FRESH START -Fiction by guest author Peter F. Crowley
Boston’s tall treehouses in the early December snow call to mind playing with building blocks as a kid. I’d stack them up high as I could while sitting on the wooden cellar floor, and outside the window, the snow piled high.
I’m in the passenger seat of the extended, white courier van as José drives. José is a bit older than me, in his mid-20s with a goatee. His delivery route has more than 120 stops around downtown, so he needs someone to run into the high-rise office buildings as the other person sits in the van to prevent from getting a parking ticket. He starts work around 6 am and finishes at 6pm, and for lunch gets a slice of pizza or a warm, toasted sandwich from some of the best hole-in-the-wall spots downtown.
The ride into the city takes an hour and a half in the traffic even though it’s a seven-mile drive. We smoke a blunt and I become hypnotized by the windshield wipers’ back and forth motion. I’m taken to times past – getting lost in Minnesota while driving in the Master and Man blizzard, Fiona breaking up with me when she thought she was pregnant and leaving the Prudential Center after work into the throng of people as they emerged from their offices.
Then I watch people on their commutes into work and began making up stories about each of them, wishing I had a notebook and pen. But I laugh to myself, knowing all that I see and think will be broiled in subterranean cauldrons and reappear in some later form, when I get home and sit at the typewriter.
Once downtown, José drives seamlessly through narrow streets flooded with people. He bears down with quick jabbing beeps that dissuade pedestrians from crossing and hurrying those in the middle of the street to the side. We park in an alleyway and smoke another blunt as he organizes the day’s route. Then he hands me a bunch of payrolls to deliver to nearby buildings.
When I get into the elevator at the first stop, it is empty, so I write on the elevator wall: “None of this means anything. Speak up and be true or shut up and go to bed!” – one of Kerouac’s best quotes.
I get out on the 23rd floor and enter a dimly lit, empty office. After turning the corner, I stand in front of a secretary without saying anything for a few seconds. She looks up startled, shakes her head before signing for the delivery.
Back in the elevator, I start to write, “Everyone is dead. Wake the hell up! Get out of your coffins!”
A man enters wearing a blue sports coat and tie with briefcase in hand, peering at me as I put away my pen.
“You know, I used to do that sort of thing. Actually, I was more into graffiti. I traveled to West Berlin and wrote on the Wall there: “The Wall is only in your head.”
And now you’re working in this coffin every day. You chose to die. Nice work.
Snow has begun to race down. The wind carries it in pockets, swirling the cold white through channels between buildings and hitting pedestrians sideways. It sneaks through the top of jacket and falls down my back.
When I get into the van, the engine is still running with the heat on full blast, but José isn’t there. I look outside, watching morning rush hour people speeding along to work, seeming to curse the snow beneath their breath. For some reason they seem surprised - like they didn’t realize that it would snow in Boston again this winter as it always does.
I look up to the high treehouses on either side, probably at least 70 stories tall, and watch as more lights turn on inside.
A meter maid taps on the window. She looks younger than me, maybe either 19 or 20. She has long curly black hair, dark-rimmed glasses and deep, warm brown eyes. Her firm gaze fades when our eyes meet and her white teeth mirror the falling snow, contrasting with her light brown complexion.
“You have to move.”
“It’s so cold out. Do you have to stay outside all day?”
“Not at lunch!” She says, her lips slowly curling into a smile.
“I’m waiting for my co-worker. But I can move for you…maybe you and I could get lunch.”
She blushes, looking down at the yellow citation booklet in her hand.
“Hmm…I don’t know. I kind of don’t know you at all. You could be a murderer.”
“I am. But I only kill the dead.”
Her eyes widen but then she begins to smile.
“Seriously. I mean, why would I just get lunch with a random guy…a guy who should get a ticket?”
“Why not though, right? Better than eating lunch alone!”
“How do you know I eat lunch alone? I usually have lunch with Donny.”
“Donny? Your boyfriend?”
“Yeah, my sexy boyfriend, Don Rumsfeld.”
“Ok, fine, we’ll get lunch. You know Priscilla’s Pastry on Milk Street? They have amazing, melted sandwiches. And they have this crazy-good African peanut soup.”
“Sounds delicious. I’ll bring an umbrella for you.”
“Umbrellas don’t do anything against the snow!”
I put my hand out the window and set it ajar. She starts to reach out to it but quickly pulls her hand back.
Priscilla’s Pastry is half underground, with a long rectangular window that allows patrons to look out and see Bostonians’ feet as they pass. Jackie, the meter maid, texted me that this place is for the mail carriers, couriers, and meter maids – the office types don’t bother to come in. However, it is very much a café, with several different types of coffee, cappuccino, soups and warm, freshly made bread. There are bookshelves along each wall with newspapers, magazines, a few books and a bunch of games, including cards, Viking and Celts chess pieces and scrabble, for workers to play on their breaks. Lester Young’s slow, sleepy tenor sax music curls through the cigarette smoke, which pervades throughout the room, though smoking was made illegal in Boston last summer. On the window ledge, there is a globe with Soviet bloc countries still on the map.
Jackie leans over from outside. She peers down and catches my eyes, indicating that she’ll be in shortly.
A few minutes later, she sits across from me, unfurling a black woolen scarf with purple and orange pumpkins on it, takes off her mittens that left her fingertips bare and removes her snug hat.
We order coffees and pressed sandwiches, but instead of eating, conversation engulfs us.
It’s weird – as we start talking, I have the feeling that I’ve known her all my life. We talk while slowly sipping our scalding coffees.
I learn that she takes art history courses at Bunker Hill Community College at night but is bored with them; she says they aren’t challenging enough. Her older brother, who had looked out for her after her parents’ divorce, was sent to Afghanistan the previous winter to fight Al Qaeda. He enlisted the day after 9/11. Her grandmother, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic, stays awake every night thinking about him. The grandma says that at least it’s a quick path to citizenship. Jackie was born here, so she doesn’t have to worry about that.
It turns out that Jackie is a painter of the surrealist school. Though Jackie doesn’t appreciate the 20th century surrealist art as much as impressionism, she reads surrealist literature, like poems from Rene Char, Andre Breton’s Nadja and really digs Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. As she puts it, the theater of cruelty pushes the audience, through terror, directly into the play, excising them from their lives. When they return to their lives after the play is over, they’ll never see things the quite same way again. They’ll be shaken, jolted, as if hit with a lightning bolt, from their stultified lives. She tells me that no one in her community and none of her friends get her. I commiserate, saying that’s basically the same for me.
José taps on the window from outside and motions to me to head back out. I indicate one more minute, but he seems impatient, so I go and talk to him. He tells me that I can just see her later today or on the weekend. But I don’t want to. I want to see her now and be with her nonstop. He says that he’ll give me five minutes, so I go back inside. Jackie looks at her watch, and says she has to get back to work soon, too.
“What if we both just said screw it?” I ask.
“I don’t think that’d fly with my boss.”
“Yeah, but what if we said, ‘so what’?”
“Like ‘so what’ to our jobs? I do that all the time. But ‘so what’ to getting fired? That’s a completely different story.”
“You’re crazy! I can’t do that. I’ve got bills to pay.”
“You could get a job somewhere else.”
“Why? I have a job here.”
Outside José blares the horn.
“Because…I don’t know…let’s just go somewhere and start fresh.”
“But I just met you.”
Stress marks appear on her forehead; she takes a deep breath and looks outside.
“Is that your van beeping?”
“Yup. But I don’t care!”
“Look. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I don’t want to see you again. But to take off, just like that?”
“Why not? Do you like being a meter maid? I’m sure you could do that anywhere. Or we could move somewhere else, and you could start fresh as a painter. I told you that I’m a writer – we both could start fresh.”
Jackie peers down to her coffee mug and, with the stirrer, fishes at a few coffee grounds stuck on the side. She looks up slowly with a burgeoning smile and takes the globe down from the window ledge.
“Spin it! Wherever my finger ends up, we’ll go.”
As I spin the globe, her pointer finger stops in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, about 500 miles north of Hawaii. I spin again. This time it stops way up in the Canadian arctic.
“Do people even live way up there?” she asks.
“Maybe some Inuit people.”
“Ok, one more try! If I land in the middle of nowhere again, when we leave this café, we’ll never meet each other again. Ever. But we could both just leave right now, see each other again soon and stay here in Boston.”
“Let’s spin for it!” I say, whirling the globe around as fast as possible.
As she closes her eyes, the fading early afternoon light falls onto her face. She moves her finger up and down the twirling globe like a fortune teller.
When it stops, her finger lands directly on Tokyo.
She doffs her meter maid hat and takes her notebook out from her jacket pocket, placing them on top of her uneaten sandwich.
We leave the café together, walking right past the courier van. José sits there gawking at us.
by Peter F. Crowley
As a prolific author from the Boston area, Peter F. Crowley writes in various forms, including short fiction, op-eds, poetry and academic essays. In 2020, his poetry book Those Who Hold Up the Earth was published by Kelsay Books and received impressive reviews by Kirkus Review, the Bangladeshi New Age and two local Boston-area newspapers. His writing can be found in Middle East Monitor, Znet, 34th Parallel,Pif Magazine, Galway Review, Digging the Fat, Adelaide’s Short Story and Poetry Award anthologies (finalist in both) and The Opiate.
Follow Peter F. Crowley at: website link: https://peterfcrowleyauthor.com/.