Lights That Grow Dim Over Time
Midday – The Debut, the Salty Decree
The beach is cool today. Flecks of cold ocean spray carry on the breeze, a mixture. Footprints graze the ocean line, alternating, shuffling. I wear a sweatshirt and jeans. Red bathing suit tops spark from bright towels on the sand, girls talk, sunglasses reflect the sun in brilliant recollections of heat.
A band plays further down on the beach. Outside a night club. But it’s daytime. I pick a bottle cap out of the sand and turn it over and over in my fingertips. The beach is filling up with college students from Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois. And Texas. It’s probably warmer there. Here the sun barely skims the skin, the ocean air pulling the warmth, the heat, out of the body.
Girls bump volleyballs with their bare wrists. Cases of alcohol sit perched under encompassing umbrellas. Empty cans litter the sand and emerge from the ground like gravestones. They cut the bottoms of feet, they bleed. A group of girls walk the beach with big plastic cups filled to the brim with margarita mix. It’s yellow, sloshing over the top. Tiredness sits on the faces of the beach patrons like a veil. No sleep tonight.
My condo isn’t far from the shoreline. Sand coats the bottoms of my feet, climbs in the crevices between my toes. The walkway to the building is riddled with trash, aluminum.
The building stands sixteen stories high. It’s like looking into eternity, a glance.
There is a fountain in the lobby. A young man sits on the lip of the fountain pool, a young woman sprawled in his arms. She wears nothing more than a green bikini. He cradles her to his chest like a father swaddles a child. Her head hangs loosely. The young man caresses her hair, supports her neck with his forearm. He looks into her face, whispers softly. She’s like a fawn, brown with white spots. She’s not moving, unconscious.
The young man’s name is David. “I found her,” he says. “Walked in from the beach and there she was—unconscious on the floor of the lobby. She looked like an angel, although everyone passed her by.”
“Call an ambulance?” I ask him.
“Coffee, to sober up.”
I go find some coffee for when she wakes up. If.
Hot coffee, aromatic steam pouring through the hole in the lid. The woman—David’s angel—she awakes slowly, but doesn’t drink the coffee. It’s too humid in the building for coffee anyway. Even she knows that.
I lightly squeeze her arm as I lean down to look her in the eye. Her eyelids are fluttering, restless.
“David didn’t pass you by.”
I walk out the front of the building into the streaming sun.
A group of young men walk out of the tattoo shop across the street. They brandish reddened skin, newly sketched with ink, red, blue, black. I walk into the shop. A man tattoos a swimming koi on a woman’s spine. I watch an artist pierce another man’s eyebrow. Neither of them flinch.
I walk back down by the water. Salt laps at my bare feet and I feel my skin tighten. Dimes drop from the balconies of the nearby building. People shield their heads below, although I see one man pick the coins out of the sand. I think of Jesus, hand-selecting his disciples. But they’re only dimes. My mouth is dry, feels full of sand. I go to get water and to rinse the salt from my parched skin. The salt robs my body of moisture, even when looking out at the sea.
Night – Scattered Voices, They Worship the Night
I lace up aged sneakers for the night ahead—no taxi. My window is open to the line of cars on the road. Exhaust creeps in, engines scream, music harmonizes like a church hymn. The strip is my neighbor, my senses perfectly alive. The swiftness of the breeze carries mint, sweat, something metallic. I take the elevator to the first floor. The streets are living, they breathe with people. Inhale.
I walk alongside two friends—Adam and Zachary—our backpack straps digging into the meat of our shoulders, a distraction from the nervousness that haunts our muscles, shaky bones. The street is packed to the shoulder with sports cars (red) and pickup trucks. The tires slowly trickle over the mud and gravel that spans the side of the road. I walk cautiously; about ten young men in the bed of a pickup call to me.
“We like your shoes! Jump in!”
Zachary hooks me under the arm with his. Neither of us look back.
People walk shoulder to shoulder down the road. Thousands of them cling in groups, shuffling through to get to Sand Piper or maybe to catch a glimpse of La Vela. The flashing lights of the clubs, bars—they burn the retinas. My pupils widen to the flood, music crashes in the distance. Sound is everywhere. A car swerves off the road and almost hits Adam. He pants anxiously and pulls me and Zachary off of the shoulder.
“Walk closer to the beach?”
The parking lots are climbing with cars, the drivers holding cups of whiskey and cola, their eyes wide, bloodshot. I pick up the receiver of a phone booth at a gas station. The line is dead.
“Can you hear me?” I whisper into the receiver, but I’m not sure who I’m talking to.
I walk between my two friends and the three of us watch a man get struck by a car. He tumbles off the hood, scuffs his bare skin on the concrete, bleeding face. He immediately rises from the street and runs to us.
“Now that’s survival!” He spits in my face and feigns a punch.
Zachary steps in. The man hits him in the face and runs. The street collects the blood dripping from his teeth.
There is a campground across the street. Two young men stand with their arms atop the chain link fence. One’s name is Mike. The other is Todd. They smoke pot. With each stale breath, they exhale the smoke into our faces. It’s Mike’s birthday.
“Happy birthday.” I speak softly.
He thanks me, tells me how his mother doesn’t love him. I tell him about my father and how a miracle saved his life.
“That’s beautiful,” he says. “Beautiful.”
He tells me his life. He’s from Detroit.
“Please.” He’s pleading. “Save me from myself.”
He’s only nineteen years old today. I take his hand in mine, show him I understand.
“I’m gonna change my life,” he exclaims.
I don’t know if he does.
As we walk on from the campground, a young woman is crying on the side of the road. Her friend wraps her arms around her, pulls her in.
“Honey, this will pass.” Her friend pats her on the back.
The two women are in black dresses. They both shiver, quivering from the cold, or maybe from the iniquities of the streets, the air. Adam offers his sweatshirt. The friend takes it.
“Need help?” Adam offers.
“She’s been lost out here all night—drunk. Some guys, they picked her up, dumped her here. She was lost…”
It’s early in the morning. My cell phone screen reads 3AM—the dim light like a match sparking in the night. I realize we are three miles from our condo, achy feet, tired shoes. I tug on Adam’s shirt sleeve.
Instead we walk up to a 24-hour restaurant for a break. Inside, an Australian man sings carelessly as he strums the air with his calloused fingers. His voice is a thick blanket, a warm collar around the neck. As I listen, I think of the obedience of Moses and how he stood atop a mountain.
Eventually, I’ll get back to my condo, but not yet. For now, I will listen. The music sooths and for a moment I forget the swerving cars, the alcohol, the abuse, the lost…
And I remember it’s Mike’s birthday and that someone, somewhere, is celebrating life and what it means to be human. Maybe the strip—these illuminated streets—will weaken, slip away. Maybe these lights will grow dim over time. Maybe.
Kristin LaFollette received her BA and MA from Indiana University. She is a PhD student in the English Rhetoric & Writing program at Bowling Green State University. Her poems have been featured in Lost Coast Review and Poetry Quarterly, among others. She also has artwork featured in Harbinger Asylum and Plath Profiles: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Sylvia Plath Studies. She lives with her husband in northwestern Ohio. You can visit her at kristinlafollette.blogspot.com.