Forget Magazine - Remember, Remember, Remember

The Lower Half
by Mary Conquest

The newspaper covered the facts, but missed the story. His story - or so I thought. On reflection, he gave up his rights the moment he touched the wrong wire. The newspaper picked up the story out of habit, but I am the only one who felt his exploring footsteps on my tar paper roof. Gentle footsteps - not like the barefoot dance of the girl who worshipped the final coming of the rains in that sweltering season. Not like the 'me, me, me!' footsteps of the punks that lived deep in my belly. His footsteps were gentle and only I remember this, so I suppose it is my story.

I had witnessed him all summer - felt him pace my upper floors in his rented compartment. I coddled him through his insomnia and shaking, cradled his body while he twisted to accommodate his shrunken stomach. I saw him through the come down; I gave him a view to something outside himself. All summer he continued to invite visitors. They climbed up rashly through my creaking guts to the fourth floor and made poor conversation while he got out the scales. They put money on the table and he left it there, only grabbing a bill when he left to seek nourishment.

I have always encouraged community among the suspicious. And by the time they come to me, they are all suspicious. My roof offers a landscape of tar paper and sunsets, electric wires and gritty pavement. From there the world is divided in half, and the lower half - faded brick and faded people framed in dirty windows - can only touch the upper half invisibly. A thin layer of smog and fear seeps into the clouds to disappear in the light above. It is from my roof that community develops, in the circular motion of joints passed from hand to hand, and in the cryptic conversations - each one endlessly sussing out the others for limits to their trust. I watch them all, noticing which ones scan the lower half of the view I offer, and which focus on the upper half.

That evening, two were looking at the upper half. One was the English girl who spent the summer taking showers and lying naked on my floor, praying for the rain. The other was him. He sat just outside the circle and needed to be reminded when the spliff came his way. As the circle broke, he got restless and the gentle footsteps began. I felt him jump the rickety fence of my terrace to the black shingles on the other side, where one step down and out of sight, people left pot plants to soak up the sky. I had supported his wanderings all summer, knowing it was never quite enough. It was only ever fifteen minutes before he stopped his pacing and left me, used me to push off on to the transformer box attached to the electric pole beside me. The box was big enough to support one crosslegged human, at the centre of a web supplying electronic life to everything that surrounded it. There he would watch the sunset, then slide gracefully back onto my roof, and climb inside me for another night.

That night, his grace failed him. A split second, a lover's quarrel with gravity, and his hands gripped the wrong two wires for safety. I watched him fall to the pavement at my doorway, hands singed and glasses broken. I felt everyone inside me run to the window, trampling my creaking floorboards, which the caretaker - who took no care - refused to replace. They scurried and shouted at first, hiding their drugs and alcohol, phoning 911 when they were safe. Then they stood still at their windows and in the street. I watched them watch him, as his broken body spilled red, which ran down the sidewalk into the next block. The firetrucks arrived first, hoses poised to wash away the blood, waiting for its source to be removed. Then the ambulances came and its workers scrambled - they put him in a metal suit, they placed their hands on his chest, they tried to bludgeon the life back into him. They gave out no information. Then they took him away.

When the steps inside me had settled, I had the whole family of suspicious community to comfort. I held them in their beds, I heard their phone conversations, and soaked their marijuana and nicotine into my walls. I listened to their Bob Marley, and watched them drink chocolate milk and rub their bellies. I did this instinctively, having soaked up the misery of generations on this tiny street. No one climbed to my roof that night to watch the stars. They slipped into the obscurity of dreams until the sun rose again.

The next day, up and down the street, people picked up newspapers. They skimmed over the story, noticed the ink that had rubbed off the page, cursed, and went to wash their hands.

Mary Conquest has almost completely given up sleep. So we hear.


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