CCW Spring Contest, Winner, Fiction
Benji was a bad choice for the balcony game, because he was always falling. Avner, my Dad, would have said something about risky probabilities, if he had known. But it just kind of happened. And anyway, out of the three of them, I liked playing with Benji the most and it wasn't just because I was two years older and could boss him around.
As best as I can place it, this was during the time whenBenji started crouching. Even though at eight years old, he was closest to the ground, he walked around with slightly bent knees, as if surrendering to his next fall. Or bracing himself against it.
When we walked anywhere, Benji trailed behind us, the small ant that sometimes loses the scent. His short, thick legspicked their way over the slanting brick sidewalks that lined the Georgetown streets. I wasn't sure whether it was clumsiness, or dreaminess, but inevitably, we'd hear a dull thump and the low mewing: mama. He never cried loudly, because his mom, Dinah, always heard it, raising the alarm with a sharp, “oh!” Then her small body bustled back to retrieve him. You might think we would get jealous, but Dinah's attention was like sleeping with a thin blanket over your face.
When Benji fell, Sabrina, Hayden, and I would stop and huddle, watching from a distance as his round body flailed like an upturned turtle on the sidewalk. We waited for the signal toproceed, while my dad usually called back,
“Everything okay?” He was hoping he wouldn't be required to retrace his steps and offer his assistance. The three of us older kids either didn't care or were irritated, depending on the circumstances. If we were heading to the Metro and the museums to see the latest Alexander Calder exhibit, or worse, El Greco, we were happy to linger on the sidewalk, figuring it would cut down on the time spent in front of the paintings while Dinah went on about the “use of grays.” If we were going to the Biograph on M Street for one of the Agatha Christie's, we rolled our eyes and sighed. We were usually late already and Benji's fall would place us at the theater just in time to find out who'd “done it” and we'd have to wait through the next showing to find out how the crime had happened.
One Saturday in March, while Sabrina was busy reading The Catcher In The Rye for her ninth grade English class, andHayden was making tapes of old Rolling Stones albums with the new tape deck his father had sent him from Japan last Christmas, Benji and I were in the living room, plinking out weak chopsticks duets on the piano. I'd never really thought about the balcony—a wrought iron rectangle with gnarled railings, like old lady knuckles, dangling out in front of the French doors off the living room. We never opened the doors because either the heat or the air conditioning was always cranked. Most of the windows were painted shut anyway. But on this day I saw the skinny black skeleton key sticking out of the keyhole. I couldn't believe I'd never noticed it before. My fingers tingled as I reached out and touched the cool metal. I turned the key once, then half way around again before I felt a satisfying click. Benji stopped tinkling the keys, but remained silent.
“It's open,” I whispered. I could count on one hand the times we'd been outside in Georgetown without Dinah or my Dad. There was the time Dinah had lain in bed with her legs on a pillow, claiming she was going to cause a flood and sent the four of us to the corner store for some tampons. Or the time they sent us to the park in the middle of the day and when we came back, my Dad was sweeping up broken glass in the kitchen. He said it had been an ashtray and that Dinah had “blown off some steam.”
I looked over my shoulder towards the hallway to see if anyone was around, then turned the wobbly glass doorknob, pushing one of the French doors open. A warm spring breeze tickled my face, smelling of ivy and the earth between the bricks.
“I don't know if we're allowed,” Benji said.
“It's just the balcony.” I put one foot onto the metal grate and bounced. It moaned and shifted under my weight, but held. I stepped fully out onto the grating. A man and a lady walked by. I could see the dark roots of her hair.
“Let me try,” Benji pressed the small of my back from behind. I turned to look at him with my eyebrows raised.
“Stop pushing,” I said. “It might not hold both of us.” When I saw him blush I felt bad. Dinah was always bugging him about his weight and I didn't mean it like that.
“Okay look. I'll come back in, then you go out because you're smaller and it already held me. Then I'll come back out one foot at a time to see if it holds.”
Benji nodded and stepped back so I could reenter. When I did, he walked out on the balcony in his crouched stance, as ifwalking on something breakable. His pudgy fingers gripped the railing and made his hands turn white.
“Move over to the corner.” I pointed to the far corner of the balcony. It was only a few feet wide and twice that long. Benji shuffled over to the side, glancing back towards me as hegot further away. I could hear his thighs rub together as he moved. When we went to the beach in North Carolina every summer, he always got red rashes from all the salt and sand trapped between his thick legs when he walked. Avner tried to make him feel better by calling it “jock itch,” like it was a guy thing .
“Wait.” I said. “Don't get too far away. If it falls, I'll dive for the living room and you grab onto my waist or legs.” I imagined the Road Runner coyote falling off of a cliff, but grabbing onto a spiny shrub to stop his fall, then looking right at the camera as his grip slipped and he plummeted down the canyon. “Maybe you'd better grab onto my waist now.”
Benji's eyes got wide and I worried he might pee, eventhough he stopped doing that a few years ago.
“Just in case.”
After a few moments, standing like statues, with Benji's sweaty hands on my waist, I said, “I think we're good.”
Benji relaxed his grip and we both moved to the railing, still walking like we were on unsteady ground, to peer over. It wasn't that far, really. The balcony hung just over the front nine?”
There was a slender brick wall that divided our house from the neighbor's, an old retired lady named Mrs. Licherson. We didn't like her because she bribed our cats into her yard with real fish. She brought Blackie over one evening, tucked under her nappy wool sweater, during a rainstorm. When I had opened the door, she blinked the water out of her eyes and said,
“Your cat is out in the rain ,” as if we had got her wet on purpose. Then she pulled Blackie out from under her sweater and handed her to me. She wasn't wearing anything under her sweater—I know because I saw the folds of her stomach. I felt sick when I realized it was like touching her breasts.
Dad said she used to work for the CIA and that she spied on everybody from her windows. But then Dinah said that was just Avner's paranoia.
Everything about Licherson was off limits: her driveway, the wooden fence we shared in back which Dad said was our fence, but Licherson said was technically on her property so we couldn't climb up and sit on it like we used to. I think it was because we could see into her backyard that she didn't like it. She was a spy who couldn't stand to be spied on. And then there was the brick wall out in front. It looked like ours—it was attached to our house and came just under the far edge of the balcony. But you never knew. Licherson could probably find a way to claim it as hers too, and prevent us from using it.
Benji and I stood quietly for awhile. Then he said it, the same thing I had been thinking.
“I bet we could climb down to the wall from here.”
Our heads hung down over the railing, like rags laid out to dry.
“Three, maybe four feet,” I said.
From the corner of my eyes, I could see him nodding, hischin resting on his knuckles.
“You go first,” I said.
“Because I'm taller and can rescue you.” I crouched down and threaded my arms through the space between the railings and reached down towards the wall. “See, I have very long arms; I'm like a monkey.”
He looked at me with his eyes scrunched, then moved to the far corner of the balcony, just above the wall. I helped him get over the railing and then held onto his armpits while he slid his hands down the outside of the railing and groped for the wall with his right foot.
“Are you there?”
His face was twisted and red from the exertion. Then he smiled and suddenly dropped off the railing. I almost fell after him since my hands were tucked under his arms and I wasn't sure for a moment if he was falling or not. Then he stopped and spread his arms out wide.
“Yes!” I said, pumping my fist, then added. “You'd better sit so you don't fall.” My words set him off balance, as if I had given him a little shove. He spun his arms in small circles trying to right himself. I froze with one leg over the railing and watched while he crouched down low to catch himself. When he finally did, I let out a huge breath of air, not realizing I had been holding it. He plunked his butt down on the wall and gripped the edges of the bricks with his meaty paws.
It was pretty easy for me to climb down, since I was two years older. It was only scary when you had to let go of the railing and trust you could land squarely on the narrow wall. I sat next to him.
“Piece of cake,” I said, clapping him on the back.
“Yeah, right,” he said.
“If you're still scared, you can straddle the wall like this.” I moved one leg over the wall and let it dangle down into Licherson's space. I looked up at her windows, but they were covered in thick blinds. I looked quickly away. I always imagined she was staring back at me, like her blinds were one way mirrors.
“I'm not scared.” Benji said, but he shifted his leg over.
“Think we can get all the way down?” I asked.
He thought about it for awhile before saying, “Maybe on our stomachs?”
“Yeah.” I flipped over and eased myself down, feeling my shirt pull up as my body went down. “My shirt, my shirt's coming up!”
“Stop laughing!” But I was laughing too. “It's scraping me! Ow!” But it didn't hurt too bad. It was definitely worth it. When it got to the point when my shirt would come up over my nipples if I let myself down anymore, I found a bulgy brick to put my toe on and pushed away from the wall. I landed in our small courtyard.
“Yes!” Benji said, pumping his fist.
Then we had to get him down. He was shorter than me, but I directed his foot to a foot hold and caught him when he jumped. He fell into me and I fell backwards and landed on my butt, making a whoof sound.
“Sorry,” Benji said, climbing off of me.
“Do it again?”
“Yeah.” We let ourselves into the house quietly, with one of the keys that hung on identical macramé strands from each of our necks: part of our uniform at the N Street house. We scurried along the bricks in the front hallway, hoping my Dad wouldn't hear us from his study and ask what we were doing outside, and made our way up the stairs to the living room.
We became experts at going down the wall and letting ourselves back in. We must have done it about five times before deciding that we should try climbing up the wall and back onto the balcony. That was scarier because it meant climbing the brick wall like a rock climber, with hand and foot holds. I started Benji off by clasping my hands together and giving him a boost, but then I had to do the whole wall by myself. But climbing onto the balcony from below was actually easier, since you could see where you were going, so it all evened out in the end. When we got bored with that, we started to do it as fast aswe could, climbing up and climbing down, jumping and crawling, until we were panting. When we passed each other on the wall, we figured out how to grab each other's elbows, lean back, and rotate our feet around so we could switch places. People walking passed stared up at us, but no one stopped.
We were standing on the wall about to do the shuffle when I saw the van. I didn't think much about it, except that it didn't have any windows in the back, kind of like a delivery van, and it was parked right out in front of our house, a few feet into Licherson's driveway. Didn't they know about Licherson? I looked up towards her house, but the curtains were still.
The passenger window was open and when I was on the wall, I could see down into the van's front seats. There was a man in the front seat with a bald head. Something seemed funny about him and every time I passed the van on my climbing circuit, I stared into the window. The next time I dropped from the balcony onto the brick ledge, he said something.
I bent the top half of my body carefully down and towards the right, where the front of the van was, and poked my hip out to the left, for balance. My feet lined up one in front of the other, and they were about the same level as his window, but he was across the sidewalk. “What?” I asked.
“I'm trying to get to R Street.” He folded a paper that was on his lap and I realized it was a map. He looked up at me and smiled. His head and face were pink and shiny, like a pig. I thought there was something else on the man's lap, but when I tried to shift my eyes away from his, I got dizzy and I thought I would fall. My legs wobbled, and the wall seemed too skinny. How had I walked this before? The man stared into my eyes and I heard a voice in my head: keep looking at me, it said, just like that. That's when I knew, like when you're dreaming and you just know, that if I kept my eyes on his, I wouldn't fall. Like he was hypnotizing me. I thought of those glasses on the back of comics you can order for twenty five cents and a bunch of bubble gum wrappers, with swirly black circles on them that put everyone in your power.
Then I knew something else: I had to look in his lap; he wanted me to look in his lap. I darted my eyes down, quickly, and then back up. A pink snake. I remember thinking, what's a pig doing with a pink snake? I darted my eyes down again, then back up. His legs were bare. Avner wouldn't let us wear shorts for another two months, why was the man wearing shorts?
I heard Benji jump from the balcony onto the wall and shuffle over behind me. Then all at once I knew what was going on and felt really stupid for not realizing. There was a rushing sound in my head and my eyes felt funny. The wall got even skinnier; now it was a tightrope. With the ground far, far away. Benji and I and this pig-man and his snake up in the clouds, floating. Time slowed down and I wondered if I really was in a dream, the kind where I go to school in my nightgown and everybody starts laughing; or worse, the one where I'm naked at the playground. But wouldn't that be his dream? I thought about running away. I could almost smell the musty corduroy of the red living room chairs. But I'd have to wait for Benji, and he would slow me up. Then I knew— the man's not here for Benji.
He began stroking the snake. “Do you think you can help me out?” He stared up into my eyes. My cheeks and neck got hot. He's here for me. There was a strange tingle in my belly. Something carved itself out of the air in that moment. A place for me—a silhouette, or a shadow. Waiting.
I don't remember what snapped me out of it. It was like Sabrina was there, clapping her hands in my face, saying duh, wake up. I straightened my back out of its twist, put my hands on my hips and stared down at him. “R Street?” I asked.
“Uh…yeah, right. R Street.” He didn't stop his rubbing, but picked up his map with his free hand and rattled it like a maraca.
I tilted my head to the side, copying Ms. Topping when she's waiting for the right answer. Benji tugged on my shirt from behind.
“Let's go , Fanny,” he whispered.
My toes gripped the wall from inside my sneakers. “This is N Street, and that,” I said, pointing down the hill to downtown, “is M Street.” I paused for a few seconds. “You figure it out.”
He stopped rubbing himself and the smile faded from his mouth. His eyes got hard and my heart leaped. In my head another voice said: get out of here, now! I rotated my feet and bumped into Benji and I thought for sure we'd fall, but he grabbed onto my elbows and sunk into a deep crouch until he managed to right us.
“Go, go, go!” I said. I watched him haul his round body over the black twisted railing, imagining the man's hands reaching up for my ankle. I didn't turn around. It seemed like forever. When I finally pulled myself up, the blood pounded in my head. Just as I landed on the balcony grate, I saw that the curtains in Licherson's window had been pulled back. She stood square in the window, glaring down at the street. Her eyes were slits and her jaw bone stuck out on the sides. She scribbled something on a small notepad. I heard the screech of tires behind me. She turned to me with her gray eyes and I froze. Just before she threw the curtain back in place, one side of her mouth went up and I thought to myself, look, Lycherson's trying to smile.