Stories of Decay

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“Do you know what an entablature is?”
“An entablature.”
“I suppose so, sir. It’s glorified lintel of sorts found on all classical architecture since the Greeks. Ketchup.”
“And what, pray, goes on this glorified lintel? Stop pointing at me.
“The Greco-Roman Frank Lloyds usually found it apropos to carve into the entablature a frieze or relief depicting the triumphs of the gods or the valor of men.”
“Sound like something else you’ve heard me describe in similar words? Hmm?”
“The Tribune, sir?”
“Ding ding. A thousand points. And what, Noaks, does the entablature rest on?”
“Pillars, sir. The entablature rests on pillars.”
“You always were slow. Columns, Noaks. Columns.”
“Did you know Greek pillars were built fatter around the middle to make them seem more imposing than they really were? Sound like someone else we know? Oh, and Ketchup.”
“I would fire you in a heartbeat, Noaks, if you weren’t such a dashed good writer. Look, son. The Tribune rests on columns.” When not all of the columns are there, the Tribune falls.”
“Poetical, sir.”
“Confound poetry. I need your column by the end of day tomorrow before the weight of this institution crushes you.”
“Your weight alone would do a dandy job of that. And you really had better take care of that ketchup.”
“You have nerve, Noaks. You have nerve. What in the name of Zeus are you going on about ketchup?”
“Blood on the lintel, as it were. You’ve got ketchup on your tie.”
Noaks smirked, slowly wheeled on his heel toward the elevator, and let out a sigh of relief when he was out of earshot. Boss cursed.

Gavin was on the elevator.
“Close shave with the editor, Noaks?”
“Sweet are the uses of adversity, Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, er… remain the more so.”
“Paraphrased. You’ve been reading.”
“Nah. The wife got a Shakespeare DVD from the library. She’s getting desperate.”
“The truth is, Gav, I’ve got a deadline tomorrow, an empty Word doc, and a blinking cursor staring me in the face. Human interest stories are dying a slow death at the hand of Twitter and Tumblr and whatnot.”
“Writers block?”
“Writer’s blockade, formed from the fleet of internet amateurs, a dumbed-down culture, and a decaying social fabric.”
Gavin chuckled as they stepped off on the ground floor. “Always the dramatist.”
Noaks adjusted his scarf and turned to leave.
“Oh, Noaks.” Gavin spun around on an impulse.
“Hey. I, uh, there’s this lady I heard about from my mother-in-law.” He scrounged in his cargo pants for a pen. “Apparently a bit of an eccentric, but an artist, I guess. Probably not the Tumblr type if you know what I mean. Maybe there’s a story in it for you. Marilyn Scholer.” He scrawled the name on the back of a business card. “See if you can track her down.”
“Okay. Thanks.”
“Catch you later.”
“Yeah. Ciao.”

Noaks made his way onto the street. Fall was losing the battle to winter, and the city lacked its usual energy. He shoved his hands into his pockets. Until today, he had a pulse on the city’s heartbeat. He could calculate and extract the stories no one else could. In only eight months of working for the Tribune, he’d found his way to the top. His name was selling papers and his face had already been framed in a hallway. He was exact. Surgical. Intrusive. But today, his glasses were fogging. He wiped them off and tucked them into his coat. It wasn’t a day for walking so he flagged a cab.
“Onterie Center, please.”
The driver was black, wore the classic cabman’s cap, and had a reggae station playing.
“I like your choice of music,” Noaks said. He didn’t, of course, but it was the logical starting point.
“Pop gets old, no? I been flipping stations.”
Dead end.
“How long you been driving?”
“Comin’ on two years now.”
“Have you got a family?”
“Batchin’ it, then?”
“Uh huh. Workin’ hard enough to keep my own bills paid, y’know?
“Well hey, best of luck. Have a good one.”
The ride was too short. That well was dry. They pulled up to his building and he gave the driver a nice tip. He spun his apartment key on his finger as he rode the elevator to the fourteenth floor. The building had won awards in the eighties, but that was the eighties. Now the elevator smelled like smoke and the hallways smelled like the streets. A body slumped against an apartment door startled him. Why was he surprised, he chided himself, as he stepped over whoever it was and slid the key into his own doorknob. He let his hand fall, and paused on the threshold. Taking a deep breath, he turned back to whoever this scum of the earth was and knelt down next to her. It was a her; a surprisingly elderly her who reeked of alcohol.
“A bit early yet for a drink, don’t you think?” He shook her shoulder.
Inebriated past the point of sense, her eyes fluttered open unevenly and she mumbled something about the Shroud of Turin and photocopiers. Her eyelids flapped shut again. Not knowing what else to do, he took the key in her hand and tried it in the door she had chosen to pass-out against. It opened with his own door’s signature squeal, and he gently dragged her into her living room, not before carefully listening for anyone coming down the hall who might catch him at this rather shady task. He propped her up against an appallingly green sofa and set her key on a glass coffee table strewn with magazines, paperbacks, and dirty dishes. The blinds on the only window were closed, but from a corner of the room a caged bird was cooing nervously. He stepped back out into the hallway and softly closed her door.

Back in his own digs, Noaks made himself a cup of black tea and paced in front of the picture window that overlooked a few blocks of the Chicago skyline. He wasn’t one to pace, but desperate times called for desperate measures. He stopped in front of his chalkboard wall and took a sip. He burned his tongue. When he had first moved in after he finished his masters in journalism at the University of Chicago, he made a point of painting an entire wall of his flat in chalkboard paint. He kept everything on that wall. Grocery lists, phone numbers, deadlines, story hooks, names, and quotes. Lines cris-crossed across the wall in a chaotic web of connections. He drew another line and scrawled the name “Marilyn Scholer” at the end of it. Google had turned up nothing but a YellowPages phone number on this chic, and by now, he was happy to be grasping at straws.
He dialed and waited through several tones. The answering machine wasn’t personalized, and the digital vox chirped the number he dialed back at him before it gave him the beep.

“Hi, this is E. Noaks with the Chicago Tribune. I’m a lifestyles columnist and I got your name from a coworker of mine. I understand you’re something of an artist and I’d love to talk with you about your work. Could I maybe meet you for breakfast tomorrow morning? I know it’s short notice, and it’s not a problem if it doesn’t work out, but the press never sleeps, as they say. Thanks much.”

He gave his number and hung up. The chalkboard wall was black-and-white enough, but the world past that wall, he admitted to himself, was far more grey.

Tapping away on a lousy plan-b story about the personal life of a CEO convicted of fraud later that afternoon, Noaks’ phone buzzed. A text from Marilyn Scholer.
“feeding birds. lurie gardens. 8 am”
“Cool,” he texted back. “Looking forward to it.” He never went out on a limb like this.

The Allegretto of Beethoven’s Seventh woke him up at 7:00 the following morning. He told himself he could use the walk, so he grabbed a handful of Cheerios and a granola bar to eat on the way. Like the day before, the sidewalks were dead, save for the living dead who roamed the streets scavenging and begging for spare change. Noaks flipped his granola bar to one of these urchins who seemed particularly hollow. He made his way to Lurie Garden, an oasis of  Chicago’s original natural habitat tucked away in Millennium Park. A lady sat on a bench feeding the birds from several slices of bread.
“Tuppence a bag?” He chuckled. “Hi. I’m E. Noaks from the Chicago Tribune.”
“What kind of first name is ‘E'”? she asked, getting to her feet and extending a hand. Noaks realized just how old she was, and in a flash of recognition, placed her as the same woman he had dragged into the apartment next door the day before. Startled, he didn’t answer her question.
“Say, you don’t happen to live on the fourteenth floor of the Onterie Center, do you?”
“Not the nicest building, that. But yeah. I do.”
A bit bewildered, Noaks took a seat on the bench opposite hers.
“No, no. You’ll throw off the composition,” she insisted. “You sit over here.”
“Yeah. How do you know where I live”?
“Oh.. well, you see I moved onto the same floor eight months ago or so. I’ve, uh, seen you around.”
“Well I haven’t seen you around.”
He wasn’t sure where this conversation was headed, but took a good look at this grandmother of a character sitting next to him. She wore sweats, and her grey, curly hair was smashed violently under a stocking cap with ear flaps and strings on the sides. She wasn’t exactly the paragon of retiree fashion.
“So…” Noaks struggled for a starting place. He never had that problem. “So Gavin—this guy I work with at the Tribune—he told me you were something of an artist. Do you paint?”
“I paint with life, Noaks. I paint with the world.”
“You mean you ascribe to the realism method?”
“No, no. With the world. The brush strokes are already there. I just see them. Arrange them. Tell their stories. Heck, I’m doing it now.”
Noaks tugged on that. “Oh? Doing what”?
“You can drop the act, son. Unlike most of your subjects, I can tell when you’re fishing for quotables.”
“You’ve got to give me something, ma’am.”
Marilyn leaned back and took a breath of the sharp fall air. She tossed a breadcrumb into the air and watched the gulls and sparrows leap into flight to catch it.
“My terms, Noaks,” Marilyn said. “Loose the note pad. Let’s just have a conversation for pity’s sake. Stop being a seagull.”
Exasperated, he dropped his pen onto the bench and turned to look at her. Who was this woman?
“Fair enough. Your terms.”
She gave him a piece of bread and quietly continued tearing her own. Several minutes of silence passed.
“Does the city seem sad to you, Noaks”? She asked.
“No, not particularly.”
“You know the city. I know you’ve got a better answer than that.”
She was right. He sighed.
“No. On the surface the city seems healthy—er—happy.” He played by her terms. “But you can peel back that surface and something doesn’t seem right. There’s a skip in its heartbeat as if…” He paused. “As if it’s slowly loosing its will to live.”
“I think we’re being out-paced by our own evolution, you know? It’s that point where you’re running too fast down a hill for your own legs and you take take a nasty faceplant. It’s kind of scary.”
“You should paint,” she said. “You see things other people don’t.”
“You’re not one of those ‘other people,’ are you”?
“No I’m not.” She dusted off her hands on her sweat pants. “I see two tormented souls sitting on a park bench, mourning a city’s loss of innocence, framed by the hazy jagged lines of that city’s skyline. They’re engaged in life’s most innocent pleasure—feeding breadcrumbs to the birds, and those birds in flight are the purist, most organic contrast to the harshness of the triumph of man. That’s what I see. And to me, it’s beautiful.”
Noaks was silent so Marilyn continued.
“There are pockets of innocence in even the darkest stories of decay. That’s what the artist looks for. Have you ever wandered a junkyard?”
He shook his head.
“Visit one and spend some time exploring it. It’s magic. You start to learn to see the happiness in places like those. You learn to see the stories.”
“What’s yours?”
“Another morning, Noaks. Another morning. You’ve already got one story to write.”