You have a lot of embarrassing thoughts on your late night stroll; you feel more like an uncomfortably fragmented fun house mirror version of yourself, rather than the budding intellectual teenager you tell yourself you’re becoming. I could go out and be raped and killed tonight. That’ll teach ‘em. Pause. That’ll teach ‘em? What, that their daughter’s a moron? Why would you even think something like that? Pause. I really don’t know sometimes. Then you have an even more embarrassing thought and you start to actually miss the good old days, when you didn’t hate your parents, when the three of you went out and took embarrassing family photos everywhere you went, when you felt spoiled and smothered in affection…before you found out just how much they really hated each other. You’re pretty resentful that your parents taught you the truth about how the ones we love tend to hurt us the most so early in life. I mean, you know it was a lesson you had to learn sometime, but couldn’t they have let you get through high school first?
You find yourself a mile from home at the local gas station, craving a cigarette. Usually, you only have the courage to try buying smokes from the Korean mini markets, but they’re all closed at this hour, and you’ve noticed it’s the youngish guy behind the counter tonight and if all else fails, you could always give flirting a try. Just before pushing your way inside, you become suddenly aware that you’d been crying on your walk, you pussy, and quickly try to pull yourself together; you run your index fingers along your under eyelids and check for smeared mascara, you’re fine. You clear your throat and beeline for the register. You usually smoke whatever’s cheapest, but you fear that might out you for being a broke teen, so you conjure up a mental image of the packs you normally see on the tables surrounded by young hipsters getting annihilated at pretentious bars.
“American Spirits, please”. Why the hell did you say please like a little school girl? “Uh, yellows.” You wait while the attendant, who must surely recognize you as the usual passenger of your dad’s retro Cadillac by now, gives you a once over.
“You 18?” It sounds more incredulous than inquisitive.
“Gotta be to smoke, right?” You toss some gum on the counter in what you hope to be some kind of sleight of hand maneuver.
A few electronic beeps and an exchange of currency later and you walk out with a pack of smokes and some minty fresh gum. You walk another mile, taking frequent drags between fingerless gloved fingers and amuse yourself by trying to catch sight of vaporous shapes amongst the blend of smoke and frost you create before you. As you walk, you have to keep switching hands to smoke so you can warm your hands in your pockets, because despite looking pretty damn cool, fingerless gloves really aren’t that functional. Eventually you find yourself on the playground of your old elementary school. You sit on a swing and think about Taylor. The first time you met Taylor was in the library and you were sitting down in a circle with your classmates and you remember thinking that your teacher had just made some really terrible mistakes by using feminine pronouns while introducing the new student who you were certain was a boy, and a particularly cute one at that. After confirming that the teacher hadn’t been wrong, you became very confused about the feelings Taylor stirred in you and you regret being only ten at the time and too embarrassed to talk about it which ultimately prevented you two from becoming better friends and you from potentially learning a little something about yourself. Presently, you wish you were better at recalling full names, you could always look her up after all, but you’re hardly the social media sleuth some of your friends have become so you put the thought out of your head.
You sit on the swing set and continue chain smoking and the chains of the swings have you thinking there must be some connection, something synchronistic about all this, but then a feral beast from seemingly out of the shadows begins circling you, slowly, with an awkward, lumbering gait, and you’re not sure what to think. There’s suddenly a man lightly swinging on the seat next to you and you’re clueless as to how you didn’t notice him take a seat in the first place. Then the creature stumbles close enough for you to make out that it’s actually a dog, but really you knew it was a dog all along, you just found it hard to believe one could be in such a state. It was a retriever blend, from what you can make out from what was left of it, it’s lost about a third of its coat and it stumbles around as if it’s got Parkinson’s disease and you suddenly find yourself wondering if dogs can even get Parkinson’s, or other such degenerative diseases for that matter, like Lou Gerig’s disease, which makes you kind of internally giggle at the thought of a dog with a robotic bark box, but you also feel a bit guilty and foolish for such a thought.
“He’s 22years old. That’s over a hundred in dog years, all things considered, I think he looks alright”. The man’s voice is kind, so kind it makes you feel immediately ashamed for the look of disgust you must be giving his best friend, who now that you think about it, is moving along fairly sprightly for one so geriatric.
The dog moves to his owner’s side who reaches down to pet him, tossing up handfuls of dog hair in the air in the process, exposing more emaciated ribs and sallow skin. Seeing such clear evidence of extreme aging in a pet’s life leaves you suddenly and painfully aware of all your past pet failures—catslaughtered kittens, starved rodents, lost birds, mythical farms—but then you wonder if it’s really any better to live long enough to wither away like this.
“He’s quite handsome for a hundred. My old cat’s gone blind now.” What? That’s a lie. “Raven’s 16 now.” No he isn’t, you are, you lousy liar.
“Not bad, for a cat. Hey, I’m Harrison, by the way.” He doesn’t offer his hand, thankfully; instead he pumps back and forth on the swings a bit, playfully, making the already difficult task of placing his age more challenging. What kind of grown man swings on a swing set in the middle of the night, with young girls n less? But the genuine smile on his face gives the appearance of someone in the process of rediscovering the simple joys of youth and you find it hard to believe this is the norm for him.
“Taylor.” You don’t swing, you just kind of twist from left to right, making spirals in the sawdust with the tips of your shoes, anything more than that and you tend to feel nauseous, you hate swings actually and seriously wonder how you ended up here.
“So, Taylor,” he says with that absurdly kind voice and you immediately regret not hearing your real name. “How are you this evening?”
Something about the way he asks this makes you feel exposed, but not in the violated kind of way. You wonder if your nighttime companion has acquired some kind of mystical omniscience and this pooch here is his familiar. It’s either that or the cool winter chill and the clear sky and massive moon in the sky make for perfecting lighting on your face, exposing its red and swollen features from crying. Something tells you to be honest with this guy for once, but just before you can utter a reply you both shift your focus to an approaching figure not more than a few yards away. All of the warmth and kindness you feel radiating from the man besides you shine even brighter in juxtaposition to the malevolent force you feel approaching, but you can do little else besides cling to the chains at your sides and wait. Harrison’s swinging slows to a dead stop just as the figure stops no more than two feet in front of you two.
“How are you folks doing tonight?” she slurs out while emitting a noxious combination of mouthwash and clove cigarettes.
He waits a few moments before answering, clearly assessing the situation, and ever so kindly replies that we are having a fine evening. You appreciate him speaking on your behalf too. He briefly looks to his dog and you have to wonder if he’s also wondering if his dog has one last shining heroic act left in him. The woman, a middle aged Native American in filthy oversized Carhartts, kneels down and takes a squatting position, groans a few times, mumbles a few incoherent words then hocks a massive loogie which nearly lands on her thigh. A thick web of mucous clings to her lip and chin, which she doesn’t bother wiping.
“I like your shoes.” It’s the most menacing compliment I’ve ever heard.
In this moment you really regret having those selfish and childish thoughts about seeking harm earlier this evening—there’s a tension in the air more looming than during any of the fights you’d seen between your parents, I suppose because you knew in your heart neither would do you the sort of physical harm you felt ever creeping up on you here and now. The woman turns to stare off into the space behind her towards the direction from which she came, her body twisted so forcefully to look back it was obvious she wanted us to get a look at whatever she was. There was an old electronics store and a dumpster, and besides that, a man with a massive, messy mane of gray and black hair pacing back and forth. You recognize him as the man who walks the streets shouting loudly to himself, playing chicken with cars in the road and once getting shoved out of a bar so forcefully he did a back flip into the street but recovered with the grace of a leopard which only a true alcoholic could.
“Thanks, I like them too,” he said, more neutral than kind.
“I want them.”
“Well, they’re the only ones I got on me,” he was beginning to sound exasperated.
“Look,” she moves towards him and grabs hold of his swing but looks an uncomfortable amount at you while she speaks. “My friend’s gonna be real mad if I don’t come back with somethin. And he gets real mean when he’s mad.” She drags out both “reals” almost comically long, and you notice she sounds much more sober than she had before, disconcertingly so. Harrison just shakes his head and lets out a breathy, awkward laugh before reaching down and taking off each shoe and holding them out to her by the heels.
“You know what, they’re yours. Now have a nice night, alright?”
She gets real giddy and takes the shoes. She offers Harrison her own but he politely declines. With dramatic flair, she falls backward in the sawdust and for a moment she takes on the appearance of a flipped tortoise, helplessly kicking her feet in the air. Eventually she gets the new shoes on, struggles to her feet and stands to admire her new kicks. The suddenly bizarrely cheerful moment is immediately shattered with one grimacing look on her face.
“I don’t like these laces.”
“I want my old laces.”
“Tie them for me.” When kids say it, it’s sweet, when she says it, it’s petrifying.
Somehow they come to the agreement that if she unties the old laces, he’ll relace the ones she wants, as long as she promises leave after that. Then the three of you, well four if you include the dog, sit in silence for a couple of minutes while they work and this is the most uncomfortable you’ve been all night. You hate this woman for bullying this man, and you feel an embarrassment for another person like you’ve never felt before. You also feel like you can’t leave and that probably pisses you off the most. It’s finally all done with and she thanks him for the shoes and heads in the direction of her man.
“New shoes!” she unnecessarily screeches while still a great distance from him.
“What? Get your damn ass over here!” And that was the last you ever saw of those two. You like to think they froze to death that night, but you also feel a bit lousy for having such a thought.
You’re not sure what’s the most appropriate thing to say to someone who just had their shoes jacked right off their feet so you wait for him to break the silence. He doesn’t do so immediately, instead he lets out a small laugh and takes off his socks, stuffing them into his jacket pockets. You look around at the field and notice crystallized dew clinging to the blades of grass, shinning in the moonlight, it’s beautiful really, but you think he must be crazy to walk home barefoot in this cold weather.
“I don’t have far to walk, I live just over there at the corner,” he says while pointing to the brand new condos which were just built and you didn’t think could possibly be inhabited yet. “I should get my dog home but we could walk you home first, if you’d like.”
You live in that direction also so the two of you start walking that way, keeping with the dog’s pace which is slow as molasses. When you reach the entrance to the condos, there’s a tree out front which the dog begins sniffing intently; he attempts lifting a back paw a couple of times but only manages to lift it a couple of inches off the ground before staggering a bit like a drunk. Eventually he stops and stares pleadingly at his master, who has taken on a rather uncomfortable expression himself, while sheepishly scratching the back of his neck.
“Uh…this is embarrassing. Maybe you could not watch this?”
“I’m far too intrigued now,” you reply honestly.
“He’s incontinent, he’ll pee everywhere inside if I don’t this,” he turns to his furry old friend and places his hands on each side of his lower abdomen and gently squeezes, and releases, squeezes and releases. “Everyone says I should put him down but I just can’t bring myself to do it. I can’t imagine him not being in my life, he’s always been there.”
Witnessing this strange act of kindness overwhelms you and you tear up ever so slightly. All of the fear and anger you felt earlier dissipates and you’re filled with a new-found conviction that light and love exist in the world, that people are indeed capable of extraordinarily compassionate things and you need not worry because you were suddenly sure you were destined to find someone who would someday squeeze urine from your bladder too, if you needed it.
The dog pees and everyone is happy.