Shuttered Shops

Impatient cars idled like boats moored at a choppy pier. Slowly creeping forward, exhaust fumes mixed with steam rising from the just wetted road. The city center intersection resembled a countryside bog. Clouds broke overhead to uncover a bleeding glimpse of the setting sun while chipped and pockmarked gutters still flowed with the jetsam of daily life: coffee cups, cigarette butts, receipt papers—artifacts of exhausted use. Cars launched forward and gave movement to the sickly-sweet sauna hugging the ground. A wake of carbon monoxide and grime that stuck to your face. It wasn’t so different from the bogs, he thought; less organic and somehow less human, though. The sewers swirled. Too much rain or too much trash; man and nature bargained with each other for chance to wash clean.

He watched the pulsing currents of steel, water, and trash from a sidewalk café table. Nestled between daytime storefronts now shuttering for the evening and slightly before the shops yielded to impossibly close row houses, he sat near enough to hear the beat of life but comfortably disconnected. The sign out front boasted the daily special: ‘beer-battered cad’. Whether due to simple neglect or implicit acquiescence, he agreed with the improvement to the daily special that hadn’t changed in the years he could remember.

A bus splashed up to the corner. People rushed out and no one was waiting to ride. Everyone arriving. The newly alighted broke apart with collectively downturned heads. Minding their step or wrapped up within their own distance, they continued to share some consistency with their travels. Conversation entered into the mess of fumes and steam. He enjoyed this time of day. The frenetic pace of countless individual lines tangled together.

Some had begun to walk up the slight incline toward the sidewalk tables, against the flow of the gutter. Bits of leaves and water dotted pant legs and pantyhose. He lit a cigarette. As he put the lighter down squarely on the packet of cigarettes in front of him, he looked up from the approaching ankles and legs and thought, ‘Did they find the same solace?’ He recognized some faces, but knew no names. Adjacent shops had their doors locked and handles rattled to be sure. Goodbyes punctuated by the clanging of dishware sounded.

‘Anything else?’

‘What? Oh, yes. The same.’

He thought of all the faces. He decided it didn’t matter if he knew the names attached to them; they didn’t know his. He exhaled sharply the last drag and tossed the spent butt into the gutter stream, sent on a brief trip to vie for a spot in the sewer.

‘And here you are. Another four fifty on the bill.’

‘That’ll be fine.’

A young woman took seat at the last empty table on the sidewalk. She sat with a slightly pained exhalation and closed her eyes as she breathed in the thick air. She stayed very still for a few moments—just long enough to be noticeable—before pulling her chair to the table with a crooked foot on the chair leg and a heave of her chest. He thought of the feeling of moving when finally still after a long drive. Her back bowed like a runner settling into starting blocks as she peered at the menu. He thought she wanted nothing but to stop though her body balked.

He wasn’t looking to stop. He wanted movement. Where to, though, was another matter. Watching what he thought might be the purposeful movement of others had seemed to work. But, things were slightly different now. Maybe it was something in their faces. Had he looked at their faces before?—really looked?

The young woman sat upright and set the menu on the table as she looked around for a waitress. Her gaze briefly met his. It lasted merely a moment but gave him a start. Her mouth had been slightly open in a soundless pleading; budding laugh lines appeared not to be happy relics of good times past but pained extensions of tired, sullen eyes. He misplaced setting his glass on the table and knocked over the ceramic ashtray. Giving voice to the silent shout.

His brief reverie broken, he set to tidying the table before drawing attention. More faces passed. Noticing a tear in his jacket sleeve, he toyed with the frayed edges and nursed his second round. Chair legs grated on the concrete. He looked up again.

Her familiar faces sat to her side and opposite. The slightly open mouth opened wide in greeting. Her faces had names. He looked down again in realization he could be wrong. He was wrong. There was happiness in her stop—a destination.

He collected his things and left money under the near-empty glass, grabbed his cane, and steadied his gait for the walk home.