Paramours

Layla was dreaming, sitting in the passenger seat of a sprinting, rice-rocketed Civic, and gazing with closed eyes out its windshield. The glass had been recently scraped of snow and ice. Layla’s skin was pale against her hefty black overcoat, and her head rested stiffly on her arm that was jammed into the small gap between the door and the windshield. She was motionless.

Layla had met Bennie, the driver, by holding her thumb out as she walked down the street alone. It had been late and it was New Year’s Eve, now New Year’s Day. Layla had been fulfilling her community service at the homeless shelter, a requirement of her parole officer and a gracious excuse to stay up past ten in the evening. At the shelter she had passed out food for the holiday and helped people get a hold of blankets. Afterward she walked towards home at which time Bennie saw her with her thumb in the air and quickly pulled over. It was as though he were eager to be deemed some knight in shining armor. Rescue the lonely, frozen girl. She’ll do what you want.

In the car, Bennie said, “I like to drive fast in my car.”

Layla grunted. She opened her eyes and saw the memorial baseball park flaring past the vehicle. The awful air of the polluted city sat offensively atop the park. There were kids in one of the dugouts. Layla would have failed to see them had she not known to look. It was likely they were celebrating the new year. Layla understood — she’d been through the wringer a few times throughout her life.

Bennie noticed she had opened her eyes. He said, “I used to play baseball there.”

“So did a lot of guys,” said Layla. “I played softball there.”

“Those were the days,” Bennie said. He made Riverside sound like it were ancient Rome.

“Stop the car,” Layla said.  

“Sorry?” said Bennie.

“I want to play,” Layla said.

“I thought you wanted me to take you home?” said Bennie.

He seemed to think he was invited home as well, like that was his reward for his noble efforts. Layla opened the car door while Bennie was still driving at forty miles per hour in the twenty-five zone.

“Okay, Jesus,” Bennie said.

Bennie jabbed his foot into the brake pedal and Layla got out. She closed the door and turned her back to the car and listened to Bennie yell and spit about her before he set off again, leaving her at the curb.

Layla began to walk towards the baseball field that was powdered in snow. On her way she stooped to the ground a few times to collect sticks and fallen crab apples from the trees that surrounded the playing fields. Most of the apples were bad, having been scavenged by deer, but she was able to get a few good ones. She moved as if she were writing inspired lyrics for the first time. Once she made it to the pitcher’s mound Layla deposited the crab apples and brought her wooden bat, a small tree limb, to home plate. The game was ready. The kids she had noticed earlier in the dugout were silent, some of them crouching, all of them completely still. They didn’t want Layla to see them.

“Come play.” Layla waved at the kids and she watched them turn their heads to look back and forth anxiously at one another.  The rest of their bodies remained motionless as though holding out hope that Layla had been talking to someone else. Realising their hopes were futile, a few of the kids dashed from the dugout and ran away from the field. They dropped a small but heavy bag that made a thud when it hit the ground. The bag contained something white. The kids looked too young for meth or heroin, but ecstasy wasn’t out of question.  A forbidden substance in any case, one they wouldn’t want to be caught with and one Layla was bound by law to avoid.

“Come on,” said Layla. “I won’t tell.” The remaining teens began to emerge from the dugout, and they carefully made their way towards Layla who stood at home plate. She grinned encouragingly as they made their sluggish way towards her.  

They picked teams, Layla being one of the captains and a girl named Jocelyn the other. The group took a few practice swings, hitting the apples and testing the wooden equipment. Layla’s team was up first and Layla took her place as the lead off batter.

“Should be easy,” said Sean, a stocky boy on Jocelyn’s team. “Team of girls.”

“I’m no girl when it comes to you,” Marie said from the dugout.

“Grow up,” said Sean.

Layla smiled and dragged her bat across the base as she prepared for the pitch. She said, “It’s headed to the other side.”

“The other side of what?” said Sean.

Layla wagged the bat back and forth across the strike zone, then lifted it and made little concentric circles with the barrel above her head. Sean threw the apple. Layla swung. The apple exploded, pelting Layla’s face with bits of frozen flesh and causing Sean to begin to laugh. She rubbed the parts of her face that had been hit. The cold instigated a hot but numb kind of pain. She then ran her hand through her hair to resituate it and tuck it behind her ear.

“It would have been a home run,” Layla said.

“We’re out of apples,” said Sean. “David keeps eating them.” David had opened the white bag long ago.

Layla volunteered to get more apples, and she walked out to left field and towards the tree that she had taken the apples from before. There were picnic tables over here, behind the home run fence, the sort with the honeycomb pattern and made with plastic coated metal. Layla noticed a man she hadn’t seen when she had grabbed the first bushel of apples. He was sitting at one of the tables.

The man wore some grey or black sweats; it was impossible to tell if they had once been black and were bleached from the sun, or if they had once been grey and were now coated in grime. He had a red beanie on his head and it looked homemade and it compressed the top part of the sides of his beard. Kept his ears warm. His eyes were glazed and grey, and Layla watched him move his gloved hands about as he fumbled to pick up a fork. There was a small tray of food in front of him. He maneuvered the fork in empty space until he found a mound of mashed potatoes that was heaped upon a paper plate. Layla recognized the potatoes. She also recognized the grilled chicken that was next to it. They came from the homeless shelter. There were three cups situated around the man’s plate and each cup contained a different liquid: Orange juice, coffee, water. The cups were clear plastic, though the transparency would not help the blind man select which cup to drink from. Layla approached him and he kept his fork snug in his mountain of potatoes.

As Layla got closer, the man said, “Daydreaming.”

Layla took a seat on the bench on the opposite side of the table.

“Daydreaming. All the time,” he said. “Into the night.”

Layla looked at him for a moment. She noticed holes in the man’s clothing. The holes were scars and remnants of the cigarettes that had been tossed on him while he was sleeping. Layla was about to comment on this before she decided that moving on would be best.

“Ain’t it fun?” Layla said.

“Yes.” The man brought his fork to his mouth. “Dreams are fun.” He introduced himself. His name was Alvis. Alvis pointed to the three cups on the table. He said, “People don’t understand.”

Layla pointed at the cups. “What do they mean?” she said.

He touched the brim of each cup, the orange juice first and the water last, and said, “Part one. Part two. Part three.”

Layla confirmed her understanding. Orange juice first; anything before it makes orange juice taste vile. Coffee second, because the calming aroma would eliminate the anxiety caused by the taste of the orange juice. Water third because, as a tasteless liquid, it could wash everything down without consequence. They were like life.

“Always water last,” Alvis said. He lifted the cup of water to his cracked lips.

“I like water,” Layla said.

“You’re the last hope,” said Alvis.

The kids on the field looked restless. They were throwing the combusted apple chunks at one another while they waited for Layla to return.

Alvis said to her, “He’s still into you.”

“I’m sorry?” Layla said.

Alvis drank his water.

“You want to come play?” Layla said. She then realized what a mistake her question had been. The blind man couldn’t play.

Alvis set the water cup back on the table and got up. “Let’s see these anklebiters,” he said.

When Layla and Alvis arrived back at the diamond, Sean said, “Who’s this?”

Alvis kept walking towards home plate, moving with determination. He paid no attention to David’s question.

“Is he blind?” Sean said.

“You’re blind,” Layla said. “Come on, he wants to play.”

The baseball players wanted proof that Alvis was blind. Sean threw one of the apple chunks at Alvis and it hit him and Alvis didn’t respond. Then Alvis said, “I’ll bat.” Layla showed Alvis where home plate was and put the tree limb in his hand. He squared up to the pitcher, Sean, and hoisted the bat back behind his head.

“Hate to see your heart break, old man,” Sean said before he threw the pitch.

Alvis must have heard Sean’s foot plant in the dirt just in front of the pitcher’s plate. He must have heard it turn in the dirt and in his head he must have timed how long it would take the ball to reach home plate. He rotated his hips and allowed his arms to whirl through the strike zone. He hit air.

“Heh.” Sean laughed and prepared for the next pitch.

On his second swing, Alvis turned and the apple flew just over the reach of the infielders, and out where no one expected the frozen bulbs to be able to fly.

“Someone else is going to have to run for me,” Alvis said. He was holding the bat by the barrel, balancing it out in front of him as if to ask who was next.

Sean and the others had a look of shock on their faces. Layla had a smile. After a moment Alvis set the club down and walked away, towards the outfield. When he reached the edge of the outfield and worked his way around the outfield fence, Layla darted after him.

“Where are you going?” Sean said.

“Keep playing. You’re fine,” Layla said. “Get some water. Ditch the drugs.”

“Crazy girls,” Sean said. He began telling the other kids about the team changes they would now have to make.

When she reached Alvis, Layla asked where he was going.

“I just want to be alone now,” Alvis said. He was on the sidewalk and was walking towards what was known as the bad part of town.

Layla stood, her attention divided by Alvis drifting away into an area she was not to approach and the game that was going on behind her. Despite his going away from her house, Layla chose to follow Alvis.

*****

Alvis led Layla through the dark streets of the poor neighborhood. Layla didn’t like being over here she wasn’t supposed to be over here. Part of her parole. She also wasn’t supposed to be around drugs but seeing as she had already approached the teens at the baseball diamond, Layla figured she may as well carry on through the streets.

Alvis moved with surprising ease. He was slow, of course, and careful not to run into anything, but it was clear that he had walked this route a number of times in his past. He never stopped. He walked with purpose and seemed to have an aura of feeling that shot out around him. Had she not known better, Layla would have believed he wasn’t blind. She kept her distance. She knew he couldn’t see her, but she’d heard that people who lost one sense made up for it by heightening their other senses. She wasn’t about to let Alvis hear her stalking him, nor was she to let him feel her stalking him. But all of this was secondary to the one question she continued to ask herself: why was she doing this? Go home. Service is done. Just two more weeks and she’d be able to do whatever she wanted. Get out of here.

A few blocks of walking and Alvis turned into an abandoned building. It was a closed down store, out of the way and at least fifty years old. Most of its outward appearance still existed, albeit corroded or broken down. Whatever name the store had once had was now replaced by graffiti, and the once motion sensing, sliding doors had been ripped aside by a strong man who didn’t care how nice they looked. The building was likely an eyesore the city didn’t have the money to remove. Layla followed Alvis in.

There were loads of people inside. Each situated in their own space, marked by the area that their separate blankets and trinkets could take up. Layla stood and marveled, forgetting about Alvis.

“Aye, who’s she?” a man next to Layla said. He was sitting on a blanket with a large hikers’ backpack behind his head.

“I’m sorry,” Layla said. “I must’ve gotten lost. I had no idea.”

“You got a home?” the man said.

“Yes?” said Layla.

Then she heard Alvis from not too far away; he said, “Think of your future, girl. It’s late. Go home.”

Alvis was sitting next to a dog. There were a number of dogs in the building. Strays and lost pets.

“You have a dog?” Layla said. She went over to Alvis.

“Most of us do,” the man said. “They need a job, we need a partner.” He introduced the dog, Zoe, to Layla.

“I didn’t mean to follow you,” Layla said to Alvis.

He wasn’t looking at her, but he didn’t need to. He could hear. Zoe was happy with the extra affection she was receiving from both Alvis and Layla.

“Most of us are just looking for an escape route and here you are, trying to get yourself in more trouble,” Alvis said.

“More trouble?” Layla said.

“I was in your shoes once,” said Alvis.

“Can I ask how you became blind?” Layla said.

“What difference does it make?” he said. “I’m blind. Can’t change that. Stupid mistakes. They’re in the past now.”

Layla was still petting Zoe. “Right,” she said. It was her native tongue, asking stupid questions.

“Listen,” Alvis said. “You really should get out of here. Go home.”

Layla said, “Do you come here every night?”

“It’s home,” Alvis said.

“Right,” Layla said. “Tell me it’s okay,” she said.

“You’re okay,” Alvis said. “Go,” he said.

She stood up and Zoe looked at her. Alvis wasn’t looking; he was petting the dog, staring blankly ahead.

Layla left the building and walked back towards the baseball field, heading for home. As she passed the fields she noticed the kids had left, their games finished. They’d left the bat and the apples behind, and though she wasn’t quite sure, Layla thought she could see the bag still sitting in the dugout. No matter. She kept walking home, returning from a night with the homeless.