Center City

2014_10_09_18_48_31We were fifteen years old that summer and had outgrown the suburban town where we lived. Everything my friends and I yearned for we found in the seedy downtown core of Philadelphia’s Center City, which was as exotic to us as Baghdad. In Center City we could smoke. We could look at dirty magazines. We weren’t fifteen-year-old kids from the ’burbs in blue jeans and madras shirts in Center City. We didn’t blend in. We were cool. The subterranean world of the station at the Penn Center Complex was our base. Its floors and walls were tiled and so dirty the piss and graffiti didn’t show, so full of echoes you were never alone.

One day we started up a game of hide-and-seek in the tunnels. McArdle was It. McArdle was a year older than me and made much of it, as if in that extra year the secrets of the universe had been given to him. As we scattered like startled crows, he hid his eyes and counted.

Where to run? McArdle was bigger and faster than me, so I’d have to be quick. I made a hard right off the main corridor, looking for a place to disappear.

Big mistake. I’d come to a dead end, boarded off. The boards looked as if the place had once been under construction. The wood was water stained and ancient. The whole area had an abandoned, done-for feel to it, but I was in too far to change my mind and turn around. Once McArdle finished counting, I’d run right into him. There was nothing but a pile of trash at the far end of the tunnel, and I decided to take cover there. I scooched inside a big piece of cardboard propped against the wall and pulled it around me like a tepee.

I was breathing loud and hard from running. My head hurt. The whole hideaway stank. I couldn’t ignore it. I almost gagged. A sickening odor rose in powerful waves from the pile of refuse beneath my feet. What was making the smell? And where was McArdle? What was it I was inhaling? Was it shit?Had I jumped into a pile of shit?

I couldn’t see much. I adjusted the angle of the cardboard box against the wall and let in enough light in to make out a mound of carpet and rags and—what the hell—was that hair?

I screamed and jumped, knocking over the cardboard as McArdle slapped me on the back.

“You’re It,” he said. And then: “Jesus. What the hell is that?”

There was the roll of carpet—a filthy tube with brown hair spilling from the top like a stain on the floor. Someone was inside it. The face was turned away from us, but we could definitely tell that what was in there was a man.

“I jumped right on him.”

“Christ. You jumped on a dead guy.”

With the back of his heel, McArdle tried to turn over the corpse, but it was too heavy. He bent down as if he might grab the carpet roll and flip the guy out of it. I didn’t want McArdle to touch the body.

“Don’t,” I said. Then, added the warning: “He’s covered with shit.” I could feel tears rising but I wasn’t going to cry in front of McArdle. I turned away and started walking toward the station, where there were people and I might find some help. A last look down the corridor from where we’d come—I saw the debris, but from a distance it looked just like a garbage pile. McArdle came after me, hissing that we had to get the hell out. Just go. Walk away. But something wouldn’t let me. I needed to find a cop.

“There’s a dead guy,” I said to the first guy in a uniform I saw. He turned out to be a train conductor, not a policeman. I grabbed his arm anyway and pointed in the direction of the corridor. He shook my hand off, but kept walking with me and looking around the station as if he too wanted to find a grown-up.

“He’s right in there,” I said when we were about two hundred feet from the pile.

The conductor moved a few steps closer, just enough to see what was there without getting too near or really making an inspection. He shook his head. “Fucking people,” he said.

McArdle peeked his head into the mouth of the corridor and was waving for me to get out of there. I started to back away.

“Where’d ya think you’re going, kid?” the conductor asked.

I didn’t answer. Instead, I ran. I sprinted past McArdle. I sprinted down the long tiled corridor. I passed the subterranean stores. I sprinted past the stairways that led from the tracks. I sprinted up a flight of marble steps into the hot streets of Center City.

***

Center City originally appeared in Narrative Magazine.