Excerpt from “Facing North” (2005)

This started out as a NaNo novel and has had some revision. There are plot snags that have me stymied, but I like a lot of the writing. I thought I’d post a few excerpts.

The light turned red. She stepped back onto the curb, the wind playing in the hem of her skirts, lifting one layer and the next, near the tops of her laced, Victorian boots. A stout, elderly woman arrived beside her, peering with sidelong disdain through the glasses she wore on a chain around her neck. Sure, Pittsburgh was a bit of a backwater, but it wasn’t the Middle Ages nor were the gusts likely to give anyone a Monroe-style thrill at the sight of naked legs and French lingerie in the broad light of day. A surreptitious glance showed that the black lace slip was showing, but after all, she wanted it that way, all the layers and patterns, black on black, distracting from the tiny moth holes in the fragile chiffon and velvet. She lifted a palm against the fullness of the skirt and let the folds fall silkily against her thigh. Black it was and always would be, like the smoke tatters twisting overhead, prayer flags torn from their moorings, the dying breath of the molten impulse of creation.

A big yellow school bus clattered through the intersection, still full of children on their way home in the day’s last blaze of sun. In each window, dressed in pastel hats and jackets, the boys and the girls made a game of bouncing along with the jostling bus, each a magical note in the visual music leaping within the band of the glass windows. She felt their rhythm, swayed with it, a willow wand in the bounding air. Had that ever been her? Her past came back in terms of sepia, hints of gray and dirty whites, black lurking and strong. It smelled of earth, the past. Except when she was dancing.

A human noise, rippling up the street, broke through the dream, as a tattered figure appeared on the ledge of the three-story building at the end of the block. It was a fairly busy street at this time of day, the main business district in the neighborhood, a thoroughfare to the new four-lane Parkway. The man up there was not big, thin-limbed, and might have been a boy really; people were gathering, so that she was having a hard time seeing over their shoulders. The raggedy fellow wore layers of clothes, flapping like a flag up there on the roof, green army surplus coat over a blue-checkered flannel shirt, a frayed brown sweater underneath, maybe a shirt and tie too, a hunter’s orange cap with the flaps pulled down. Something clenched in her belly, something other than the thought that a boy was going to hurt himself on the tallest building in the neighborhood, a beer distributor with its porch roof shingled into a red, white and blue replica of the American flag. The silhouette still capered up there, an unraveled sort of ballet dance, flapping and ungainly like his clothes, with a little dog, a scrubby brown thing, jumping at his heels.

Long-finned cars squealed to a stop at the cross street as each driver spied the kid on the roof, or reacted to the gathered, pointing pedestrians, horns bellowing at each other as the jam of cars clogged the intersection. A few cars tapped into each other, shattering rocket-burner taillights, but the occupants of the cars were more interested in watching the oncoming tragedy than worrying about who had rear-ended them. There would be time for that later, after all the excitement was over.

And then the kid jumped.

He fell hard, hitting the star-spangled roof with a thwap before tumbling another twenty feet or so to the pavement. The dog was right behind him, leaping into the air, but his legs buckled at impact with the roof. It seemed to happen really fast; they were falling and then there was a lumpy heap on the sidewalk. The little dog landed on top of the boy. Thump. The crowd gasped all together and nothing moved, boy or dog or crowd or girl, except for a man in horn-rimmed glasses that rushed for the phone booth to call the police. The orange cap rolled off the boy’s head as an afterthought, the autumn breeze sending oak leaves into the soft brown curls. She tried to move in closer, to push into the crowd, desperately heaving and shoving, trying to push between couples clutching hands in shock, gray and brown businessmen and young moms in sneakers and capris pushing hearse-like strollers. In their rapture at witnessing something gruesome in the midst of their orderly lives, rather than reading it in the paper or hearing it from Walter Cronkite, the bystanders were annoyed with her impatience. It didn’t make moving forward any easier.

By the time she had wedged herself into a place where she could peer between the restless onlookers, she was midway down the block. The boy sat up; cap perched on the back of his head again, little worse for wear but for the red wheals and scrapes on his face and hands. He cradled the dog in his arms and got up, giggling to see all the people staring at him.

“He ain’t really hurt,” the boy said, lifting the dog a bit in his arms.

That’s when she knew. 

She hurled her little frame against the last impeding backs. “Sammy!” she yelled.           

The dog began to squirm, so the boy put it on the ground. In the distance, an ambulance siren whined toward them from the north.

“Sammy!” she shouted. Her voice was bigger than she was.

“Let me pass!” she hollered almost as loud, into the arms and elbows fencing her in. When at last she shoved into the clear, he was gone.

“Where did he go?”

She asked the people milling around, one and then another, busy retelling the scene to each other. “Where did he go?”

They looked suspiciously at the tiny, freckled woman costumed like a flapper in mourning, shrugged their shoulders, turned and asked her question to each other. Where did he go?

Her hard-heeled boots clattered down the sidewalk, the length of the block, peering into the dry cleaner, the jeweler, the coffee shop as she dashed past them, weaving through traffic to go up the other side, café, bank, bakery, alleys, side streets, nothing. He was gone.

That wasn’t a boy at all.

That boy was a man, and he was her brother, her older brother. Not that he’d ever had the gravity of maturity, even nine years older than she was, which must put him into his thirties by now.

He’d left home when he was sixteen and she was just a tot, and in all that time she’d certainly seen him only once, late at night, the summer she was fifteen. She could tell he was a fair bit crazier than he’d been, so that she wanted more than anything to go with him; maybe look after him a bit. No sooner had she gotten the words “I’m coming with you” out of her mouth, but he disappeared. And it wasn’t as if he turned his back, walked away, was packed and gone when she woke. No, as it always was with Sammy, he was there, looking into her eyes, giggling his high-pitched giggle, bouncing on his toes, and then, with a quiet sigh, he evaporated. How else to describe it? Like fog in sunlight, a ghost of a breath in snowy air. She’d found him, only to lose him.

She felt no despair, only disappointment. Their paths would cross again; they always did.

She threaded her way back down the block and crossed to the beer distributor. Sammy had knocked a red asphalt shingle loose when he hit the roof and she nudged it with the toe of her boot while she watched the white-clad ambulance driver in conversation with the shopkeepers. The man nodded to her and she returned the gesture. There was a damp mark, dark like mud, on the sidewalk where he’d landed. She turned her back on the empty ambulance and bent over as if to retie her boot, palming the shingle. It went into the canvas bag she carried over her shoulder.

It was futile to seek him any further right then; he was light years away in all likelihood. She turned back up the hill toward the corner store to get the cream soda and Fritos she’d been craving when the school bus went by. A sign, those children, because Sammy came after. The solitary bird, whatever it was, that had called on that summer night, she still remembered the sound of it because Sammy came after. Golden light vibrated through the yellow sycamore leaves overhead, but her heart sank. The day was done. With the sun was her freedom; without it, she was tied, like the stars, to the night and its requirements. Food first, and then the city bus, and no thoughts of Freddie until he was in her face again.

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