The sun is out but hides in a cave of gray clouds and raindrops. Birds squeal and scream, and engines roar as they push and pull and tug cars along, down the road, past the sidewalks and the people cluttered. Here, there, everywhere—people move and sway. Cattle in calls fall in line and march to work. It’s the American Dream. Hallucination. A nightmare. People work to spend to work to live in debt and desirous of the next new thing. Everything is holy if it is obtainable. Every action is noble if it helps them obtain the latest gadget, the latest orgasm, a kind of intellectual intercourse milking juice from advertisements and pop-psychological propositions. They move like robots. Their actions are mechanical. They move and play with phones or gaze off and dream. Sky cracks open, clouds part, and the sun breaks through, the great and beautiful, the mystical and holy sight of light particles funneling through gaps in the clouds and drenching the crowds, and the people shield their eyes or tilt their phones or lower their heads and furrow their eyebrows. Everyone ignoring the sun’s breakthrough, the routing of the clouds, everyone annoyed by the burst of light, everyone moving and swaying and marching with downcast eyes and eyebrows, as if the sun is an enemy or a distraction. But the sun is indifferent to all of them. The sun gives them what they need whether they want it or not. The sun casts its spell and sheds its lights, blankets the earth and warms the cockles of the people too distracted to want or to notice it.
Gum is stuck to the sidewalk. Feet slap it or the concrete beside it.
A bird lands and skips over the gum and jumps onto a windowsill and leaps to the roof and slips into a hole in the soffit and disappears. And no one notices it. No one watches the bird, examines its movements. No one stops to applaud or to appreciate the poetry of its movements, the beauty of the ballet of its procession.
Across the street, a man has stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. He’s kneeling, looks like he’s praying. People pass him, diverge and converge in great swelling movements. He stands and twists and falls into line, and the line proceeds; it glides to the end of the sidewalk and across the street and onto another sidewalk, and the man is lost in the crosshatch of meat and clothes, of sunglasses and smart phones.
Smoke puffs from the roof of a building not far from where the crowd devoured the man, and it catches a ride on the wind and drifts over the crowd and across the street, slamming into—and passing over—me. Then smells of scorched meat waft and merge with the crispness of the vanishing storm. And the sun wants to come out, tries to break through. It penetrates the clouds but the clouds fight back and break off, seal their wounds and amputate the light spilling onto the earth.
Then shapes like faces bleed from windows and slips into the light and travel across the street. They bleed and breed into more windows, and the street is now a corridor lined with death masks staring out from the windows on the buildings lining the sidewalks. And yet no one seems to notice. People walk by locked in their worlds, lost in those impulses firing through their brains, feeding on chemicals and electrical transmissions and neglecting the face-like shapes gazing out from every window.
And the faces seem almost communicable, like they can latch onto the wind itself and float—shadows growing in fog, transplanted from window to window, xeroxed and carried along and deposited in every reflective surface, even in the sunglasses and eyes of strangers as they pass without wisdom or acknowledgement or comment.
The air is cold and crisp and it fills my chest and seems to freeze the hairs inside my nostrils. The face-like shapes dissolve in my lungs and seep into my pulmonary tissue and take a joyride through my circulatory system, and I see faces surf along the breath that escapes my lungs, and the faces stretch and break apart and dissolve overhead.
Her hair is brown and from a distance looks brittle, not dirty or greasy or even frayed but it looks delicate somehow, as if touching it would shatter it somehow. It sways in front of her chest and curls and lays on her shoulders as she leans forward and slips a spoon into her mouth. She drags the spoon away from her lips and her nose and cheeks relax, and her eyes, once slit, now spread and blossom—flowers unfurling at the onset of day.
Elbows on the table—who needs etiquette?—she flips through a tattered paperback book as she slips another spoonful of soup beyond her lips and into her mouth. She pauses midway between flipping a page and gazes outward, in thought maybe, and settles her eyes on me.
I break my gaze, glance out the window behind her, squint as though I’m studying something more interest or enticing or appealing than her.
Face-like shapes linger in windows across the street. But they’re fading now. They fade. And when I sense the woman has turned away, I glance at her again: the remnants of a smile drift from her lips. She slurps a gulp of soup and flips the pages. Her eyes bounce from left to right, crawl down, and bounce from left to right.
The muscles in her shoulders and jaw ripples and she rubs her right shoulder as she reads. Then she sits back and cracks her back and stretches her arms—below the table her shirt rises like curtains opening on a stage, and her belly is white and seems firm yet somehow soft, though it’s probably my imagination. The cramp or spasm or whatever vanishes, and she releases her shoulder, goes back to her book.
She slips the spoon into her mouth again, slurps again, flips the page and massages her shoulder again, and the rhythm of her motion, the beauty of her movements, spill into the open air and crashes and screams and sings. No one else seems to notice. The waiters and waitresses, the men and women stuffing their faces, the strangers crisscrossing the sidewalk out front—no one notices or acknowledges her beauty and sensitivity, the poetry of her motion.
Up out of my chair, I glide across the room and stop at the table, knock once to snag her attention. She moves fluidly: shifts her gaze from the book to my face and rolls her shoulder blades in a semi-circle. Uninterested and unconcerned, eyes full yet empty—unaware or uninvolved.
—Must be good, I say, gesturing to the book.
—I’ve read better.
—What is it?
—Nabakov could churn out prose.
—But the book itself is overrated, she says. —Reams of repetition. Someone better could say this in twenty-thousand words.
—But no one else could have said it the way he did, which is why we read good fiction.
—This isn’t good.
—Good fiction evokes a response.
—Harlequin novels probably evoke a response.
—Then I’d say it’s good fiction, too, I say. —What you want to or should avoid are the books that don’t elicit anything. Those are the dangerous ones.
She closes the book, shifts her neck and tilts her head.
—If you’re hitting on me, she says, —I’ll give you points for your technique.
—I’m not hitting on you.
—No? Then what would you call it?
We lock eyes.
—To what? she says.
—A walking tour of the city.
—I’m familiar with the city, thanks.
—Not the city I can show you.
I extend my hand, palm ceilingward.
—It’s too nice to sit indoors reading, I say. —And I’m willing to wager that you, too, can show me a new sight or two. So come on. What do you have to lose?
A lower case ‘i’ is an arabic ‘1’ with a dot over it. The eIe is a lower case ‘i’ with an eyeball in place of the dot. You can see the eIe on buildings and street signs, on overpasses and stoops and sidewalks across the city. From north to south, from east to west, the eIe stares at you, follows you, seems to track you and every move you make.
I point to one on back of a billboard. It’s as tall as a person, seems to gaze into the street below. The woman, Anne, considers the vandal, wonders how he or she managed to put the eIe up there.
—That’s part of the magic, I say. —You can see this thing, and you can ask how or why. And either way you’re doing the vandal a favor. You’re caught in the trap he, or she, devised.
—But what’s the point? she says. —I see these things everywhere and I don’t know what they mean. Are they even supposed to mean something?
—It’s kind of like subterranean propaganda, the agit prop of the underground.
—I still don’t see the point.
—Emblazon the image in your skull. That’s the point, I say. —Subconsciously you’ll begin to associate this image with something.
Around the corner, and another eIe is the first thing we see. This one is smaller, about the size of a fist, painted below a corporate logo.
—So this is what you wanted to show me, she says. —Graffiti?
—Street art. It’s street art.
—It’s not new, whatever you want to call it. I see it every day.
—But how often do you acknowledge it? do you think about it?
She looks forward, shakes her head.
We’re sitting on a bench on a sidewalk overlooking a rundown building. Cracks and potholes scar the street. The sidewalks—in front of us and in front of the building—are broken and shattered. Weeds grow from the cracks, tower over the uncut grass. Stencils and murals and tags cover the front of the building, an open-aired museum free for any- and everyone who passes the lot and turns their heads and sets their eyes on the fruits of the labor of countless men and women. And so people cross the street and amble down and up the sidewalk, cross in front of the building, walk alongside the walls and gaze ahead or stare at phones or tablets or shield their eyes from the sun’s fugitive rays. But no one glances at the walls. No one stops to consider or to appreciate the subject or the force of the images splayed and sprayed and preying on the facade of the building.
—Look at them, I say, —huddled over there, oblivious.
The people passing the building huddle around a bus stop on the corner. The bus stop is an aluminum skeleton with a corrugated roof. A wall bifurcates a bench inside the skeleton. Ads are plastered on the wall. People are sitting on the benches—men and women, young and old—and they gaze at the street or at Anne and me. Two teenagers are cackling. One, a boy, points his phone at an advert, what from here looks like a movie poster.
—So is this how you endear women to you? Anne says. —Take them on a tour of the worst part of town?
—You’re a rare breed, willing to take a walk with a stranger.
—Has it ever worked?
—I wouldn’t know.
—So this is a first for you?
—There’s a first for everything.
A dozen eIes peer out from the base of a building, each devouring the periphery, the view, each painted in bright neon colors, each calling attention to itself. If only the world knew, if only people stopped and stared and thought and considered the point of the eye above the ‘i,’ of the eIe as a whole, then their worthless trips down commuters lane, their mechanical processions to and from work, might crack and dissolve. The illusion, the subjective world of lies, the lives of drone like activity, of corporate controlled sanctuary, might fizzle and sizzle and fade away.
But then no one stops to gaze. No one stops to consider the eIes. Everyone drifts and ambles, everyone moves—to curbs and cabs, to buses and intersections. The eIes are there for all to see yet no eyes gaze at the eIes on the wall.
—The vandal must have no life, Anne says. —These things are everywhere.
She’s clutching her arms at her chest. Her hair curls around her shoulders and bounces as she leans forward to study an eIe. Her eyes fold inward and her lips curl. She seems innocent somehow, lost and delicate somehow.
—Would you be opposed to a proper date? I say.
—If this is your opening volley, I’m kind of afraid to see what you’d have in mind.
—Cliche, I say: —Dinner, maybe a movie. Something simple and traditional, something unoriginal.
—And if I say no?
—You’ll never see me again. No hard feelings.
—But if I say yes?
—Then you’ll see me tomorrow night.
She peels her eyes from the eIe and straightens her spine, allows her arms to drip and droop at her sides.
Universes are born and collapse, civilizations rise and fall, lives blink into and out of existence in the seconds she burns considering my proposition.