Xavi had been suggesting I get what she called a pied-a-terre for years. A foot on the ground, as she described it. She pronounced pied-a-terre in her own way that rhymed with the word predator. According to the computer, it was pronounced peter-tare. Whether ped-a-tor or peter-tare, she said it enough that I knew what she meant. I should live off the boat when in Aoustin, she told me. I should make a home of a sort in Aoustin. Reestablish my roots there.
“Marvin wants to live on his own,” Xavi said. “Rent with him. You can have your feet on the shore and free Marvin from being confined to a cheap bento with five other dock monkeys.”
“If Marvin wants to live on his own,” I asked. “Why would he share a place with me? It would not be living alone if we rented together.”
“On his own is… is not at his family’s,” Xavi said. “His parents try their best to populate this planet. Compare to that…, a bento with five other dock monkeys is lonely.” Marvin’s parents had been prolific. He had thirteen brothers and sisters, and they all lived crammed in that house too small for a family half that size. “And with your being on the river a month at a time,” Xavi added, “it would be living alone most days.”
“So, you will?” Xavi asked.
“I agree,” I said. “Living with me would be solitude compared to Marvin’s life now. I haven’t agreed to a peter-tare.”
“I have a friend. A place emptied next to her bento. It’s near the college. You’d be amongst coevals. You can stay up into the Third Shift and speak of philosophy and history and drink beer.” Her words were prescient, especially the part about staying awake into the Third Watch.
“I don’t know if Marvin would want to rent with me.”
“He will,” Xavi said. “I asked.”
A block from the college, two buildings remained of a row of bentos that once filled that block. The buildings, narrow and tall, leaned against each other like two unsteady drunks, facing Broadway. The pied-a-terre that Xavi found was the fourth floor of one building. The other building had only three stories. The apartment she told me of was the penthouse, the whole floor. It had both a gray room and a black room, a luxury for the fourth floor.
The first floor looked abandoned. All its windows and doors on the ground floor had been boarded up many years before.
“We go through the back,” Marvin said.
I walked to the board that covered the front door and pulled. It opened a little, enough to see in the dimness inside. I could discern that the stairway that ran through the center of the building had rotted and collapsed long ago into a pile on the floor. The heavy smell of mold wafted out the opening I made.
We walked around to the back. Behind the unkempt bentos, a large square surrounded by warehouses opened up. Old foundations of long-gone buildings broke up the ground in that open space and made it uneven. On the far side, a gap between warehouses allowed people to use the square as a short cut from Creek Road to Broadway. I had scooted through that space many times.
The back of the building had a stairwell tacked on to allow access to each floor. As Marvin and I climbed the stairs, the whole structure shook and felt as it would come loose from the building. On each landing had been piled the relics of past tenants of the building. Their unwanted or unneeded belongings had been collected there and allowed to soak in the rain and slowly decompose.
Books that had once been valuable now decayed in stacks on the second-floor landing. I picked up a book off the top and found its pages fused together.
We got to the fourth floor and the penthouse. Inside it had no walls except for one side where both the gray water and black water rooms were. The windows on one side looked out over the roof of the building next door. None of the windows had any glass. I can’t keep any valuable here, I thought. Someone could crawl into this apartment from the roof next door, and there is nothing to stop them.
The wall facing the back towards the concrete square was a big window with a rickety lattice being the only thing keeping anyone from falling out. A group of boxes formed a wall of sorts between the large window and the apartment. “Someone left items within,” the landlord had told us.
I looked inside one box, and it was filled with ceramic bowls. Looking into another and I saw the same. Who hauled all those boxes full of heavy crockery up those rickety stairs?
I looked into the gray water and the black water rooms. The toilet worked, the sink worked, and the showered weakly spit water.
“So, Wich,” I said to Marvin. “This be acceptable?”
“Much better than my current home,” he said.
“It be a hovel,” I said. “Perhaps hovel be not quite the right word. It be a dump. A sty.”
“Yes,” Marvin said, looking around. “It be okay. Not good. Okay.”
“And you can afford half?” I asked.
“Such be so. It be cheap.”
Okay,” I said with a sigh. “Welcome home.”
I went to Mac’s, also known as the I Already Stopped There, and picked up six Gray Ladies, my favorite beer, as I returned to my new apartment.
I entered my new home. So much room, it looked like an empty warehouse. I pulled out a book, drank a beer, read a little, and then showered. To prepare for bed, I put on a pair of shorts and dug my brass night glasses from my shore bag. I had bought those glasses three years before. The brass held two dark red lenses. I cherished those glasses and their ability to fool my brain into thinking it was night-time on a world where the sun stayed fixed in the same spot of the sky.
Humanity had evolved on a world with distinct dark and light parts within a day. My brain, molded by millions of years of natural selection, expect the dark of night to sleep. I didn’t do well with the eternal sun of Terra Beata. I struggled to calm my mind when the sun shone brightly through my eyelids.
I solved the problem of our lack of night with money. Eight hundred, thirty-five thousand dollars, specifically. I bought that beautiful pair of night glasses. Felt soften the brass against my skin, and leather straps held the goggles against my eyes. The night glasses’ red lenses fooled my hypothalamus into acting as if it were time to sleep. Marvin told me I looked like a rich old man when I wore them.
Soon after getting into bed, night glasses firmly in place, I faded into a deep sleep.
A loud bang. I woke. I sat upright. Blinking, I struggled to focus on the room around me. I saw nothing. Half-asleep. What was that noise? I turned over to go back to sleep but couldn’t. My heart raced from being startled.
A female voice cackled. It sounded as if the speaker sat at the end of my bed. I sat upright again. No. No one was in the room. Then I heard two voices, both girls and both talking loudly. The sounds poured in through the window that led to the roof next door.
Enraged, I jumped out of bed, stuck my head out of the window, and shouted. “What in the hell are you doing out here!?”
Two girls sat in chairs close to the window. One girl’s head was less than a meter from where I emerged, shouting.
That girl, the one closest to the window, shrieked, jumped out of her seat, and ran across the roof.
The other girl jumped out of her chair, stared mute and wide-eyed at me, and then collapsed onto the roof into a pile.
The girl who ran yelled back at me. “Damn you. You son of…. Damn….”
“Who in the hell are you? What are you doing outside my window?” I yelled.
“Who are you?” the girl who ran across the roof yelled back at me in anger.
The second girl, the one who flopped down on the roof, doubled over with convulsions. I stopped and watched her as she writhed. Was this a seizure? I had never seen anyone have one before.
“Girl?” I asked. “You okay?”
The first girl, the runner, worried as well. “Columbine…, tell me you’re okay…. Columbine….”
I recognized the second girl, this Columbine. She was a couple years younger than I was and visited Xavi’s house when we were young. She had flung the Mardi Gras colors and gotten me in trouble.
Columbine shook, not with a seizure, but with full-body, breathless laughter. She laughed so hard, her face grimaced and turned red.
Columbine took in a huge breath. “Aaaaaaaaaaaah, migone!” she screamed. “M…. M…. Migone, Abra….” She struggled to breathe. “Pray you….” More uncontrolled laughter. “M… Abra, pray you for… did you pray for a naked mad scientist…? Are you…. Are you naked, boy…? What’s with those welding… goggles?”
I reached up and touched my night glasses. I did not like her laughing at them. And yes. I did look naked, wearing no shirt and standing with only my top half out of the window.
“No!” I snipped.
Columbine stifled her laugher and stood up unsteadily. She stumbled over and peeked into the window at my lower half. “Drat. You aren’t naked.” She started giggling again with a sputter, and she fell against the wall.
He nearly killed me with scare, Columbine,” her friend Abra said. “Not funny!”
“You’re right. You’re right. Not funny.” Columbine tried to look serious. She made a snorting sound trying to contain her laughter. “I’m sorry. My wrong….”
“You can’t be out here!” I barked. “I’m trying to sleep.”
“I guess someone took Alias Ali Tao’s pad,” Columbine said.
“You need to leave,” I demanded.
“N…. No…, we don’t,” Columbine said. “Don’t goober.” More sputtering.
“What?” I moaned. “I can’t sleep. Not with your noise.”
Columbine inhaled deeply, held her breath for a moment to gain her composure, then breathed out. “We pay rent,” she said, still smiling. “One advantage of our pad is the roof. The only advantage, once you throw your mind at it.” She wiped her face, sniffed loudly, and looked into my room. “Golly gee, you’re using Alias’s old mattress.”
“What?” I turned and looked at the mattress on the floor. It came with the apartment.
“Your bedding,” Columbine said. “That’s Alias Ali Tao’s. That’s where I found her. Like, so, the day she croaked on.”
I stood there, speechless. After a moment, I removed my torso from the window opening, walked to my bag, and found a shirt. I grabbed the bedding, the mattress contaminated by death, on a corner. I took Alias Ali Tao’s bed quickly out of my apartment door. I tossed it onto the landing to become part of the more extensive decay.
I crawled out the window and joined the two on the roof. I could see several beers, the cheap homemade stuff that came in reused bottles without labels.
“Can I sit? Can I have a beer?” I asked.
“Yes, sit,” Columbine said. She dropped heavily into a chair. “It’s Abra’s beer. She has to say yes as with that.”
Abra walked back over and sat down. “You have to apologize. For scaring me.”
“You woke me up!” I protested. “Yagize are sitting outside my window.”
“You heard her,” Columbine said. “No apologies, no beer.”
“You’re outside my window!”
Columbine shrugged and moved the box with the beer bottles away from me.
I crawled back into my apartment, got three of my own beers, and then returned to the roof.
“Someone has happy cabbage,” Columbine remarked when she saw the Gray Ladies. “Clean bottles, labels, and everything. Asking us to share our cheaps, you were? Why not you take those welding goggles away from your face, pap? You’re anonymous to me.”
“I care not if we were outside your window. You shouldn’t scare like that,” Abra grumbled.
I removed my night glasses.
“I recognize you,” Columbine said. She pointed at herself. “Columbine Muller Devi. That’s Abra Hague Udele. Pierrot Dignac. Right? You’re related to Xavi, right?”
“She’s my cousin,” I said. “Pierrot Wa Dignac. I know you, Columbine. Your mother and Xavi’s mother, they’re friends.”
“Xavi spells her name with an ‘x.,’” Abra said. “She should spell it with an ‘h.’”
“Xavi has hair on her chest,” I added.
Abra looked at me, shocked. “Why would you think such, much less say such?”
“Abra doesn’t talk about body hair, Pierrot,” Columbine explained. “Or burps. Or farts.”
“Cease!” Abra’s face soured.
“My wrong, Abra,” Columbine said. “He needs to know what be copacetic convo and what be not. You’re a riverling, aren’t you?” Columbine asked me. “Why aren’t you living closer to the docks?”
“Xavi told me I needed to get off the boat and mingle with people who aren’t riverlings. And she suggested I live somewhere near the college. So here I am. As from your accent,” I said to Abra, “You be not out from here.”
“I have not an accent,” Abra protested.
“Really? You be out from Aoustin, and you speak such?”
“No,” Abra said. “I be away from the Plantation.”
“Migone!” I said. “You’re the first person I have ever met out from there. What are you doing here?”
Abra’s face became severe. “Going to school. We can go to college, too.”
“My wrong,” I sighed. It was hard to talk to Abra. I turned to Columbine. “Why did you move to Aoustin?”
“I’ve always lived in Aoustin,” she said. “Are you kidding me? You were taunting, weren’t you? Yes?”
“Yes,” I told her. “I’m taunting. Remember, when you were a toddler, and your mother brought you to our house? You tore up my book, and I got angry at you and shouted at you, and you started crying and got me in trouble.”
“You’re taunting me again, aren’t you so?”
“No, not this time. You don’t remember?”
“No,” she said, her face shone with a natural smile. “I don’t remember. I should apologize, but I feel no remorse about tearing up your book. Absolutely none. Too much of the river has passed.”
Columbine wore a bright shirt made from fabric colored with a Colum dye, a pastel pink. She sat straight, upright, on the edge of her chair. She buttoned her shirt just high enough to not expose the divide between her breasts. She caught my look, and a glint of a smile passed over her face.
“How about the Mardi Gras color?” I asked. “You slung it about, and I got blamed.”
“That be you?” she exclaimed. “How fun. So, it was you with the colors? That color makes for a mess. I remember that I sneezed out colors for a week. Not much else.”
The door leading to their apartment building stairwell abruptly swung open. A boy I recognized, slightly younger than me, came through. He was short and stocky and carried a guitar by its neck as if it were a jug.
The boy saw me and asked, “Who be this?”
“Migone,” I sputtered. “Will every student in from the college be on this roof to keep me awake?”
“Pierrot Wa Dignac. He took Alias’s apartment,” Columbine said.
“Be such so…. Lamentful as to Alias, be it so?” he said.
“He jumped naked at us and scared us,” Columbine added.
The boy with the guitar looked surprised. “How so? Naked? Why were you naked?”
“I wasn’t,” I protested. “I wasn’t naked. Columbine just thought I was. And who are you?”
“How could she be mistaken about nakedness? Either you were, or you weren’t. Truth. Such not ambiguous. Not much to argue over on such. Naked looks a lot different than wearing clothes. So. Be I correct?”
“Don’t worry over it. What’s your name?” I asked again.
“Ignatius Bozic Johansson, burrah,” he said. “How can you confuse naked over not naked?”
“I don’t care if you were naked,” Columbine told me.
“No, I wasn’t.”
“We care, Columbine. Truth. Logic. We be the intellectuals of Aoustin,” Ignatius added.
“Why would you think such, much less say such?” I glanced over at Abra. I had parroted her words. “And most intellectuals speak Amerish, not vernacular.” Those words of mine were too harsh. I regretted them as soon as I said them.
“Because…,” Ignatius looked at me, confused and angry. “We be. We care. We care if something be not logical. We discuss. We converse over subjects. Important subjects. Also, art.
“And I speak the speak of our world,” he said defiantly. “It be your world, too. Your town. It be the speak of our music. Such be the speak of our poetry, not telli-speak or Intelligences speak or Amerish or standard English or whatever you yond it.”
Ignatius sat and turned his chair to point towards me. He reached over and grabbed one of my Gray Ladies.
“What you talk about, Pierrot?” Ignatius asked, leaning forward. He took a sip of the beer. “In your Amerish? One of us amid writing a book. Write you? Do you write? You can read your book for us. You have not a book? Play music, then. You can play your instrument. I play.”
“No and no,” I said. “I don’t write. I don’t make music. And don’t ask me to play my instrument. Abra adamantly opposes burps.” I attempted to decrease the tension with humor and provoking Abra.
“No, cease! Why you tell him such?” Abra looked at Columbine. Columbine looked down, avoiding Abra’s stare.
“I just read books,” I said. “Consumption, not production. My father writes, though.”
“Great!” Ignatius exclaimed. “He has a book? Bring it, so. If not your handiness, your father’s then. Read for us.”
I laughed. “No. I wouldn’t act such to you. My father’s books are too long. And boring. And they’re not just Amerish. He writes using scientific jargon. Dense, they are.”
“The college library banned me away from his books,” Columbine said.
“What?” Someone even knowing about my father’s books would be strange enough. But to be banned from them? “No! Cease taunting me.”
“Kev Roux Dignac, correct?”
“Truth.” Columbine, who seemed so confident, changed and started to speak tentatively. “A required session for me concerns indigenous biology. So. Such a groovy class. At college. For nursing. So. That be what I school for.
“The teacher…,” she continued. “The one for indigenous biology…, formed teams to lecture on your father’s books, the ones about Terrans. Jared Guo Mancini, we got him, our team did. You know him? He is not… good at… acquiescing, you know, with rules. He be a bad actor, so. Remember the raccoon in the teacher’s black water room?”
I shook my head, no.
“Oh…. No matter. It was his doing, that be all. Now so, our lecture would be on Monday. Everyone on our team had delay-avoided the week before, and the library’s not open Sunday. And unhappily, they didn’t let anyone borrow any of those books, your father’s books, away from the library. One of a kind, they said. No relaxation of that rule, they said.”
“Yes, so, Kev writes those books out by hand,” I said. “I’ve watched him do it. It takes him months to write out one of those.”
“It was…, heavy. Very heavy. I noticed that. Yes. Now so, Jared. Jared, being Jared, he threw the book we needed out the window….”
“He threw it out the window!” I interrupted. “Did he damage it?”
“No, no, no. It came back to the library whole and healthy. That one of a kind book of your father’s is sitting snug on its spot on the shelf. Jared now…. Jared went to retrieve it after he threw it out the window. He got caught. We all knew what he did and got punished for not stopping him. The school banned the whole team, each person, away from using your father’s books, ever again. Again, one of a kind book, they said. Yagize can’t be trusted, they said.”
“Migone! I’m impressed. You be the first person I’ve met, ever, banned away from Kev’s books.”
Columbine looked down, then glanced up, met my eyes, and smiled.