THE SLEEPER AND THE NIÑA
The car chugs along the expressway. The summer heat has been oppressive, but right now it feels good going 70 miles per hour through the late July early morning. You feel like you’re that knife cutting through the “tension so thick” that sportscasters are always going on about. You feel like there’s nothing more worth it than this, your own personal lonely impulse of delight. And then the sun breaks.
They call it an orb. They call it a sphere. They call it a perfect circle. It’s nothing like that, is it? It’s that thing you aren’t supposed to look at directly. It’s that thing that you can’t look at too long. It’s the corkscrew slowing sucking open the only thing holding your life together with each millimeter it rises.
Oh, and it’ll rise alright. David Hume be damned. The fucking thing climbs minute after relentless minute and with each tick the crisp water droplets in the air suddenly become a million little anchors pulling you down. Your skin gets sticky and it’s much harder than it ever had any right to be to lift your hand off of the steering wheel and tap the turn signal. The open road gets smaller and smaller with each of those millimeters and the cars gather around you like worms to a corpsefeast.
I slam the front door. I open the back door. I pick up the paper Aldi bag filled with leftover food. I slam the back door. I put my left boot in front of my right and I start to walk past the brick buildings that used to be tan but are now piss yellow. I walk past the brick buildings that used to be red but are now piss yellow. I walk past the cement buildings that–yep–used to be grey but are now piss yellow. Lovely. An old guy with a mustache and some Adidas shorts, shoes, shirt, even a damn Adidas-brand headband staggers past me with some electronic device strapped to his wrist that I’m sure will give him plenty of beepy-noisy-warning to take an aspirin before that heart attack he’s worried about hits. A left down the alley. A pink and sky-blue pickup truck grinds past with a pile of junk in the rear. Broken glass and bent metal alike crush underfoot into smaller bits of glass and more warped bits of metal. I pass a hobo with a hairnet on. He’s fishing a half-eaten hot dog, still in the foil, out of a trash bin. He smells like he’s been rained on and mold is growing underneath that flannel. Or maybe that’s the city itself I smell. I reach over and brush a fly off my left epaulet before it has a chance to vomit on me. My hands are sticky and uncomfortable from the grime.
There she is. She’s sitting on the steps. I wonder if she sits there everyday and waits. I wonder if an event that happens once a week is enough to look forward to in this heavy heat. What happened in her past to make her so desperate, I’ll never know. She runs down the concrete steps and opens the gate. My black denim knee touches the dirt as I set the bag down and reach in. A quick side-glance and I see the round suspicious face of her mother watching from behind the faded turquoise curtain. I pull out a cheap plastic yoyo I bought from the dollar store next to that new franchised pawn shop place, you know, one of those new “$$CASH FOR GOLD$$” stores popping up everywhere. I study her face as she looks at it. I don’t think she has any idea what this is. Am I getting that old? I thought this was timeless. I reach over and take it from her; her face is so trusting now, not like that first day. I pull apart the brightly colored cellophane and cardboard packaging. My finger can’t slip through the pink plastic loop that the string is tied to, so I just squeeze as much of my pinky as I can in there and let it fly. It takes a couple of tries and a couple of re-windings before I get it to come up. She smiles. She’s already mastered the art of brown-nosing adults. That’s OK, I’m just warming up.
This time I bring it down and let it spin forward through the dust of the street, kicking all that debris aside and snapping back into my palm. She jumps back. “That’s called walking the dog,” I explain to her Latino ears. All those days alone in years gone by come boomeranging back just like the yoyo and before I finish talking the plastic orb zips past us as I take her “around the world.” And again. And a third time. Her brown eyes get a little wider with each trick and now the yoyo is already jumping back and forth in an impossible “lasso” that looks like it’s gonna lose control any second but doesn’t and smacks back into my fist in seconds. “Rock the… bambino,” hey it’s a Romance language, close enough right? Besides, judging by her snaggle-toothed smile framed by her creased hands I really doubt she’s listening. Those hands are something else. They always seem to have little black lines of dirt conveniently outlining her life’s potential and every time I see them I momentarily wish I had picked up a book about palm-reading the last time I was at the library. Seeing those hands throw pebbles is what made me think she’d like this. “One more,” I say aloud, more for me than for her. It might not be my best but it’s always been my favorite. Even the name of it represented to me a lifestyle I could never have, like dreaming to be a rockstar or a famous actor.
I think for a minute.
“El Dormido.” Hey, why not? I figure I’d actually try this time.
The plastic yoyo with the pinwheel sticker design on it seems to fall out of my hand and as it reaches the end of the string it doesn’t come back up, but it doesn’t hang pendulously either. It’s there at the bottom, manically trembling yet going nowhere; like a nut straining inside a straightjacket. The thin white line holding it up is vibrating so fast you can almost hear it. A perfect circle in stasis.
Snap! and my fist wraps around it again. She looks up at me with a big hungry grin and puts out her hand. I give it to her, almost reluctantly. I notice the gouges in the plastic from the tarmac of the alley and frown.
Me, señor? Really?
I leave the paper bag where it is. Left boot in front of right. Past her house, and a right down a smaller alley. I knock on the door. I wait. I knock again.
“Hey, was parking OK?”
“Well, go on in and get set up.”
I pass through the rooms and my mind and everything seems underwater. I go to the bathroom and wash my hands. The label on this plastic soap dispenser is telling me my hands should smell like a special French orange-blossom and honey blend and you know what? They do. But trying to get this grimy stickiness off doesn’t do a damn thing because this taint never goes away. I feel my undershirt clinging to my arms as I sit down at the computer and begin to work. Me and my clammy orange-blossom and honey palms.
Here, even the summer flowers in window boxes overstay their welcome. Untended they crawl out past their perimeter and well into the fluke snows of November. They don’t look like the nice dried things you stuck between loose leaf notebook paper and slammed in your family Bible–no, they look instead like red flesh coated with a brown grime, a grime I’m convinced is the very blood of this city itself. Maybe there is a place where deaths are quick. Where the monuments of the age don’t crumble into dust but vanish in a gentle breeze. Where city blocks explode at night and rolling fields of verdant grasses sprayed with purplewhite wildflowers oscillate by a pastoral hillside fence at sunrise. Maybe such a place exists. But that place is not here. That place is not this city, this Chicago.
M.D. JOYCE grew up on the fringes of Chicago, with 10 million people on one side and 10 million ears of corn on the other. A writing alumnus of the University of Illinois at Urbana, his fiction is deeply colored by traversing the liminal space he lives in under the grid-line shadows of the greatest city on earth. You can find his recent work in The Rose & Thorn Journal, The Waterhouse Review, and Menacing Hedge. When not writing, he serves as the Editor-in-Chief of www.literaryorphans.org.