A boy watches a television program with his mother. The program follows an elderly lady in a beige pantsuit as she interviews the impoverished on sidewalks. One of the three women interviewed screams at Jesus over a daughter whose diseased toes were fed through a Midtown sewer grate. Another sobs for a tire-ironed brother, limp beneath the entrance of a parking garage. The last, a junkie with dime-sized sores on her cheeks, giggles with gratitude when the lady in beige hands her a pair of thick yellow socks for the upcoming winter.
In his twelve years, the boy has not seen his mother cry. But there, on the opposite end of the sofa, her hair has adhered to her upper lip. There are tears near her collarbone, this same woman who smiled when held hostage in a cab, this same woman who refused sleep for days after out-jogging ground zero debris.
Are you okay? the boy asks.
Yes, the boy’s mother says. Women can cry happy tears, you know?
The boy walks like a heron toward his mother’s salon. His red stocking cap compresses his shaggy hair, his jug-handle ears. The alleys, he has been warned since the television program, are off limits. He is to never go up them, or down, or across, no matter the time and energy they’d save. But he has been here before, has listened, has walked this sidewalk, has sidestepped passersby, has seen these buildings, felt small in their shadows. Most days he melees his curiosity by keeping his eyes on his silver breath. But it is warmer today. His breath has no outline. The boy’s eyes wander, skyscraper to sky, brick to brick, alley to alley.
In one alley, a barback tosses days-old finger foods to five or six pigeons. In another, two whiskered men in faded parkas fight in slush over a torn scarf. The smaller one’s chin, the boy sees, is bloodied. A mocha-tinted tooth is lodged between the larger one’s thumb and index finger, red smears to his wrist.
The boy stands. He watches. He listens. Hey, the boy says. It is meek, the equivalent of a sick stray’s whimper.
The whiskered men just tussle, and tussle, and tussle, leaning, heaving, bending as one. And, when all is over, when the larger one lies unconscious, the boy will be sobbing in the arms of something he’ll fear losing for some time, red stocking cap where he once stood as reparation.
Garrett Dennert’s stories and essays have appeared in issues of WhiskeyPaper, Barely South Review, Toska Magazine and fishladder. He is formerly a Nonfiction Editor of Squalorly and is currently hard at work on several book-length projects he hopes will soon come to fruition. More information on Garrett can be found at dennertwriting.com. Or, you can follow him on Twitter: @garrettdennert.