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Tuesday, July 31, 2012


The storm that came rolling in last night was easily one of the worst the city had seen that summer.  Downed power lines, backed up sewers and trash cluttered the streets and alleys.  Filth from every conceivable corner clung to the sides of buildings, side walk curbs and news paper boxes.  The air was oppressive; much like it is after a storm whispers false promises of cool relief, only to cruelly withdraw this bliss at the last possible moment.  Suffer the children one might say. And the children of the city do. Man, woman and infant bake in the summer steam.  The night is still and angry.

He looks over at his alarm clock and focuses on the blurry numbers.  It's the deepest part of the night when all should be still, but through his window and past his fire escape, he hears the beasts of the unsettled jungle below.   He knows that sleep will never come to him...not at this late hour.  Instead he rolls out of bed, slips on his second skin and decides to take the fire escape to the streets below.  He's not normally nocturnal, but tonight he makes the exception.

He follows the well worn trail to his local watering hole.  He could find it by scent alone if the need arose but tonight he calmly plods towards his destination.  With any luck, he'll be able to have a drink in a quiet corner without being run off by some angry drunk; looking to strike up a fight with anyone who happens to stray too far into his territory.  He wets his lips in anticipation and checks his blind spots before crossing the street.

He senses something off before he sees it. A strong smell of copper fills his nostrils and instantly the hair on the back of his neck stands on end.  He stops dead in his tracks and listens.  There's the hum of  an engine around the corner and the chirp and squawk of a radio.  He begins to walk again, more cautiously this time and rounds the side of the building.  Bright yellow tape assaults his eyes as he takes in as much of the scene as possible.  Bright lights pulse red and blue in a rhythmic motion.  Once a hub of activity, the scene has now calmed to dull chaos as only a handful of necessary personnel remain behind.  Scavengers hang back on the edge of shadow and light hoping to snag one scrap; one meaty morsel that they can brag about to their friends.  "Did you see the blood?"  "...saw the gunman...." "....guy died right their on the pavement...."  Watering hole is closed.  Time to head back to the den.

Dawn breaks over the city as he washes the dirt and sweat off from the night before.  Today he starts the long journey again.  To move away from this place of comfort and back into the grinding slow burn of office life.  He's done this dance so many times before today.  He has the routine down to an art form. Wake, shower, shave, eat, preen, leave. Today should be no different but after last night's waking sleepwalk, he needs caffeine to get on track.  Leaving his apartment he drifts down the stairs and out onto the street.  The Diner at the end of the street  is percolating pure Colombian gold right now and he plans to take it.  And he will....even if he has to tear someone's throat out to get it.  This is his street. His Diner. His coffee.

The bell over the door signals his entrance as he saunters in to this familiar haunt.  Eyes turn to meet his from a half a dozen different directions.  Indifference, interest, annoyance, anger.  Emotions run high in the room as  the city's weary citizens jockey for position to get a table or grab take out. He waits his turn as he understands that that there is a pecking order to respect right now lest he want his hide tanned.  The line moves along without incident and he eventually finds himself at the counter.

"Coffee please. 2 Sugar."

The counter attendant grunts something relatively indifferent and shuffles off to fill the order.  His focus drifts as he waits for his morning jolt and he glosses over the the inhabitants of the Diner.  People in power suits speaking lou dly into phones; loudly enough to announce how important this conversation must be. Blue Collar Workers either coming off shift or on shift.  Rugged hands and tired eyes move together under leathery skin laughing and gesturing with a sense of ease that the Power Suits could never truly appreciate.  They speak of quitting time and the hot day ahead. Of cold beer and mediocre sex. They move through this place with their hopes and dreams in their back-pockets and their loose change left on the table.  A family quarrels in a booth near the door; wiping spilled milk off of a city map. The child has tears welling up in his eyes....lower lip blubbering slightly. Both parents are annoyed but whether it's at the kid or one another---that remains to be seen. But it's not his fight.

The counter attendant returns with a steaming Styrofoam cup and rings up the total without ever really making eye contact. Just another customer. Just another order. Just another 6 hours before the shift is done. He pays the bill with exact change and turns for the door. The bell jingles again and She walks in. 'DREAM' ---from across the alley. The stolen moment between them still fresh in his mind. The heat from that look she offered him.....the heat from his Fire Escape. He begins to raise his hand to say hello when he notices the swelling around her eye. The bruising high on her cheek. The look of a broken woman. This time, she doesn't meet his gaze. This time she sweeps her hair over her eye and looks through him on her way to the counter. She drifts within inches of him and he can smell her hair; jasmine and lavender. Crushing. The hairs on the back of his neck stand straight up and he realizes for one split second.....he has stopped breathing. He knows nothing about her save where she lives. But on this humid the belly of this city, he silently promises her that she will never feel the sting of another blow.

There's a city bench across from the Diner. He decides there's time before work and so he sits. Taking the lid off the coffee to let it cool he's not 100% sure what he's going to do. But he knows he needs to do something. This woman; this mystery deserves 5 minutes of his time. He owes her nothing yet feels a pull of something deeper and more primal than just pure chivalry. He feels a wanting to be there for her. To offer her shelter, a shoulder and perhaps a bed. So he waits silently on the bench as the world crashes around him. The trees are still this morning as nary a breeze ruffles their branches. They stand like silent sentinels; watching over the city. In some way, he takes comfort in this thought. His own personal armada. Vigilantly backing his decision.

She leaves the Diner a few minutes later and steps into a waiting car on the corner. The windows offer little insight as to who is behind the wheel, but with little effort one could imagine that this person is the same person who drew her back into the shadows of her apartment the other day what? Beat her? Terrorize her? He realizes that his speculations could be completely off base. He has no grounds, no reason to be doing any of this. The heat must be getting to him he tells himself. He looks at his watch and curses under his breath. He's not late....yet. But he knows that if he doesn't get out of the city now, he'll be stuck. Cornered in with the rest of the Herd.

He heads for his car and prepares himself for the migration. He knows the city like the back of his hand. Which streets to take and when. Which on-ramps to avoid. Which exits to steer clear of. He navigates the road with the expertise of a Formula 1 Racer. Today is the exception. Traffic is moving at a crawl when he enters the hi-way. He knows he missed his window by only about 5 minutes, but normally that's all it takes to either be leading the pack or sniffing the tailpipes of the vehicles in front of you. He snarls out a string of words that would make his Mother blush and hunkers down in his seat for a low slow march. From the look on the faces of the drivers around him, they've resigned themselves to this fact too.

The Gods of the Commute must have been slighted by some unfortunate traveller that day as they let loose their full wrath on the hapless commuters traversing this stretch of asphalt. 2 miles into the drive he notices the sky clouding over rapidly.  It's a fast moving cell; more than likely left over from the night before. The sky   roils and begins to bleed into a sickly greenish hue.  A good sign for bad weather if ever there was one.  The air begins to smell of ozone and the thermometer on the building beside the hi-way starts showing the steady drop in temperature as the storm begins to swell. Maybe the motorists around him sense the change too. The flow of the traffic becomes more aggressive; erratic.  Engines rev a little harder while idling and feet become ever-so-slightly-more lined with lead when braking. The first drops start to fall. It comes down in sheets lashing the cars around him. At times it comes down so strong it hits the pavement and bounces back up towards the sky. Drains begin to clog and soon the road is an adult slip and slide. Only the kids playing on this one are wrapped up in 3 tonnes of steel and glass.

The hole forms a few cars up. It's like a giant hand reached down and scooped up a line of cars to part the way for the rest of these humble people wading through this mess. The advantage is taken by as many as possible. Cars peel out of a dead stop as if chased by some unseen predator. Their tires squeal as they bite into the wet road trying to gain traction; kicking up water and debris. Brake lights flash and just as soon as it opened, the hole has closed once again. The thunder explodes overhead.....and the herd rumbles in discontent.

As the people of the city fall back into complacence, waiting for the next continental shift to move the mass a foot or two further, one lone soul reaches his breaking point. A car breaks loose from the pack and lurches onto the shoulder. Horns blare in anger or appreciation as he dashes away to freedom. This will not end well he thinks out loud. And he is right. The police cruiser sitting three rows back tends to agree as well as it fires up its lights and hits the shoulder running. Like a cheetah hitting stride before it catches it's prey, the cruiser quickly starts to close the distance. The runaway vehicle knowing full well it's about to be laid low, panics and flees. It sprints faster; losing traction and swerving wildly out of control. Up ahead, a large truck is stalled on the shoulder----engine failure, out of gas----doesn't matter. For all intents and purposes, this truck is a granite wall whose only purpose is to remain an immovable object in the face of an unstoppable force.

He hears the impact from half a mile back.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Fire Escape

The beat of a thousand shoes rumble up through the pavement and reverberate off my fire escape. I watch the mad throng of people shuffle up and down the avenue like the red blood cells moving through my veins. They stream past one another; heads down, eyes focused on the next several feet of pavement. It is 5:25 p.m. on a Thursday, and the world is waking up.
Smells waft up amongst the buildings peppering my senses in a cacophony of sweat, gasoline, street meat and flowers. They say you have to get above the haze to truly appreciate the air in the city. My fire escape doesn't climb that high. I inhale the breath of the denizens below and exhale slowly. The air is hot. My breath is hot. I look at the pack of half empty cigarettes on my window sill and give it the finger.

I rest my forehead against the railing of my fire escape but it offers little relief from the humidity. Even the metal seems to be sweating. Looking across the alley something in a window catches my eye. Curtains waft in the ripple of an incessantly turning fan; the blades beating out a constant rhythm. On the window ledge above I make out the word DREAM in large block letters and this makes me smile. The smile is cold though. It might just be the only cold thing around on this steamy evening. Perhaps this word offers hope to the occupant of this lone apartment. I wonder what thing must have caused this person that much despair that they needed to purchase a reminder of how to simply live life?

Something moves across my field of vision. I refocus my gaze and meet a pair of eyes staring back at me. The owner of the DREAM I suppose. She looks across the alley at me and sees me without seeing me. Her focus is distant; foggy almost as if a thought has latched onto her and won't let her go until she plays it through. Perhaps DREAM has taken hold. Perhaps she's allowed it to take hold and perhaps-----she hopes it refuses to let her go. Lost in a lucid state. Lost in a dream scape ripe with equal parts wonder and terror.

I study her face from the safety of my fire escape. The round cheeks, the smooth lines on her forehead and around her eyes. She has laughed a great deal in her time---or cried. To this point I can't attest. The freckles across the bridge of her nose gives her a look of pure summer and it breaks my god damn heart to look at her for too long. Her skin, bronzed now from this deep summer bake, glistens as she stands at the window. The tiny fan pounding out hot air in a vain attempt to cool this heavy beast that has fallen over the city is not enough to cool her skin. A bead of sweat rolls down the back of her neck and she paws at it absent-mindedly. Her focus shifts ever so slightly and I realize she is looking directly at me-----and I am terrified.

There are moments in life when you know you have been caught. Whether it is stealing something out of a cash register or stealing a look from across an alleyway. Either way, when you're caught you're caught. 'Fight or flight' I think. Meet the gaze head on or break for cover and always ask yourself what if? She gives me no choice. The look is met with equal curiosity and perhaps longing. I raise my hand to wave; a friendly neighbour just saying 'Hello'. Yet I feel the pull of something much greater----more primal. She remains still; the curtains the only object moving in her tiny room across the alley. Then her lips part and she breathes out the world 'Hello'.

The belch of the street below is enough to drown out most noise even this high up. But on this day, I hear her words resound like Gabriel's Trumpet across this chasm that separates us. An old Arab proverb springs to my mind:

"The whisper of a pretty girl can be heard further than the roar of a lion."

We share an innocent smile but far too quickly her's fades. Her eyes become dark pools once again and she listlessly drifts back into some world other than this. I've lost her before I've even met her.

I see a figure slide behind her and an arm wraps it's way across her chest. A face blanketed in shadow whispers something in her ear and she allows herself to be lead away from the window----from me. In an instant, my world bleeds grey and blue as the colour washes out of the day. Every sound now becomes an inconvenience; a violation of the quiet solace we shared for that brief moment. An air conditioner buzzes incessantly below me and sirens wail in the distance.

Overhead angry clouds begin their slow march towards an ancient battlefield; where skyscrapers stand tall in defiance of the Gods above. The city watches with a cautious eye and wonders what will break first? The heat, or the people below. Another siren begins it's cry, but from much closer than the last. I look at my pack of smokes beside me on the window sill. The crumpled Camel stares back at me and wants to remind me "More Doctors Smoke Camels than any other Cigarette". I bet.

The first growl of thunder rolls over my head tenuously announcing its arrival. Below me a woman screams and shots ring out. I open my copy of Tropic of Cancer and put my feet up against the railing. I still have time, on my fire escape-----at the edge of the world.