issue 46: January - February 2005 

 | author bio

Urban Reef
(or, It’s Hard to Find a Friend in the City)
Marshall Moore

The sky above Portland held Liesl’s attention and her lunch date did not.
      "I think it’s going to rain," Joanna said.
      We’re in Portland, Liesl thought. Of course it’s going to fucking rain.
      After three months in the Northwest, Liesl questioned her decision to leave Los Angeles. LA offered the depth of a wading pool and the culture of a petri dish, but she had never lacked friends there. In a megalopolis of fifteen or twenty million people, it’s impossible not to connect. Cozy, scenic Portland overflowed with tattooed hipsters too busy self-publishing poetry chapbooks and getting loaded on local microbrews to bother returning calls from a new arrival. When the walls closed in and the phone didn’t ring and her e-mail box contained no new messages, she contemplated dyeing her hair blue and getting a labret. Thinking she’d have better luck when she lingered in bookstores and cafés, she wrote her first poems since high school. They’d give her something to talk about with Portland’s cigarettes-and-Sartre set. In theory it should have worked; in practice, she still got blown off. Creative enough to know that her poems sucked but not creative enough to know how to fix them, she burned her notebook and passed the time watching rented DVDs and reading library books by the dozen.
      Within three weeks of her move, she had noticed a chill when she tried to strike up a conversation outside of the office. She asked a friendly co-worker (also a fairly recent California refugee), Is there something wrong with me?
      This city’s grown too fast, Ed explained. It thinks it’s still a small town. Even the new people want to think they’re in a small town. So they circle the wagons and keep to themselves. The Scandinavian roots don’t help. People with centuries of cold in their genes take a long time to thaw out. But don’t worry, they’re much worse in Seattle. You’ll get used to it.
      Thanks, I feel so much better now,
Liesl said.
      Ed said, I have a friend you should meet. You’ll like her.
      Liesl made a mental list of things she liked about Portland: the clean air, the mild weather, the rain, the misty hills west of the city, the mellow skyline (skyscrapery enough to keep the eye busy but not overwhelming like Manhattan or San Francisco), the relative lack of traffic, and the sheer retropolitan loveliness of the place. The coffee shop across from her apartment served espressos just the way she liked them, blacker than Satan’s cough syrup. She enjoyed the walkable nature of the city. You could spend all afternoon reading at a snug sidewalk café, and when it was time to go home, you could jump on a streetcar. Not once had she heard a horror story about a two-hour commute under baking brown skies.
      The words Grind your teeth and remind yourself you’re happy popped into her head. Who had said that? Her mother? Her sister? Ed?
      Joanna asked her a question.
      You’ll like her, Ed had said. Liesl kept waiting for it to happen.
      "What?" Liesl blinked. "I’m sorry," she lied. She returned to the truth: "I was watching a man across the street. I thought he was going to drop the package he was carrying."
      Joanna turned to look.
      "He’s inside that shop now. He almost didn’t make it, though."
      "Portland is so amazing, in terms of people-watching!" Joanna said. "There’s always something to see here, especially when you’re in the Pearl."
      You haven’t travelled much, have you? Once you’ve seen one tongue-piercing, you’ve seen them all.
      Portland’s Pearl District had been transformed overnight, more or less, from a derelict patch of brick warehouses north of downtown into an upscale wonderland of condos and cafés. Liesl wanted to buy a loft in the area but prices had wafted out of her reach. After the endless pavement of Los Angeles, her soul craved cobbled streets and convenience. Yes, Portland had a lot to offer in terms of people-watching, but Liesl felt somewhat jaded after the nonstop human freak show offered up by Southern California.
      "I think I’m going to have a Caesar salad," she said, giving in to a moment of nostalgia for the Golden State.
      "White wine with that?" Joanna asked. "Oregon Pinot Gris is some of the best in the world. The climate here is very similar to Bordeaux. Grapes that grow well in Bordeaux grow well here too. Did you know that most red Bordeaux is really Pinot Noir? I didn’t know that until I moved here. Isn’t that just fascinating?"
      "Will anybody ever understand France?" Liesl asked.
      She spoke French fluently. Joanna didn’t need to know that. When would the waitress come back? Maybe a glass or two of Pinot Gris would be just the thing. Liesl intended to work from home this afternoon, so her jet fuel breath wouldn’t attract managerial notice. Make that three glasses. She could stand in front of her bathroom mirror, twist blond knots in her hair, and ask herself what the hell had ever made her think leaving Los Angeles would be a good idea.
      "I want geoduck chowder," Joanna announced. "I know it tastes like sperm but… well, you know. Is that such a bad thing?"
      "De gustibus non disputandum est," Liesl said, knowing Joanna wouldn’t get it.
      "Was that Italian?"
      "Romanian," Liesl said. "Oh look, here’s the waitress."
      They placed their orders.
      "How long have you lived in Portland?" Liesl asked. The distant whirr of a streetcar distracted her.
      "Oh, about ten years, I think." Joanna looked into space and counted time on her fingers. She mumbled something and nodded to herself. "I grew up in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Can you imagine that?"
      "No," Liesl said. "It sounds like a medication. Couer d’Alene, cortisone, Dramamine…. When I was a kid I thought dopamine was a drug. Imagine how disappointed I was to learn it’s a neurotransmitter!"
      "There’s not much neurotransmission going on in Coeur d’Alene, believe me," Joanna said. "I went to college in Boise and it was better, you know, it was bigger, but it wasn’t what I wanted."
      "I’ve never been to Boise," Liesl said. She wondered about her own neurotransmitters. Did they need amplification or sedation? Both? Maybe all they needed was more wine. She thought, Something from Napa, damn it!
      Joanna shrugged. "It’s a town that wants to be a city. Give it another five years. Let the annual murder rate and the average commute time rise, and it’ll be a better place to live."
      Except for the bit about the murder rate, Ed had said something similar about Portland. He had moved up from Sacramento three years earlier. At first, most displaced Californians feel that way about this place, he’d added. As small towns go, this one’s as urban as they come.
      "I thought art galleries and Thai restaurants were the usual indicators," Liesl said. Faint hope bloomed within her. Not showy camellia blossoms, no ostentatious pink rhododendrons, more of a ground cover. Emotional vetch. Good enough; she’d take it. After prattling on about nothing their first twenty minutes together, Joanna was finally becoming interesting. "Unless the restaurants are run by cannibals, I guess. Or unless you’re one of the corpses."
      "To corpses!" Joanna raised her glass.
      "Do people get murdered in Boise?"
      "They must," Joanna said. "I don’t know. Arguments about sheep, maybe."
      "So where did you live after Boise?"
      "New York."
      Liesl thought she’d misheard. "Upstate?"
      "Brooklyn. I started law school at Hofstra and quit after my first year. I double-majored in business and information technology, and after I graduated, I went into the Peace Corps and taught entrepreneurship skills in the Ukraine. It wasn’t gritty enough, so once my gig was up, I moved to Cambodia and taught English. Sometimes I miss the smell of Phnom Penh. Urine, fish sauce, and hot dust. How’s that for a leap? Phnom Penh to Portland?"
      Law school? The Peace Corps? It wasn’t gritty enough? But you were supposed to be a vapid brunette, Liesl thought. You’re making my preconceptions hurt. The stretch marks will never fade, not even if I soak my brain in Clorox.
      "Sounds unappetizing, but I bet the people-watching was better there," Liesl ventured.
      "Not really. Not better. Just different. People here usually have all their limbs still attached. Stumps have their appeal as long as they’re not still bleeding, but… I don’t know. I like the way people look here."
      "Like they overslept and put on the cleanest things they could find on the floor before running out the front door?"
      "Something like that. Except for the junkies around the Lloyd Center, nobody looks like a poster child for a UN campaign against land mines."
      "This is the kind of town where Elmer’s School Glue is popular as a hair-styling product."
      "You have no idea," Joanna said. "At least the people here use it to fix their hair and not to glue their body parts back on." She rolled her eyes, then stopped and seemed to be staring at something overhead. More clouds, Liesl assumed. People here found the cloudscape endlessly fascinating. If you stared at them long enough, you could almost hear them say baaa. Who had told her that? Ed?
      "Do I want to have an idea?"
      "Is there a man balancing on top of that ledge?"
      Liesl looked up. She squinted into the bright silver glare of the clouds and saw an outline standing at the building across the street.
      "That’s not a ledge. It’s the roof."
      "He looks like he’s going to jump," Joanna said. "Did you know some high school kids out in the suburbs formed a Suicide Club? They even tried to get it officially recognized. This place does that to people. Do you think he’s really going to jump?"
      "He’d have done it by now if he really wanted to kill himself," Liesl said.
      "Are you ready to order?" The waitress startled Liesl. "What are you looking…oh my God! Somebody call 911!"
      She raced inside, trailing a cloud of flowery perfume Liesl couldn’t identify. Must have just started her shift, she thought. It hasn’t worn off yet.
      "Do you think the cops’ll come before he jumps?" Joanna asked.
      "Do they ever?"
      "I don’t know. I’ve never seen anybody leap off a building before."
      "And I bet you’ve never done it, either," Liesl said.
      "Not since I was a little girl. I followed my big brother around all the time. He and his friends liked climbing up on the roof of the house. One day they decided it was low enough to the ground for them to jump. It was autumn, so first we all raked up a huge pile of leaves to land in. Up we went, and everybody jumped. I went last. I got scared, but I did it anyway."
      "And did you break any bones?"
      "No, but this one boy named Kenny fractured something in his foot. We all got yelled at but my father had that look in his eye. I think he wished he could get away with jumping into a pile of leaves, you know?"
      The man tottered. His arms pinwheeled. Liesl held her breath, waiting to see whether he’d plummet. She scanned the café and the sidewalk to see whether anyone else had noticed, but apart from their waitress, no one had.
      From this angle, Liesl couldn’t tell what type of clothes the man was wearing, how old he might be, or anything. She searched his outline for clues. Backlit by the sky, he didn’t offer much information, just a dark shape against blue and puffs of white. Maybe a baseball cap, maybe loose pants and a jacket. What could his motivation be, she wondered. He wasn’t screaming for attention but he wasn’t choosing the most private way to dispatch himself, either.
      Prior to her move, several friends had warned her, independently of each other, to avoid the Northwest. Visit in midwinter, they said. You’ll understand why so many antidepressants are prescribed up there. Why the suicide rate’s so high. The unremitting clouds and rain make people lose their shit in a dark and fatal way. Someone even did a study of serial murderers and found that a disproportionate number of them grew up in the Northwest. There’s not enough sunlight there. Don’t go. It messes people up.
      Liesl searched her soul for murderous urges. Finding none, she concluded she hadn’t lived in Portland long enough. Maybe after a few more years of snubs from the hipper-than-thou locals, she’d want to eviscerate a few with dull cutlery.
      "If he lands on his legs," Joanna said, "he might live. But if he dives, he’s toast. The only question left is how much of a mess he’ll make."
      "He’s wearing a baseball cap, isn’t he?"
      Joanna squinted.
      Sirens droned in the distance, coming closer.
      "Yes, I think so. Where’s the waitress? I need more alcohol."
      "Want to bet the impact will knock his cap off?" Liesl finished her drink. "Fuck, I shouldn’t have said that. You must think I’m a ghoul."
      A man’s voice broke her concentration: "She may not, but I do. You both are."
      Liesl had forgotten other people might be sitting within earshot. She turned to see the offended party. The man looked like a rumpled college lecturer, the sort whose suits are always a decade out of date and whose trousers float an inch above his ankles. He had a bad case of what the Japanese call bar-code head, arguably the best euphemism ever for an uneven comb-over. His face burned with outrage.
      She enjoyed the moment like a fine Pinot Noir from Oregon or Bordeaux or Zimbabwe or the Gobi Desert or wherever the hell Joanna had said was climatically ideal for that type of grape. She held Bar-Code Head’s shock on her tongue and rolled notes of flavor back and forth like oenological marbles: black cherries, horror, vanilla, dismay, and luxurious tannins.
      Their offended fellow diner threw a few bills at his plate and stormed off. A five blew off the table and landed on Liesl’s foot. No one but Joanna was looking. All heads strained toward the sky. The man’s arms pinwheeled again. He tottered. And Liesl pocketed the money. Let the waitress think she’d been stiffed.
      "He was thinking How could a little blond piece like her have such ghoulish thoughts in her head?" Joanna said. "It was written all over his face."
      Liesl shook her head. "You left out one part. He would have prefaced it with Fuck, man. Don’t all straight men start sentences that way? Like, when they’re appalled or grossed out or whatever?" She flapped a well-manicured hand at the empty chair where the offended party had been sitting. "I don’t know. There are women and there are women. I used to want to be a doctor. As an undergrad I took mortuary science because the courses were never full, and I thought they’d be more practical then the usual biology dreck, so…"
      "You changed your major?" Joanna seemed intrigued and surprised in equal measure.
      Liesl nodded. "I got tired of stitching anuses shut."
      Joanna shook her head. "I can see that becoming tiresome." She raised her glass, and said "To anal needlepoint!"
      "Anal cross-stitch!" They clinked glasses. Liesl looked around to see whether she was offending anybody else. When nobody recoiled in righteous horror, she felt pins and needles of disappointment. "So not to go too far off the point, but, like, do you think he’s really going to jump?"
      They squinted up. Liesl had a brief image of new buildings being constructed over the streets and sidewalks, forming bridges overhead. Ultimately the city would be a solid reef of brick and glass and mortar. People would move among the conjoined buildings like tiny fish through coral. The thought of the crowds gave her the horrors. She watched the would-be jumper totter again, flailing to keep his balance.
      "It’s a bit windy," Liesl said.
      "A bit. You know, he’s kind of a pussy, isn’t he?" Joanna asked.
      Liesl opened her mouth to agree but the screeching arrival of two police cruisers interrupted her. Four officers leapt from their cars. Two took positions on the sidewalk, gesturing for the flock of rubberneckers to move away. The other two raced inside, one barking into his walkie-talkie. A cloud of noise and turbulence lingered in their wake.
      "How exciting," Liesl said. "Isn’t this exciting?"
      "Moist panty alert!" Joanna said. "I think he’s going to jump. Look at him… you can tell."
      "You can?"
      Liesl had to admit, something in the man’s posture had changed. He looked over his shoulder as if to see what was making a noise behind him. Liesl’s neck began to cramp from looking up, and the squinting was going to give her a headache sooner or later. She wished the guy would either climb down or jump and get it over with. Does this make me a bad person?
      "I’ll make you a bet," Joanna said.
      "That he jumps? Foregone conclusion," Liesl said. "The only worthwhile bet is how long it takes him to get airborne."
      Joanna shook her head. "The cops’ll rig up a safety net first. Isn’t it funny how the law tries to prevent you from ending your own life, as if it doesn’t belong to you? I think people who want to kill themselves should be left alone to do it. It’s not like you do it on a whim, you know? Hmm, it’s double coupon day at Safeway but they’re out of 1% milk. Should I buy a different brand instead or kill myself? Guess I’ll open a vein. Hmm, what aisle are the box cutters in? People don’t operate that way. They don’t."
      "I bet he’ll jump before… fuck, he’s gonna do it…"
      But the man regained his balance. A collective sigh of relief (or disappointment?) rose from the gaggle of onlookers who had drifted up in ones and twos to watch the drama. A third police car arrived, distracting Liesl for a moment. Portland’s police cruisers didn’t look austere, as she expected them to. They were basic white sedans with a rose logo painted on the sides and PORTLAND POLICE spelled out in a simple font. In a place as huggy-friendly as the City of Roses purported to be, she supposed it made sense, but she wanted police cars to look like they’d been manufactured in the Death Star. She directed her attention upward again. The clouds had parted, revealing a slice of diluted sunlight. Liesl blinked. Her eyes stung. Not wanting to miss anything, she fought an urge to rummage in her purse for Visine. The black outline tottered again.
      "The cops won’t make it," Joanna said. "And the angle’s wrong to shoot him with a beanbag gun. That would only work if there’s a marksman in an elevator now, in one of these buildings." She gestured at the midrises around them. "Put a guy with a rifle on about the third floor, and he could get a clear shot. But they won’t do that. I think this asshole’s going to jump."
      "How far will he splatter?"
      There, that’s what we’ve been coming toward, isn’t it? Liesl looked down – to hell with the jumper – and stared into the bottom of her wine glass. The waitress had obviously forgotten about them. Like everybody else, she was staring at the suicide wannabe up above.
      "That depends," said Joanna, and her tone of voice made Liesl look up. Joanna shrugged. "You studied mortuary science. You’ve seen people make a mess of themselves before. Does he dive or does he jump feet first? If he decides to be Greg Louganis, we’ll be wiping blood and brain matter off our faces…"
      "But if he jumps feet first, he might not make such a mess. You’re right," Liesl said. "For a second there I was afraid I’d gone too far."
      "I just went through a bad breakup," Joanna said. "Did Ed tell you that? I walked in on him – my boyfriend, not Ed – screwing my best friend. Who is also a guy. Is. Was. As in, was my best friend. Whatever, fuck verb tenses, I’m not a big fan of men right now. I hope the motherfucker jumps, and the sooner the better."
      "Which is all a long way of saying I didn’t go too far," Liesl said. "Thanks for easing my mind. So you’re saying you think he’s going to jump before the cops get to him, right?"
      Joanna nodded. She looked like a lioness about to rip the throat out of a gazelle. Liesl had never gone on safari but she imagined it must be something like this. You don’t have to go to Botswana to see blood-lust.
      "Lunch is on you if he jumps and splatters, then?"
      Joanna shook her head. "Lunch is on me if he jumps. If we get splashed, we’re both calling in sick and getting wasted this afternoon. Drinks are on me, too. But only if we get splattered."
      "Cool," Liesl said. She wondered if gore would ruin the color of her hair. No big deal. It was time to see her stylist. He’d ask what on earth happened and she’d say something like I went to a sex party in an abattoir because sometimes the truth is just too weird. "But what if he doesn’t jump? Guess that means I’m buying, then?"
      Joanna smiled and nodded. "Works for me. I hope you’re not disappointed to be the loser if he lives?"
      "It’s not the worst thing in the world. Guess that means we’ll have to do this again sometime, and I’ll buy the drinks?"
      "Do you really think we’ll find another place with a suicidal loser on a roof?"
      "I don’t know. It’s Portland. Who can say?"
      Joanna looked up. "Either way, I guess we both win. You haven’t been in the Northwest long, have you? It’s hard to find friends here. I know what it’s like, so…" She raised her glass, which contained as little wine as Liesl’s. "Is this enough for a toast?"
      "If you don’t mind toasting with backwash, I don’t."
      They clinked glasses.
      And at that precise moment, the man on the rooftop jumped.
      This made Liesl happier than she’d been in weeks.

© Marshall Moore 2005

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author bio

Marshall MooreMarshall Moore is the author of the novel THE CONCRETE SKY and the short story collection BLACK SHAPES IN A DARKENED ROOM, which features Sunset over Brittany, published in issue 28 of TBR. He is a native of North Carolina but lives in Seattle, Washington (for now). For more information about him, visit his website: www.marshallmoore.com

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issue 46: January - February 2005

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