F3, Cycle 43: My Hometown
Prompt: A story involving your hometown. Make us believe we’ve been there.
Word Count Limit: 2000 words
I stood in the thick crowd of the Port Authority bus terminal, surveying the throng of people, with a guitar case strapped to my shoulder and a wilted fire and ice rose in my hand. New York City was the only place I’d ever thought of as home; yet I found myself wandering, cautiously, as an outsider, peering through the tinted doors leading to Time Square like an anxious child eying an approaching stranger. There was a vacancy in my memory that prevented the sensation of comfort to wash over me. Everything was recognizable but nothing felt familiar; nothing felt like home.
Home had become Pacific Ocean swells that cooled the mid-morning air into a fog, and warm afternoon breezes carrying the fragrance of salty sand and Redwood trees. New York City’s harsh scent rode thick and heavy on a gust of heat when people passed through the door. I was taken aback by the stifling humidity and crouched in the artificial coolness of the terminal, nervously studying the crowd, trying to fight the urge to light a cigarette.
As I waited for him to appear, I began thinking back to my last memory of seeing Jackson Philips, wading through a similarly swollen crowd and dressed in a dark blue suit with the corner of a coffin on his shoulder. I remembered the viridian flecks in his eyes as his tears met the sunlight, when he placed his brother, Daniel, into the hearse. I caught his gaze across the congregation, and watched his body tremble as he mouthed the word goodbye. I didn’t understand and I didn’t really want to.
I sat in the back of the church, the following Sunday, expecting both Daniel and Jackson to be flanked at my side while passing the brass colored hymn book , back and forth, that was littered with our drawings and notes. For the past five years we convened in the second to last pew on the right, far from our families, and kept each other awake during long sermons. That morning, for the first time, I found myself sitting alone.
When Jackson wrote to me, three days later, he disclosed he was leaving the following morning. He had found off-campus housing in Georgetown, and he wouldn’t be going to our high school graduation. Attached to the letter were the keys to his guitar room. Music was dead for him, he wrote, and so was God. He wished me good luck. He signed it “With Love”, but no signature.
The following Sunday I went to church alone and for the last time. Three months later I left for San Francisco and never heard from Jackson Philips again.
I wandered outside of the terminal to light a cigarette, still lost in thought and ducking people traffic when I heard his voice call my name. Not my real name; rather, the alter ego he created for me; the name that took me back to 16-year-old girlhood when he said it. His voice emerged louder, breaking through the ambient orchestra of Time Square, and then I caught a glimpse of his face, pale and soaring above the crowd. Jackson’s lanky body suddenly appeared, taking long strides in my direction. We embraced each other beneath the large scaffolding that sheltered us from the gray sky that began to thunder overhead. I found myself practically in a pirouette as I wrapped my arms around his shoulders, reaching him only by way of the tips of my toes. Jackson pulled back from our embrace with a smile, but when he reached for the bag on my arm, he shrank at the sight of it.
“Why’d you bring that for?” He sneered, the smile across his lips curving into a child-like pout.
I leaned in closer, letting the strap of the guitar case fall off my shoulder and into his hand. “Because it’s yours; don’t be a jerk, Jacs”.
His eyebrows furrowed. He probably hadn’t been called Jacs since he left Brooklyn. I flashed an exaggerated smile when he grabbed hold of my hand and began weaving me through the crowd. We sprinted through traffic and reached his car just as the first drops of rain hit my shoulder.
While he drove, we spoke with the strained cordiality of strangers and the rain-drenched scenery became a fitting backdrop. Jackson meandered whenever there was silence, seemingly trying to blurb the last few years into casual conversation. I felt his hesitation when he glanced at me, and the awkward dance of words made me begin to question if he was regretting the invitation back into his life after all these years of estrangement.
“Is that for me?” He said gesturing to the withered rose still in my hand.
I smiled, “You used to give these to me all the time”.
“When you were pissed”, he admitted with a laugh, “Danny told me they were your favorite.” Jackson paused. He slowed the car and looked at me. “I haven’t said his name in three years.”
Jackson accelerated through a red light causing a splash of dirt and water. I tried to mask my anxiety, gripping my knees as I watched the blur of City Hall approaching through the rain-splattered windshield. The car came to a sudden stop. Jackson sighed and dropped his hands from the steering wheel. His eyes glared intently out towards the downtown majesty of the courthouses surrounding us. The rain was coming down harder, now, creating a silver hue that reflected off the hood of the car. “It was a day just like this,” he whispered,” The storm was unreal; it was like steering through the ocean and I was driving- It happened fast. It was so fast, you know?”
I caught my breath and acknowledged his reverie, stroking the nape of his neck. I didn’t know; I wasn’t there. I often wondered if he resented me for not being there.
“I missed you.” I whispered back; it was all I could think of to say.
Jackson brought his cheek down to where my hand rested at his neck and nudged the curves of his face along my fingertips. “I missed us.”
He began driving again, slowly. My hand was now cupped over his on the steering wheel, intertwining my fingers with his.
“Let’s go somewhere”, he said. I had no idea where we were originally headed, but I nodded in agreement anyway.
Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge was like cutting through a veil shrouding all of my memories. Broken pavement turned to cobblestone as we drove along Montague Street, passing the red brick houses we coveted in our youth, around the corner from the Promenade which overlooked the Manhattan skyline. The vintage record store in Cobble Hill, the dance studio on Union Street; I smiled at the enduring landmarks of my childhood as we passed them by.
The downpour had ceased before Jackson pulled over and exited the car. All I had wanted was for the rain to stop, but the heavy blanket of musk that had permeated the air earlier, now smelled of sweet, damp marigolds potted in open windows. The leaves from the trees that bordered the streets dripped ceremoniously with dew. I followed suit as he took off his shoes and hopped over a familiar wall of granite.
Drawn in as always by his curious grin, I took his hand as he led me down a man-made path under a curve of Honey Locusts. Prospect Park’s emerald glow radiated, even in the sallow light of the ashen sky. I relished the squish of wet grass between my toes as I continued to follow him down the path, in silence, to a clearing of an empty baseball field. Jackson straddled a damp wooden bench and I sat on the ground with my back against the sky to face him.
He began to speak fearlessly. He told me he started frequenting that spot in the park the year after he returned from Georgetown. He’d bring a stereo with him and get drunk on Knob Creek whiskey, listening to old demo tapes we’d made as teenagers; scratchy recordings of belligerent guitar playing and late night conversations. He’d often find himself talking back to Daniel whenever he heard his voice.
“I come here” he mused, “and it’s like I can almost feel the presence of God again”.
“We don’t believe in God anymore, remember?” I said mockingly.
Jackson smiled and knelt in front of me. He met my eyes with the warm gaze he had greeted me with, just an hour earlier. “Shut-up and turn around”, he said with a smirk, “tell me you don’t see heaven.”
The setting sun had broken through a dune of clouds and mist. The light spiraled out in shafts of purple and gold glittering over the tower tops of buildings on the edge of the horizon. Billows of haze made step-shaped patterns all the way up through the endless spectrum of the atmosphere. He was right, I thought, as I leaned into his chest with my face pointed to the sky; there was God.
The drive to Jackson’s apartment wasn’t long, though night had completely settled in by the time we reached his front door. The trip had made me lethargic. Upon crossing the door-sill, I dropped the guitar case on the nearest chair and Jackson walked me towards his bedroom. He was going to stay up for a little while and told me I could have the bed. He kissed the tip of my nose and sternly pointed towards his room. I was too anxious for sleep to argue. With soiled feet and grass stained jeans, I threw myself into the inviting collection of sheets and blankets. I saw my tired reflection in the glass of a picture frame with Jackson and Daniel staring back at me from under the light of a table lamp. I turned off the light and crossed the familiar threshold of exhaustion to sleep, softly humming to the muffled strumming of a guitar being played in the other room.