A dirty plastic shopping bag. Resting beside muddy shoes. Recently removed from tired feet haloed by well-worn jeans. Stained. Weathered. Odorous. Hanging loosely around the waist of a man, greasy gray hair plastered to spotted and wrinkled skill. Sitting in front of a fire outside of a coffee shop. Plastic decals in the window shouting about the latest latte. The fire is usually accompanied by a crowd of young souls, laughing and chirping and chittering. But the man has it to himself. And he leans in, trying to scare the chill from his bones. A moment of peaceful solitude. A moment of luxury. On the sidewalk a pack of pigeons peck at food scraps. When the workers of the coffee shop come outside to chase the man away, he will join them.
Sleep's viney grips is tightening on your mind and body when she whispers I love you. You can feel the heat of her breath on the tiny hairs of your earlobe. The words reverberate down your spine. A tingly energy. A depth charge dropped into the whole of your being. You lay there, your body electric, wondering suddenly if you imagined it. Perhaps a ripple from an oncoming dream. But you dismiss this thought. You know it was real. Did she think you were asleep? A confession to your subconscious? Something that only could be said under the weight of blankets and darkness? Only in sheets still damp with your sweat, as you held each others naked bodies and drifted? You squeeze her tightly in response, press your body as close to hers as possible. Your skin and hers. No space. You want to say it back. The words dance on your tongue, they flutter in your mouth, seeking light. You weigh them in your mind and know they are true, and it surprises you that this knowledge does not surprise you. But you just squeeze. And soon, you are both asleep. You awake many times that night. Unsure and then sure again that it wasn't a dream. She snores softly in your ear as her dog chases rabbits at the foot of your bed. You can feel the life in the room and it makes you happy in a way you weren't sure you were even capable of. You are not alone. Not at all.
Every day, there he is. Surrounded by steam and the smell of piss. Guarding a door that needs no guarding. His eyes droop. His shoulders hang. He sees you coming and his keys appear with a high chiming jangle, swooped from a pocket with practiced hand. Inserting key into lock and holding the door open for you to enter. Thank you, good morning as he nods at the wall across the alley. As you come and go throughout the day, sometimes he is at the bottom of the stairs sitting in a plastic chair. Sometimes he is not. Sometimes he is standing, chatting with a woman guarding a bank, sometimes he is conversating with the boys running the hot dog stand. In these moments he stands a little taller. Every day it is the same until one day it is not and in his stead there stands a jovial man with white hair. Smiling. Garrulous. It is months and months later and you are walking home with a paper bag of produce and there he is, walking toward you, hand in hand with a woman with a swollen belly. He does not notice you. He looks nothing like the man you remember. He walks with purpose. His face is relaxed. He looks happy.
Trillions of people. Ants really. All shuttling from here to there. All with their own tiny universe living tenderly inside a cage of bone. All seeing from eyes perched atop a different mountain. Taking in information and reaching conclusions, so nuanced with the colors of everything else their own eyes have see, their own ears have drank, their own skin has bristled at, and taking actions that only they could take. On this lone rock, this mossy, wet rock careening through the infinite darkness which must end somewhere. Not one of them living long enough to see enough turns around the sun to truly make sense of anything. So they do the best they can. They listen to what they are told and have to decide for themselves. Yes. Or No. And most come up with a third option.
He stood up tall, proud. His denim worn, holes in knees, near the pockets, at the ankles. His white shoes were gray, tied in neat bows. His wrinkled shirt tucked in. In front of his overturned hat, he abruptly begins to sing. The music, pitch perfect. The delivery, off somehow. "Doe, a deer, a female deer..." Passersby avert their eyes in discomfort and continue on, weaving among one another, picking up and putting down orange carrots, purple beets, yellow soaps, golden honeys. The man continues to sing, and across the way, a woman in a blue apron, making tiny dutch pancakes in her cast iron molds hums along as she turns her creations with a toothpick. Still humming, she smiles at a woman walking by, and the sadness she felt towards the singer dissipates. Continuing on, the woman doesn't get far before she finds that she is humming it as well. A sonic contagion, spreading its way through the Sunday market.
A steady hiss as bus bows to woman pushing metal walker, its impaled tennis balls silently scuffing the concrete sidewalk. Delicately, she shuffles aboard, dropping heavily into a seat next to her source of balance in the front of the bus. The vehicle dreams of roaring along to the next stop, but a voice calls out through the closing door. Wait, it croaks. The voice belongs to a woman puffing hastily at her cigarette. She waves to another unseen, beckoning. I lock eyes with the driver in the rear-view. He looks tired. The woman drops her cigarette and stands, grabbing her own walker, limping along towards the bus still bowing. The unseen woman comes into view pushing a walker of her own. The driver checks his watch. As the two trek towards the entrance of the bus, a man sits down in front of me. His hair is whispy-white, with stragglers of blonde and gray and black, as if in mutiny from the great transition. He smells of alcohol, a smell at the very core of his essence, like if nothing was left but bone he would still smell so. One of the two women makes her way aboard. The bus driver takes a deep breath and holds it. The third woman with walker climbs aboard, but has no way through—the other two have blocked the way with their own. The second woman on board with a walker, dark sunglasses covering half of her dry, canyoned face, croaks about not wanting to move hers, but it is clear she must, and the first woman aboard with a walker helps from her seated position. As soon as all three women are on board and seated, the bus driver zooms from the stop, glancing at how much time he's going to have to make up as we crest the hill and amble down. The first woman has a dog in her walker. A weiner shnitzel, she boasts loudly to the other newcomers. The woman with the dark sunglasses speaks to the dog in her best baby voice, slurring her words. The third woman just smiles. They all sit, staring at the dog together, as the bus comes to another stop and people board, turning sideways to move past the tangle of walkers.
Clutching the cold railing, they pull from a bottle of clear liquid, handed to them as a reverse ticket. A means of entrance. The liquid ignites their tongues, lights their esophagi. They hand it back and lower themselves into the vessel, make new acquaintance. The motor growls and exerts itself against the deep grey water. Cold air brushing rosy cheeks, the water that supports the vessel spraying, invading, dampening clothing and accumulating on the thin plastic floor. Awareness of knees touching. An old yacht comes into view, starts small and grows upon approach. They circle around the back and a damp black rope is tossed ashore to waiting hands. He boards first, and turns to see her hands outstretched, waiting for his. He grasps, pulls, and she is next to him, onboard. Welcome.
An orange peach, speckled with a spectrum of reds and yellows, rests among its brothers and sisters in a fluorescently-lit grocery store. People pass by, run their fingertips along its flesh, press, testing. A hand, calloused, picks it up, rotates it, presses gently, places it in its basket. Peach travels in dark bag until it is brought back into the light, next to a window sill, in a clay bowl placed on a worn wood chopping block counter. It sits there for days, bathing in the sun during the day, resting in the dark and cool of the night. The hand occasionally descends and presses gently on its flesh, until one day its flesh gives. A cool shower in the sink, the hands gently rubbing fuzzy skin. Onto a plate. And then teeth, piercing skin. An explosion of sugary liquid and soft sweet flesh, dribbling down chin. Again. And again. Tongue raking, savoring the flavor contained: sunlight, humidity, fertile soil, thunderstorms, fireflies, the sound of crickets, a dog barking, calloused hands, salty sweat, evening prayers, kisses on foreheads, bedtime stories, deep, deep sleep.
Somewhere, a flame pops into existence. A small, jittering newborn, uncertain. It crackles with hunger. And it eats. It grows. It climbs trees and saunters through brush. It's fingertips lick bright green leaves and they cough blue smoke in response. It explores. And before it knows it, it owns everything, consumes everything, becomes the deliverer of death. Ancient trees that survived storm after storm, the assault of hungry beetles chewing holes in their bodies, woodpeckers with their razor sharp beaks, all bow, their memory released into the sky, all that they've seen and experienced blending together into one collective. And together they travel. Miles and miles, riding the wind, swirling around the beating wings of birds in flight. They land in a city like gentle pirates, fogging the streets. People in suits carrying briefcases, taxi drivers, humans without homes all squint their eyes, breathing in the very souls of a thousand trees. Smell the seed of fire that released them. And all gaze though the haze, a haze they've seen before in a thousand dreams, and wonder at how little difference there is between asleep and awake.
She sits upright on a patterned bench of blue vinyl, gazing ahead at nothing in particular. A brown leather purse sits in her lap, hands rest on the straps. As the bus crowds with morning commuters, she feels the heat, the energy, the anxiety pressing in on her. Her breath becomes shallow. Her pulse quickens. Her eyes dilate. From within her purse she conjures a clear plastic baggy, snaps it open, and lowers her face, bringing her nose close, inhaling deeply the smell of the small yellow flowers within. Eyes closed, she disappears. She is in her garden, sifting black earth, slick worms greasing her fingertips. She can feel the heat of the sun on her neck. She is back. Calmed, she sits straight up, zips the bag, clasps her purse. She sighs and turns to gaze out the window, eyes fluttering at the passing sights outside.
A persistent rain peppers parched pavement. Knocking loose pungent scents. Scents wafted into unprepared nostrils that flare and buck. Urban petrichor—urine, car exhaust, pigeon dust. Scents elbowing loose associations undesired. The stale vomit odor of a garbage truck roaring by, conjuring nights spent hugging a shiny white toilet, stringy bile and saliva stuck to lip and chin. The dank sour milk and mildew smell of human hardship, of concrete bed and cardboard bedding and these are the only clothes I have and please sir can you spare some change for a bus ticket. Fresh paint, sweet and toxic and reminiscent of your nomadic life, painting, moving, painting, moving. All the while wet rainbows rush, race to be the first to spill into the dark sewers hidden below. Taking with them the grit and grime accumulated, earned. Wiping the slate clean.
Hooves stand softly on rough laid brick. Oily brown hair shining, nostrils flaring as the creature breathes slowly, tasting the air, observing the world with black eyes. On his back, a helmeted man sits perched. A thousand feet carry beating hearts filled with hope and fury into his view and he stands, watching. He can feel their movement in the vibrations that resonate up his bony legs. Both splintery picket signs and voices rise and fall around him. He chews his bit, shifts his hooves. He does not know the words but he senses the sentiment. Hands reach out, touch his wet nose, stroke his course hair. He licks the salt from outstretched digits. He does not seek to understand the workings of man. They are of no concern to him.
Words wedged behind hesitant tongue. A lengual double-dutch. Waiting, waiting, waiting for the right time to jump in. Waiting. Only to find, there is a momentum to silence.
Shining red lights like fireflies from hell moving slowly along, together. Suspended on a concrete bridge high above...what? Fog and rain veil all else from view, stirring atavistic fears in the bellies of modern man in suit and tie with steaming black coffee in metal mug in hand. That perhaps this is the last stop before the edge of the world. And then. Dark shapes peer through the mist. Rectangular and solid, metal and mortar. And the fireflies flow ever forward, on to the responsibility that the rising sun recalls.
Fridge slams shut, the glass jars nestled on the door clink together; on nearby ears, the sound is mistaken for the playful fingering of high tinkling keys, bone-colored and stark, on a long-gone childhood piano. Buried memories like a great whale, surfacing momentarily before returning to the depths.
Click-click. Click-click. Click-click. Battered and rusting vehicle removes itself from the rushing torrent of speed. The driver's eyelids droop, weighted by a sleepless night on a bare mattress laid haphazardly on a hardwood floor. By a night marred at the hand of a gut incensed and eager to spill bile. He blinks, and the effort to open his eyelids anew is great. His car stops, engine clicking. He reclines, eyes closed, bathing in the stillness. Basking in the negative space where ceaseless radio grated his nerves. When a dream begins to swim into his mind, his eyes snap open. Not yet. Not now. His hand finds the door handle and crisp air rushes in. Standing, stretching, breathing deep, he listens to the low hum of vehicle and pavement. Endless, indefatigable migration. A short walk courses his muddy blood, raises goosebumps on his flesh. He walks past a sign that says "free coffee" and settles back into his car. She starts with a furor, eager to get back on the road.
Shoes crunching gravel. Trodding, bearing the weight of millions of breaths and counting, billions of heart beats and ticking. Disappointments and hardships meeting hopes and wishes. Unsympathetic wind pulls hard-earned heat from his red cheeks. Shoes crunching snow. Cars whip by mere feet beside him, sending drifts and dirt and dust swirling around him, settling on his eyelashes, collecting in his lungs. Small faces and hands pressed to glass wonder at his circumstance as they zoom by. When asked, tired voices reply, "I don't know." His thumb is not out. If he seeks help he does not ask for it. He does not slow. He marches on.
She is seated, begging. For smoke to fill her lungs. For metal and paper to fill her veins. A man sings in her ear. Spinning plastic and metal. She laughs. She cannot help herself. It is not part of her, but escapes from within. A wild thing once trapped, mad in its delight. The laughter is unsettling to all who hear.
He stands, and his standing demands attention. A riot of souls seated with shoulders touching fall silent. He is nervous, pacing. With one ritualistic woop he calls forth his courage, begins. His words vibrate the air, stir and simmer collective synapses, summon ideas from that place that none visit unless invited. When he opens the book that he penned himself, to share the the words he spilled, he bends the cover without reverence for his creation. Its spine cracks horrifically, a brutality unnoticed, revealing that which he holds sacred, and that which he does not.
A lust unfettered, slowly, cautiously. Like a wild animal approaching a victual outstretched in human hand. Pushing through denials, obstructions, unspoken conflict. Donning formal attire for the occasion, a lavish show of foreplay. Strong drinks draining eager wallets. Eyebrow raised, a proposition. In the night, first contact, lips lock between wispy strands of dream, the momentum surreal and dangerous, threatening to unravel the spool of specter hanging in the corner of the dark room. A primal transgression, satisfied.