Once while I was walking alone on a Saturday afternoon I passed beside Hazelnut Street. The sun was thick and yellow, the breeze was warm, and the street-sign was faded green with thick white letters, so I turned in.
The way was long and lined with brick houses. Children played on the hot pavement like it was summer. Although I’d never been before, I remembered this was where my old friends lived.
As I walked toward the distant cul-de-sac, I passed James and Mallory, Ashley and Chuck Taylor, and even grey-haired Trevor, who waved while gardening. Others continued with their lives and routines, which I saw through freshly-scrubbed bay windows and open garage doors. There was no need to stop and talk; and to closest old friends, least of all. I merely walked and watched faces gathered around dining-room tables, lit by flashing televisions, laughing, being families.
Black first spoke to me as I’d passed Mary’s house, an orange bungalow on a sun-burnt lawn. Was she happy? I answered, “Hello, Black.”
It was easier to talk to Black than to the others. I’d forgotten him. He’d aged, but my memory gave no reference. He was a new person. There was only the voice that brought me back. I smiled at him, he smiled back, and I took off my shoes, and walked onto the softness of his front lawn. When he spoke to me again, I noticed the din and excitement of the street like sudden, broken silence. Without introductions we sat down together and spoke about everything except the past.
The sun was sinking toward the horizon now, ink was spilling into the sky, but the air hadn't yet cooled and children continued to play and make noise in the streets and around the cul-de-sac.
Entire families were home, together, in front of their houses, while I imagined the city: empty lonely streets and big vacant buildings waiting for tomorrow. The lamp-lights and house-lights and porch-lights were still off when Black took his eyes off the pale blue moon and pointed them towards me.
"I have two sons."
Some time ago, I had moved from Black’s lawn and sat down on the patio in front of Black's front door, reclining until my back felt the warmth of the sun-heated cement and closed my eyes. Now I opened them, turned onto my side, propped myself up on an elbow, and looked down at Black's face. He was on his back just like I had been, except down on the fluid, green grass, into which he seemed slowly to be sinking.
"I have two sons," he repeated.
His voice sounded clear, but his body was further away from mine than it was. I stared at him for so long that my vision started to burn like white flares.
The front door opened and a boy ran out. He was four-or-five years old, holding a big, pump-action water gun and smiling. He passed like a ghost, and merged with the children in the street. I reached behind me and pushed the door closed—carefully, so the lock didn't click.
Black had gone back to silence and staring at the moon, and I wondered whether he'd ever been married; and, if he had, for how long, and why it ended; and if she was still alive; and, if she was, and it had ended, whether he knew where she was, whether he was hoping she'd come back some day, simply appear at the door before lunch with two quiet knocks, or else let herself in, sit down in one of the wooden chairs in the kitchen and act as if nothing had happened, as if she'd just gone out for a walk and was back before anyone had noticed she'd been gone...
Boys squirted girls with water, which trickled into rain gutters like veins across the asphalt.
"I want to show you something," Black said suddenly, getting to his feet. He walked inside and was gone for a while.
The street-lights turned on.
When Black came out, his skin was paler and brighter than before, and he held a red-wooden chest in his now-shaking hands. He sat down on his front step, I moved up and sat beside him, and he passed the chest into my lap. It felt light, he wanted me to open it.
I did. It was empty.
But he kept looking at it, so I looked at it, too. We sat on the steps, looking at the empty red-wooden open chest on my lap as the noise from the street grew louder and louder:
It was like a small tackle-box, with little compartments divided by dark plastic walls. Every compartment was lined with a thin, colourful-white layer of powder-like dust.
Black put his hand behind my head and pushed me towards it.
"Can you smell it?" he asked. "It's a wonderful smell, isn't it?"
Then he took the chest from me, licked his ring finger, ran it along the wall of one of the compartments, so that the dust-powder stuck to the wetness on his finger, and rubbed it along the outside of his gums.
"Of course, it doesn't have a smell, even when it's full. But it's so wonderful."
I pushed myself to my feet and walked across Black's front yard, out, into the street. Without hurrying, I moved along, between kids and among half-remembered, aging faces, until I reached the cul-de-sac.
Someone was setting up a radio, someone fireworks; I recognized the auburn hair, freckled-face sipping from a glass of wine in one of the driveways: Melissa.
She recognized me, and, though we'd never been friends, greeted me with a hug. Her face was the way I'd remembered, but straighter, more taut. It was strange to see her as an adult. Perhaps I seemed strange, too. After we hugged, she offered me her glass of wine and I took a long drink. Later, she tossed the glass aside—it shattered just as the first fireworks exploded above our heads—and took me by the hand, pulling me into the cul-de-sac where adults were gathering.
Together, we danced as the music played, night fell, the crowd gelled, and spinning, cracking, living, dying lights painted themselves across the sky.
"God, I can't concentrate if we're just going in circles all the time," she said, suddenly. And asked: "Do you mind if we pull out for a time, just stay still, stay away from everyone?"
I didn't answer, but she pulled me along anyway, and we ended up in the shadows between two houses, where it was cool, quiet, and the light from the fireworks didn't reach.
"What would you do?" she asked.
"What would you do if your partner left after promising you so much and giving so little, making you believe you'd be together forever but really bringing nothing and taking everything away?"
"I'm sorry," I said.
"All I have left is this car. This car, which she said was worth at least ten thousand on account of the low mileage, but which won't even start on weekdays and all the parts are turning to rust."
She started to cry. I thought she might want more wine, but she didn't; she said she still had pictures to take down, and only wanted to dance. So we danced: for an hour, maybe two, maybe more, until the crowd thinned, the music stopped, and the sky stopped being colours. We didn't say much, but she told me that after tonight the road crews were coming in and the street would be closed until the fall, maybe longer. I pressed my hand against hers, but I knew she was imagining I was somebody else.
In the morning, it was Monday. Hazelnut Street was empty. I went into the city and in to work.