13 January, 2012

The Vow

There was hardly a disturbance. The smooth road accommodated the tires, so that the car flew through the interstate without so much as a bump. The radio was kept off, to maintain the tranquility, while the world outside rushed by with unrelenting speed. But inside, the little one could sleep. They sat in complete silence, save the gentle hum of the engine and the occasional shift of the hands on the steering wheel.
He sat in the back seat, fastened and snug by the belt that ran over his neck, that his head now rested on. The car seat was too small for him, and he had recently outgrown the booster chair, but his legs were still too short for his knees to really bend when he sat in the car. His calves reached the edge of the seat, and so his feet shot out almost perfectly horizontally. They just barely touched the passenger seat, so that if he wriggled around in his sleep, the contact would make the sides of his sneakers light up, which would subsequently draw his father’s attention.
The man, whose hair was graying just enough to not appear too old, saw his son through the rear view mirror in intervals, whenever the street lamps would allow. Otherwise blanketed in darkness, the sleeping child would appear visible when a passing street lamp would illuminate the void with a warm yellow. He noticed that his son, as usual, was sleeping with his mouth slightly ajar; he thought he heard him let out the faintest snore, and this brought a slight smile, that curled the man’s lips and just faintly narrowed his eyes. He slackened his foot from the accelerator pedal and slowed their speed to a shade under sixty miles per hour. The delicate rising and falling of the boy’s chest brought to the front of the man’s thoughts the comfort of the couch that awaits their arrival, his other little boy, who was possibly playing with his blocks, and a hot meal, that his wife would step away from only to press her warm lips to his as he entered the front door.
The car nudged back slightly, as it came to a complete halt. He took the key out of the ignition, which brought about a more palpable silence. Behind him, his son was still sound asleep, next to a few bags of groceries and  some of the things left to bring from the old place. As soon as he stepped out of the front seat, he was met with the cool air from the generous spring night. He stepped gingerly around the car, allowing the blood flow to circulate regularly through his legs again; the day was full of driving. He opened the door behind the passenger seat.

He awoke abruptly to the incessant beckoning of the alarm clock, his heart beating quickly. Feeling one bead drip down his forehead, he noticed that his shirt had stuck to his back from the sweat, and was drenched- an unusual occurrence, even in the midst of this heat wave. He also noticed that his breathing was heavy. Wide eyed, and breathing deeply through his mouth, he tried to steady himself.
“Daddy,” a small voice spoke.
The thought sprang into his head as abruptly as it left. And then that all too familiar feeling crept back into the void under his stomach, that was allotted specifically for this feeling. He looked over at the shape of his wife beside him. She lay on her side, facing the opposite direction. Despite the heat, they both slept under the diaphanous, dark blue sheets. They rode up at the end, bearing his wife’s leg, which extended to his side of the bed. He wanted to touch her. He reached over, but his hand stood suspended over her hip, unable to advance any further. She began to move, as if she understood it was there, and he quickly withdrew his hand. She turned and slowly sat up next to him, moving the hair from in front of her face.
“Time is it?” The softness of her voice was the appropriate pitch for the morning.
“I’m getting ready for work soon.”
“We’re going to the park today, supposed to be nice out,” she said, as she dropped down into her pillow again.
He didn’t reply, but nodded his head as if she could see it. She turned her head slightly.
He looked in her direction, but she did not say anything. His eyes closed, and his thoughts returned to the small voice that had just entered his mind. His hands raised to meet his falling face, and then ran through his graying hair. He lingered in their bed until his heart, which had picked up speed once more, slowed down a bit, and the echo of that voice, that had long since spoken, subsided.
The bathroom in the apartment was small, but enough for him to do what he had to. He wouldn’t do anything, however, until he looked in the mirror for a good minute as he had every morning for the past few months. He’d move around his face, rubbing down his cheek and exposing the pink surrounding his eye ball. He’d ensnare his bottom lip with his curled index finger like a fish hook , and pull down to look at his gums. He stood there and got a good grasp of what he saw in the mirror. He needed to make sure, before he did anything, that this was indeed how he looked, how he felt, how his life was. He breathed a deep sigh as he resigned from the mirror.
A few squeaks of the dial and he opened the bathroom door, followed by steam and a few stray drops of water from his ankles. He got dressed for work in the usual fashion, put on his undergarments and pants, and a shirt. He buttoned everything up, buckled everything tightly, put on his shoes, and began to leave the apartment. As he reached for the doorknob, the faintest shimmer of light caught his eye.
The morning sunlight that leaked into the room, from the window next to the bed, reflected onto the gold band that bound the third finger of his left hand. The shimmer showed him the eyes he hadn’t properly looked into as of late, the eyes he couldn’t face. It lay there, with the most pronounced superiority on his finger. Its presence asserted him into submission the way an ocean would to a ship. He considered it for a moment, and the vows he had not lived up to. He felt what he lacked and so he felt undeserving of it, and then the burning under his stomach came to him again.
Behind him, his wife, Ella, looked on as he considered his ring. They both felt the other’s attention. James turned the knob and left.

The service was beautiful. It passed without his noticing any beauty, but that’s what he was told. He barely heard a thing, barely saw a thing. He didn’t recognize too many faces from the plethora of black suits that lined up before them, all solemnly nodding their heads and moving their mouths. They all floated through the same motions with ghostly fluidity. Each of them waited, and then moved up to observe the tiny pine box, and then came back around to shake their hands and mumble something inaudible. Ella held his hand throughout most of the process, but he found himself feeling displaced. He could not fathom the setting they put him in, the conditions by which all those people gathered. He should not be the one being visited, he thought. And though all this, Ella gripped his hand desperately.

The streets outside his building followed the same pattern that they did everywhere. The sidewalks were peppered with marks of spat out gum and spittle. Pigeons walked alongside people, wading through some of the stray trash that was knocked over by people walking. The streets all bore the same semblance of unyielding gray. The mountains of concrete looked cold, even in the beating sun. It was hot. The temperature for the day marked the heat wave’s zenith, breaking a hundred degrees. People fanned themselves as they walked to wherever they were going, looking on edge; they undid a few buttons to feel a passing breeze over their skin. But there weren’t too many breezes to be had, and there was almost no immediate shade from the sun, that stood unwavering over them all. The only shade came from the buildings, but they offered little help. There were very few trees; what few trees remained stood as monuments for the sacrifices made for the sake of industry.
A homeless man wearing a purple ski hat with a hole in the back was sifting through a garbage can outside of a deli. A stout woman with a large ‘Parking’ sign stood at an intersection, talking to herself very gently. Men in suits hurriedly walked past a man wearing a musty gray suit, who stood in front of a black marble fountain, moving spastically and shouting in tongues. These were all parts of the environment, settled in like the coloration of old paper, to the ambience of the city where he lived.
Work dragged on for the first few hours, as it typically did. The surrounding conversations came in and out of focus. The strings attached to the blowers waved and flopped, but did little to convince anyone that the heat was giving way. People still fanned themselves, and congregated around the water cooler. Some began to visibly sweat through their clothes. The contents of his computer screen were also muddled in his eyes. The weight on his finger drew his attention from the charts that were on the screen, to somewhere in between: a space between the charts and his eyes, where neither thought nor feeling really existed.

The boy slowly made a fist with his hands and rubbed his eyes as he yawned, awoken by the deep whisper of his father, who undid his seatbelt.
            “You want to help me with a bag?”
The boy nodded. His father stepped aside as he slowly got out of the car. James reached in to grab one of the lighter bags, that contained only two sweaters, which he then gave to the boy, who received it intently. Then he reached back inside, and grabbed a heavier bag, full of groceries, topped to the brim with the loaf of bread threatening to fall out, and another of stationary items. He closed the car door behind him with his foot, and followed Thomas through the center of the building complex.
“You alright with the bag, buddy? Thank you for your help.”
He nodded again, smiling, but still weary from the day. His feet dragged as he slowed down, now walking alongside his father.
The complex comprises five buildings that lay sparsely around a circular center. The two walked up the well-lit path that was lined with benches situated under much taller and brighter lamps; however, some of the bulbs in these lamps needed replacing, and so there existed a few spheres of darkness within the otherwise undisturbed expanse of bright pavement. As they approached one of these ill lit spots, he began to notice that Thomas was now lagging a step or two behind.
“Don’t you worry, we’ll…”
He was stopped short by someone in the darkness that he had not noticed before. Having stopped abruptly, Thomas almost walked into his father’s leg.
The figure moved with erratic pacing. His dark clothes that slung loosely off of his body made him appear as an extension of the night. There was both fear and desperation in his eyes, but his menacing appearance warranted no understanding from James and Thomas. Thomas did not understand the dimensions of the situation, but the visage of what was before him drove him behind his father’s leg. James, both hands occupied with groceries and stationary, stood frozen. Fear began to rise within him, fear for what was held in this man’s hand, fear for what was by his leg, and fear for what this man was standing in between.
The man’s hand was all that stood out of the sphere of shadow in which he stood. He held a .32 caliber pistol, silver, and visibly scratched. It shook as the man strafed and waded, existing with a seemingly kinetic hostility, appearing as though he was itching to attack, like a rabid dog biding its time to be freed from the constraint of a chain.
“Daddy,” said Thomas, in the smallest voice.
And to this, the man continued to wade and pant, before opening his mouth.
Wallet,” he barked.

“Jay. James
He blinked a few times.
“No point in sticking around, bud. Systems are all down, so we’re calling it a day. And it’s a nuthouse out there. People are losing it, so watch yourself.”
“People are…” he began, but stopped when he looked around.
His screen was black. The strings on the blowers were dormant. The entire office was lit with only the fading afternoon sunlight. He stood up and saw from his watch that another few hours had passed. Most of the people had left already, or were at least gathering their things to leave. He looked through the ceiling-high windows, down at the city. Cars were stopped in the middle of the streets, some with drivers still in them, honking their horns, who couldn’t see the accident a block ahead of them. The surrounding roads looked congested, as well. The sidewalks were crowded, and venders with water were being hounded. One cart was turned over.
The elevators were all inoperable, so he took the stairs with the rest of them: people from his office, and also the surrounding offices that also could no longer function. Walking through the front lobby, one of his co-workers gave him a pat on the back.
“Power goes out and we’re in Lord of the Flies world.”
He raised his eyebrows and walked off. James watched his pace quicken until he sped off around the corner.  
He didn’t recognize the city when he left. Although the sun was beginning to fade, the heat did not let up. The stray trash and the heavy population aside, there was a different affect to the streets and to the buildings. With no work being conducted within them, they stood as empty vessels, tall reminders that stood at the brink of civility. A hawk circled around the twentieth floor of one of them, its cry clearly audible. The ambient noise of work and business was replaced with the pervasive recognition of primal instinct. The falling sun cast the shadows of things lower and wider. Congeries of hot people became mobs seeking water. The heat permeated through the logic of the once civilized, beckoning those who could not conceive of dead cellular phones and dormant traffic lights, to seek survival.
A homeless man with a purple ski hat with a hole in the back shuffled through a garbage bin a few blocks from the deli, and retrieved a bag of discarded baguettes. He was struck from behind by another man, who then took the bag and fled. The stout woman had abandoned her large sign, and was now sitting on the curb of her intersection, shouting at the sky. Men in suits hid behind their briefcases, their eyes with mixed fear and savagery.
James began to walk towards his home. He could hear disturbances echoing from streets blocks away. It only struck him then, the potential for this danger, when his ears filled with a loud crash that diverted his attention to his back. A car crashed into a black fountain. Amongst the rubble, the spilled water, and the dispersed crowd, lay a man in a mangy gray suit, now completely still and silent.
James turned on his heel and made his way down the street. He sprinted for a few blocks before a sharp pain in his rib forced him to stop and catch his breath. The streets were much darker now, and so he had to rely on how well his eyes adjusted to the darkness, as well as his understanding of the area, to maneuver through it safely. Hostile groups had formed here, as well. Mobs of about half a dozen people broke car windows and swore into the thick heat of the night. They banged on lifeless buildings, breaking in and leaving with commotion and light furniture. The streets soon became littered with people’s property. James turned again to make a break for his house. He was cut off by another group of looters, who had him in their sights.
“The fuck you going?”
They had lust in their eyes that could only be satisfied by the blood and violence they thirsted. James sprinted past them, as they began to engage him. His lungs began to ache; he sped down the streets, on nothing more than adrenaline, outrunning the winds to return to what was left of his family. They had to be there, he thought, they had to. The mob continued to follow him. He finally reached his place, and keyed his way in through the entrance. He slammed his apartment door shut behind him, to find Ella lying down in candle light.
“We got home a few hours ba- what’s wrong?”
“Jesus ff-”
James fell against the door and slid to the ground, tears falling from his aging eyes. Ella sat up, hesitant at first. She went towards him, and squatted down to her knees in front of him. He looked at her. She had aged in the past few months, also. She tried to put her hand on his, but he turned, retreating his hands to the wetness on his face.

Wallet,” he said again.
“Okay. Okay. That’s fine.” He tried to maintain composure, looking the man in the eyes, as to keep all of the attention on himself.
“Listen, my hands are full right now, the wallet is in my pocket…” he spoke slowly as not to provoke him. 
“…so I’m just going to put these down. And get it for you.”
He began to place them down, but the loaf of bread teetering on the top of the bag finally fell, toppling the other items with it. Both bags dropped, and James hunched down to his knees. In the sudden swiftness of his motions, the man’s pistol went off in James’ direction. 

The commotion outside drew closer. The mob of looters had followed James back to the building. They could hear the menace force its way through the front doors of the building, shouting, shoving, and relishing in the liberation of their lunacy, the deranged frenzy freed by the darkness and the guise of anonymity. They heard a knocking on the apartment next door, followed by silence.
They were all quiet now, but jumped once the mob broke through, pillaging the apartment on the other side of the wall, until there was nothing left to destroy. And then they heard them make their way to the apartment right across from theirs. Again it began with a knock. And then that door, too, was broken down, and the screams of the unsuspecting woman who lived in that apartment, waiting for the electricity to come back, accompanied the breaking of glass and the tearing of canvas. The haughty laughter and jeers, the crashes, and the broken glass then arrived onto their doorstep.
“Isaiah,” said James, “go into the bathroom and keep the door shut.”
Isaiah dropped his blocks and ran into the bathroom.
There was a knock at the door.
James grabbed Ella.
“Stay with Isaiah, and get yourselves out through the window; I’ll try to keep them off until then.”
Just as the mob banged at the door, James plunged his body against it. He pressed his back against the feeble wood, his legs bearing the brunt of the weight of the chaos.
“Not again”
Their banging began to thrust him from the door, causing his feet to slip, and his back to strain, but his posture did not falter. Ella ran to the bathroom, and shut Isaiah safely inside. She returned in front of James, pushing against the door around him. He brought her head to his chest with one of his arms, and they held the door as it banged and banged from the other side, and they closed their eyes.

James looked up from the fruit and bread and papers scattered over the pavement. The man fled, leaving the pistol still smoking on the floor. James examined his body, finding no wound, but for the growing pool of blood that surrounded Thomas’ limp body that lay on the ground next to him.

He released a howl of pain for his son whom he failed to protect, the blood of his son that he had spilt that night in his failure as a father. He screamed his name so he could say it once more.
The abrasive banging on the door grew harder to hold back.
And then nothing. James opened his eyes, and found the lamp flooding the room with a soft fluorescent light again. He slackened his grip on Ella, and they looked at one another, listening to the footsteps that left the hall. They would all have damages to repair, but they could at least now see where they were.

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