It was Red who chose our apartments, and sometimes they were hardly to be believed. “I’ve got a system,” she explained once, when I decided to press the issue. “Fascism is a system,” I muttered from the other room. But systems were not her strong suit; had she said it in appeasement? Appeasement was not her strong suit either, which is one reason we got along.
If she did have a system, it left no apparent trace in the physical world, and only every now and then could I catch an indirect glimpse of its transactions. Sometimes she’d bring me on a long walk without explaining the object, and then point out of the blue at some building we were already passing: “We’re moving there in the fall.” I would look at her, quietly and expectantly, and sometimes she was thus moved to add a light comment: “I saw it from the train. The sun comes up behind it.”
It was technically Pilsen, but practically nowhere. A little wedge of quiet streets slowly choked down to nothing by the encroaching river, with a semi-private alley wriggling out onto Cermak with a gasp at the last possibility. Somebody had painted a series of watermelons all along this escapement, stopping abruptly above an open manhole, to which I often put my ear. I remember an odor that was green and cutting, and strong fences running three-quarters around vacant lots, with the fourth side left open as can be. I remember well-packed rooms, cunning courtyards, and caverns into which windows–but no doors–opened, with moony stone floors lightly dressed in trash, and green for a long time after the rain.
Ours was an off-kilter building of three stories, which had, apparently, once aspired to four. Though the facade still bore the tent of an attic, there was nothing behind it but a flat cap of tar and flashing, accessible by a small hatch. I went up there early on the very first morning, perhaps trying to make sense of Red’s description, when gradually I became aware of a sound of distant, repeated shattering. The regularity suggested a church bell, if it were broken by every strike. Scanning this way and that, and further and further out, I finally settled on an industrious little figure stirring in the weeds by the raised expressway, which at that location was just beginning its long and linear decline, much in the manner of empires and my eyesight. This man (for it seemed a man) was forever raising and letting fall some sort of sledgehammer into the ground at his feet. I could appreciate that it was heavy from its long, slow upswing and the way it soared happily back down. The funny thing was that at such a distance, the moment of impact and the noise of the impact did not occur for me simultaneously. Rather, it was precisely when the sledge was highest that I heard the tinkling collision. So it was down in silence, up with a crash, down in silence, up again with a crash, and without too much effort I convinced myself that the man was facing the other way round from what I had first assumed. Now, he was striking not at the ground, but over and over at an invisible wall that confined him to his patch on the roadside. I wondered how long he’d been laboring there, and whether anybody awaited his eventual return, and whether it would be appropriate to head over there myself and help him swing from the opposite side.
Red poked her long head up through the hatch, shrouded in steam from a jar of miso broth. She had recently developed a tremendous taste for it. “Morning,” I said. “Have you been for a walk?”
“Ye-es,” she said thoughtfully, appraising the sun, which was flaming in the windy sky over our shoulders. “I saw them building floats, for the Fire Festival. And, oh! Over there there’s some fella smashing toilets, like he’s trying to save his life.”