Glass Beads

February 26, 2008
By James Bursley, Pittsburgh, PA

Another dirty cab jerked past. And another. The smoke and soot from the station were heavy, and it was early enough to notice it. It hadn’t had time to cake your lungs and your throat and your nose and mouth, so that you stop feeling it. It was a wet day. Not just rainy, but wet all around. The kind of wet that mixes with the smoke and soot into a thick, noxious soup that never seems to run out. There’s enough for everyone; wait your turn.
The sky was threatening to empty itself, to pour, but so far it hadn’t made up its mind. More fun to tempt people to come outside with a promise of holding off, and then spill down on everybody. People running with their newspapers over their heads, trying to unjam an umbrella, don’t get the briefcase wet.
I wanted it to rain. I wanted it to pour onto all of these miserable people who wouldn’t even look at me if I didn’t put myself on stage wearing a costume of hot, stinking flesh. I wanted the sky to open up and come down on me and everybody and sweep it all away, and never stop. Like Noah, but this time there’d be no lifeboat. God isn’t mad; he’s bored. Wash everything in the world up into the sky, off into space, off into nothing. All the dirt and grime rinsed. All the noise and shame muffled in the swell.
People walked by, coming off the station with their destinations in mind and hand. Too busy to see anybody else any more than an engineer sees each railroad tie as it flies underneath. You can tell the people who really don’t want you to look at them. The men with their cases in their hands and fog in their eyes. Putting up their own little wall, setting claim to their own little world. The Great Wall of a Businessman. Welcome to the Big Apple, the most crowded place in the world with the least people.
An old woman with a hand monocle and a coat made of rabbits slowed as she walked by, removing her eyeglass as she peered into the basket. The dogs weren’t moving. I jerked the basket a little and the dog in the middle’s head gave a limp tug backwards, flopping unnaturally. Maybe sleeping. Maybe dead. The woman, probably disgusted with the sight of fur not part of something custom tailored, jerked her head back in an almost identical motion to the dog’s, and strutted away, replacing her monocle and air of superiority.
Another cab pulled past, stopped, and backed up so I could smell its exhaust. It was a little cleaner than most others. Whoever was inside probably prided themselves on being just a little bit better than everybody else. Probably some affluent with a gimmick and a knack for stepping on people. Somebody who needs to distinguish themselves any way. Somebody who’d buy a mutt, just because nobody else was.
An absurdly hideous woman leaned out the window until I was sure she’d fall and asked me what kind they were. I suppose she actually wasn’t ugly in feature, but more in form. The way she controlled her movements, right down to her choice of facial expressions, was reminiscent of someone not used to acting sophisticated. Like a beggar put into a tuxedo and shoved into a full ballroom, trying to fit in. Mistress, probably. Her man, who looked like a wrestler or a football player or something, and was now pulling her back into the taxi, probably for fear that I might snatch her up and stuff her into my basket with all the other bitches, never took his eyes off her. Definitely something newly acquired. He wore an expression telling everyone to stay away, speak only when spoken to, and not make eye contact. The red smear on his collar had a fairly equal chance of being either the woman’s lipstick or his wife’s blood.
The woman announced that she wanted a dog for her apartment—more to me than to the wrestler. Definitely a mistress. I handed her a dog from the top of the basket, hoping the luck of the draw didn’t bring one with mites—or at least ones she noticed.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” the woman asked with a certain prissiness usually reserved to perfume saleswomen. I glanced and told her it was a boy. It escaped me that she needed instruction in this. Maybe I had misjudged her occupation.
Football came to life at that. “It’s a bitch.” His whole face seemed to contort with this revelation, reflecting inconceivable effort on his part to expel these words from his brain. Afraid my only remark might deal with questioning the object of his sentence and valuing his money more than my honor, I stayed silent and looked away. Satisfied he had won this victory, he handed me money for the dog. He handed me another snide comment along with his money, and his face did some more somersaults, but by this point I had already departed, in my own mind and his. Whatever remark he made had no purpose but to impress his woman and keep secure his position above me, pounding dirt and poverty into my chest.
As the cab pulled off, leaving a dank cloud of dirty, slippery wetness, I looked up at the sky once more. The rain was beginning to fall harder now, in drops that took a second to splatter, so that they hit you like glass beads. The clouds had piled high above the buildings, above the city, packing layers to keep everything contained, like comforters over an anthill. The wind began to whip, slinging beads at my upturned face, and I could feel the dogs shivering. No train was at the station. There were no people out; only those lucky enough to afford cabs, which jammed the streets and made replicas of the cloud cover overhead. The buildings were a drab shade of mess, and looked like charcoal sketches done on an ash canvas. The light was dimming, maybe with the clouds and rain, or maybe the sun was finally giving up.
I put the basket down on the curb, and I doubt if they noticed. Turning toward the road, I began to walk, staring straight ahead, gaze still on the sky.
I stopped feeling the rain. The drops hit my face and bounced off, offended every time I didn’t flinch. I didn’t hear my feet hit the ground. Was it still there? Probably not. Everything was rain. I could no longer feel the chafe of the jacket on my shoulders. I stopped hearing the noise of the cars. I didn’t even hear the horn blare or the brakes screech. By the time I hit the ground, I had stopped seeing. My eyes were open, and I breathed, but I was already done with everything. I didn’t think about the man who stepped out and didn’t really seem to care. I didn’t think about all the people who had never been part of my life. I couldn’t feel the pavement against my cheek. But I could still feel the wetness. That stayed. I felt the wetness and the cold.

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