Into the Marrow

Tourists love the sight of decay. From a distance, it makes a wonderful picture. – Pedro Juan Gutierrez

The thin layer of cotton between the sidewalk and Job’s skin did little to keep him warm. When he sat with his back to the red brick and mortar wall, thighs pulled to his chest, several inches of ankle were bared and one scarred and swollen kneecap crowned through the hole in his trousers. The cold sunk deep into his bones. He inhaled deeply through his crooked nose and the brisk cold was sharp on his lungs. He coughed once and spat a chunk of brown phlegm into the gutter. He was dead tired, after a long day of scrounging and scrapping, and the Economy Inn was miles away. Time had been cruel to the old hotel and because of its overall state of decay and disrepair, most passersby assumed it was long overdue for demolition, but it was where Job laid his head at night. Adjacent rooms were occasionally occupied by miscellaneous vagrants and runaways looking for a mattress to lie on and a door to lock, but Job was the one and only permanent tenant. His room was every bit as bitterly and numbingly cold as it was outside, so he usually slid into bed fully dressed, huddled beneath a pile of blankets, and listened to the rattle in his chest. “Get out of here!” the Lebanese cashier demanded, unabashedly staring down at Job’s forehead, with its grotesque crosshatch of bone-deep scars, most of which were self-inflicted during his years spent working as enhancement talent in the squared circle. “My husband’s gonna call the cops if you don’t get up,” the cashier threatened and kicked Job in the hindquarters with the inside of her foot, shooing him from her store-front.

 

Job rose early from his bed. He set an aluminum percolator on the hot plate and wrapped a thermal blanket around his shoulders. He stepped out into the parking lot and stared deep into the horizon. The sun was just rising over the field of grass east of the hotel. Job listened to the cumulative whisper of dry weeds rustling in the wind. The empty lots adjacent to the Economy Inn had slowly been reclaimed by nature. Tall, yellow grass grew up through rubble, concealing black piles of scorched brick and cinderblock. Back in his room, Job removed his percolator from the hot plate, replaced it with a can of corned-beef hash, and poured himself a cup of strong, black coffee. He reclined in his bed while the wind howled in the open doorway. Across the street was Second Olivet Baptist Church, a simple, square, whitewashed block of a structure. Job assumed the church was vacant. In all his days living in the Economy Inn, he had never seen a single body enter or exit, but by some inexplicable glitch it appeared to continue to receive electricity. For, at all times, one single light bulb, enclosed and locked within a small cage, illuminated the church’s door. From time to time, Job would begin to cross the street with the intention of rapping his walnut-sized knuckles on the blue iron cage that protected the door, but always stopped short, in the middle of the street. Akin to the Economy Inn, Second Olivet Baptist Church was surrounded on all sides by vacant lots of land where the remains of the community that had once congregated at that church were buried in a shallow, mass grave.

 

The streets and sidewalk were void of people, an occasional streetlamp bathed the concrete in a warm, sepia hue, and Job’s belly was full of rich bourbon. He had quickly gotten drunk after a few throaty gulps from the bottle in his hand, which made the voyage easier on his feet, but alcohol never failed to put him in a contemplative mood. He stared long and hard at each burnt shell of a house he passed. This sight was rare within the heart of the city, in Midtown, where they were quickly demolished and subsequently rebuilt, but they were not completely uncommon, and most of these black ashen skeletons were relatively fresh, still smoldering even, and with each black frame of a house Job passed, scarce at first but more and more plentiful as he walked further out into the ruins of the city, until he entered the vast fields of raw and open wilderness that held the Economy Inn and Second Olivet Baptist Church, Job’s mouth filled with the taste of bile.

 

Job woke up thoroughly hung over and gasping for air. Sometime during the night, he had begun to dream about his wife. Her naked flesh was charred and searing hot to the touch, and she sat upon his once thickly muscled chest with her hands wrapped around his throat. The dream had brought tears to his eyes and after regaining consciousness he wiped his face with his sleeve. He needed a strong cup of coffee, but when he plugged his hot plate into the wall socket, it would not turn on. The Economy Inn’s source of electricity had finally died out. Job hadn’t planned on leaving his room that day, but it looked as though he would have no choice. Though he doubted he would have any luck, he figured he would go from door to door and check if any other room in the hotel was still receiving a charge. In the off-chance there was another room with electricity, he could easily relocate his few material possessions, namely his hot plate, percolator, and blankets, not to mention his scrapbook, filled to capacity with yellowed photographs, ticket stubs, newspaper and magazine clippings, and flyers, but chances were that the entire hotel had been cut off, that Job’s room was not an isolated incident, and he was suddenly faced with the daunting task of finding a new home. For a man who had wished to cut himself off from the rest of the city, the Economy Inn had been perfect. Job had been spoiled by the isolation the old hotel afforded. And even though the vacant blocks of land around his home were the burial grounds for the city’s dark past, the scenery was rather pastoral and Job found repose in the whisper of the tall field grass. Job couldn’t bear to imagine returning to the world he had fled from. It was bad enough having to go back every few days or so, to haul in a cart of scrap metal or cash in a bag of aluminum cans, but to move back for good was unthinkable. Job found that he was getting quite dizzy and, despite the cold, that a clammy sweat had broken out all over his body. He was overwhelmed by the need to vomit and opened his door so that he could purge himself out in the parking lot, but suddenly felt a great wave of calm when he saw that the light over the door of Second Olivet Baptist Church continued to burn bright. At that moment, Job concluded that he had no other choice but to finally knock upon that door. But before Job could even begin to cross the street, he was caught off guard by the sound of a car slowly rolling down the road towards the Economy Inn. Usually, Job would have retreated to his room, so as not to be seen and reveal the fact that someone was living in the seemingly vacant hotel, but it was too late. To run now would only create suspicion, the illusion of guilt or, even worse, fear. So Job stood still in the parking lot and watched as the car pulled up in front of the Economy Inn, between it and Second Olivet Baptist Church, and parked. The driver let the engine run while the passenger rolled down his window. A camera with a long, exaggerated lens emerged from the darkness of the car and the passenger clicked off a few quick exposures. It wasn’t completely uncommon for rubber-neckers to come down the road and take pictures of the Economy Inn and all of its decrepit glory, but this was the first time, that Job was aware of, that he had been caught in the camera’s lens. The driver reclined his seat and lit a cigarette while the photographer continued to run through several rolls of film. And then, as discreetly as it arrived, the car rolled away.

 

Job pulled off his wool gloves, shoved them in the hip pocket of his trousers, and knocked loudly on the blue iron cage that protected the front door of Second Olivet Baptist Church. He wasn’t exactly sure what he was expecting to happen next, but no one answered. Job waited another twenty seconds and knocked again, but no one came. The wind was sharp and the dry grass, like the voices of the dead, whispered in his ears and Job shuddered. He placed his hand on the cage, the piercing cold sharp on his arthritic joints, and pulled. The cage opened easily, but with a scream, and the door behind it was unlocked. Job’s heart raced and the adrenaline coursing through his body made him lightheaded. He pushed the door open and was greeted by a gust of glorious warmth. Not only did the church still have electricity, but heat, as well. “Hello?” Job called out into the lobby of the vacant church, his feet not yet past the threshold. With a feeling bordering on guilt, Job looked back over his shoulder before entering the church, then closed and locked the door behind him. Instantly, the church went black, so Job felt around on the wall until he discovered a light switch that, when flipped, slowly illuminated the vacant interior of Second Olivet Baptist Church. Job couldn’t recall the last time he had entered a church of any sort, but the layout was far simpler than what he remembered. No bronze fixtures or stained glass. There were several rows of simple hardwood pews leading to an unadorned pulpit and, behind it, a wooden cross. The interior was as minimal as its exterior and completely void of windows. “Hello?” Job called out again, his chapped and calloused hands cupped around his mouth. Job decided he would immediately begin transferring his few belongings over into the church, but then he noticed a door behind the pulpit, and Job’s feeling of well-being began to sink. With great trepidation, Job approached the door. He knocked, but there was no response. Just to be safe, Job knocked one last time, and then put his ear to the door. Job opened the door and behind it was a staircase leading to the basement. Job flipped a switch, and then waited as the basement filled with light. “Anybody down there?” Job inquired. “I’m not here to hurt you.” Holding firmly onto the handrail, Job carefully made his way down the narrow stairs until he stood, slightly stooped, on the red-carpeted basement floor. In addition to a sofa-bed, AM/FM radio, and television, the basement was furnished with a small kitchen, complete with a functioning stove and refrigerator and fully stocked pantry, as well as a flushable toilet and fully-functional shower stall. It smelled slightly of mildew and the water-stained ceiling was rather low, but Job could find little flaw with what he immediately accepted as his new home.

 

The first muffled explosion startled Job into a state of disorientation, but with the second he was suddenly made aware that the Economy Inn was being firebombed. With a complete lack of windows inside Second Olivet Baptist Church, Job was unable to safely investigate and assess the situation from within. So, aware of the risk at hand, he slowly pulled open the door, but left the cage in front of it locked. The Economy Inn was engulfed in flames, and parked in front of it, between the hotel and church, was an idling car. Job recognized it as the same car that had pulled up in front of the hotel earlier that day and, upon further inspection, he was able to make out a young man dancing wildly as the hotel roared. It was the photographer. Job saw another young man sitting cross-legged on the roof of the car and assumed him to be the driver. His back was to the church, so Job could not see his face or the expression upon it, but the young man’s shoulders shook with laughter as he watched his friend clown and prance. Temporarily safe, concealed and confined within the walls of Second Olivet Baptist Church, Job observed the photographer and his driver as they reveled in the fire that devoured Job’s former home. He wasn’t exactly sure why the two young men would target the old hotel. Job was confident in his knowledge that he was the only one who had recently lived there, but there was no possible way that these two young arsons could have known, and he doubted that they had gone through the trouble to check. But, then again, they probably didn’t care. So Job unlocked the cage. As before, the rusty hinges screamed as it swung open, but the young men failed to take notice. Near the front step of the church were several rocks and broken pieces of concrete and Job picked up the first one that fit easiest into his hand. It was as big as a grapefruit, and ice cold. Without thinking twice, Job hurled the rock at the parked car and shattered the rear driver side window. The young man sitting on the roof of the car jumped when the window exploded beneath him, and he jumped once again when he turned to see Job standing in front of the church. “Dude, what the fuck?” the young man exclaimed with incredulity as he hopped down off the car onto shaky legs, a fifth of generic vodka firmly gripped in his  hand. “You broke my fucking window!” Without warning, Job side-armed a second rock that struck the young man’s collarbone with a solid thud, sending him spinning into the side panel of his car. This time, the young man immediately began to call for his friend, the photographer, who was shirtless and dancing and gyrating asininely before the massive pyre. It took a moment for the intoxicated photographer to comprehend his friend’s cries for help, but once he gathered his senses, he came running. The photographer helped his friend to his feet, and then turned his attention to the man who had, in his mind, needlessly assaulted him. “What the fuck did you do?” the photographer asked Job. He took a couple cautious steps towards Job, while still keeping a safe distance away. The photograph’s svelte, hairless torso was slick with sweat and his face was dark with soot. “What did you do?” the photographer asked a second time, but he did not wait for an answer before he suddenly pivoted, snatched the near-empty bottle of liquor that remained tightly gripped in his wounded friend’s hand, and lobbed it, overhand, at Job. It didn’t even come close to hitting him, but the bottle shattered when it struck the wall of the church. “Get outta here, you psycho!” the photographer screeched, scolding Job like a stray dog, but he refused to move. “Get the fuck outta here!” the photographer repeated, to no avail, and when Job failed to react, the young photographer began to stride, with purpose, toward the church. “Man, I’m gonna fuck you up,” the photographer said, more to psych himself up than threaten the man before him, and Job bent down to pick up a shard of glass. The photographer immediately stopped in his tracks, and even took a step or two back. “What’re ya gonna do with that?” the photographer asked, attempting to sound unfazed, and Job responded by dragging the point of the glass, temple to temple, across his forehead. The photographer recoiled as though he himself had been cut, and when the blood began to pour from Job’s wound, cascading down over his face like a crimson mask, the photographer and his friend swiftly retreated from the scene of the crime, and Job did not attempt to give chase.

 

The Economy Inn burned overnight. Considering the size of the building and, therefore, the size of the fire, it was doubtless the flames were visible to those in the city, but not a single siren was sounded. Not one fire engine intervened. By dawn, the Economy Inn was no more than a pile of smoking ash.

 

Job ran the shower in the basement of Second Olivet Baptist Church. At first, the water was frigid and brown with rust, but by the time he used and flushed the toilet, the stall had filled with steam. Job simmered two cans of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup on the electric stove, briefly fiddled with the radio, but found nothing to suit his taste, then peeled off his layers of clothes, careful not to reopen the barely clotted incision that ran the length of his brow. Job couldn’t recall the last time he had been fully naked and he marveled at his angular body, sinewy with taut muscle and veins, marred with injuries, both old and new, and discolored, here and there, with faded, illegible ink that more closely resembled bruises than art. Much of Job’s skeleton was visible and sharp. The scalding water on his flesh was painful, but his senses appropriately adjusted and soon he felt as though he was melting with pleasure. He breathed in the steam, loosening the mucus and phlegm that lined his lungs like tar, and expelled great amounts of viscous, brown and yellow fluid. Wash cloth in one hand, bar of white soap in the other, he scoured his body raw and then permitted himself to soak until his fingertips and toes wrinkled and pruned. Job turned off the shower before the hot water ran out, then toweled off and stepped out into the steam filled basement. He had planned to redress, but his pile of clothes suddenly looked too filthy to wear. Job unfolded another clean cotton towel and wrapped it around his head, allowing it to soak up the blood that once again began to run. The cut was deep enough to warrant stitches, but it wouldn’t be the first time Job had gone without. He pulled out the sofa-bed and slipped in under the covers, naked except for the towels around his waist and head. For the time being, Job forgot about his pot of tomato soup and surrendered to the warmth that enveloped him, sinking into his bones, into the marrow, and he slept.

Josh Olsen

 

Josh Olsen is a librarian in Flint, Michigan and the co-creator of Gimmick Press.

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