To These Guys

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The men crossed the street, and Ray padded after them. “Hey,” he was saying in a voice as soft and loose as his stride, “hey.”

I crossed the street behind him. Ray kept the same smile, the same slow amiable tone: “Listen, be careful what you say to people.” He was speaking to their backs. “You — you got no idea who they might know.” They were crossing an alley, ignoring him.

And in a second Ray was there: he spun the big man by the shoulder, and I never saw the punch that set the man on his ass before his hands could break the fall. I heard the Crack! and Ray, blind and crazy, his face angles, was on him: “You want a knife up your anus you faggot motherfuck? don’t you ever talk to my wife that way do you hear? don’t you ever!” I grabbed his arm; he shook me off easily, not caring who I was. His eyes weren’t looking at me, at anything.

There was a long moment: I was sure the man would die, smashed out on the asphalt. His friend reached into his inside pocket and I braced up against the idea of a metal glint; if he tried to knife Ray I’d kick him, knock him down.

The man spread out against the curb dissolved into whimperings. His friend lit the cigarette he had drawn from his shirt pocket. Ray stood, with the blunted expression of a man incompletely recovering from amnesia, a man getting off a plane knowing nobody’s waiting for him in the airport but hoping to see somebody anyway, a man lost; his body relaxed, and he wound up trotting across the street with me.

I was still going through mix-chop-whip-puree, my ears singing brightly, but Ray had that pretty, boyish smile again. I put an arm around his shoulders, anchoring myself to his calm.

“That was some punch.” I had to say something.

His smile widened. “I’m the new Muhammed Ali!” He raised both fists above his head, prancing around for Bob, who waved mechanically and put a grin through the filmy windshield, through the same expression he’d been wearing since I’d left him behind in the car.

“C’mon,” I said, “let’s find Monica.” And we went off down the street, Ray occasionally doing a few steps of his victory dance.

Monica was wrapped around a parking meter out front of the Act I Theater, watching the ritziest crowds in the city descend to street level and tittering through her fingers. She saw Ray and started to yell at him, but her guts weren’t in it. He told her what had happened and I stood confirming it with wooden-Indian nods.

Ray bent to kiss Monica. I knelt and pulled them hard to me.

Later, packed and ready, Bob and I drove up to the Berkeley Hills. Berkeley’s shiny little chaos and Oakland’s long straight yellow avenues stretched out below; beyond them, the dark soundless bay, still and thick as oil, and San Francisco, dim and diffuse in the wet night, its hilly outline drawing a low jagged curtain across the stars: San Francisco or the idea of San Francisco, visible only as the absence of that which it obscured, visible only through memory.

Though I could still feel the solidity and warmth of their bodies as I’d clasped them to me, could still feel the slight pain of their sharp shoulders digging into my chest, I knew that the next day, in Utah, or the day after, in Iowa or Nebraska, the sensation would be dulled, by time and distance, into inspecificity, until, finally, I would no longer be able to feel the pressure of their presence at all: and knowing it, I knew they were already gone. Black waters lay between us now.


Appeared in Witness


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