Featured: Fiction by Edmund Zagorin

The Lone Inhabitant of the Gratiot South-Leg Traffic-Control Island

Edmund Zagorin

A traffic-control island is a defined area between traffic lanes

for control of vehicle movements or for … refuge.

     — Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, Part IV,

  “Islands” Section 4A-1 “The Functions of Islands” 1961

The form of a single body lies utterly still on a little triangle of Detroit. In between the clumps of tall grass, still green despite the summer heat, the body doesn’t move even one muscle. There’s a grimy baseball cap clutched to the body’s head by a handful of rundown fingernails. This body still belongs to the Inhabitant, but it has become momentarily disregarded. This is the Inhabitant’s habit, his eternal nature that takes him as the seasons change. Around the body waves of white noise spin out from the rush of four-lane traffic and crash over and over again upon the curbed shores of the Gratiot South-Leg Traffic Control Island. The sky is a collection of faded blues and whites, reaching down to stroke the plastic straws and cigarette butts lying out in the soupy gutter, changing them into the shape of the wind.

Years have passed unnoticed.

The Inhabitant has dreamed up many wonderful objects in his years of waiting. The Gatorade bottle kaleidoscope, the manhole cover radio receiver, the leaves of the splinted saplings as a message written in another language by a well-spoken yet indifferent Being. It was how the Inhabitant worked, using the world’s bumpy edges to whittle away at the dry wood of his hangdog mind. Life on the Island reconstructed in the image of a penitent monk transcribing the intricacy of the world onto vellum. The Inhabitant has even let his body grow a long and shaggy beard to tie his intricacies directly to the head so that they don’t fly away and leave him totally alone again, feeling simple.

Perhaps it was the shape a nameless father who had never once tried to get in touch, or the look of a mother who had fallen dead of Something We Don’t Talk About in the Emergency Room of Mercy, or the brother (what would Amos look like now, after all those years of quiet family life and mayonnaise sandwiches?). It might look like a welding torch, the very one he used to think deeply about when he had that good-paying job and the days were luminous but also full of gloom, back when he still had something worth protecting, worth living on the inside of, and yet still he let his penitent body destroy it. The Inhabitant shuddered with the sensations of having been pulled in too many directions at once, his vertebral column creaking with the weight of the years. He’d been marooned by life’s parade flotilla and he only knew to wait for the Beyond to return. Not that he ever complained. The Inhabitant was done complaining.

It’s early in baseball season with the verve of Tigers tailgating loosed in wild oranges and blacks, the air crowding around the Inhabitant’s sleeping ears. His body drinks in everything, holding that balloon of a soul high above every shriek and smell and color so as to build the perfect baseball season impression. People stretch and crack their armbones and lift up children and smile. They are grilling bratwurst. They are spitting sunflower seeds. The fat sun sits up on its king-sized cerulean sofa and passes its eye over every piece of giddy tinsel and chrome; the glare of an entire family in sunglasses, the discarded hot dog tin foil, the beer bottle caps twinkling in the sidewalk cracks. People are hugging, greeting the children of friendly families, lighting the cigarettes and slapping backs of lifelong buddies. The children try to sound out names like ‘Peralta’ and ‘Verlander’, working the strange consonants over with their wandering sing-song voices. The parking lots across the street from the Island are crowded with jerseyed bodies, orange and black and dark blue, the big gothic Detroit D. The Inhabitant draws on the stores of surplus joy, bouyed up high into the golden stratosphere. They are carrying the Inhabitant with their voices, with the sound of their deep and well-nourished love. No one sees the Inhabitant’s still-breathing body, smells the uric tang of his olive green Army jacket, the whiskey matting of his milkweed moustache, deep-rubbed bodysoil of his pits and hands and underclothes. The Inhabitant understands that his body might not be welcome. On such early spring day the Inhabitant convives with them in spirit and in essence alone.

In his chromogenic ecstasy the Inhabitant leaves the Island for good, never to return, and proudly enters the crowded hallways of the new Tiger Stadium, which is named after Comerica Bank. He used to go to games in his twenties and thirties, back when the Tigers played on the corner of Trumbull and Michigan. Back when he was still engaged to Celeste and flush with feelings of youth and luck, with money in his pocket and his future spread out in front of him. Now inside the Stadium the Inhabitant takes a seat and gazes down at home plate with an unobstructed view. His freshly washed hair gets blown by a rich wind of feelgood cheering, the air around him covered in ten thousand smiles that sparkle with immaculate dentistry. His own smile quivers, thrilling with the anticipation of a brand new baseball season. The Inhabitant leans forward, peering around at the crowd, sipping from a plastic mug of rich, foamy beer that never runs empty no matter how much he slurps, and a thick Polish sausage piled high with relish and kraut ketchup that seems to regrow to its full length after each and every bite. It fills his stomach up with spicy meat and grease and he thinks: I have never known such ecstasy and what else, what else could I ask for?

Next to the Inhabitant sits Celeste, incarnated in full bloom who laughs and blushes and stubbornly covers the Inhabitant’s cheeks with her shy kisses. Wow, thinks the Inhabitant, what an entirely perfect day for a baseball game! It’s as if some obscure force is pumping this dream directly through the roots of the Island grasses. Amidst the clamor and excited shrieks of the baseball crowds, up and down the sidewalks, the Inhabitant dreams on, the ripped olive green of his jacket rustling with the barest hint of breeze. The lustrous azure sky practically screams out with blueness, the furiously green grass cut with machine precision around the diamond and now the loudspeakers spring to life with that rumbling chorus PUH-LAY BALL!

The pitcher rubs a little dirt between his thumb and forefinger and gazes a code at the catcher before throwing a blistering fastball. STRIKE ONE! The crowd cheers and the Inhabitant takes another swig of his perfect beer, savoring its coldness and the effervescence of its carbonation. STRIKE TWO! STRIKE THREE! The crowd is deafening, peppered with whooping and chants of LET’S GO TIGERS! (clap, clap) and two rows in front of the Inhabitant two Army veterans fist-bump with enormous satisfaction. Celeste grabs the Inhabitant’s wrist and holds on tensely, chewing her glossy lower lip as Peralta comes up to bat, and loads the count before knocking another home run clean out of the park.

The entire stadium bursts into furious applause, yelling and pumping their arms and screaming and high-fiving strangers on every row. It is the most impossibly super brilliant baseball game that anyone has ever imagined. The air is filled with a Technicolor exultation, each strand oversaturated like the moments in old movies where the hero has just overcome some terrible obstacle and victory pours out of everyone’s eyes and mouths and swirls overhead in paradisal splendor. The  buxom Celeste wraps her tanned arms around the strong girth of the Inhabitant’s neck and buries her marzipan face in his collarbone, whispering “I love you, Jerry.”

It is almost 7:00pm when the Inhabitant’s body finally stirs, the flutter of his eyelids interrupting a solitary ant’s blind traverse across his face. He’s disoriented and immediately finds the grass a confused mess, pushing himself up to look around and discovering where he is. The thistles by the curb sway with a tumid lode, their bright purple blossoms grasping at the horizon. The Inhabitant first perceives his impression of the blossoms as the fading fireworks of his beautiful dream, the bleary phantograms pierced by the sudden dull pain of a full day’s whiskey-soaked sleep. He can now feel the weight of his sweat-encrusted body, and taste the sour sting of his rancid breath spilling out over dry, cracked lips.

The magic of the Island is gone. Waves of afternoon traffic have now left the road empty and in the distance the Inhabitant hears a muffled roar from the I-75 expressway; people going home. He raises his face from the grass into a sitting position, pulling off the straws that have printed themselves into his leathery forehead. It’ll soon be time to get some change from the stragglers as they leave the Downtown bars, and maybe go to St. Joe’s afterwards to see about a hot meal. The dizziness of hunger hits him like a spasm, and he almost sits down before stumbling off across the road.

By the time the Inhabitant leaves the Island, he has forgotten the dream entirely. The past hours of slumber appear in his memory as simply blank, drained of any activity. No one will ever remember the best baseball game ever imagined, the best game the Tigers never played. This is a largely unexamined conundrum for those interested in the dreamery of the Gratiot South-Leg Traffic Control Island. The Inhabitants invariably leave their perfect dreams  behind.

 

Edmund Zagorin was previously published in Voiceworks, Cafe Irreal and the anthology Writing That Risks (Redbridge Press, 2013). He occasionally mails paper stories to strangers via Stories By Mail, a quarterly broadsheet.