Empire Street

Empire Street

My feet are soaked from the rain. There is a hole in the sole of my shoe. A man in a long overcoat crosses the street ahead of me, walking with an awkward gait that sways him in my direction. His coat has the name Franklin sewn onto the breast. He holds his hand out and asks, “You got a quarter?”

“Is that all you want?” I ask in return. “A quarter?”

He coughs into his fist. “If I ask for a quarter people give me a dollar. If I ask for a dollar people give me nothing. I ask for a quarter and see what happens.” 

“Why not ask for five?”

He coughs again. His coat doesn’t fit right. “Nobody carries cash anyway,” he says. “All I can do to buy a sandwich. You got a quarter or what?”

I have a quarter. I dig into my pocket and drop the silver coin into his hand. I keep walking down the sidewalk. His voice follows me through the rain, “Hey! Buddy!” he calls after me, “Buddy, you got a dollar?”

Empire Street is an old street and dirty. Dusty streets, potholes, trash caught in the sewer grate. Empty storefronts, For Sale signs in broken windows, hollowed out and empty.

The ghost of Old Man Tate haunts this block still. We would hang out at his store when we were kids. It was the only store we didn’t steal from. He sold us beer before we were old enough to buy it. He was a funny old man, always telling jokes.

“What is the best kind of fish to fall asleep with?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Tate.”

“The cuttlefish! Cuddle fish? Get it?” And he would laugh and hold his chest.

We were outside one day when a man in a black suit went into the store. Wearing all black like the Grim Reaper. There was a chill in the air. He came out not ten minutes later sweating. Tate was chasing behind him, yelling and swinging the baseball bat he kept behind the counter.

He loved baseball. He wasn’t scared of the Grim Reaper.

We laughed and we cheered. We didn’t think anything of the man in black. But we should have. That night, Tate set fire to his store and it burned right to the ground. You could see the smoke for miles. We never thought he would do something like that. He might have been senile, like our parents said he was. But I don’t think so. The police found his body among the ashes. The story was that bank was taking his store and he couldn’t take the news.

Firefighters worked all night to put out the fire. It spread anyway and took out Smiley’s Cash and Pawn next door. We were up all night watching, eating snacks and drinking soda, watching like we were at the movies. There’s a gray char on the sidewalk still where the building used to stand.

Old Man Tate’s funeral was held in a cemetery near the last block of Empire Street at Washington. It’s an old graveyard like the neighborhood, called Canlis after a military general who was born here. Lined with gray headstones and willow trees. We used to sneak into this graveyard, daring each other to summon spirits and carve our names into headstones.

A group of black suits and funeral-proper dresses pressed together for solace, for the comfort that comes from being close to people you love. Friends and family held onto each other so tight their knuckles turned white, huddled close even though the day was hot and sweaty. A few willow trees shrugging and swaying in the breeze.

The graveyard caretaker was sitting in his house near the entrance. Air conditioned, away from the heat. I could see him through the window, leaned back in his armchair with his feet propped up on the coffee table. Watching TV that made him laugh.

A pack of dogs moved toward the funeral. Mangy dogs with rib cages showing through matted fur. No one notices feral dogs from the street. Growling between graves. Everyone was so preoccupied with their grief that nobody saw them until they burst forward.

“Oh my god!”

You could hear the people scream, “Oh my god!”

The dogs pounced on Old Man Tate’s casket. At least a dozen of them, snarling through yellow teeth wet. The casket wobbled and tipped to the side and then crashed to the ground. Old Man Tate tumbled back out onto the grass in his powder blue suit. The powder makeup on his face melting in the heat. His head nearly rolled off his shoulders. His body on the grass like a dropped marionette, awkward, dead. His eyes open and glossy and staring up at the sky.

But only for a moment.

The dogs snatched Tate’s body from the ground and dragged him off between them, disappearing as quickly as they came. Only his shoe left behind. Followed by gasps and screams and yells.

Tate’s daughter, a woman named Mae, let out a sob you could have heard in Kansas.

The caretaker watching television in his living room, calm and content and completely unaware. It’s interesting to watch people’s faces. When people are sad, afraid, stunned. Angry. My girl Manda and I snuck away and made out in the back of an unlocked Cadillac while men with angry faces pounded on the caretaker’s door. Old Man Tate’s daughter collapsed onto the ground at the hole where her father was supposed to be buried, holding her face in her hands. The dogs running down the street with Old Man Tate in pieces between them.

I stand on Empire Street. The wind bites through my coat and makes me shiver.

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Empire Street