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Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Midnight Tag

Emanuel shook the spray paint cans one at a time setting each one down at his feet in front of the respectable establishment run by an old man who never did anything wrong to anyone except that one time when he was a kid, and that other time when he was at war in a distant country, and that one time when he'd had more alcohol and grief than one person should in a day.

As each can was placed on the cement with a metallic ring that echoed through the alleyway Emanuel imagined his creation. He looked up at the blank wall that would soon be filled with colorful meaning written in his own secret language, a message Emanuel had known all his life but had never been comfortable saying except on old bricks in the dark.

The smell of chemicals filled his nostrils as Emanuel pressed the top of the paint can sending red streaks over his secret canvas. Lines that meant nothing to look at unless you were Emanuel who knew where each stroke belonged. Next the blue can, the metal ball bearing clicking inside like a snake ready to shoot poison. Black outlined a part of it, and green filled in a part of it. Emanuel worked quickly not knowing who's paths might accidentally cross his that night, forcing him to abandon his work half way though with an unrealized message. The alley filled with mist further concealing a creator in the dark.

On the other side of the wall was Henry. He'd never been a great business man, nor a lucky one, and had not gotten rich in the boom time and so was not rich now in the recession when he was forced to sleep on a cot alone in the old music shop. Henry did not hear creation in the ally, only the sound of destruction. He heard what seemed to him just a dangerous menace painting runes of discord on the side of his building.

He seethed with anger laying wide eyed on his back as he felt each spray of the can like a knife cutting into his pride. This building, this business, was the only thing Henry had ever created. His arms and legs ached with the longing to choke the life out of this boy, this child who was so ignorant as to what he was doing, who only cared about destroying others' life's work for his own private thrill.

Henry stood up and paced back and forth in his room that was lined with guitars, saxophones and violins. He muttered to himself. He shook out his hands. He picked up the long handle to a mop that had broken off ages ago when the neighborhood turned from friendly to mean and a young man had brought a gun into the store and pointed it at Henry shouting “Give me your money!”

Henry had felt the cool metal of the gun on his cheek for only a brief moment as he rifled through the cash register. The man had grabbed the money and run out the door tripping over the mop handle and smashing his face on the sidewalk where he lay unconscious for five minutes in a puddle of blood before the cops came and took him away. Henry had kept the mop handle behind the counter from that day forward. Not because he was superstitious, and not because he ever expected to use it against anyone, but just because he couldn't imagine throwing something away that had served him so well.

He wasn't sure what he was doing now with the wooden handle. He walked to the side door that opened to the alley way. He closed his eyes and bowed his head. It seemed his body was taking him towards something he wasn't even sure he'd decided to do yet. Even as an old man his arms and legs were coursing with adrenaline, but his heart was pounding with fear. Confronting unknown chaos in the dark wasn't something he'd ever grown comfortable with, even back then.

Henry placed his hand against the door softly feeling it's own cold metal. He took one deep breath realizing the decision had been made long ago and it was now simply his duty to follow through. He pushed into the alley.

Instantly he took in Emanuel's location and charged along the old brick wall. Emanuel dropped his can, turned to run, and felt the wooden mop handle crack his skull. He fell dazed to the ground, tried to get up, feeling another blow to his head. He tried to stand again but this time couldn't figure out which way was up.

Henry raised his weapon above his head and clubbed Emanuel hard again, and harder the next time, his head, his face, his body. Henry struck with utter terror at someone he knew was bigger, stronger. He hit till his arms grew week and he could hardly lift them anymore.

Emanuel lay on the ground, blood and teeth scattered. Bones were broken, his chest was heaving.

“This... Is... Mine...” Henry gasped pointing up at the brick wall behind him now half covered in giant block letters. He leaned against the wall then fell to the ground hard. He leaned his shoulder against the brick watching the boy struggle for breath.

Emanuel's shirt had been twisted and now exposed his abdomen. It shuttered in pain with every shallow breath. Henry watched the boy try to move, watched his eyes roll around in his head looking for anything he could fix his attention on. Henry wondered if Emanuel had been beaten before, if he'd ever felt so much pain before. Henry thought of the last time he'd hurt someone that bad. He thought of the last time he'd been hurt that bad.

“This is all I have in the world,” Henry called out across the divide. “It's everything to me!” his voice cracking from the exhaustion of a man who had been fighting for a lifetime. “You stand on the other side of the wall from me and leave your mark on something that you don't understand!” Emanuel tried to turn his head toward Henry but couldn't manage it and instead settled for looking at the fire escape three stories up.

“I've lived 83 years, I've survived that long! And I faced more dangerous people than you!”

Henry breathed heavily still trying to catch his breath.

“Have you ever been shot? Kid, I'm talking to you have you ever been shot? Cause I have, I've been shot and I survived it, and I shot back you better believe me, I shot back with everything I had and saw my bullet hit it's mark right between the eyes and that's something you couldn't ever understand!”

Emanuel coughed and red blood sprayed into the air like the paint from his can.

“Yeah I've been hurt before, Been hurt worse than you!” Henry continued. “The love of my life walked out on me one day. I punch the wall so hard it broke my hand cause I hit the damn stud. She never came back either, never again. I did everything to win her back till one day she told me to stay away cause otherwise she'd call the police and besides, she was with some new guy I'd never heard of. That hurt worse, way worse than your bruises!”

Emanuel tried to move but couldn't stand the pain and so just groaned trying to get his lips to speak. Finally working his swollen jaw enough to get out the word “yeash...”

“what!? What was that? Speak up!” Henry was angry that the boy spoke, angry that the boy couldn't speak, angry that it was because of him.

“yeash... bin shot...” Emanuel was able now to turn his head enough to look over at Henry, to look him in the eye. Neither man said anything.

“You little shit,” Henry whispered after a moment, looking up at the wall now with paint dripping slowly down. “My whole life, I got nothing, got no wife got no kids. But I got this place, I got this thing that you just covered with your mark like some dog come to piss all over everything I have. Back when I was young like you I played the Sax, spent all my time in the clubs and didn't care about anything, just wanted to do my thing, just play with my band in those smoky joints, but then you all, you moved into my neighborhood. The jazz clubs closed. The liquor stores and drug dealers moved in. You took away everything I ever loved and it's too late now, I can't move, I can't change, I'm just here till I die watching you take away the very last thing I have left, this shop that reminds me of everything that I never had. But how can I let go of the only thing I own? It's all I am!”

Henry propped himself up onto his knees and worked his way slowly to his feet. He stood looking at the painting in front of him. The colors were bright and shone even in the dark but the letters were nothing Henry could make out, just a mishmash of shapes.

“I hate this stuff,” he said. “It's just nothing, just a bunch of nothing. No one can read it so what's the point?” He looked down at Emanuel. “What were you trying to write here, what's this supposed to mean? You write something here on on the only thing that has ever meant that I matter and you can't even write so I can read it?” He stared down at the boy and his blood. He hung his head, holding his face in his hands for a moment before turning away and going back inside.

Emanuel saw the light pour from the doorway as Henry picked up the phone and dialed 911.

Henry walked back into the alley a moment later. “they'll be here to pick you up soon kid.”

10 minutes later when the ambulance arrived and Emanuel was strapped onto the head board Henry went out to meet them. He walked up to Emanuel brushing past the strong arms of the paramedics to look Emanuel in the eye from 3 inches away.

“I want to know!” He said with authority. “I want to know what it says!”

Emanuel tried to open his mouth but his jaw was held shut by the head board. Henry pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and a pen and handed them to the kid.

Emanuel scribbled something with his shaking hands in the flashing red tail lights of the ambulance and handed it back as the paramedics lifted him into the truck. The sirens blazed and they took off down the street. Henry took the paper inside his shop, and flipped on the light. He scrounged around for his glasses under the counter and read out loud in a soft voice.
“I Exist.”

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