By Kenneth Kelly
The sun is taking an early exit over the skyline. The air is getting colder and the traffic is getting louder. The brown line has taken me to the place called home.
I walk with uneven strides through unfamiliar streets. The cold makes my knee ache more than it used to. I haven’t needed the cane since I left, and I refuse to use it again no matter how badly it hurts. It’s a short walk from Fullerton, so I manage.
My neighborhood is becoming gentrified. I look at the buildings and I see the generations of families that lived there since the Fire. The houses on my street all look the same but if you look closely enough you can see the differences between them. The lines of homes are punctuated by million dollar buildings, which stand in utter defiance of the legacy and tradition of the neighborhood. Their newness seems an insult to what came before. They are not made of brick, but of steel and glass. Their facade is flat and sleek, not at all rustic. They are made to look expensive. Moonlight shines off their new exterior. These seem to me less like homes and more like monoliths standing against a darkening sky. Still, I want to live in one.
My own apartment is small. It does not look expensive, and I’m paying too much for it. Cracked, pale green paint lines the walls. I tell myself its charming, not broken. The water gets hot fast and it’s on the top floor so it should stay warm in the winter which will arrive before I’m ready for it.
I share my apartment with the cat I rescued because it was cheaper than buying one. I don’t know why I want a cat. I don’t like cats. But she’s cute I suppose and she sleeps next to me on my mattress. You would like her. Her name is Allie. She doesn’t seem to mind that the identity I have given her is a bad joke. Perhaps it’s because I feed her, but maybe she senses that I, too, am alone in this city. She nuzzles into my neck as we sleep because I’m the only warm body she knows. If there were another cat I might not be so lucky. I must never get another cat.
The sun rises in the morning but it’s not as warm as the day before. I walk to Lincoln Park hoping to run into someone I know, but I know I won’t. The pain in my leg is there, but I don’t always feel it now. On the way, an old woman calls me over to her. She’s sitting on a bench beneath a monument to Goethe, smoking a cigar, and wearing a pink t-shirt. The inscription on the stone above her head is so worn with age that it’s almost illegible. It’s a shame that something so old has been forgotten. The old woman asks me to help her across the street. I say yes, I will help her because I was never a very good boy scout, and it seems an easy way to make up for my regrets. She puts out her cigar on the bench, and I help her to her feet. She clings to my arm and I realize that her trembling body is the first that’s held mine since I moved here. It feels nice, even if she’s only doing it to prevent her collapse.
We cross the street slowly, so slowly that I’m sure the light will turn red on us. I watch the seconds tick down next to the flashing hand, hoping they won’t reach zero until we’re less than a car’s width from the curb. They seem to disappear faster than normal seconds. Time moves more quickly in the city. The hand stops flashing and we’re still standing in front of a car whose light has turned green. Someone whose precious time is being wasted honks at us, but I can’t move this woman any faster, so they wait.
Finally, we reach the other side and I lead her to a bus stop. She sits down and before she can catch her breath she relights her cigar. The man she’s sitting next to doesn’t seem to mind the smoke. His face is leathery, like an old catcher’s mitt. He’s wearing a tattered newsboy cap, perhaps the same one he had has a kid. He speaks to her out of concern. She is still breathing heavily. She tells him that she’s fine. “I’m just going to see my friend,” she says. “She lives at the Oakmont. It’s a retirement facility on Broadway.” She breathes deep. “I used to live there, but I don’t get to see her anymore.”
“Is this your grandmother?” the man asks me. His voice is gravelly, but his tone is benevolent and his eyes shine with boylike wonder. I tell him no, I was only helping her cross the street. He gasps and repeats to me, “You just helped this woman cross the street and you don’t even know her? What’s your name?” I tell him, and he says to me, “Jon, you’re a great man.”
I want to argue with him, but I don’t.
He introduces himself to the woman as Richard. Her name is Maggie.
“Maggie, who is your friend you’re going to see?”
“May Ellen. We’ve been friends since we were young, even before I met my husband and even after he died thirty years ago. She’s the only person I love as much as I love him.”
“My wife died ten years ago. I’ll never look at another woman,” Richard says. “I loved her so much. That and I’m too old.” They laugh and I smile. “Jon, how old are you?”
I tell him twenty-five, and he exclaims with excitement, “Oh! How good it would be to be twenty-five! I was twenty-five when I met my wife, y’know. Jon, are you married, do you have a girlfriend?”
I tell him no.
“Well, don’t worry. You’re young. You’ll find someone.”
I smile at him but say nothing. I ask the old woman if she needs anything else. She draws from her cigar and tells me “No, I’m just going to see my friend. The bus will take me there.”
I tell her and the man goodbye. I take another look at the woman sucking her cigar and quivering with age and I hope she has time to see her friend hundreds more times but I know she won’t.
The bus arrives to take her away, but I’m already gone, sitting on the shore of Lake Michigan scribbling in my journal and watching the geese. I was here yesterday and I have to remind myself that these geese aren’t the ones I saw yesterday. These are new geese that will be here today and in southern Illinois tomorrow. They swim in circles counterclockwise and their bodies send ripples that extend out and finally die out over the waves.
I wonder how they know when to go, living without clocks as they do. They must feel something in the air that we can’t, something that tells them it’s time to leave this place. The same thing I must feel without knowing as I’m looking for you in the coming dark sitting beside my brother’s pool. It’s a place we’ve been several times before, but now it’s so dark you’re not there. The stars shine but they don’t reflect off your eyes. I talk but you don’t respond. Still, I feel you. I want to lie to you and tell you that I don’t want to leave, but I want nothing more. Summer’s almost over and it’s time to move on.
We don’t turn on a light. The distance between us grows imperceptibly large without our moving. I tell you I’ll come back some day, and I wait for an answer as you fade into the night.
Snow has fallen over the city I now call home. I’m at a concert with my friend Laurie. She’s tall and solemn and possesses the quiet beauty of candlelight. She hides her face by staring at her feet. We stand near the back, not wanting to lose each other in the crowd. I’ve grown accustomed to the dull ache in my knee. It only really hurts when I remind myself that it should. She whispers in my ear, thanking me for taking her. I tell her it’s nothing. My cousin is in the band and I needed someone to go with. I tell her I’m just glad she wanted to go with me.
The band comes out and starts playing. The lights on the singer are in constant flux. They switch from greens to blues to reds, and he seems to take on a new persona with each iteration of the timer. His outward appearance seems somber, excited, and cruel all at once. The only consistent thing about him is his voice. Laurie hooks her arm in mine and I don’t stop her. I forget who she is for a moment as I listen to the lyrics. Where, could that girl have gone? She left no trail, but I cannot fail I will find her. His voice is earnest and I find myself wanting to believe the words–that I could be saying them. I want the music to mean something I believe, but it doesn’t. I want it to mean what I want it to mean, that the pain I feel will stop.
I close my eyes and I’m there on that first night we spent together pulling down your blouse revealing the tattoo of the cogs falling down your back onto the streets of Brooklyn. They’re stark black against your pale skin, like fresh ink on paper. My fingers move across your skin shaking out of fear that I’ll tear it. Now, I only wish that I could. My lips touch each cog in my mind and I’m wishing that time truly is simultaneous, but it’s not. I remember where I really am, with Laurie standing next to me. Everything that is happening is happening right now, and it will never happen again.
Laurie is thanking me for a wonderful evening and she hugs me before the train doors open at the Fullerton stop. It feels strange to be in someone’s arms when I haven’t been there since last winter. She says she wants to see me again and I can’t help but smile.
The snow is melting so quickly now that I think it’s raining when I wake up. An icicle falls and crashes to the ground with the sound of someone throwing a bucket of water out. I don’t want to get out of bed until I pull back the curtains and see the sun for the first time in months. I have plans to see Laurie tonight. I kissed her last week while we waited for the train. Her lips were cold but inviting. I could feel her smiling and everything else melted away.
And it continues to melt as we’re standing on my doorstep. Clouds move quickly across the sky and the moon shines on us for a moment. She is illuminated. All I can see is her.
We ascend the three flights of stairs to my apartment and go inside. Her back is bare, a page without words that would take a lifetime to fill. She turns and brings her lips to my neck. All I can do is hope I won’t hurt her.
Only when I am alone do I remember she looks nothing like you.
Spring is coming. The sidewalks are littered with puddles caught in that moment between freezing and melting, afraid to begin again. I leave perfect footprints though the stride is irregular, a mark of the pain I feel moving forward.
Kenny Kelly is a writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. After graduating from Chico State, he received his MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago. His short stories have appeared in Joyland Magazine, Berkeley Fiction Review, Bird’s Thumb, and elsewhere.