By Mike Landweber
You saw him first. Of course you did. Back then, when you were six, you spent most of your time at the window looking down on the street. What else were you going to do when Mama fought with Johnny? The apartment was not that big. It still isn’t. But your room was yours.
They all stopped at the light. It was red, after all. It was always red, and it always had been, at least as long as you’d been alive. Mama told you once when you asked that there used to be a fire station next door and they could turn the light red and green whenever they wanted so they could get out and go fight the fires. That explained why there was a stoplight in the middle of the street even through there was no intersection. You liked that idea – being able to make the light go green or red at will.
When the firemen abandoned the firehouse, someone forgot to turn the light off. It’s been on red ever since. It never turns green. It’ll be like that forever. They tore down the old firehouse. That also happened before you were born. And just like that, in a pile of rubble and dust, the magic switch disappeared. Now, no one knows how to change the light from red to green. They put an apartment building up where the firehouse used to be, three stories, rust brown and cracked, just like yours and all the ones across the street and every other building on this block.
This forgotten block. Not much happens on this block. Not when you were young, not now. So whoever is in charge of broken stoplights doesn’t really care about this red light. No one is coming to fix it or tear it down. The police don’t patrol this street either. No crime here. The people who live here, like your Mama, know the kids who sell the drugs and join the gangs and they don’t let them on this block. All in all, it’s a good block, even if nothing ever happens here and no one ever leaves.
The man pulled up and stopped at the red light. You liked his car, cherry red and sporty. At first you thought it was a convertible, but it wasn’t. Not many people came to your block who didn’t live there or who didn’t know people who lived there, but sometimes other people got lost. He was one of those, you knew that right away. The way he slowed for the light – the way he believed in it.
No one who lives here stops for the red light.
He waited and waited and waited. You watched and watched and watched.
You knew right then, before anyone else had figured it out, that he wasn’t going to move until the light turned green. You don’t know how you knew, but some things you just know.
Mr. Carter approached the car first. It had been there for over an hour by then. You opened your window to hear a little better. Sound traveled smoothly through the dead air of your block. He tapped on the window.
“That light ain’t gonna change. Get goin’”
The man in the car ignored him. At least that’s what Mr. Carter thought. But you knew that he was just focused on that light, on the red. Mr. Carter pounded harder on the window and then on the roof of the car. But he gave up when he got no response and went back inside. Mr. Carter was the super in three-twenty-two, probably still is, and he kept up with the talk shows all day. Probably only came outside because it was a commercial and that’s when he looks out the window.
Mr. Carter’s pounding gave some of the boys the idea. Boys that would be selling drugs if they lived on another block. Six of them surrounded the car and started drumming on it. Not a bad rhythm. Something that made you want to tap your foot along with. You wanted to play with the boys, but you were expected to play with the girls, so usually you just played alone. The boys went on pounding for a long time until Gladys who lived in the basement next door stormed out and shooed them away.
The man didn’t move. He waited. And everyone left him alone.
You stayed at your window late into the night. Mama and Johnny didn’t know you were awake. As long as you were in your room, they let you be. Especially Johnny. By that time, he’d been living with Mama for awhile, and he didn’t do much more around you than fix you with that look that said he wasn’t your Daddy.
Around three in the morning, you went into the kitchen and got a couple of slices of cold pizza and a napkin and a Coke. You left the front door open behind you and tiptoed down the stairs and out into the street. You had never been outside of the building this late. It felt good. The world seemed bigger than in the daylight and you seemed smaller and that was OK.
The man had fallen asleep. You woke him up with a tap on the glass, which was so crystal clean and clear that you doubted for a moment that it was actually there. He rolled down his window. You handed him the food.
Your voice, when you found it, rang true.
“You can go, you know.”
“Light’s red.” He took a bite of the pizza and smiled.
“It’ll change,” he said, popping the top on the Coke. “Always does.”
He turned back to the light, one hand on the wheel while he ate. To you, the fizzing of the soda bubbles sounded like the air leaking out of this life.
You went to bed thinking that he was yours. But the next morning, you knew that wasn’t true.
Annalise sat on the hood of his car, trying her best to put herself between him and the light; he moved when she moved and kept that red in sight. She was a big girl but you heard the boys talking about her body in a way that made you wonder. Mama clucked on to the other women about how Annalise let herself be used and you didn’t know what that meant at the time but you do now. The other girls said Annalise had a face like one of the rats back in the alley and she limped a little from a beating she took when she was young, but otherwise you thought she was nice enough.
Annalise claimed him. That pizza was the last meal he got from anyone but her. And the block let her have him; no one else wanted him, though he was handsome enough. You watched from your window a couple nights after he arrived when she climbed into the passenger’s side and then the whole car started to sway like it was a boat or something, not that you’d ever been on a boat before.
When she realized that the boys were watching, some weeks later, Annalise made some curtains for the windows. He let her put them up except in the windshield. Once, when you were older, maybe ten, you snuck down in the middle of the night and saw them through the front glass, Annalise writhing in his lap, him looking over her shoulder at the light.
She gave him sponge baths. She read to him. She brought down a boom box and they listened to music together. Over the years, gradually, she moved her stuff into the car and after a while you thought of it as her home and his.
Everyone on your block had a different idea about love. This one wasn’t that much stranger than the rest.
You got older. You grew up. It became less interesting to watch the red car stopped at the red light.
People on your block used to argue about when he ran out of gas. You know it didn’t make any difference. Maybe they still talk about it. You don’t know. You’re not there. Not anymore.
One day, a couple of weeks after you turned eighteen, you looked out the window and didn’t see the car. You found your reference point, the stoplight. It had not changed, of course, still staring back at you with its bright crimson reproach. You let your eyes fall toward the ground where you finally found the car.
Red paint had faded to rust brown, matching the buildings around it. The same ambitious weeds that grew in the cracks of the sidewalks had filled the gaps between the doors and hood and trunk. The tires were flat; the chassis kissed the asphalt.
It didn’t bother you that the car had changed; that is the natural order of things. But you hadn’t noticed the changes until that moment.
You packed everything you had into a duffel bag. You waited for the sun to disappear and all the windows on your block to go dark. Johnny slept on the couch by then. Mama had her room. Neither of them stirred when you closed the door behind you.
You knew you had to leave just because no one ever did.
You tapped on the man’s window, peering in at him through the opaque layer of city air that had caked on to the glass. He rolled down the window and smiled. This man liked you, always had, even though you’d only talked to him once before. Still, he had watched you grow up, from a distance, through the windshield.
“I’m leaving,” you said.
He glanced at the light. It was red.
“That’s good,” he said.
“Yeah.” You took a deep breath. “You want to come with me.”
If it had been someone else saying it, then it might have been cruel. But you had seen him first and you meant it, even though you knew he probably couldn’t walk anymore after sitting for so long and even if he could walk Annalise wouldn’t let him leave. She was in the back seat and you remember her opening one eye to consider you before drifting off again. They were getting fat and old together. Nothing wrong with that, you supposed. Happens a lot around here.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll be going soon enough.”
He pointed at the light and you laughed but he didn’t so you stopped. With a glance at Annalise, you leaned in and gave the man a quick kiss on the cheek. Not your first kiss, but your most honest one up to that point.
It was three in the morning when you walked away from your block. You didn’t know where you were going. You just knew it was time to go.