Waiting Canals – 4

Walters started scratching his thigh and realized that he didn’t have any trousers on, just a pair of boxers, and not precisely his best pair. Maybe the man outside hadn’t noticed, Walters thought, while grabbing the jeans from the floor. After shaking them up a couple of times, he put the jeans on. He sniffed his right underarm and considered whether the same T-shirt would do for another day. Maybe not. He took off his T-shirt, threw it under the bed and chose from the clean clothes piled on a bookshelf a green T-shirt with an infantile-looking drawing stamped on the front: A bloated shark piloting a ridiculously small ship.

He patted the back right pocket on his jeans and found it empty. An immediate rush of anxiety traversed his body, mixed with a warm sweat and a terrible itchiness on his scalp and upper back. Walters searched each one of his pockets several times, until he turned his head around and saw the notebook on the bed. He ran the three steps that separated him from his notebook, grasped the notebook and stuck it in his back right pocket. He felt safer after taking several deep breaths, and decided against walking to the bookshelf and having a couple of gulps of bourbon. Instead, he pulled from under the bed the blue, ragged bag that he would normally take with him when he went to prospect the basement of abandoned buildings. He placed the bag on the table and looked at the items inside the bag without focusing his attention on any particular one. Unconsciously, he picked up with two fingers a fragment of seaweed from the back of the diving regulator and flung it over the table towards a corner of the house.

“We should be leaving soon,” Jameson yelled outside after knocking the door three times.

“Yes, yes, almost done,” Walters yelled back. He took the large dive light with the pistol grip out of the bag and chose instead a much smaller dive light that he had been repairing the previous night. He also checked the pressure gauge lodged at the top of the small diving tank and decided that half a tank should suffice. He then stepped out into the balcony to grab the wetsuit that had been drying overnight, stretched out over two clotheslines hanging between the two short sides of the rusty railing.

The balcony was completely filled with two chairs, a wooden crate that served as a table, and some sacks that Walters had piled on the right side of the balcony when he moved in and that he would have to open and prospect to recall their contents. Walters gave a quick look at the contiguous balconies, and nobody was there, as he would have anticipated. All the houses on this side of the canal had their back walls aligned with the wall of the canal, and the balconies, all of them more or less of the same size, and separated from each other by less than an arm length, hung over the canal, one foot above the water. Walters had freedived under all of them in many occasions, catching air between dives in the spaces left between the water and the bottom of the balconies. On the other side of the canal there was a bricked wall topped with blackened hardwire, and some factory buildings beyond the wall.

Walters considered the sky and found it quite pleasant, just a few clouds here and there, the slight breeze barely caressing the surface of the canal. A perfect day for being down there, he thought, while scratching his cheeks. He poured a handful of seeds into the bird feeder and went back inside the house, stuffing the wetsuit into the bag. He broke a chunk of bread from the baguette on the table and shoved it into his mouth. The bag’s zipper didn’t work, so he simply pulled both ends of the bag together, flung the strap over his shoulder, and went and opened the front door.

“I think I’m ready,” Walters muttered, still chewing the bread.

Jameson remained impassible for a while, looking straight at Walters’ face, and then noted, with a helpful voice, “You are not wearing any shoes.”

Walters had to look down and check. “Yeah,” he agreed. He went back in, found his pair of leather boots under the bed, and put them on without any socks. Still sitting on the bed, he combed his hair back with his fingers and looked around the room for a while, like being in a second-hand bookshop for the first time, just perusing so many unknown volumes, hoping to find something he would recognize. He got up, went to the table and snatched another chunk of bread while still looking around the room.

“I think I’m ready,” he said, stepping out of the house and closing the door.

“Very well, then. This way, please,” Jameson said, very elegantly pointing down the street, as if Walters had never been there before.

Waiting Canals – 3

The knocking resumed and this time Walters woke up from his nap. He got up slowly, unintentionally kicking a paper container with lo-mein stuck to the bottom across the room, pulled his hair back, closed his eyes for a few seconds until the last tendrils of his dream faded away and then went to open the door.

As soon as he saw the man standing outside, Walters awoke completely, a strike of alertness traversing through him. It was just the one man, too dressed up by Walters standards, and especially for this section of the city. Walters felt that the jacket was too impeccably ironed, the face so carefully shaven that seemed feminine, the blank face either too well composed or that of a psychopath.

There was a hint of lavender in the air, but that could just be coming from the vacant lot across the street, overtaken by all sorts of plants encumbering the old rubble of a house that had burned to the ground without affecting the adjoining buildings.

Walters glimpsed down one side of the cobblestoned street and then down the other side. Nobody else. No traffic.

“Paul Walters?” the man asked. Nothing for a few seconds, then a flare of fear as soon as Walters was hit by the upsetting realization that this seemingly upper-class person knew his full name and where he lived. Walters closed his eyes shut and tried to remember whether any big event during the last days could have made him noticed to others. Just a whitish blur in his mind, no details, no defined information. What the fuck had he done? He would have to check his current notebook, all the notes from the last days.

“Are you Paul Walters or not?”

Walters opened his eyes again. That last question had sounded more pleading than demanding, adding a pleasant echo to the voice.

“Yes, yes, what’s the matter? Are you alone?”

“Yes, of course I’m alone. My name is Peter Jameson. I work for Doctor Harry Pomme and he’s interested in using your scuba diving services. He needs someone to prospect the canal adjacent to his property and he has heard about your… qualifications.”

The veering of the conversation towards scuba diving loosened Walters up a bit. He looked mesmerized at the shiny lines on Jameson’s tie. You had your eyes on a particular line and suddenly your eyes had jumped to a contiguous line without you noticing. He then studied Jameson’s head and face, his perfectly parted hair and his smooth skin and the faint smell of lavender. Definitely coming from him. ”I’m going to forget your face as soon as you leave,” Walters thought with pessimism, and he forced himself to remember the blue eyes, the pointy nose, the marked muscles on the neck, that hint of lavender that, after some consideration, he decided was unpleasant, reminiscent of something he had had nightmares about.

“What type of prospecting are we talking about?”

“Doctor Pomme would inform you about the details, but I can tell you that the work should be minimal.” He looked inside Walters’ house while adding, “It should be easy money.”

“Do you want to come inside and tell me all about it?” Walters said, a little unsure why he was offering, but somehow it felt more secure to have this man inside his place than outside, where his plausible connections to others seemed more real.

“No, as I said, Doctor Pomme will fill you in with all the details about the job. I’ll wait for you to gather your gear and we’ll take my boat. It’s not too far away, on the docking area that direction,” Jameson said, pointing down the street to his right.”

“My gear…? What, now, you want me to go now?”

“Yes, unless you are extremely busy at this time,” Jameson said with a mischievous smile while glancing again inside the house for a second just to make his point.

“But I don’t know what gear to bring unless I know what the job might be,” Walters lied.

“Just take whatever you need to get into the water and search for something around a small area.”

“Something like a ring?” Walters inquired.

“Something much larger,” Jameson replied without thinking too much about it. “It should be obvious whether it’s in there or not.”

“OK, OK, give me like ten minutes to gather my stuff and get ready. You can wait inside or outside on the balcony, if you want to.”

“I’ll wait out here, thank you.”

Walters closed the door, went to the bed and sat down, grabbing the notebook that had been resting on the stool by the head of the bed. It was a waterproof notebook, small enough to fit in any of his pockets. Walters opened it where a pencil was serving as a bookmark and read the last entry: “25Aug. Store: coke, bourbon, bread, PB, oranges, choc. Took boat 63, promising buildings Poplar/McLean & Poplar/Cooper, basement likely underwater. Natural History Museum. Burger out. Run back. Shower. Chinese: h&s soup, lo mein.” He immediately started a new paragraph with “26Aug” and then stopped, not being too sure how to summarize what had happened during the last minutes, chewing the end of the pencil, stressing out about totally forgetting, at any point now, the name of the man outside and all the rest, so he hastily wrote, “Peter Jameson, works for Dr _______ Pomme, job about finding something in canal, dead body? 1st impression: say no, run. Accepted. Going with Peter now. 12:10p.”

Waiting Canals – 2

This was going to be his first paid job since he arrived to Memphis five months ago. Walters had no idea what the job was or who was really interested in his services. He hadn’t been searching for a job and he didn’t really know anyone in Memphis, so it wasn’t clear to him who could have referred him and to whom. He still had some money left and preferred to spend his days scuba diving through the hundreds of miles of canals that crisscrossed the city, always with the hope of finally finding something he could call a treasure. The idea of a job wasn’t too appealing; more a nuisance, an interruption of his routines, than a needed challenge.

One hour ago someone knocked at his door. Walters was renting a one-room house in Midtown, in a run-down but relatively safe area, nicely ridden with lots of canals, some of them possibly the oldest in Memphis. His house was crammed into a line of similarly minuscule and attached houses. From the non-canal side, where all the entrance doors were located, it seemed that more houses that could fit into the available space had been wedged into it, some walls and roofs being contorted in the process. The house that Walters was renting was roughly in the center of that line of dwelling holes. The door opened to a single room, with the bed to the left and the kitchen area to the right. A small bathroom was hidden behind a drawn curtain. The back wall consisted mostly of two large windows and a glass-panel door that gave to a small, hanging balcony by a canal that didn’t see too much traffic these days.

Waiting Canals – 1

The dead body flew into the air in an expected parabola and landed on the top of the pile. An impactful meter of cadavers thrown in and piled without any respect. Somewhere underground, somewhere under Memphis. The two men waited a few seconds to make sure that that last body stayed in place. Blood was still pouring from the bullet holes on the chest and the neck, oozing down the arm, slowly reaching the dangling fingertips, falling on the white dress that covered another body. To some, that pile would be a match that would ignite the rivers underneath, a fire that would catch up across Memphis and blackened the sky, all the canals would burn as if they only carried oil, and in hours of purification a new Memphis would be born.