Junior in the Tunnels
by Bud Smith Read author interview June 23, 2014
She’s distressed. A glass breaks in the sink. Then another. I walk into the kitchen. “I can’t marry you,” she says.
Soap suds float in the air, small bubbles. I shut off the hot water.
“It’s okay,” I say. “So we don’t get married. There are billions of people who don’t get married.”
“Like who?” she says, head down, wiping her wet hands on my chest.
“Like the newscaster on channel three and the lady who stocks the cat food at the grocery store. They’re not married.”
“They don’t even know each other, I know you.”
“Okay then, another example. Like, I dunno, the woman who walks that orange dog and the guy hanging off the back of the garbage truck—not to mention, the garbage truck guy sings to her from the back of the truck, that’s love.”
She laughs, “Don’t try to make me laugh.” The ring is sitting on the washing machine next to the sink. I pick it up; I put it in my pocket.
“No harm no foul.”
Dee was engaged once. Seventeen years ago—which sounds like a lifetime ago—but I guess that’s all how you look at things. What’s a lifetime?
His name was Junior. He died in the tunnels beneath the (now abandoned) Mayweather Home. The tunnels connect one wing of the facility to another.
That’s where the kids in this town always partied. It’s hard to find how to get in, but once you can figure out how to access the tunnels, there’s no better place to drink underage, to smoke up, to … I’m a grown-ass man, I don’t have a need for secret haunted tunnels.
Haunted, yes. That’s the other thing.
Dee woke me. Heavy rain out the window, slopping in on the floor. The room was semi-dark, but should have been all the way dark, there was some unexplainable ethereal light.
“I promised myself to someone,” she said.
“I get that,” I said, “I promised myself to Nadine Fincher in the eight grade. She had the curliest hair on the east coast.”
“What happened with you and Nadine?”
“When she hit the ninth grade, she got a hair straightener for her birthday. That was that.”
“Well, I don’t have curly hair.”
“I know, but you dance really fantastic and you tell the best racist jokes I’ve heard. That’s solid gold.”
“I’m going to poison you.”
“Bring it on.”
“What if you died one day, would you want me to be with someone else?”
“I’d want you to be with someone else right now, while I’m very much alive, if it’d make you happy,” I said.
“Wouldn’t that kill you?” she said. “Something you should know, every year on his birthday I go and visit him.”
“Junior,” I say.
She pulled away in the bed.
“You know his name?”
“Guy I work with told me the story.”
“I’d rather you not retell the story to me. Tomorrow’s his birthday.”
“Tell you what, I’ll come with you.”
“You don’t want to go where I’m going.”
“I’ll even get the cake.”
It’s a lemon cake with vanilla icing and strawberries. As I carry it, I feel more and more foolish to have not brought forks and a knife of some sort. He’d have been 36. I think my lighter works.
The easiest way to get into the Mayweather is to climb in through a broken window around the side, near the laundry. Dee climbs up on a pile of stumps and slips into the darkened window. Her hands appear. I pass her the birthday cake.
Most of the tiles are smashed. The floor is a nest of clothes, blankets, empty bottles and toys: baby dolls, dominoes, playing cards. Graffiti obscures most everything, as if it was practice for the outside world.
We walk down a long hallway and I don’t look in rooms as I pass, because I may not exactly be superstitious, mind you, but I don’t want to see anything that invades my dreams if you get my drift.
“Here’s the room,” she says.
It’s a storage room, with a closet wide open. She hands me the cake, momentarily. In the closet, she moves a rack of clothes out and opens a hidden door.
Now we walk in total darkness. I feel with both hands on a sweaty concrete wall.
“Did you bring a flashlight?”
“They don’t work down here,” Dee says.
“Well then how do we go?”
“Candle light,” she says.
“Well, did you bring any candles? I didn’t bring any candles.” She flicks a lighter, and begins to light the cake.
I laugh, “Well, except for the 36 in the goddamn cake.”
It’s a short walk. Five minutes or so. Dee stops. There’s initials spray painted on the wall. A date too.
“I did that,” she says. “This is where he passed.”
She sits Indian-style on the concrete floor. The darkness licks in and pushes out as the candles on the cake flicker.
I sit too.
“Happy Birthday, Junior,” she says. “This is my friend, Larry. He has a question to ask you about me. I hope you’re here and I hope you’re listening. Be brutal, Junior. Be honest. Be severe.”
“First,” Dee said, “Make a wish.”
I open my mouth, confused, is it my wish or his? Then, mouth still agape, I start to ask Junior if it’s okay to marry his fiancé.
The candles snuff out.
About the Author:
Bud Smith is the author of F250, Calm Face, Dust Bunny City, among others. His writing has been at Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Volume 1 Brooklyn, The Rumpus. He works heavy construction, and lives in Jersey City, NJ.
About the Artist:
Mario Pinho is a photographer from Luanda, Angola. This photo was used via the Flickr Creative Commons license.