the balcony and water the plants before he went in.  He then rubbed his shoes on the rug, and slipped them off, too. Once inside the living room, he would dust and vacuum, then sweep and mop the galley kitchen and save the bathroom for last.

It wasn’t long before his parents would be home, but only for an hour or so to get ready to go out, and of course, now that Grams had up and abandoned him, he would stay home alone until he was too tired to keep his eyes open, fiddling with a model robot or drawing of a spaceship at the coffee table, then putting it away in his drawer so his parents wouldn’t find it later.  Not that his parents would mind seeing it, but it just felt better to keep his creations and dreams under wraps, as if exposure to the outside world might cause all of his ambitions to shrivel up and die like a begonia in winter. Yeah, something like that was hard to articulate for a 12 year old boy, so he just stuck to his chores and kept the rest on the down low.

Today, though, he didn’t feel like staying inside to do chores. He did them, but as if he was a maid with an entire hallway of rooms to clean– a few hairs and scuff marks, some cobwebs to boot. Vacuum where you walk, but not around the baseboards. Just as he ran outside on the porch to hang his cleaning rags on the banister, he heard the swish swash of #209’s garbage bags coming around the corner. There she was! He took the bin overflowing with soda cans and newspapers from next to his mom’s spider plant, and ambled down the stairs, hoping he could time it so they would meet right where the sidewalk curved around his building, then jutted off into the mailboxes. “Excuse me, M’am. Do you need help carrying those to the bin? They look heavy.”

“Hmph! Young man, this is my exercise, but you know, I do have a few chores around the house that need tending. Can you change a light bulb? Dust?”

He smiled and nodded. “Yes. I do those things for my parents every week. I like cleaning.”

She hoisted her bag of cans over her shoulder, placed her free hand over her eyes like a visor, studying him like a cat might look at a vulture. “Really? Young man like you? Not into basketball? Hmm. Well, long as I’m not stealing away the help, come on. There’s some money in it for you. $10 sound alright for an hour’s work?”

Beau started to pop his hand over his mouth, but brushed it across his neck instead. His parents rarely paid him for chores, and usually only bought him stuff on his birthday. $10 plus a look at #209’s place? Archer would be so jealous…

“Yes, that’s more than enough. I’d take less…”

“In this economy? Psssh. No, you won’t. Come along, before it gets dark.”

Beau lagged some distance behind her as she jangled along the sidewalk, hoping Archer or none of the other kids in the complex would see him. Didn’t want it to get back that he was hanging out with a lady five times his age.

“What’s your name, boy? I know where you live, but what’s your name?”

“Uh, it’s Beau, M’am. Beau.”

“Ah, what a fine name. Sugar, you can call me Annie, short for Miss Anna Thompson. Lived in this complex for twenty five years. You like it here?”  She dropped the cans on her front stoop, then pushed them behind an overgrown fern with her foot. He could smell cinnamon and blueberries when she opened the door. She ushered him in, and pointed to a Tiffany reading lamp overlooking a recliner, then motioned towards a floor lamp with a pleated shade. “Those need new bulbs, but I have to get on a stool to reach them, and I don’t want to fall.”

He surveyed her living room, wondering where all the cans would even fit in such a small space. He almost thought to ask to use the bathroom, just so he could snoop around, but thought better of it. Guess the cans just end up on her porch to be hauled off for cash, just as he suspected. Damn Archer, making up shit, as usual.

“You like coffee cake? Want a seltzer? Same as soda, not so much sugar, though. Got to watch my sugars.” She handed him a box of bulbs and pointed to the stool, hidden under a toolbox. He thought of his grandmother, who kept her tools out in the garage where she sanded down old dressers until they were smooth as marble, then stained them in gold, maple and pine.

“I’ve never had coffee cake. Does it have coffee in it, though?” He moved the tool box carefully, then replaced the bulbs as she puttered around the kitchen. “No, people just like it with coffee. It’s sweet, crumbly, buttery. Real good with milk, too. In here on the counter if you change your mind.”  She popped around the corner as Beau was placing the stool back where he found it. “You can leave that toolbox where it is. Come with me. I’ll show you what needs to be dusted now.”

He followed her back into the apartment, through a narrow hallway, hooked a  sharp left into a room furnished with a rocking chair, a twin bed pushed up against the right wall, a dressing table, and rocket ships. Tons and tons of miniature rocket ships lined floor to ceiling shelves on every wall, the shelves arching around the bed as if it was a bench under a display in the Smithsonian. Rocket ships Andy Warhol would have died for, each one fashioned out of a coke can.

“These are my babies.” She waved her hand around the room. “Made them all since 2002, when Benny died. Had a terrible coke habit. One can a day, sometimes two if he went fishing or up to Nelson’s barber shop up on 43rd. You know that place? Ain’t nothing but a smoke shop now.”  Beau marveled at the red and silver rocket ships flashing in the afternoon light tumbling in through the mini blinds. He could see a fine layer of dust on the nose, frame and fins, and felt sorry for them, not so much for Annie. She was an artisan, just like his grandma. He felt a twinge of sadness, then guilt. What if Grandma found out he was helping this neighborhood eccentric? She’d be jealous.

As he walked up to the shelf on the north wall for a closer look, he brushed off his concerns. Nah, he thought. Grandma would be happy that he found someone to spend time with. Heck, she’d probably be best friends with Annie. Before he reached out to the rocket, he asked, “May I pick it up? How should I clean them?”

“Oh, of course! I got a few rags here. Don’t take much to polish them. Just can’t get to them all with my arthritis. Joyce says I should give it up, or try selling the things, but I can’t. I just can’t part with these damn ships. Benny always wanted to go to the moon, but he couldn’t. Not then. Weren’t no colored men allowed.”

He ran his fingers over the ribbon of the coke logo that swirled around the model as he polished it. A layer of dust covered the cloth, as if the rocket had coursed through the cosmos, not idled on the walls like noon day shadows of tree branches, squirrels…

“Careful, Son. I didn’t hammer down the edges on that one.”  She was folding laundry on the corner of the bed, smoothing out the creases in each blouse.

Beau wondered what it would be like to traverse the stars. “Your husband ever fly, then?” He flew once, when he was five, to New Mexico. Saw some petro glyphs there in Roswell. Area 51, with its extraterrestrial remains, alien skin dusting the FBI files. His cousin’s graduation from college. Was a big deal, medical school. He picked up another rocket, polished it. No two were alike, even though the cans were.

“He became a pilot in the seventies, after Marlon Green went to the Supreme Court just so he could fly a plane. Remember that name, Beau. It’s important to honor those kin who have paved the way before us. Benny flew for local airlines. Gone a lot, always brought me and the kids something– usually newspapers from one of the airport shops. He wanted us to know what was going on in the world.”

“Where are all of those?” He hadn’t seen any newspapers in the apartment. He imagined them in storage somewhere out in the desert, Annie unlocking the unit with her steady hand, her free hand holding a seltzer water. “Aw, honey, we had to throw them away. Those things attract silverfish like the dickens. Nah. Ain’t no good for nothing but reading and then kindle, ‘lest you gotta up and move.”

He had completed one shelf by now. “What about these cans? They don’t attract bugs? My mama won’t let me keep any cans around.” She sniffed, then started putting the clothes away in the closet. “I rinse these. Sterilize them with bleach, set them out to dry on the sun.”

“And the manager doesn’t get mad at you?” He had seen enough notices about keeping trash off of your porch to wallpaper his own bedroom. He kept polishing, ignoring the ache in his elbow and neck from looking up as he moved to the next launch pad of dusty cans.

“Shhh. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. I set them out of sight among the star jasmine, out there on the table. If he asks, I say, “Collecting them for the school. Raising money for the kids.” and he smiles, nods his head at me like I am some saint. Ha! Got him fooled. I’m just an old space case with my rocket ships. Never even flown myself. You almost finished that wall? My god, you’re quick.” She fluffed the pillow one last time, then wandered off into the kitchen. “You want something? Can’t eat this coffee cake by myself. I don’t drink soda. Bad for the teeth, but I do like my coffee.”

“Oh, that’s okay. I have to finish this job before dark, remember? I still have three walls left.” He rubbed at his neck, wiped the dust off on his pants, sneezed. He had a story to tell Archer, but he didn’t really want to give it up. Annie reminded him too much of his grandma, and he wouldn’t mind coming to help with chores all the time, but Archer would think he was a pussy if he did that. “I need to use the bathroom, though.”

“I’ll make you an au Lait. Mostly milk, a little coffee and sugar. That way, you aren’t too hyper before you go home for dinner. Don’t worry about all the shelves. I didn’t expect you to finish them all, but you gave me a head start, and for that, I’ll pay you like I said. Now mind the sink in the bathroom. It sings when you use it.”

Beau made his way into the bathroom, noting the crisp, sky blue towels that hung perfectly from the racks, the furry blue hat on the toilet seat, the paisley shower curtain, the chicken smell. Where was it coming from?

He peeked inside the tub, just to see if it was maybe the soap Annie used, stifled a moan by flushing the toilet. Chicken bones. Enough chicken bones to feed a pack of wild dogs. They were soaking in their own brine, creating a ring of fat around the tub. He almost puked, but held his breath and splashed water on his face in the basin, trying not to disturb a seashell soap as he did.

“Here. Try this Au Lait. I make my own now that Starbucks charges an arm and a leg for them. Make my own chicken stock, too. You like soup? I have some in the freezer I can send home with you. Good for cold season.”

Beau didn’t want to be rude, but he didn’t want the drink. Could’ve been made from grounds from last Tuesday for all he knew. “Gosh, it’s kinda late. Maybe I shouldn’t have any caffeine. No soup, either. My mom’s allergic to chicken.”

“Allergic? To chicken? I’ve never heard of such a thing. Well, take some anyways. You never know when a cold may strike, knock you off your feet. You kids, come into contact with all sorts of germs in school. I made my kids take broth with all of their meals, just to be safe.”

She reached for the freezer. Before she could open the door, Beau bent down as if to tie his shoe, afraid of what be lurking there. He heard her wrestling around, then the rustle of a paper bag, the clock chiming six o’clock. “It’s dinner time. You best be going. Here’s the stock, and your cash. Thanks for helping. Same time next week?”

Beau grabbed the bag, smiling weakly. “Yep. That works.” He let her walk him to the door, and ran out, ignoring the tinkle of bell on bone as he ran all the way to Archer’s house.


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