God Shed His Grace on Thee
I was headed into the city on the light rail. I sat behind two men, both dressed in black and wearing combat boots. One of them wore a dog collar around his neck. The other held the chain.
The train only took me so far. I walked the rest of the way, a mile of emptiness. At the bookstore I bought a book entitled Quit Smoking the Easy Way, because I had been told that my recent insomnia might have resulted from chain smoking at night while reading a web-based message board dedicated to supporting ex-smokers. I learned a lot from that website. But my insomnia probably had more to do with this decision I had to make - whether I would work in America next year or return to Asia, my home of a few years.
I sat on a bench on the sidewalk outside the bookstore. I read the book and smoked. But the traffic on the three-lane road made me edgy and there wasn't anybody to talk to because there wasn't anybody outside. So I took the bus out past Hamburgerville. I tried to read my book but a homeless man at the front of the bus was declaiming on the negligence of our government.
I got dropped off near the Square downtown. Mostly just skaters around there, razzing me. So I walked up the hill and under some construction zone tape someone had forgotten to take down. I went into the All Nite Mart and bought some cigarettes for when I got home and could read my book. The cashier watched me nervously as I lingered in front of the magazine rack, contemplating a magazine called Boobs. It had a cover of half-black plastic, so I couldn't see any boobs. I went outside.
It was a very well lit-street. There were big, warm lights everywhere, throwing creepy shadows. I hadn't noticed them before, but they would facilitate reading.
The street was empty except for three foul-mouthed punks - a boy and two girls. The boy was very tall and lanky and chinless. His hair was spiked. His pants were too loose for him. A chain connected his wallet to his belt loop. One of the girls was plump, the other thin. They both had long straight black hair, and they wore jean-jackets on which had been written, in permanent marker, the words "Napalm Death." I fancied they didn't know much about either napalm or death, and still less about them in combination, but I had to give it to them - the illustrations were well done, for what they were. Their jewelry made quite a clamor when they swung around to watch me take my place behind a supporting column of brick. They all seemed to discuss me before looking down the hill to where the train would appear.
I read my book while I smoked. The "easy way to quit smoking" was as advertised. "Stop smoking." The book was one hundred and eighty pages long. It cost eight dollars, or the cost of three packs of cigarettes.
Not too long after I finished my cigarette, a woman appeared at the other side of the street. She was yelling and pointing her finger at the punk boy. He took a step or two back and laughed and made some wisecracks to the two punk girls. This went on for some time. Finally he shouted, "You're a bitch! How do you like that?"
Evidently she didn't like it very much because she headed across the street with her hands on her hips. When she reached the other side, she stood with one hand on her hip and the other wagging its finger at him. She yelled hysterically. He laughed awkwardly, gazing around to assure no one was watching. I had slipped behind the column so that I could see without being seen.
"You're with this slut just because she gives you crystal!" the girl shrieked, pointing at the thin punk girl.
"Uh-guh," he said.
"You're the slut," said the thin girl, sassily.
The punk boy seemed unable to disagree with either of these two rival claims. He just laughed: "Uh-guh, uh-guh."
"I took care of you," the girl continued. "I listened to you. I bought you that bus ticket so you could go to Seattle. And what do you do? Do you call? No! You go around with this slut because she gives you crystal!"
He just shook his head and put his hands up to convey that the situation was out of them. I sadly regarded the train tracks when I heard a sound like a cap gun. The shrieking girl had smacked the thin girl's face. She reflexively punched the shrieking girl in the stomach. The punch didn't look very hard, but she doubled over, held her stomach, coughed once, let a line of drool dangle from her mouth, collapsed into a sitting position on the yellow line she was supposed to be behind, and spat. The punks milled around her. The sitting girl sniffled and then started bawling.
"My baby," she whined, loudly. "My baby."
The train had come around the corner downtown. Its lights shone like two big suns in the night. The girl's head was now in her hands. "My baby, my baby, my baby," she wailed.
"That's what you get, slut!" said the thin girl.
The train was coming on hard. It blasted its horn many times but the girl did not move. When the train pulled up, a rush of wind blew her hair around and down over her hands. A few people stepped off the train and looked down at the girl as they passed her. The punks boarded the train.
I looked from the train to the girl and back. I wanted to help her somehow but I didn't know how I could. I didn't want to get slapped myself, nor did I want to miss my train. But its doors were already closing and it began to pull away. I watched it go. I took a deep breath, put my hands in my pockets, and walked toward her.
I stood over her and said, "Hey are you all-"
She jumped up and pulled a gun from under the waist of her pants. She swung it in arc so wide the butt end of the gun grazed my forehead. My hands went to it and I cursed.
She ran to the tracks and fired the gun at the back of the train. Apparently she had a silencer on it because it made smoke but no sound. I hit the pavement and put my hands behind my head.
When the shooting stopped, I looked up and saw the girl walking towards me. She said calmly, "Who the hell are you?" She threw her hands up. "Who the hell is this guy?" The train had stopped and the punks were stepping out of it.
Suddenly I found myself on my feet. I had been yanked up by the man who sold me the cigarettes at the All Nite Mart. He shook his head and said, "Hey, man, you all right?" He reached out to touch my forehead but I parried.
"So much for the cordon at the Square," said the girl.
"Stevie!" shouted the girl. "Stevie! Was that all right? We don't need to do it again, do we?"
The shadow of a man came from the bright lights. He wore a baseball cap. "That was perfect," he said. "Perfect."
"What's your name, kid?" asked Stevie.
"Leaf," I said. "My name's Leaf."
"Well, Leaf?" He slapped my shoulder. "You just became an extra in a feature film. Congratulations. Thank God you didn't screw it all up. That train doesn't come cheap."
By then the punks had returned. They stood around me, nodding admiringly. "Valiant knight," said the punk boy, in a British accent.
"Come on, folks," said Stevie. "Down to the river before the moon goes down."
They moved around me towards the Square. As the punk boy passed, he slapped me on the back. "Valiant knight," he said.
"Sorry about the gun," said the girl.
I watched the five shadows disappear into the light. I turned to look at the All Nite Mart, at the train now continuing up the hill, at the bright lights going off one by one.
At last I turned and walked home. I sat on my bed and smoked cigarettes and looked out the windows of my apartment. Soon I felt sleepy. My decision was made. It was back to Asia for me. Maybe tomorrow. Yes. Tomorrow would be best.
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