An unconventional, beatnik, and cynical story that I wrote while staring at sidewalks.
|We had seen them all. The blue jean babies, the Vonneguts, the Marlon Brandos, the mercenaries. The pigtails and the unfiltered Pall Malls. They lived out their hidden lives in the shadows of industry, dancing in circles beneath the precipices of those steel-spirited mountains. We had sang their songs and eaten at their tables and listened to their stories. We drank their wines and knew exactly what to expect of them. We knew that when we left, they would continue dancing in the hills while life revolved around them in sweet solemnity. It was James’ idea to leave. We would pack only what was absolutely necessary. A few cans of peaches, the last sticks of opium incense. Underwear. The skipping Cat Stevens CD and the crocodile lighter. Our sacks feeling remarkably light, we skipped like two rosy-cheeked schoolchildren, out to 34th and 11th, and stuck out our thumbs.
Three days later, we were wishing our tenth benefactor adieu outside a small town in New England. It was one of those days during which all you wanted to do was feel the grass beneath your body as you lay still on the earth, eyes closed, experiencing only the touch of each individual blade of grass on your skin. It was that time when you wanted the world to stop so you could search the clouds for rabbits and Eiffel Towers, and then run around barefoot without worrying about stepping on glass. It was one of those days. We decided to catch that day, to harness it and put it to use for our own growing expectations. Slurping the last of the peaches, we walked into the little town. James had lit a cigarette and was waving it around, so reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn that I had to warn him of the waning of his manhood. He quickly extinguished it. We passed rows and rows of houses, sculptured from the same mold, with the same plastic flamingos in the front lawn. James and I grimaced as the memories of our own flamingo childhoods came flooding back. Me, climbing over the fence into James’ backyard to escape the war that was raging in my own home, only to hold his hand as he kept his ear plastered to the door of his parents’ bedroom. It was the same linoleum floor, the same floral wallpaper and narrow hallways. After his parents divorced and mine died during our college years, we left that existence, only to return to it, now, after ten years.
We passed the homes and entered the plush watering hole of the town. Eyes peered out from behind Starbucks cups to scrutinize us as we walked, aliens in this place that was so far in our past it had but been erased. Living in the city, we had reconditioned ourselves from the lethargic innocence of the small town to the new, fast-paced idiosyncrasies of the crowded streets and city life. We could see the reflection of our scaly green antennae in the eyes of the watchers, introducing us again as the “strangers” who had infiltrated their close-knit community bubble. He and I looked at each other, smiling nervously, and continued down the ivory sidewalk past the boutiques, the salons, and the antique stores. What really struck us was the maze of sidewalks and paths that covered the center of the town in such a fashion that there was almost no way to avoid them. The cement spilled over the ground like milk; they covered every possible option a person could take. There were three ways to walk to the post office from Mama B’s Beauty Salon. The town square was so white that it hit you like a blaze in the eye, blinding and startling. We stood outside Starbucks and watched the activity, the frenzied bustling, the sidewalks taking the shoppers wherever they needed to go. There was no jaywalking, no side-stepping, no cutting corners. James began giggling, a quiet, childish chuckle which soon turned into a red-cheeked outburst. I, not comprehending the cause of this sudden fit of laughter, stood awkwardly in the middle of the street and patted James on the back. He finished with his episode and lit another cigarette. “I just don’t know.” I asked what he meant and he shrugged it off, still gazing interestingly around the town. Suddenly, he grabbed me by the arm and started dancing. We twirled and twirled, there in the middle of the town square, until the green, black, and white melted around us and we were melting into a Pollock world. James let go, abruptly, and we went flying into our separate directions; him, ramming into a telephone pole, and me, colliding into a fellow our age, carrying a violin case. I apologized for my rudeness, and he laughed, saying that he understood. Neil was one of those clean-shaven brothers, always with matching shoes and married to his music. He inquired about our story and we told him we were out shopping. “Shopping?” he asked, and James replied, “we aren’t sure what we’re looking for yet.” “Don’t I know the feeling,” Neil replied, and told us about the trip he took to the south a few years ago, looking for a little fame and a little love. He found both, but ended up returning to live with his mother, who was ill. “I’ll go back there one day,” he told us, dreamily. “Where are you staying?” We told him we were unsure, that we would look around for a youth hostel. “Oh, there’s not a youth hostel around here for another hour.” He invited us to stay with him; his mother was a sweet lady who would bake us cookies, and he would enjoy the company. We thanked him profusely and followed him to a modest house a few blocks from the center of the town, the door garnished with tulips and roses. After meeting his mother, a loving, god-fearing woman, and setting up on the couches in the basement, we asked Neil about the town. “It’s an acquired taste,” he replied, picking up his violin. “Needs a little excitement, now and then.” He apologized for having to leave us then, for he had rehearsal on the other side of town. Sauntering back to the town square, we bought tea and reacquainted ourselves with small town life, walking in and out of stores and becoming accustomed to the lack of skyscrapers. Out of the blue, James handed me his tea and walked to the little park across the street with its square trees flanking the landscape of white sidewalks. He strolled pensively along the walks, seemingly enjoying the weather and the calm of the bustling hamlet. Coming to a spot beneath an ancient tree that blocked the sign of an antique shop, he serenely placed his sack on the ground and sat in the middle of the sidewalk. So he remained for the next three hours, sometimes looking calmly about him or sitting with a smile on his face and his eyes closed. I remained in front of a salon, observing his meditative state, intrigued by the incredulous stares of the passers-by as they walked around him as best they could. He sat there, with his pensive smile, taking great pleasure in the gradual increase of commotion which he had stirred. Couples would turn around and whisper madly about this strange hooligan, blocking their passage. Children would giggle as they passed, pointing fingers at the skuzzy fellow who, with his mismatched socks and greasy hair, was causing such a disturbance. Two little boys sat down in front of him once, after which the three commenced to play clapping games and laugh hysterically at James’ jokes. The time dragged on. I had bought three more cups of tea and an Eccles record. The sun was beginning to set, and I could feel the first whispers of exhaustion. James continued to sit on the sidewalk with the same tranquil expression on his face. People would come up to speak with him, no doubt ask him why he was obstructing their path, and he would not answer except to say “join me.” No one did. I returned to Neil’s house for the night, and explained James’s mission to the puzzled violinist. “But what is he trying to prove?” asked Neil. “I don’t know,” I said, yawning. “I think he’s just trying to have some fun.” The next morning, I arrived at the sight to see a policeman speaking sternly to James, his hands on his hips. I came to stand next to James and listened to the policeman’s warning for him to move, that he was creating a disturbance and complaints were being made against him. “Is it not my right to sit where I want in a public place?” James asked. The policeman informed him that it was his duty to uphold the town law of disturbance and public decency, and James’s duty to obey them. “I’ll give you one hour,” said the policeman, and trudged away, grumbling. One hour later, James had not moved, no matter how many times I had tried to convince him that his fun was not worth a night in jail. He said nothing, but stared straight ahead. One hour later, the policeman came over and took James by the arm, forcing him to stand and walking him out of the park. People who were out that day stood around and watched the strange processional of the policeman and the stranger walking away from the sight of the odd vigil. I stood around, knowing not what to do or say, except follow the two to the police station, where James was quickly released on a fifty dollar bail, which I grudgingly fished out of my pocket. “So…explain,” I told James as we walked out of the station, a considerable distance between me and his putrid stench. “I don’t know, it felt like something I had to do. Something out of the ordinary.” We walked back in the direction of Neil’s house and passed the tree and the antique shop on the way. There sat one of the boys with whom James had played clapping games with the night before, playing with a toy ship in exactly the same place where James had just left his mark. Next to him stood the second boy, as if contemplating whether to join his friend, only to be pushed along by his mother’s disapproving glance in front of him. We watched silently across the street from the antique shop, and when Neil came up behind us and asked what we were doing, we thanked him for his hospitality, returned to his home, and retrieved our things. With our sacks on our backs once more, holding the paper bag of Neil’s mother’s warm cookies, we walked out to the edge of the town for the last time and stuck out our thumbs.