The streetlamp smashes against itself, something in the wiring gone frayed. It goes clickclickclick and then thud, but irregular and arrhythmic, a shock every time. The light itself doesn’t waver; steady and straight, the beams cast the soil like tundra in harsh grey light, next to a car’s scratched up bodywork. The wind howls. Somewhere a car beeps softly. The wind howls.
A kid’s footsteps light up the silence of the street. They are intermingled in the wail of the air and the thud of the light, so that there exists at turns a three-part melody: thud, clap, whoosh. Stone, draft, click.
It has just turned dark, and a faint aura of purple and orange hangs limply on the horizon, waiting to be extinguished by the racing hand of the moon. Cars still rush by but the flurry of great activity has hushed now. Lights are going on or already lit in living rooms, and the beams of those habitations creep out through tremulous windows and give witness to goings-on inside, where shadows move and mingle.
The kid hits the corner and turns, his head tilting quick but casual this way and that. He observes from underneath a knitted hat the people on the block and the signs and the lights. He keeps moving now, having taken the left. The looming sign—5 blocks up—beckons.
The pace he sets is slow, but not lazy. Whether it is by practice or choice, the steps are deliberate, and as the terrain fades behind him—the storefronts, covered up in boards and rails, the alleyways, the dense empty lots and scorched buildings—he seems to breathe a little better. Sometimes there erupts a little hiccup in his step whereby his foot lingers a little too long, and his eyes peer out from the cap with an added dose of intensity, and it may be that he is looking out or looking in.
Down and across the street a man sits with his eyes rooted elsewhere. Near him is a taller man, who cradles a cigarette and talks a little too loudly for the hushed resonance of the street. The words are dull in meaning and rush out in verses of nonsense. The sitting man nods, shakes his head, nods again. He looks at the boy; the boy looks back; both return their attention to where it was before.
A car drives by so rusted it looks like it might shatter if it hit the right bump. It is travelling with a hesitating jump and rattle, the windows down, the inside dark. It looks full of malice, and from it emerge curses. The boy pauses, looks, continues wordless. He takes his path a little closer to the buildings.
A few more blocks roll by. He hits the palatial luminescence of the station, slides his hand easily through his coat pocket and it comes out with a sliver of rectangular paper. No one is inside, but a curled shard of newspaper crawls across the pavement, driven by the wind. Someone shuffles upstairs and coughs.
He ascends the stairs, his feet tapping on the crusted metal. He waits on the platform. Across the way trains empty their cargo: passengers of weary legs. They walk stiffly down the steps and disperse down the streets. On his platform he sees someone his age with headphones in, bobbing his jaw to the rhythm of the inaudible sound. This counterpart spits out his gum into his hand, lays it gingerly in the place where a structural column’s beams meet, looks to see if anyone notices. An older man does but pretends not to.
A few minutes flow by before the train slides up next to the platform. The exchange of people is performed. The kid selects his car and steps on. There are only two others in the car, so he carefully picks from an array of open seats. He looks down at the floor as the scenery moved past, oscillating with the trembles of the tracks.
The train bumps and rattles and squeals. He spends a moment introspective while rowhouses and three-story condos and porches go by, before the city comes up in its splendor. He spies from his seat the upthrust peaks of towers stacked on towers, leading on inexorably to the Sears’ twin tines. The train fills to a fourth of its capacity. Abruptly, the whole mass of it slows and turns on its axis. He looks up.
Revealed in the twilight is the blueprint of organization: streets stretching out like infinite lines towards the horizon, ornamented with punctate lamps casting gold-grey lights. Vectors of traffic march out of the city, the flow of human souls writ large against the pavement. Intersections stand out, for the cars there could be seen to growl and honk and shine forth red and yellow signals the nature of which is uncertain.
A coughing man can be heard. A sniffling woman tries to stifle her cold. A nervous kid balances his weight on shifting feet, his hands dug into a puffy coat two sizes too large. A few tinny signals of radios and mp3s can be perceived above the raucous whine and moan of the train, now rocking precariously as sparks spray the tracks below.
He looks back down at his feet. Now wedged between buildings, the train passes windows and stone decorations and Latin phrases carved into facades. It turns again, this time southward, having travelled through the beating heart. More people step on. The breath of strangers can be felt.
Stops go by and they go by. The buildings diminish in height; the car empties of its passengers; gaps and scarred concrete suddenly appear beneath the tracks. The train begins to accelerate. The kid looks at the map on the wall above the door. He looks out at the buildings, made boring again but in a different way. He looks at his feet. He gets up and maneuvers through the crowd and to the door and gets off at the next stop with a dozen others.
After a brief ride on the 55, he is on the street heading east. He can see a few of his fellow travelers, but they join the general pulse of foot-traffic into which they are deposited, creating a great herd. In contrast to the environment of the train, a hush punctuated by bursts of chatter and whining of steel, there is here a buzz of cars and speech passing between the suddenly braying pedestrians.
Rushed conversations with the names of anonymous strangers filtered out of groups of sweating young people in red sweatshirts. Deeds sordid and strange came forth in little fragments. So-and-so was drunk one time and made a fool of themselves jumping from the porch.
There were islands of conversation and connection in the sparse stream of cars and people with heads down and headphones on. Each island was as an entire society unto itself: unaware of the surroundings except enough to dodge interlopers and light poles, exchanging vacuous sentiment as fast as English allowed. The kid would walk by them in his shambling way, eager and yet reticent to intrude, and as the din of their shared noise passed, he would scowl.
It is early yet, but there is a vast migration underway. From the southwest he can see at every intersection a course of people young and old who have seemingly escaped, so relieved are their smiles. He passes between them. Like the other, rare outsiders, his own attitude goes unnoticed, as it aligns with none of the major concerns. The houses give way to the windows of coffee shops and bookstores, loud lettering announcing pretentious names set out like fishing lures. Some are closed, some are bustling. There begins to breathe a certain electricity in the air, ambiguous as to its own meaning but perfectly aware of its own life.
The kid slows down, scans the street. He finds a coffee shop with a smirking imp as its symbol, and another two doors down. He observes that both serve their coffee in the same style of white cardboard cups. He goes inside the first, queues up in line like he’s going to order. He fiddles in his pocket, knowing that it’s empty, and he waits until the bearded barista at the counter with the placid countenance turns away and then he takes a position over by the bar where full cups are delivered. When in the rush of ordering and retrieving there appears a latte of dubious quality and with no apparent owner, he walks up with certain assertion and takes it.
Before anyone notices, he leaves the shop and goes thirty steps down the street to the other one with the same white cardboard cups. He finds a seat just as the evening crowd is clearing out. He grabs a newspaper on the next table and pretends to thumb through it with one eye on the clock. He looks at the drink in his hand, afraid to sip lest he run out too early. He looks up at the clock on the wall, calculating. He sets his head on his forearms with the newspaper in front as cover and the coffee to the side as validation.
Three hours later he starts awake, tapping the coffee with his shoulder and catching it only just before it falls to the floor. He looks around to find himself alone in the shop except for two employees, one busily counting at the register and another studiously mopping the floor. She looks at him and smiles, a pretty curve framed by the soft brown of her hair. He tries to smile back but can only muster a sort of silly half-grin, toothy and unconvincing. He gets up, takes the lid off his drink, and chugs it, before stepping outside.
The air feels noticeably cooler as he takes a left down the street. In his slumber the whole mood of the place has changed. Gone are the struggling workday warriors, replaced with a rioutous assemblage of the drunk and the soon-to-be-drunk, their eyes hung in despair while their mouths and lungs surge furiously to take in the air.
The kid follows the current of celebrants. He pursues no particular posse but flits from this group to that, each unaware that they are being shadowed, if only for a brief time. In so doing he takes jogs north and east, his steps ever behind. The neighborhood changes beneath his feet: the wind grows stronger. The lake, ever-present anchor, seems to draw him to it.
A group he is following for a while takes him to the steps of a hulking, grey midrise which faces a green-domed palace, before they disappear into the warm, soft inside. All of a sudden, there isn’t anyone left for him to pursue. A heavy-set woman with grey, mussed hair drags a five-pound dog across a patch of grass, and she’s the only other person on the block.
He goes toward the lake and then turns left. The thumping of a thick, heavy bass pounds forth from a door as a man emerges. His face is lit up by a succession of smiles, and behind him emerges another guy who is a little taller. They turn towards each other, and witnessing a shared happiness, shout something to the street and no one in particular. Both raise their hands above their heads, and then without further explanation, go running in a cloud of dust.
The kid looks around as he walks. A giant man in a flannel shirt bumps into him, doesn’t apologize, walks on with an angry glance. There are giggles streaming from across the street, but he doesn’t look. A woman in a layered dress stands outside of a bar with a cigarette in her hand and a look of abject rage drawn on her cheeks. She stares him down and he walks on with his head pointed at his feet.
In his perambulations he finds himself near where the bus ride ended. Interspersed in a passel of uncomfortable youth, he spies an open door and smells the roiling combination of sweat and alcohol which is his objective. Following just after the last big group to enter, he steps into the doorway and quickly evades the bouncer. He has learned this trick where he tucks his lanky body behind another’s, so that all that is visible is the outline of his hair. When he does it right, with a casual sort of grace, he becomes something inconspicuous, and the bouncer isn’t that interested in finding him anyways. In the darkness of the bar, the boy’s shadowed features hide his age. So the boy goes to a table that looks like it’s attached to another table full of people but isn’t, tucked against a wall, behind a corner. And he sits down and it’s past the time that anyone cares and so he can get away with it for a while.
He takes the luxury of looking about. From tables signal wild gesticulations, from which arise arcing trajectories of silvery liquid. Elsewhere bartenders scurry, their quick motions concocting dark brews which are eagerly taken up in greedy hands and brought to thirsty lips. Girls in skirts bat eyelashes at smirking men with thick eyeglasses, the conversation between them barely able to proceed in the great din. He can hear phrases in their conversation: punchlines of awkwardly mangled witticisms nevertheless accompanied by laughs. Big, poorly pronounced words whose meaning he cannot understand are shouted and responded to with even weightier syllables in an escalating repartee until the whole conversation is swallowed up and drowned by a single-well placed expletive. Then there are cheers and drinking.
When the table next to him rises up, bags and coats in hand, he carefully looks around and then grabs one of their unfinished beers. He cradles it between his fingers, peering down into the murky amber surface of it. An authoritative figure walks by so he takes a swig. It is not bad but he puts it down on the table and sneers at it anyways, convinced that will establish his authenticity. He looks around again.
Smiling hyena grins flash, bracketed by trumpeting laughs over matters unknown. Everyone possesses in their own way a tick, a tell, a rhythm to their speech and laughter and drinking. Some sweep their hair and others curl a finger to their forearm. Some clutch their beers in white-knuckle fear and some scratch their nose. No one is silent or still.
Groups make their raucous way in, shout and whoop and grow voluminous and fat and quiet as the night rolls on. They turn their attention in time from the buzzing hymns of shared humor towards themselves. Their heads sag downwards on ever more limp necks and their moods flop into pity and doubt. The only thing that can brighten them is the eye of an equally mordant stranger.
He notices the bizarre ritual transfer of money. From his shaded corner he finds that there are those that smirk and those that flinch. Some reach into pockets or purses like their arms ache, a grimace crossing sullen lips. Others cannot find their cash soon enough, can scarcely restrain themselves when tossing a heap of bills.
He looks around at the walls, but he can’t find a clock. His stomach is rumbling, and his eyes are made droopy by the dim lights. The kid keeps an eye on everyone around him, afraid they will recognize him somehow as an imposter. But after an hour or so he realizes that no one there is paying any attention beyond themselves.
A few times, the people at the table near him turnover, never once engaging him in conversation. A few times, bartenders look out from their wooden keep and seem to lock on his presence, but in each case he manages to snag a drink and take a taste and suppress the following shiver. In any case, they seem to be staring off into space, not at him.
Eventually, the kid notices a pattern to the traffic wherein more go out than come in. It’s around then that the lights flicker and an old man in a sweatshirt with a harsh, cracked voice comes and yells something inaudibly gruff about calls and he knows it’s time to get out. So he puts the last of his succession of glasses down and makes for the door with a couple ahead of him and fades into the space just behind them. He’s so invisible that maybe no one noticed him at all.
Now the air bites. This is the time of night meant for sleep, but all he has are yawns. The streets are thin now and rasping with quiet chatter and the occasional scream or cackle. He knows there will be no more stops for him tonight. All there is left to chew away the time and to warm up his chest is walking.
He walks and walks and walks, until his legs aches at the shins and in the muscle of his thighs. He walks in circles and zig-zags, relishing the parks which interrupt the dull grey of the sidewalk. He walks past dark store windows and dark houses and the darkness of parks and alleyways until the soles of his feet became blistered and he sits for a while on a bus stop’s bench and then he walks some more.
The night begins its march towards dawn. The moon grows heavy on its stilts, begins to tilt towards the horizon. He looks up towards the moon, at first stifling a yawn. When he looks around and realizes that he is alone on the block, he embraces it, drawing his mouth back and wide, sucking in the air like nourishment.
He looks down at his wrist in the practiced manner in which he had observed others, but finds no watch. He looks up at the sky, now reddening with the first rays of the sun ascendant. He looks down the street, sees his breath crystallize in the morning air, and sets off.