Will often dreamed of falling, but never flying. Sometimes a cable would slip, or a board would snap, or his foot would step on air to tread on mere surprise. Time and again he failed to wake until his dreaming body slammed into the ethereal street, emptying his lungs.
Waking in darkness, he gulped the air of his concrete-walled room, damp and thick with mold spores. The cold seeping from the slab through his bedroll numbed his aching back. Based on his conviction that the best ideas come at the edges of sleep, Will kept his phone nearby, a recording app at the ready. “The same dream again,” he told his phone. “It isn’t real, but the pain is, just like an imaginary garden with real toads. Like Marianne Moore said in her poem. I wonder if Boethius whispered the phrase in her ear as she dreamed about holding him close while letting him go. Holding him between philosophy and poetry.”
He sat up, but kept the light off. “And when they wrapped their minds around each other in his dark prison cell, she promised to love him as though he were a woman. She would conceive, carry and bear his words like children.”
Will paused and the app rested. The other electronics in the room hummed in the silence, filling the darkness with a soft b flat. He let his mind drift. Bright phosphenes sparkled and turned in his visual cortex, forming a diagram of a block and tackle, a redesign of his current rig. He calculated the ratio of load to force. Adequate. It would get him on and off high walls quickly, and fit in his backpack. He had all the parts and only needed to assemble them. “Who needs light to think?” he said. “Ideas glow in the dark.”
The new equipment changed his plans. Instead of pasting another poem on an overpass, he could work at the top of the Mariner’s Bank and Trust, the highest he had ever gone.
Will clicked on the light. With a toss of his sleeping bag, scraps of paper scattered. Drifting poems covered paint cans and brushes, ladders, books, and dusty electronics, filling the corners of the room. He had composed some of the poems. The rest he cut from manuals, love letters, high school anthologies, and junk mail. But the best poems came to him by chance. The Lady Fortune was his muse and mistress, the source of his uncanny luck, so his favorite poems were the ones he cracked out of fortune cookies. Will picked up three of the paper slips, looking for mordant aphorisms, blunt wisdom, latent prophecy.
The first read, Without coincidences, there would be no stories. He put it in his pocket. The second had a row of lucky numbers, which he briefly considered as subject matter, then disregarded. He read the message below, Each day, compel yourself to do something you would rather not. He let go of the slip and it fell like a cherry petal. “Nope. The Lady Fortune laughs at both free will and obedience. Freedom always submits to fate.”
The third fortune read, We should always have old memories and young hopes. Will smiled and put the paper on the scanner. “That’s the one. First person plural, ambiguous, yet rings true. Profound, yet trite. Speaks to all, but seems personal.”
When the scan was done, he printed it in sections and pasted them into a twelve-by-three foot banner. He rolled the banner into a cardboard tube and set it aside for the second stage of his work.
Within a few hours, Will had built his new block and tackle. He loaded it in his backpack with two of his best six-inch Flagship badger brushes and three cans of paint in double zip-top bags. No spray paint any more. That’s for young people. Just thinking about the vapors made his ears ring.
A little after two in the morning, Will hoisted his pack and passed through a steel door into the steam tunnels. Every city has something like it: utilities, drains, entombed avenues. Invisible people moved there, sinking below the streets and resurfacing elsewhere. After six turns and two straightaways, Will stopped, shouldered an iron grate, and crawled up to the street.
The city above was too empty, the open spaces full of amoral intent. The wind off Lake Michigan rose up and tapped a cable against a metal flagpole. A cab flickered by on the next block. As its lights faded, Will threaded through alleys and hugged the margins of parking lots until his intended building came into view. It was slated for demolition. Impermanent. Mutable.
His message might only last a few weeks, but that was fitting. Fortune’s wheel turned, raising the lowly and bringing down the mighty. Looking up at the abandoned bank’s facade with its shattered windows, he recalled a scrap of verse by Perez:
In the great crash, who leapt?
Who leapt and crashed?
Who leapt and fell?
Who wore stripes to suit
the fall fashions
Will squeezed through a gap in the fence, climbed a storage bin, and took a long step to the top of the salvage company trailer. From there he could pull himself onto the remains of the fire escape. He scaled the six stories to the roof, then rested. He dismissed a creaking sound from below. All empty buildings talked at night.
A pipe anchored his safety rope. The jaws of a clamp bit into the soft lead flashing on the edge of the roof, securing his main support. He stepped into the harness and over the side, walking down the building and paying out line until he was about twenty feet down, in the space between two ranks of windows.
Swinging and stepping, Will dipped his brush and drew wide arcs across the limestone. The silken masonry took half as much paint as brick. Two shades of tan and one black filled out the curves of a giant fortune cookie. He always painted that first, let people wonder, then added the message another night. He enjoyed the risk of returning. A few times, he had to leave in a hurry. But he never got caught.
Just as Will finished, he heard a clang from above. The pulley squealed as the rope slipped, dropping him until he jerked to a stop twenty feet lower. The wall swung close, boxed his ear, tore his jacket. Feet dangling, Will watched his best brush and a bag of tan paint tumble down in separate trajectories. Thirty feet below, the bag burst on the trailer and paint slopped over the side. His brush ricocheted off the pavement and hit the trailer door with a bang.
This was not one of his dreams, however. He was still alive. The safety rope must have held. Hand over hand, he struggled to the top, tightening the ratchet as he went. Fingers curling around the edge of the roof, Will rolled over it and lay on his back. Not yet forty, he felt too old for this. The sky, overcast and grainy, was another slab of pavement. I’m between sky and street, he thought, letting his panicked breath slow until it could sustain speech. “Between words and acts,” he murmured. Will needed to get up. Climb down. Staggering under the weight of his pack, he rose, and the world tilted. He heard soft chimes, distant temple gongs and realized it was the ring of his feet on the fire escape. A white shape swam into view below. The trailer. He dangled and dropped, slid on paint and hit the roof. The thud resounded. He looked over the edge.
Lady Fortune met his gaze from below. She had brown eyes, radiant and furious. A gun, small caliber. A flashlight. A guard uniform, misbuttoned. Will shook off the mythological haze and saw that he was cornered by private security.
“Come down,” the guard said. “You can use the dumpster.”
Will nodded. “Yes, I know.”
“Be quiet.” She glanced around the empty lot, keeping the beam on Will as he climbed down. “Drop your pack and stand against the wall.”
Slipping it off, Will felt suddenly weightless, as though he were falling again. He stumbled to the wall and said, “I think I’m bleeding.” Light scattered off the gun barrel. He knew he should be afraid, but the thought seemed distant, somewhere in a book, in an ancient language, deep in a library. Alexandria, maybe.
“Hands on the wall.” Will complied and she patted him down, then swept the flashlight beam over his scraped brow, so close it warmed his skin. “It’s not deep,” she said.
The light flooded Will’s eyes and he shut them. “What are you going to do?”
She gestured with the gun. “Get in the trailer. I need to ask some questions.”
Inside, the guard steered him to a shabby blue office chair. She sat opposite, gun lowered but not holstered. “I know you,” she said.
Will shook his head, triggering a wave of dizziness. “Hardly anyone knows me. I’m careful about that.”
“I mean I know your paintings. I’ve seen them around.”
“Oh, those. They’re not paintings. They’re poetry. Visual poetry.”
“What’s the difference?”
Will stared at the gun. Could not find the words.
The guard sat back. “Whatever it’s called, it’s like prophecy to me. When you make the words large and set them apart, they seem more significant, like something that will happen, or something I already experienced.”
As she spoke, Will’s mind drifted. “Past and future,” he muttered.
“Past and future?” She swung the gun from side to side. “You mean like the way they make me think?”
“Are you going to call the cops?” Will flexed his rope-burned palms.
“I haven’t decided.” She gave him a handful of paper towels. “Here. For the blood.”
The abrasion seared as he bunched the coarse paper against his temple. He wanted soap and water. Bandages. His cold, hard bed. Why was she keeping him? “No offense, but do you really need a gun to ask me about my work?”
She shrugged. “If I put it down, you’d run.”
“You have a point.” Nausea welled up, subsided. Will blinked away his confusion and finally knew the guard for who she was. He had to peer back through time to see her: through humid long shadows, the taunts of hungry kids, leaves crumbled by traffic. Past hubcaps melting out of gray ice. Hot tar under his feet. Broken glass. He peered through all this into a blind alley where the girl who never spoke would sit and read. Her name had always been there. “You’re not the Lady Fortune. You’re Bonnie.”
Bonnie put away the gun. “Yes, and you’re Guillame.”
“I go by William now. Will, actually.”
She nodded. “We lived two apartments down.”
“I remember.” He leaned forward, gripped with a sudden clarity. “You know what? I’ve always thought there was something supernatural about the past. Besides what we see in front of us now, everything that came before is just stories. Hearsay. But we believe it. Memories can seem more real than the present.”
Bonnie smiled a little. “You always talked like that, when you said anything at all.”
“You didn’t say much, either.”
“I prefer reading. That’s why I took this job.” She helped him up. “You can go free on one condition. You have to finish the painting tomorrow night.” They stepped out of the trailer. Bonnie looked up at the big fortune cookie, still glistening as it dried. “I think my boss won’t give us any trouble. The building’s coming down soon.”
“Not that soon, I think. There’s still a lot of metal to salvage up there.”
She turned away. “A few weeks, then.”
Back home, Will cleaned up and treated his wounds. Weariness pressed him down, but when he tried to sleep he kept seeing Bonnie as a young girl on her front steps, reading. The cover of her book had a picture of a gate in gentle greens and browns. With a jolt of recollection, he flipped the light on and began to search. He found the crumbling old volume between Chaucer’s stories and Machaut’s librettos. Opening to the title page, he bookmarked it with the fortune he had been keeping in his pocket, then stowed it in his bag along with paste, brushes, and black paint. Deep sleep rolled over him the moment he lay down.
When the alarm chimed, he took his pack and the rolled-up print of the fortune to the bank building.
As Bonnie stood guard below, Will could feel her gaze. A few strokes of black gave the illusion that the cookie was broken open. Under the gap, Will unrolled the long paper fortune, pasting it up from one side to the other.
After he climbed down, Bonnie read the saying aloud: “We should always have old memories and young hopes.”
More than ever, Will wanted to believe his own words. He dug in his pack and held out the old poetry book. “I brought you something. This started it all for me.”
Small fragments of paper fluttered down as she took the book, A Child’s Garden of Verses. She opened it to the title page. “This book belongs to Bonnie Doherty.” The ‘i’ in ‘Bonnie’ was dotted with a circle. She looked up.
“I kind of borrowed it,” Will said. “Twenty-five years ago. I was too ashamed to give it back.”
“You took it?”
He shrugged. “First and last thing I ever stole. Maybe I was just keeping it for you.”
She closed the book and tried to hold the brittle pages together.
“Read the fortune,” Will said, slipping it out from between the pages and handing it to her.
“Without coincidences, there would be no stories,” she read. “Still the same healthy appetite for meaning, I see. You haven’t changed at all, except for your paintings. They’re better.”
“They’re not paintings, they’re poems that dry on the wall.”
Bonnie smiled. “Are you starting that argument again?”
“Everyone’s a critic,” Will said.
“Remember, I still have a gun.”
They laughed softly as the Garden of Verses shed leaves.