February in the City
It's February, and the world is layered, optically. First: a plane of snow that people who don't know the ocean, or have forgotten it, will say looks like a sea of white. It's a painful plane, the sun reflecting off it in granular bursts that sear the eye. Next come the buildings: red brick and whitewashed brick, the whitewash-gray and fading with age.
Write one true sentence, Papa says. Papa. Did he actually become that, that caricature of himself he vomited at the public?
That rot and bluster came because the words he wrote revealed too much of himself, and he had to punish us for reading them.
Not all rot is bile, though, and truth is often cruel: existence is permeated with monstrosity. We must not see, we tell ourselves, at least not always and to the bottom, if we are to survive. But the ugliness of the world — of people and deeds and facts — accentuates the quiet beauty that attends it. Beauty: a haggard, abused word, whose deepest meaning emerges of the gap between states and beings which cannot coincide. Papa terrifies more than he offends, but it costs less to be offended. It is a daunting enough task to bear up under evil and the world's indifference without Papa writing the soft, sporadic welling-up of kindness that accentuates our distance from the mark, from the richness of which we are capable.
These are confused thoughts. The muddle of men: our lives matted in an inseparable gnarl of beauty and ugliness in which each depends on the other for its being.
A man, aging, dark, his skin ashy and cracked at the creases, is plodding the length of the slush-covered sidewalk, his thick-soled Velcro shoes scraping down to the asphalt, footfall like dropped eggs, arrhythmic, abrupt, stillness followed by the grating of rubber against pavement and rock and broken glass as he continues onward. The loop of a graying leash hangs from the man's wrist, the nylon tethering him to an old mongrel-dog whose right rear leg can't keep pace with the rest. The dog and the man walk with their heads down, and a younger man wearing a jacket of linked bulges follows behind them, drinking from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. He and the older man are not together, and after half a block the young man begins to grow impatient and look for a lane in which to pass the older man. This is how it is: two men alone in each other's presence on a Sunday morning, cars lining the curbs and the heads of people visible through windows. The older man is not quite to the point where his steps are merely an echo of his pulse — that's still several years down the road. He has arthritis in his fingers, and emphysema from thirty-odd years of two packs a day, and his dog and his trumpet.
He can still blow for a short session.
He shuffles on, half-thinking about past gigs, whiskey drunk, women fucked, and hashish cigarettes long since smoked that had made him feel as if he were sliding through a silk-satin world on skids. The wind comes up tossing trash and a section of newspaper behind him, and the younger man takes a hard pull at his paper bag and hurries by.
That was less confused, perhaps closer to the truth.
There's a swath of shadow across the street, two windows set into the brick not five feet apart; one is black and opaque, and the other is sunlight-golden and opaque. The city: where proximity is no indicator of similarity of any stripe, existential, financial, or otherwise. The old man brushes the snow from an old Cadillac and he and his dog climb into the car, turn left at the end of the street, and head toward downtown, which again, tells you little. There's another square-mile of ghetto eastward, and a few more west and north: boarded up storefronts, dilapidated houses, and churches in which, on Sundays and Saturday evenings, young men who sling cracka-crack and cavi during the week sit next to teachers, businessmen, and community organizers.
The younger man keeps going on foot, passes a shop owner smoking on his front stoop, two twenty-somethings decked out in blood-red, pockets bulging, and a man pushing a shopping cart down a street the city has no intention of plowing.
Half a city-block away, duplex one: a rental owned by absentee Caucasian landlords; duplex two: a retiree from Georgia who thinks of himself as a Negro; three: three, maybe four Chicano families, a white chick, and anywhere from four to seven skeletons of automobiles in their backyard; four: a Black, a Brown, and five Whites living somewhere between the lower and middle class. Everyone has dogs, some dogs have yards, others run loose; they all bark at each other and at their neighbors, and someone is always yelling at their dog or someone else's to shut the fuck up.
The final layer is the sky, blue and gray in various proportions — the Chicanos say nublado — nublado y sucio.
Snow brings folk together. Somewhat together. A Caucasian is out shoveling his walk and driveway by hand and sees his Chicano neighbor snow blowing his own driveway, and the Chicano knows he's been seen so he does seven or eight feet of the Caucasian's driveway — five minutes that'll save Whitey an hour or more. It snows three more feet over night and the Caucasian is out shoveling again, and the Chicano is out snow blowing, but he doesn't offer to help. Neither does the Negro or his family with their snow blower.
And why should they? The Caucasian got himself shoveled out and didn't offer to help them — didn't offer to help anyone.
And so it goes.
The Caucasian used the hour the Chicano saved him to lie in bed with his wife, who was not feeling well, read while she rested, then cooked dinner. The Chicano used the time not spent snow blowing his neighbor's walk or driveway to have a beer and wrestle with his son. The Negro and his wife were in bed by nine.
Those with cars drive past those without them thoughtlessly, and the walkers walk on through wind and rain, heat and cold, heads on a swivel, cigarettes between their fingers or lips. The students in duplex number four will take their degrees and the jobs they get with them and move out of their purgatory to places where people aren't shot on a semi-regular basis, and they'll never think of the place again, forgetting the neighbors and the sirens and the cheap lawn chairs people set out on the sidewalk when it got hot, and the way people would congregate in the middle of the street and not move for cars.
And so it goes, each with his or her own dreams and drug of choice, and horizons that open out onto whatever. Four separate clusters of people on half a city-block, people fucking and eating and arguing, and their laughter and anger and sorrow: separate. Absolutely separate.
Who's to say that it should be any different — that all people should know and embrace all people?
This is, after all, the city, where proximity is no indicator of similarity of any stripe — it's just that it's February for all of us, and the world is layered, optically, and there's a plane of snow that everyone here is looking at, and which people who don't know the ocean or have forgotten it will say looks like a sea of white. And the sun is reflecting off the plane in granular bursts that sear the eye and hurt everyone who looks at it. And the red brick buildings and the whitewashed brick buildings fading with age come next for everyone, and then the cloudy, dirty sky.
Ciahnan Darrell's short stories have appeared in several journals, including Ricochet and Lost in Thought, and his most recent story, "What Remains," was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Rum Punch Press.