Alby Stories: Prologue, One, And Two
The Ficus tree was six feet tall and bushy, so he needed to watch where he was going, which meant looking up. Alby had always looked down. Walking, he'd trace glints of mica in the side-walk, a deceptive, reflected light. He tended to bump into things. Now, carrying the Ficus, he stopped every block to wipe sweat from his eyes and wonder again if this was a good idea.
He should have had it delivered, but it was on sale and the fee cancelled out any savings. On the other hand, he had eight blocks to go, and the elevator in his building wasn't working. Still, it would be nice to look at his window and see something green, not dull bricks and the hoarder’s apartment across the yard. There had been a real tree out there once, which colored the glass from the other side, but the super cut it down.
He stopped, set the plant down, and considered, as the crowd split then streamed around him. There was no choice but to keep going. Traffic on Third Avenue was hectic. He'd never get a cab, even if he'd wanted to pay. Anyway, the tree wouldn't fit. He sighed, picked it up, walked.
He remembered the Schefflera. It was even bigger, but at least the elevator had been working. He guessed he'd overwatered it. The Palm had been easier to carry. It was winter then, so less sweat, but the cold walk harmed the roots. It never thrived. Now, sunny and in the sixties, he was hopeful this one might live. But first he had to get it home, up five flights of stairs, and then there was the cat.
He blotted his eyes and waited for the light to change. It was time to turn east. Second Avenue would be quieter. He'd cheered when this Home Depot opened in Manhattan. Before that, the nearest was in Long Island City, and far from the subway. There had been a problem with a nine-by-twelve rug. He blinked, crossed with the light and focused on the cat. She had eaten the Lucky Money tree soon after he brought it home. He never got the chance to water it. Softer, leafier shoots were most appealing, but she could gnaw tough palm fronds down to stubs, and anything that flowered disappeared. Other plants went ignored, withering for reasons of their own.
Three more blocks. He worried about leaf-drop. He'd read that a twenty percent loss was normal, but dreaded bare twigs and a crunch on the floor. How to judge the percentage was another question. First he would count the leaves that fell. Then he'd estimate the total number on the tree. It wouldn't be exact.
Arms burning, he started to walk faster. He should buy some kind of cart. It was hard to find something practical. A hand truck would be best for this, but not very useful on a daily basis. Other types, made for shopping, wouldn’t hold the weight. He was tired, but getting closer, soaked with sweat and unwilling to stop. He thought of other times he'd come this way, other growing loads. The lights worked in his favor and he paced to keep up. Hunched and pitching forward, he made the last turn to his street and approached the building. At the doorway, he rested. He still had the stairs.
The sign on the elevator was angrily in place. He began to climb. The first flight was easy, he breathed on the landing. After the next, he paused longer. As he made it up to three he caught a second wind, but at the fourth floor he sat down. He would need to rethink this for the next time. Stairs weren’t always an issue but he should have a plan, leave room for possibilities. Collecting his strength, he strained for the last steps. At the entrance to his apartment, he opened carefully, wary of the cat, and dragged the plant to the window. The door slammed shut. He was home.
He wanted to collapse, but first needed to shower, fill the food dish, eat something himself. He put a frozen pizza in the microwave, headed for the bathroom. Under the hot water, a memory of his first cat, a big male, came to mind. He pictured his large head and skeptical eyes. Glancing downward, he imagined the drain clogged with leaves. His body melted in the steam. When he finally sat down to eat, he was nodding. He barely finished. Later, he lay on the bed, his back warmed by soft fur. He closed his eyes and began to drift:
He was floating above a forest, green to the horizon, edged in neon at the sun. Carried with the breeze, he heard a rustle from below. Sailing, he turned downward and was guided through the trees, past storied limbs and gently to the ground. He looked around. It wasn't what he expected. At the beginning, he couldn’t see anything. Dense foliage hid the sky. Surrounded by darkness, it took time to adjust. He made out shapes, then tangled vines. Every way was blocked by growth, massive trunks, coiled roots, pointed stalks. There were sounds. He was terrified, frozen. Time passed slowly, nothing changed. Abruptly, his face was poked by something sharp and he bolted awake. The cat was hungry. It was dawn, he'd slept all night. Rumpled and groggy, he went to feed her.
He splashed his face with water and set up the coffee maker. He thought about the last cat. Sleeping late hadn’t been a problem with her. She would huddle near his feet and wait patiently for him to rise. This one was more demanding, but seemed healthier. Wandering from the kitchen, he looked at the Ficus for the first time that morning. Sunlight filtering through it warmed the room, streamed lit patterns on the walls and floor. Hesitantly, he went to it. Kneeling, he began to count. Seven leaves. For some that was a lucky number.
Alby was hurriedly sifting his material, catching larger chunks and passing the results through a sieve. He’d repeat the process many times, with increasingly smaller mesh, before the litter was fine enough to use. For color he’d add spices: cinnamon, cardamon, mace. Each gave a different hue, a slight variation of light to dark, adding contrast and improved visibility. And their scent helped mask the smell. No matter how many times he sifted there was an odor. Alby didn’t mind. He felt it lent authenticity. But he knew there were people who wouldn’t get past it. He saw poetry in a sand mandala made of recycled cat litter. It might also be one of those things that seemed meaningful, but wasn’t. He needed another opinion. If he used enough spice, smell wouldn’t be an issue.
He took a deep breath, kept sifting. Earlier attempts had ended badly. There were false starts and a lone disaster. That one had potential but he’d left it uncovered. The cat didn’t discriminate. Only two had progressed far enough to see a pattern. He didn’t count the others. He’d tried many different litters and colorings. The basic clay type was too coarse. The corn-based turned to mush. There were dust problems with paprika. Clumping litter had advantages: easily separating waste was most obvious, contact with moisture made it harden into rock. He’d also settled on the colorings. It was close and grueling work. Real mandalas were enormous, requiring many days and pairs of hands, with complex symbols and highly structured forms. He wasn’t attempting anything as intricate or ambitious. About the size of a large pizza. And no symbols. But he had to move faster, he was worried about time.
He glanced over at his ledger. It was technically more of a notebook, or a sketchbook. But he used it as a ledger keeping track of his attempts, with columns of numbers and formulas for color. It would be easier to read if the pages had lines, though he’d been using these books since college. He liked the leather binding, the texture of the vellum. It was worth the constant effort to write straight. From what he could make out, he had enough sand to continue. Picking up the pace, he worked from the outside, filling in outlines one shape at a time. The design was abstract, but it was hard to resist adding lifelike features. There was an urge to put a face on things. He began working on what looked like a possible horse or amoeba.
It was starting to come together. Most of the outer portions were filled, though he hadn’t yet decided what would go in the center. It should be something simple, maybe just a black hole. For now it was empty. He would try to finish the other parts before quitting for the night. It needed to be done before he ran out of powder. There was much still to do, it was getting late and he was tired. Pushing himself, he tried to work through, funneling sand and teasing it quickly into place. One piece, vaguely fishlike, gave him trouble. He sweated as he tried to keep the colors between the lines. It was hours before it reached a point where he could stop. He worked until his eyes were dry with dust. Finally, he covered it with a platter and went to bed.
He lay there staring at the ceiling. Shadows became mammals, chipping paint a bug. It took him a long while to wind down. When he did fall asleep, he snored and dreamt of the desert. In the morning he woke up feeling as if he hadn’t slept at all. He made strong coffee and filled the food dish. Then he called the cat. When she didn’t come, he went searching.
He found her in the living room, curled and stiff on the sofa. It had been expected, but he’d hoped not so soon. For too long he’d been working on his projects and not paying her much attention. When he’d noticed she was avoiding him, he’d thought she was angry. But she wasn’t angry she was sick. By the time he’d gotten her to the vet, it was too late. He’d brought her home and tried to make her comfortable. That had been a week ago. Now, he wrapped her carefully in plastic and carried her body ten blocks to the Humane Society for cremation. Then he went upstairs to the adoption center to begin looking for a new one.
He would have to wait twenty-four hours. There was an evaluation period, they wanted to check his references. Walking home, his eyes no longer dry, he focused on the ground. He was avoiding contact, but there was also the chance of finding something. People dropped things on the sidewalk. Money was common, but he’d found a watch and years ago a palm-shaped gold pendant. This would be a good time to trip over something valuable. It was a long walk back.
At the apartment, his mandala was waiting for him. There was another benefit of clumping litter. When complete, real mandalas were washed away in rivers, signaling impermanence. As a final step he would spray his with water and freeze it in place. Maybe he should stop here. This one looked more or less the way it was supposed to. It was the third try, he’d make a note of it, but it probably didn’t mean anything.
He got two cats. At first, Alby wasn’t sure this was wise. But they were small, just ten weeks old, and didn’t seem aggressive. He believed he could handle them. They might keep each other company when he was busy with his projects. And if he continued with his sand painting, there would be twice the raw material. Output would only increase as they grew. There was potential. In the meantime, the supply built as he let them explore the apartment and hopefully, get used to him.
Right now he was looking for the source of the rattling. The apartment had a kind of essential tremor. Dishes would softly clatter, glasses clink together in the cabinet. Every now and then he would need to shift things slightly to keep them quiet. It was hard to tell what needed to be moved. It could be the salt shaker against the toaster, or a branch too near the wall. This time it turned out to be the garbage can lid. He could never find what caused the trembling, but had learned to live with it. He put paper towels between the plates.
He was expecting a delivery. Depending on the season, he worked painting faces on different holiday mannequins. He was paid by the piece and there were set fees for various characters.
The fees corresponded to size. Gnomes and elves were lower paying than Santas and reindeer. At Easter there were four-foot rabbits, for which he got a bonus for painting on flocking. But his speciality was nativity figures, which were three-quarters life-sized and the most expensive. He gave each an intense personality and their eyes an ecstatic glint. It required a light touch– they could seem maniacal or about to burst into tears. The models were animatronic. Small motors in the bodies made them act out simple tasks. Santas checked their lists, elves hammered arms onto toy soldiers, wise men offered gifts. Alby only did the samples; the bulk were made in China.
When the intercom sounded, he buzzed the front door open and went downstairs. Eleven gnomes had been left in the lobby, tumbled in a clear plastic bag. He dragged them to the elevator and up to his apartment. They were usually sent in dozens. He counted them twice. He thought of calling the company to check, but didn’t want to draw attention. These were Cobbler Gnomes, identical to Toy-Soldier Elves, but they hammered shoes and wore different hats.
He covered the sofa with drop cloths and lined them up. They came with a base coat of pink flesh tone. Alby mixed the colors for the features. He spent two hours dabbing and testing, comparing to swatches from previous jobs: browner shades for contour and shadow, ivories and deep blues for eyes, reddish tans for lips. He made just enough for the batch – gouache was expensive. He began working from left to right on the sofa, starting with the eyes. He laid in the lightest ivory first, then darker tones to round the sphere, darker still at the corners. After applying each color he moved on to the next figure. He used at least three shades for every shadow, seven for creases in the skin. The irises were six blues; highlights, several whites. He mixed his own blacks.
His method involved close work, nose to nose with the mannequins. He used minute sable brushes and painted with the tip. The work was complicated by the vibrating apartment. He braced his elbow on the sofa back and tried to synchronize his movements. But he couldn’t control his pulse. The difference gave his strokes a nervous motion, a wriggling away. He continued down the sofa to the end, then started over with the next color. He worked in an assembly line manner, moving steadily forward, brushing colors and quivering slightly. He would finish in time for dinner.
It took some time before the cats came out from under the bed. They seemed alarmed by the activity. He’d been through this before. Something about the models triggered a fear reflex. Eventually they’d become more comfortable. Then it would be hard to keep them away. He’d mended scratched flocking on a number of rabbits.
By six o’clock he’d completed his rotations on the sofa and the paint was dry. He began wrapping the gnomes in canvas and stacking them by the fireplace. The rough material kept them safe from clawing. He’d bring them down for pickup in the morning. In the meantime he washed up and went out to buy dinner. The cold air was bracing and he walked five blocks to Whole Foods for a chicken. On the way home he stopped for new pet food. These cats didn’t like what he’d been feeding the last one.
When he got back to his building the lobby looked empty. But when he turned from the door he saw a figure propped against the radiator, a note clipped to its overalls. It had slipped from the bag on the truck and fallen behind a box. The driver hadn’t noticed it until he’d finished his route. The super must have let him in. The twelfth gnome. Alby tucked it under his arm and went upstairs to remix his paints.