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Random happenings on an inner-city street

August 19, 2011

When the cats came like ghosts from the city streets, the old man’s milky eyes followed them. He gazed at the cats with energy, as if he was rediscovering them.

The clock mounted on the wall had counted all the seconds of several decades and right now it was lost in some memory of the forties. Then without warning it chimed out a melody and the old man did not look at it because he was watching the cats, but he raised his hand slightly in the direction of the clock because it was an old and honest friend.

He mumbled something but the words were lost in the profound silence that followed the chimes.

The glass of the window was thick and old, and it cut and stripped and pressed the street so that the cats were coming like images cut from paper. The sun was high and the cars parked tightly along the sidewalks reflected it in brilliant color. A woman walked from the ABC holding a small boy by the hand. The old man’s milky eyes moved to watch the pair. The boy had begun to cry and resist his mother, finally collapsing so that she held him like a book bag dangling from a strap and then she bent partway down to hiss something and the boy shut his mouth and stood up on his feet, but wiped at his eyes in despair, and the pair glided past like paper images. For ten minutes nothing moved on the street except some pigeons, which had plummeted, wings tucked to their sides, like squashes dropped from the roofs across the street, then bursting at the last moment into a flurry of wings so loud they could be heard through the glass. Then the cats moved like images cut from paper and the old man found them with his milky eyes until they disappeared below the window. They came through a hold in the door, which was hidden from the inside by a hairy piece of rug. Up the street, another cat named was making its way toward the old man’s apartment.

You Lydia, the old man tried to say but it came out piping and whispering like a tea kettle so he said it again.

The tabby turned to inspect him and when he did not move, she yawned open her mouth and began to lick her paws. He had sardines in a can and his left hand held the can while his right hand clamped around the aluminum tab and peeled back the lid.

The clock burst again into some ecstatic remembrance and the old man waited until the last reverberations dissipated into walls and then he said, A quarter to three and I am here and Lydia is here and Gloria is here.

You Lydia, he mumbled when he placed the sardine on the ground, and then another, for the gray cat Gloria, who followed Lydia with fixed eyes.

***

The shopkeeper watched the boy nervously.

Do you want some cigarettes for your dad?

The boy didn’t respond but kept poking through the radishes with his dirty fingers. The shopkeeper loosened his collar and tried to busy himself by restacking boxes of cheap bear and soda. The shop was warm in the afternoons and narrow like a closet, lined on either side with shelves stacked with crates and more crates stacked in front of the shelves so that there was barely room for two people to pass each other between the crates.

When he finished restacking the beer and soda the shopkeeper said, Here, I bet your dad wants some cigarettes huh? Get him some smokes. I don’t mind ya buyin’ smokes.

The little boy shook his head but stood staring at the apples, his face slack and dirty.

Alright, I can’t have you dawdling around. Can’t fit too many customers inside here. You’ll drive away the customers. It’s too small. You want to buy your dad some smokes? I don’t mind, honest.

The little boy looked up at the shopkeeper and he reached his hand over one of the crates and ran his fingers over an apple, back and forth, back and forth, and he looked at the shopkeeper and a little smile appeared on his face and his eyes flickered like a candle by a window at night.

The shopkeeper looked around at the crates on the walls and then looked at the boy and said, What do you want to buy? I’ll bet your dad wants some cigarettes or something. Or maybe your mom does.

The little boy continued to run his fingers back and forth over the apple and his eyes moved a little so he was just looking past the man, or through him, and the smile did not leave but faded a little and his face stiffened in this position and he continued to run his fingers back and forth over the apple.

The shopkeeper muttered something and raised his eyebrows and tried to smile and say What would you like to buy but the first word came out with a choke and the shopkeeper began to sputter and the boy turned and walked out of the shop.

The shopkeeper pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and walked out of the ABC into the heat of the afternoon and lit one and took a long drag. His hands were a little shaky.

He flinched and swore when the window across the street clattered open, the last notes of clock chiming out onto the street. The old man at the window had milky eyes and his mouth was open in a smile like his laughter would ring out with the chiming clock.

Three o’clock and I am here and Lydia is here and Gloria is here and there’s a new cat I’ve never seen before and he is here too and we are all here.

The shopkeeper stepped on his cigarette and walked back into the ABC as the noise of the chimes drifted up and down the street, joining the inner-city murmur.

© Trent R. Leinenbach, Ashen Apples, 2011

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