A Deft Negotiation

I’m walking, I don’t know where. Near E, maybe. I remember seeing a street sign, later. It’s evening, but summer, so though seven is gone, and eight is coming with a rapidity that one only sees on the last day of the weekend, the sun is still up, and bright. Glaring even, down our numbered streets.

The houses hang high on either side, old Victorian women glaring down, delightfully disapproving. Even the short ones are up on their toes, great slabs of stone or concrete, and they loom. But, and maybe it’s to make up for that, the streets are wide, airy, and everywhere you look something is growing deep green, or blooming in some unexpected color. Or it’s a cat.

(Those are your choices. Growing, blooming, or a cat.)

I’ve got my music on. I was just online, gaming with friends, so my heart is pounding and I’m working out how I’m going to save everyone this time. I’m in sweats and my hoodie, ear-bud cords banging against my chest.

I’m walking toward a crossroads (isn’t that appropriate?). Standing on the corner, across from me, there’s a girl, a young woman, probably my age, with her not-quite-puppy wrapped around her legs. She’s facing the street I’m heading toward, but one of those looming houses blocks my view.

Another step, and I see the young man in the street, talking to someone. Another step, two someones, also young men, standing by their car.

Arms spread, shoulders large.


The picture comes together rapidly.

I don’t know when I paused the music. It must have been right then. But when did my headphones come out?

I stopped on the corner, across the street from the young lady.

I don’t remember what the young men were shouting. Does it matter? (“Put the knife down and fight me, nigga!” Or maybe it was “brother”.)

She was shouting too. “I’m leaving!” (She said his name, the name of the white boy in the check jacket. Lord, I thought he was going to get smeared across the pavement. But watch the way he moves. He’s as scared as they are. We’re all scared together.) “I’m going now! Come on, let’s go!”

He wasn’t listening.

Neither, I suppose, were they, but how would I know?

Had there been two knives? Black bladed, visible from across the street, from down the street, because nothing else is quite that shape, or held in quite that way? I don’t know. But if there had been, there was shortly only one.

I walked over to the young woman, as both the least occupied, and the most sane. “Excuse me miss, did you want me to have the police called?” I hadn’t brought my cellphone. I figured I could knock on doors until someone let me borrow their phone.

But I was saved that because she just shook her head, almost rolled her eyes, and said, “No.” And then, “Come ON! I’m leaving! Let’s go!” (That frustration. Knowing you are the only sane person in the room, knowing you are sensible, but finding that no one will listen to you, and they ignore you, as though you were a thousand miles away, or on the other side of a TV screen.)

“I’m leaving!” She took a few steps away, but stopped. Drawn, terrified. But calm as well, and angry. But mostly terrified. (If I walk away, how can I help? If I stay, do I make it worse?)

A knife (the check jacket’s? One of those others, not yet put away?) moves sharply, the dog leaps forward and barks, just once, tail wagging. The shouting has grown louder. The man on the far side of the car, the one of the pair doing the talking, moves carefully backward and forward. Like this is a dance. Don’t be so far away he’ll come after you, don’t be so close he’ll attack. “Fight me, nigga!”

She shouts, “If you don’t come with me now, you won’t see me again!”

I took a few steps with her, but she stopped again. I retreated back across the street. She didn’t need me. I was ruining her groove.

A few shouts later, she walked off, back the way I had come.

I leaned against the telephone pole and pulled out my iPod, pretending it was a phone I was dialing on, or texting maybe, and watched.

They were still shouting. I can hardly remember any words. But I think what it meant was this:

“I am bigger then you. I will take you. You do not want to fight me. Leave.”

Or, perhaps more accurately, “I am not afraid to fight you! But I don’t want to.”

Or, secretly, “I am afraid.”

I watched.

“Your bitches are leaving!” (One of the pair, the one who talked. The other one stood on the other side of the car, or almost around. Maybe he was the same as us, pinned by fear, not sure what to do. Or maybe he was doing something else. How would I know?)

A few more shouts, another exchange. And the boy in the check jacket says, “Whatever! You just keep shouting nigga, nigga, nigga!” Not a racial insult, but in a high pitched, mimicking voice. Just like you used to use on your sister when you were younger. Making fun of what she said.

I was shocked. Or would have been, if I had anything in me but that hot, pounding calm which descends on me when there is nothing to do, but I know I must do something.

And the guy with the car says something which might have been “Whatever man.” (Was he in red? I think he was well dressed, in a red t-shirt and a white t-shirt under that. But I have no idea. But I’m pretty sure he wasn’t in a suit. I would have remembered that. Right?)

The boy (you’ll note his age changed. It’s because of the way he pitched his voice for his ever-so-devestating parting comment) runs, or walks quickly anyway, down the street, presumably chasing the young woman.

The two men get in their car and drive away.

And just like that, the street is quiet.

There are no more knives.

There is no more shouting.

Everything is normal.

I put my headphones in and started walking again. A few houses down there is a neighbor, standing on the sidewalk and smoking. Still staring down the street, like the gravity of the event has not yet released him.

When it happened, it was a white hot experience. Clearer then the mountains on a sunny winter morning. Clearer then perfect ice. By the time I sat down to write it, the morning after, by the time I tried to tell it, not an hour later, it had faded, blurred.

And I’m left with this… impression. As if the world is a fresh oil painting that someone has run their hand across.

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