Spring 2011, Volume 10

Fiction by Chris Castle

Paper Angel 

I had moved into the apartment in spring, but had done little more than work and study. That was enough for me. Some nights the evenings would burn and I would take the fire escape up to the roof and watch the sun, impossible and close, as real as a hot air balloon on the verge of crashing. Other days mists would drift in, hiding the city and I would try to remember where everything fitted on the streets; the bakers to the left on the corner, the newspaper vendor facing it. And on many nights I would read until I fell asleep and miss the world entirely.

After that time, I began to exercise by walking in the park. It was a long, looping place and sometimes it looked, in the right light, as if it could go on forever. On the weekend mornings it was filled with children playing sports and then empty and fill again with families and lovers until the gates shut. During the week it was different; mothers with prams, boys missing school, old people taking their time, with papers under their arms.

It was on an evening that I first met him. It was a corner of the park I had not walked before, flat and tired looking, with a dozen almost broken benches lined up like soldiers on either side of the pathway. It was empty, apart from one man. He stood, his things on the bench before him, working away on a large, white kite. At first I thought I would avoid him, go on with my walk and then return to my studies, but instead I walked close enough, if not to talk, then maybe to see what he was working on.

“Hey man,” he said, sensing me almost immediately. “Lend me a hand?”
I understood him, just about, and followed his hand as it waved me over. He saw I was different; ‘not from the neighbourhood’ as my landlord put it. But the man touched the kite, seemed to think about it for a minute, then took me by the shoulder and pointed to what he was working on.

It was not a kite, I saw then, but a pair of wings. It was fashioned from ply wood, the many feathers I had seen blowing through the park grasses, and other smaller things, such as twine, nails and tape. He pointed to a tear and I immediately held either side of the material close so he could tape it together. There were two hooks fashioned form canes that would slip over his shoulders.

When we were done I stepped back, unsure if that was all that was needed. He crouched down to the repaired area, looked it over the way a person would a precious photograph or even jewelry, then patted it down and turned back to me.
“Thank you for your help son,” he said and patted me again on the shoulder. He looked old in a way I imagined boxers would eventually appear long after the bouts had finished. He was squat and tight, some veins bursting, others pumping. He edged the wings to one side and made space enough for us to sit. He gestured for me to take my seat and then sat beside me.

He told me his name and I told him mine. We shook hands. For a while we sat and looked out to the park. From where we sat, there were mostly just the surrounding trees and the tip of a nearby pylon reached above them. But now I was sitting next to someone and sharing even this with a near stranger seemed beautiful to me. As he talked, I felt my heart drum for the first time since I had arrived here, just from being close to another.

“I guess most people would call me crazy, but who isn’t a little crazy, more or less?” He looked back from the trees to me. He shrugged and I shrugged. I explained I understood the words but it was something that was taking me time. He smiled and he suddenly looked younger and less defeated. He looked as if he could win over anyone who sat beside him, from a workman to a president.

“I guess if you understood me better, you might not want to sit with me, huh?” He said, almost as much to himself as to me. He pulled his chin for a little while, the way other people would smoke a pipe, and then patted my knee. “Well, I appreciate you stopping to help me, regardless,” he said and stood up.

I stood too and watched him as he carefully folded his wings together, once halved, then into quarters, before slipping them into a black plastic bag. He shook my hand again and I asked him if he had anyplace to go.

“There’s a shelter nearby,” he said and must have seen me wince, not understanding. “It’s what people call home when they don’t have anything left,” he said and winked. Then he turned and made his way down the path, not waiting for me, as he carried his bag a little above the concrete path so it did not skim the ground.


After that meeting, I looked for him whenever I walked to the park. Things changed a little soon after that. I took a job and studied only in the evenings. I did not make friends, but there were people I knew and spoke to. Things took a certain order and I did not walk the park as often as I would have liked. The times I did go there, mainly on the weekends, I did not see him. When I didn’t find him, I made a point of collecting the feathers I saw for the next time I did bump into him. I wanted to give him as much ammunition as he needed for his dream.

The summer moved quicker with work and autumn passed in a smudged way, sometimes bright and hopeful, and then damning the rest of the week with rain or strong winds. Even then I made a point to walk the park, for myself, for my fitness. It was when I had forgotten to search for the man that I almost walked straight into him.
We stopped as we brushed by and for a moment I thought he did not recognise me. I had almost accepted that, had began to continue my walk, when he suddenly called my name out, when we were a few feet apart. I turned and smiled and we shook hands.

There is something I have always loved. It is a secret that makes me vain, I know, but it is the truth nonetheless. I cherish the idea of someone who is almost a stranger remembering my name. When I grew up, if a teacher knew my name after just one lesson, he would become my favourite teacher for the year. If a girl would bring my name into a conversation after we had just met, I would fall a little in love with her. It is just the idea of making an impression that sits in me heart. The thought of leaving a trace on another, like fingerprints on a steamed window, is like a gift to me.

We walked along the park, him carrying his black plastic bag and talking, and me listening. When I spoke he raised his eyebrow, mentioned my speaking had improved, but it did not change the way we were and I was glad. I just wanted to be close enough to listen, to follow the pattern of the man’s stories. After a while we sat on a bench and settled there for a while. It was almost winter and the cold was beginning to creep inside my clothes, my bones, almost making me ready to shiver.

When he turned round to me, his was the saddest face I had ever seen. Before, his smile had poured the years off of him; the lines he wore now, almost an impossible number, running along his brow, around his mouth, made him look impossibly tired and something else too; weak. He slowly opened the black bag and showed me what was inside.

The wings were shattered beyond repair. I saw the panels of plywood, knotted and smashed, pushing at odd angles. The feathers gathered in piles around the wood. They were scuffed, the edges of some of them burnt. All smashed together, it looked so ugly and cheap, it made my hands shake until I made a fist.

“A gang of boys got hold of me a week ago. Just where I was when I saw you. They asked me for a light. I teased and shooed them off as best I could, and I thought that would be the end of it, but it turns out it was just the start.” His eyes rolled and he wiped his hand across his nose, pulled on his chin again. I knew he was trying not to cry.

“They pushed me around a little, but they weren’t really interested in me. They’d seen me in the daytime, see? Collecting my feathers and so, and knew what was in my bag. They got it off me, shook it all out and then played merry hell with it. Kicked it all out of shape, tried to set fire to it” he said, and then laughed quickly. “They had a light already, alright! They broke it all up after they couldn’t burn it all and then just walked off, like they were done with their game.”

I didn’t take my eye off him the whole time he talked. When he was done, he pinched his eyes with his fingers and then looked back to me, his eyes wide and white, like he’d just splashed cold water over his face. He shrugged as he did before, and then started to tie the bag up, fixing knots in it. I asked him if we could not repair it.

“That’s kind of you to offer, son, but that’s the end of it,” he said, patting the bag, putting a double knot to secure it. “Just silliness anyway. Maybe those boys did me a favour, bringing me back to real life. I’m gonna empty this bag and start collecting cans like the rest of them, I figure,” he said and then put both his hands on his knees.

He pushed himself up and then offered his hand to me, winked once more. Then he turned and walked away, not waiting for me. I watched him, noticing he let the bag sag from time to time, hitting the floor. After a while, he let it drag as he got within reach of a bin. Then he untied the knots, lifted the bag and emptied everything away into the bin. When he was done, he dusted his hands, almost like he was clapping, and then folded the bag under his arm, like the older people did their newspapers, and walked towards the gate without looking back. After he had gone, I looked at the bin, brimming now, a few of the feathers gently sailing up into the grey sky and away.

The winter grew harder, but I still made my way through the park. I no longer saw him there, but I did see him on the nearby streets, collecting cans, talking to one or two people, while all the others pretended not to notice him. The first time I saw him I brought my hand up but he did not see me. He banked to his left sharply and turned down into the next street. I stood there, almost forgetting to bring my hand down as I watched him slip away. I realised he had seen me but did not want to talk, not anymore, not in this way.

I walked the park each morning when it did not rain. Mostly it was cold but clear and I enjoyed feeling the air pour down into me like iced water. I lost one job and found another. As the evening drew in I allowed myself to think of my family far away, my mother and sister, my niece and nephew. I looked at their photographs and I prayed I was doing the right thing. I let myself think of my late father and for hours I would not sleep.

I readied for Christmas in the way most people would prepare for any other week. I was going to work every day, taking half a day on Christmas day itself. On that half day I would phone my family and prepare a big, careful meal for the first time since I had moved into the room. The days edged on and I watched everyone else grow happier, become energised. I let myself be carried in the slipstream of all the noise and commotion, before returning to my room and forcing myself to the point of exhaustion with books, press-ups and letters.

I saw him on Christmas Eve. He was collecting cans on the corner by the bakery. I walked up to him on the other side of the road where he could not pretend to miss me. I walked up behind him and patted him on the shoulder, saying his name. For a moment I feared I had done the wrong thing. He slowly turned round and smiled, reaching out for my outstretched hand. His smile was not a fake one, but neither was it warm. I began to talk before he did and I forced my plan onto him before he could think of a lie to hand to me. Then I went on my way, crossing the road, walking away and not giving him the chance to follow me.


He met me on the steps of the building after I had finished work on Christmas day. It was cold and I held the door open to the building and he jogged right in. He did not tell me stories, but simply answered what it was I asked of him. We stepped inside the elevator and I pressed for the top floor. He looked at the numbers as we climbed.

“Up in the gods, huh?” he said and winked. I shook my head and told him my floor number, eight from top. He frowned for a second and then steadied himself as if I’d patted or pushed him. The door opened.

He followed me down the corridor to the fire escape and then stood by as I opened it and started to climb the stairs. He followed me in silence and for a while it was just the sound of our footsteps on the metal and the whistling of the wind against the windows. There was traffic below us, even on Christmas Day, but we were high up and it sounded like nothing more than the sound of a children’s toy. We reached the roof.

I walked over to the black bag which had a brick resting on top of it and lifted the brick up and set it to one side. I grabbed the bag by its neck and walked over to the old man. He had not moved from the top of the stairwell and I could tell he was unsure of what was happening. I opened the bag and he looked inside. Then I walked to the ledge where on other days I had watched the storms, the sun. I looked back and waved him on; He walked slowly over, as if he wore new shoes that were too tight.

We overlooked the city, the buildings, the maze of roads and the cars drifting from one lane to the next. I set the bag down between us and reached in and took out a handful of the feathers. He did the same.

I had collected them always. First for him and then because of him when the feathers drifted from the bin that day and he had been so terribly defeated. When I could not find anymore feathers, I made them from paper, from cardboard. I sat for nights, delicately patting them into shape, the way he had padded his paper wings after we had fixed the tear. It had filled the hours when I did not sleep and for that I was grateful to him.

We stood on the ledge and in silence, flung the feathers into the sky. The wind took them, sending them to the other buildings, down to the streets below. Some looped and came back to us, stuck on our clothes, blew past us and lay on the roof. We began to smile as the true feathers soared and we called after them and urged them on the way a fan does for his home team. The paper and the cardboard ones struggled and won and failed. We cat-called the failures and cheered the ones that flew the highest.  We emptied the feathers in great handfuls, throwing them, snatching at them greedily, letting them escape our palms, other times just letting them take flight. We encouraged and jeered and howled at them as if we stood on the edge of the last party left on earth. And when we thought there were no more, we lifted the bag and shook it for all it was worth, the last few feathers falling out, as if the bag itself was coughing them out. And as we stood side by side, we watched these last feathers disappear from sight.



BIO:  Chris Castle's work has been accepted in various publications, including end of year anthologies. His influences include Stephen King and Ray Carver.