by Kim Bussing
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
A taxi screeches past, a honk like a siren blazing past and water splattering on my pants legs and boots. The dirt and rain blend together in a fluid painting, an artistic stain. What use are museums when taxis can make art just as well?
“Stop staring at me,” Joe says. “And pay attention. You could’ve gotten hit.”
“Would you have missed me if I had died?” I ask, crossing the street, coming up to him and his dark-red shoes.
“I told you to look out, didn’t I?”
He is walking fast, so fast I think any moment his shoes won’t support him and the world will just tumble away from under him.
You didn’t answer the question.
But that is a voice in my mind. Those are words that dissolve like sugar on my tongue, only for me to later taste that they are salt.
“Keep up,” Joe says.
It has become so grey that the sidewalk and the sky and the world all melt into one amorphous concept, some endless, grizzled stretch with only those red shoes, those burning, bloody shapes hurrying away.
Where have I followed those shoes? Off a cliff. You say jump, I jump. My mother would have laughed at me, or maybe reprimanded. She does not think it can get worse than a man who hides whiskey in the medicine cabinet. But this... my mother only knows pneumonia as the result of a poor immune system and a bout of bad luck.
Joe ducks down an alley.
“You walk too slowly.”
“Where are you going?”
“It’s quicker this way.”
There’s a construction overhang. Without the rain pounding my shoulders, I realize how cold I am. The sound of the storm tickles the tarp above us. It’s almost like being in a cave, how dark and cool it is, how quiet and suddenly so indecently private. I expect someone to strike a fire. I expect someone to pull out graham crackers and marshmallows to char. I giggle.
“Why are you laughing?” Joe turns back towards me.
“I don’t know.”
Joe stares at me and then starts walking again.
“Can you please slow down?”
“I can’t help it that you’re so slow.”
“Why can’t you just stop and wait?”
Joe stops walking.
“I have to write,” he says, like it’s obvious. Like he’s offended that I have forgotten his God-given mission to scrawl down his mysterious thoughts.
When I reach him, I pause. My breathing is heavy. My entire body is chilled with cold. There’s a dark chill that creeps up my spine, that infects my vision until everything is haunted with shadows.
“What are you writing, even?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“You wouldn’t understand. You’re just a waitress.”
I stare at him. “Hey,” I say.
“At Denny’s. At a goddamned Denny’s.”
“You serve food cooked in a goddamned microwave.”
“For all I know, you’re just scribbling away with crayons in a coloring book all day. At least I actually get paid.”
Joe grabs my arms, twists them behind me, pushes me back against a building. He kisses me hard, his tongue forcing my mouth open, his spit on my lips, on the skin around them.
“Do you want me?” He whispers into my mouth. His breath tastes like hamburgers.
“Tell me you want me.” His grip on my wrists tightens. I imagine the bruises spiraling out from his hands, dancing around in the same designs as his fingerprints.
“I want you,” I say so he backs off and I can wipe my lips.
First there is Joe and then there is something cold and solid pressed against my temple.
“On the ground,” someone says.
Joe keeps standing.
The cold and solid thing bumps against my head again.
I get down on my knees. The ground is damp, dirty, all of the grime from the city seeping through my jeans to nestle against my skin.
I look up at a black-clothed leg, at a black jacket, a black hood pulled over pale face so everything beneath there is swarming in ambiguity. A grey gun pressed against my head. And these black shoes in front of my face, scuffed and dirty. Is that blood there, on the left one? Of course not. Who walks around with blood on their shoes? That’s what a dry cleaner is for.
How did we not hear this black-clothed man coming? How are we here with him looming over us while there are people out there, dry, zooming away in locked SUVs?
“Joe, get down,” I say.
He does, but squats, ready to bolt, his body tense, his temple not nearly so close to being kissed by a bullet.
“Your wallet,” the man says.
I pass him my purse. “I’m sorry,” I say. “There’s only ten dollars.”
The man grunts. He motions his gun at Joe.
Joe shrugs. “Don’t have one.”
The gun is back.
“Don’t have one.”
He tugs it out of his back jeans pocket. It’s old, battered, a destroyed mess of faux brown leather. He tosses it at the man without the face.
We give them. He takes them.
The faceless man pauses. He is deliberating in his facelessness.
He gestures the gun at Joe’s shoes. They have dried partly so that there are arbitrary dark, feverish spots. They look diseased.
“I’ll shoot. I’ll sure as hell shoot, man.”
His gun is at my head. Almost like a lover’s embrace, how close this metal is to my cheeks.
There is a piece of gum on the street. Grey, all color stolen and gone, life chewed away by who? By a businessman? A model? A barista? A boy? A girl? A tourist? An author? Do I die with these questions, with someone else’s gum instead of my own in front of my face? There’s supposed to be more than this. Right.
There was Monterrey. I jumped off of those cliffs once. That’s something, that’s a story. Right. And I am loved by Joe. Right.
Is this enough to leave behind? It has to be. Because otherwise what am I, what makes me different than that rain drop sliding in some arbitrary direction. In the end, unwatched.
Joe’s laughter is quieter, but it continues. “What the hell, man. My shoes?”
“I’ll - I’ll shoot. I will I will I will I will.”
“You can’t mess with me. Do you even know who I am? I’m a writer. I’m going to be a star. You want my shoes? You can’t have my shoes. Don’t you get it? I’m a star. I’m going to be a star. This can’t happen to me. Don’t you know who I’m about to be?”
“I’m not kidding. Give me the shoes.”
He stares at me. There is disquiet in his gaze, a blame, a hot shaming. Somehow this is my fault. But this is not my fault. This is not my fault, the same way it’s not my fault I got pneumonia.
He falls down on his ass, kicks his legs in front of him like a child. It is a theatrical display, this loosening of shoelaces, this removal of shoes. It is a comedy that the worth of life has been discovered under a construction overhang: the price of a used pair of All Stars. Isn’t that funny? Ha. ha.
Joe flings his shoes at the man. The faceless creature picks them up, weighs them like his hands are scales.
“Count to 100,” the man says. He does not put on Joe’s shoes. He tucks them under his arm, his pockets heavy with wallets and phones, his hands burdened by the gun. He melts back into the shadows, but the shadow of the gun is cold like blood against my head.
Joe counts to 80. He stands up. He does not speak. He looks at me, pulls me up roughly by the elbow.
I wonder if his feet are cold.
“Why did that happen?”
“Why did that happen?”
“Things don’t have to happen for a reason,” Joe says.
I stare ahead, at the grey scale city just outside of the tunnel.
“Then why does anything have to happen at all?”
“What are you talking about?” Joe asks.
He leads us out the way we came until we emerge back into a world of honking cars and garishly illuminated storefronts all muted by a rain that has swollen into sheets of icy bullets.
“Let’s get a taxi,” Joe says, standing in his socks.
“Why didn’t you do anything?”
“There was an actual gun to my head. An actual gun. That kills people. To my head.”
“He took my shoes.”
“And then the gum on the street.”
“I wore those shoes to my father’s funeral.”
“Do you even care that I almost died?”
“Did you say gum or gun?”
“Do you even want to talk about it?”
“Of course. I’m sorry. We’ll talk about it later. I’m sorry you were scared.”
“Do you love me?”
“What did you say?”
“Do you love me.”
He crosses the street. I wait, watching him go. What kind of figure is he making? Is this tragic? Is this a man to be pitied or a man to be respected? A man to be feared or a man to only take one glance at? What matters is that he is mine.
You have to love someone you stood with on the precipice of death.
“Joe, wait,” I say.
The rain is so heavy I think I might be going blind. I’m trembling. I’m cold and empty and the water is leaking through my skin into the very core of me and I think that my soul may be drowning.
I wait for Joe to take my hand. I take a step forward.
Everything falls out from under me. My hands swim upwards, my breath catches, my body aches. Did I hit a rock? Is this the end? Is this really all I get? But then it’s just the street in Brooklyn. A puddle under me, centimeters deep, and my hands now coated in the sewage of the city. My pants wet. All of me wet. There is no Monterey. There are no cliffs. There is just a sidewalk and a missed step.
Another taxi, honking. I wait for Joe to take my hand, not an elbow, but fingers intertwined with damp fingers, and pull me up.
But he is across the street, staring at his shoeless feet.
Copyright © 2014 by Kim Bussing