Ground Walkers by Robert Hanson

smashed cupcakes with colorful wrappersLindsey gave me a conservative smile, as if she was saving most of it for later. The wind stirred her red hair around in dramatic wisps. I wish I had a picture of my cousin then, holding an uncovered plate of a dozen cupcakes. Her skirt was obviously a wall tapestry held together by a couple of pins along the waist. She also wore a mixture of hemp bracelets and costume jewelry, no shoes, and her most grown-up blue blazer. She could have worn literally anything she wanted, and this gypsy hodgepodge is what she chose. She looked more like a child on Halloween than a 17 year old with her own apartment.

She’d discovered that one could stand on the handrail of the fire escape outside her apartment. From there, it was a small, but largely frightening, downward jump to the lower level of the rooftop. We climbed a giant, metal air conditioner to the very top. Without looking over the edge, and without breaking eye contact with me, she tossed one of the cakes over the edge. Our eyes got wider. Her smile got bigger. And then the sound came. A wonderfully loud thwaat! followed by a car horn.

“Ten points,” she said. There was nothing conservative about the way she smiled now.

“No way,” I said. “It might have hit the top of the car. Or the sidewalk.”

“Robbie?” She was the only person who called me Robbie. And she only did it then to prove a point—to let me know I was acting like a girl.

“Okay,” I said. “Ten Points.”

She’d tried tossing other food, but found cupcakes the most satisfying. Lunch meat was too loud, soup was too messy, cereal was anticlimactic, and sliced bread was too easily carried in the wind. She almost killed herself when she tried to climb on the roof with an entire thanksgiving turkey. But a cupcake, she said, was the only one that exploded as soon as it touched a windshield. These had pink, purple, and green swirls of frosting. Lindsey said they looked like unicorn poop. She took a few measured steps to the edge and craned her neck to look over.

“Oh, wait,” she said, “Double it. Yep, that’s twenty points. Poor bastard just turned his windshield wipers on.”

“Did he stop?” I asked.

“No.”

“Then that’s bullshit. There’s no way you can tell he turned his wipers on. He’s gotta be past the railroad tracks by now.”

“Robbie?”

“Fine,” I said. “That’s twenty,” I walked to the edge and stood beside her.

The mirrored glass on the bank across the street reflected a giant glowing ball of fire. This was one of the few sunsets in my life I can remember so clearly. I reached for a cupcake, but Lindsey twisted her hips at the last second and pulled the plate away. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t even look at me. Instead, she was leaning toward the edge, staring at the street below. Her brow was pressed forward, and her jaw was clenched. Something was on her mind. And I knew her well enough to know that this look was a scary thing. This look has been the start of countless arguments, nonsensical rants, and unintended comedic gold. I am not saying that this look broke up any marriages or caused any kids to run away from home, but I am not comfortable saying it didn’t do any of those things either.

“Alright, Lindsey,” I said. “I’ll bite. What is it?”

“When do you think we’ll have to come down from here?” She sat the plate on the ledge. She ran a hand through her hair, but taming it was a lost cause.

“Grandma wants us to come to the lake for dinner,” I said, “so I guess we’ll need to get down before six.” I knew she meant the question in some deeply abstract sense, but I hoped my answer would please her. I really wanted to throw one of those cupcakes.

“That’s not what I mean.” she said. “You don’t ever see adults climbing on roofs unless it’s their job. Or unless they’re cleaning gutters. Or tacking up Christmas lights.” Lindsey reached into the waistband of her tapestry and pulled out a pack of Camels. I had been at her apartment all day, but just now noticed her fingernails. Every other nail was painted black. The others were left unpainted.

“Well,” I said, “I guess you could still climb anything you want, no matter how old you get.” I took the lit cigarette from her and took a long drag. She stared past me into the sky and slowly nodded her head, as if she was carefully reflecting on the exact meaning of my words.

“I guess you could,” she said, “but people don’t.” She took the cigarette from me, took three short puffs, and flicked it off the side of the building into the alleyway. I would’ve been impressed with how far it went, but I was there when her boyfriend spent a whole afternoon teaching her how to do it. He taught me a few life lessons too: like the right way to flip someone off, and how to run headphones through the sleeve of my jacket so I could listen to music in class. He taught me who Johnny Cash was, and Tom Waits and Al Green. He played the guitar in a band and always drank beers I’d never heard of. In his apartment, there was a pair of handcuffs on the dresser, but he never said anything about them. At the time neither one of us knew she deserved better.

“Enough with the talk,” she said. “Let’s see what you got. It’s already 20 to zero.”

I picked the cupcake with the most unicorn poop. I acted like I was getting a feel for the weight of it in my hand. I swung my arm a couple of times, rounding up like a pitch toward the ledge. I listened to the sounds of the traffic on the street below. I tried to imagine where the cars were in relation to the sounds. There’s no way she’d given it this much thought. I threw the cupcake. My heart was pounding so hard I could feel it in the palms of my hands. We looked at each other with anticipation. At any moment we would burst into laughter. But the sound never came.

“Are you sure we’re related, Robbie?” she said. “That was terrible.”

I walked to the edge and looked over. My cupcake had landed near the green newspaper stand on the sidewalk. It landed icing down. The mess and guts of the cake were still contained by the wrapper. As far as cupcake tossing goes, it was an embarrassing throw. I was just about to grab another when a girl came walking around the corner in front of the bank. The girl, who couldn’t have been older than six, was wearing an oversized sleep shirt that nearly tripped her when she walked. She carried a teddy bear whose legs scraped the ground every time she took a step. Even from four stories up, I could tell the girl’s hair needed washing.

“Is she by herself?” Lindsey looked more amused than concerned.

A large woman rounded the corner riding an electric wheelchair. She was wearing a nightgown that, despite being two sizes too large, struggled to contain her curves.

“Now it makes sense,” Lindsey said. “Maw-Maw and Little Tammy Sue are hitting up the ATM on their way to Walmart. That’s where all the scooter people go.”

The lady was saying something to the Little Tammy Sue, but we couldn’t make out the words. I imagined she was telling her that they weren’t home in Deliverance anymore, and she would need to stay a bit closer to Maw-Maw’s scooter. Tammy Sue stood by Maw-Maw for a moment, but then took off running into the street. She held her arm out waving the teddy bear and began to yell, “Fire! Fire! Look, Mama. It’s a fire.”

Her mother wheeled out into the road, yelling for Tammy Sue to get out of the traffic. The slow roll of her scooter did little to convey urgency in the situation. She parked her scooter right at the entrance to the alley beside the apartment building. Thick clouds of black smoke bellowed over the corner of the rooftop. I got dizzy. Three cars had already stopped on the street to investigate Tammy Sue’s yelling with flailing teddy above her head, Maw-Maw’s jay-riding across Main Street, and the thick smoke pouring from the alleyway. Lindsey sat down with her back to the ledge.

“Get down,” she said, “Someone might see us.” She looked so calm. I sat down beside her, crossed my legs Indian-style, and tried to act calm as her.

“Is your building on fire?” I asked. “I mean, did you leave your oven on or anything?”

“No,” she said. “Oh, shit. I may have left my bathroom bonfire going. Just not sure.”

“Smartass.” I faked a smile.

She played with her tapestry, rubbing the material between her thumb and index finger. I tried to listen to what the people on the street were saying, but I couldn’t make out any of their words. Another minute passed before we heard sirens in the distance. The sirens got closer, and then stopped one-by-one as the cars parked in front of the building. It sounded like a whole fleet of emergency vehicles. She turned around slowly and put both of her hands on the ledge. She peeked her head over and began to slowly shake her head. She slid back down next to me.

“You know, all ground-walkers are the same,” she said. “These people will all go home tonight and talk about this fire. This is the highlight of their day. Probably their week. It’s like they have nothing better to do.”

She reached behind her head and picked up one of the cupcakes from the plate. I grabbed her arm, but she gave me a look like she was offended. I let go. She peeled the wrapper from the bottom of the cake and took a bite. I got my own cupcake from the plate. There was a man on the street who had a voice loud enough for us to hear. I imagined he was a big man. He didn’t sound fat, but muscular—a man’s man. From what he was saying, I gathered that he must have been a firefighter.

“… the dumpster…” he said. “… along the side of the building… filled with hay… lucky the building…”

Lindsey grabbed my arm. I looked over, and she pointed to the pack of cigarettes that were tucked into her waistband. She smiled, delighted by the notion that her cigarette had started the fire. “Did he say that the dumpster was full of hay?” she whispered.

“Yeah.” We could have been killed, burned down with her apartment building, if not for Tammy Sue, I thought.

“We’re downtown,” she said, a puzzled look on her face. “Do you think the hay was from one of those carriages that give rich people rides?”

“I didn’t give it much thought,” I said.

“Maybe my neighbors are actually a family of horses and they bought too many groceries. They had to throw some out. The dumpster is where I throw my old groceries.”

“No, Lindsey. This is where you throw your old groceries.”

We spent the next half an hour eating cupcakes and coming up with elaborate scenarios that explained why a dumpster full of hay would be in the alley beside her apartment: maybe Waste Management got in the Halloween spirit too early this year, maybe it was leftover from an Asian fall festival—they do celebrate New Year’s in the wrong month, or maybe New Zealanders did it. Lindsey had been long obsessed with the idea that there’s something not quite right about New Zealanders. Soon, we realized that all of the ground-walkers had run home to tell their families about their exciting day.

“Do you wanna go in?” I asked.

“Yeah, we should get down from here,” Lindsey said. “We were supposed to be at Grandma’s an hour ago.”

We climbed back down the giant metal air conditioner. The cupcake plate was empty, except for crumbs and four wrappers stuck to it by multicolored unicorn poop. Lindsey slung the plate like a Frisbee toward the fire escape. It skipped off the top stair on its way into the alley. I knew it would stay there until some ground-walker came along and picked it up.

After a short jump over the now-charred alleyway, we were back on solid, second-story ground. Lindsey’s boyfriend was sitting on her couch picking at his guitar. He had the stereo up too loud. I liked how there were stickers covering every inch of his guitar case: Widespread Panic, Kavu, Reed’s, The North Face, Grateful Dead, Nine Inch Nails, Phish, Red Stripe… Whenever I found one I didn’t know, I would ask him about it. And, of course, he would be more than happy to explain it to me in his “cool” voice—the one where he sounded stoned even though he wasn’t.

“Hey, Babe,” he yelled before turning the stereo off. “Like, umm, where’ve you been?”

“Up.” She walked past him to her bedroom. I could hear her tossing stuff around. I liked how her apartment always smelled like incense.

“Up,” he repeated. He was either confused, or just practicing his stoned face. “Um. There was a fire, babe.”

“Really?” she said, as she came back into the living room., now wearing wide-legged blue jeans and a black tank top. Her hair was pulled into a ponytail, drawing attention to the silver peace sign necklace she wore. “Do I look okay?” She meant for our grandma. She was looking directly at me, but her boyfriend answered,

“You look beautiful, babe.”

“Thanks,” she said. She was still looking at me.

“Zebra fingers,” I said. She held her hand out, with arm fully extended, turned it slowly and studied her nails.

“Nah,” she said. “She has met me before, Robbie.”

Lindsey turned to face her boyfriend for the first time since we’d come back inside. “Oh,” she said, “Before I forget, this—” she made a back-and-forth gesture with her hand in the space between them. “This isn’t working out. I’m gonna need you to get your shit out of my apartment while I’m gone.”

Before he had a chance to say anything, Lindsey bolted to the door.

“It’s not you. It’s me,” she trailed off in a monotone voice as she kept walking out into the hallway. I couldn’t help myself. I caught a quick glance at him on the couch. He was perched on the very edge. His eyebrows were raised and his lips pulled downward into a frown. I bet he follows us outside, I thought. I caught up to Lindsey who was already two stairs down from the landing outside.

“Did he still look stoned?” Lindsey turned her head to the side, but not enough to make eye contact with me. I wondered if she was crying.

“Nope,” I said. “He looked sober. Still confused. But a more genuine version.”

“I was just curious,” she said. It sounded like she was smiling now. I wondered if she was curious if he looked stoned even though she’d just broken up with him, or if she broke up with him because she was curious whether or not he’d look stoned. Our steps fell in sync going down the stairwell into the alley. The whole staircase swayed a little, as it rattled and vibrated the cheap metal welding. Her car was parked to the left at the entrance to the alleyway, but she stepped off the stairs to the right. She bent down and picked up the plate. One of the cupcake wrappers was lying next to it. She picked it up, too, then walked them over to the black dumpster and tossed them inside. And then she closed the lid.

rob hanson sitting in chairRobert Hanson is a student at Ole Miss and a bartender at a chain restaurant. He toggles between waiting for life to begin and realizing he’s in the thick of it. Robert has prose forthcoming in Swamp Biscuits and Tea. His cousin Lindsey is a homeowner and maintains stable employment. She has a three-year-old son. He will throw a mean cupcake one day.

 

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  • Lisa Ahn

    What a fun and engaging essay. I love the dynamic between the narrator and Lindsey. The characters really come through as three-dimensional. Love it.

    • Rob Hanson

      Thanks for the kind words. I happen to like our dynamic, too–never a dull moment.