A Break in the River
By DJ Asson
The woman’s pale blue summer dress matched the hair ribbon of the child walking by her side. The little girl wore a frock with layers of pink ruffles and wide straps over the shoulders. A big bow of material was tied around the back. She was smiling, enjoying a lollipop and darting her eyes across all the people along the bend in the river. Her mother’s expression didn’t reflect this innocent joy. She gazed at only one thing.
“Come over here, sweetie,” she said, bending down as she strode along the pathway. She grasped the child’s hand and smoothly pulled her closer. The little girl, who looked about six years old, was unfazed. She took the orange candy out of her mouth, licked her lips and returned it to the inside of her cheek. She had been swinging her arms back and forth, but now her mother firmly clasped one hand and only a sliver of light passed between the two. The child struggled to equal her mother’s increased pace.
The woman’s glare was directed at where I was sitting beside the path. We only caught each other’s eyes a few moments before, while I was watching the flow of people. I had one leg stretched out in front of me and the other tucked back underneath. I was leaning against a short concrete curb that separated the path from a manicured grassy expanse. The walkway was easily ten feet wide, so I wasn’t a physical obstacle for her.
I wore a faded green graphic t-shirt and a pair of purplish shorts. Splotches of white, where bleach had burned the original color, dotted my ensemble. The brown leather of my boat shoes was cracked along the top and the quarter was crushed down to the insole. My exposed feet were sweaty and red, rubbed raw by these makeshift backless sandals.
It was hot out this afternoon, at least 93 degrees. I had sat down by the river when the slightest of breezes circulated the humid air. The air smelled of food vendors. I could almost taste the grilled meats, cotton candy and roasting nuts. Whenever I had no money, the wind always brought these aromas to me. My stomach cramped as I imagined eating something freshly bought. At other times, the wind blew off the river, carrying the stench of diesel, dead fish, and debris. If you stayed long enough, this odor would cling to your body, marking you.
Worse than the heat and hunger, was the disgusted look this woman focused on me. Most people ignored, or simply failed to notice, me. Not her. She squeezed her daughter’s hand tightly and pulled the little one even closer. Her glare yelled out at me, even though I hadn’t moved since I glimpsed her. After making sure I’d seen her message, she looked straight ahead and hurried along.
“Can you spare a cigarette, please,” someone asked, startling me. I looked up but was too tired to lift my hand to shade my eyes from the harsh sunlight. His voice was emotionless; his words well-practiced. He must have asked this simple question a million times. Had he ever gotten a cigarette, or even an acknowledgement of his presence? He was wearing shorts like me, though his were tan. A few stains marred what once must have been fine material. His collared shirt was brown and a crisp white undershirt peaked out at the neck.
“Sure, come here,” I said.
He contemplated me for a moment, then quickly returned to his stoicism. He came over and sat up on the curb, leaning his olive-colored knapsack against his leg. Up close and now out of the glare of the sun, he looked tired. But he sat smartly, stared out across the river, and waited patiently.
I handed him a cigarette from the crumpled packet I pulled from my shorts. I took one for myself, even though I usually smoked alone, savoring the private time. I wanted to connect with this man, maybe talk or just sit together quietly. I guess I was thrown off by that woman glaring at me.
“May I have a light?” he asked softly.
“Sure,” I said, “but my lighter’s not in the best of shape. It works but it takes awhile sometimes.”
On the sixth flick, he got a flame. He titled his head slightly and put the tip of the cigarette into the fire. I could hear the crackle as the tobacco caught. He passed the lighter back to me, inhaled deeply and contentedly slumped his shoulders forward. I quickly lit mine and followed his lead, stretching my back and sliding as deep as I could into the curb.
“It’s hot out,” I said.
“Yes, and humid too,” he replied.
“At least there’s a breeze,” I added.
“Some,” he said, taking another drag off his cigarette. He leaned forward, putting his arms on his knees and stretching his back like I had done.
Neither of us said anything after that. We watched the river. A small boat floated along and then a tug passed, pulling a wooden pontoon of car-sized crates. A few people trudged by, but the earlier crowds had vanished. They must have retreated into the air-conditioned shops.
“I should be moving along,” he said as he dropped the remains of the cigarette at his feet. He had smoked it all the way to the filter. “I have somewhere to be.”
“Have a good one,” I managed to say, as he stood up, grabbed his bag, and purposefully set off down the river walk.
I don’t know if he had any place special to go. Maybe our shared moment had passed and he wanted to leave. Even though we barely talked and had even less eye contact, I felt a little more human than I had before he sat down. Like my lighter, maybe it took a few tries to work.
I stood and headed up the path. I came across an older man, a musician who sat behind an upside-down white bucket. It looked like those containers that littered home construction sites. The man held two wooden drumsticks. He used one to create a bass line along the side of the makeshift drum and the other to tap out a melody across the top.
I walked past him, turned around, walked past him again and sat down just off the pathway. The grass was spottier here, sprinkled with dry dirt patches. I sat cross-legged and leaned my elbows into my thighs. I faced the drummer. He paid me no attention.
I was amazed at the sounds he was creating. It was more than simple repetition. The music was an intricate conversation of clarity and confusion. The emotion on his face told me he was composing this piece in the moment and for himself alone. The fact that people were listening didn’t concern him. He never even looked up from his instrument. I closed my eyes and let the notes roll over me. It was like being buffeted by a cloud.
Twenty minutes passed and he was still playing. His forearms glistened where they emerged from his blue t-shirt. I got up and moved closer to him, closer to the music. He paused. Placing his sticks on a dark purple towel at his side, he finally looked at me.
“Can I sit down here?” I asked.
He nodded, picked up his sticks, and resumed playing.
Feeling sated after a few more minutes, I left the musician and continued walking. The pathway ended at another bend in the river. Here, the water headed out to the sea. I sat down along the bank. No one was up here. The grass stood by the dirt, the water flowed by the bank and smells filled the air. The world didn’t need an audience.
The sun paused at the horizon. The dusk sky took on a purplish haze. It was still hot but it finally felt like it had crested its highest point. I leaned all the way back, resting my head against the curved edge of the pathway. I opened my eyes and took in the whole sky.
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