BENEATH THE SICKLE

The thoughts that dominated his mental landscape as he sat out on the football field’s empty lawn at night with the moon above nothing but a sickle and the early Fall breeze nipping at his sweatered self was one of those nameless, shapeless thoughts, the ones that lose all meaning precisely when you begin to describe them.

But he was out on the lawn at midnight, and very thoroughly alone, and he believed he had some time, so he decided he’d name the nameless and give shape to the shapeless.

If he had to give it a shot, he’d begin by classifying it as a thought that entered into The Nostalgic Zone. It was a sweet sorrow, an innocent remembrance tainted by intervening years and perspective. It felt like missing a time that was never yours, remembering good old days that happened years before you were born.

But that wasn’t right either, so he started over. He had time before the arrival, if there would be an arrival at all.

Maybe he wouldn’t have to describe it. Maybe remembering the reason why he was here at all, sitting in this empty football field at midnight on Halloween would classify the thought for him.

As dear as that first memory was to him now, it remained incomplete; frayed at the edges. Her costume was a blank, and so was his. He could only remember the way her face glowed in the night, the way the lamppost light caught her Halloween-shadowed eyes and seemed to stop him in his place every time their eyes met.

How he took her around the old block, showed her the houses you could count on for a good haul, the ones that were prime egging targets for a very different type of trick-or-treater.

How they feasted on sugar and laughed at the moon, the years ahead of them indistinct and so not real, not any more a marker of who they were than the costumes they were wearing.

They made a pact then on that first Halloween, as they sat there beside each other on the ample field, the lights that were usually blinding on gamedays now off, and so looking like mechanical husks of towering monsters that once were. The moon was a sliver on the night that they made the pact.

It was a simple pact, the kind that only the innocent and youthful can make, a promise so seemingly simple and yet so hard to keep. Every Halloween, at midnight, they’d meet right here at this spot. It didn’t matter how old they were or where life had taken them, the pact was binding and final.

And for a few years, that’s exactly what it was. They’d meet right at midfield, their pasts and futures equidistant as they’d sit, and chat, and share candy, and after a few years had passed and pubescence took its toll–kiss.

Junior high came and went, and still they had Halloween night. Districts had them in different high schools and friends kept them busy, but they had their night, and their sliver of a moon, and their nocturnal time kept bubbled and safe from the effects of ordinary passage.

The apology was enough the first time he missed it. Campus was far away from the old hometown, and not just spatially. He’d make it next time for sure and make it up to her.

The year that followed was swift and brutal, without the amniotic bubble of their time together beneath the sickle to give any sense of what had come before and what was yet to be.

In a matter of seconds he’d graduated. Five minutes past that and he was out on the coast, struggling and searching and rarely finding. Ten minutes beyond and he was on the other coast, with no equidistant place to keep it all together. A half hour later and he was on the flight back Home, knowing that if he didn’t find her beneath the sickle now, he never would.

And so here he was, the past as hazy and indistinct as the future once was, checking the hands of the Timex he wore Back Then, a token of a past time where not knowing where to go was exciting and not suffocating.

He didn’t have to figure out the thought that took up so much of his mental landscape then, or didn’t want to. Maybe both. Those hazy remembrances told him more than a nameless, shapeless thought ever could.

He took in the air and the moon, the hulking mechanical wrecks and the distant endzones before and behind. He took one last breath and got up. Turned to where he’d come from.

Way out in the shadow of the night, beneath the sickle of a moon was a shape. A glimmering shape even in all that night, a shape that the years couldn’t hide from him even if they tried. And as the shape approached and the sickle’s glow gave it form, all thoughts of labeling it vanished. He saw, and he knew.

They walked out to midfield together in silence. Took their time with each step, decompressed before they’d come up and out of all the intervening years and reach air. They had no costumes on, but it was still their night. Their time. They sat down in the grass and looked at each other then, both of them captured still and weightless there beneath the sickle.

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THE INVISIBLE ONES

He wasn’t walking to work so much as marching, his polished-smooth black loafers clicking and resounding noisily against chewing-gum-laden pavement. He had his briefcase, and his tie, and his shirt pressed crisp till it looked like it might crack at the seams.

He felt important.

The train ride over had been slightly unusual–his Brahms-blasting headphones had stopped him from hearing anyone on board, but he was sure he didn’t see anyone either. And he was especially sure that the conductor never came by to check his ticket.

But no matter.

His mind was set on the tasks for the day. As usual, his day would consist largely of ensuring profits for his employers. And yes, said profits were ensured through foreclosing on honest, hard-working people, but the ethics involved weren’t for him to mull over. And after all, the orders were coming from above.

The train was one thing–he’d on occasion seen a car or two barren, had trips that were conductor-less, but the streets were another thing entirely.

There was no one walking anywhere. At all. Not a soul on the sidewalk, not even a pitiful-looking vagrant standing by the street corner.

But again, a logical explanation could readily be found, he was sure. Perhaps today happened to be some obscure holiday he’d never heard of, a holiday that even the hobos observed.

And so he walked on, still with his Brahms providing an amniotic lull from the outside world he was forced to pass through.

The confusion began to set in when he arrived at the office, confusion thick as a fog that billowed in from nowhere when there was no receptionist to greet him, no shoeshiner to polish his ever-dulling loafers. The situation was dire enough that the Brahms had to come out.

But it was all in his head after all. There was the familiar clicking on keyboards, the other important voices on important calls with important clients. It was fine.

But still, he saw no one ambling about the office with their equally-polished loafers and their ties and their shirts pressed so crisp they seemed like they might crack at the seams.

And so he got up. His polished-smooth black loafers clicked and resounded noisily through the office as he searched for signs of life.

It seemed like–but no, surely that was a foolish idea. But if he were indulging in thoughts that verged on foolish, he’d have to admit that there was no one in the office–at least no one visible. He could hear hands on keyboards and important voices chatting away, but he saw no one.

Maybe if he went back outside and checked–but no, that would be silly. Besides, he was sure to see someone soon enough.

But as the hours passed and still he saw no one, curiosity got the better of him. He marched back outside and scanned once more for signs of life.

Now, in the Brahms-less outside world, the full reality of his situation hit him with the force of Beethoven’s Ninth. There were conversations, deafening out here in the city, and lesser shoes walking, and cars honking, but no people. Not a soul in sight.

Voices all around him, harsh and cacophonous, laughing and tittering too. If he didn’t know any better, he’d say it was a taunting laughter.

But there–a car! He raced to the street’s edge, loafers clicking noisily, and what he saw sent him over the edge of reality.

There was no one driving the car. It accelerated and decelerated just fine, turned even, but there was no one behind the wheel.

Another car, also driver-less, passed by. And then another. And another.

His breath came in stuttered gasps, hollow and unable to satisfy his lungs’ demands. That was when he called out:

“Is anyone there?”

More laughter. Damning laughter.

“I can’t see you! I can’t see anyone!”

Deafening staccatos all around. Coming from everywhere.

“Please help me. I just need…”

And he was on the ground then, up against a wall. His loafers’ tips were frayed, ripped. And there was something in his hands. Something he was proffering to the people who were not there.

“I just need…”

He didn’t want to look at the something in his hands. Couldn’t bear to.

“I just need…”

He forced his eyes to look. To see. They made purchase with a faded and torn document. He looked closer. It was a notice of foreclosure.

Of his foreclosure.

“I just need… a little change.”

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PAST THE HURT

He almost had a heart attack after his first post-hurt run, or at least that’s what it had felt very clearly like. He hadn’t had a heart attack before for comparison, but he’d heard about the symptoms and they all matched up.

I say post-hurt because that’s what he called it, as in after the hurt. We all have a hurt inside, nothing special about it really, but his particular hurt had to do with not reconciling with his emotionally abusive mother before she died. He can talk about it frankly now, because he’s in the post-hurt. But it wasn’t always that way.

No, for years it was terrible. Even for an optimist like him, terrible was the most apt way of describing it. She gave him a deep hurt every day, in the form of insults both spoken and yelled. She gave him the hurt because she hadn’t dealt with her own hurt inside. It’s funny how it works that way.

He ate. Constantly. Consumed fast food like it was his job, to the point where drive-thru workers knew him by name and smell. Took his once in-shape, football-playing body and expanded it, let it grow and grow until the hurt seemed like it would burst him from the inside.

When he wasn’t eating he was on the computer. She could still send the hurt his way then, as always, but he had his own world inside that laptop screen. A world where his body was the same as it always had been, and the hurt didn’t take up so much of his mental real estate.

He stopped weighing himself after a couple months. Reading the number the scale told him just added to the hurt. So he remembered the number it used to tell him before the hurt and pretended that that’s where it would stay.

Her mind went after the house did. Great piles of trash and personal effects lined the hallways, a veritable mountain range of detritus. He lost a few pounds just in trying to clean it alone, but she’d give him more hurt when he tried, so he left it alone.

Soon the doctor’s visits were real, and not just hypochondriac outbursts. There were weird words that added to the hurt then, words like glioblastoma and terminal.

He couldn’t say a word to her the last time they saw each other. He’d wanted to, but the hurt stopped him. So he just looked at her face as she looked at his.

There passed silent months then, months of frustrated quiet and unbearable solitude.

But then he met her. It was just one of those things, you know. She saw his hurt right away and didn’t run from it. She’d seen it before in myriad ways, countless times and people and places.

So he ran. And his heart threatened to attack, and he took it easy for a while. But he ran. And as he did, the hurt took a breath. It left him to it.

So he ran again. And again. Ran through his chest’s tightness, kept going even when he was sure his legs would collapse under the weight. The sheets of sweat were liquid hurt, left there momentarily on his skin to be carried away by the wind.

He went a week without fast food. Then two. Then a month. Started craving apples over Big Macs, started reading again like he used to, too. The hurt was still there, but it was tiny. Shriveling more and more by the day.

Soon he could jump rope again. Soon he could sleep the whole night, without apnea to wake him. Soon she could almost touch fingertips together when she wrapped her arms around him.

He set a deadline for the hurt’s final destruction: his first half marathon. The hurt whispered persistently in his ear and planted its doubt, but he weeded his garden regularly with runs.

There came a day when he wanted to hear what the scale had to say again. And when he listened, he hardly believed what he heard. It told him the number in his mind, the one he held onto for all that time.

The hurt destroyer came. Weeds sprung up everywhere in his garden as he ran and ran and ran, prickly, thorny weeds that refused to be plucked from the dirt so easily. He didn’t know where the strength came from, but I do. It came from the hurt. Because if you hold onto that much hurt for that long, it’ll either end up killing you or saving you.

A mile passed, then another. Lactic acid soaked his muscles, weeds strangled his brain. But he put one foot down, then the other. One foot down, then the other.

In the end, the hurt didn’t have a chance. It was outrun. It just couldn’t keep up. He saw it there at the finish, at the line that had marked the beginning not too long ago.

It was faded and torn, catching on the wind in spots. And when a stiff breeze finally came, it was blown away with ease.

So he doesn’t shy from talking about it now. Why should he? It’s just a memory, just a dream of an old life lived long ago. A time before he’d gotten past the hurt.

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SEEN AND BELIEVED

Down the roads that are more pothole than street, past the boarded-up windows and the year-old for sale signs and the gravel swept neatly from faded old welcome mats, there are memories that come only with the arrival of their bearer.

These are sights that stop existing when they leave the field of vision, places that fill up the heart but not the mind. They need to be seen to be believed.

He came bearing a bike he would’ve stolen as a child, eyeing suspicion that he’d scoff at back in the day. You could have told past-him this, but he wouldn’t have listened. His present self, too, needed to be seen to be believed.

There was the wreck of a rec area, more weed and mud than grass and dirt. There were the monkey bars he chipped his teeth on, the playground where he got in his first fistfight.

Eyes followed as he rode past–hungry eyes, but eyes that knew they couldn’t push too hard. This was obviously someone who didn’t come here often. They had no idea.

Here was the block he once rode around with no hands, with nothing but his ass to steer the circles. Here was the net-less hoop he used to play on, that same corner of backboard that had torn off years ago after an aborted alley oop attempt.

His work’s khakis were getting frayed and wet from the loose gravel that shot up from the bike’s chain, but he didn’t mind. Here was the old block. Here were the memories.

Here was the lake he fell into after misjudging the thickness of the ice. Here was the alley he’d found the used condom in, the one he’d thought was a strange, wet balloon.

The creek that always died out before reaching the lake, and the pipe it fed into, the one he got stuck in and had to holler for help to escape from during a game of hide and seek.

And there was the old neighbor, his eyes not used to seeing this young man in khakis and dress shirt, and so not seeing the boy he used to know. The boy in torn-up jeans and hand-me-down shirts.

Here was the park where he’d first kissed her, when he’d thanked the moonless sky for covering up his blush. There’s the forest preserve where they walked and talked for hours, where he first told her he loved her.

His throat was dry and hands shaking on the handlebars, but there were some things that needed to be seen to be believed. And until he saw her, he couldn’t leave. Not now and not ever.

There was the doorstep where he’d cried for as many hours as they’d talked all those years prior, where he said someone else could take the scholarship, that he didn’t need it, and she’d insisted he couldn’t pass this up.

There’s the bus stop where he said goodbye with a “see you later,” knowing at the time that he was likely lying. But he’d make good on it now. He had to.

There was her old apartment, the numbers still nearly falling off and name still spelled wrong. He got off his bike and set it down where they’d first looked up at the stars together. He didn’t bother locking it.

To the door she’d pushed him up against all those times with rough kisses and the delicate ones to soften the blow, too.

He knocked. And he watched. And he waited. And he turned around to the bike with his khakis and his dress shirt. And he took a step toward it.

But the door’s creak stopped him. And he turned. And he saw her.

Some things need to be seen to be believed.

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