Dark Light

On the Street of Dawnless Gray

by Omar Refaat

I

“Kiss me.”

II

I never imagined it would get to this. With her, I transcended the physical and the known, as I thought we had found an untouched meadow in each other beyond the confusion of this world of flesh, a salvation from this ordeal as it presented itself to us in different guises. The defiant communion we achieved for a moment was pure by a sad world’s standards, by any system of reference that separates the surface from essence. Sad part is, I could be very mistaken about all this.

When we met, I was still fascinated with the symbolic dichotomy of this colorful street. Here, there is no glamour, no private banker to laugh at the emptiest of your anecdotes. Here, man is stripped to the raw. I came to this street attempting to remain true to what I thought I really was, and to get some flavor of the true side of this finely manicured European city. What is hailed as a “multicultural” street is nothing more than a melting pot of misery for the indigenous refugees of this sad accident of creation: the drunks, junkies, sex maniacs, cripples, holy idiots, whores, and honest hands that couldn’t get washed on the other side of the bridge.

Two nights in the business hotel chosen by my designer-suited colleagues was more than enough to remind one that life is too short for wasting away in characterless places. Just because I had reduced myself to wearing a hideous suit every morning, trading (temporarily, ha!) a tender writing dream for the deadening certainty that comes with high finance and further enriching barbarian billionaires leeching on the dying skin of the earth for an empty living, didn’t mean I that I had to surrender the last bits of nobility and wonder in me. At least, not without a fight. So I decided to find a soulful residence for my temporary stay in this fine city of progress amidst those who fail to make it across the bridge. I moved into this outwardly respectable motel on the corner of the street after two unsuccessful attempts to find a room on a weekend.

So early morning in this unremarkable liminal period, when it is supposed to be spring but winter stubbornly clings like a spent man unwilling to let go of the fading stage, I walked into the motel lobby—a tiny affair with two bleak red leather sofas, a cigarette dispenser, a drinks vending machine almost exclusively stocked with low-grade beer, and a humongous portrait of the Buddha behind a tacky red bar. I was moving in the right direction.

A few minutes later, just as I was entering the only triangular elevator I have ever come across, I glanced at the bar and there she was sitting on the farthest stool with a canned beer in her stocky hand and her infamous pipe dangling from the corner of her mouth. I later asked why a pipe, honestly mentioning that it looked ridiculous. She said that she enjoyed it and was undoubtedly wounded.

At first, even from a distance, her smudged face struck me as a grotesque bridge between man and woman: puffy cheeks with faint patches of darker brownish-green where she needed to shave; fake lashes covering uneventful, dark eyes; fat lips with a tinge of brown on the inside; disproportionately small ears and oversized, flattish nostrils stretched too far on the sides. I should have advised her to get rid of the peeling, gaudy red nail polish. She probably wouldn’t have understood, anyway. Later, as I dived beneath the surface, her face adopted a less gruesome appearance and an indefinable beauty emerged somehow. I now realize how immature it is to judge the elegance of a face without first attempting to know and, more importantly, feel the story behind it.

My tiny room was a bit shoddier than what I had expected, given the price and the relatively respectable hotel façade: a small bed, an expired fridge with an archaic TV on top partially covering a cheap Picasso print. The window looked out on a pallid alley. Simple, yet even though I couldn’t see any stains or roaches or any of the typical signs of muckiness from my days of rough traveling, a knot tightened in my stomach, and I suspected I might end up sleeping in jeans and long sleeves. Still, anything would be better than that heartless outfit in the financial district.

I immediately stocked my backpack with the essentials: an apple, a tobacco pouch, a bottle of water, a couple of books, a notebook, some cash, and my dear little pillow for lying down in parks, and off I went to explore the street, wishing in the deepest recesses of my being for the trip to start opening my mind and healing my tainted heart; to bring me back a deeper man, a richer soul. As soon as I looked around the now-much-busier lobby, I knew where the knot came from. A Russian-looking woman, well into her fifties—most likely a stand-in from an 80s music clip—in a cheap fur coat and a skirt that unearthed too much better-concealed flesh, was handing a pile of cash to the receptionist. A nod to a younger girl—again, Russian-looking—sent the disciple’s arm into that of a bald, spectacled, middle-aged man fiddling with his cell phone, obviously trying to ride out a fit of uneasiness. The deal was this: You pick up your customer from the lobby bar and take him up to a room for a flat, non-negotiable fee, I learned later in the day. I looked at the Buddha and couldn’t help but feel sorry for him; why drag the man into this mess?

Soon enough, my legs took me to a flea market right around the corner. I bought a beautiful painting that found me out of a pile of tacky art. It was a face of a goddess in the sun, half-lighted, half-dark. The soul of man, if you may. The primordial tension. I was skirting dangerously on the threshold these days. A rather timely reminder.

On the way back, I ran into my first homeless man on this trip. Now things were starting to get more intriguing. He asked for change as I passed him then graciously smiled when I shrugged. I promised myself I’d treat him next time, evading the pang of regret he aroused in me. Little did I know how fundamental this man would be.

The endlessly overcast sky had begun to dribble. I went back to my room to sit it out and slipped into dreamtime. A childhood friend of mine who passed away years ago was dressed like a gypsy. We were frantically trying to wrap a horrifyingly skinny, raving old man in a white sheet. He was fragile, yet we feared him for some unknown reason. He had to be tied to the back of a basketball board so that I could have my chance to shoot. Then as I was coming back to waking life, I consciously pushed myself through the tunnel that connects this world to someplace else. I made it to the other side, somewhere between waking life and dreams, and was consciously free to roam a town not that different from the one I was physically in. I meandered down a cobbled street, feeling a perfect breeze on a grey afternoon, yet shuddering from an unidentifiable fear. As I passed an alley, a frightening face emerged from an ominous darkness. All I could see were the eyes, clear blue interspersed with threads of black, shimmering, heavy with an unearthly mystery, a sinister invitation to go through it to an even more obscure place.

“Come in. Don’t be scared,” he said, extending a grotesque female hand with a black pebble thumbnail.

A knocking voice.

Here or there? This is here. Calm down. Back in time. Back on the stage. I opened the door, still out of breath from my menacing encounter, and there she was, leaning against the wall, blocking half the doorway at least.

“Hello, sweetie. Ready to have some fun?”

III

It took me a few seconds to grasp the situation. Her face was disgusting, to say the least. Prominent holes riddled her black pantyhose, a short black leather skirt hid gigantic thighs, a red top barely covered her humungous breasts with the final crease of her belly popping out. There was no fun there unless one had sunk beyond any hope of reprieve.

“I’m sorry, but I think there’s some sort of mistake here.”

“Mistake, my ass!” she said, not moving a muscle except for pulling what could, in some inconceivable world, be considered a seductive facial expression.

“I’m sorry, but I believe you’ve got the wrong room.”

“This is the right room.”

“Well, I beg to differ!”

She pushed through, squeezing me against the door, and flung herself on the bed, almost crushing the springs. She crossed her legs. “Got anything to drink?”

“Water.”

“It’s not what I meant.”

“I know.”

“So this is how you treat a lady.”

“Forgive me, but this is a bit fucked up. It’s a misunderstanding.”

I was still standing in the doorway. She looked around the room with a dull, flighty gaze, taking some time with the open suitcase, and then turned in my direction.

“Are you gonna stand like that…why don’t you close that door?”

“Well, I’m not going to. I’m sorry, and I would be very grateful if you’d leave.”

“What if I tell you a secret you need to know? Will you let me stay?”

“Is this some kind of a joke?”

“Life is a joke, sweetie. Why should this be any different?”

She fidgeted in a disproportionately tiny black purse, pulled out the pipe, tobacco, and lit up, kit wrapped in a supermarket’s promotion plastic wrapper. I was in one of my futile, invariably stillborn cleansing modes. Leaving Cairo, that glorious circus of a city, invariably tends to have this effect on me. The moment I land back though, regardless of the depth of my resolutions for a clean, serene restart, toxins of all sorts make their inevitable return to my unruly palate. Even the idea of smoke upset me that week.

Lost for words, I flung the door shut and walked calmly to the window. I pushed it down and leaned on the sill, staring blankly at this enigma of a woman, nothing even stirring in my mind.

“You want the secret?”

Behind a cloud of smoke, I made out a rather disturbing smirk.

“Enlighten me, please!”

“But you gotta promise to keep it.”

“I don’t know you, so there’s no need to worry.”

“I need your word.”

“You have it.”

“Splendid.”

Splendid! What a nut job. This woman is officially insane.

“I knew I was gonna meet you like a week ago or so.”

“Really? How so, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“You don’t believe me?”

“I’m trying to develop my critical spirit, that’s all.”

“You have a little tattoo of some kind of bird on your back, right?”

Shit. “How do you know that?” No one had seen my back in this country.

Her stocky face sprung to life with juvenile vindication from behind marks of years of anguish.

“The gypsy told me.”

“Gypsy? What gypsy?” I felt a pang in my heart saying this; a sense of foreboding gripped my breast.

“She dreamt about you, about us.”

“What do you mean about me and us? What is this nonsense?”

This must be some sort of a scam. Got to find the angle.

“I need a drink. Let’s go down to the bar and if you’re a gentleman, I just might tell all.”

IV

We sat on stools in a sham of a bar right next to the motel. It was more of a third-tier pit stop for whores, with 90s techno blasting through a cacophony of brittle conversation. Only the women stayed for more than one drink. The bartender, a slim, deathly pale man with a frightening leer slammed down our beers. Some of my companion’s colleagues giggled quite openly at our spectacle as their melancholy eyes scanned the joint for tricks.

“So what’s this whole gypsy thing? I’m getting a bit worried, to be very honest.”

“You should be. I’m worried, too.”

“So tell me more.”

A rather dashing pimp—middle-aged, average height with an unfortunate knife scar across his throat— squeezed himself between us, took her beer bottle, gulped, slammed it down, and dried his mouth on the sleeve of his black leather jacket. He snarled at me, “How much time are you taking?”

“I’m not taking any, thanks.”

“What the fuck is this? I don’t do corporate social responsibility! It’s two hundred an hour. How much time are you taking?”

I looked at her, waiting for an intervention. She looked straight ahead, got out a pocket mirror, and checked out her hideous face.

“This is ridiculous. I’m leaving. I’m not taking any time, thank you. And by the way, you run a shitty business.”

“Get the fuck out of my face, you punk!”

I stood up, ready to concede a punch, or worse, for this completely unnecessary remark.

“How much for the beers, please?” I asked the bartender.

“That will be fifty.”

“What? Are you kidding me?”

“Special prices for our special guests. Got a problem with that?”

“Pay him,” she said in a vexed, shaky voice, still going through the motions of checking herself out.

“So this is the fucking scam? How petty!” I told her. I turned to the bartender and said, “Here’s your fifty.”

Sweat beading on my forehead, I made my way out, brushing against the pimp, who made a point not to move an inch. As I walked through the door I heard her shout, “What I said is true! It wasn’t meant to be this way.”

V

I went straight to a decent bar I had seen a few blocks down the street, for a change. Every time I tried to muster up a beautiful image of humanity, disconcerting events stormed into my life. Makes it hard to make up your mind. Should we abstain from passing judgments on other men’s souls just because we can never know what else is in there and, more importantly, because we barely know ourselves to start with?

And what of this whole gypsy stunt? How did she pull that one off?

Weary, I pulled out Steppenwolf and resolved to enjoy a beer amid the “alternative,” artsy, but still relatively normal crowd, to watch the magic of twilight on lonesome faces passing across the window. A monologue was scheduled for the evening. Every now and then, a hobo would stop and peer into the bar. An hour or so later, one of them seemed to look in with a purpose other than good old biding of time. He cupped his hands against the glass for a better gaze, his eyes shooting in all directions. Finally, with visible strain, he fixed his stare right into my eyes, took a step back, then curled his finger, asking me to come out. It was the homeless man from earlier in the day. I pointed at my chest, certain it was a case of mistaken identity or a manifestation of a mind thoroughly besmirched by madness.

Turned out he was looking for me. This should be interesting.

VI

I paid hastily and walked out into the budding night. The man was standing next to a supermarket cart with a few clothing items, a couple of plastic bags filled with books, and a huge, decent vacuum cleaner. You couldn’t tell how old he was. He must have been of African origin, a small man with an arched back and a face exuding a warm, intelligent feel.

“Come with me, sir, please. Let’s go for a walk. The night is splendid. God is smiling.”

So we walked behind the cart. He was right. The night was splendid, indeed.

For a minute he kept silent, except for the occasional greeting here and there—he was certainly a popular figure in the community, especially among the women.

“So what is your impression of the street?” he broke the silence abruptly, hands shaking, voice betraying the dignified frontage. “Well, it’s colorful, that’s for sure.”

“Colorful,” he giggled. “That’s one way of looking at it. I’m sure you’re wondering what you are doing with this madman!”

“No, no…not in the slightest…but yeah, of course, I’m wondering what you want from me. I’m sure you understand.”

“She sent me. She says she’s very sorry for what happened, and that it wasn’t meant to be this way. She wants to meet you someplace else, only if you forgive her, of course. Told me what happened and my honest opinion is, and please don’t get me wrong, I don’t lie. All I want from this life is a pure heart to take me back home…I meant to say that if I were you, I’d go. She’s a beautiful human being.”

Fuck it. Might as well see where this wind blows.

“Where is she?”

“Meet me here in an hour and I’ll take you.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off the vacuum cleaner. It was stickered with a young Bob Dylan and the Blues for Allah cover. Scribbled on it in a black marker was this: “Verily in the remembrance of the One do hearts find peace.”

“She’s my only shackle; Satan’s only open gate to my heart—plus the booze maybe. You must be wondering why!”

I smiled.

“I refuse to sleep in filth.”

VII

An hour to the dot, he showed up, cheery, thoroughly drunk, flailing, beer sloshing out of the bottle as he fervently gesticulated.

“Come along. Did I tell you how beautiful the night is? Look up. See the sky gazing down on us, how graceful, how masterful. See those clouds floating by. Such a shame how people underestimate night clouds, as if they cease to be when darkness falls …Oh, hello there, my lovely princess; you look splendid tonight. How is business? Are you being treated well? I told you; refuse to serve any man who doesn’t treat you with respect. Never forget that delicate flower in your chest. Money is Satan’s finest soldier, remember…oh no…I told you I’ll never stop loving you, no matter what…all of you. And I’ll never stop my babbling! Be well.”

“Sorry about that,” he said, turning back to me. “Where were we? It saddens my heart, what these women have to endure. And you know what’s really insane, you ask them why they are doing this and the ones who’ve been around long enough just don’t know anymore. They don’t know.”

“Isn’t it necessity?”

“Maybe it was at the beginning. Then it became a secondary cause, if anything at all. I think it’s fear, habit, and lack of faith. But that’s on this level. On a higher level, they don’t really have any choice. They would have acted differently if acting differently was a possibility for them. Free will is not a given. It comes with great effort. To them, to most of us, everything just happens…but sadly, we are here.”

We were standing outside a warehouse-turned-independent-movie-theater.

“She’s taking you to the movies. Should be here any minute. I’ve got to get going. I’m meeting some friends at the subway station.”

Who the hell is this man? And a movie! What is this, some sort of date?

“Thank you. It was a pleasure, truly. I’d like to see you again, if you don’t mind,” I said.

“You find me intriguing, ha! I like you. I’ll be around, if I’m not dead. Adios, my friend.”

I watched his back and cart dissolve into the sleepwalking weekend crowd.

“Hello, sweetie.”

She stood there with two tickets in her stout fingers, beneath an ancient lamppost wearing what seemed like a straw cap gently swaying in the evening breeze. She had lost the skirt and put on pants and flat shoes. She also had a bruised cheek.

“Oh…hello.” I tried to smile.

She blushed. “Do you fancy French movies?”

“Hmm. Yeah…I’m open. You obviously like French films?”

“They’re the best in the whole world.”

“And why is that, if I may ask?”

“Men make love. They don’t have sex. And the glamour, too.”

“Shall we then? And you shouldn’t have—the tickets I mean. I’ll get the popcorn and beer,” I said.

“No popcorn for me, please. I don’t want to get fat.”

I almost shed a tear right then.

The film was gloomy—nihilist in the bleakest possible manner: a young aristocratic writer gets thrown into the grip of madness as he is violently torn out of his perfectly shielded life. Like the Buddha, only his disenchantment and disillusion take him in the opposite direction. The absurdity and mendacity of it all was too much to bear. He ended up shooting a cousin who symbolized all he tried to lose then watching his newly found sister/lover run over by a car. One little detail worth mentioning: the sister was a gypsy. We didn’t speak during the film. Now, as I look back at what remains of the scene in the hazy mist of memory, I remember this image: her black, pebble stone thumbnail on the beer can.

It was getting late when we came out. We stood outside the warehouse as she lighted her pipe. A strange-looking woman ambled on the other side of the street. I only saw her back. She was wearing tight silver pants exposing well over half her ass, and a short red leather jacket, and swinging a flaming red purse from one arm. She had a birthday cone hat on and couldn’t even take one balanced step with the ludicrously high heels and violent intoxication. Something about her mien, walk, and the fallen pants made my heart sink. Even on this melancholy street.

“Do you know her? She seems really…she doesn’t seem well at all,” I said.

“It’s a he.”

“What! It is not that easy to tell, right? What’s his story anyway?”

“What do you mean?”

“He doesn’t seem well, as I said.”

“Pussy. He’s just crazy, that’s all. He’s a good man. His ma used to come here back when business was good. Kept trying to shake him for cash. He used to hide in my house till she went away. She kept rambling around the corner for days, bitching about how ungrateful the little fag is. She said all she wanted was to do a double act with him, some good money for his future. Mother and son kind of deal; some crazy shit. Said she knows people across the bridge who’d sink real money on a service like that and that he’s been a disappointment from the day he was born.”

“Why has she stopped coming?”

“She’s gone. They say he killed her. Punched her in the head till there was nothing there but blood, then cried over her body for three days straight.”

I decided to change the subject.

“What happened to your face by the way?”

“My face? What’s wrong with my face?”

“You’re bruised.”

“That’s nothing, sweetie. Just a wrong move with a gentleman, that’s all. It happens all the time! I’m hungry. Want to grab something to eat?”

On my suggestion, we went for a doner kebab. My system needed a change from the triple-digit-a-head business dinners I had been forced to endure on the other side of the bridge. I had to fend off the onslaught of piercing memories of my solo trip across Eastern Europe where I discovered the infinite pleasures of doner kebabs and thought I made the decision to choose consciousness over matter. She insisted we take the direction away from my motel. “I don’t usually eat this, you know,” she said, flushing.

“And why is that?”

“I’m a vegetarian. They say you don’t really grow old if that’s what you eat. Richard, my friend with the cart you just met, says it’s ’cause animals scream when they are dying. I don’t know about that, sometimes he’s too smart for his own good. It’s cheaper, too. You know, I once knew this guy who wouldn’t go into a house that served meat. Crazy kid. For a year he dreamed of eating meat every night, every fucking night, till one day he had a doner here! Next morning, he stuck a knife in his own stomach. Sad, you know. He was big on H. I told him not to eat it, but he wouldn’t listen. Everyone thought the H would get him and a doner got the job done. Cops gave us all shit. Turned out his family was high up.”

“That’s a very sad story. Aren’t you afraid you’ll end up with a knife in your stomach, too?”

She giggled. “Me, taking my own life? No way.”

“We are flirting with death one way or another all the time, right? I’ve considered it before I admit; but, thankfully, I’m too much of a coward. I hate pain.”

“Now you’re talking like Richard. You wanna know why I never think about it?”

“I’d love to.”

“’Cause I know one day, I’ll be happy.”

We parted ways after eating. I said that it was well past my bedtime. She looked disappointed but tried hard to hide it with a frail smile. Or maybe she wasn’t.

Why is this happening? I asked myself as I walked past the thinning crowds. I had an unshakable feeling of an enriching story coming my way.

Things were getting too seedy. All decent flesh taken and the most desperate prowled for a last-minute fix. I was elated for some reason, taking the outside in—tenderly, carefully—postponing pensiveness till the morning. For some reason, I didn’t even ask her about the secret and the gypsy. Looking back, I believe it was the flare that awakens one’s heart when a beautiful connection is made with another—or any creature for that matter—allowing us to reach out from the radical uneasiness, undefinable fear, and howling loneliness entrenched in every man’s soul. Whatever is said is ancillary; it’s the mutual presence, the trust that breaks the tyranny of thought imprisoning us in the walls of our smothered being. It is this kind of interaction that makes us human.

I fell asleep as soon as I hit the bed, fully clothed, of course. I must have been slumbering a couple of hours at most when I shot up on feeling a hand touch my face.

“Apologies for waking you up like this. Something happened. We need you.”

It was the infamous Richard again.

My new friend opened the door of her room, still in the same outfit, her face a bloodied soccer ball. She was holding a bottle of cheap wine. Till that point, I had no idea what was going on. My escort had refused to utter a single word on the short walk to her room but the look in her now barely visible eyes heralded what was to come. She was staring ahead as if I were the tip of an ominous horizon. The room was the size of a walk-in closet, empty space barely fitting three standing adults. On each side lay a bed and a cupboard. A chair and a small round table filled the middle ground. A destroyed birthday cake sat on it next to a burnt candle. A worn-out rug with a huge red serpent in the middle hung on one wall. Even though, furniture-wise, the two sides were identical, one was disturbingly neat, the other sheer chaos. Someone was sitting in the chair, facing the window, smoking a cigarette, hunched down, elbows on knees, lost in the scars on his knuckles. It was Pussy.

Only the sound of three lungs filled the air for a dense minute or so.

This can’t be good.

“So what is it, guys?”

Richard took a solemn step and pulled the rug aside, revealing a tiny cave of a bathroom. I saw a sink, a toilet, a broken, murky mirror, and a man sprawled out on the floor. Even though it was almost completely dark, it was hard to doubt the identity of the corpse. It was that revolting pimp from the bar, may he and all of his sorry lot rest in peace. He still had that vile sneer on his face. Some of us are so drenched in death on this earth that when the real thing comes, we probably won’t know the difference.

Being a man of privileged experience—despite my adventurous eccentricities—my reaction that day still shakes me. I felt nothing but an inexplicable urge to laugh. I searched inside for signs of what I would’ve expected to feel, and all I found was laughter. It was, as a matter of fact, a thing like any other circumstance: taking a walk, taking a shit, punching out, getting away with lying. Suddenly, it was just the same. The only thought that crossed my mind, as far as I remember, was this: He’s scum. A thin stream of blood snaked to the drain, and the only sound around the room, beside our tentative breaths, was its trickling.

“What happened?” I asked as I lit a cigarette Richard offered.

“He came here, enraged, looking for her. She had missed the night, obviously, and no one knew where she was. He suspected she was with you, a side business to him, of course. It’s all money with these demons. It’s all they see in life. One thing led to another, and he picked up where he left off this afternoon. She took a knife—it’s Pussy’s birthday, by the way—and stabbed him in the back. It wasn’t the first time he had beaten her. She had never fought back. I think it got through to the heart.”

And there she was, hiding out in a corner, facing the wall with the bottle dangling from her side: a little girl electing to be punished before she was forced to, as if this voluntary time-out would somehow erase what had come to pass.

Why I didn’t just walk out right then is something I’ll never figure out fully. I’ve got a lot of things to care about, I thought for a glimpse of a second. But a sense of duty crept in, maybe, a surrendering that I was an intricate part of this mess, that it was mine to clean up, too. It was a twisted triumph for good. It’s possible I was simply thrilled. It broke the tedium and horror of my wall-less prison, and for better or worse, I don’t think reason came to my aid that night. I watched from a distance.

My attention floated to Pussy. He hadn’t uttered, just stared at his fist, away, too far, still in the same ridiculous outfit, stinking, chain-smoking, avoiding any form of interaction with us—or with reality for that matter.

“So what do we do, Richard? What are our options?”

“We just need to get rid of the body. He’s illegal. We have a few hours till dawn.”

“Not sure about you, but this is kind of a first for me.” As soon as I said this, that simmering laugh escaped. I guess when stretched too far, we come to realize how vacant we’ve been, how petty, how shamelessly mediocre, drowning in the non-essential. And then all you can muster is a laugh, faced with the stench of this naked, bitter earth. It was a demented response from a narrow window, unprepared I guess, all along thinking that the real shit would never breach my most intricate defenses. “We’ve got to get him to the gypsy.”

I asked for a drink.

VIII

Rain was hammering the dead street and the occasional sleepless sufferer. I stood outside the phone booth while Richard tried to get hold of the gypsy. For a thousand bucks, she can take you outside time, he had explained on the way down. For a thousand bucks, she’d lift your veil, and undo your vilest mistake. For a thousand bucks, she’d make an honest blunder disappear. “She’ll come with a van, but we have to get the body to the other side of the bridge,” he said, leaning on the glass and shivering.

“Why can’t she just come here? How are we supposed to move him all the way there?”

“She says the street is venomous. You don’t have to come, and I will personally repay you. You’ve done more than enough. Please go and live a good, examined life.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“You never know what’s in store, my friend.”

“That’s not what I meant. Don’t worry about the money. It’s a gift. I have to go with you guys.”

“Today you’re young; too soon, you’re old. You know the song, I’m sure. Don’t get yourself into this.”

“Well, I already am. Can’t you see? I have to help you guys…and I need to…I have to see the gypsy.”

He paused for a second then said, “Hell, everything is all right all the time. Let’s go.”

IX

The rain hadn’t subsided when we went down. A couple of hundred meters, and we were good to go. Lives are known to take quite unforeseen, unwelcome turns from a lot less than what we had on our plates that night. It had to be done, though. We had to get to the gypsy. Our hands and souls had to be washed clean. We had to reach hard for a beam of light, grab it, and squirm forward. Pussy had lost his capacity for speech—or maybe he never had it to start with. I have to assume here. He just stood there, a mad Jesus in the midst of a wrong order, a fucked up what-is.

So now we were walking down that street of dawnless grey, with a bag of memories, shattered hopes, and bottomless sorrows; strangers in our own flesh, sinners doomed for no reason of our own. Our corpse was clad in Pussy’s infamous outfit, cone hat and all. We wrapped a big part of the dead man’s face and neck in a scarf, eyes hidden behind sunglasses just to make sure, and stuck him in Richard’s cart, sitting up, passed out from celebrating his rite of passage, while we all put on hats, blew whistles, acting beside ourselves with sheer happiness. Given the circumstances, it was the best camouflage I could come up with. To crown the scene, I made him hug the hose of the vacuum cleaner. We left the bags of books in the room. A celebration of existence par excellence, if you may. Richard had stuck a towel in the wound to soak up the bleeding and had instructed Pussy to stay back and clean up the flat. He nodded, and we all just had to take a dreary leap of faith and assume he understood what to do.

A hundred meters, man, and it’s over. A hundred meters and I will find out what the universe has prepared for me. Everything is always all right. Everything is always all right.

Something was looking down on us with a caring gaze, I was sure. We were all good at heart. We all meant well and no one asked for this. We got to the intersection with no incidents, the three of us behind the cart, holding it as if it was the only thing that defined our being, the beginning and end of our flowering and inevitable demise. I looked to the other side, and there it was. Unmistakable as a blazing sun in a naked sky, the blue lights casting a surreal halo on the glimmering street. The last station descended on us.

Heaven knows I always hated the police.

X

They almost passed us, paralyzed behind that hideous cart, but something made the cop in the passenger seat turn his head, and finding my eyes, he sniffed our folly right away. He was good, and I guess I’ve always been a terrible liar. A clean-shaven face with distressing eyes fronting an ocean of bitterness. The type that takes pleasure from seeing how low some of us can get in his moral hierarchy as he justifies beating his wife and kids. He leaped out from the car with an expectant grin on his face.

“What do we have here? Did I miss the cake, fellows?”

“I’m afraid you did, sir,” Richard retorted calmly. “We’re kind of wrapping up, as you can see.”

We were all drenched.

“What happened to him? And what the fuck is wrong with her face?”

“Birthday boy. Rough night. We’re planning on waking him up to watch the sunrise from the bridge. It’s been a long day.”

“I know your face! But you,” he shouted at me, “that’s a new face!”

I burst out laughing. This inexplicable laugh wasn’t gone apparently, still lurking insidiously, ready to play a more decisive role.

“Hey…come out here. We’ve got an idiot with a sense of humor,” he said. He then turned to us and barked, “Identification, garbage!”

I remember that I looked at her. She still had that stare in her eyes, exploring something inside me or maybe through me. Then she smiled and implored, “Kiss me.”

I stared blankly at her.

The other cop was slapping birthday-boy across the face. Richard was blabbering to the fuming cop that there was a passport somewhere, something about rights, and something about the sacredness of birthdays. Blue lights hovered in the rain. A thread of light sighed in the softening sky.

“So you won’t kiss me?” she asked. “Why? Am I that repulsive to you?”

Noises and flashes of blue.

“Say something. Why won’t you kiss me? Answer me!”

Noises and flashes of blue.

Her tears merged with the rain as she calmly reached down and pulled the gun from the waist of the cop still slapping birthday-boy around. The idiot must have been thoroughly savoring the physical abuse that he didn’t even notice. She looked straight at me, a gentle smile creeping onto her cheeks. A tender reproach, you would have thought. The gun pointed at her temple.

“Why won’t you kiss me? Why?”

Bam.

I shrieked and turned to the side, and, there, at the foot of the bridge, I saw a shadow, beyond this veil of madness, while blood screamed in my mouth. I wiped my face and peered through the flashes of red and blue. She was standing as still as eternity. The wet white dress…the heavenly face…the gypsy.

“I bought a beautiful painting that found me out of a pile of tacky art.”

 

All artwork is courtesy of Eman Osama.

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