Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

The Lexmark

BY MATT SAILOR

“What it was,” said the one, “was that Marco was working as the security guard for this building in Detroit, the Lanyard—”
 
“No, it wasn’t the Lanyard, it was the Lexmark,” the other one said. We were sitting in a tiny bar in Lansing, and the light outside was starting to fade already, at only 5 o’clock.
 
“No. That’s not right. The Lanyard. The Lenmont. The Lowell.”
 
“The Lexmark.”
 
“It doesn’t matter. It was in Detroit. This building. Old-timey hotel, you know, when people actually lived in hotels, when living in a hotel wasn’t…”
 
“A stigma.”
 
“I don’t know about stigma, it’s more than just a fucking stigma, it’s depressing. You’re living in a fucking hotel.”
 
“I used to know a guy who lived in a hotel.”
 
“Exactly my point.”
 
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
 
“Exactly what I said. Exactly what it means. You knew him.”
 
“The fuck?”
 
“Anyway, it doesn’t matter the name, except maybe that it sounds good if it’s ‘The’ something. The Latimore. You know, like it’s the only fucking one, and it means something that that’s what it is. Because it’s a building where people used to live and it meant something. Like you read about in books. Guy lives in a hotel, has his laundry sent to a woman, takes his meals in the dining room downstairs, says things like ‘takes his meals,’ you get it.”
 
I did get it actually, believe it or not. It was continental. European. No sink in the room. Sharing a bathroom. A desk by the window and a bed. A plant, maybe, sitting on the ledge. Simple. ‘I rent a room,’ you would say, and so did everyone else. Bachelorhood.
 
“So, this is back in the early ’80s, when Marco works there. And the building has fallen on hard times. Urban blight, people starting to move out. I mean, it’s Detroit, it’s not hard to see the direction things are going, even then.”
 
“Oil crisis.”
 
“Sure. Jimmy fucking Carter. Fucking everything up. So people don’t have jobs and this hotel—it used to be a landmark. Maybe that’s it. The Landmark. Now, respectable types have all moved out, junkies and pimps are all moving in.”
 
“Tell him about the tire.”
 
“I’m telling him about the goddamn tire. Christ on a cracker.”
 
“Well, get to it, it’s the most important part.”
 
“Right, so the one thing about this building that you need to know about, and you would know if you’d ever spent any time in Detroit…have you ever spent any time in Detroit?”
 
I would, years later, live in an artist colony in a place called Hamtramck, a tiny city that is, believe it or not, located entirely inside the Detroit city limits. This was recently enough that Detroit was an absolute nightmare by then, but even at that point, people who lived in Detroit had a genuine affection for it. It was their city. But living in Hamtramck, the (literal) shadow of the GM assembly plant making it impossible for the artists there to grow cucumbers or tomatoes to their liking (they were denuded of all color, pale white ghosts of vegetables and fruits), you felt surrounded by Detroit, suffocated by it. I wasn’t there for art. I was with my wife, a sculptor. She sculpted heads, hyper-realistic busts of (she insisted) no one in particular, pulled (she insisted) directly from her brain, but so realistic that you could swear she had taken casts in plaster. So, to say that I have spent a lot of time in Detroit is both an understatement and an absolute fabrication. Because I spent a year there, but barely ever ventured inside it.
 
“No,” I said, because at that time, it was the truth. And as I said, it still is, in a way.
 
“Well, the thing you need to know is that this hotel has a giant, four story tire on the top of it.”
 
“The Uniroyal Tire.”
 
“Right, Uniroyal. It’s this huge tire that was actually first a Ferris Wheel at the World’s Fair when they had it in New York. Afterwards, they moved it to Detroit, and they put it up on this hotel, and it was like, you know, a billboard, basically.”
 
“A huge fucking billboard.”
 
“So, this hotel has fallen on hard times, right? Junkies and prostitutes, and they haven’t renovated, so the wallpaper’s peeling and it’s rat-infested, and one entire wing of the place has water damage all through it. So, the holding company that owns this hotel—”
 
“Holding company? No. You don’t even know what a holding company is, do you? It was a real estate investment trust, man.”
 
“Real estate investment trust, my ass. Holding company, LLC, whatever.”
 
“Real estate investment trust.”
 
“Fine. Real estate investment trust. Sure. Like it really matters.”
 
“‘Just the facts, Ma’am.'”
 
“So, the owners decide they’re going to close the hotel down, there’s no profit in operating it, people don’t want to live in a hotel, and nobody comes to Detroit anymore. They think they might renovate it and turn it into apartments or something, but for now, they’re kicking everybody out, shuttering it. But Uniroyal still wants the tire in place. So, they work out a deal, they pay them some obscene amount of money each year, millions, more than the hotel’s worth, just to keep the place standing, and let the Uniroyal Tire stay up.”
 
“It’s a landmark.”
 
“Right, they want the thing up because it increases their prestige, makes them a recognizable brand. It’s like the fucking Hollywood sign, to them. So, it’s a marketing expense.”
 
It seems very strange to think of it, now. I haven’t looked it up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Uniroyal Tire were still there. If the company (owned no doubt by some obscure Belgian consortium, some joint venture between two oligarchs in the United Arab Emirates) still paid to have it kept aloft, atop a derelict hotel, shining like a beacon against the nightmare of Detroit, where entire skyscrapers have been deserted, the city paying to keep the electricity on in the antennas and minarets only, to prevent aircraft mishaps, the buildings themselves hulking in the darkness, waiting for their girders to buckle, praying for demolition, yearning for death.
 
“So, Marco’s living there, it’s maybe ’84, ’85, and he’s working as a pizza delivery guy, or something, when he sees this ad in the newspaper.”
 
“He hated that job. He used to spend his lunch hours, his days off, his last hour awake in bed just reading through the classifieds, fantasizing about doing something else, anything else. The problem was, he was an idiot, so he wasn’t qualified for anything.”
 
“Which is why this job was perfect. Security guard wanted, or whatever. He doesn’t have to do anything. It’s not like he even has to sign in visitors, check IDs, anything. It’s just walking through the halls of this building, making sure it doesn’t catch fire, chasing out vagrants, keeping a log of any rat sightings for the exterminators that Uniroyal hired to clear the place out every six months. So he takes it, of course, he interviews, and it goes fine. He doesn’t know it’s for The Latimore—”
 
“The Lexmark.”
 
“So he shows up for his first day to work, keys in hand, ready to shadow his supervisor, and he’s looking at the little slip of paper with the address on it, and following the numbers down MLK Boulevard, and he looks up, and he’s looking at this giant fucking tire.”
 
“He can’t believe it.”
 
“So, the job’s easy enough. Like I said, he just makes his rounds, reports anything unusual. Sometimes he’ll get a gang of kids trying to start a fire, or a photographer trying to get pictures, or some bag lady trying to camp out. But for the most part it’s smooth sailing. Most of the time all he has to do anyways is radio dispatch—”
 
“They ain’t got dispatch. It’s just him working the building, and the night guy.”
 
“Of course they have dispatch. What, you think he’s a direct employee of Uniroyal? You think this holding company—”
 
“Real estate investment trust.”
 
“Whatever. You think this real estate investment trust employs its own guards? No. They outsource that shit. He’s working for L&L Security, or whatever the fuck. He radios dispatch for the security company, they call the cops, he just unlocks the gate for ’em when they get there. That easy.”
 

“He does carry a gun, though.”

“Of course he’s got a gun, what do you think?”

“You didn’t make it sound like he had a gun. It comes up later.”

“Okay, fine. Go and ruin the whole story.”

“Yeah, yeah, you’ll ruin it enough on your own. Go ahead and finish.”

“So he’s been there six months or so. Just patrolling this building, day in, day out. Until one day, he’s up there at the top floor, and he hears some kind of rustling up above. So he’s thinking, ‘I’m on the fucking top floor, which means there’s somebody on the roof.’ He doesn’t really get it, because he’s the only guy, except for the night guy, who has keys to the roof. And it’s not like you could jump from another building, or anything. This hotel is big, for one. And it’s mostly parks on three sides, and the fire escapes are so rusted out that the bolts have started coming loose and they’ve been falling off.”

“Okay, he gets it. How’d they get on the roof?”

“It’s a mystery. And he gets to the roof access door, and it’s locked. There’s even chains on the thing, and those are secure. So he takes out his keys, and he opens the three locks that he needs to to get up there, and it’s taking forever just to find the right keys, ’cause he doesn’t ever use the roof keys. He’s supposed to go up on the roof once a week, at least, just to check it out, but he never does, because, again, how is anybody gonna get on the roof? So he’s already doing more than he usually has to put up with in a typical shift.”

“So, does he get the thing unlocked yet, or are you going to tell us what kind of shoes he was wearing, now, too?”

“Okay, wiseass. So, he gets it unlocked, and he’s going up there, and it’s taking him forever, ’cause you know Marco, he’s a pudgy fucker. And he’s huffing and puffing, and he gets up on the roof, and it’s pretty easy to see, since it’s broad daylight, that there’s nothing up there. So, it’s creeping him out something awful, ’cause he knew he heard something, right? It’s not his imagination. He’s been there awhile, and he knows what to listen for, when it’s the wind and when it’s your mind playing tricks. It ain’t the wind. It ain’t his mind. There’s something up there.”

“Did it ever occur to him,” I say now, coughing a little on the first word because I’ve been listening so long my mouth is dry, that the act of speaking is unfamiliar, that I can taste my own tongue, that fleshy, bland, almost rotten taste that you get when it has been too long since you have had anything to eat or drink, “that it might have been birds?”

“Birds?”

The two of them both laugh now. And I’m fine with it. It doesn’t offend me. They know the story. They know Marco. They know that city. I am what they don’t know. So, of course. It is me they laugh at.

“It ain’t birds, buddy.”

“No, it ain’t birds. So he’s making his way across the roof, looking behind all the old rusted HVAC equipment to see who’s hiding.”

“Or what.”

“Yeah, or what. So he’s looking, going all the way across this huge roof. And then he comes to the tire. It’s actually got a door, because they need access to all the catwalks that are inside for if they ever need to change one of the light bulbs that light up the big Uniroyal logo. So, he gets out the key, and he knows which one on the ring that is, because it looks different than all the others. It’s longer, darker, thicker. And so he gets the door open, and it’s practically rusted shut, ’cause no one else hardly ever goes in there either, but he pushes the thing in, and he looks around, and—”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?” I can’t believe it, because of course, the way that the story works, there should be something in the tire. But I shouldn’t have worried. The oldest trick in the book.

“Well, nothing. But not nothing. It’s full of shit.”

“I know the feeling.”

“Watch it! But really, it’s full of real shit. It smells. There’s shit in there, but not just shit, there’s also twigs and leaves and branches and shit all over the ground, spread out, you know, straw and things. Like something’s been living in there.”

And unable to contain myself now, “Because it has?”

“Whoa, cowboy. So he backs up, because it smells awful, and he turns around real quick to go report it, because he figures some guy’s been squatting in there or something.”

“In more ways than one.”

“But when he turns around, he sees a buck standing there. A ten-point fucking buck.”

“Like, a deer?”

And the two of them laugh again. Louder and longer this time. When they finally quiet down, he says, “You bet your ass a deer. It’s just standing there, gotta be 12 feet tall with the antlers, and it’s kicking its hooves, you know, like it wants to charge. ’Cause he’s got his nest, apparently. So before he can stop to think, ‘what in Sam hell is a buck doing living inside the Uniroyal fucking Tire,’ it’s running at him. And he’s never used his gun before, but this is a fight or flight, kill or be killed kind of situation, so even though he hasn’t got his hunting license, he pulls the pistol out, aims it at the buck, and—”

“BAM BAM BAM BAM!”

“He unloads a whole clip into the thing.”

They are excited, both of them. Leaning forward, both drinking beers. Not drinking them, but holding them pressed between their thighs, holding their knees together so tightly that I worry that, from the combination of the force exerted and the condensation lubricating the bottles, they will slip through their respective pairs of thighs and crash into the concrete patio, sending shards of glass and a tidal wave of lukewarm Molson in all directions, or worse, that they will launch upward, two buck seventy five torpedoes rocketing into orbit. And I shake my glass, which is full of nothing but melted ice and not-yet-melted ice, only the slightest residue of whiskey or bourbon or whatever brown liquid I was sucking down what seems now like hours ago, and I want to ask them what the point of it is, but looking into their eyes, before they say anything more, I already start to know, start to understand. There is no “why,” here, only “what,” and perhaps “how,” and incidentally, “when.”