City Light

Most of them figured out to come to her. The way geese find water, moths the moon. Not this one. Chandra would have to go get him, now that she had what she needed. She walked up the street, four doors to Antoine’s house. The moon was on its way down, halfway through the oaks in the park. She still might catch some sleep before sunup.

She could take a lot of noise, but this one had been too much, a buzz of hunger up and down the street that grew louder over days. This time was different though. A couple hours back, around midnight, a SWAT team rammed in Ant’s door, packed their van with him and a handful of junkies. Ant was alright, the neighborhood trickster since childhood, always sly, but also generous and warm. Since his mama died, two years back, he had been more and more worn down. The junkies that crashed there were OK too. One teenage girl and an old man would wave from the porch when Chandra left for work every day. They were fixtures. Most others came and went. Sometimes somebody would freak out in the yard and yell for a spell before somebody else would shout them down and lead them back to the peace of the porch. Mostly they all just nodded out on the old brown sofa and fold out chairs under the awning. Chandra felt a wave of deep weariness rise behind her eyes. Kept walking.

The kid was quiet now, slumped against the twisted little tree between the house and the curb. Skinny white kid, maybe sixteen, elbows on his knees, worn-out sneakers grimy in the streetlight. Under his hooded sweatshirt his face was tight, eyes shut, mouth open a little, like he might cry but couldn’t remember how.

She almost felt sorry for him. Except his noise all week had worn her down. She’d need to take her boss tone. “Listen, boy. Enough of your miserable shit.” His eyes opened, listlessly, not the snap-to she was after. It made her even wearier to look at him. She shook exhaustion off with a practiced spike of irritation that she now knew would not help to move him. She paused to gather herself, took in his blank look and sad sneakers, and shifted into her head nurse’s voice—still firm, but warmer. “Come on. Let’s fix you up.”

He peered up at her. A thin face, smooth with youth, but sick too, a fact seen starkly in the ugly florescence of the streetlight. Nodding, she gave him a wry half-smile. Her confidence, his need, got him on his feet. Wobbly as a fawn, but still a boy. Who followed her four doors down.

“Sit.” She pointed to the orange wingback chair her grandmother had loved. He sank into it, slumped over like a bag of bones. Anger flared in her stomach and moved into her jaw; it looked so wrong, him sitting there half-dead in that bright glad velvet chair. She remembered how Andee’s rings caught the light, hands dancing as she talked, thin grey braids clacking cowries, back teeth glinting gold when she laughed. It surprised her how much it still hurt, ten years on, how much she missed her grandmother who named her and later raised her, healer and teacher, more like sister by the end. Andee would have been quick to point out her granddaughter’s wrong-headedness—of course she should give the kid the best seat in the house: he was a guest.

She stood over him, bag of white powder tilted in her palm, where he could see it. “You know, my grandmom, she called this stuff a spirit. Mind of its own. Mmmm?”

The boy nodded, eyes fixed on the palm of her hand. He was barely there. Nothing but that constant buzz of hunger.

“Hooked her older brother in Vietnam. He carried it a long time. Kept himself together, though, worked as a sous chef at the big hotels. Had the discipline to dole it out. Just enough to get him through the day. Day after day. But then that fentanyl got into it.”

She stood silent, chewing on her words. She’d been thinking of Uncle Max all week—his kind, sleepy eyes, his warm soft way of saying yeah that felt like soft summer rain, cooling off a day. Andee said he was like that as a boy too, the kind of older brother that took care of the younger ones and helped their mama cook. The summer before he was drafted, he saved his money from laying tar on the St. Louis roads, and bought the kids a big backyard pool.

She remembered when Max died, how Andee cried for a long time at the kitchen table, then went out to her garden for a while, and came back with a bucket of fresh cut yellow squash and red peppers and runner beans to make a feast that ended with the flourish of his favorite chilled chocolate-peanut butter pie, and how they sat together all night, telling old jokes and stories, and how—in the middle of Andee telling about the hummingbird and Max and their old orange tomcat, how in the part when he carried the trapped bird out of garage, cupped in his palms, wild and alive—she let him go. She remembered Andee’s face at that moment, eyes wide open, somehow gone, somehow swallowing the room.

“He tried to throw Bean clear,” she said to herself.

“Bean?” He met her eyes for a second before they darted away, shy eyes, scared eyes. Like Bean’s, she thought.

“You know him. Of course. Yeah, Bean’s my little brother.” She snorted back a laugh, at Bean’s nervous smiles in her kitchen at dinner, hours ago. He knew the junk was not for her, and knew better than to ask why she needed it.

“I saw him yesterday. Tried to catch up with him.” The kid’s voice was husky, uncertain, the sound of someone who doesn’t say much. He wouldn’t meet her eyes, and she realized then that he was someone who never expects anyone to listen.

His eyes flickered up at her, back down at his knees. “He was too far away. Couldn’t hear me. Drove around the corner.”

He suddenly looked very young. Young, but with tired old eyes, tired from more than the junk and the running after the junk. Looking at him made her weary. She felt decades older than her 39 years. Her back ached, her feet hurt from squatting beside the beds in the oncology ward. She needed sleep.

“Well, Bean’s busy making a living like we all got to do.”

Guilt flooded his face. “I have some money,” he said, reaching into his jeans pocket.

A worried one, and soft, she thought. Different than what she thought he would be, given his noise. “What I need from you is quiet. You been waking up the street night and day all week. Some of us work day-shifts, some of us work night-shifts—and you’ve been fussing through them both.”

She thought of the nights all week: the feral cats in heat screaming between the houses, waking the street from fever dreams of lost things, old hungers flaring in the dark, the UPS truck pulling up to the Tucker’s curb every day with more boxes, the junkies fighting in Ant’s yard, and her glimpse of Jim Bell, a grey shadow behind his screen door, his face streaming with tears.

The kid looked confused, which meant he was a little less gone than she thought. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, and she could tell he really meant it. Sorry for so many things. Most of them not his doing.

She sighed, a mix of sadness and a mounting impatience that was not all hers—the kid was keeping it together, but barely. He might shatter. She’d need to pick up the pace, but also go slow.

“Let’s get this done, so you can be on your way. Hang on.” She went into the kitchen for a moment while he listened to the sound of a cupboards and drawers opening and closing and the sink water running.

She came back and took her seat, set down a glass of water, a needle and spoon on the hand-carved walnut table Andee had brought back from Ghana. “With water and with fire,” she whispered under her breath, and lit the orange candle waiting there. He was hardly there to hear it, hunched forward, eyes fixed on the kit, the room filling with that maddening mosquito whine of his need. He started to reach for the spoon.

“Look,” she said, “Just chill out. I got you.”

He looked up at her, as if he’d forgotten she was there, and then his eyes dropped back to the table.

“Listen—you know what I do all day? I’m a nurse. Just relax.” She wasn’t happy about what was to come, but it had to be done.

The juice glass caught the candlelight, it was one that she loved as a child for its orange butterflies and gilded rim that was shining gold in the candle flame. He was a guest after all, however briefly. And guests must be taken care of properly. Because this is what we do, Andee would say. Chandra twisted the needle cap, breaking the seal, dipped the needle in the glass, drawing up water.

“You go ahead and get ready. Find your spots.”

He unzipped his sweatshirt, bunched it up behind him. His faded black t-shirt was flecked with ruddy bleach stains. Bony arms a mess of sores. She opened the little bag of dope; she’d never gotten so near it, but tonight called for it. “I was telling you how this stuff is like a spirit. Has its own mind.”

She waited. The kid couldn’t focus on anything but the dope. At least it was keeping him there.

“Doesn’t it?” she nudged.

He wasn’t really listening, but he nodded.

“You need to listen now. And you’re probably OK at that—you’re not much of a talker are you?”

That earned her a tight, polite grimace, but the buzz in the room grew louder and louder, no longer a thin mosquito whine, more like the sound of metal scraping metal. She needed him to hear her.

“And the thing to remember is,” and then she turned up the volume of her voice and banged the spoon with each word: “I. Won’t. Lie. To. You.”

He looked up, met her eyes and the scraping sound stopped for a second.

She tipped the powder in the spoon, and she could feel his heart racing, racing.

“There was a boy”, she said in her story voice, a voice that her grandmother taught her, voice like a river, soft eddies and flows. “Now, this boy was so tired from running. This boy had been running a long time.”

She let her voice fade out, and snapped it back, into something harder.

“And he had good reasons to run.”

He met her eyes for a moment, shocked. Someone had seen him.

“Yep,” she said, “it ain’t all Barbie and barbeques out in those suburbs, is it.”

First hint of a shy smile. Shaky, like he had forgotten how. He ducked his head to hide it.

She flooded the spoon with the water in the needle, cooked the cloudy water over the candle until it went clear. He was fixed on all of it, the buzz of his hunger growing again, making her stomach churn. She settled herself firmer in her chair, started flicking the needle with her fingernail, holding it up to the candlelight to tap out the bubbles.

“Oh, I’m mixing you up, aren’t I, son. I was telling you about this stuff here—this spirit you run with,” she slowly tapped the needle with her fingernail. “It’s not a kind spirit.” Tap. “The way some are.” Tap. “This is misbegotten stuff.” Tap. “Seems like soul food at first. But then,”—tap—”it expects payment.” Tap. “In kind.” Tap and arched eyebrow, “As you know.”

He was polite, this one, nodding, his face blank and tight, holding back the flood of his need. Though, she thought, it had been seeping out into the neighborhood all week.

She kept her story voice steady, half conversational, almost a song. “My grandmom told me that one strange thing about the spirit side is how the light is there”. Tap. “It’s a place between places, so the light is between too. The night shines as the day she’d say.” Tap. “Always light there. But no shadows.” Tap. “An odd half-light. Like twilight. Like December dusk, that silver-gold light, you’ve seen it—” tap”—that platinum light, like a mix of sun and moon.”

She could feel him listening now, losing the tight focus on the needle. She stopped tapping, looked straight at him. He looked up and met her eyes.

She spoke slower now, drawing out the words. “But there’s no sun there. And no moon.”

She watched his face change as he turned inward. The buzzing had stopped, and she could finally see inside. He was thinking of the last time he had seen the moon. He couldn’t remember. He hadn’t thought about it for years. Then he remembered how he had loved it, how he would open the blinds in deep winter to watch the moonlight move across the bedroom walls, turning everything an unearthly blue, how he’d hold out his hands to catch the light. He was eleven, a couple years before he left home. He would read stories of wizards and witches growing wise in that moonlight, wishing he was far from there.

And he then remembered. A yellow half-moon above him. His chest slammed shut like a door. How everything went black.

She saw all of it with him and felt his shock—her heart falling for what felt like miles into her stomach. He looked up, eyes wide, locked on hers in terror.

She took a long breath in, kept her voice soft and steady. “It’s 3am honey, the darkest time of night. But not for you, is it? For you, it’s that long twilight, Steven Patrick Dunn, who died in the park last Thursday night.”

His mouth was open, his eyes were huge and dark.

“No.” The word was the first time he seemed awake. He held his knees closer, rocking. “No no no no no no.”

He flickered out for a moment. The orange chair was empty.

Panic would make it all harder for him. She spoke to the empty room, sensing he was not far. “I told you I wouldn’t lie to you. Now I’m telling you: I’ll help you on your way.”

He flickered back, hunched in the chair.

She set down the needle on the table. “Because this won’t help you now, honey. Not that it ever did.” she said it kindly, in the deathbed voice she used in the four in the morning hour at the hospital. The hour when so many died. Some people wanted family there beside them. Others waited until they all left for the day and then died in the kind quiet kept by a stranger. Someone between here and there, Andee would say.

He put his face down on his arms. “Fuck,” he mumbled, the sound of nothing left.

She looked at him sadly. A small, slumped figure, still a kid.

A wave of enormous loneliness welled up in her chest and climbed her throat. She had felt the terrible loneliness of the new dead many times, but this wasn’t the usual shock, the awful isolation of dying. This was something else, a deep hole of loneliness that was old, something long like a well, long and dark and deep. It was where this kid had lived for years. She’d never known anything like it. She had always had Andee and Bean and their cats and dogs and her aunts and uncles and cousins and her friends and then her later her girlfriends who knew her as much as she would let them. This hunched figure across from her had known nothing like it.

He flickered out again. Of course he did; it was all too much. She needed to help him calm down. “Listen, you are not alone anymore. I’m here. Do you hear me? I’m here with you.”

He flickered back into the chair. At least he’s tethered here now, she thought, no longer what Andee called “ghost noise”—a storm of wild feelings on the loose that bled into the dreams and days of the living.

He was very still. She could feel him listening.

“But this is why you missed Bean. It’s why you never could get to Antoine, even when you made it to the door. They couldn’t see you or hear you. And then you’d black out again.”

She paused, slowing the next part so he would take it in. “This is how it is at first. For most of us.”

She waited, testing the silence. “When we die.”

“But, I—” his voice broke. He looked down at his hands. His eyes followed the pits and scars there up to the mess of his arms. She was flooded with sorrow, then a stream of memories, not her own: spoon over flame, cold sidewalk rough against skin, a red-faced man’s thick whisper, “You little shit.”

“Hey,” she said, and she almost used his name, but she knew it would not help now, knew it would only hold him back. She said softly, “Hey. You know, it’s OK, now. It’s OK. You haven’t wanted to be where you are for a long time, have you?”

She felt her words connect, let them sink in for a while.

“You get to go now, honey.”

She could feel the death fear in him rising like wildfire.

“Yeah, it’s scary, sure is — no, look at me. Listen. You know how to go. More than most. You’ve done it for years now, riding the rush of this stuff. It’s crude, but it’s close. Just has a bad sticky twist in it that takes folks the wrong way.”

She feels his rising fear subsiding. He nodded like he thought what she said was fair.

“So you need a different kind of kick first, a different kind of sweet.”

He was listening but looked lost. She looked at him with narrowed, thoughtful eyes, Andee’s eyes, people said, though she and everyone knew that Andee’s eyes were merrier that her somber ones.

She said, “Look, we need to find something to help light the way, smooth the ride. It will be rough for you in the between time. The wind will be wild, hard as the hurricane you’ve been sometimes.”

He looked down at floor. Always sorry, this one, she thought.

“But you’re more than that, you know? You’re more than the storms and more than the sorry. Listen—remember a time when things were OK. Find it. Now.”

She could feel her tone, those words striking home.

He sat silently for a moment. She watched his face soften more, start become something calmer, something new.

“What you got?” she said.

“My sister. When she was a baby. She’d fall asleep on my chest.”

She saw what he was seeing, felt how it was to hold his baby sister, how she could only sleep if she was held close, how he’d sit on the old leather couch, sunk in its cushions, and how she slept on his chest, warm in her onesie, smelling of milk and baby sweat, a little ember over his spirit heart, his chest full of her sweetness, and how he’d never felt anything like it. So simple. Love that didn’t want anything. Just was.

He sat quiet a while, his hands clasped together between his knees.

Then he started, shifted his weight uncomfortably, suddenly blank-faced again. “She’s eight now. I don’t see her. I don’t know if she’s OK.”

“Keep the good; leave the rest—stay with that baby sister time. How it felt then.”

He nodded. Pressed his hands to the center of his chest. He nodded and nodded, lips pressed together, eyes shining with tears.

“Ah, honey,” she sighed. “It’s hard to leave.”

The tears were spilling from his eyes and for the first time he looked warm and alive.

“And it’s alright to cry.”

He nodded and smiled a small smile of thanks, hands still pressed to his sternum, tears streaming, nodding and smiling that small sad smile. A smile that made her cry too, and they sat for a while like that together, crying, half-smiling.

He was so different now, like ground softened by rain. She shifted her attention outside and felt the wind from the west. She stood up. “A storm’s coming. Let’s go meet the rain.”

He didn’t move, just stared at her, and she felt his life start to fall away from him, felt it in her stomach, a tumble of fear and adventure, felt it in her legs almost giving way, her feet stumbling like after a first kiss.

“Come on, honey. I’ll help you do this. I’d hold your hand, but I can’t.”

He followed her to the back porch. He was moving slowly, as if underwater, but finally alive, eyes wide, as if seeing everything for the first time.

They stood in the dark, at the start of a storm, the winds blowing in, oak leaves seething like the sound of a rough sea. “With wind and with earth,” she whispered, now loud enough for him to hear.

She said, “ I won’t lie; the wind will be wild. But it doesn’t have to scare you. You know it already—it’s in you too. Just mix that baby-sister love with the wind. It’s the best part of this life for you.”

She wished she could hold his hand the way she did on the ward when folks were scared or sad as they were dying. But he was and wasn’t there, something like a memory remembering itself. And now more like a dream that would soon be a different dream.

And he was changing, this kid. His eyes were closed, but so different than when she first saw him under the streetlight. He looked undefended now. And unharmed.

They leaned on the porch rail, listened to the wind in the leaves. She watched the oaks start to surge in the winds ahead of the storm.

“I love those old oaks,” she said. “Changing all the time, like we do. Even if we don’t see it.”

She turned to look at him, at his young face tilted up to feel the wind and first drops of rain.

“Like we change every night. Every night living out other lives in our dreams.”

She paused, watched him feeling him feel her words along with the rain.

“That’s what it will be like.”

He turned his head and met her eyes and did not look away. Almost ready now.

They turned back to watch the clouds moving. Storm clouds gathering and tattering, dark grey and light grey and white in the city light, moonlight, deep night sky.

“You could go like the clouds.”

She paused again, watching them change and pass.

“Did you know that there are rivers in the sky?”

He smiled, his first real smile, and she saw how he might have been at eight or at eighteen.

“Or you could mingle with the wind.”

His eyes were closed in that soft new way, and his face was open to the sky.

“And with space,” she said, loud now, so he could hear it, know it as his bones.

And they listened for a while to the waves of leaves like an ocean in the oaks.

And then, as Andee had said to her so many times as they weeded the garden or walked through the shopping mall or sat on the porch in the rain, “Listen with every pore.”

The wind picked up, warm currents mixing with currents cooled by the rain.

“Let it all in.”

She watched him breathe in the wind, rich with leaf rot and rain-wet trees, with hot sidewalk and new mud mixed with the electric storm sky.

“Now, honey, let go—”

—and he was gone.

She stood there for a while, watched the river of clouds in the black sky, watching how slow and how fast and how completely they changed.

“There was a boy,” she said to the wind.

Turned back to the house, towards sleep and dreams.

And what will he be next? said Andee from the orange chair.