The boy walked down Graham Street at midnight. He was fifteen years old, wearing a raincoat, sports sneakers, and a black eye the size of a golf ball. On his shoulder he carried a bag full of clothes, books, and a wedged in his back pocket a wallet holding two hundred dollars of household chores and summer job pay. It was a heavy rain, harsh and unforgiving, and it came down hard upon the boy, hard upon his brow, his shoulders, upon his legs as he marched. A car came towards him. As it passed, he shied his face from the headlights, and quickened his pace after.
At the junction, he took to the shelter of a bus stop, just as the weather was ready to lash again in a whip of rain. Thunder rumbled through the clouds, the wind picked at his clothes. He clutched his arms and shivered in the cold.
An old man sat opposite in the cove of an overpass, nestled in the concrete where the road left the land. His slim figure red in the warmth of a fire burning in a sprawl of wood. He saw the boy up the hill, alone, small against the hills behind. With his fingers in his mouth, he blew a sharp whistle that pierced the night, and gestured to the fire when he held the boy’s attention. The boy thought about it, checking his watch, looking for the passing cars. Then, he left the bus stop and jogged down the dirt bank, careless of treading the pooling puddles. The bag slid from his shoulder and he sat himself opposite the old man.
“Thanks for letting me join you. I appreciate it.” The boy held his hands out toward the blaze and found his breath.
“No problem. There’s enough warmth to share.”
The old man was wrapped in an overcoat, torn at the pockets and collar. His beard draped over the top buttons, full and thick and forgotten. Through his shoes poked his toes, black and dirty as coal.
Once the boy had calmed his shivers, he tied his shoes, counted the dollars in his wallet, and checked his watch. The old man gave him a long hard look. “You leaving town?”
“Yes, sir. Going south. There’s a bus I’m catching. It comes by in about forty minutes.”
“You must be catching the last one.”
As the boy leaned toward the fire, the light brought out the purple hue around his eye, strong and thick in the colour of a passion fruit. His eye half closed in the swell. The old man studied it.
“Where you heading?”
“You meeting anyone? In Lexington?”
“What does it matter?”
“How old are you?”
“Old enough. What does it matter?” The boy asked again.
“Well. I don’t think you should be out by yourself at this time of night.”
“I’m just fine.”
“Okay.” The old man stirred a cardboard box behind. Lining the inside was a soft blanket, a bed for his few possessions. A framed photograph, a book of poetry, cigars and mints in a small tin. He rummaged out a six pack of beer, peeled one from the plastic and opened it. The clean rasp of the metal shot like a loud whisper.
“Someone dropped these beers to me earlier. There’s some nice people out here. Still cold.”
“Can I have one of those?”
“I’m not sure.”
“No, you’re not.”
“But can I have one? Please?”
“Hell. I shouldn’t,” but then he thought about it, and tossed the boy a can. “Cops come by these parts near every night now. They come down here and tell me to put out the fire. They’re not happy when I’m drinking, neither. They won’t be happy if they catch you with one.”
“They won’t.” The boy opened the can and took a sip. His face recoiled to the bitterness. He took another and recoiled again.
“At least put it against your shiner, for Christ’s sake.” The boy brought the tin to his eye. The can dwarfed his hand. His fingers barely made the girth. As the fire shrank in height, the old man took a handful of sticks from his side and fed them to the fire. The dirt bank glowed with the passing of cars, some cruising back to town, some speeding across the overpass. The gruff chug of a truck passed, stirring the newspapers, the leaves, and dust.
“Where do you live?” He asked, gesturing his head up toward the hills where the pine were freckled with lights from windows.
“That’s a nice area. Nice houses.” The boy gave a nod and then a shrug, as if to imply he’d never thought about it. “They still have that coffee shop on the corner? With the Nigerian lady?”
“I always liked her.”
“Yeah, she’s nice.”
“And those cherry donuts?”
“Yeah. Chocolate ones, too.”
“I liked those cherry ones.”
“Yeah, they’re good.”
“So, what happened?” he asked, gesturing to the bruise. The boy kept quiet. He took another sip from the beer, and then put it down between his feet, accepting the bitterness. “You don’t have to say. You don’t have to tell me what happened. It helps to talk. I’ve found.” He gave it a minute. “I heard the rain is going to get worse this week.”
The boy bit his lip, scratched his chin, careful of the acne. “You know, it’s not easy being a kid. I don’t know what’s going on most of the time. My parents, they want me to do well. Told me I had to put in the extra hours after school. They made me work so hard for grades I knew I could never get. Exams go by and I did even worse than last year. I knew it when the pen touched the paper, before I wrote anything down. I knew it then I was gonna fail. I tried so hard but I knew it.”
“They saw my grades. They got mad. Mom starts shouting. Dad shouts louder. Me and him get into a fight. It all got crazy.” The boy brought the can back to his eye.
“You ever fought before?”
“No. We argue. A lot. This was the worst time.”
“You’ll be okay.” The old man tried to work a smile from the boy, to hint of hope or reassurance. But nothing came. The thunder had subsided but the rain still fell, heavy and loud. The cold rivalled the fire, and the boy held his arms in his lap.
“I used to live somewhere nice. Not far from here. Had the whole lot. The perfect life, you might say. Family. Friends. Money. Strength. But how’d it come to this, right? I can see it in your face.” He drained the beer, placed the empty can quietly by his side and opened another. “You could say I had paradise. But something happened. I wasn’t treated fairly. Now, I don’t believe in things having to be fair in life. That’s not how life works. But I was unhappy. I said some things I shouldn’t have said. Did some things I shouldn’t have done. It cost me everything. I was cast to the streets. I lost my family. My friends. Christ, it all happened so fast. Couldn’t tell you the details. I don’t remember most of it. I hit the whiskey hard and that was that.”
“You doing alright?” The boy asked. “A stupid question, sorry.”
“No, you’re okay. I am. It may be hell but you can make it heaven. It’s in the mind. Not in the dirt. You could have it all yet still be unhappy. And you could have nothing and find yourself content. I got a few friends, all similar situation. We do alright together.” Graffiti and tags covered the concrete behind the man. Scribbles of black and blue, the scrawled calligraphy of the local mavericks. Eddy loves Mary. Bobby does it best. Rebel Angels.
A bus stopped at the shelter, hissing to a halt. Two people alighted to the chime of the opening doors, walked together up the hill until the dark swallowed them whole. The soft amber lights of the bus vanished as it drove down the road.
“Next one’s mine.”
The old man thought about the words he was about to say. He took another sip from his beer, swished a mouthful, and then he moved closer to the boy.
“I don’t want to play the card of the wise old man. Heck, I’m not wise in the slightest, but I know what it’s like to be your age. Not so keen on authority, right? That comes from parents being too strict, usually. Or too soft. It’s a hard balance. You got a strict father?”
“Yeah. Real strict.”
“Mine was, too. At the time, when I was young, I thought had it the worst. My father was a hard man. A hard man. A man of discipline, of rules, routine. He spent the whole of his life like that. Tightly wound with no give. One day I resisted his word, made a stance. Spoke for myself. I stood up for something I wanted, something that I thought was right. I think that, looking back, all I wanted was an apology from him, or for him to show some sort of acknowledgement of his mistakes. I didn’t need to rebel. I didn’t need to quit. I made the decision in the heat of the moment and was too stubborn not to follow through. But, I would have made a very different decision that day if someone had just listened.” The old man looked down to his shoes. The shine had long gone and the material had split at the seams.
“I don’t think I’ll be getting an apology.”
“Alright kid. If you do, please don’t ignore it. It takes a lot for someone to apologise. To know when they’re at fault.”
“I don’t think it’ll happen.”
“Well. You come by my fire anytime. If you’re around.”
A smile broke from the boy. “Thank you.”
“I live a high life of luxury being homeless. There are no chains. I do not serve. I reign.” He gave a smile to the boy. He reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a carton of cigarettes and lit one in the fire.
“Can I have one?”
“You ever smoked before?”
“Alright.” He gave the boy the cigarette. It wobbled in his fingers like a glowing worm as the boy turned the stick, careful of the burning tip. He took a drag and then coughed. He tried to breathe in and coughed again, hard into his hand. The old man gave a laugh as the boy handed back the cigarette, chuckling himself.
“Not quite James Dean.”
“Not quite,” the boy added.
“So, this coffee shop. I used to go two, three times a week. I’d always go when the Nigerian lady was working. She’d always have this brilliant smile when I came in. God, her voice could melt you. She’d say ‘Good morning! How are we?’ I like how she said ‘we,’ like we were friends. I thought about asking her out, you know. That’s between you and me.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I ask myself that all the time.”
“A little. She had another guy lurking over her. He drank coffee everyday. Seemed like he favoured every word from her mouth. I never knew if she liked him back. I didn’t want to interfere in anything.”
“Yeah. Bit of a creep? Tall with glasses? Everyone knows him. Well, knew him. Left town about a six months ago. No one has seen him since. Some people think he died. Some people think he quit chasing a girl who didn’t love him back.”
“She must not have liked him. She’s been as happy as ever.”
“Hm,” he said, interested. “Maybe I’ll have to go back and ask her out.”
The bank behind began to glow. It grew and grew and quickly bloomed into two headlights. They rolled over the bank and bored the dirt decline. The car turned toward the fire, slowed and came to a stop. The headlights dimmed and inside a policeman appeared, lit by the dashboard. He stared hard ahead. The old man gave a heavy sigh, stubbing the cigarette into the dirt, tucking the beer behind his back.
The policeman stepped out of the car and approached the pair. “Joseph?” He said. He approached with cautious steps. “Joseph.”
The boy turned. “Shit.”
“Thank god. I went to your room and couldn’t find you. I’ve been driving all over town. Your Mom is worried sick. Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m okay.”
The father stepped closer. The light from the fire brought out a bruise on his temple, poppy and blue. whilst the boy nursed his knuckles. The father remained quiet as the boy decided to take another sip from the beer, this time with no recoil.
“So, what are you go to say this time?”
“What do you mean, Joe?”
“You know it as well as I do. How this goes. We disagree, we argue, you give a speech about how I’m wrong, how I’m at fault, and I get sent to my room. Then it happens again. We argue some more, you shout over me, I get grounded, you give some big talk the next day and you think things go back to normal.” The boy stood to face his father, matching his height. He held his bag in his hand, the bag that held everything, with the fire burning hot behind him. “What do you have to say this time? What can you say that’s different? What order of words have you ready to convince me to come home?” The boy’s voice shook, rattled with anger.
The father stayed quiet. His eyes to the ground, thumbing his hands.
“What do you have to say? It’s your word, your rules. It always has been. It always will be. Is it, you can’t accept me? Or don’t want to? I’m not the same as you when you were a kid. I’m not going to get straight A’s, fly through college and land a job on the other end. No amount of shouting or anger will help me and you don’t ever seem to understand that.” The boy took a deep breath, tightened his fists, felt the blood race through his body. “What do you have to say?”
The father looked up. He met the fierce gaze of his son. One he was used to. He spoke slowly.
“Nothing. I’ve nothing to say. You know I’ve got a bad temper, and it’s no excuse. It’s taken far too long for me to realise that there’s no excuse. I never tell you about work and what I see. But I do it to protect you and your Mom. I do it so you both feel safe. But I’m so stupid to have brought it home with me. Through impatience. To have done the opposite. To make your home a place you don’t want to be. I’m so sorry – I’m so sorry I hurt you.” His voice quivered. The rain came down hard upon him. “I don’t want to talk. I don’t need to. I want to listen. I want to hear your problems, not project mine. The whole thing about your grades, I was wrong. None of that matters. I don’t care, it’s not important. You’ll be fine no matter what happens in school. You’re smart, you’re quick. You’ll be fine. I just – I want you to be alright with me. So I will always listen. From now on.”
Behind them, the last bus approached. The boy tightened his grip on the strap of his bag, felt his heart thudding in his chest. The bus slowed at the shelter and then accelerated with a quiet hum. He watched it pass and vanish into the night.
The boy had almost forgot the old man sat at his side. He gave him a look. The old man gave him a faint smile. One of reassurance, one of comfort. Silence enveloped the three until the boy shouldered his bag and walked towards his father.
“Okay,” he replied. The boy opened the car door, sat himself down. Shotgun.
Walking to the other side of the car, the father finally looked at the old man. His eyes glanced to the fire, to the beer, to the stubbed cigarette, and then to the print in the dirt where his son had been sitting. How small it looked before the flame, beneath the overpass, dwarfed by the concrete buildings nearby. The father gave a small nod to the old man and got into the car. A beat of relief, a measure of repose filled the air.
The car reversed and drove back over the hill. The sound of the engine faded into the night, leaving the old man alone in the glow of the fire. He was sad to be alone but happy as well to know he would never see the two again. The embers licked the wood, wrapped and twisted around the bark above a belly of yellow and orange and red. His eyes held the light, as they once did, many years ago. He thought of the Nigerian lady who worked in the coffee shop. The heavy regret imbedded his stomach of not remembering her name, not being able to say it out loud and see how it spilled from his tongue.
He hovered his hands to the flames. They tickled his palms, his fingertips. He held them there all night, as he always did.