Issue 114, Spring 1990
The alley became a river in the rain —a river with currents of clattering cans and a floe of cardboard. The boy would wake to the headlights of lightning spraying the walls of his small room, and lie listening to the single note of drops pinging the metal hood of a blue bulb that glowed above a garage door. Finally, he’d go to the window and look down.
The blue bulb gave the rain a bluish gleam. Rotted drainpipes gushed like dislocated fountains. Flooded tar roofs seemed to tilt, spilling waterfalls through sluices of fire-escapes.
At the mouth of the alley, a streetlight swirled, slowly disappearing down the whirlpool of a sewer. And beyond the aura of the streetlight, on a street whose name and numbers had been washed away, shadows moved aimlessly through rain. Tonight, they had their collars raised. He could catch glimpses of them passing by the mouth of the alley. Even when he couldn’t see them, he could sense their presence: shapes that he’d named silhouettes, shadows that threw shadows, that inhabited the hourless times of night stolen from dreams when it seemed to the boy as if he’d been summoned awake only to lie there wondering for what reason he’d been summoned. He couldn’t remember when he’d become aware of their presence, or when he first thought of them as silhouettes. He had never thought of them as anything else —not ghosts, or spirits. Silhouettes were enough to haunt him.
Others had their own names for shadows. Downstairs, the Ukrainian kid who practiced the violin slept with his arms extended in the shape of a cross to ward off the dead. Across the alley, in a basement flat, a Puerto Rican girl prayed as if begging before a vigil candle flickering the picture of the Virgin on her bureau, and sometimes the smell of the coal furnace behind the grate that opened on Purgatory would fade into a faint scent of roses. There were guys who carried knives taped inside their socks to school, who still slept at the edges of their beds in order to leave room for their guardian angels. There were girls who wore mascara like a mask, who swore they’d seen Nina, the beautiful high school girl who had plunged from a roof one summer night. Niña had sneaked out that night to meet her boyfriend, Choco, a kid who played congas and had gone AWOL to see her. Choco, his conga drum strapped over his shoulder, had led her up a fire escape to the roof where he slept on an old mattress. They took angel dust which made the moon seem near enough to step onto from the roof. The girts said that on moonlit nights music would wake them —a song whose beat they all recognized, though none of them could hum back its melody —and they would see a fantasma, Niña, her hair flying and blouse billowing open, falling past their windows, but falling so slowly that it seemed as if it might take forever for her to hit the street.
And there were apparitions in broad daylight: the mute knife-sharpener pushing his screeching whetstone up alleys; the peddlers with clothesline whips flicking blindered horses as their wagons rumbled by, tottering under jumbled loads of uprooted cellars and toppled attics; the hunchbacked woman who walked bent from the waist as if doubled over by the weight of the lifetime’s length of filthy, gray hair that streamed from her bowed head and swept the pavement before her.
They seemed part of the streets. If anyone noticed, it was only to glance away, but the boy secretly regarded them as if he were witnessing refugees from a cruel fairy tale groping their way through the ordinary world. He wondered where they disappeared to, where they slept at night, and what they dreamed.