A special editor's pick which shows how sometimes you have to scratch the surface of something to get at the meaning. Originally, Trig wrote this as a challenge for last issue (write a story about a prop) but it came to us too late. No problem -- this works just as well as a regular piece of fiction. Now, try to guess the prop, and enjoy....
There is nothing sharper than a New York wind.
Born out over the bottomless frigidity of the Atlantic, nurtured in the buffs and waterways, hardened against the rocky Northeastern coastline, then finally hammered and sliced into a million flying knives by the sharply delineated rows and breaks that make up the skyscrapers within the city. By the time the whole process is complete, the breezy, innocent zephyr that was born a thousand miles away has become hardened into a lethal weapon by the city around it.
Come to think of it, that's sorta what happens to most of us when we come to this place. We all started off as real people at some point in our lives -- we had parents, friends, lovers, children. Individuals who loved us, and who remembered our birthdays, our favorite ice cream flavors, and who teased us about the time we fell of the swing when we were six and busted our lip. It's hard to imagine that now.
Look as us. We're all knives now -- not a zephyr in sight. Even the little girl sitting over there with her mother, huddled against that sewer grate next to the bus shelter -- she can't be more than five, but her eyes are hard already. See her gaze shift and harden at every passing pedestrian? A young predator who knows she could just as easily become prey in a moment's distraction.
Not that there are a lot of pedestrians out at this time of night. New Yorkers are a tough breed, but even they know better than to wander around Central Park after midnight. Nope, no pedestrians around -- just us knives, and we all know ourselves well enough not to bother preying on each other.
There's Mosby and his uptown pals, hanging out at the corner and trying to look nonchalant while they scope out potential customers and victims. The kids -- I can never keep any of their names straight -- have already started their shifts, wandering the wooded paths in search of johns. I can hear their high, laughing voices as they call to each other teasingly through the woods (if you close your eyes, it almost sounds like a school playground instead of a collection of hustlers and whores -- and the memories that thought suddenly brings back sting for a long moment). Old Iris passed by just a few minutes ago, cackling out a greeting as she moved into the trees, looking for some shelter from this damned wind for the night. She was limping again, and I wonder which pack of hoodlums jumped her this time. Poor old bag.
Hah! That's kinda funny, seeing as I'm as much an old bag as she is any day. Even got the pushcart and baggy coat to prove it -- just like in the movies. I'm a damned stereotype, for godsakes. I feel like I should at least make the effort to be an original old bag, instead of some kind of bad Hollywood extra. But, I need the coat to keep out the knifing wind, and I need the cart to carry my suitcase. God forbid I should ever be parted from my suitcase. They can take whatever they want from me, the bastards, but not that suitcase. It's my last link. The final umbilical cord to Back Then. Back Then, I was a real person, with a real name, and people who loved me and knew what my favorite flavor of ice cream was.
Crap! Enough of that maudlin! Gotta concentrate on the here and now. I've staked out this bench early -- nicely sheltered from the wind and well-lit enough for me to see them coming -- and by rights it should be mine till morning. But, that won't mean much if some big jerk decides he wants it. I'll have to move fast then, and clear outta his way before he decides to take more than my bench. But, till then, it's mine.
The wind is still howling, and the kids are still gabbing, but I'm beginning to finally get comfy enough for a snooze...when suddenly some sort of scuffle breaks out up at the corner. I hear Mosby's nasal whine, followed by the barking acquiescing cries of his friends. I look up just in time to see something -- someone -- burst through their ranks, toppling a couple of them to the ground. A tall, running form -- a boy. No, a man.
They yell at him, start to chase him, and for a second we all look on, waiting for the inevitable bloodshed. But, he turns -- and Mosby and his punks hesitate at whatever it is they see in the stranger's face. A moment later, I think I understand as the man turns and puts his foot through the bus shelter's plexiglass wall in one vicious kick. The plastic shatters and sprays, sending the little girl and her mother scuttling away with a startled scream.
Oh, shit. A cokehead. He must be flying on something pretty damned high to put his foot through four inches of plexiglass without so much as a flinch. I look around, and notice the way that everybody is melting away into the shadows. Even Mosby and crew decide that it'll be better business to move down a block. No one wants the inevitable trouble and aggravation that some big freaked out druggie with no sense of self-preservation can bring.
Well, damn it! It took me an hour to find this nice, perfect bench! I'll be damned if I give it up now because of this junkie. I'll just move my stuff over to this side -- just in case I have to move fast -- and wait. Maybe this guy won't be interested in my bench. Maybe he's too stoned to notice I'm even there. Maybe, if I sit real still, he'll just keep moving along.
You'd think I'd learn that I never have that much luck with 'maybe'. Of course, far from leaving, the guy comes right toward me. I flinch, ready to jump away in a flash, but he doesn't even seem to notice me as he slumps onto the far end of the bench.
I hesitate for a moment, every instinct telling me to run, run, run. But, there's that same old flicker of stubbornness that I've never been able to totally shake telling me that that this is *my* bench, dammit, and I shouldn't let it go without a struggle. Except that I barely hit 5'3", and this coked up cuckoo is at least 6 feet, and his little stunt with the bus shelter has me thinking that most of that 6 feet is probably muscle.
I stare at him, torn, trying to work up the courage to either get up or stay. For his part, he remains oblivious to me, his face buried into his arms. His shoulders shake faintly, even though the wind has calmed a bit. And, no wonder. The temperature's been hovering at around 25 degrees all night, but he's wearing nothing more than an obviously threadbare sweatshirt and faded jeans. Although, he may be high enough not to even notice that he's cold.
It's not until I note the soft wet sounds coming from him that I realize that he's not just shaking...he's crying.
It's this small sign of weakness that finally gives me the courage I need. Carefully, still ready to flee at a moment's notice, I lean over and poke him roughly. "Hey! This is my bench. I was here first!"
He looks up at me -- and right away, two things become very clear. First of all, I was right the first time -- this is a boy, not a man. He's hovering right on the edge, just beginning to broaden into the frame that will be his in adulthood, but he's still got that rawboned, scrawny look that all boys get in their late teens and early twenties. Second, this isn't a cokehead. Those eyes are as clear as crystal, even through the sheen of tears. Big, bright hazel eyes with lashes a girl his age would kill for.
He blinks at me slowly, uncomprehendingly, then shakes his head and looks around, as if realizing for the first time where exactly he is.
He moves to get up -- then crumbles to the pavement with a pained grunt. He looks down at his bleeding, torn ankle in bewilderment. It seems that the plexiglass made an impression on him after all, even if he wasn't aware of it at the time. He looks up at me, as if to ask 'Where the hell did this come from?'. I point to the shattered remains of the bus shelter. He follows my finger, blinking uncomprehendingly for a long moment at the shelter, which is now leaning over precariously. Then, inexplicably, he starts to laugh.
I can tell right away that it isn't a real laugh. It's filled with a raw, broken pain, and begins to splinter into something more akin to a sob moments later. Before either of us can see it coming, he's curled up on the dirty pavement next to my bench, weeping as if he'll die.
Have you ever done something so incredibly stupid, yet instinctive that you don't even realize what you're doing is crazy until you've already done it? You know? Like when the pot of steaming water tips over, and you reach over to steady it. And, seconds later, you've got burns all over your hand and you're wondering how the hell you could be so bloody stupid. Like that.
Well, this is one of those moments. Before I can even realize what an incredibly dumb thing it is to do, I've already reached out and taken his arm. For his part, he doesn't even hesitate before leaning into my grip, letting me pull him back onto the bench. Not a hustler, then -- any kid with more than two weeks on the street would know better than to let himself be touched without the money already in plain view. And when he crawls back onto the bench, I see that the front of his sweatshirt is emblazoned with the NYU insignia. Nope, definitely not a street kid.
That sets my mind at ease only a little. The most ruthless punks out there usually have nice three-bedroom apartments and mommies and daddies, contrary to popular belief. But, this kid doesn't look like he's a threat to anyone but himself right now.
And...if I'm totally honest with myself...I have to admit that there's something else. Something in that broken sobbing that resonates a little too familiarly within me.
I know what it feels like to cry like that.
Slowly, his sobs fade. Finally, he is silent, sitting slumped at the end of my bench with only the occasional shuddering sigh to denote his presence. Well, that and the misery he seems to be radiating like a beacon.
I know what I should do. I should push him off the bench and try to get some sleep before dawn, when the park patrol will come by to push us knives back out of sight before the real people arrive. Instead, I find myself rooting around in my coat till I find my precious packet of Wet-Ones. Only four left. Still, I pass the packet to the boy. He stares at it blankly for a moment, then pulls one sheet out with a muffled thanks, scrubbing his tearstained face roughly.
I wait, letting him try to obliterate all traces of his tears. He keeps his face averted from me, of course. Typical kid. He's probably calmed down enough now to be horrified at his loss of control -- even if it's only in front of some nameless old bag.
"What's up, kid? Somebody try to mess with you?" I ask, just in case my assumptions about him not working the streets are off.
"H..Huh? Oh!" A soft, choked laugh as he realizes what I'm implying. "No. I'm not...I mean..."
"Then, what's up? You need a cop? There's usually a cruiser parked up the block, by the deli..."
He shakes his head, his eyes suddenly beginning to tear again at the word 'cop'. Uh Oh. Is this kid running from the Blues? If so, then I'd do well to put as much distance between myself and him ASAP.
"You in trouble with the cops, boy? If you are, then you'd better --"
"No, no...it's Ok. I'm not...I'm not in trouble with the c..cops." He laughs brokenly again, but he stumbles over the word. Moments later, all his efforts with the Wet-One are obliterated as he starts up again, shoulders heaving painfully.
I can't help it. That sound -- it's so broken. I put my hand on his shoulder, knowing that if he suddenly turns on me, I'll never get away in time, and I'll deserve whatever he does to me for being such a stupid cow. But, he doesn't lash out. He accepts my touch gratefully, and when he finally looks up at me again, there's a strange mix of pleading and desperation in those reddened hazel eyes.
"He's gonna die...they said that he's gonna die! They say that if this heart attack doesn't kill him, then he'll die in the next one! They say his only chance is a transplant, but that could take years...oh, shit, he's gonna die..."
Ah. Of course. Now, I understand who this boy is and where he came from. Mt. Sinai hospital is about a dozen blocks up from here, and more than one distraught relative has wiled away the waiting hours in the park. Except most don't make so dramatic an entrance.
He's sobbing again, trying desperately to stop, trying to regulate his breathing enough to pretend that this isn't happening to him. Poor boy. Poor, poor boy. Somewhere along the line, the last of my reservations evaporate and I suddenly find myself brushing his hair back from his wet face comfortingly. I tell myself it's pity. It's because he's so obviously lost. Not because he reminds me of someone else...someone I swore I'd never think about again.
"Who's going to die, boy? Your daddy?" I guess at the most obvious first choice, and he nods, still gulping for air. Of course. A parent's death can turn you back into a child faster than anything, and when you're barely out of childhood yourself...
How long do we sit this way? I don't really know. I brush his hair soothingly, and he cries raggedly into his hands. Meanwhile, the wind picks up again, howling its way through the naked trees. I can hear the constant burbling of the city around us over his soft sobs. Someone is yelling at someone else for nicking his car in passing. Another citizen's laughter careens down from Fifth Ave, the cheerful cries of her companions following close behind. A siren wails, then fades just as quickly. A faceless man in a shapeless coat steps by us furtively, not looking at us as he melts into the trees -- no doubt in search of one of the kids' company.
Finally, finally, the sobs slow and fade. This time, it seems like they're gone for good. He pulls away slowly from my touch, and I let him go somewhat reluctantly (it was nice to hold somebody like that again, and memories of all the sobbing children I've held wash over me for a moment before I pull myself back to the present). I can see from the faint flush across his cheeks that he's embarrassed, but the shaky smile he sends my way lets me know that he's still off balance enough to appreciate my presence. I hand him another Wet-One, and the shaky smile grows into a surprisingly nice grin.
"Welcome. You Ok?"
Dammit, woman! What a stupid thing to say! A flicker of raw pain falls across his face again for a moment, but he pulls himself back from the edge this time.
"Yeah. I'm Ok."
He's as far from Ok as you can get, and we both know it, but I nod. He shudders as the wind races through again, and by the look of him, I know he's only holding on by sheer will. Time for a distraction.
"Your daddy...he's at Mt. Sinai?"
"Mm hmm." He bites his lip and blinks rapidly. "Heart attack. Third one this year."
"So, he's made it through two others."
"So, what makes this time different?"
He stares at me blankly for a moment, obviously having not thought of it that way before. "Well, I guess this one's pretty bad...I think..."
"What did the doctors say? Did they actually say he was going to die?"
He shook his head, growing a little annoyed now. Good. "Of course not. They never say anything like that. They think they're one step above gods. They always think they can do something."
"But, they did do something the first two times, didn't they? They pulled him through twice already, right?"
"Yeah, but it's not that simple. This was a bad one. Dr. McMurtry says that he blew a hole out right in the h...heart wall. H...he says that even if they can repair the damage in surgery, he'll probably have another heart attack in six months."
"Maybe. Maybe not. So, what kinda odds you giving him? You giving up on him already, or you gonna give him another try?"
He blinks again, his eyes hardening for a moment to a darker shade, and I suddenly remember how much bigger he is than me. But, the hardness fades a second later, and he chuckles softly. "Ok, Ok. I get your point. But...but, it's not that easy. It's hard to keep hoping. To keep waiting for the inevitable, knowing there's not a damned thing in the world that I can do that makes a difference."
I sigh. Oh, don't I know it, child! I'm the queen of hopeless hoping. "I know, boy, believe me, I know. But, you know what the other option is. Which would you prefer?"
He winces, then sighs. "You know what really kills me? It's the whole unfairness of it. I mean, why him? Why would God do that to someone who tries so hard to live as he's supposed to? To someone who's always done his best to be what everybody asks of him? For godsakes, why not The Bitch?! She's the one who should be in that fucking hospital bed with tubes stuck in her arms! She's the one who should die bit by bit like that!"
It takes all my self-control not to jump away as he spits out the last fiercely. His eyes have darkened again from hazel into that roiling black at the very mention of this Bitch, whoever she may be. I have a pretty strong idea who she is. Only two categories of women can create such hatred in men, and this kid looks too young to have had a wife.
"Boy, you're old enough by now to know that life has never, ever been about fair -- even if you're still young enough to believe in God."
That seems to stop him for a moment, and he looks up at me in something akin to shock.
"Nothing, I guess...It's just...I didn't think adults didn't believe in God."
I sigh. It always stuns me to hear such naivete. These kids grew up in a world far harsher than the one my generation did, learning the definition of darkness long before we ever did -- and yet, in some ways, they are so incredibly innocent. Even the kids making their living with their pants down somewhere in the darkened Park behind us sometimes seem so much like real children that it breaks my heart.
"Look around you, boy." I gesture around the grim, shadowed park widely. "Do you see God anywhere? If there ever was one, he left this place long, long ago and hasn't been back since. God belongs to real people -- like you and your daddy, not me."
He hesitates, frowning as if in thought. Then, he turns to me again, his eyes suddenly unreadable. "Maybe He doesn't belong to me, either. Maybe I'm like you."
"You are nothing of the sort!" I snap, suddenly more outraged and frightened than I've ever been. "Look at you! Look at me! I can tell you this, boy, I don't have any daddy to cry over in a hospital -- and I wish like anything that I did!"
He cringes at my sharp tone, and for a short moment, the surreality of the whole thing strikes me. Here's this big, hulking kid who's probably got a good forty pounds on me, cringing away as soon as I raise my voice in anger. It amuses me -- until I realize that it's instinctive conditioning more than anything else. And, I suddenly wonder again about the Bitch.
"Look, kid, I didn't mean to snap at you like that -- but, you can't afford to ever think for a moment that you're like me. You're not, and you'd better pray that you stay that way."
He seems to mull this over for a long minute, staring distractedly into the traffic that is a constant in New York -- even in the darkest hours of the morning. "I'm sorry," he murmurs softly a moment later, and it's not until he apologizes that I realize that what he said really did hurt.
Huh! I thought I was long past the point where words could sting. I nod, suddenly incapable of words. Dammit, what am I doing here on this bench having a soul-baring conversation with some dumb kid? I should be sleeping. I should be getting ready for tomorrow. I should be planning out how I'm gonna survive the coming winter. Anything but this.
When he speaks again, I nearly miss the soft words. "You know what's really driving me nuts right now? How I've had him for all my life, but only now, when I'm this far from losing him, do I really understand who and what he is to me. You know? I've spent a good chunk of my life wishing he didn't drink so much, or would spend more time with me, or would stop ragging me out about my choice in girls, or would finally dump the Bitch in the gutter where she belongs. I always wanted him to be a little different, a little better -- now, I'd do anything to keep him just the same forever..." His voice breaks at the last, and for a moment I can see him fight off the returning sobs.
I sigh. It's true, what they say. Every life is just a cycle, repeating the same ageless mistakes over and over again. Suddenly, from out of the haze of memories from Back Then, I remember something, and before I can stop, the words spill off my tongue.
"I die of thirst while at the fountain side, Hot as fire, my teeth are chattering..."
He looks at me for a moment, obviously bewildered, but before I can explain, he grins that stunning grin again, and to my amazement, continues the poem where I left off.
"In my own country, far off I abide, Near the blaze I burn, still shivering..."
We look at each other with matching stares of surprise, then burst into simultaneous laughter.
"Huh! And here I thought that no one else in the world remembered that old thing."
He chuckles, then points at his chest, where the NYU design rests. "Comparative Lit major. I spent one very long semester studying medieval poetry meter, but Francois Villon's stuff was one of the few highlights of that course."
I grin, and suddenly the decades melt away, and I'm Back Then, standing before a classroom full of young, scrubbed faces, ready to take their hands and lead them through the luminous maze of literature I have set out for them. Knowing that most won't care, but cherishing forever the few who do. This kid could have been one of those faces, one of the ones who lit up like flares when they got their first taste of Shakespeare's grace, of Petrarch's beauty, of Voltaire's wit.
"Y'know, I never did really understand why everybody goes on about D'Orleans and Bodel when Villon seems to represent the time period so much better. Did you ever read..."
It's almost painfully wonderful, to sit here and discuss medieval French poetry with some nameless kid. If I don't look too closely, I can almost make the cold, deserted park around us fade away. I can almost convince myself that I'm once again seated at my scratched, wooden desk at St. Bridgit Parochial High School, with some eager young mind who couldn't pull away from the grip of the words even after the school bell rang.
And then, just as suddenly as it was born, the lovely mirage is shattered as a wailing flock of sirens sweeps up the street, shrieking towards some distant calamity. The dark, cold park re-solidifies around us, and for the first time in decades, I feel like I might actually cry.
The boy watches the police cars disappear down the street quietly, his own reality obviously having crashed back around him too. "Y'know, my old man is a cop."
Ah. That would explain the tears at the very mention of the word earlier on. I start to answer, but he continues on obliviously.
"He was so happy when I got the scholarship at NYU. And now, Professor Schaeffer says he's got a grad position waiting for me when I graduate. It's what he's always wanted..."
"Except...?" I urge, knowing that there must be an 'except' coming from the tone of his voice. Sure enough, he turns to me again.
"Except that I'm not so sure I want it. I'd be happy, I guess. But, what I really want...what I dream about doing...is being a cop. Like him. He says I'm better than that. He says I'm too smart to waste myself that way. But...but, I don't see it as a waste. It's a noble profession, no matter how much he badmouths it. I want to wear that uniform. I want to have that badge."
Oh, damn. This is cutting too close to home. Suddenly, my mind fills with half-remembered conversations -- shouting matches, accusations, bitter determinations and recriminations. For a moment, I remember my own bitterness, nearly drown in it all over again. But, I manage to hang on. A lot has happened since then and now, and the same beliefs that I clung to so bitterly back then, in defiance of those who loved me, have crumbled in my grip. No. I won't drown again.
"It comes down to this, kid." My voice isn't as steady as I'd have wished. "Do you really think your dad's the kind of guy to really care what you do, as long as you're happy? Think carefully."
He stares silently out into the street for another long moment, and when he looks back at me, his eyes are wet again. "No. He'd never do that to me."
I smile sadly. "Then, he's better than most of us."
He blinks slowly, then looks away. I watch him silently, trying not to superimpose another's profile on his. Trying not to think about another boy, not much older than he when he walked out of my life. But, no. I promised myself I wouldn't think of that ever again. Remember?
The wind tears through again, tiny knives stabbing into us ruthlessly. I see him shudder violently, and realize for the first time that his lips are blue. He must be freezing by now.
"Look, I'd...uh...I'd better go back. I kinda took off without saying anything..." He blushes and looks away, suddenly reminded of his loss of control. I get the feeling this kid isn't one to lose his cool if he can help it. His hands shake even as he pulls himself up.
"Wait." I'm as surprised as he when the word leaves my mouth. But, I don't regret it. Quickly, before I can change my mind, I reach for my suitcase. The lock is rusted and sticks -- hell, it hasn't been open in over eight years. Not since I first lost my status as a person. Finally, the damned thing springs free.
My eyes blur at the sight of the contents for the first time in nearly a decade. I've carried them with me faithfully, keeping them as safe and dry as I can. But, I could never bring myself to look at them again.
There's my old school copy of Norton's Anthology of Western Literature, and underneath it my battered Hamlet. And my pretty white blouse with my grandmother's beads sewn into the sleeves. It hurts more than I expect, so I push it all roughly to one side, looking for what I want, trying to remember where I put it so many years ago.
Ah. There. Smooth leather. A few creases from being in the suitcase so long, but the leather is good quality -- it will recover. It cost me nearly three weeks salary when I bought it for him, and it took him nearly a year to grow enough for it to stop looking like a dress -- and he was never tall enough for it to fit properly. But, this boy -- it will fit him just fine.
"Here. Take this. It's too damned cold to be walking around with just that fool sweater of yours."
He stares at the coat for a moment, then immediately moves into the standard polite refusals that our society always demands, regardless of circumstances.
"Never mind that, boy. You need it, I don't. Here, put it on."
And, he does. And for one beautiful second, I see another boy -- smaller, paler, but just as passionate, and just as strong.
"You're welcome," I smile, but don't supply my name, as he's obviously asking. I think this whole meeting has taken place in another realm, and to introduce our names from this world would only taint it. He grins, seeming to understand my intent if not my reasoning. With a final nod, he turns and begins his trek back uptown -- towards his dying father, and the mother he so obviously hates, and the life that he ran hysterically from only a few hours ago. He's limping badly on the torn ankle, and the coat is a little too broad for his thin frame, but he'll grow into it. I'm certain of it.
I watch him reach the corner, looking carefully both ways before crossing, and I can't help but smile. The first gray rays of light are just beginning to break through the tall buildings, and highlight him briefly in a soft silver halo as he moves down the street, shoulders squared. Then, he turns a corner, and vanishes as quickly as he appeared.
The wind fades, softens, and for a moment I can almost believe that I'm somewhere else. Somewhere warm and sheltered. I can almost hear his voice -- his young, happy voice -- shouting through the apartment, echoing across the walls.
And then, the wind picks up again.