by Rachel Aydt
THOMAS WAS THIRTEEN years old, taking one of the long evening walks that he understood was necessary to keep him tuned up in his body. During the school days, his whirligig energy complicated things. It was all he could do to make it through each class, and it was never without long breaks, wandering semi-empty hallways, hair flopping into his eyes, until he could stand to sit down again.
Beth, his bedraggled and devoted single mother, wondered how she would explain these walks to other parents who were more cautious about letting their growing kids out after dark. When she imagined this jury of sensible parents, they were setting dinner tables uptown in pre-war buildings. But then she told herself that those apartments had hallways that elongated the space between them and their children; thus, they were unaware that their son had the unspooled energy of a world of snapping rubber bands inside of him. But they didn’t matter to her, not really. Only Thomas did, and she wasn’t sure what he did on these walks, but she knew that when he came home, he was less irritable, he looked taller, and his appetite was front and center. Sometimes she was already in bed, and she would hear the lock turn and the door creak open, and then his heavy footsteps moving back and forth in the kitchen. The subsequent clattering would turn a pot of water into mac and cheese and settle her into a deep sleep.
Thomas walked down the scraggly part of the East River path, past tennis courts with weeds growing through asphalt, past the spines of the rusted fencing that led down to the three bridges. He crawled through a gap in the fence and took the short drop down to a beach that appeared every night at low tide. This was one of his regular spots, a nautical layer to his world. How weird, he thought, that it was always here alongside the land-locked life of his school days. Everyday there were moments when he forgot he lived on an island. But here he was, his feet on sand, his eyes taking in a rusted metal ring drilled into a seawall which must have been used for tying up boats. It seemed unlikely that it was still in use. There was too much traffic along the waterways now to accommodate a makeshift slip: ferries, yachts, tourist Circle Lines. He pulled up a bit of algae-covered rock on the beach and waited for the full dark to come on. It had been a clear October day, and a clear twilight followed, and before long pins of light struck out one, then two, then a chorus of light-polluted constellations. The night was cool and he curled up, his head resting on a rolled-up sweatshirt he kept stuffed into the bottom of his backpack, and slipped into a deep sleep.
Thomas awoke to the sound of a deep cough. As his eyes adjusted in the dark, he saw a dinghy drifting behind a man who was tying his boat to the rusted ring in the cement wall. He looked weathered, and reminded him of the old, wrinkled apple doll his mother kept in their kitchen window, its wooden legs hanging from the edge of the sill over the sink. For Thomas, the doll seemed miraculous for its spare ingenuity: a quick carving of a fresh apple—a nose curve here, lips there—had dried into a fairly convincing face. Its eyes were two single cloves. Its pants looked like rolled tobacco leaves, and a sliver of a red hankie tied around his neck invoked a hobo. A row of tiny wooden buttons dotted a stuffed fabric torso. Its arms, loosely crossed, were crafted from the floral printed fabric of an old flour sack. The apple doll always looked like it was resting at a bus stop, casual and open for conversation.
‘Hello?’ Thomas’s voice carved a question into the sound of the lapping waves.
‘Hello, son. I’m sorry if I woke you. I had to pull off the river for a little break, need to scramble up the way here and get some sundries from the nearest bodega.’
Thomas had never heard someone use the word sundries though he understood what it meant. He pictured a jug of milk and loaf of bread, a comb and toothbrush. The man looked like he could use a little of everything. Thomas’s back ached. He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep, and he felt a familiar switch go off inside of him indicating that it was time to go home. Still, he decided to offer his services.
‘I’ll go get them for you if you tell me what you want so you won’t have to leave your boat.’
‘Well, that’s very kind of you.’ The man fished in his pocket and pulled out a slim leather wallet. ‘Here’s some money, get me a newspaper, don’t matter which one, and a cold bottle of Coca Cola, and a pack of Winston Reds.’ Not quite the wholesome sundries Thomas had imagined, which thrilled him all the more. He wasn’t sure someone would even sell him cigarettes, though he’d been able to purchase them in the past.
He took the bill, nodded his head, and went along his way. Across the FDR was a nondescript deli that glowed in the night and could have been on any block in the city. He stepped in and a rush of cold air reached his face. ‘Can I have a pack of Winston Reds?’ went off without a hitch. He grabbed a bottle of Coke from the fridge, surprised that they only had glass bottles. The newspapers were displayed on a rack near the candy, and he grabbed a copy of The Daily News hoping it was a good choice. There was very little traffic along the FDR and he found his way back to the beach.
In the dark, he saw the wooden boat bobbing up and down in the current. The man sat on the rock where Thomas had slept. He didn’t turn to look back at him and nodded when he handed him the bag. ‘Thank you, son. You can keep the change.’ The man slapped the cigarette pack on his hand and peeled off the cellophane with his apple doll fingers. He pulled matches from his pants pocket and lit his smoke. The ember glowed orange and moved in the dark like a lazy firefly as he drew on it. No more words passed between them. There were so many things Thomas wanted to ask him, the strongest impulse being ‘Where did you come from?’ But a wiser version of himself, settled into the night, decided to answer those questions on his own: he came from a very faraway place that felt anchored more to the past than the present. His spirit, as familiar as an uncle, clung to him long after the boat slid back into the river. Where it would take him, he hadn’t a clue; only that he was left with ideas about where he might choose to wander off to on his next walk.
Rachel Aydt is a part-time Assistant Professor of writing at the New School University, and also teaches at the Writing Institute of Sarah Lawrence College. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The White Review, HCE Review, Broad Street Journal, Post Road, Variant Literature, Beyond Words, The Wax Paper, Green Mountains Journal, and more. She lives in New York City.