Plain China

Buffalo

by Conner McDonough · University of Tampa
Clock Dreams, Muge Karamanci · Northeastern University

Afriend of mine, a long time ago, was buried alive in a snowdrift in the Old First Ward. The way he told it to me was that he was at the bar after a long day at the plant and had been drinking boilermakers. When the bar closed, he went outside and passed out in a snowdrift. “And along comes this big fuckin’ snowplow, big motherfucker, like a tank coming down the street, and just pushes snow over me.”

He never told me how he got out or anything, but he always made a point of saying how alone it was, buried in the snow. How when he woke up he felt like the guy in that Vincent Price movie, The Last Man on Earth. How he knew which way was up in the snowdrift because the snot ran from his nose upwards. How he was going to change and all that shit people tell you after near-death experiences. I’d tell him he was full of shit.

“Tony, you don’t fucking get it. Think about the most alone you’ve ever felt and multiply that by a million. You’re still not close.”

He came to the conclusion that it wasn’t the fact that he almost died that scared him. It was that he was alone when it happened. “No one to care, no one to hold my hand, no one to rub my forehead and tell me that in heaven, everything’s okay.” He said that God was keeping him on earth for a reason. He said he wasn’t sure why, but maybe his purpose was to not die alone.

I went to his funeral less than two months later. He’d hanged himself in his garage.

 

Alice got back from the city with the bug. I’d just started work in the mailroom when my mother came in on my break and told me. She’d seen her down along Holden Street, disappearing into holes in the walls of abandoned houses and hanging out by the gas stations on Niagara, asking for change.

“She looks like a whore,” Mom said, applying lipstick in the reflection of the shift manager’s office window. “I always knew that girl was trouble. Always futzing around with those boys from downtown, always getting you into trouble.”

“Ma, please.”

“Your father and I blame her for getting you hooked on cigarettes,” she added, indignantly.

“Ma, I was smoking long before that. Jeffy Townes and I used to steal Dad’s smokes when we were kids. You guys just never noticed.”

“Well, I hope she doesn’t remember our address, because if I see her around the house, I’m calling the police.”

I told her I was sure she didn’t remember the street address and even if she did, calling the police wouldn’t be necessary. She scoffed and asked when I was coming over to visit—how it’d been ages since I’d been home, how I needed to see Dad, how maybe my sister, Elizabeth, and my sister’s “very nice and very single friend,” Mary, would come over. She said it wasn’t healthy, all this sitting around and working, then going home just to sit and watch the television set. “Winter’s here,” she said, “You need to stay active to avoid getting sick.” She left after taking a bite of my turkey club, leaving a smear of lipstick on the bitten edges of the bread.

I could see it creeping in, almost. The red just soaking into the bread like paint, slowly dribbling down over the turkey, staining the lettuce. I threw the sandwich out.

When I got back to my box to sort, I thought about Alice. I could see her hopping off the bus and walking to the Kroger for cigarettes and then heading off down the Niagara to score. Maybe she’d hang out by the Sugar Shack or Good Time Charlie’s and wait for someone to come along. She’d follow him to some shitty motel where he’d get on top of her and press his flabby cock between her legs and grunt and groan and she would lie there and stare at the ceiling and think I wonder where Tony is and smoke Merits. She would think about how lonely she was. It was unlikely, but maybe she’d think that. I didn’t like thinking about these things—I felt ill when I did—but the harder I tried to put it out of my mind, the more it snaked itself right back in. But it was just a thought. Nothing real.

There was a huge commotion in the break room around the television set and someone said we were going to war, but I didn’t notice. Something about the gassing of Kurds. People gasped and men pounded their fists in their palms to demonstrate to the women how upset they were about some guy in a beret with a mustache and a golden gun.

I kept sorting the mail and thinking about Alice.

 

They’d already printed the afternoon edition when I got home. WAR! it said, and I picked up a copy so I could have something to talk with people about if I went out later.

The snow was beginning to fall but there were still lines around the corner of the empty building across the street. Those people will stand out there for anything.

My mother refused to visit my place once she knew what the people were waiting for. She thought it was dangerous and insisted I drive out to the suburbs for visits with her and Dad. There was no trouble there, she said. I told her the neighborhood I lived in was fine. I mean, yeah, every once in a while a fight broke out over people getting burned on a deal or some rival guys would come from across town to rob a stash, but it was quiet for the most part.

I’d been hoping that Alice would eventually pop up and I’d see her over there, standing in line. Snowdrifts were beginning to pile up along the streets.

 

Most nights I go driving. I drive until I’m too tired to see straight and the traffic lights begin to look like fireflies, just hovering through the darkness. Sometimes I’ll stop in at a bar or a diner, but most times I go right on by. It’s painful going into those places. You see all manner in there—the baseheads with the cracked fingers, winos with the bulbous, red noses and sallow skin, folks who just got released from Erie County and those who got released from Buffalo General, still wearing their wrist tags. Sometimes, in those places, the waitress will bend over a little too low when she refills your cup and you can’t help but look into her blouse and she lets you. That’s as far as it gets, though.

Nights like these I miss Alice. We’d go driving, sometimes to the Falls, sometimes just around town. We’d listen to music on the radio or this Jackie Wilson tape I had. I’d keep one hand on the wheel and she’d hold the other one. Every now and then, if she was wearing a skirt, she’d hitch it up a little and place my hand on her bare thigh. I’d make these little circular motions with my thumb. She was so beautiful. I always thought she looked like Jean Seberg, just with darker hair.

In the warmer months, I drive through the West Side and watch everyone outside. It’s too hot to stay in the apartments, so they bring out lawn chairs and stereos and the women fan themselves and talk loudly while the men drink Presidente or Modelo and mumble from underneath straw fedoras. The kids play until very late beneath the festival lights; if one gets too close to the street, an adult shouts and the kid saunters back like a beaten dog—head down, eyes low, arms at the side—and sits inside, in trouble, watching friends run through the yards. I know how they feel. When Alice left Buffalo, I felt that way.

Sometimes there’ll be a young girl sitting on the sticky hood of a Cutlass and a man holding a warm bottle of High Life by the neck will lean over her. They’ll kiss and she’ll hold his face with her hands and he’ll cup her cheek, running his thumb to her lobe and back. Their tan skin shines in the streetlight, slick with sweat and humidity.

Every time I see them I speed past. I’m glad winter is here. They’ll be in for another few months.

 

Alice left for the city in ’88. I remember because she would always play that fucking song, “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” whenever we hung out. That one and the Eddie Money song about walking on water. I also remember because that was the summer I thought I killed the swan at Erie County. I was working as a groundskeeper there and this swan charged me while I was pulling trash from the pond, so I took my shovel and cracked it across the head. I thought it was dead, so I took its body and pushed it gently into the reeds, hoping no one would see it. When I went back to work the next day, it was alive but it sure as shit didn’t charge me that time. I tried to put that summer out of my head, but it’s funny, sometimes, the shit you remember.

 

Imet up with my parents at their place in the suburbs. Liz and Mary were there, too. It was cold out but Mary was wearing a skirt and her hug lasted for a while when I walked in and greeted everyone. It was one of those two-armed hugs, where stomachs meet and the other person places her chin in the crook between your neck and shoulder. She gets so close you can hear her exhale in your ear.

She was pretty attractive for someone who grew up here. It’d been a while since I’d last seen her, but she still looked good. She’d changed her hair color, I think, but that was about it.

My mother had made a roast that was a little dry, but still good, and we drank red wine that Liz picked up from Price Chopper. The entire time my father complained about the Bills and Norwood.

“Wide right, my ass,” he said.

“Now, Dominic,” my mom interjected, “this is a nice evening. The kids are here, Mary’s here and looking very pretty”—she cut eyes at me. “We don’t want to hear about football.”

“It’s okay, Mrs. Hagen,” Mary said.

“Please, dear, call me Judith.”

“Judith, then. I like football. I think it’s a very interesting sport. Don’t you enjoy football, Tony?”

“No,” I said, and took a drink of wine.

“Well, I mean, it’s not my favorite sport…But, you know—I do enjoy other things, too,” Mary stammered. I think I caught her off-guard. I wished she’d just take another bite of the roast, already.

I got up from the table and went into the kitchen to get a glass of water. I’d turned on the tap when Liz came up behind me and pinched the back of my arm.

“Quit being so goddamn difficult,” she hissed.

“I’m not. I just don’t like football.”

“It’s not about fucking football. It’s about you getting out of whatever funk you’re in and moving on. Alice left for the city a long time ago.”

“It’s not about Alice,” I replied. It was and it wasn’t. Sometimes I felt like I could go days, weeks, without thinking about her. The longer she’d been away, the easier it was to do that. Now that she was back, I thought I could see her everywhere. I felt strange knowing she was here, like things would go back to normal or something. I don’t know why. Sometimes you just feel that way.

“Then be civil, goddamnit. Mary really likes you.”

I wasn’t in the mood to argue. I just wanted to go home and see what was happening in Kuwait. Not that it mattered. “Fine.”

After dinner we had coffee and I stepped onto the front porch to have a cigarette. About halfway through, Mary came out and joined me.

“Aren’t you cold?” I asked, motioning to her legs, which were exposed to the air.

“Not really,” she said. She was lying. She kept shifting from foot to foot and hunching her shoulders up to her ears.

We stood in silence until the streetlights came on. I was about to light another cigarette when she pulled her hand out of her coat and placed it on my arm.

“I had a lot of fun tonight,” she said.

“I did, too.”

“You didn’t seem like it—I mean, you seemed kind of preoccupied.”

“Oh, it’s not you, I’m just thinking a lot about what’s going on in Kuwait. Pretty heavy stuff,” I said. Christ, you’re full of shit.

“I know, it’s so sad,” she said. She meant it, too. There was something genuine in her voice about the plight of the Kuwaiti people. I hoped she wouldn’t start talking about it. “I’d really like to see you again sometime,” she said. She sheared snow off the top of the snowdrift by the porch with the side of her boot.

“I don’t know,” I began. “I mean, nothing against you, but work’s pretty hectic and all. You know, Valentine’s Day’s coming up, so a lot of love letters are going out and coming in. That, and I’m really torn up about Kuwait.” For fuck’s sake, knock it off with the Kuwait shit. 

“I just think it’s kind of sad,” she said.

“What is? Kuwait?” Goddamnit.

“No, that you’re going to be all alone on Valentine’s Day. That you’re alone now. You seem like a really nice guy.”

“Thanks, but it’s okay. I like being alone sometimes. Helps me think. I get a lot of work done when I’m alone, too.”

“But it’s so sad! People are supposed to be with other people. We’re social animals, like fish or birds or bison. I was watching this thing on PBS late one night and they were talking about bison, how when bison are put in zoos, they get depressed because they’re lonely for herd.” She was really animated about this stuff but she sounded like a fucking loon.

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” I said, lighting my cigarette. I looked up and saw my sister’s face in the window. She was scowling at me and shaking her head. ”But it’s very interesting,” I quickly added.

Mary perked up. “Isn’t it, though?”

We chatted some more while I finished my cigarette and I agreed to see her again. She said she cooked a mean stroganoff and that she’d come over and cook one for us. At my place. I agreed.

I left my folks’ house not too long after that. When I got home and turned on the television, The Bride of Frankenstein was on. Boris Karloff was destroying the lab because Colin Clive had created a bride that rejected him, wanted him to be alone. I changed the channel and the forecast said we were in for a bit of sunshine. I changed the channel again and Kuwait was being bombed.

 

Iran into Alice one day on Niagara during my lunch break. She was fishing something out of a snowdrift by a storefront, maybe a set of keys or something. I was excited when I saw her from a distance, like a great weight lifted off my chest. Like I was able to breathe again. My lungs slowly filled and my heart beat a little faster. My palms got sweaty like I was in grammar school. I called out to her and she turned to face me.

She looked awful. Her hair was greasy and there were scabs on her hands and a few on her face. Her index and middle fingers were orange. I didn’t think it was even her at first, but when I heard her call my name, I knew it was. I suggested we head over to the diner and grab a bite, catch up. She agreed. We went into the diner and ordered some coffee. She poured about half the sugar container into hers.

“Where are you staying now?” I asked.

“Holden Street—you know Holden, right? I got a couple of friends there who are letting me crash for a while.” I knew Holden Street. After my mother had told me she’d seen Alice around there, I checked it out, hoping I’d run into her. Nothing says neighborhood like a fucking methadone clinic.

“How was the city?” I asked.

“Pretty cool,” she said, stirring the coffee with her finger. “I was living in Manhattan for a while, then in Brooklyn.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah, they got the two tallest buildings in America there, babe. They just stand at the end of the city like whoomp!” With that she raised her hands and set them down hard on the table. The coffee jumped in our mugs. “I went up in one and looked over the whole city. Taller than the Empire State Building. You can go anywhere in that city and see those two buildings just staring down on you.”

“That’s pretty neat,” I said. I was fumbling with the napkins and my smokes—nervous for some reason. Maybe it was being with her again. Maybe it was like she never went to the city at all. Maybe she’d been here the whole time and I didn’t realize it. Whatever it was, it made me happy to see her again.

“Aren’t you going to ask me what I did there?” she asked, her head slumping over every now and then.

“What did you do there?”

She told me she’d goofed around with a bunch of art types—painters, musicians, writers, students. She tried to get into literature because some guy wanted her to, but she thought most writers were assholes.

She said she left the student types and tried to make it Uptown but got in some shit with a couple of brothers who tried to peddle her out. She said she did some rotten things. I asked what kind but she kept muttering the same thing over and over. Rotten things. It sank in then that she had left for the city, she wasn’t just here the whole time and I’d been unaware of it. She started talking again but I couldn’t keep listening. It was sick. I felt like a big joke had been played on me. Like I was on a game show and waiting for the announcer to say, Will the real Alice please stand up?

I don’t know how long she went on talking but I was aware of myself beginning to sweat and I suddenly felt sick. I fumbled with a cigarette and lit it. She slid one out of my pack and took the lighter from me.

“It really is great to see you again and all,” she was saying when I tuned back in. “Here I was thinking that I didn’t have any friends left in Buffalo. Besides, with the past we have…” She reached across the table and placed her hand on top of mine. There was a scar from a cigarette burn just below the ring finger.

“Why are you here?” I asked.

“Huh?”

“Alice, why are you here? I mean, you left here—me—so long ago, what are doing back here?” I was confused, agitated.

She snapped her hand back. “Listen, asshole, you’re the one who stopped me on the street. I didn’t stop you. I mean, Jesus Christ, you invite me out for coffee and then have the fucking nerve to ask me what I’m doing here.” She took a deep drag on her cigarette. I thought she would drag to the filter.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just that I haven’t seen you in so long. I mean, last time I even heard from you, you left a note saying you were going to the city. It’s not that I blame you or anything, it’s just—”

“I got the bug,” she said. “I got the bug and I came home to be with my mom. I don’t know, to apologize or something. To get clean maybe. Get healthy.”

I looked outside and saw that the sun had gone behind the clouds. People walked on by, cars waited at red lights, a man was sweeping the salt from the sidewalk in front of his store, a snowplow rumbled past, spitting sand out the back. The snowdrifts would still be there come tomorrow. That’s the way it was.

“I thought only fags got the bug,” I said quietly.

“I did, too.”

We didn’t say anything the rest of the time we were there. My father used to tell me,You can never go home again and I figured that applied to a lot of things. People—places, too.  I thought about Mary. She would be coming over later to make stroganoff and I thought about how long it’d been since I’d eaten stroganoff. I thought about how nice it’d be to have some company for the first time in a long time.

It must have been cold in the diner because I could see Alice’s breath every time she exhaled. When we left we didn’t even say goodbye.

 

Mary was wearing a skirt again; this time it was shorter. She kissed me on the cheek when I answered the door and I smiled. She made me promise to stay seated in the living room while she cooked, saying something about how it was her mother’s secret recipe. I didn’t mind. It was nice to come home from a long day at work and have someone treat you to dinner. I was beginning to feel buried alive in all those letters coming in and going out.

“That secret, huh?” I asked.

“Let’s just say if I told you, I’d have to kill you.” She laughed and pulled out pots from the cabinet.

I turned on the television set and watched as journalists reported on the burning oil wells in Kuwait. Apparently, the enemy was setting fire to them all over the country. They were trying to escape. I looked out the window and saw the line of people shivering in the cold. A few of them were arguing at the front, scuffling with each other, pushing one another into the snowdrifts. They were shouting but the television was too loud for me to hear anything. Just another squabble. That’s it. I watched the report for some time. The forecast came on and said that the sun we were in for didn’t show but it would tomorrow. Temperatures would rise. Some of the snow would melt.

“Hey, Tony?” Mary called from the kitchen.

“Yeah, what is it?” I looked at the clock. It was 5:47.

“Where do you keep the bowls?” There was a snap out in the street.

The bullet came through the window at 5:47 in the evening. There was a faint whistle, like a high-pitched whine, then the glass cobwebbed. It didn’t fully shatter out, the glass, like in movies. Instead, a perfect, jagged little hole about the size of a penny blossomed just to the left of the curtain. There was a tinny wheeze, the curtain snapped out, and fine glass powder drifted down onto the side table like snow. It hissed past my face. As it went by, it felt hot, and it sucked out the air from in front of me.

It punched into the wall, high above Mary’s head, with a dull noise, like a leg breaking. Little chunks of plaster came down into the stroganoff, splashing some sauce onto Mary’s shirt and arm.

I thought about reaching out, telling her to get down, grabbing her and feeling the warmth of her pressed against me as I held her to the floor, making sure no more came through the window. I thought about doing those things, but I didn’t.

Plaster dust settled into her hair as she looked up to see what the noise from the living room was, to see if I knew.

About the Author

Conner McDonough · University of Tampa

Recent graduate Conner McDonough has previously published work in The Wildwood Journalplain china, andQuilt, in which this story first appeared. He is earning an MFA in creative writing at the University of Tampa, working on a collection of short stories centered on the North Country of upstate New York, and teaching middle school language arts and creative writing in Tampa.

About the Artist

Muge Karamanci · Northeastern University

Muge Karamanci has published two poetry books. Her poetic side finds its way into her photographs, which are generally surreal. This photo is a part of a series about time, which Muge says is “a big part of my everyday anxiety.” See more of her work here.