White tigers with red stripes like peppermints prowl the tall grass in the vacant lot at the end of our block. The children sing to them. It keeps the tigers from escaping. But none of us are fooled. They will never be tame. So we let the children keep singing, even though our ears are sensitive.
The birds in our neighborhood are jealous of the clouds because they fly without effort and never need to search for food. The birds are thinking: "Why must we be all the time pecking and hoarding for the winter?" I can see it in their little black eyes.
The cracks in the sidewalk grow purple weeds. The homeless hold séances in the alley. They are trying to levitate the neighborhood. We can hear their cries at night and smell the things they are burning. We can hear the children cooing softly to the tigers. We can smell the weeds. On the roof are night birds who grumble at the sky, even though the clouds are invisible.
Old people don't open the fire hydrants in the summer anymore. We let the children do that, provided that they take turns cooling off so that there will always be at least one of them singing. We tell ourselves quiet lies to keep cool. We don't trust anyone anymore. We don't even trust our bodies.
The children have a game they play with scissors. It's sort of like tag, only bloodier. They chase around the gushing hydrant trying to cut each other's hair. My hair fell out years ago. I kept it and put it in a jar, but it disintegrated. My hair turned to dust in a jar.
I watch things from my window. It is on the fourth floor, where I live with the soul of my dead wife. Her name was Bereniece. Her soul doesn't have a name though. Souls don't have names. The things I watch mostly have names. Some of them don't. Like the children's game, that doesn't have a name. If something doesn't have a name, I could give it one. But I don't. I don't like naming things. It's not for me. I like describing things better.
The streets in our neighborhood are made out of drugs. If you lick them, you will get high. There are lots of people with brown tongues around here. But they are still good people inside. Even if they are out there licking the street to get high. We are all fragile until we die. The minute we die, we grow tough. Its easy then. Life is the hardest thing to trust.
It's nice to have neighbors, if they are friendly. Even if they are not, you can still watch them out the window.
Nobody remembers exactly how the tigers got there. "It used to be a different neighborhood," everybody says, although no one is clear on the dates.
Legend has it that when a tiger dies, the other tigers eat its skin then bury the bones in the grass. It's only a legend though. No one has seen a tiger die. Except for maybe the children. And they aren't talking.
The children grow older and older without visibly aging. Or else they are replaced by new children each year. It's hard to tell. I have been watching them a long time and it has become less and less clear all the while. I often find myself repeating things.
There is ivy on the side of my building. One year the super, a fat man named Bob, let it get out of control. It began to climb over my window, spreading like fingers on a hand trying to block out my view. I never opened my window in those days, so it was easy for ivy to grow right over. I called Bob. He promised he would fix it. Told me not to try getting out on the ledge. It was too high up and I would fall to my death. I told him okay but to hurry. I needed to be able to see out my window.
Bob didn't come for three days and when he did, he only took a look at the problem and said he'd need to come back with a very large ladder, it was too dangerous out there on the ledge without one. I asked him if he owned a ladder that tall. "I used to," he said, as if that were some kind of help. He said his cousin Bill might have one in storage somewhere. He said he would talk to Bill. "If he'll let me on his property," Bob said.
This wasn't providing me with much hope, but Bob said to hang in there. He would have the ivy off soon. I went mad for six days in my apartment. My skin began to blister and peel. Around my toes and my armpits. I thought I was rotting. Some kind of vitamin d deficiency, I figured. Or maybe a fungal infection. I don't know. I am not a doctor.
I had had enough waiting. I was resolved to fix the problem myself. Remove obtrusive vegetation and let the sunlight fill my apartment along with the sights and sounds of the neighborhood around me. I find that it is important to be aware of your surroundings. We are surrounded at all times.
I don't own garden shears or anything because I live in a studio apartment with no outdoor space. Besides, I was too old for gardening. This happened to be an emergency and therefore an exception. I took a Swiss Army knife out with me instead.
The ivy was like a green waterfall coming down over the window. My apartment was a secret cave. I managed to push the window open some, stretching the ivy just enough to slide my slender frame out the window and through the leafy cascade. My ankle got wrapped. The leather laces on my slipper were caught. I tried to free it but I can't bend like I used to and my balance was never impressive. I was trapped in the tangled growth, half my body still on the window sill and the other protruding from the ivy out onto the ledge four stories above the ground. I could hear the birds chirping on the roof above me. I could tell they were excited. I could hear the children down below me, singing. I could hear my wife's nameless soul inside the apartment, scolding me.
I tried to get my knife open. It was difficult. I didn't know whether I should use the scissors or the knife or the saw, so I tried to open them all. Besides, it was hard telling the tools apart with the knife closed so I was mostly just guessing anyway. It was frustrating. The tools were very hard to open. I was wobbling as I struggled with it. I almost fell. I dropped the knife, which open the way it was felt something akin to holding a porcupine. I grabbed the ivy and it peeled right off the window, only hanging onto the brick by a few tiny roots. The knife fell on a pigeon who was eating French fries off the sidewalk, pinning him to the mulchy interior of a tree well and killing him instantly. I had never killed an animal before. He died so I could see. I wanted to jump down on top of him, cover him up and hide him from the world. I knew that was not a healthy thought for me to have.
I sat down on my windowsill, covered in dirt with my ankle wrapped up in the ivy, and attempted to compose myself. I poked my head into the apartment and looked for Bereneice's soul. I couldn't see her. Maybe she had gone to get help. I imagined her out on the street, screaming. In tears. Begging the neighbors for help. But they wouldn't see her. They wouldn't hear. They would have to look up and see me for themselves.
I looked back outside. The neighborhood was still alive but had not noticed me. People were too concerned with licking the streets to notice danger in the sky.
A group of children had surrounded the dead bird. They were singing to it. I yelled down to them.
"Children!" I yelled. "Children! Please help me, I'm stuck! The ivy has me in its grasp!"
The children looked up at me in unison, as if going through a sacred motion in church. They stared at me, confused. They looked back down at the bird and then at me again. They were trying to make a connection.
"Please, help me!" I screamed. I had not yelled like that since before my wife had died. It felt good to yell. I felt alive too. I hadn't felt that way in at least as long. I told myself that if I lived through this, I would lick the street until it was a dirt road. "Children!" I yelled. "I am a nice old man! I have loved you for years from this window in which I am now stuck! Please come rescue me! I know you have scissors! I have watched you playing your game! I am sorry for what happened to that bird! I didn't mean him any harm! It was only a terrible mistake!"
The homeless began to join the children below me. I could smell the incense from four stories up. They had been trying to levitate the neighborhood again. I wished they would try to levitate me. Float me like a cloud.
"Homeless people!" I yelled. "Homeless people! Please help me! I know you practice dark magic! Levitate one of the children! The one with the scissors! Float a child up here with scissors so they can cut me free!"
"We cannot levitate a child for you! Give us the security password to your front door and we will all come up and rescue you! Children and homeless people together! Just trust us with your password!"
I had to think about this. It was a serious breach of security. Bob and my neighbors didn't want every child or homeless person coming into the building and I didn't want them coming to visit me with any regularity. I just wanted to be let back into my apartment so I could keep rotting and looking out the window with Bereneice's disapproving soul.
"I'm not sure if that's a good idea," I called down. "Maybe we could figure something else out. Like maybe you could levitate someone?"
"We cannot levitate anyone! Even if we could levitate the neighborhood, which we can't — Yet! — the levitation would include all of the streets and buildings as well so you wouldn't be any better off than you are now! In fact, if we did levitate the neighborhood it would be likely that nobody would notice! We'd just keep on living as if the neighborhood was on the ground! Give us your security code!"
"I trust you!"
I wasn't sure if I did, but I said it anyway. Sometimes the only thing left to do is trust someone.
Just then, I felt a beefy hand on my shoulder and the sound of scissors working around my tangled leg. Bob was pulling me inside. I felt like a puppet being taken off a shelf. I could hear the children and the homeless people cheering out the window. They cared about my safety. Despite what I had done to the bird. Most of the ivy had been torn off the window by my struggling and Bob's scissorwork. The light came in around torn, broken green fingers. I could see dust floating in the light like tiny clouds and was jealous. "Are you crazy, old man?" Bob asked me.
I performed a funeral service for the bird that evening.
First, I scooped him up and cleaned off the knife. He had been killed on the awl. And the corkscrew. The children and homeless people parted so I could meet my victim. Everyone stood in silence. I could hear the sound of singing in the distance, over by the vacant lot. Someone was singing to the tigers. Bird eyes look the same dead as alive, I thought. Just not moving so much. The bird looked in peace, except for the wound in his back. His little beak was part open. I could see a piece of French fry lodged in his throat.
The burial took place in a patch of dirt across from the vacant lot. I could hear the tigers rustling through the tall grass. The children were singing a lullaby. It made me very sleepy to hear. I wanted to crawl inside the tiny hole I had dug for the bird and cuddle it. Sleep inside the hole while the tigers prowled the ground above us and the children sang to keep them at bay.
I stayed away from the apartment that night. I walked the neighborhood for hours, talking to people. I licked several avenues and took part in a religious ceremony. I learned to sing. I lived out on the street among my neighbors. If the neighborhood was my home, then my apartment was only a drawer where I put things.
It only lasted that one evening though. Then I went back inside. I am old and my wife's poor soul would be worried about me. But things are better now. Now, I still spend my time by the window, but I leave it open mostly so they can hear me. I wave to people outside. And they wave back most of the time. It is the most exciting part of my day. To wave at someone and have them wave back makes me feel alive. There's nothing more fragile than being alive.
is a writer and visual artist from Baltimore, Maryland where he currently attends the Creative Writing & Publishing Arts MFA program at University of Baltimore. He worked as an Editorial Intern at Crazyhorse while an undergraduate at the College of Charleston. Read his blog about animals and other stuff at Underrated Animals
and his tiny stories on Twitter @BMORETIMMYREED