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Whistling tunelessly – up that Hill –

Whistling tunelessly he crosses the street hands in the pockets of his black leather jacket. Jogging the last few steps before the light changes his pinkish-orange hair bobbing. The sky above is dark and starless, heavy and low where it isn’t lost in the streetlight glare. The little corner parking lot is crammed with a half-dozen food carts shoulder-to-shoulder with signs that say El Brasero and Potato Champion and Whiffies Fried Pies. He squeezes between a couple careful of power cords and a water line wrapped in insulating foam and knocks on the back door of a silvery cart trimmed in purple and green and gold. The cart lurches. “Fuck off,” calls someone from inside. He knocks again. The door’s wrenched open enough for a man to peer out. “It’s five o’clock in the fucking,” he says. “Jesus, Ray.” Wrapped in a shapeless brown corduroy coat. Tuft of beard leaning sideways off his chin. “I don’t do breakfast. You know that.”

“Like I could pay if you did.”

“Don’t do charity neither,” says the man in the corduroy coat.

“Relax.” The man in the black leather jacket pulls his other hand from a pocket. “Just need some water and a pot.” He’s holding three eggs still speckled with bits of feather and chicken shit.

Three eggs in fizzing water in a red saucepot on a bluely glowing propane stovetop next to the big empty griddle. Ray in his black leather jacket leans back against a wall papered with lists and recipes scrawled on index cards, grimy menus, a photo of the man in the corduroy coat wearing a bowling shirt and dark glasses, smiling, thumbs up by the sunlit cart. He’s up in the narrow nose pouring coffee from an orange thermos into white paper cups. Leans over to hand one back steam billowing in the sharp light of the electric lamp hung over the griddle. “Oh, hey,” says Ray. “Thanks.”

“I’m a cheap sonofabitch and an uncharitable bastard,” says the man in the corduroy coat. “I ain’t inhumane.”

Ray sips his coffee, the sets it on the griddle and pulls a green glass bottle from his jacket. He pours a slug of something colorless into the cup.

“Jesus, Ray,” says the man in the corduroy coat.

“Ain’t neither of us slept yet,” says Ray, “so it’s still way the hell after noon.” He takes another, slower sip. “And the essences of juniper and coriander really bring out the floral notes of a good arabica blend. How’s tricks?”

“Can’t complain,” says the man in the corduroy coat, yawning hugely. “Drunk people need their fried starches, but damn. I get stuck cleaning up till the crack of fucking hell. You?”

“Ah, you know,” says Ray. He takes the bubbling pot off the lit eye, sets it on the griddle, slaps a lid on. “No job. No prospects. Stealing eggs from somebody’s backyard coop. Still haven’t kicked a cat, though. So I got a ways to fall yet.”

Ray leaves the cart with a brown paper sack and a covered white cup. He darts across the empty street against the light and runs more quickly across the intersection with the yellow light, waving at a bus lumbering down the dark street toward the corner. He pulls a handful of paper slips, bus transfers in muted reds and oranges and greens, and rifles through them one-handed till he finds a short one, greyish yellow. The bus snorts to a stop and he flashes it at the driver, then heads for the back, past the only other passengers: a man in a powder blue tuxedo, his collar open, his bow tie unclipped, and a figure anonymous in a bulky black parka and a green meshback cap pulled low that says PC-815 over the bill.

The bus climbs slowly past apartments and restaurants a hardware store and a wine shop, a bakery, a comic book store, a tented farmer’s market and a woman setting out signs that say Open, Blood Oranges, Two Ninety-nine. Crowning the hill a funeral home behind a majestic sweep of lawn. Down the other side the street falls through thickening blocks of two- and three-storey buildings that push right up to lightening sidewalks through a welter of power lines and phone lines. Stoplights click and change over empty intersections. Maybe thirty blocks away the street climbs again up to the colonnaded porch of a big yellow house its windows dark in the lap of a much larger tree-shadowed hill. Off away behind it all, orange light’s leaking through cracks in the soft grey ceiling of clouds.

Someone pulls the cord and the bus shudders to a stop by a dark movie theater with a big sign that says Bagdad in ornamented letters. The man in the tuxedo gets up and carefully hands on the backs of the seats makes his way off. Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home, says the unlit marquee. Adventures in Babysitti. Barbarella 1100.

Maybe ten blocks shy of that big yellow house up on the hill the bus turns off the street, and Ray yanks the cord. He gets off at a corner stop by an empty parking lot. The sign above it says F.O.E. East Portland Ærie No. 3256. His footsteps echo as he heads back to the street and continues up it past the last of the two-storey blocks. A barista’s setting out a sign that says Albina Press. Up past blocks of one- and two-storey houses now, still dark behind hedges, under skeletal trees. When the steepening street reaches that big yellow house with its colonnaded porch and a sign out front that says Western Seminary it doglegs around it and up and up past more dark houses until it ends finally in a great grass berm, blocks long to either side. Ray climbs it up a narrow flight of cracked concrete steps to a low stone wall topped by an arrow-tipped wrought-iron fence. Past the fence under buzzing streetlights an enormous open reservoir half-filled with black water untouched by the orange glow that’s still threatening somewhere away behind the hill. Across the reservoir a crenellated pump-house like a tower without its castle. Beyond it the hill continues to rise, the houses left behind now, dark trees rooted in black shadows all about. Another flight of concrete steps much longer and much steeper than the last. At the bottom of it Ray drains his paper cup of coffee and chucks it into a garbage can. Paper bag in hand, shoulders set, head down, he starts up that second flight, slowing, huffing as he nears the top. There’s another low stone wall, another wrought-iron fence, another crenellated pump-house, oval instead of blocky. Another open reservoir, inky and vast. Ray stoops there at the top of the steps, hands on his knees, hair flopping over into his eyes. The buzz of the streetlights cuts out, and he is left alone in the gloom, his breath loud and rough in the silence. He straightens, turns, looks back.

Past the dizzying fall of steps past the squared-off reservoir below past the trees and houses the street stretches away stoplights winking yellow to red, flanked on either side by more streets, more blocks fixing the gentle rumple of the land with streetlights and porch lights, storefronts and signs, the straight-lined grid in turn gentled by dark-shadowed clusters and thickets of trees, all of it lipped by a low ridge maybe thirty blocks away. Past that ridge shreds of fog lick up lighter than the clouds above, the unseen river bracketed north and south by the great arch of one bridge, the sweep of another, the cars so far away just crawling white lights and red lights. Past that rippled curtain then the towers of downtown and a thousand thousand windows filling with an uncertain light, yellowish blue without a hint of green, and the corners and edges and frames of those windows have all of them caught hesitant sparks of orange.

Ray sits on the top step and pulls three eggs from the paper bag. He rolls one between his knee and the palm of his hand, crushing the shell, and peels it, watching the city before him tip over into daylight. The light in all that glass firms up into a softly greyish white just brighter than the lightening clouds above, still touched with blue and yellow blushing about those smoldering orange edges and corners. He eats his egg and begins to peel a second. One of the towers stands alone, away from the others off to the north, its reddish amber glass framed by dark pink stone still dim, untouched by lightening day. Digging in his pockets Ray pulls out a paper packet that says Salt and rips it open, pouring it out in a pile on his palm, sprinkling a pinch of it over the peeled egg. That lone tower glimmers and suddenly every pane of glass in the building flares with smoldering orange light that grows and spreads as he lifts the egg to his mouth and somewhere up behind him the clouds break open and the morning light rolls down over the city, the wave of it washing out all those little lights down the street and up the ridge, the shreds of fog between the bridges tattering, melting away, the cloudy light filling those thousands upon thousands of windows in the towers blown out by orange and yellow and red. And the lone tower’s glass is filled with all those colors and more, golds and roses, purples, pearly whites, even clean pure lines of the greens and blues that only shine at sunrise and sunset, and its dark pink stone gleams now as behind him the sun mounts and the morning takes hold. He climbs to his feet one hand shading his eyes against the glory.

“I knew it,” he says. He laughs and spins around once on the top step. “I knew it!” Backing up a couple of half-dancing steps he drops a shoulder and cocks his arm and spinning around once more and again he hurls the third egg away off the hill toward that burning tower, that blaring slice of sunrise cut into the dark hills away across the river. It spins from his hand a tiny shadow lost in all the dazzle and never comes back down.

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M.E.Traylor    24 August 2010    #

I was wondering what all the intense imagery was building up to. I was almost losing my grasp on it, but it came together at the end. I’m excited to (maybe) learn more about Ray. Also, kudos on the description of boiled egg eating. I can taste them. Actually, now I kind of want one.

MeiLin Miranda    25 August 2010    #

eeeehehehee! fooooodpod!

I love it when you set things in SE, and I’m thrilled to get another chapter.

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