Short story by Rafael Alvarez: Rolling with the seasons

A new Baltimore-set short story by RAFAEL ALVAREZ, screenwriter for HBO's groundbreaking The Wire

YOU think you know Baltimore because you own a television? Can recite Poe? Maybe a distant relative had some rare and awful thing cut out of their brain at Johns Hopkins Hospital and lived to eat the best crab cake of their life before flying home.

This story is about the other Baltimore, a city that once made nearly every bottle cap in the world; a place where each narrow block has a tavern on one corner and a church at the other, promising that anything was possible in between.

This is the tale of a middle-aged miracle with a shovel in his hands named Junie Bug.

Junie was seven when he began digging for his father's body with broken garden tools, got started the same day he heard a homicide detective tell his grandmother - neither the cop nor Mom Mom aware that the kid was listening under the table - that the body of Tilghman Reed, like so many others, had probably been dumped in Leakin Park.

Running out the back door with the cop still in the house, Junie raced a half-mile from his grandmother's house to cross into the thickets of the largest urban forest in the United States for the first time; two thousand unbroken acres of wild growth, meadows, streams, and abandoned mills; a jungle of untended woodland once known as Dead Run Valley.

When Junie crossed that threshold it began an ignorant kid's lifelong campaign to find a father he believed might only be hurt and not dead; his first cut of earth into a clump of weeds as tall as he was, brambles glinting in the sun from the cracked mirror of a broken make-up case.

Junie was a scrawny kid, but not for long; his shoulders, forearms and chest spreading with muscles as he dug hole after hole, thousands of holes. He drank lots of water and used sun screen. Learned the apiarist's art by watching others, rescued a dog that saved his life more than once and cleared a secret spot big enough for a kitchen table, four chairs and china closet, all salvaged.

Hole after hole. Passed up cartoons on TV and neighbourhood games and dug; dropped out of school and dug; forgot what day it was and fell into reveries so deep he forgot why he was digging. And kept digging.

Junie made maps in his school composition books as reminders of where he had already prospected; each hole - more wide than deep, the bad men of Baltimore never going to too much trouble to hide their work - marked in a series of hand-drawn maps drawn in ink and shaded with coloured pencils.The first books were his own, scribbled with spelling and maths assignments (buy for one, sell for two] and then, after quitting school, he made maps in new ones from the drug store or barely used ones tossed out by kids who hated school the same way Junie did but couldn't see a better way to go.

Junie became enlightened about things he otherwise would not have known, garnering enough knowledge from observation and cross-referencing what he saw at the public library to qualify for a degree in botany.

He saw people having sex but they never saw him. Watched a young girl give birth and leave the baby where it landed. He took the infant to the closest fire station and said he found it crying in a trash can.

He was in the park just about every day for three decades and up until today, almost no-one noticed him.

Today - the solstice and his birthday, a boy named for the month of his arrival; the park a refuge from apprentice sociopaths who needed no more reason than a funny name to give a kid a daily beating - Junie had no more inkling of where his father might be than the week he disappeared.

On this midsummer's eve - the park quiet and cool in the early evening, the soil soft from two days of rain - Junie had on new work boots, a straw cowboy hat and sported a state-of-the-art metal detector, all of it (like his property taxes, his food, books and paints, his beekeeping equipment) - paid for with things he found in the park, cleaned and repaired and sold at flea markets.

"Your Daddy wore a gold cross around his neck, I gave it to him when he made the altar call," Mom Mom had told Junie on her death bed. "Unless them evil hoppers yanked it from his neck, he's wearing it still."

Seven people were shot or murdered in Baltimore over the summer weekend in 1973 when Tilghman Reed left home to see a woman who was not Junie's mother and never came back. All but one either went to the hospital or left their bodies on the street as proof of misadventures that ranged from jealousy to a misunderstood remark. Junie's father did not.

In the 30 years that Junie had been digging, homicide in the United States had moved beyond a time when killers took pains to hide their victims to one in which dead men remained where they fell.

The West Baltimore Tilghmans - some carried it as a last name, some their first - were descendents by blood or property of the Revolutionary War planter for whom an island in the Chesapeake Bay is named. They were also kin to the founding members of the pioneering doo-wop singing group known as the Orioles.

For all the bird watching Junie did over the years (three stout jars of "Jay Bug's Baltimore Brown" honey traded for a fine pair of binoculars) he never saw the state bird in the park.Like simple solutions and easy answers - Baltimore had the highest taxes and the most entrenched poverty in Maryland - the Oriole was virtually non-existent in the city which gave the bird its name.

"Well what do you know," said Junie, the detector putting out a staccato beep across an area 14 feet long by about six feet wide. "What do we have here?"

II

Junie Bug Reed never wanted much - not in the way most people had lists of things they had to have to be happy - and in return the park provided all that he needed.

There, Junie sacrificed his life, found his life (which revealed itself as both a gift and invention) and worked to protect it as the ceaseless drama of Baltimore City rolled on with the seasons.

His humility was rewarded with a stubborn health - he never caught a cold and the allergies and asthma that once dogged him faded away - and an eccentric prosperity.

In the summer, he grew bell peppers and tomatoes, harvesting enough love apples to eat them on white toast (light mayo, a pinch of salt) through the end of September. Herbs he'd never known or tasted until middle-age were sold downtown at the farmers' market.

In fall, he picked wild berries. And when the ground was frozen, he collected pine cones and sold them to stores specialising in Christmas decorations and cut down one Scotch pine a year for the Baptist altar where his grandmother had worshipped.

For every meal Junie ate in Mom Mom's kitchen, he ate three in the park; contemplating the things he might have done with the father denied him while compiling inventories of the things found, given away, and sold.

Though one room in his grandmother's house was dedicated to the few things he couldn't let go of - a museum without visitors - Junie didn't hold onto much.

Among the items coughed up by the park:

• A shovel used to bury a man who was not his father. Junie put his weight on it for a month before it broke.

• One hundred and twelve baseballs and three dozen footballs. He threw each of them as far as he could into the woods and eventually found them all again.

• A small arsenal of pistols, which he rendered mute with a hammer before taking them to a scrapyard for a few bucks.

• A tin lunch box from the 1960s embossed with characters from the Gunsmoke television programme. The pail belonged to Reginald Vernon Oates, a still-on-death-row janitor who lured young boys into the park to play cowboys and Indians. Who in this world plays cowboys and Indians anymore?

• The body of an alcoholic Jewish housewife from the suburbs, a taxpayer who took a ride with the wrong guy after her sixth glass of wine. The disappearance of Mitzi Glick was news, trumping equally violent but more mundane mayhem.

• $613 in loose change complemented by a brown paper bag with several hundred dollars of small bills held together with rubber bands that had rotted into the currency. He used the money to pay the taxes on his grandmother's house.

• The skull of a plumber's apprentice who liked dope more than he liked paying for dope. Junie held on to it for a while. In weak moments, he thought it might be his father. In weaker moments, he believed it would speak to him.

"This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased …"

It didn't. He gave the skull to a guy he knew - one of his few neighbourhood peers to survive the corner - who taught high school science.

• A strong box, empty, with a rusty but workable key in the lock. Junie kept the box in the map room at Mom Mom's. Inside the box he preserved a copy of the police report of his father's disappearance.

Although Tilghman Reed was most likely dead, he was presumed so on circumstantial evidence and bad police work.

Someone said they had seen Reed take a bullet outside a sandwich shop near his girlfriend's house. Someone else said the wounded man - "It was Tillie, sure as I know Tillie it was Tillie" - was thrown in the back of a car headed west.

Fresh blood was soon found near the entrance to Leakin Park. A block away, a car matching the one from the sandwich shop was set on fire. Two hours later, detectives were at Mom Mom's house.

Junie Bug found everything in Leakin Park - sunshine on a rainy day, the devil beating his wife - but not someone to call his own.

"A one-sided love would break my heart," sang his great-uncle on the Orioles' big hit in the twilight before Elvis. "It's too soon to know …"

Junie knew his father wasn't alive. But he imagined, now and again - less so when digging than when he strolled the woods at magic hour - that he was.

III

"What," repeated Junie, kneeling down to scratch the soggy earth with his hands, "have we here?"

The harvest is rich, the workers are few and the native Susquehannock, who used the Dead Run to fish and bathe and trapped beaver in the woods, believed that midsummer's eve is the best night for gathering magical herbs.

Legend holds that on this night - which some years shadowed Junie's birthday and other years hit it on the head - a distant relative of the dew of the sea blooms. The person who tastes the dew becomes fluent in the language of the trees. If sprinkled across the forehead, future lovers come to visit in dreams.

And Junie always spent his birthday in the park.

"What is it?"

The woman had startled Junie as he poked around the area that had set off the loud, rapid beeps; on his hands and knees in a section of the park near the 19th century mansion that served as headquarters for the Friends of Leakin Park.

Junie had been lulled into a brown study by the silence, the dusk and his concentration on the somewhat enormous size of what lay beneath him.

"Well," he said, getting up slowly to meet the stranger. "Don't know yet."

"Well let's find out, Junie," said the woman.

He lingered on her face. Junie wasn't surprised that she knew his name; he was known in circles that frequented the park for charity races and the annual orchid festival. His blue-ribbon honey brought a measure of notoriety. Kids called him "The Shovel Man" and more than once he used the tool to defend himself.

Junie was given pause by the woman's light brown forehead, the curve of her lips and the set of her eyes. They reminded Junie of Gladys Knight and Gladys Knight reminded Junie of his mother when she was young.

Mama was easily found. Head south to the city line and turn off of Baltimore & Annapolis Boulevard through the stone gates of Mount Auburn cemetery, a neglected tangle every bit as stubborn as Leakin Park.

Push beyond the graves of world champion boxer Joe Gans, civil rights pioneer Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, a gifted athlete named Tony Brown - stabbed by his girlfriend at 19, his plot marked by a whitewashed piece of lumber lettered in black marker - and scores of runaway slaves.

Her headstone read: "April Lange Reed - Daughter / Mother / Friend - 1949 to 1991."

April Reed died of a stroke - hypertension complicated by diabetes, depression and cigarettes; no need for Junie to look for his mother because he had buried her, paying for the funeral and a granite tombstone topped by an angel and the labour needed to clear away a path to her family's plot with money generated from the thing that generated everything in his life.

Junie hesitated and smiled, his mother come to life.

"Let's find out?"

The woman held Junie's gaze.

"Let's find out what's down there."

It would take a month of Junie Reed and Shirley Jackson working together to unearth the 1973 Ford Pinto Squire station wagon - fake wood panelling along the sides, 8-track tape player in the dash - that a cuckolded city worker had buried with a back hoe the same day his boss drove it from the dealership to the park.

The Pinto rolled out of the showroom just days before Junie's father disappeared, but a gold cross around the neck of Tillie Reed's skeleton was not in it.

The car was empty, packed by the God of things unseen with every misfortune spared Junie in the years he searched for his father.

Rafael Alvarez, 2010

Back to the top of the page