“The stars are thin… Where shall we lair to-day? for from now, we follow new trails.”
— Gray Brother, The Jungle Book
The knob was yellow, and I tugged on the lever from silver-lined holes—six, of which two scarlet, padded bars swiveled. Placing my legs on and through the padded bars, I tugged at another, chained, knob and inserted the metal stick at seventy. With my calves, I pressed downward on one of the scarlet bars. I felt that awkward contact of plastic lining against skin and leg hairs. My hamstrings tightened, burned. I counted. Eight, nine. At twelve, I rested. Suddenly, to my right, a most familiar grunt echoed throughout the gym—the somber silence of a campus January-gym where little but a few tings wrestle with the odious pop songs of Rhianna and company. But this grunt deadened all noise. To my satisfaction, it suffocated Rhianna. I recognized it and preferred it to her wailings and cries for attention. The grunt drowned out her racket, as if it beat her with a stick. It resounded, sounding like the man dead-lifted hundreds of pounds, even as if he birthed a child. My calves attacked the scarlet pad once again, and as I inwardly grunted, I cast my eyes upward. There, walking across my way, directly in front, strode Cephas—eyes bulging, head twitching, as silent and grave as the gym, as loud and magnificent as the gods.
Deciding to squat, I crossed the gym. On my way, I saw Cephas again, also squatting. I balked, then called out his name.
“Cephas.” No response. “Cephas!” I walked closer. The man whipped around and flailed his huge eyes at me. He greeted me with a fist-bump, and we flung ourselves into one of those conversations that lasts thirty minutes but circles around a single topic so that only the first and last few minutes are memorable.
“Hey! Hey!” Cephas pointed at me. “Hey! You can help me with those essays, right? You can help me, huh?” I agreed to this. “I just gotta get in to grad school. Gotta get in. I’ll be so friggin’ pissed if they don’t let me in. So I gotta get these essays written. It’s friggin’ stressin’ me out, man. Gotta friggin’ get these essays in and then hope for the best.” I assured him we would write up some good essays and asked him what his backup plan was. “I don’t know! It’s stressin’ me out, man. Gotta friggin’ get in. They gotta let me in. I got great references, we’re gonna write some good essays, I gotta good GPA, I’ll nail the interview. Look,” Cephas touched my shoulder and gave me a look. “Look, they’re groomin’ me for this over there.” He pointed in several directions and his eyes followed. “They’re groomin’ me for this, I gotta think. I gotta hope that I’ll get in, man. Just gotta get in.”
After Cephas asked me what I thought his chances were, I assured him he had a good shot. “Well, look,” he continued. “I gotta get in, just gotta get in. If I don’t then I’m out here! I met this girl—you’ve seen her, right? Hey! Have you met her? I’ve got this good girl. If I don’t get in, then I’m friggin’ outta here. I’ll be moving in May. So I gotta get in.” For the first time in my short relationship with Cephas, it occurred to me that my next door neighbor may not be forever next door. As he spoke, my stomach knotted. I saw visions. I saw Cephas moving boxes out of the apartment, his three cats wide-eyed with terror. I saw another man, a young rapscallion, moving a television. I saw two large speakers move into that same apartment. Then, I saw something else entirely: as if in the distance, at and during the end of the world. I saw Cephas with his girl, followed by a troop of young Cephas’s, all in a line, all flailing their arms wildly, heads twitching, eyes bulging. And as I looked at Cephas while he spoke, he seemed to slowly expand and multiply. I felt the horrid anticipation of another crushing blow, another goodbye.
Sometimes, at dusk, the Vegas sun tucks behind the mountains. Its glow bounces off the back of the range. It shines upward. The blue and purple mountains sink below a hot-pink. Those clouds color and crisp and look nearly solid, as if one could walk on them, carefully treading pink ice. For half a moment we forget to distinguish sky and land. Sometimes, heading west on those evenings, when the last hums and sirens of a tired day fade out into the void, when a few stragglers stumble home, or the nearest bar, when the last beggar rises from the bins, pushing his cart in the stillness, the echoing of cart-creaks, we feel we walk as one to the end of time and space. We live on the edge of existence—the final colonies. A few hundred miles and man follows the sun to the sea and the end of days.
“Hey!” Cephas stood in my entryway. “Hey! You want this?” I now stood in his bedroom, observing a large chair. “Go ahead, sit down, try it out.” I obeyed. Then I agreed. Returning about a week later, Cephas and I moved the chair into my apartment—he grunting and yelling at the movers to pack his television before it got hit. Once the chair was situated, we looked at each other—two men awkwardly observing that common human ritual. “Okay, well,” he said. “Well, hey! we’ll be in touch, right?” I assured him we would, knowing we probably wouldn’t. We hugged. He told me he loved me. He left.
I sat in his chair after, waiting to leave myself for England later that day. Soon, there would be two empty apartments on East Rochelle Avenue, hollow and alone. But as I sat on Cephas’ chair, now mine, that morning, I listened to him move the final items from his home and reflected. I remembered all my memories with the man—a blurry swirl of moments and objects that seem to have been going on for ages, of Albertsons’ fried chicken and potato wedges, beer-conversations, essay-outlining, essay-drafting, the late afternoon grunts of Cephas pulling his bike up the stairs, the evening call for Rocky, vet-visits, dentist-visits, Walmart-visits, conversations—politics, weather, Cepha’s stolen bike, Cephas’ new bike, Cephas dissatisfied, Cephas returning the bike, Cephas’ new-new bike, Cephas’ stolen bike seat, taking Smoky to the vet, checking in on Smoky, weighing Smoky, Smoky’s new food-bowl-pyramid, Smoky losing weight, Smoky’s new collar, building Rocky and Taylor a play-pin, dessert-gifts, more friend chicken and potato wedges, Rocky not coming home, searching for Rocky, putting up signs for Rocky, the evening call for “Rawckay! Rawkay!” rising in significance, beer that evening wondering where he could be—hoping, hoping, Rocky’s return, asking Cephas if I can use his internet, Cephas needing computer help, research help, formatting help, Cephas graduating, dissing on Vegas, ready to “get-outta-here,” one final “Rawkay! My boy! Rawkway!” as he shuts the door and descends the steps—nothing but an absence, an end, memory.
Corner House—Carlyle Road
May 23, 29, 2017
By Edmund Blair Leighton
Oil on canvas, 1922