Vincent moved into a bottom floor apartment on Martin Luther King Avenue, across the street from a car stereo store, a title pawn, and a murky pool hall called Weak’s Market, all with iron bars over their windows. At the corner of MLK and Jefferson, a Shell Station with a Golden Pantry grill served spicy chicken biscuits and wings until three am—with Vincent’s building the exact distance it takes to walk and eat a box of hot wings and tater logs. Every morning Vincent found wax paper and wing bones on his front lawn. Once he found a man stooped in the grass, picking through them and eating leftover “top-meat.”
Vincent’s building was formerly section eight housing, but had been recently renovated and given over to private enterprise, which didn’t do much in the way of maintenance. An old bench press sat in the yard, ninety pounds of weight still on either end of the bar, the grass grown long underneath it. The place was, at first, before Vincent began growing marijuana plants in his dead father’s greenhouse, all he could afford. None of the buildings were open-air—all of them had front doors—and the front door to Vincent’s building was for some reason still wrapped in a blue tarp and duct tape. Vincent had seen houses decorated for Christmas sort of like this, their front doors swathed in shiny red wrapping paper and a golden bow, but he didn’t want to unwrap this door, didn’t want to see what kind of a gift comes in a tarp, because whatever it was couldn’t be good, Vincent having over his twenty-seven years amassed a great quantity of tarp associations, none of them positive, mostly mulch and mud and dead bodies, and so, knowing this, and understanding further that even that most auspicious of tarps, the party tent, implied in its pitching a reasonable probability of inclement weather, Vincent never peeked under the tarp over his front door, was happy to leave it gift-wrapped, sealed, perhaps still viable for future return or credit or exchange.
Now this was July, this was summer. Full-bore, deep South, sidewalk-skillet summer. Vincent had decided to leave the serious greenhouse work alone until the heat passed, which he guessed would be sometime in September, maybe even October. His only responsibility until then was feeding the pigeons, which he did every evening around eight, when temperatures finally dropped below ninety and the construction at the New Kroger had ceased for the day. This construction, and not Vincent, was what had really spooked the birds in their coop. He knew this because they were calmer when he came in the evenings, cooed gently, approached him on foot instead of flapping around. He looked forward to these evenings, to the cooling air and a visit to the coop.
During those summer days, Vincent sat outside by an electric fan on his stoop, slapping hands with passersby in flat-brimmed caps, t-shirts under the caps, wrapped around their heads and flapping down over the backs of their necks in some modern desert style. He used to imagine his father was like these men—deadbeat, welfare, soda bottle in hand, waistbands around their thighs, walking lock-kneed to hold their pants up, walking like they were injured, handicapped, walking who knows where, who knows why, maybe just for the breeze of movement. It seemed everyone in this neighborhood walked, everyone except Vincent, who sat, who observed, still the outsider, searching these faces for a flash of his father, but too hot to do anything but sit, watch, and listen. And when it got too hot to keep his eyes open, when temperatures topped 105, as they eventually did, he just sat and listened. Vincent’s front yard was basically MLK Avenue, so in the daytime he heard mostly traffic—big redneck trucks with modified mufflers, or hoopty Crown Vics up on 22s, painted like cop cars, bass so loud he bet it got the drivers hard. And this is how Vincent first came to understand Milledgeville—through the sounds of its traffic. He soon developed this axiom, called Vincent’s Axiom: The poorest people have the loudest cars. Race didn’t matter—black, thundering bass; white, tommy-gun trucks. And then you’ve got the cars that weren’t intentionally loud, that simply needed to be fixed. It was all related to class, and Vincent figured it was their way of yelling back—after all, you can’t redistrict sound. The poor got to roar.
At night, traffic died down and Vincent could hear other neighborhood sounds: barking dogs, stereos, the odd gunshot, sirens, angry women storming into and out of Weak’s Market. A nearby basketball court came alive. One evening, later than Vincent usually stayed out, a man with tiny legs and an enormous, square torso housed in a dark blue cutoff tee—Vincent couldn’t tell the fat/muscle ratio—with proportionally tiny black nylon shorts and bright white socks clapped around his ankles, came out of Vincent’s building, nodding as he edged past on the stoop. He had a water bottle with him, and went down to the yard to lie on the bench press, which was spotlit by an orange streetlight.
Vincent watched him settle in, shuffle his shoulders on the pad, flex his fingers and grip the bar—Vincent figured over two hundred pounds of combined weight on there—and he heard the rusted metal creak as the man slid the bar off the rack, and he pumped his arms up and down, ten, twenty times, as if he were lifting nothing, as if that bar was a broomstick. Vincent had always thought of that bench press in his yard in sort of the same way he thought of the noisy cars on MLK, as some display of strength, dissatisfaction, anger. As something purely symbolic. But here it was in front of him, not a symbol at all. After a few more pumps, the enormous man replaced the bar, huffed once and sat up, opened his mouth and squirted water into it.
Vincent called out, “Need a spot?”
The man looked at him hard, confused, said, “I’m good.”
“Joking,” Vincent said, rising. He walked down to the bench. “I wanna get there,” he said, indicating his chest, which at that time wasn’t much, wasn’t anything near the shape it was in months later, on that Easter afternoon when I first met him, laid out shirtless at the pool by those college apartments, chatting up my girlfriend. “Think you could help?”
The enormous man took Vincent in, laughed lightly, patted the bar. “I advise against it.” He was older, maybe forty, and balding, like Vincent, with sweet-looking eyes, a brow that wrinkled in fat arches when he smiled, which Vincent thought gave him a very kind look.
“Can’t you spot me?” Vincent said.
“These weights?” The enormous man gripped a ninety-pound disc in each hand, shook them. They looked gold in the orange light. “Rusted on. You’d be starting at two-twenty-five. Might as well lift a piano.”
Vincent tried to pull a weight off the bar, and couldn’t.
“Push-ups,” the man said. “Do a million. Come back.”
“Push-ups.” A car was coming down the street. Vincent could hear its tires, still a good half-mile away. He’d come to learn how far sound could carry down straight asphalt, just like it carries across open water.
The man held out a hand. “Preacher Greene,” he said.
Vincent took it. “Vince.”
“Non-believers call me Stanley,” he said with a smile. “I’m at the Church of God Almighty the Governor in Divine Attire and Grace. Name wasn’t my idea.” Stanley nodded toward the Shell station. “It’s around the corner.” He said it like he had to get this information out quickly in a conversation, like it was an excuse, like he wouldn’t be here, Milledgeville, otherwise. Vincent winced, afraid Stanley would go on about the church, but he left it at that, which Vincent appreciated. “What do you do, Vince?”
“I’m a gardener,” Vincent replied.
“A gardener,” Stanley said, and Vincent’s chin rose at the note of surprise, took it for admiration. It wasn’t the first time Vincent had said it, but it felt different saying it now, saying it to Stanley, more adult somehow—more cryptic, maybe, like it was code for a greater plan. The car approaching on MLK got a little nearer, a little louder, and as it passed, Vincent felt transported, that he and Stanley were meeting each other somewhere else, as two outsiders called to this town, that they were addressing each other not in the yard of Milledgeville project housing but on a different plane, as two ships passing in the night, pausing to hoist their lanterns and describe to each other their exotic paths, their even more fanciful destinations.
But then Vincent felt he needed to be honest.
“Not a gardener yet,” he corrected, and was suddenly aware of the shame in his inaction, in his idling all summer. “My dad had some kind of flower shop here, but he died, and he left the place to me. All these pigeons, too, which is just really nasty. He didn’t even know me.” Vincent paused, and the way the preacher was looking up at him from the bench, so kindly, intently. Vincent felt he could and should go on. “But I feel this is where I’m supposed to be, you know? Back home. Proving something to my dad. So I guess I’m not a gardener yet, but I think I’m going to learn. Soon as it cools off, I’m going to learn.”
“It is too hot,” Stanley affirmed, nodding. He spoke with music in his voice, and Vincent felt instantly absolved.
“And I’m sorry to hear about your father. But this flower shop,” Stanley said. “It’s up the highway a ways? Where they building that New Kroger, right?”
“You know it?”
“I do,” Stanley said. “I welcome the New Kroger. Going to be good for the community. And I should tell you—I knew your father, Vince. And pretty well, too. Came to church every Sunday. Didn’t want a service or anything when he died—man wasn’t a believer, you could just tell. But he showed up, did his part, and the Lord will treat him right. He really loved those pigeons.”
“Dude,” Vincent said, shaking his head. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do about those birds. Can’t get the smell out of my clothes. I mean, that smell’s even in my socks, Stanley.” Vincent lifted one foot. “My socks.”
“Been keeping their feathers up?”
“I feed them every day.”
“But have you been keeping their feathers up?” Stanley asked. He flapped his arms. He was still seated on the bench, and his arms, sticking out of his huge torso, looked like stubby little wings. “Have you been flying them?”
Stanley parked so his headlights shone on the door to the pigeon coop. The wood looked old and gray. When they got out, they could hear the birds inside, bubbling. Vincent led Stanley to the coop, unhitched the padlock and the latch, pulled the door open about an inch, took a last deep breath of fresh air, held his breath and swung the door back all the way.
“She do smell,” Stanley said. He edged by Vincent into the dark coop.
Vincent tugged on the chain of a bare bulb, but either it was burnt out, or the electricity had been cut off. The only light in the coop came from the headlights, and everything the beams touched looked white and ghostly. Pigeons bobbed across the floor, in and out of the light, like spirits—dumb, lost spirits, without an earthly referent. Vincent heard Stanley moving some things around in the back of the coop, and he soon emerged with a long bamboo pole, a flap of blue tarp tied to one end. He handed it to Vincent.
“Every day, your dad would take this pole and lead the birds out there.” He pointed to the fields. “And he’d wave that thing around like a flag, and they’d fly in these great big circles. It was really something.”
Vincent hefted the pole, spun it in his hands. It looked like a pool net. Fifteen, twenty feet long, but the bamboo was light. “All right,” he said. He lowered the pole, waved the tarp end at the pigeons, whistled, and began to back out of the coop. The birds rushed after him, scattering dust and millet, and Stanley wrapped his arms over his face and ran out ahead.
Outside, Vincent raised the pole and walked it out into the field. The pigeons took off, followed the tarp as Vincent swooped it around. It was too dark, so he mostly just heard them flapping, could only now and again catch their shadow passing above him, a body of birds. He walked to the end of the field and back, swooping as he went, lunging with the pole, stirring birds into the sky. And he wondered again about his father, about the man that his mother had left so long ago, the man Vincent hadn’t been allowed to contact, the man he’d always seen in those men walking around Milledgeville—drunk, skinny, sloppy, always in transit, afraid of stopping, afraid of putting down roots, maybe even afraid of him, of Vincent, but now Vincent looked around at the long fields and imagined them all blooming, the pigeons swirling above, and wondered what about this life could have been that bad.
Vincent’s story will continue in the next installment of The New Kroger.
Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.