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An Alley by Clyde Liffey


The warehouses to my left reminded me of acacias, more precisely, the idea of acacias, for I can only reliably identify the easy trees (oaks and maples) whereas I can easily distinguish all kinds of buildings especially those in this, my new neighborhood. Trees are I suppose a kind of factory with their unique outputs (fruits, nuts, sap) and their industry specific production cycles. In early November most of the trees in the Northeast slow down like warehouses in the evening, letting most of their workers off with just a few night watchmen and the always present cameras on guard.

I needed the warehouses to relax me.

I’d been told to try meditation. Modern technology allows us to take meditation classes at work, at home, or on the road. I took my shoes off, sat on the floor, crossed my legs, chanted, became aware of this or that part of me or my environs, then thought of all the things that were and weren’t happening at work, on the fields of my wars, and in the various sectors of my home front. I returned to the counselor. She suggested I take walks if not at lunch then after work or dinner. I needed to let go, I was afraid I’d never retrieve what I let go.

And so wherever I find myself (I travel more than forty weeks a year), I look for a place where I can walk. I’d heard when I was young that New Yorkers travelling to other places (Houston, Frankfort, though oddly enough I’ve never been abroad) often get mugged simply because they don’t know the character and layout of the neighborhoods of the cities they visit. There have thus been times when I’ve restricted myself to circuiting the block the hotel is on. Counterclockwise, then clockwise, it helped but very little. When I had a destination, a local museum, say, or a high class shopping district, I’d get more nervous, worried about retracing my steps or getting hit by a cabbie making a right on red.

Oddly enough I didn’t plan on walking that evening. It was one of those odd weeks in the year when the boss wanted everyone in the home office. I reacquainted myself with his staff, an ill-assorted bunch. Half to two-thirds of us were fifty or near fifty. The rest had graduated college within the past five years. I spent most of the afternoon working with one young fellow who reminded me of myself at his age. Not brash like most of his cohort, he exuded a quiet confidence that endeared him to me in a comradely way before inducing the thought, “Can he execute?” Whenever I work with young men I of course compare them to our son, who still lives with us.

I’d hoped to spend some time with said son in front of the football game that night. I rarely see him on weekends, almost never during the week. A check of my bank and credit card balances led me to suspect he was lagging on his college applications. Conversations with my wife, an education administrator on a rare business trip, confirmed my suspicions. I thought an evening before a game, a throwback to his late preadolescence, would help us reconnect. I’d get a better idea of what kind of person he is, be better able to guide him in his choices.

The last time we spoke he told me he was interested in tailoring. “Do you mean fashion design?” I asked. “There are plenty of good schools in the area for that. You can even go into costume design. New York is a drama capital.”

“No,” he said, “just tailoring.”

I meant to understand him but as happens more and more frequently these days, work intervened. A client that I’d been doing business process work with (for that is my shtick these days) called in the late afternoon with a question.

My boss thought it would be fun to work through the scenario with the youngsters. My client quickly agreed – he’d get free consulting services and multiple viewpoints, our junior members would gain valuable experience, it was a win-win situation except that I lost most of my evening. We weren’t done till well after nine. Someone turned the TV on in the big conference room where we’d been working. The game distracted me. As we separately arranged with the company car service for rides to our homes, the young man I’d been working with heard me tell the dispatcher the name of the small street I live on.

“You live on de Crécy Street?” He pronounced it Creecy.

“Yes, what of it?”

“That’s crazy.”

We attracted an audience. “But all of you could afford to live there.” I had a good idea of how much money they made. Besides, I wasn’t very impressed with my neighborhood’s coolness, perhaps because I rarely saw it. The upshot was that I’d invited the group to a holiday party at my place on a Saturday evening to be determined sometime between Diwali and Christmas.

My boss took me aside before I got on the elevator. “That was a great move, hosting that get-together. Those kinds of decisions are what will help our company go far in our space.” I didn’t want to go far, I just wanted to go home.

I told the driver to let me off a few blocks before I reached my house. I had a clear enough idea of my son’s habits. He’d have given up on me – we’d made no formal plans – and have already gone to some friend’s house till eleven or so. I couldn’t blame him. His high school commute was disrupted when we moved here eighteen months ago. He’d kept some of his old friends, was still making new ones, people I’d never met. My work taught me that building strong relations takes time.

The pizza we’d ordered in was still repeating on me when I stepped out of the car. My bag was light, the moon, haloed and gibbous in the mist above the streetlamps, beckoned me. A few brown leaves detached from their caged trees on the brownstone blocks not so far from here swirled on the sidewalk, stimulated thoughts of my mortality. Every week, more from a sense of Schadenfreude than of concern, I read of the death of someone younger than me. More than every other week I hear about the demise of some member of whatever the media is calling the twenty-something generation these days. Buoyed by the fresh draft that had scattered the leaves, by my not unaccustomed sense of melancholy, I tightened my collar around me and continued down my sighted, insightful alley.

Though we’d long ago settled into a pattern, never mind which, that many married couples fall into at our stage, I never thought of cheating on my wife during my business trips. Fresh or, more likely, exhausted from my post prandial stroll I’d sit at the hotel room desk and catch up on my voluminous misspelled correspondence meanwhile thinking only of sleep. Perhaps it was the sound of footsteps, clicking heels as in West Side Story, that I heard behind me – I turned, saw no one – or maybe it was the briskness of the evening or simply that I wasn’t traveling and my wife for once was – in any case, I was aroused. I saw her leaning against a lamppost, the unflickering light illuminating little. She was tall for a woman, thin, almost hip-less, her dyed blonde hair too perfectly done up. Something about her skin tone reminded me of my son who looks more like my wife than me. The darkness of his skin, the curliness of his hair which he wears too long, the near feminine thickness of his lips – there are those who think he’s a halfie. He was always closer to his mother than to me. She assured me his coloring had something to do with her ancestry which she traced to Southern and Eastern Europe. When drunk she claimed Roma blood. I never listened: I’ve always been more interested in process than origins.

I’m usually hesitant around people I don’t know or know only slightly. Something impelled me to go straight to her. I nuzzled her cygnet neck softly, reached for a hip, she murmured something, I pressed harder against her, was wondering where and how far we would go, how we’d negotiate payment when she suddenly slipped from my grasp. I leaned to reach her, saw a compact black handbag – leatherette with a brick in it - swing, then felt it hit my side. I fell to the ground immediately, reached for the back of my head which banged hard against the pavement. I heard the heels again, moving more quickly this time, most likely streaming from a dark alley. I heard too the hand slaps and the various voices: “Way to go, Angie!”, “¡Bueno, Angel!”, and a more matter-of-fact, “Good work, Vidal.” Through half closed eyes I saw her shimmy out of her dress and heels, he bulged in his underwear for a moment then he was in a track suit. I felt hands reach into my inside jacket pocket, take my wallet out. I tried to get it back. A sole pushed my head back down against the sidewalk.

Through puffed up eyes I saw angels in their coign though what advantage they had I couldn’t fathom. They had to be discussing me. I tried to butt in, I lifted my head, it was pushed down again. I wondered if this was the end of the line for me. I lay flat, trying to descry the spirits. I saw nothing, heard nothing. I turned my head slightly, squinted. Their colloquy ended, the angels leered at me like gargoyles and faded. I crashed back into my reality and sobbed, more from pain than from my pathetic vision. My muggers were quiet now, counting the bills and cards in my wallet. I heard a cluck of disgust, opened my eyes wider, saw the bottom of my son’s signature red pants. The leader whispered something to him, returned everything except a twenty or two into my wallet. He squatted beside me, winced at the stench I’d made, gently placed the wallet on my stomach, draped the handle of my bag over my right shoulder, and said, “We were just messing with you, man. Don’t take it serious.”

Clyde Liffey lives near the water.


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