Spudnik Rising – Ian Campbell

Ian Campbell

Jim watched Rudy pull himself up the rope with lean strong arms covered in swirling tattoos, the bandolier wrapped around his chest. Once Rudy’s feet were off the ground, he used the toe of one sneaker to snag the handle of the paint can Beth held up to him. In one smooth motion, he lifted the foot and transferred the can to one hand; then, before his other hand could lose its grip, he grabbed on and let the handle slide down his arm.

Jim panned from left to right as Beth pulled on the other end of the rope to help Rudy walk up the side of the concrete pylon. His gaze took in the enormous freight yard with its stacks of shipping containers, then the fence dividing this from the freight train tracks on which he stood, then the row of tall pylons that ran parallel to the freight tracks and supported the MARTA tracks thirty feet above. A mile beyond shone the towers of downtown Atlanta, under a sticky summer haze lit orange by thousands of streetlights. Above them, a MARTA train roared as it went by, mostly empty this late in the evening.

He looked back up to see Rudy reattach the rope-climbing gear so that he ended up sitting in a canvas sling, the top of the pylon a foot or so away from him. Jim reached up to touch the zoom button next to his ear; he could see Rudy slide the paint can into his lap, open it, take a brush from the bandolier and begin painting the top section of the pylon with great broad strokes. Behind Rudy, Jim could see the rope stretching out from the pulley that held the sling; Beth was set to belay Rudy in case he needed to come down fast.

“Hey, Maggie?” said Jim. “Status check. I can’t look at the screen: I have to hold steady on Rudy.”

Her voice was completely familiar to him, even though they’d been kids the last time they’d done anything together. “Two green buttons and one yellow one, just like you said. So, you’re recording and…?”

“Uploading to the cloud. The yellow button is for the livestream. What about the monitors?”

“Nothing. There’s a giant SUV on the eastbound camera. Oh, and now a tow truck coming the other way. I’ll tell you if I see any cops.” The pitch of her voice changed. “Hey, what’s Rudy doing?”

“Tagging the pylon.”

“He’s painting it the same color. What kind of graffiti is that?”

“Oh. Right. I didn’t get it the first time, either. The brown paint on the pylon is graffiti-resistant: they can just wash it off with hot water. Rudy’s can is full of primer.”

“Oh, he’s going to paint over it. Cool.”

“Took us forever to get the color just right. That’s why we aren’t live yet. Only the part after the primer dries goes out to the Net.”

“Which is why you made the primer brown. Right. So they won’t catch on.”

Jim drew breath to speak, but they both heard Beth say, “On belay.” Jim had finally managed to train himself to wear the camera, so he resisted the urge to jerk his gaze toward Beth; he kept a steady lock on Rudy as the sling descended. Once Rudy’s feet touched the rocky earth underneath the MARTA tracks, he passed the can of primer to Beth, who put the lid back on, then put the can in a backpack. She walked over behind Jim and slipped one strap over his shoulder. The wind shifted, and for an instant, Jim caught a breath of the beautiful spicy scent of Beth. The hairs on his arm stood up; then, so did the hairs all over his body as she grasped his elbow and guided it back through the strap.

Jim kept his gaze resolutely focused on Rudy, who was answering Maggie. “I only have to wait five minutes. But if I stay up there, I get all impatient.”

“The primer has to be dry, first,” said Beth. Jim could feel her breath on his neck and jaw as she helped him with the other strap of the backpack.

Rudy’s reply was drowned out by the rush of another train going overhead, but he pointed down at Maggie, who was pointing at one of the windows on the screen of Jim’s laptop. “Cops,” he said without thinking. “Westbound. From downtown.” But Maggie had already picked up the laptop and was being pulled to her feet by Rudy. Behind him, Jim heard the click of the harness as Beth let the rope go, and the hiss as it slid through the pulley, leaving behind only a fishing line that went back up through the pulley and ended up coiled around a spool in Beth’s fist. She pushed him toward the pylon, stooped to grab the rope and harness, then dashed behind him.

Huddled behind one pylon, Jim could feel the warmth of Beth up against him; he shifted nervously and looked over at Maggie and Rudy behind the next pylon. Out on DeKalb Avenue, the police car went by, its cabin aglow from the computer terminal set into the dash. Maggie started to move, but Rudy held her back: it paid to be cautious.

Jim heard and felt and smelled Beth’s whisper all at once. “When you told me you were bringing her, I thought you meant she was your girlfriend. I was so excited. But you guys just grew up together?”

“Sort of. Kindergarten through third grade. But then she moved away. And now she’s back.”

“And here you are taking her out showing her your secret life as a graffiti guerrilla.” She patted his shoulder. “You’re a dog, Jimmy. And I mean that in the best way.”

He stiffened. “It’s not like that. She wanted to say hi to my mom, and I was on my way out the door. But my secret life wouldn’t impress her: she’s the star. She won the state science fair last year.”

“Get out. That’s cool. What did she make?”

“A machine that takes carbon dioxide out of the air and makes it into bricks you can build things with.” He wanted to say more, but Rudy was already on the move, and after a second’s hesitation Beth was behind him, rolling up the spool of fishing line and pulling the rope off the ground as if by magic. In less than a minute, Rudy was in his sling at the top of the pylon; Jim had his gaze fixed upon the can of white spray paint in his hand. “Maggie? Hit the third button. We’re live.”

“Ten-four, Jimmy. No cops on the monitor.”

Rudy slipped into a blur of motion, using the white paint to draw an irregular rectangle with lots of spiky edges, then moving on to yellow for the outlines of the letters. Sometimes he used one can while shaking another; sometimes, he used two cans at once. In just less than six minutes, Beth was lowering Rudy down while Jim and stayed focused on the word spudnik. Well, that’s what it said if you knew how to look at the way the shapes resolved into letters. Jim had been filming Rudy for most of a year now, but he still sometimes had trouble picking letters out of the curves and spikes.

Maggie said, “Oh, spudnik, not sputnik. But why is the D backwards?”

Rudy smiled. “I could snow you with some talk about art, but really? I like the way it looks.”

Beth said, “Let’s get out of here.”

Jim reached over Rudy and picked up the laptop, shut down the recording and the livestream, closed the laptop and handed it to Beth, who slipped it into the backpack between Jim’s back and the can of primer. Rudy had the rope and the fishing line coiled onto the ground; he slipped the harness over Beth’s shoulders, then the rope over his own. He took Maggie’s hand and they both stepped upward onto the freight train tracks.

Maggie said, “That was fun.”

Before Jim could reply, they heard the pop of a rock coming out of the earth, along with a thump, and a yelp and a curse from Beth. Jim turned to see her near the bottom of the embankment, flat on her stomach, arms stretched toward him, looking up at him through her bangs. Without thinking, Jim leapt off the tracks, skidded down the embankment on the heels of his boots, crouched as he halted and pulled Beth to her feet. There was just a moment where they locked gazes, when Jim could have sworn–

A thousand suns of light froze them in place. Jim put up a hand to shield his eyes and saw beyond the spotlight the unmistakable shape of an Atlanta Police Department cruiser.

“Run!” shouted Beth. She launched herself to her feet and up to the tracks, pulling Jim in her wake. Rudy was already holding open the long cut in the chain-link fence; Maggie was already running onto the tarmac of the freight yard. The cop huffing up the hill behind them shouted something, but his words were lost in the clatter of a MARTA train going overhead.

Beth led them quickly through the maze of shipping containers. They sprinted across the hundred meters of empty, brightly-lit pavement, Maggie lagging behind the others. They heard more shouts, but they kept running to where Beth held open a cut in another fence that let them out into the Reynoldstown neighborhood on the far side of the freight yard.

While Maggie caught her breath, Jim pulled two empty backpacks from the bushes where he’d left them. Rudy and Beth stuffed their gear into these; Jim tossed Rudy a shoulder bag for his rolled-up bandolier of spray cans. They ran three blocks at the best pace Maggie could manage, then stopped and walked the rest of the way to where Beth’s and Rudy’s bikes were chained to a tree.

“Why Spudnik?” asked Maggie between heaves of breath.

“It’s just his tag,” said Beth.

“His name,” said Jim. “Like where we showed you back off Edgewood.”

Maggie said, “Right. Like Hense and Vomet and Ohno and Gack.”

Rudy said, “I’m gonna be that big one day soon.”

“What I mean is, why Spudnik and not… Rudy with a backwards D?”

“Oh, that. I used to draw cartoons, when I was little? Monsters fightin’ superheroes, that kinda thing? Well Spudnik was, like, my dude in those. He’s the guy who can beat up Superman, you know?”

As they crossed the street, Maggie stopped to tie her shoe. She said, “Do you ever paint anything other than your name? Your tag, I mean?”

“No. Maybe once somebody pays me to.”

“But–” Her reply was cut off when a spotlight caught her full on. The others drew back into the shadows as Maggie covered her eyes with her hands. They all heard the roar of a police cruiser.

“Don’t look at us,” said Beth. “They never saw you back there.”

Jim started to say something else, but the light and sound of the approaching cruiser forced them all further back into the shadows. The car pulled up, but before the cop could get out, Maggie was at the driver’s side window, gesticulating and talking.

“What’s she saying?” asked Rudy.

But Jim had already unclipped the parabolic mike with its pistol grip and was pointing it at the car. He pulled out one ear bud and handed it to Rudy, in time for Rudy to hear Maggie say, “But she likes this guy, you know? And he’s… well, he’s all right, I guess, so I was okay with hanging out while they… you know. But then? All his creepy friends came over, and they wouldn’t leave me alone.”

The cop said, “Have you seen anyone else? Running, in dark clothes?”

“Um, no.” She held up her phone. “I’m mostly just trying to find my way to MARTA. I’ll call my dad from there.”

The cop sighed. “Let me give you a ride. This neighborhood…”

As the cruiser drove off, Rudy said, “I like her. Your girl has good spirit, Jimmy.”

“She’s not my girl,” said Jim as he helped them with their bikes.

“She could be,” said Beth.

Rudy said, “When can I watch the video?”

Jim tapped and swiped on his phone. “Give YouTube ten minutes or so to sort things out. It should be ready by the time you get home.”

“You’re our hero, Jimmy,” said Beth as they rode off.

If only, thought Jim as he watched them go, a cute hipster couple on their way home from an art gallery opening or whatever it was cute hipster couples in the city did. He closed his eyes and relived the moment of locking gazes with Beth. “Hopeless,” he said out loud, then walked down the block to where the ancient van was parked. He climbed in, then used his phone to send Maggie a message before coaxing the engine to life. Maggie’s reply told him the cop had dropped her off at the Inman Park rather than King Memorial station; before picking her up, Jim swung back around to the tag site to pick up the microcameras he’d left behind.

On the long drive home, Maggie chattered about how exciting it all was, while Jim tried not to think about the gas gauge. He dropped her off, then drove back to his house, dark in a lit-up neighborhood. He promised himself he’d cut the lawn over the weekend, but the overgrown trees were beyond him.

Inside, the house was dark, even hotter and stickier than outside, overlaid with a sweet smell of decay that maybe only Jim could sense. He tiptoed upstairs, ignoring his mother’s call from her darkened bedroom. Once in his room, he walked straight to the window-mounted AC unit. His hand hesitated before switching it on, but he needed to send the video link to a bunch of online friends—and there was a chemistry test to study for. He turned the dial to full cool, well aware of the irony, then luxuriated in the cold air that came pouring from the vent. He fired up the big PC that was the real reason for the air-conditioning: before anything else, he had clients to deal with. Paying clients.


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