by Charles Duncan
The sound of Mingus playing loud from a second story window made James smile and walk slower. His back and leg were starting to ache, so he welcomed the excuse to pace himself. Waves of hot air and city-smell rose from the concrete that baked in the sun, all the rank puddles dried up and the trash withered, black metal handrails along the stoops too hot to touch. The little troublemakers that always ran up and down these blocks sat morosely, silently holding cold drinks or slumped over as if dead. Lazy little bastards, he thought; give ‘em some time in the jungle hauling a pack and they’ll be calling this paradise.
He turned the corner onto Freemont and saw Earl sitting on the corner. Same spot as always, feet out on the sidewalk, Styrofoam cup overturned and its contents on the pavement. Only a couple nickels, like most days. A sharp feeling ran over James, making his skin crawl and his face curl into a frown. Earl’s head was lolled over to the side and he was mumbling like he always does after eleven in the morning. As he got closer, Earl saw him and started talking to him, loud.
“Jim-bo, my man, how you holding up?”
Earl’s skin had that sickly junkie pallor and his lip was twitching, his eyes held that desperation that James loathed. He kept his gaze away and walked past without responding, and once he got a few paces away Earl began to yell.
“You know me! We seen a lot of shit together, man, shit nobody should see! How you gon’ ignore me?!”
A few blocks later James reached the boardwalk. Kids were yelling and playing, young couples were walking and holding each others’ hands, vendors sat bored and stared into the distance. James’ slow pace was accompanied by the clack of his cane against the wooden boards, his back really starting to hurt now. He kept walking, slower as he passed through the smell of fried food from a vendor’s kiosk.
Two kids with cap guns ran past him, and one squeezed his plastic trigger, the harsh percussion of the cap ringing out over the boardwalk. A bitter chill washed over James, the noise seizing him and forcing him rigid. Goosebumps rose on his skin and his cane slipped unnoticed from his fingers. After a split second he came back, looked around at an unrecognizable scene, confused, and realized he was hyperventilating. He hobbled stiffly over to a bench and sat down, his cane resting several feet away on the hot boards.