by Tim Blaine
It was mid-morning when Vlad D’Agostino leaned over the railing along the quarterdeck of the Magnificent. He watched as the rest of the crew made their way down the pier and into the city. The sun had yet to burn through a dense fog that lingered, siphoning all warmth from the radiant glow. Rope shrouds stretched upward toward the masts and disappeared into the haze. Vlad raised a hand to rub his eyes. In his other hand he held a rigid object wrapped in a cloth. He stood listening to the city, but soon allowed the unsettled medley to drown in the steady surf that rocked the ship.
Placing the object on the handrail, he felt his heart beat faster, and his fingers trembled as he opened the cloth, exposing the devilish features of a red samurai mask. The captain had once told the crew that the fear of death was an appeal to adventure. The mask did not belong to Vlad, though he had been the last to wear it. He wondered if he might again look longingly at the notion of adventure.
The mask had belonged to a friend. Had it not, it would already have been consigned to the depths of the sea. It now belonged to a ghost. Vlad held it out over the water, slowly loosening his grip. A cool gale sprang up and tugged at the mask. Fumbling to secure it with both hands, he wrapped it back in the cloth and returned to the crew’s quarters below deck. He stowed the mask, hoisted his bag onto his shoulder, and made his way onto the pier.
Sights and sounds of drunkenness filled the streets of Manhattan’s Sixth Ward, though the wind sweeping in through the masts of the merchant ships that lined South Street smelled of death. An enduring yawn broke against the staggered heights of brick walls, once red, now tarnished by the squalor of the slums. Caught in the crowds of refugees marching between the endless market stands that hemmed in Mulberry Street, Vlad coughed incessantly into the sour air, choking on the lingering smell of decay that had chased his ship across the Atlantic.
He had managed to escape the place where every blade of grass rhymed with the last line of a tragic poem. For him, the narrative of his friend’s ruin would forever echo across Japan’s Tōkaidō Road. Having fled to Manhattan, he had returned to where he started as though circling back in time. He would have to return to the very beginning if he were to undo all of his afflictions. Knowing the past could not be undone, he needed to find another way to shape his life into something other than an elegy.
His grey eyes peered out from behind his dark, scraggly bangs. Unshaven and unkempt, he anticipated the glances that his restless appearance might attract, but the faces that surfaced quickly succumbed to the undertow that pulled them back into the crowd. They disappeared as erratically as they had emerged. He stayed in the current, a brood of probing eyes, cold-shoulders, and bad teeth, which gnawed at Vlad’s confidence of his own presence in that place.
Traffic stalled his pace, and he glanced down an alley, an ominous cave flooded with a bright haze that bounced around a group of children playing with barrels. A canopy of linens draped from clotheslines hung low over the passage of worn stones, a sloppy mural damp and soiled with the cheap liquor that spilled over the lower east side of Manhattan.
As the children disappeared into the luminous obscurity of sunlight and linens, an old man walked out onto a balcony near the mouth of the alley and froze, fixed in an empty gaze. Vlad noted the man’s stillness in contrast with the encumbered throng forcing its way down the street.
Stepping around a group of meanderers, he caught a glimpse of several determined-looking men strutting purposefully and eyeing each person they passed. The sight stole the air from his lungs. His heart pounded in his chest, and his skin grew hot as the men drew closer. From up on the balcony indifferent eyes looked down, unmoved by the advancing episode.
He gazed too long at the indifferent eyes above. The tallest of the antagonizing men, who approached on the street, threw his shoulder into Vlad’s as they passed one another. The blow spun him around, and he locked eyes with the tall man, who had stopped walking. He needed to exist, but the man’s glare appeared to argue against him. Vlad lowered his head, and turned to continue on without looking back. He focused painfully on the fermenting ground, as though one of the callous stones had recoiled against his chest.
His appearance was a provocation; he was sure of it. The English gangs disliked anyone who didn’t look, talk, or pray like them. At least his deep-landing eyes and aggressive features were enough to ensure he would not be mistaken for an Irishman. An Irishman would not have been let off so easily. He wondered if he would exchange the burden of not knowing his roots for the burden of being Irish in New York.
He would be the first to admit that D’Agostino was an unusual name for someone named Vlad. The Daughters of Charity were surely responsible, but he wasn’t going to go back to St. Louis to ask them. He promised himself he would never again set foot in Mullanphy Hospital.
Looking up, he peered into the recess between two buildings. The narrow alley ended abruptly with three boys huddled against a wall, swaddled in filth, their bare feet warmed by the foul air that rose from a steel grate. Pushing onward, trying to outstep the smell, he pulled a handkerchief from his coat and coughed bright red into the open cloth. After wiping his mouth with the handkerchief, he stuffed it back into his pocket, appalled at the confession he had coughed up against his will. Admitting death as a miserable certainty was only necessary if one were to grant it any thought.
Atop a building on the other side of the street, a naked boy stood silhouetted against the white glow that continued to bear down on the neighborhood. Below the boy, lofty iron balconies littered the brick facade of what Vlad discerned as a boarding house.
Inside, a long bench separated the clerk from the lobby. On the floor, beneath a window that muffled the perpetual hum of the street, a man wearing only one shoe lay limp, curled up in the corner. Vlad’s mouth was dry and he was beginning to perspire as he watched the man’s bare foot, looking for any sign of movement. He assured himself the man was sleeping, though he appeared as no more than a corpse.
“Can I help you?” asked the clerk.
“How much for a room?” asked Vlad, still looking at the man with one shoe.
“Seven cents a bunk,” replied the clerk.
“No,” said Vlad, looking up at the ceiling. “I want a room. One with a balcony.”
The clerk eyed Vlad for a moment, until his concern was understood, and Vlad removed a roll of cash from his coat. Upon seeing the cash, the clerk bent over and began rummaging through a drawer. He stood holding two keys, and after staring intently at one of them, he set it on the bench and tossed the other back in the drawer.
Upstairs, Vlad had to play with the key to open the door. The tenement was dilapidated and small, but clean. There was room for little more than the bed, a loose frame with missing spindles and slats that outstretched the mattress. A metal bucket sat atop a wooden stool beside the bed. Cracks in the plaster above the bed struck him as wounds, revealing narrow boards aligned like ribs within the wall. He set his bag on the floor by the bed, and pulled a wooden chair away from the door that led to the balcony.
He stepped through the door with the conviction of a sinking swimmer resurfacing for air, the first breath drawn from the same sky that might have hung over a thousand pleasant memories, or a thousand others. The fog over the shantytown had finally lifted, but the angle of indifference that he had hoped to find on his balcony opened up senselessly to a pale sky that watched in apathy, while he and a thousand memories drowned in the elixir of the slums. Whatever had inspired stillness for the old man with the empty gaze, it was not the balcony. Perhaps it was old age, but that was something he did not have time for. He began to wish he had pushed on in search of a more agreeable tenement.
Looking down the street, he could see the opening of the narrow alley where three boys had been left to rot in their filth. The smell came back to him. He felt his head spinning as he tried to push the smell from his mind, but he couldn’t separate it from the cool air choking his lungs. He pulled out his handkerchief and stumbled into the door. He didn’t remember closing it. His vision was failing as he fumbled for the doorknob. The bed was his only refuge, but he could not reach it, for the door from the balcony led only to another door, and after that another. It was a scene from a bad dream, over and over. By the time he managed the third door, it was too late to turn back, for all light had faded from his view. Racing his heart, he stumbled forward, reaching for the inevitable door that stood closed before him, but nothing remained. Falling deep into the darkness, the heavy weight of his consciousness outstripped him.
Category: Fiction, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing