Ben raised his head and looked around. The words “I wish I could learn to do that” cut through the fog around his head.
“What? ” he asked, still groggy after only a few seconds.
“I wish I could learn to do that. Sleep until my stop comes along.” A young man sat across from Ben on the bus, smiling a soft bus wide smile.
“Yeah,” his response came out flat and dropped, like something heavy pushed out of a window. Ben pulled himself out of his seat, a dislike for the other man’s smile swimming in his stomach. Still, he was relieved to be pulled from the current of a dream that had changed on him. It began with a wide, heavy darkness that had a certain calm, hidden feeling until the same thick darkness began to feel like he was lost, as if he were deep inside a collapsing water well. Buried alive. There was a word for that, he thought, “irony” or something.
As he stepped from the bus into the surrounding night, it seemed to him that his friend Simon would have a better way of putting it. Ben stood there looking up and down the road and at the street lights that dotted it like stitching as far as the eye could see. Simon had always known how to look at things, pull them apart in his mind like a child looking for bugs in a woodpile. Some of this curious ability had rubbed off onto Ben, but in comparison he had always felt like a poker player with weaker cards. Ben was always pulling his thoughts and feelings out one at a time, as if rescuing bodies from an old, fallen building. And now Simon, his friend and young apprentice in theft, was dead.
Even as the thought surfaced that Simon was gone, a man walked by wearing a dark dress jacket and jeans—typical clothing for Simon. This young man even had the same mop of curly hair, but no glasses. Strange to think that there must be pieces of every dead man walking around in different places, Ben thought. There must be somebody around here who loved opera and culture, other bored young graduates looking for something to do. But that’s foolish. Simon was dead and with his death came the extinction of all that he was, exactly as he was. That was the thought Simon would have been proud of. Ben smiled inwardly and ran his fingers through his greying hair as he wondered just who the apprentice had been. The thought that Simon was dead kept bumping and scraping into his mind, trying to settle.
He began to walk the downtown streets while further shark-like memories circled him. The past had always felt like something he wished he could shake off; tin cans tied to the heels of his shoes. He wasn’t even sure what had made him turn to small-time theft, just the fact that it was easy, he guessed. All the jobs he had pulled off didn’t feel like much when gathered together in his mind, like a bundle of sticks, brittle and dry. And now there were fewer days ahead than there were behind. At least in the past few years Simon had tried to change him, massage into him a love of culture. What was the film they had gone to? Oh, The Bicycle Thief. Leaving the theatre, Ben couldn’t help but remark that “in the part where the father tries to steal a bike out of desperation, I could have done a much better job.” Simon had burst into laughter. Ben also remembered liking the end, that the father and son still respected each other. But now even memories of Simon brought a twitch of pain. He remembered reading in the cold, bare words of a newspaper, “BODY OF YOUNG MAN FOUND, SHOT DEAD.” He remembered somebody trying to break the tension with a joke after Simon’s funeral; a simple and honest one, but it was like lighting a match into a cold wind. The ice was unbreakable. A signal flare does not shatter the night. Ben didn’t cry when he read the news, or when he attended the funeral. The emotion fluttered inside him like a wounded bird, and then was still. Someone had once told him his feelings were in the grave already.
The city streets had a harsh and constant edge to them. The loud, ambulance laugh of a woman blended slowly into the slurred words of a drunk up ahead. The drunk stood on the edge of the sidewalk, waving his fist and threatening to jump into the street, which would simply have landed him between two parked cars.
Teenagers hung out of the windows above and laughed.
“I’m gonna jump!”
Ben passed by, watching that the drunk and swinging arms didn’t get too close, noting the number of teenagers. In his career, he had learned to catch all the details in case it was useful. He continued on, dropping the scene gently from his mind without further thought. He kept up his brisk pace, the street slowly sliding by, until an image jerked his mind away from the cloud of thoughts around it and he stopped. The plastic front of a newspaper box blurred a photograph on the front page. Three female cheerleaders with rough, black dot eyes, hair pulled back, and wide, right-angle mouths had appeared to him like newborn feeding birds. So much wanting. He walked away slowly, wondering what Simon would have said. He wondered if he would always want to know what Simon would have said or thought. Probably he would always think of him, guess at his reactions to things. Ben had never wondered that before, never missed the presence of someone. He had seen death before, even the deaths of those he knew well. But it had never felt like somebody ripped away. Simon would have commented on the wanting. He would have said that we all want, that feeding chicks are a brilliant metaphor for cheerleaders, for the wanting and kicking and fighting we all do. And in the end, all of our individual struggles, all our unique thought and paths vanish, lost unless we write them down. Writing, Simon would have said, was the only way to tell people, really tell people, what you have done. Simon had poems that left Ben speechless, that actually stirred the embers of his emotion. And strangest of all, Simon had told him that he could write his experiences. After all, he said, all you’ve got to have are experiences, feelings, and a pen. Ben was sure about the experiences, but not about the feelings. The death of Simon was the only thing that had moved him in years, perhaps decades. He had not been aware of how close they had become.
It was only a few steps to the corner where Ben stood waiting for several cars to slip in the larger street before he could continue on.
A woman in the passenger seat of a car was suddenly in front of him as her car moved up. Out of awkwardness, friendliness, she smiled. He returned the smile, but caught his own pointed features and leather-like skin in the surface of the car as it crept away and found that what he had managed to push out across his face looked more like a grimace. Again, before he could step off the sidewalk, a car was in front of him, this one green and polished. This could be Sinclair, he thought. Sinclair likes green for some reason. It probably makes him feel like he’s closer to nature. The window slid down, accompanied by the automatic drone of such things. Ben needed no time to recognize the plump face, dark green suit and tie of Mr. Sinclair.
“We need to talk business,” Sinclair said flatly.
“You know that Simon was killed? I don’t know if I can do any jobs for awhile, I just don’t know. I have some money stored away I can live on.”
“I know about Simon, and I’m sorry. Get in and we’ll talk. You probably need to talk, right? I’ll buy you a coffee.”
“I never should have let him do a job alone. What the hell was I thinking? ” Ben was still stuck in his thoughts, sinking as if in quicksand, while two of Sinclair’s men stepped out of the car and, each holding an arm, guided him into the back seat with Sinclair. As the car left in favour of another part of the city, Sinclair sat looking at Ben with a slightly curious expression, while Ben slumped, as if lifeless.
Simon had challenged him once to come up with one good memory from any part of his life. Ben had stumbled around and pulled out a story from his childhood before he ran away from home. The family had driven up north to find that work on the cottage had been completed, but there was some thin legal reason why the family could not stay there that first night. The licence did not apply yet, or something. Ben and his family spent the night in an old barn, broken and full of holes. It sat exposed in the middle of a field, home to a number of bats. Despite being so exposed, the fear drained away from him, replaced with a sense of nestled security like none he had known. The sound of the bats soon blended with his dreamy, tired state and became friendly and soothing, like distant waves washing up onto the shore of his fading thoughts as he drifted off. It was as if they were naked, exposed in defiance under the stars in the middle of nowhere, but safe. For the last time, he was safe with his family. Safe inside the law. After that, the pressures began, on his parents and on him, and he began to look for an escape, a way to live his own life, take what he needed. Now that memory was distant, and broken off from everything else, like a shard of glass on the ground. Ben had seen something of this in Simon. A streak of warmth that was not completely masked by the little bit of sadness in his eyes. Simon didn’t sit there grinning. No, not like an idiot. But there had been some colour in Simon that he had not quite known how to use. Or even if he could hang on to it.
One of Sinclair’s men banged open the door to the roof. They had taken the elevator first, and Ben guessed that they were now thirty stories off the ground.
“This provides a little privacy for our discussion,” Sinclair said, looking out across the rows of rooftops. “I hate this place. The city is a pool of desires, nobody caring for anybody else. I hate it when my work requires that I actually come to town. Most of my time, my reputation and my men can do it for me. Call me an older man if you want to, but I like the company of my trees, my gardening. In this world, simplicity is so rare that it’s fucking beautiful.”
“Yeah...simplicity,” Ben said stupidly. He was always slightly nervous around Sinclair.
“Loyalty is just as rare, Ben. And when I find disloyal people, I need to weed them out. You’ve ripped me off, Ben, and this is something I can’t tolerate.”
“I what? ” Ben was stunned, now facing the three men on an open rooftop.
“You and Simon did the job a few weeks ago, but didn’t deliver all the money to my friends here,” Sinclair motioned around him to his men, who stood looking like surly store mannequins.
“Jesus...you killed Simon,” Ben said, his mind passing back to the night they had hit the box office of a small, independent theatre on a busy night. Simon had commented that he didn’t want to do it. It was probably the one time Ben saw his mood drop so low. Simon had said that to hit a small theatre doing Shakespeare was as bad as a human could get. And Ben had promised over coffee that they would never do a job that gave him such a bad feeling. A fantasy hurried through Ben’s mind in which he pushed money into Simon’s hands, saying, “Go. Go to a beach somewhere and write. I don’t want you to die. I don’t want you to die.” But who could tell this would happen? Ben knew that he was about to be killed also, but he must try to say something, something that would explain that he and Simon had taken nothing, something to clear their names, even if they were both killed. Ben wanted this for Simon more than he cared about it for himself.
“Look, we delivered exactly what we picked up, after taking our payment, like we arranged. It worked out to about two thousand or...” Ben’s eyes dashed around. He knew that his fear made him look guilty. The world began to spin around him. “We’re...we’re trying to begin a relationship with you, right? We wouldn’t do that. Simon always said...he always said that you have to have principles...” His voice trailed off until he found a new thought. “If anything went missing, it was taken after the money left our hands, and before it was put in yours. Your men know that you don’t know us very well...” Again his voice deflated as the two men on both sides of Sinclair produced pistols.
“What was that you said before, about having some money stored up? Look, my friend, I still have respect for you, but I need to keep my reputation, and it must be absolute. It must be spotless. Believe me, I don’t enjoy leaving my green, my fields. Do you have any requests? Anything I can do for you after this? ”
Ben took a step back out of instinct. What a bastard, to speak about his execution as if it were a minor inconvenience. He looked around, a hundred thoughts worming in his mind. He flashed through them and discarded them like playing cards. He drew in a breath of crisp night air and savoured it, wondering why it had been so long since he had done that. It was one of those nights when the clouds were overlapping, layered round wads of cotton that fill the sky, the moon asking only for one bright corner, like a child nestled among all his toys. A child. The moon, the patchwork of city lights, everything demanded his attention so that he did not know where to begin, his mind bounced around to touch and pull away, finally coming to rest on where he was now, what was about to happen, and how Simon was already gone. He felt the crest of emotion rise in his chest, choked off and bottled before tears could begin. No tears for himself. No tears for Simon. He couldn’t help it.
“So, you have nothing to say? ” Sinclair stood, looking at him, his men clearly impatient. Somewhere from the confusion, Ben pulled out one idea and embraced it. It would make it more difficult for them—and more, he quickly thought. Ben smiled. It happened slowly, creeping out and growing into a full, unembarrassed grin. A smile of knowing that brightened even further when a look of astonishment was imposed into Sinclair’s blank, almost bored face.
All Ben needed to do was twist his body around and take a few steps. One great leap, which, as he looked down, almost made it feel as if the buildings sailed away beneath him. As he began to fall, his voice broke off into a scream of fear, thrill, and defiance as the force of the air began to surround his body, pushing tears that now burst out straight back, whipping back his hair and curling around his frame, which on his neck and shoulders felt like a reassuring but ghostlike hand. As his thoughts continued to multiply and spread, waves of emotion, caught and spinning together, impaled his stomach and spread outward from there in prickly jumps to his fingertips where it stood dancing like a sailor on a gangplank before the next wave of dull ache that brought unconsciousness. And he fell—a real, broken, shooting star of emotion.