The Washing of Candor

I hadn’t tried to swallow it whole. I’d been sucking on the globe slowly. I was attracted to their translucence, Swedish jawbreakers in glass canisters shelved next to the electric coffee grinder and rows of ancient Alsacian tins stenciled with accordion players and Ach du lieber Augustine, and I hid away in one of the dark, floury, linoleum-curling corners of the pantry and choked when it lodged in my windpipe.

My grandmother had immigrated and come to settle in Andersonville, the Scandinavian quarter of the city. She lived in a third-floor apartment above a funeral chapel on a street called Winona that exited onto trestles and conjured up for me the name of a place forgotten. When it was time to go to bed, she bent me over her knee and washed my body with lukewarm water from the dual-tap sink.

She was always washing everything, mostly me, giving me baths sometimes five times a day, telling me I was dirty. While she soaped my body, beyond the window screens and swarming grit, the antennae tips of the distant downtown scrapers sent warning signals out to low-flying aircraft in the dieselburnt hour of eight past the meridian.

My mother would sometimes leave me there for weeks. I clenched her hand as we walked from the car to the building because it was inevitable that the u-men would come screeching out of an adjacent corridor and knock me down into the foaming gutter.

They called themselves u-men, but they were a cavort of world-whored boys, driven to sex or stealth by their poverty-stricken families. They’d come screeching out of an adjacent corridor along the passageway to my grandmother’s and run me down into the gutter foaming with toxic lather, the drainage from washing machines and sump-pumps, janitor’s buckets and surgical disinfection, antiseptic mixing laboratories and the factory around the corner that manufactured plastic plants for your living room or hotel atrium.

My skin hurt. Their families wouldn’t even think of giving them baths like my grandmother, and I wanted to be part of them.

Three floors up, the view from the forecourt porch gave a spytower vantage to the designs below. The only outlook that could couple my height was the twin apex of St. Bonaventure, steepling like dormant rockets left to rust, their purposes left unfulfilled. An ideal place for a hanging, I thought. A noosed neck set to spin and ring round the zenith would come to rest, head bowed, squeezed black. I imagined the damaged blood draining from the face and the clothes coming off in the way that leather rots and peels away, and then the falcons that had been released in the city to feed on the pigeons would pick at the body until a skeletal testament hung from the cross at the rooftip.

It was a time of spires. I aspired to what I observed down below. This was the only vantage point that could couple my height, and this is where Candor came to see me, in the forecourt, three floors down from the whitewashed utility balcony.
I was awake the night the u-men shot the wake director through the glass where he sat on display in the streetside office of the Nelson Funeral Chapel. We ain’t never gonna die, the u-men said, for kicks and for real, peeling off into the warm, gritswarm dusk.

After she pulled the drain and tugged off the lightswitch string, the foaming agents leaked away down the mildewed outlets that ran away to the gutters.

Her wartime shoes sat flaking in the corner of the ringtile floor. The black, rotary dial telephone, the one I couldn’t reach, hung on the wall outside the bathroom door, in case of an emergency.

The way leather rots and peels away.

Our play became a drama of shouting and throwing, because my mother and grandmother had set up a gate at the top of the stairs and said I wasn’t to go past it.

Candor told me he was a member of the u-men and that the wake director had been his father. He told me how it is when they beat you down into the dirt and pressure you to get beyond the things that bind, and you feel that you must, ironically, in order to be part of this world.

I learned later that my family was considered nudist. They also tended, unlike me, to avoid uncurtained windows. I met Candor while trampolining my naked body in front of the one in the bedroom to the left of the forecourt balcony. I did this when my grandmother, wrapped only in a coat, left to walk to Andersonville, to Clark Street, where there were lots of things to look at, she said. I preferred to be a display. Candor was shortcutting the forecourt when he saw first saw me and threw some rocks at the glass, propped slightly open to let in the air. “You’re supposed to wear clothes,” he screeched.

There was a starfish in that room, a gasping thing washed up on a pollution-combed beach from the peroxide suds of the sea and taken home to be hung up and dried. A reminder, perhaps, of something that happened there between my grandmother and someone else, a salty thing extinguished that brought back the tide into her quiet room. Helpless and exposed within its element turned toxic, helpless and exposed without it.

I was an exhibitionist at the age of ten. A model of the world. Or modeler? I paced up and down the length of the bed on all fours, like a panther. I felt like a museum piece behind that glass, one of the wind-up toys my grandmother had given me to play with that smelled like tarnish and snickered around the floor where the hardwood separated from the carpet.

Candor threw rocks at my naked body and they ricocheted off the glass. I went out onto the balcony and hurled a tin at him of some of the globes on which I’d choked. He put them down his pants, and jerked when the cold metal slid over the bellyskin below his navel.

Then he ran off into the corridor. The bells were pealing at the top of St. Bonaventure, marking the hour past the meridian.
The way leather rots and peels away.

They didn’t believe me that Candor existed. Even when we were screaming and throwing things at each other from balcony to forecourt, they didn’t bother to come out and see, and thought I was playing by myself. They wanted to believe that nothing would ever remove me from them, that nothing would ever touch me.

The removal of stains.

When I was alone, I played at voodoo in the starfish room, and Candor was my pinpricked dummy. I hated him because he seemed free and I was kept behind glass, because he did things I wanted to do but couldn’t; and because I couldn’t have those things at that very time and place, I hated him for having introduced to me the meaning of the words to wait.

The only times I was allowed outside was when I was arriving. Or leaving. Or when my grandmother would take me with her to Andersonville, to the Clark Street dimestore. And then, of course, I was never left alone. My grandmother wrapped herself and me in plastic slickers, to protect us from the elements, she said. Outside, the state of the neighborhood, my mother said, the place where she was brought up, the place where she let her declining mother live, posed a threat to the well-being of my body and mind.

One evening, in the Clark Street dimestore, I found a way to rid myself of both inside and out.

She promised to buy me one of those sweatshop toys that lies at the bottom of a fingerprint-oiled plexiglass tank and is deposited in a flap-door reservoir when a peltless, chinking claw pinches a styrofoamed leg and lifts it from the random heap. And so I agreed to go and descended the three flights forbidden to me and stepped out with her into the six o’clock rain.
Horizontal lengths of diamond-shaped noise approached us from behind and then passed away around corners we hadn’t yet reached or into the distant extensions of Ashland Avenue along our walk to Clark Street. Aside from the promise of mass-produced plush, I wanted to ride the flaking, chipped pony and reel around in the deprivation cabin, a soundless, dark box with crumbling sponge seats that spun you around until you weren’t sure which was up or down.

All of these pleasures for a dime a crack.

The way leather rots and peels away.

The way it flakes and cracks after years and years of treatment.

How the rain washed the pollution off the cars and buildings and into the ground but made it twice as hard to get anywhere, and how the hushing spray of engine coolant and antifreeze thrown up by tires sounded like an anonymous, rushing labor after days of being shut up in an isolated room.

The patternless tile ramping the dimestore floor was cracked and permanently dirty. The filth brought in from the bottom of street walking soles clung to the cleansing agents that settled and coagulated in the pits and grooves beyond the daily bleaching sweep of the mop.

We stepped inside out of the rain and my grandmother paused at the register to talk with the owner. I let go of her hand and moved away down the aisles out of sight when the conversation came around to the inevitable, insistent point where she told him that in order for the floor to come clean he only needed to scrub at it harder.

A transmission of voices from a wartime wireless announcement rebounding back to the earth from space interrupted for two minutes the broadcast coming from the short-wave radio in the far corner of the store. I moved away and out of sight down the aisles reeking of molded plastic and methylparaben in the direction of the amusements, and the sign affixed to the deprivation cabin read out of order.

The door was loosely, possibly re-taped shut. I thought nobody would think to look for me inside.

Butylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, parfum.

Without a sound, I peeled away the adhesive.

The way leather rots and peels away.

On opening the hatch of the cabin, a gothicly white, bruised leg recoiled from the store light sliverbanding the couch of disintegrating foam.

In order to get at the candy between his legs that he said he wouldn’t share, they had pinned him to the ground and stripped him of his pants. “I need to get out of here,” he said when he saw it was me.

I wrapped him in my rain slicker and let him go. Pinching biscuits laced with sorbitol and saccharin, he rushed down the aisles to the exit like an underage dancer fleeing the premises after a raid on an unlicensed club, and splashed away barefoot toward the southern myriad tributaries of Clark Street.

I stood there, naked, and didn’t understand why my grandmother got angry when everybody ceased to shop and fixed their eyes on me.

The next day he showed up in the forecourt wearing nothing but a belt and leash and said the u-men had led him around on it for an hour, making him run through the streets like a naked screaming cheetah.

The way leather rots and peels away.

A file of grey hoods moved down the adjacent corridor.

We stood there, facing each other, on opposite sides of the glass.

The u-men had taken the slicker from him, too, and they congregated in the forecourt under the rain, these boys who were supposed to be his brothers, pelting his body with scores of fistshocks through the ripping mud.

I stood there, watching him from the behind the glass.

And then there was the singular instant, when all the fighting hands seemed to rise in slow unison and Candor, lubricated and shining, glycerated out from under their reach and took hold of the railings that rose in succession to the third-floor forecourt balcony.

I locked on to the glance of his bloody eyes as he climbed, and that’s when he dropped the leash.

The platform of the third-floor balcony sanded his grabbing hands as they pulled him free, and as he let go it seemed to me that he didn’t fall right away before redescending to the dirt.

A file of grey hoods moved away down the adjacent corridor.

His lungs lapsed into a pattern of unconscious breath and his mouth sucked at the mud where he lay as the earthen rain drained the color from his body and the droplets seethed away to where the debris-choked water collects.

I screamed out to my grandmother but she didn’t want to hear.

She washed me that night, gently soaping my armpits and the area between my buttocks, almost too gently. And then she took me firmly by the forearm and below the knee and lowered me onto the floor for better leverage and began scrubbing my body. I was extra dirty, she said, for having done what I had that afternoon.

Car tires skidded and pealed away through a red light.

The way leather rots and peels away.

Mercifully, the black rotary dial telephone on the wall rang as if out of a chasm.

“Our external connection is being cut off for the moment,” she said when she’d returned. “On account of the incessant rain.”
How would we get help if something were to go awry here? she said.

Silently, I thanked the person who’d sent the rain, for the two minutes he’d granted me of bristleless pulsing peace.

She asked me what I’d like to eat for dinner. I salivated at the thought of soups of vitriol to disinfect my insides, of fermented refuse in kiln-fired bowls. How cornflakes on the table didn’t seem right when my grandmother had just refrained from stripping me raw with a backbrush, leaving me red and scoured like a cosmetic surgery patient in the aftermath of a phenol peel.

She set me in the tub, turning on the shower to let me rinse, and went to set the table.

When she’d gone, I picked the chained plug out of the soapdish and inserted it in the drain.

The water rose around my waist, then my shoulders, then my neck.

When I came to, I was lying among plates of smashed wet plaster, gleaming by the light of streetlamps shining before me through a pane of bulletholed glass.

I smashed the window with his father’s nameplate and ran off down the street while the shards mixed with the rain and sprinkled onto the pavement.

In every cellar and laundromat in Andersonville, there was a machine out of order.

Within hours, Candor had created a citadel of hideaways, taping signs of malfunction and disrepair to the heavy capacity industrial washers.

And then I spied him and traced his course with my eyes as one does a moving target suddenly come out of hiding. I saw his translucent legs and back streaking down Ashland Avenue through the black, tar-laden rain, and I followed him.

In a basement not far from Winona Street, we climbed together into one of his decommissioned machines. He offered me half of what he had, something made of aspartame he’d nicked during his flight from a shop stand left out in the rain.

We stayed in there together for a day. As with the deprivation cabin, they didn’t think to look for the missing adhesive.

A repairman was quoted in the newspaper on his seventy-third visit to fix an Andersonville washer. “The machines all appear to be running smoothly. The disorder we’re being confronted with seems to be coming from somewhere else.”

We ran through the neighborhoods. We sought refuge in our system of hideaways. We didn’t wear clothes. The menthol rainbath cooled my skin.

A week later, I called my grandmother. “Your external connection is being cut off for the moment,” I said when she answered, “on account of the incessant rain.” Then I hung up the phone.

It helped the burning stop, even if only for a minute.

A ten-year-old girl looks down from a third-floor window and yells for her mother when she sees me streak through the building’s silent yard.

Bulletproof windows are installed in the streetside office of the Nelson Funeral Chapel.

Her mother doesn’t believe her when she tells her what she’s seen.

Candor in the forecourt and down the balconies.

“Yes, dear, come away from the glass. It’s time to wash,” she says.

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