-by Griffin Cooper
If I don’t bend my knee, I’ll have to break it soon in order to pull myself away from the bar. The scuffed laminate of the wooden stool audibly winces as I attempt to nudge myself off by dragging my boots along the bar’s faded burgundy side. This might be some trouble, if I yack now I’m done for, but it’s hard to fight it when I can feel the bottom of my boots sticking to the metal step beneath me covered in spilled liquor and some sort of coagulated cheese sauce. I manage to shuffle both legs down and onto the bar floor, no jelly legs yet. Though I’ve achieved the kind of buzz that makes you feel fuzzy I know it will fade by the time I reach our block, it always does.
I stumble a bit, “Shit or get off the pot as they say!”
I attempt to shrug off the incoherent soup of laughter I hear through the swollen back of my head by waving my hand behind me at them. The beer soaked round tables in front of me are positioned perfectly for drunks like myself to stone hop our way to the front door. As I push the smudged glass of the door with my fist I can feel the vacuum of cold air pulling me out onto the street. I know if I turn around, the neon bar behind me will begin to spin and I’ll be done for again so I step out into the wind and its icy crystals instantly assault my face to the point of tears. The headlights of a cab approach and I briefly weigh my options, the added time it will take to travel on foot to our house outweighs the risk of losing my perfect buzz, I’ll walk.
The wind is on my side at least, the cold chill blows against the sails of my coat as if to save me some time before going home, pushing against me, penetrating my jeans and boots and stifling my energy. Cold weather like this is great when you’re drunk, you don’t even feel it, though I suppose I haven’t felt anything for awhile. The buzz of the late night traffic on the avenue completely ignores those like myself walking on the street, my boots click along the pavement and I can hear voices coming from the apartments above the avenue traffic having familiar conversations though they sound muffled to my frozen ears. My head pulsates with each step as if I were a wasted android of some sort and all of my movements are electronically dependent on each other -or maybe an alcoholic robot?- or something like that I don’t know, it doesn’t matter because I am outside in the freedom of the open night air for a moment before I inevitably reach the reflective green sign designating the street where we live.
The sign itself sits stoically on the corner, jutting out of the pavement, covered with the icy crystals that have been slapping my face. Though the collar of dead leaves curling around the bottom of it has long been defeated by the winter snow, the damned sign remains steadfast against the night’s wind. My winter friend has done its best to help me-I knew nature was on my side at least- smashing its blustery snow onto that obnoxious neon green and blotting out the words like specs of cottage cheese so that only “-ington Ave.” are visible. I brace myself on the aluminum neck, sighing heavily, still fighting back the urge to hurl my guts all over the pavement. Every time a car passes it lights the sign to life and its reflection rattles around looking for a partner, finally finding the chain link fence that runs parallel to the street and igniting it with metal flashes. I squint my eyes as I turn my head from the ground to the street where my maker waits for me, and then back again. The two story colonial where hopes and dreams sit idle and the passionate discourse of my fading and mundane youth wait for my arrival.
Jessica doesn’t let me sneak around anymore, she’s had enough trouble with me as it is. So last summer she had me install the devil of all things, a four hundred watt LED porch light that acts as though it is my fascist overseer. It follows me, like a haunted painting, and not those funny things you find at the dollar store, walk by, chuckle maybe, then forget about. It finds me on the corner of our block at night and then pursues me. Tonight is no different, I can feel its glare as I’m hunched over sucking in cold air beneath our street sign.
I grasp the icy aluminum neck with one hand and start slapping the jelly out of my knees with the other. Slapping out the jelly is a tactic I have seen my father employ in many situations such as this. As a young boy staring out the bay window of our family home doing something as innocent as watching snow fall. Imagine my naive surprise upon seeing something akin to a hairless great ape bowling down through the snow on a well-lit street slapping at its knees, ramming through snowbanks as if it had just escaped the zoo, astounded and confused by the world around it.
It works like a damn charm though, in terms of getting the blood going at least. I take one last heaving breath and stand straight up, meeting the overseer down the street eye to eye.
I shrug my shoulders with a grunt, “don’t care”, I say into the wind.
I shuffle my boots towards the house and down the street past where the chain link fence corners off at the snow. I will bide my time now, I can hold off my yack by not paying attention to it and so I scuff my boots along the pavement while I look up into the cold winter sky.
I like the sky better in the winter, its stark you know, in your face or something like that, it’s hard for me to ignore the sky in the winter. This kind of sky surrounds you this time of year, there is no beginning or end to it and the lack of people and their noise forces you to focus on the pokey canopy of lights above you. Anyway, I’m still walking there on the street towards our house, the sky surrounding me and all that, I’m doing all I can to get home really, but I come upon this oppressive yellow shape warbling in the wind back and forth. It’s a triangle type deal and it’s making this horrible tin foil type of sound every time the wind hits it. I come closer and on it, I can see some sort of childlike blocky stick figure leaping in glee with the words SLOW CHILDREN AT PLAY printed in the same terrible blockey fashion above and below it. These things make no sense to me, why are people so concerned about warning drivers about young children when they’re the ones leaping around like creeps to and fro…and doing so around busy streets no less!
I am silent for a moment thinking about this. It’s a fair question you know? and the sign is so damned yellow,
“You little asshole.” I say that out loud -Can you believe that?
My fingers are numb enough at this point that I don’t even feel the wind on them anymore so I instinctively reach down and grope them into one of the stale piles of snow that have been lining the street for months. I am meticulous for a moment while I pack my snowball, making sure to include the bits of dirty ice and asphalt before I fling it at the blockey child. A loud thwap! Rings out into the echo chamber night and a big lumpy white knuckle of snow remains clinging to the leaping weirdo . I am satisfied for the moment and I probably even laugh a bit, but trust me, I do realize that there isn’t much that’s funny anymore and soon my bottom lip curls up to my nose as I stand there. I am sad most days now.
It looks as though my father has yet to arrive, or maybe he had been there already and had decided to go home. It doesn’t bother me, I can’t stand the sight of his damned pick up anyway, that rusted rip just above the wheel well drives me nuts as much as it haunts me. Gnashing brown teeth hanging ragged over a black hole. If you look at these types of things long enough you’ll know what I’m talking about. He will never fix it, he never does. I’ve cut my thigh on that bastard twice, two tetanus shots.
Jessica’s parents are there though no doubt about it, I can see their massive Mercedes SUV beached on my sidewalk, glinting in the porch light. The beam of light may penetrate the night around me and reveal my cowardice but it protects the nightly activity occurring behind our wood paneled windows. The shadows behind the windows move in the way they always do, as if they were operating on predetermined tracks that carry them from the living room to the kitchen and back again.
Listen, I am aware that my behavior isn’t considered normal, especially on this street. Wandering around in the dark instead of parading mindlessly home after work every night, but my career keeps them ignorant enough, my late night arrivals never upset their routines.
My solitude is normal.
Anyway, it’s time for me to make my break for the garage, or at least the dark alley that sits between the garage and the sidewalk. So -on my haunches now- I prepare to outrun that snitch of a porch light. The crappy dirt they throw on these roads in the winter to prevent any Children-at-Play killings makes it impossible for me to gain any traction and even more difficult for me to make my awkward scramble toward the blind side of my house. I think briefly about some kid somewhere inside one of the houses on our street, staring out his window at me thinking “what the hell” and all that before I slip. I immediately slide into a split and call out in surprise at my sudden dexterity as I slam my palms into the slush to stabilize myself.
“Ah jesus!”I need to shut up before I attract any attention inside the house so I jam my hands over my mouth. Partial hunks of rock salt stuck on my palms grind my into teeth and gums, I can taste the street I live on. I realize I have removed my two support beams but it’s too late and I fall flat on my face as a result.
See, I was already in a split if you can recall, so it didn’t hurt at all to fall on my face, by myself with nobody watching.
Bits of mud colored snow drip from my chin as I attempt to prop myself up onto my elbows, grunting all the way. I still haven’t lost my guts yet. The wet slush begins to seep through the elbows of my jacket to the point where it feels like I’m not wearing one. I scrape my knees on the grisel of the pavement and the wetness of the slush gets through to them too. I am propped up now, elbows and knees on a slushed out street, ass in the air in the middle of the night.
“Son of a-” I put my forehead to the pavement briefly, it looks like I’m praying to that damn blockey kid sign.
As embarrassing as you may think all of this sounds don’t worry, this moment doesn’t last long because suddenly I hear scurrying in the vestibule behind me.
“Dammit”, I mutter as I make a desperate leap onto my back like a toddler before clumsily getting back to my feet. My back wet with dirt, I leap like a creep over the small snowbank on our side of the street and stumble into the darkness of the driveway before I hear our door unlatch and open.
The door opens cautiously and I see the shadow of Jessica’s distended belly underneath the light,
“Honey? …is that you?”
I hold my breath,
“Jesus, go inside already”… I mouth these words to the vinyl siding.
The shadowed belly pauses for a moment waiting for my response, but she gives up sooner these days. She shuffles her large form back towards the entryway stopping for a moment to untangle her sweater from the door hinge, I can tell she’s looking out at the street one more time.
“Don’t throw anymore snowballs please.” is the last thing the shadow says before quietly closing our front door.
Another hole in another sweater … that’s all I think.
Free from prying eyes once again, I swipe my hands on my jacket and reach inside my pocket pulling out a flattened pack of cigarettes. I fumble with the cardboard edges, cursing myself and pleading for there to be one more left. The night never lets me down and the last cigarette in a pack is always the toughest. I think this as I free the brown filter from its paper prison.
Down the street from where I came I can see the snow rolling in, the soft blanket of grey covering the life of my small town. Pretty soon the puffed pillow will swallow everything, stabbed only by the orange glow of the street lights burning the same color as the ember at the end of my cigarette.
I told you I like winter nights the best.
The front door opens again and I can see the stocky shadow of Jessica’s father appear under the porch light on the deck. His crew cut resembles horns underneath the brightness of the porch light, him and that light are partners in surveillance, pointless surveillance of me. I think for a moment how long I will have to deal with this frumpy shadow interrupting my kinship with the night.
I hear his shoes tapping on the doorstep.
I sink into the darkness of the garage.
I am unmoved.