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Pets & Beasts
The Crowd Forms
by Ali Fahmy | Author's Links

The crowd forms as the one more becomes the one more and the one more turns into one less and the covers come off and the people around the man and the woman shudder like penguins leaning over a cliff as a comet comes toward them, a thousand miles an hour and light years away but they're penguins, can't count, can't correctly calculate distances and measures and wide gaps between cliffs, gaps which are smaller than they think but they're stuck - still, scared, and tugging at their own legs. The people shudder and stare and keep walking.
     Then the one more becomes another one more and the woman tugs at her hair as if it were a panther and the strand she pulls a panther's tail, but look closer - the man is a woman too and the first woman with the panther hair laughs and coughs and corrects her friend on her geography and there is dread in the city tonight - something, someone is coming to town to cause trouble and this is a surprise as it's too hot for trouble but not hot enough to keep still, to be safe, to pull one's legs toward one in bed and not think about the back of the head, the panther hair.
     The woman skulks toward the bridge in the distance, the one on which cars do not travel and trains never did but will someday travel over if the taxes can be raised and the bridge can be named after a councilperson. Or a thief. Or a brave soldier, victim of friendly fire. Or a merchant, with beady eyes and a tart tongue. The woman is running now. The bridge is on fire. In her mind. But in the man-woman's, all is still. There is no fire. There is no cause for alarm. There is only some bright kind of madness.
     The rays from the sun reflect off the metal of the cars and the light resonates, past the dull, declining balloons and the awnings that look better on cloudy days. The rays reflect past the boarded-up city bars, closed for summer, open again in September with a new name and the same old design and the ratty old ATM out front which looks like it should have wheels so it'd be easier to steal and break open with thick hammers and pitchforks used for gardening or basting or both.
     The man-woman who in the lessening light now is clearly a man pulls a cello out of his case. His friend the woman is rushing for a fire on a bridge on which the future bodes better than the recent past. Better, at least, than the cello and a bow and a songbook in the man's mind. He plays the sweeter of the sad songs and then the sadder of the sweet ones. He plays poems from the pit of his distressed, chalky soul and he's not being touched by the sun. He's underneath an awning, a black one, and no one is arguing with him today, so he's happy.
     He puts the cello away. His heart can't take any more. He sits on the sidewalk and stares at the passing cars looking for better parking spaces and has fatalistic thoughts with serious repercussions. And he's scared. The repercussions are almost too much to take. He may be going mad too. Like his friend. She's on her way back from the bridge, claiming that she saved lives, claiming third-degree burns but she looks the same as she did before she flailed away like a fast-talking salesman clinching the deal. She sits next to the man and notices that the cello case is shut, the cello presumably inside it. She asks him how it went, any money? He pulls out a few ones from his shirt pocket. He stands up. They walk toward the shadowy side street, perhaps to spend the money. They like poetry. They read it to each other at night. They like to fall asleep to each other's words. They take turns. They're a little sad today, a little addled by the sun. Which is going down. Which won't be back until Tuesday. Today is Saturday.
     When the two of them met he was on top of the world and she was a sly slight vixen with black hair and an emperor's tongue. Her Ming-the-Merciless demeanor met his cloud-walking self-gratification and together they rode each other's shirt collars and frayed jeans to where they are today, lovers and friends with one pulse in a fading corner of their beloved city, the one they can't leave because it's just too difficult to start everything over, even if everything isn't much. But back then, in the beginning, they had visions.
     When they met, she was walking across a bridge, a different bridge, a longer one, this one high above the Mississippi. A harsh wind smacked discordant ricochets of remembered voices into her tired mind. In a pea green wool coat, under a navy blue wool cap she looked the part of a man of the sea except the sea was a river and she regarded it as nothing but something she had to walk over to get to the other side. He was walking in the opposite direction. He called to her, by what he guessed was her name. He was wrong. She corrected him. She commented on his black-clad grimness and his cello case and asked him to play a song right there. He played the sweetest of the sad songs, the one whose very melody caused generals to weep and wastrels to tell secrets. She took his hand and walked with him, in his direction, away from her appointments and commitments. She hummed the song. He introduced himself. Black crows, albino pigeons, and itinerant geese flew over and around them. As the sun began to set and the bridge lights were lit, they reached the other side and in whispers they made plans for a life together.
     He only had one cello lesson, ever. The teacher, a shrew, took one look at his short fat fingers and said, no it won't work, your fingers are too fat, it can only happen if you work twice as hard as everyone else, but we'll try. He stared holes into her eyes and played poorly, on purpose, saving his more nimble efforts for when he was alone.
     There had been a fire once, near the bridge where she claimed to save lives. When she was a little girl, there was a fire along the railroad tracks and she saw the pictures in the newspaper and the footage on TV. She doesn't ask herself if she was summoning her childhood, burning a memory or freeing a piece of her. She doesn't question whether today's fire was real. She doesn't ask anything of herself. She just remembers the fire then and she swears she saved lives, today, Saturday.
     The morning after they met on the bridge, he took her to his favorite place. His favorite place is in their city, but so anomalous that it may as well belong to a different universe, one with weaker gravity and breathing based on love. Landlocked, tree-shaded beyond reason, the place has echoes of wars fought with man-made objects, of chain-linked fences built after urban riots, of hamstrung flowers and confused children writing names in dirt.
     He said to her, that's where they put my father. And his brothers are over there. And this, this is where my mother will go, when it's time. And I don't want to end up here. But it's my favorite place. She said nothing, just looked in his eyes and admired his short fat fingers until she knew it was time to put her own fingers between them and guide him toward the sun, past the cemetery gates, far from any river, from any home they'd know.
     Back in the part of the city where the crowd first formed, the only part of town that shunned summer and preferred to stay in, they walk outside, today, Saturday. Men with computers in leather bags walk past them and look away. Women with small plastic bags and girls with new piercings walk past also but stare for a second before looking away. A statue in the distance waits for them.
     The statue is of an unknown soldier but rendered so specifically that it is implausible that he would remain unknown if his family or friends came here, to the middle of a beautiful green field, saturated with oak trees, parts of the lawn still impressed with the bodies of people from spring. From a distance the soldier appears to be staring into everyone's eyes. Up close, the soldier is clearly looking away. He seems resigned to death.
     Inside his case, the man with the cello keeps two sandwiches in plastic bags. He hands one bag to the woman. On the bench in front of the statue, their backs to the soldier's wandering eyes, they silently eat, holding hands, waiting for the world to cool down. Impossibly, the sun disappears in a matter of seconds. Impossibly, it rains. Thunder comes and they lay on the bench, end to end. They are now naked. The rain lasts for as long as it would have taken for the sun to set and they allow themselves to be cleansed and they're so happy that they forget that the cello case is open and their only money is soaked, that their clothes are drenched and will be nearly impossible to put on, that the world is closing in on them and their singular and collective minds are traipsing toward madness, toward tars and feathers for a preening crowd. They forget all that. They are their own crowd, their one universe. They are the errant crows on tall buildings, the urban turtles wasting away in dirty water, the splintered children on see-saws, the picnic table dragonflies, the rude and the cordial, the uncorrected patters in cement, they are the panthers, the penguins, the soldiers.


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Hedonism: Theory & PracticeLetters & GlossolaliaArt of MarriageMoney TalkPets & BeastsZounds

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