Today tastes like dry champagne, day old caviar, and melba toast.
The year has come round again, I see . . . how many times does that make since I came here? I don’t recall; one looks very much like the next from where I sit.
It was a February, I remember that much. February, the armpit of the year, when Christmas is a gaudily lit memory, the new of New Year’s has worn off, and spring is just a daydream of longer days and balmy temperatures. It’s grey and cold and wet. You get up in the dark, go to work in the dark, and come home in the dark, especially at my job.
I’d gotten locked down again, stuck on doing one more thing, and then just one more thing, and then one more little task. The good part of being obsessive-compulsive is you get a lot done. The bad part of being obsessive-compulsive is, well, you get a lot done. Often at the expense of any number of other things.
The janitor startled me as he came in—was it already eight o’clock? Good thing no one was home to miss me but the cats. I backed up to the laptop (might as well crank out an hour at home), turned off the coffeepot, and gathered my stuff to leave. I got in the car, and checked the gas gauge out of habit. Habit, because it’s been on the fritz for the last several weeks. I have a sticky note to have that checked the next time I take it to the garage for its oil change taped to the steering wheel. Enough gas to get home? I thought so. I’d chance it.
I might have made it, but traffic was ghastly bad—drive thirty feet, stop. Wait. Drive thirty feet, stop. Wait longer. I decided to turn off the main street and cut through a residential neighborhood; not as risky as it sounds. This city is laid out on a big grid, so you can get just about everywhere from anywhere. It may take you a while, and a side trip or two, but you’ll get there.
So there I was, in dark enough to be midnight, driving through a series of blocks that the historic society hadn’t yet adopted. Ranch homes from the twenties and thirties, not yet restored, gently decaying with wide deep porches and Arizona rooms from back in the day before air conditioners. Handyman’s specials now, for sure, but in a handful of years they’d sell for as much as a McMansion in the trendy parts of town. Once they get discovered, that is. Right now, the inhabitants are the ghosts in straw boaters and white suits with carnations in their lapels, and shambling ogres with dreadlocked beards and broken fingernails pushing shopping carts.
If I read this in a book, or saw it in a movie, my suspension of disbelief would hit the floor and leave a mark, but sometimes life imitates art. Yup. The car sputtered, stalled, and then shut down, and I watched as the gas gauge needle slowly trickled to “E” and then a hair beyond. I said some words my mother doesn’t know I know.
I got out of the car, slamming the door behind me. Fortunately, I have AAA for events just like this. It would only be a block or three to the next intersection, and then a couple more to a convenience store with a pay phone. That’s what I told myself, trying not to think of the old jokes about why there are no crocodiles in this river (the piranhas scared them all off, ho-ho.) No junkies in this neighborhood, the gangs are fiercely territorial. I took a deep breath, and started walking down the sidewalk, where one light in three still worked, and the shadows lay in pools.
That’s probably why I didn’t see where the pavement humped up, thrust into the air by a tree root, or even just buckled from age. I caught it squarely with my toe, and for a gut-dropping moment, I flew.
I buttered the sidewalk with skin from my palms, and utterly destroyed the hose I was wearing (a new pair, too!) And just as the physics of bread demand that it fall jelly side down, the aerodynamics of purses command that they fall open side out, launching your whole life in a splendid arc. Can’t get anything to fall out when you’re hunting so you can spread the mass thin and paw through it for your lipstick, but drop a purse and generate fallout for square yards.
I got up from my amazing four-point landing, and then I heard it. Some wiseass in the house in front of me had seen my feat of gymnastic grace, and was applauding.
I called him names under my breath as I gathered my stuff back into my bag. Lipstick, pepper spray, hairbrush, paperback, keys. Keys? No keys. They were shiny, they should have been easy to spot, even in the deep shadows. I looked through the chain link fence, and there they were; on the wrong side of the wires. It figured.
I stood up, and brushed myself off. “Excuse me? Sir?” No reply, just the slow sardonic clapping tapering off now. “My keys are in your yard. Is it ok if I come get them back?” The porch light wasn’t on, nor were the lights in the house. Saving electricity? Or squatting?
Since he didn’t say no, I figured that must be a yes, so I opened the gate, fumbling awkwardly at the latch on the inside, right at shoulder height, and let myself in. But when I reached down, my keys weren’t there. I fumbled at the ground for several seconds, patting and poking the dust, but no dice. Then I heard them jingle from up on the porch.
Enough was enough. I put on my biggest attitude, and swarmed up the steps to deal with this jerk. But as soon as I reached the top, I was struck by how warm it was there.
It was summer. I could smell the green smell after the monsoons wash through, could faintly hear the bells of the ice cream carts that wheel through neighborhoods like these, begging pennies and quarters from sticky fists. I took a step back.
“What’s your hurry?” a voice asked from the depths of an old couch. “Stay a while.” It was thick, phlegmatic, coarse. “Have a Co’Cola.” The porch swing at the end creaked, as if someone had shifted position.
“Yes,” agreed a thin, reedy tone from that direction. “Tell us a story.” I knew this voice, I thought. I knew both of them. I felt smaller when I heard them, smaller and less certain, somehow. Plastic hinges squealed as the lid to the cooler was flipped open.
I looked inside, and for a moment, the shapes inside were large, and round. Bowling ball size . . . but bowling balls don’t have hair. Heads, I though. Heads in the cooler, and familiar voices. Voices that sounded right in the dark, voices that made me feel small.
The one on the couch reached into the cooler, plucked something out, and offered it to me, pushing it into my numbed hand. A coke. In a glass bottle, green and cold, an emerald of winter on a summer’s day.
“They haven’t had these since I was . . .”
“A kid,” he croaked for me. “The last time you heard our voices. Remember that night?”
I did. My knees buckled, and I sank down into the old cane-bottomed rocking chair. I had been seven when the night terrors that plagued me finally ended. They said I grew out of them. I learned to tell stories about them, weave them into webs to be walked through in the light, and shut away between covers. And now they were back.
I dropped my drink and ran down the steps that melted into the Escher painting that had hung over my bed, the last thing I saw every night. I had run from them, Croaker and Reed, every night for months, and every capering horror was just a mask for these two. Down the stairs and down the stairs and down the stairs, winded and blowing, and when I stopped I was still at the top, with the rocker swinging softly behind me, runners cutting bloody gouges in the cement of the porch. I sat back down.
I’m glad I packed the laptop when I left the office. I’m glad I had it with me, and set up this blog. You found your way here; you can find your way to the gate, and open it for me. Because, you see, I am seven again. And the latch is too high for me.