Magus on the Fire Escape
Wren stared from the fire escape outside her studio apartment, watching the people stroll in and out of the bookstore below. She lit a cigarette and gazed toward University Way, then on toward Brooklyn Avenue, seeing it all in a wash of old store signs and fading sunlight. Someone trudged off campus with a wailing cat and then broke into a labored sprint toward 45th. Glass shattered in the distance. A taxi ripped onto the sidewalk and its driver shouted at the passenger to get out.
Wren smiled. She pulled on her cigarette.
She thought, Here I am in the heart of it.
The shop owner, Darren, had sold her a copy of A Confederacy of Dunces the day before, and it rested face down now just inside her window. The text’s numerous bizarre and belligerent characters recalled so many faces, so many scenes that she had witnessed from her latticed-iron landing, and Wren wondered at length how much of this was intentional on Darren’s part. The geography was off of course—Wren didn’t live in New Orleans—but much of the story’s off-beat nature seemed to echo in the scenes that she watched each and every night from her fire escape. The loud and the crude and the violent and the virile swept up and down the sidewalk below her like waves of wayward energy that could never be entirely predicted. They would bounce off of a wall or a signpost only to refract and reform into something newer and more provocative further down the street.
Wren thought that it would please the people in her story to know that she saw them not only in these pages but also on the streets outside a window. They were more than characters to her, more than simply fiction; they were reflections of her day-to-day life. If Darren somehow foresaw all of this when he suggested that Wren buy the old paperback, she couldn’t help but think that he was both perceptive and sincere, and perhaps was also out to grab her attention.
Wren was studying English at the University of Washington, an academic trek which was entirely unsupported by her family. She came from a long line of working-class people who had never attended college, and so her trajectory toward higher education had come at a strange cost: when her family realized she had zero intention of becoming a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist, they immediately began to commiserate about the forthcoming waste of student-loan debt, and what would no doubt become a struggle to find employment. What was once elation at the idea of Wren earning a bachelor’s degree was now a frustrated waxing on her expensive tendencies and spoiled, frivolous nature, one that came up at every family get-together, and increasingly isolated and belittled her into a state of estrangement.
Her father would say, “What do you plan to do when you’re through with school?”
And her reply would form relatively the same, “Maybe I’ll work in a bookstore.”
I suppose that will pay your debts her father would reply with his eyes alone.
Her studies were not what her family assumed. Wren worked hard and her grades were well-earned. She was expected to digest arduous fiction and criticism and compose papers that left her exhausted. She slept an average of four hours per night and drank one cup of coffee for every hour that she lost. She ate noodles two meals out of three per day, and often subsisted on crackers and peanut butter, or cans of tuna more water than fish, over a long weekend.
But the truth was that she loved it all, including, in a way, the struggle of being destitute. She felt like a monk in a monastery; she felt like she was abstaining and worshipping at the steps of the divine. Explaining this to her father or to her mother or to her older brother, however, was not simple. They had painful arguments over almost every break in the academic year about the waste of money and time that Wren so greatly adored. After the most recent family blowout, in which Wren’s father had insinuated that she’d be far better off sweeping floors on campus than paying tuition, she had vowed to never return home unless he apologized, or until he was placed, old and thinning and forgetful, in some dreary, disarming retirement home.
Wren watched the lights turn off in the shop below her and heard the door lock as Darren stepped outside. She whistled through the grating, peering down into shadows and fractured light as Darren cocked his head to look up at her. Perhaps because of the limited visibility right then, Wren believed Darren looked a bit like her father; and she thought, immediately, that she could very well hate him for it if she didn’t let the hazy similarity evanesce from her mind like steam out of a manhole cover.
“How do I get up there again?” Darren glanced about. “Buzz me in?”
“It isn’t that high-class. I have to come down and open the door for you.”
“I guess I knew that,” Darren gazed at the front door lined with ivy. “I forgot.”
“I’ll be right down,” Wren dropped her cigarette into a can inundated with rainwater.
Darren had lived in the building above Magus Books when he was an undergraduate. It was twenty-two years ago by then, but he remembered the feeling of his first apartment just as Wren knew the feeling of hers. He had never intended on still having a large portion of his life attached to that building all these years later; but here he was, running a business where he had scoured for countless secondhand copies of his textbooks, and wandered aimlessly for the next literary revelation of his twenties. His family had owned the store while he attended college. When his father passed, and his mother was too drunk to care, he was faced with selling or taking up the mantle himself. He had decided, after some hearty deliberation, on the latter.
Darren fidgeted with a bag that he was having trouble keeping underneath his arm. It ached with gifts that he intended on giving to Wren, that quiet, pleasant girl who lived in the apartment above his store. Darren did not own the building, only the storefront, and so it was never in his power to subsidize rent. But he often thought that, if it were up to him, he would subsidize or even suspend the rent for Wren, knowing that she was of little means and a good kid. She reminded him of his own daughter, though he hadn’t seen his own daughter in a long time. It was difficult to say what it was about Wren that made him think of her. They didn’t look very much alike. It might have simply been that she was young, and he was old, and that he saw in her a chance to impart guidance, even if the guidance were mistaken or unsolicited. Whatever the case, Wren seemed just as eager to engage with him as he was to engage with her.
“Sorry that took so long,” Wren said as she opened the door. A car passed at high speed; it seemed like it would not be able to stop in time for the light ahead. Wren and Darren turned to watch as its tired squealed and it hurled to a stop. “I keep waiting for a collision where I’ll have to give a statement.”
“Slow down!” Darren yelled at the car which was pulsating with music. He threw up his hands anyway to see if they would acknowledge him, even though they likely couldn’t hear him. Two windows of the car rolled down; a plume of smoke escaped. The soundtrack of heavy bass and croaking, discordant laughter was the only reply.
“At least their brakes work,” Wren smiled. She stepped to the side of the door, holding it open with her foot, nodding for Darren to come inside. She was discalced, and swimming in an oversized sweater and torn jeans. Her hair was pulled back and tied with frayed string. She had the scent of incense on her. “Coming inside, neighbor?”
“Yeah sorry,” Darren scowled at the car one last time.
The smells in that hallway were like a time machine. Many of the same smells were also in Magus Books, but Darren had become accustomed to Magus Books a long time ago. He had, in some way, developed an immunity to it. When he walked into that hallway, those smells— decrepit paper, old wood, worn carpet, flabby leather, moth balls, stale smoke, musty cologne—were like his own personal wormhole to a younger self. He watched Wren walking ahead of him toward the stairwell, and suddenly he saw himself walking toward those very same stairs. He had a bag under his arm, just as now, but he was younger and thinner, with wild hair and an unkempt beard. It was like a shot of adrenaline to be here again, although it also made him feel a little sad. Not sad for Wren, or even sad for himself, really, but sad over the sensation of feeling artificially young and to know that the feeling would pass.
Wren opened the door to her studio apartment and Darren got another injection of young blood in his system. She had lined the main living area with white Christmas lights and unframed art that gave the space an inviting but frenetic glow. A small bed was tucked into the corner next to a small bookshelf which was overflowing textbooks and paperbacks onto the floor all around it. Three candles melted into one by the window and a bottle overflowing incense carcasses was interred nearby. The smells were pleasant, but also stifling, like the air was too thick to breathe. Wren slid the window to the fire escape open as if she foresaw that it would bother Darren.
“I don’t have much,” Wren said. “But I can offer you some wine a la box.”
“Are you old enough to buy that?”
“Old enough for a market up Roosevelt and the old man behind the counter.”
“I had one or two of those once.”
“Anyway,” Wren sighed. “For the money that I pay to the university, I think that I qualify as an adult. I’m nineteen. Don’t you think I should be able to drink? I can vote. I can pay taxes. I can drive a car. I can join the military.”
“I don’t disagree with you.” Darren was familiar enough with this speech. “Like I said, I did the same thing when I was your age.”
“So, you’ll have some?”
“Sure. Why not?”
He looked around the room some more as Wren poured their drinks. He saw a picture of Wren—or else a small girl that looked like it could be her—on an end-table near an old yellow couch. The girl was being cradled by a boy perhaps four or five years older. The two of them looked like they were siblings.
“This you and your brother?” Darren asked, picking up the picture.
Wren peeked into the room and nodded. “Yeah. His name’s Henry.”
“Henry and Wren,” Darren thought out loud.
“Sorry?” Wren said, stepping into the room. She was carrying two coffee cups filled with the very finest merlot that had ever been pumped into a plastic bag.
“He looks nice,” Darren accepted the mug. “Cheers.”
“Cheers,” Wren took a swig and then set her mug down by the window.
Sirens blared from the street outside, disappearing after a few seconds.
“Do you sleep well up here?”
“I wear headphones if it gets too loud.”
“I can’t remember if it bothered me or not,” Darren said. “I think I could probably sleep through anything back then.” He stared about the room, trying to recall how it looked when he was there. His bed had been on the floor just like Wren’s, but he had elected for the back wall near the door, rather than the far-right corner closer to the window where she had chosen. She had unframed art everywhere; he’d had posters of Nirvana and The Pixies. She had abundant white light; he’d had a single lamp and the glow of his refrigerator. She had boxed wine; he’d had whatever the cheapest beer was that he could find.
“What’s in the bag?” Wren pointed at Darren’s care package.
“Oh, right,” Darren set it down on her coffee table, which was not actually a coffee table, but a tall stack of cardboard boxes which she had bound with plastic and taped into a dense rectangle. It looked better than he would have thought if she had only described to him its components.
“First,” Darren said, “I brought you some quality rolling tobacco, because I see that you are always using Top and whatever other pencil shavings.” He pulled out two bulging pouches: one of Drum and the other of Bali Shag. “A student should have luxuries every now and again.”
Wren opened each pouch and took a deep breath. The smells were rich and complex: an undercurrent of vanilla mixed with wet earth and tree bark and crushed cherries, along with the herbaceous delicacies that she so often detected in her incense. Some measure of both tobacco and incense seemed as though it belonged in the halls of an old church, or in a magical library like Suzallo, or in an anchorite’s isolated quarters near a lone window.
“Thank you,” Wren exhaled.
“I also brought you a couple more books. On the house.”
Darren took out a copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and set it on the makeshift table, followed quickly after by a copy of the Meditations. Meditations was a glossy paperback copy which glowed in the room’s light as if it were made out of gold.
“I read Mysteries when I was an undergraduate like you. Same with Meditations,” Darren said. “Both had an effect on me. And I guess that I just thought that you might enjoy them also if you haven’t already read them.”
“I’ve loved A Confederacy of Dunces so far,” Wren looked at each of the books he had brought her. She touched their covers and flicked through their pages. She didn’t want to seem rude, but she couldn’t help noting, at least to herself in that moment, that every book Darren had recommended to her thus came from old, white males just like he was. “I haven’t read either of these. The list is always growing. Always more to read!”
“Well, I hope that you like them whenever you get around to them.”
“You’re too kind, Darren,” Wren hugged him. “Thank you. So thoughtful, really.”
“You’re welcome,” Darren took a sip of his wine, which was not half as bad as he had imagined that it would be. He’d thought that it would taste like swill, like the sewer rats smell, but it didn’t taste like much of anything. It was like drinking purified water with red dye and the slightest hint of alcohol.
Wren downed her wine which made Darren want to do the same. She smiled and filled them both up again in the kitchen, returning with the refreshments in a flash.
Wren began to roll a cigarette with her new tobacco. “Will you have one with me?”
“Sure. Why not?”
Wren’s fingers moved with a dexterity that impressed Darren; in less than a minute, she had made them both a perfect cigarette. She motioned toward the window. “Do you mind using the fire escape?”
“Not at all.”
Wren climbed through the window out onto the grates, and Darren thought he could hear the iron that supported her wheezing. He took off his jacket and set it on the floor, and then bent at his knees and passed through the void with his coffee mug. When he sat down on the landing, he had the impression that his weight was being supported by an elderly woman whose back was a few pounds shy of giving out.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been out on this landing with more than just me,” he said. “That was a very long time ago, and quite a few pounds ago.” He rubbed his belly like a bear. He was not terribly overweight, but he still had the round, soft body now that he’d always feared would come with middle age.
“I’ve had three people out here before and it was fine.”
They sat cross-legged and enjoyed their cigarettes together. Wren lifted hers, and held her free hand over her heart, preparing a solemn vow. “This really is very good. I feel like I am being spoiled. Thank you again.”
Darren raised his glass. “To my favorite customer.”
Wren raised hers. “To your store. How long have you had it?”
“But I love it, I love the store. My dad opened it in the seventies. It’s nice to be able to still keep the doors open. And I like being close to the university; there’s a good energy here.”
“Yeah,” Wren took a deep breath and glanced toward campus.
“How is school going for you?”
“I love it. But my family doesn’t love it quite so much.”
“No? Do they want you to be a lawyer or something?”
“Something like that.”
“Well,” Darren said, puffing up, feeling his moment. “Education for the sake of itself isn’t such a bad thing. Give them time. They’ll come around, and you’ll find your own way.”
“I think that my father hates me actually. He hates everything that I am doing.”
“If he doesn’t, then he’s made it very clear to the contrary. I like to read. I like to write. Is there something so terrible about that? Maybe I won’t make a lot of money—I don’t really care.”
“Try to understand though: when a baby is born, there is this promise about them. When it’s your child, you have all of these expectations—things you think they’ll do, people you think they’ll be. You imagine all of it. So when they end up being something different, it isn’t easy to adjust. It takes time.”
“The last time we spoke, he told me I’ll be sweeping floors for the rest of my life. And he said it like that would be very different from the manual labor that he’s done for most of his adult life. He said it like he was ashamed of me. I don’t understand him.”
“When my wife left me,” Darren said, feeling Wren’s eyes turn on him like they hadn’t before then, “my life was in tatters. We had a very messy separation. And because of what we said, and the way that I acted—the things that I did, the way that I behaved—I have not been able to see my daughter very much since.”
Darren got lost for a moment in the past. He sprinted through it all again, as he’d done so many times before, picking out what could have been done differently, what might have gone a more amicable direction. But there wasn’t anything to do differently. What was done was done forever, even if he wished that he could wave his hand and change it.
“But I think of her, my daughter, all the time. Even when I don’t see her, even when she isn’t in my life, I’m always thinking about her. Always.”
Wren didn’t want to press the issue too much, so she only said, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“The point is, no matter what your father says, no matter how he acts, I can tell you that he loves you, and that he wants the best for you. Nobody whose ever had a child hasn’t felt that in some way, even if their behavior suggests the opposite.”
“Is that why you brought me the gifts? And are being so nice to me?”
“You’re a good customer.”
They finished their cigarettes and stepped back inside. Wren decimated her wine again, throwing it down her gullet the same as before, prompting Darren to follow suit. She took their mugs and gave them another refill, and Darren watched her come and go from the living room into the kitchen and back again. He felt his vision wobble and he wondered if hers was doing something similar. He noticed her figure beneath her baggy clothing. He began to wonder if there was something else that had made him ecstatic to come upstairs and speak with her in private. He felt the cheap alcohol turning his mind into a balloon.
She handed him his coffee mug and sat down on her couch, fingering through the two books that he had brought her, and Darren began to feel ashamed of himself. This girl was not the same age as his daughter—his daughter was far younger—but he was still a father and she was still a child. He finished his wine with a haste that surprised even Wren and he picked his coat off of the floor.
“That was fast,” Wren chuckled.
“I should go. It’s late. And I’m old.”
Wren stood and gave him another hug. She waited for his hands to wander to her lower back, for his arms to embrace her a little too intimately, to have to politely explain. But instead of any of that, she only felt that same awkward, hesitant touching that she had experienced for most of her life with her own father, like being in the arms of someone who has read all about how to hold another person and is now to practice bashfully for the rest of their life. Suddenly everything about Darren and his little shop became more endearing, more tragic, more lovely.
“I can walk you down?”
“That’s alright,” Darren looked around the room again. “I remember the way.”
“Can I tell you a secret?” Wren blurted. “It’s embarrassing. But I want to tell you.”
“Sure. Why not?” Darren leaned against the door behind him.
“Sometimes when I’m out on that fire escape, I imagine that I can move people this way and that. Like they’re characters in a story. I’ll watch them waiting for a crossing signal or a taxi and I’ll wonder if I can silently make them choose to go farther up the street instead, or go have something more to drink, or change their major because of what someone has said to them that day. It’s a strange thing, I know, but I like to imagine it all. And when they do—or at least, it seems for a moment that they do—I can’t hardly contain myself. I want to scream. I want to shout down to them. But of course, I never do. I’m not a lunatic.”
“Did that happen tonight? When we were sitting out there?”
“No,” Wren lamented. “No magic tonight.”
“Well, I’ll tell you a secret also,” Darren felt his moment fading. “Each of us wants to influence other people. And when we’re actually able to, it can feel a lot like magic.”
Darren took the stairs down to the street and hailed a cab. He thought that if he felt this same way in the morning, he would try and call his late wife. Maybe nothing would come of it. He wanted to call her right then, but he knew that she would smell the cheap alcohol through the phone, the way that she smelled the cheap alcohol so many times before, and then she wouldn’t hear a thing he had to say, heartfelt or not. He hoped that he would wake up feeling this way. He hoped that his daughter’s face would be the first thing in his head when the sun rose and filtered through his bedroom blinds. He ducked into the cab, mouthing a kind of prayer or chant with his silent words. He hoped that he would wake up feeling this way.
Wren rolled herself another fine cigarette, sifting through the pages of her newest books. She flipped open to a random page within Meditations and began to read, and what she read of it she read out loud. “If you set yourself to your present task along the path of true reason, with all determination, vigor, and good will: if you admit no distraction, but keep your own divinity pure and standing strong, as if you had to surrender it right now; if you grapple this to you, expecting nothing, shirking nothing but self-content with each present action in accordance with nature and a heroic truthfulness in all that you say and mean—then you will lead a good life. And nobody is able to stop you.”
She let the cover of the book close and she stepped back out onto her balcony, breathing in the damp night air. She watched a cab pull away from the curb and onto the street, and before she could see which direction it was headed, she waved her hand like a wand in the air, as if she had a power swelling within her to will it toward a left turn.
Stephen Haines is an MFA student at Western Washington University, and the Managing Editor of Bellingham Review in Bellingham, WA where he lives with his partner, Kelli. His work has been shortlisted at Epoch Press and has appeared in Creative Colloquy and in the Scholar’s Week showcase at WWU.