The powers that be have to be crazy to give elementary school kids the day off when their parents aren’t home. They might as well pass out free tickets to an amusement park. While wandering about the town, looking for free rides, I found Tolson. He would have to do. He claimed to have been blinded by the sunlight and couldn’t find his school. It was quickly decided that both of us would search for his school or for something more interesting.
Tolson, who might have been responsible for my expulsion from the Boy Scouts, now involved me in another crime with potentially more serious consequences. This would have been during the summer of my twelfth or thirteenth year. I wouldn’t have had anything to do, for I knew nothing about work (My mother lived on a small pension and never worked. As my father was dead, he lacked a job.). My days were spent drifting from one part of Georgetown to another. Tolson, who would perform dissections on goldfish with firecrackers, also lived in Georgetown, but we rarely met on the streets. His presence always electrified me. He was the sort of person whose thoughts would produce actions and, as his thinking was so radically different, his actions were unpredictable. He was not charismatic but, once he began an activity, his single mindedness was like a black hole that swallowed every consideration and every person within his orbit.
On this day, he suggested that we break into the abandoned milk plant on a busy corner of Wisconsin Avenue. His suggestion was not unusual. Everyone, who was tall enough to reach the fire escape, used the building as a hideout. Young kids could smoke illicit cigarettes or watch the people meandering on Georgetown’s main street. Opposite the factory was a pasty shop. The older boys would spy on the spiffy women who met furtively under its awning before swiftly penetrating the shop’s softly lit interior.
The whole building was ours today. Each of the three floors was an immense wasteland. The ceilings were four times our height and from that height dangling pipes, tubes and wires like the skeletal remains of improbable creatures from unmapped islands. The whiten walls, which once reflected the purity of the product that flowed throughout the building, were now coated with a grey, moldy dust. Above the offerings of broken bottles and bricks, patches of the whiten wall had crumbled leaving bright irregular smears of red brick, like the raw, stretched skins of animals.
Tolson felt impeded by the glass remaining in the windows. He picked up clumps from the clutter and debris on the floor and threw them through the windows. The louder the crashes, the faster he moved. Was he trying to clean the floor? Or was he emptying the building? I don’t recall that I helped him, but I certainly didn’t try to stop him, as I doubtlessly enjoyed the music he created. When his arm tired, he suggested that we leave.
We sat on the floor, fiddling with our smoldering cigarettes. With our backs against the wall, we were lethargic giants surveying the deserted plain before us for signs of life.
Over the jagged shards of glass lodged in the window frames, a breeze swirled into the room and whisked the dirt at our feet into miniature dust devils, which waltzed away into oblivion. We contorted our faces into the visages of gargoyles and tried, without success, to mimic those graceful twirling forms with our cigarettes’ smoke. Tolson stood up and flipped his smoldering butt across the room. The adventure was over. It was time to go.
We were about to set foot on the fire escape when we saw that the factory’s parking lot was filled with police cars. A heavy cop with a bullhorn called us to come out. Now, we realized the folly of our position. There was no place to hide. These immense rooms had once been filled with machinery and equipment. Now they were empty but for two frightened teenagers, who discovered the emptiness of their bravado. All that was needed to further increase our sense of isolation would have been intense spotlights, encaging us in cones of bright light to sequestered us from the law abiding majority of our neighbors.
Like hardened criminals from the movies, we dashed up the stairs to the third floor to avoid the police. A movie crook would have a gat, but we didn’t even have a rock. We were ready to holler for Mother though. Did the cops purposefully stomp on the stairs to make the building tremble? Were they expecting us to faint thus making our capture easier? The stairs terminated at a trap door that was popped open as two Jack In The Boxes thrust themselves onto the roof. On the flat roof there were few places to hide. Our options were limited. We could jump onto the flat roof of the liquor store two stories down or we could jump to the street three floors below. Or could we take off our shirts in order to parachute to freedom. None of these options were feasible. The roof was even emptier than the floors below, for there was no ceiling other than clouds, indifferent as a flock of aimless sheep. Surely, if there were a merciful God, the cops would be acrophobic.
On one corner of the roof, there was a curious structure. Rising from a grey, metal trough were two tall, wooden boxes with louvered sides. One box was within the other.
From our viewpoint it was an unsteady tower surround by a dry moat. Objectively, it once provided cooling for the factory. Perhaps it could do the same for us.
We decided we would climb up to its top and then descend down into the labyrinth within where it would be dark. We would be out of eyesight even if one of the police were to look into it with half-hearted curiosity. When we gained the top we found that there was no opening in the middle, but that we could slip down into the thin space between the two boxes.
With the discordant clatter on the steps growing louder, we flung ourselves onto the tower and pulled ourselves upward. We were certain that, upon reaching to top, we could descend into the dark labyrinth within where visibility would be poor. We would be out of eyesight even if one of the police were to look through the slats with half-hearted curiosity. But when we gained the top, we learned that there was no opening into the structure’s interior. Our only hope was to slide down into the thin space between the two boxes.
The police were now pouring onto the roof as we wiggled down into the narrow gap. It was not comfortable. I was skinnier than Tolson. For me the space was close. The pressure of the boards made breathing difficult. I didn’t dare ask Tolson if he were all right; I didn’t dare draw a deep breath. With each exhalation, the rough boards at our feet and backs softly creaked. Behind our backs, beyond the wooden slats, was the empty air over the parking lot’s black asphalt and the blue police cars. Looking through the gaps, splotches of dark blue could be seen as the bewildered police searched the roof.
Then we heard someone preparing to climb onto our hideout. We could tell that he was much bigger than us by the way the boards complained as he pulled himself up.
When the cop climbed up the opposite side, the boards cracked under his weight. The nails screamed as they were pulled free. We fretted that his weight would pull the fragile structure over. Nervously, we watched as his body slid upward past our viewpoint. He rested after gaining the top. When he descended, he stopped to rest again and we saw that he was quite young. His blue eyes were set in a face uncarved by wrinkles. His hat was missing. Could he see us? We waited for the sign of surprise when his scanning eyes finally focused on us. Like prisoners, we peered through the bars and waited. In one hand, he held an unsteady flashlight whose light bounced around the interior of the box. His other hand clutched a slat above his head. We could see his fingers tighten as the slat under his feet announced its breaking point.
Eventually, he shrugged and lowered himself to solid slat. We could see the top of his hair, oiled so thickly the wind could not exercise even one strand. Finally his head bobbed up, down and was gone. “Nothing here”, he shouted to his mates. We could hear feet shuffling on the roof. Soon they trudged down the stairs. It had been hot work for them, for naught, and they were exasperated.
Fearing a trap, we remained frozen in our lair, even though we could hear their desultory searches on each floor as they descended. Surely, one of them remained on the roof, scratching his head in puzzlement and disbelief. We slowly craned our heads to study the parking lot. The police were reunited to their cars and drove away.
I don’t know how long we remained floating between heaven and earth but it was still daylight when we slithered out of this prison and ran down the stairs. We were exhausted when we tumbled out into the parking lot. As if by mutual agreement, we separated. Each went off to search for further devilment with anyone other than his past partner in terror.
In spite of endless efforts by teachers and others to interest William Metcalfe in the profession of writing, he failed to follow their advice. There were impediments, work, raising children and bars that stayed open until midnight. Plus, who wants to spend all night alone with a manual typewriter? His grandfather and father were both non-fiction writers. his mother was Irish. Surely, this ancestry is responsible for the piles of illegible notes scattered about his iMac. With his retirement, he is attempting to convert this sprawl into Times New Roman print.
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