Dewey (a character sketch)
He had been trying to escape, from the throng of partiers who crammed his apartment from wall to wall and the smell of beer and sweat that clung to their clothes, out into the relative quiet of the New York night. College kids spilled out of the apartment and onto the apartment stoop, milling around the university neighborhood street. It left nowhere to go but up.
Even if the roof below his feet still vibrated to the tune of remixed Nelly and laughter came from the street below, up among the rooftop patios and gardens, the brick chimneys and television satellites, it was blissfully secluded.
Ey, ’ey, you gotta cig? A hoarse, raspy voice came from behind him and made him jump. The
source of it smelled of birds, unwashed socks, and much cruder things that didn’t dare be named. If it
weren’t for the stench Caleb would never have noticed the old man, because otherwise he shuffled in a
way that was completely noiseless.
It was the first time Caleb met Dewey.
Trying to break to your roommates that they had a homeless man camping out on your roof was something you did gently.
So, you know we have a homeless guy living on our roof, right?
Caleb was working on the
gently part. He still broke it to them better than the time he had
found mushrooms growing from the toilet.
Darrell didn’t seem bothered by the news in the least, not even by batting an eyelash. Instead, he
gave a sort of half-nod from behind his chemistry book. Caleb raised an eyebrow as his roommate
Yep, he’s harmless. He’ll be gone when it gets cold out.
No luck there, but Justin didn’t seem busy with anything, so maybe...
Oh, yeah, Dewey’s cool. Been there forever. He drives the neighbors crazy, so they want him
out, but I think that’s more a reason to keep him. Justin said from around a mouth full of Fruit Loops
What? They’re parking-spot-stealing jerks.
Caleb gave him a dead stare.
Since when do you even have a car?
Justin swallowed, and then tipped the bowl to drink the sugared-soymilk out of it, setting the
bowl down harshly.
You wouldn’t know it, but I DO have one, it’s just in the lot two blocks away
because someone —
Darrell took command of the situation then, pausing in his intense highlighting spree.
allowed to stay up there if he doesn’t cause any trouble. No biggie.
Things could have probably gone on without another problem, but Caleb found that he just didn’t like the idea of some rickety old man camping out on his roof. It was one thing to see the homeless in alleys and on church stoops, but sleeping under the stars right above him? Goddammit, that just wasn’t going to fly. He just didn’t want to get the landlord involved (not just because of the damage from last week’s party), was all.
The second time Caleb met Dewey, he stomped up the stairs with the intention of telling the old man to leave. He swung the door open, fully intent on having a serious discussion and possibly calling the cops to forcibly evict the man, but it opened to an empty rooftop and the city skyline. He never would have noticed the ramshackle tarp-covered pigeon coop behind him, if a flock of pigeons hadn’t hurtled past him out of the sky.
They perched everywhere there was a foothold for their scruffy, downy rears. The top of the coop, the roof of the stairwell, the ledge running around the edge of the roof, the old man sitting with his book on an overturned milk crate, it didn’t matter. And they all stared back at Caleb with bright orange, uncaring eyes as he tried to pretend he hadn’t just cursed them out; their bobbing heads and soft coos only reinforced the firm set of his jaw.
Hey, you. Yeah, I don’t mean to be a —
Shhh, you’re interrupting Rukeyser.
Caleb blinked, the Dewey turned the page of his battered old paperback.
No, you’re squatting on my apartment.
Dewey started humming, a steady tone with no discernible melody. A pigeon took an experimental peck at the pages and he gently nudged the bird from his lap.
I’m not trying to be the bad guy here, but it’s kinda, y’know, illegal. Once the landlord finds
I could not tell you apart, one from another. For that in childhood I lived in places clear of you,
for that all the people I knew met you by —
Dewey was only just getting into the poem, voice starting to rise, his rasp only accenting the reading. The pigeons milled about, more of them fluttering to the coop as their perch got louder and louder.
Crushing you, stamping you to death, they poured boiling water on you, they flushed you
down, for that I could not tell one from another. Only that you were dark, fast on your feet, and slender.
Not like me.
Caleb would have said something, if he currently didn’t have pigeon feathers in his mouth from birds that had accidentally fluttered too close to his head in their escape.
For that I did not know your poems. And that I do not know any of your sayings. And that I
cannot speak or read your language. And that I do not sing your songs. And that I do not teach our
children--- Oh. Dewey finally turned around, dislodging the last pigeon from his head.
You still here?
Man oh man, the usually stomp off by the first verse.
Caleb shoved the last bird away, but found he wasn’t nearly as angry as he was embarrassed.
Somehow, between all those lines, the fight had gone out of him.
Dewey shrugged and went back to his reading, the lines coming out raw and strong from his
chapped lips. This time, Caleb didn’t interrupt.