Read Winners Online

Authors: Eric B. Martin

Winners

WINNERS

A Novel by Eric B. Martin

ebook ISBN: 978-1-59692-877-0

M P Publishing Limited

12 Strathallan Crescent
Douglas
Isle of Man
IM2 4NR
via United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 (0)1624 618672
email: [email protected]

Originally published by:

MacAdam/Cage
155 Sansome Street, Suite 550
San Francisco, CA 94104
www.macadamcage.com
Copyright © 2004 by Eric B. Martin
All rights reserved.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Martin, Eric, 1969–
      Winners / by Eric B. Martin.
          p. cm.
      ISBN 1-931561-92-3 (alk. paper)
      1. Title
      PS3563.A7236W56 2005
      813′.54—dc22
2004014852

Paperback Edition: February 2006
ISBN: 1-59692-161-7

Book and jacket design by Dorothy Carico Smith.

Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

for Meredith

WINNERS
A novel by Eric B. Martin

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

1

H
E WAKES QUICKLY
, reaching for her as the world collapses. The room is creaking in its wise, wooden joints, and the bed shivers and bucks beneath them. He holds her, wraps her small naked body in his arms like a soldier covering grenades. A jolt of consciousness rips through her as she awakes.

“What!” she blurts out, “what what?” She jerks upright, terrified, pushing his hands away. Her body coiled to fight and flee at once.

“It’s okay,” he says. He sits up and puts one hand against the wall, making sure that’s true. He touches her shoulder to calm her, he hopes.

“I thought,” she says. She pulls the blanket up to cover herself. “Someone’s in the house,” she whispers.

“No.” Shane listens. The apartment is absolutely still and quiet. Through the open windows, he hears nothing outside in the unusual warm night. No sirens, no footsteps, no barking or crying in their neighborhood of thin infants and chubby dogs. “An earthquake,” he says.

“Oh.” She lets out an enormous breath. “Jesus, you scared me to death. Feel my heart. It’s not a big one?”

“No. Just a little baby.”

“I always miss everything.” Her breath should be appalling but it’s not. She slides back down into the belly of the bed, nuzzles into his arms. He kisses her hair, her forehead, the corner of her eye. “An earthquake,” she whispers, taking his wrists and pressing his hands against her body. “How romantic. Are there songs? What time is it? I have to sleep.”

“I don’t know.”

“I was having five dreams at once.”

He rolls on top of her, holds his body up so she can barely feel his weight. She doesn’t move much, wrapping one limp arm over his back, humming with mild pleasure and fatigue. He doesn’t last long. It’s been a while. He lies back flat staring into blackness while she drapes her body across his side, breathing slow and deep.

“Five dreams,” he says. But she’s already gone. He wonders if she’ll remember. He lies there feeling her breathe and waiting for a sudden movement: a twitch of sleep, an earthly shiver, an aftershock. Shake, he thinks. Why not open your mouth and swallow us all up.

At 6:45 he’s in the van, headed for an unpromising address. The radio sings chipper rise and shine, a look at traffic and weather coming up, no mention of the quake. He’s driving through a no-man’s land between Hunter’s Point and China Basin and the Mission. The streets lose their names in here, split by old railroad tracks, confused by loading docks and staging areas and grimy fencing. A place subject to antique directions: turn right at the car wash, left at the broken camper van. Every year he visits one or two of these guys, oddballs dug into the last unregulated cracks of the city, with only a wood- or coal-burning stove for heat. They open a phone book (probably old and yellow and out of date). They find his father’s original ad (a quarter page, in green and black). There are other ads, but a particular kind of person sees this one and must respond. In the ad, for thirty years, a jolly looking man with broom and tall hat has been dancing atop the roofs of the hilly city. Green flames belch from a chorus line of chimneys behind him. These people take one look at jolly-man and call him up. They tell him where they live and ask if he can clean their chimney.

“Sure,” Shane tells them. “Seven o’clock all right with you.”

“In the morning?”

“I’ve got a slot.”

“Shit. You got an early-bird discount or something?”

“We’ll work something out.”

His dirty-chimney early bird lives in a land of trucks, an ugly, functional part of town that houses grunt support for the dazzling prime time city. Disposal, storage, delivery, repair. His wife never comes here: no restaurants, no stores, no meetings, no parties. No startups. This side of town still spits and bleeds, eats fast food, wolf whistles. But its time will come. China Basin, South of Market, Dogpatch, the east edge of the Mission—all these places were once garages and workshops and parts stores, peppered with broken windows and empty lots. Ruled by contractors, craftsmen, Mexicans, mechanics. Import. Export. In his not-so-distant youth those were true blank spaces off the map, where the winds puffed their cheeks and blew and big serpents floated nasty in the squiggly sea. Now every ugly-duckling inch of it has turned valuable, active, pending. Even in this neighborhood without a name, he looks around and wonders: how much longer will this go untouched?

The homey directions lead him to a sliding, chain-link gate in front of a concrete lot of motorcycle carcasses. To the north, one of the city’s great hills rises steeply into the morning light, although this is not an angle he’s paid attention to before. Potrero Hill. He stares at the slope of pastel rectangles, the barracks-style housing projects spaced up and down in little boy blue, princess pink, mint Disney green. Their surprising orange roofs set the hill on fire—orange, of all things, a brief morning dream of Spanish tile and Mediterranean show. He doesn’t know yet that Sam’s home is up there. He doesn’t know that he will be walking beneath those orange roofs tomorrow.

He shakes the gate gently. “Hello?”

A large dog rounds the corner briskly to investigate. The dog has rottweiler in him, shepherd, maybe a little Lab, some lethal combination that belongs behind a chain fence in a neighborhood without a name. It fixes a bead on him, accelerates, and smashes its muzzle against the fence, howling through large and fulvous teeth. He stands back and waits as the owner early bird appears, limping heavily.

“Shut up, Roach,” Early says. “That’s my doorbell.” He glances past Shane to the van: Ford Econoline 250, 1977. Shane’s dad bought it used in ’79. Old but the body’s good, very little rust, and there’s a new engine, transmission, seats, struts. Tires, bumper, paint. There have been many reasons and opportunities to buy something newer, but the van has history now and Shane understands it and has always liked its shape. It is, he believes, the kind of van everyone secretly hopes will arrive when they call a chimney sweep.

“D’you go to Washington?” Early says, suddenly.

“Yeah.” Shane tries to recognize him.

“The basketball player, right? My little brother was on the team,” Early explains. He says the name and a face leaps up from the past, a tall boy with bad skin picking his ear at the end of the bench.

“How’s he doing?”

“Ah, he’s alright,” Early says. He shrugs and opens the gate, content to leave it at that. The dog watches and waits, ready.

“Gonna tear me up?”

“Nah. Just let him sniff you, no problem.”

Shane holds still while the dog trots up and nudges its nose jauntily against his crotch, flipping his balls from side to side.

“That’s a lot of faith,” Shane says. “That he isn’t going to bite my dick off.”

“He don’t like dick. Roach never ate anyone I didn’t want him to.”

Inside, the warehouse is filled with motorcycle guts. Hoses, wiring, engines, handlebars, clutch plates, gas tanks, exhaust pipes. At the back a living area opens up, the makeshift plumbing exposed in clear tubing low along the walls. A wooden ladder climbs to a small makeshift sleeping loft. It’s how Shane imagines his brother Jimmy would like to live.

“You want some coffee?”

Shane shakes his head, eyeing the cast-iron stove that sits at the end of the room in the wide bowlegged stance of a pit bull. The L-shaped stovepipe plugs into an industrial-sized chimney that juts out from the wall. This was a factory once. Chances are, the chimney is original.

“So uh. How’d you end up doing this?”

“Family business.” Shane shrugs, smiles, lets Early know it seems a little strange to him too.

“Seem like a good gig, though. All those chimneys. Working for yourself, that’s the only way to go.”

“Definitely.”

Shane pops the pipe out of the wall, trying to work some grip into his hands and shake off that familiar morning weakness. Inside the dark hole, he can see the undersized bricks. Original, then: no one’s built with them since the twenties. Early stands too close behind him, peering over his shoulder. Most of Shane’s clients have never looked inside their chimney before. They don’t think of it as possible but once he shows them otherwise they can’t seem to get enough. They realize that’s where secrets live, in the trunk of the house, where you can count the rings and read history aloud. If you speak chimney. If you know what chimneys mean.

The brick is old but it looks good. Years of burning wood in here, dirtier than coal but less acidic, easier on brick. Big fires. Not a warehouse—something happened here, once upon a time, something needed to stay warm. Shane reaches in and touches the creosote, collected like coral in a thick double helix as far as he can see. He gives it a pinch. Rock candy.

“How long you been in this place.”

“A while.”

“Used to be a factory?”

“Got me.”

“Great space.”

“Yeah.”

“Is it yours?”

“Own it? Fuck.” Early shakes his shaggy head. “Just waiting for that knock on the door. Some dot-com dildo, you know: ‘What are you still doing here?’ I’ll just be like, ‘Yeah I know asshole—I been expecting you.’ Game over.” Early raises his eyebrows, turns his palms up to say, You know what I mean. Shane does, although his wife confuses things. Maybe we’ll be rich, she says. It’s happening to people like them, to companies like his wife’s. Across town, up the hill, she’s starting to stir right now, stretching her arms out wide, clinging to the bed like she’s climbing a cliff. Does she remember? Maybe she’ll remember suddenly, midmorning, at the office. Maybe she’ll come home early tonight.

“You feel that quake this morning?” Shane says. Even a five point could be good for him, a city of cracks, his own little boom. The chimney is a fault line.

“Nah. Was there?” His former teammate’s brother is stooping down to get a better look inside his filthy chimney. “Pretty bad in there, huh?”

“Hasn’t been cleaned in a long long time.”

“I tried to light a fire a couple days ago.”

Shane reaches up inside to crack off a tiny stalactite of creosote.

“Shit,” Early says.

“They call this third-degree buildup.” He can barely stand the sound of his own voice sometimes. What am I, a dental hygienist?

“Sounds expensive.”

“Not really. Just dangerous.” Shane gives the man an estimate, shaving a percentage off for old times’ sake. Early chews his substantial lip, as if he thought it might be free.

“That’s the deal, huh.”

“Washington special.” The cheap bastards. Burn the world down, see if I care. As he leaves to get his stuff, Shane can hear Early there behind him, reaching up into the chimney and scraping away with a knife.

***

He works two more jobs nearby and then drives back across town through what seems like an entire city at leisure: everyone strolling down the busy, commercial streets and packing the cafés and butchers and shoe stores. Shorts, cutoffs, tank tops. Shirts unbuttoned halfway down. Skirts, sandals. Brand new restaurants open their doors and windows to the outside air as the waiters set tables, rolling back their wrinkled sleeves. Record stores blare music to the curb and beef scents the streets from Mexican griddles everywhere. A beautiful day, bright and still. The cold summer has ended and the fall is beginning its old and simple trick, dismantling the fog and sharpening the edges of the sun to give them rare hot days and near warm nights. Earthquake weather. Days so nice that even the earth has to shimmy and shake.

He passes Mission Dolores park where the southwest slope is filling up like an amphitheater, the gay boys and a few straight stragglers stripping down and aligning themselves on blankets in the sun. Beneath them the center of the city on its sunken stage: the line of palm trees on Dolores Ave., the colonial palace of Mission High. The Catholic mission itself, the oldest building in the city, built in a once-idyllic plain of orchards and fields. The diagonal slash of Market Street disappearing into the towers of downtown. The bridge. The bay. The famous views are changing. The city is on steroids, swollen with people, cars, companies. Fairy-tale buildings have erupted overnight, pulled full grown through the ground by great cranes. Up close, the new people and their liquid money are pouring into every concrete crack, straightening and renovating, blistering up in glass and steel. There are new live/work spaces and office buildings and old Victorians scrubbed and powdered and coiffed. His city has never been a place of stasis, but in his more than thirty years he’s never seen anything else like this. No one has.

At the bottom of the hill Shane crosses an invisible column of sudden verdant cool, and then it’s warm again. The tennis courts across from Mission High are almost full. There are two basketball courts down there, too, one in front of the High School, one behind. He’s played on both of them with kids and drunks and decent players too, but only on the weekends. He happens to know the schedule for every regular outdoor basketball game in town, just as he happens to know that the best game in town during the week is at the Firehouse court. His court.

The feeling is always the same when he hits the next intersection and signals for the left up towards Market Street. His body knows. A tiny bird flaps its wings somewhere between his chest and throat. It is completely irresponsible of him to pass up jobs in his busiest season, September. The light stays red. He already feels the ball spinning in his hand. A wrinkled dollar bill quivers on the dash. He doesn’t care about money but he hates not doing his part. They made $1,000 a day for 100 days in ’89, his dad and him, a run like that would be something. A quake like that today and you could charge these new people triple, too, you had to, because it still meant nothing to them. $3,000, then. No basketball. What would she make of that? He wonders if she’s remembered yet and slips the cell phone off his belt.

Fourteen months ago, on the asphalt court they call the Firehouse, he broke his right foot playing basketball. One clean crack, base of the fifth metatarsal, known as a Jones fracture. Beware an injury with a proper name. After a month he sawed off his cast with a bread knife, ran the hills for a week, and hurried back to the Firehouse to break his foot again, immediately. Three months later he broke it a third time. Thus passed a lost long year on and off crutches—casted, prone, showering with a garbage bag tied around his lower leg. Long days in the house, softening and hopping, moping, acting like a pathetic jerk. He laid off the two guys he’d just hired, his first-ever employees after six years working alone. His business went on hold, his sex life turned to shit, his wife began to hate him, his brother Jimmy stopped talking to him, his mother called him every night and cried.

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