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Rick Kempa

While most of us sleep, others of us are hard at work.

Two hours into the nightshift, a spasm of motion ripples through the streets and grips the gas station where I work. Bar-hoppers breathless with haste to catch the last call trot in and sing out for their brands of cigarettes. More than half of the twelve gas pumps—six on each side of my glass-walled bungalow—are humming, as other revelers fuel up to take their parties to the road. Inside, some are browsing the coolers for that other kind of fuel, while others paw around in the junk food aisle. Installed on his garbage-can throne near the coffee pot, a self-appointed sage is holding uninvited court: “One thing about a dog” (he knifes the air savagely), “he'll always go for a walk with you, man.” All things con­sidered, it's an ordinary enough night, except for one mighty, unseen fact: Way up above all this frenzy, in the silent, pristine spaces, a lunar eclipse is taking place.

Some of the people are tuned into the event, building their night around it. Two young women cradling six-packs are debating which trailhead in the mountains north of town would give the best view.

“Sittin’ around starin’ at the moon!” smirks a guy in line behind them. “Sounds worse than watchin’ baseball.”

I can tell from the way they make faces at him that he's part of their party, and I can imagine what kind of party he's hoping for from these two, who are buying the beer and apparently escorting him to the wilderness. Suddenly from the coffee corner the sage bawls out, “You gotta problem with baseball, man?"

Finally he's got our attention. He's trying to look menacing; his bushy-bearded face is scowling fiercely, but the response he earns instead—a wave of laughter in which everyone joins—saps the bluster out of him and sends him crashing through the door.

Time to clear all these jokers out, in fact, and so I up the tempo: smacking buttons, calling out costs, taking in bills, tossing back change. My hands carving the familiar air between cigarette rack, computer and register become a blur. I ring up the merchandise before the customers can lay it on the counter. And in no time at all I am slamming the cash drawer and pocketing the key and heading for the door.

For creatures of the night, an eclipse is an event of the first mag­nitude. We inhabit a world more shadowy than substantial, so that our very existence can seem ephemeral. Like Hamlet’s watchmen pacing the bulwarks, we too have been encountered “in the dead vast and middle of the night.” Thus to see our own shadow way up there is both a comfort and an inspiration.

But the moment I am outside it's obvious there will be no such solace tonight: the clouds that drooped above the city earlier when I pedaled to work have thickened into one yellow-bellied mass. I can't help but take this personally, as if my box-seat tickets to the big show have turned out to be forged. I face skyward anyway, to catch if not the sight at least the feel of the event. And indeed, to a brain primed by caffeine and nicotine and given to fits of poetry, clouds are only so much gas. In forests somewhere, people are beating drums, celebrating wildly, maybe even making sacrifices. I tap my foot on the asphalt, feeling for their rhythm. Knowing that the eclipse is taking place, being alert to it, becomes enough.

A woman who has been gassing up her truck strides over towards me, wiping her hands on her jeans. “What's going on?" she demands.

“There's an eclipse going on up there!” With rhythms of mad dances still in my blood, I'm perhaps more enthusiastic than the grey sky warrants.

Hands on hips, she squints skyward and then at me again. “A what?”

“It's the moon...The shadow of the earth is on the moon.” My foot's not tapping anymore.

Like hell it is,” she says.

Indignant at this flat denial, I say, “What's the matter with you? Don't you believe me?”

She stares me down. “Look, kid, there ain't nothin’ the matter with me."

Some points are worth pushing to the limit, while others deserve to be surrendered.

“Yeah, you’re right,” I tell her. “It’s all in my head.”

Heavenly event or not, this was more or less how the nightshift always went. Whatever mood the customers brought with them would slosh into my neon-blasted test tube. The mix would sometimes make for a little reaction, a fizz or a crackle, but never (or so I thought) was it something I couldn't handle, control, neutralize with an additive my own. My boss Monty might not have seen it quite the same way, but to me my responsibility was clear: I was not merely a dispenser of commodities, but the keeper of a public space. My charge was not just to maintain order, but to create a new order. A heady assignment, to be sure. All the elements of production—the lighting, staging, soundtrack—were mine to shape. Did I want an upbeat, electric atmosphere? I would lubricate the air with jazz or reggae, fire up the overhead neon, set the place ablaze with white light. Was an intimate living-room effect more appropriate? I’d clear the front counter of Zippo Lighters, Jujubees and all the other seductive junk, set out my little lampshade with its ceramic base, and tune in some cellos and violins.

To conjure a mood was often not enough; I wanted to project it, to instill it in others. Thus, if I were in a playful, wisecracking frame of mind, I might require that the world be playful with me:

“Coffee fresh?” “Yeah, made it Monday.”

“Hey man, you got any rubbers?” “Sorry buddy, just rubber bands.”

Once a night or so, I'd flabbergast some poor devil making a two-bit buy by saying, “Here's your cash receipt, sir” (and it would be ten feet long).

Sometimes this wisecrack attitude was not just mine, but everyone's. A palpable thing, part of the atmosphere, this lovely give-and-take, this fine edge of wit that we all take turns deftly honing! A veritable improv theater, this prefab joint!

“Coffee’s so strong you have to eat it with a spoon.” “Shit, it eats the spoon.” “So strong an egg will float in it!” “Shit, the egg will hatch.”

Or this: “So yer open all night. I can come here with my shotgun at 4 o' clock to get some booze?” “Sure, come on over. I have a weapon too.” (Off to the side, applause from Larry the Leach. “Way to go, man, good move!” Having thus inflated me, he expects me to front him a Coke. “You know me, man, I’m here all the time.” “Yeah, I know you, that’s the problem.”)

Admittedly, I pushed the limits. Sometimes, brimming with the brazenness that comes from too many hours of talking to oneself, I'd make a downright assault on a poor patron. To a guy who wanted only enough gas to find his way to bed, I chirped, “A big old yawn from a big old man,” then laughed wildly. To another stranger I snapped, “Your mouthwash is too strong.” Fortunately, he took it as advice instead of as an insult and snapped back, “All right, give me a smoke then.” I was, in short, the kind of person best fit for the nightshift.

But I too could be dumbstruck, set back on my heels by someone else's injection: “I feel like fuck, been barfin’ up big green lumps of crud,” one white-faced kid confided to me. Another guy, flushed with the high life, bragged as he pulled a twenty from his bleached-out cutoffs, “We got a dumb chick in the van, found her last Thursday. She's buying all our booze and smoke and gas—we’re about to dump her." “Where?” I asked. “Where we found her!” he exulted. Some people came in so pissed off that the very air around them was bruised purple, like the guy who flung his gas money on the counter, spitting, “If it ain't one asshole it's another; this place is full of them.” Others exuded danger, like the guy who loomed over the counter with his matted beard, cracked eyes and animal stench, sucking the wrong end of his smoke and trying over and over to snarl a question. But his voice was as lost as he. Finally he gave up and, mustering a sound that was half-bark, half-belch, staggered out.

The injection could just as easily be sweet as sour. Late one night a woman rushed in from the bathroom and asked me to help her get the zipper on her pants unstuck. As I knelt within the haze of her perfume, tugging with my pliers at the stubborn metal tongue, she laughed and patted my head. “You know, you're kinda cute!” It seems incredible but in retrospect clear that all she wanted, in spite of her remark, was to take a pee. Hers was by far the closest but not the only such encounter. Precisely because there was a barrier between us, a woman might feel free to stand before my counter, toss back her hair, and nourish me with a smile or a laugh.

Such encounters made me ache—this was, after all, the Year of My Celibacy, the supposed calm after the storm of my last, failed relationship. They also fed my more refined impulses. Beneath my ironic skin flowed warmer currents, seeking a way out. My generosity was always at hand, as long as no one expected it. I was ever-willing to place a wake-up call or to provide the latest weather report. I even considered some of the merchandise mine to dispense: the coffee and bubblegum, or a beer if it was someone's birthday. If people asked me nicely enough, I'd trade their hot beer for cold one, or, for a surcharge, slip them a six-pack after hours. There could be no witnesses to this last exchange, and I'd warn them not to come back. I’m not breaking the rules, I'd tell myself, just bending them.

“Every art has its Tao, its path to perfection,” I scrawled one night after reading Lao Tsu. Paycheck aside, no wage earner desires more than this: to know the importance of the work, to be in tune with it, so that he or she becomes an artist, or a kinetic work of art. In my case, the art lay not just in moving faster and faster until I was a machine of motion, but equally important—for to be merely machinelike is a form of brutishness—in contact. By injecting the Human Element throughout, I could approach perfection: the personal (but not intimate) remark gleaned from my quick observation when a man is thumbing through his wallet, the one second of eye contact as I place coins in a woman’s hand, the millisecond's prolongation of touch as I do so (so that if she is alert she will know that something has passed between us besides commerce). Perfection from the corporate perspective was simply that the customers—my multitude, my flock—would return. But from a personal perspective, it meant that I had made some kind of difference, that somewhere in town, a woman, having finally fought off the big lug she had been out with, was lying in bed remembering me, thinking not all men were bad. Or some down-in-the-dumps guy was looking back on an outrageous remark I'd made and chuckling, feeling less-alone, more likeable.

The closing of the bars brings one last burst of action that soon dies out. At 1:30 sharp, with a clunk in the gearbox bolted to a nearby lightpole, the traffic signals shift into their blinking pattern. Other shifts, too, are occurring. No longer am I in a city, a people-centered place, but in an environment, a desert in which people happen to reside. If there is a moon, I salute it: Swim to your sleep, the watch is mine. The streets, the city, become mine. I prop open the doors, clear the clutter from the counter, arrange my tools of the night: books, paper, pens. I dump the coffee, scrub the pot, brew more. Off with the neon and on with my reading light; I blink my eyes into a new focus. Off with the radio, too. Let the store mind itself for awhile; I have business of a different order.

Like the night itself, my books have more depth than breadth. A philosopher’s singular insight, shaped into a well-made phrase, is enough for any sitting: “The thought of suicide is a great consolation,” Nietzsche confides. “By means of it one gets successfully through many a bad night.” I stare into the window. In the warped, wide-angled reflection of the room, I imagine phantoms, a sudden conclave of all the loners, eyes averted, who have stalked through here one by one, some of them dying for an invitation that I would not give, others already dead, automatons preprogrammed to fetch sugar, nicotine, caffeine.... I shake my head and shut the book. Such thoughts are enough to make me mop the floor or polish the pumps. Thank you very much, Frederick. That will do for now.

The poets, meanwhile, clamor to be heard. “I am he that walks with the tender and growing night,” Whitman sings out. “I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.” Like a kid who’s had enough of church, he cries out for fresh air and space. OK Walt, OK. Let's go outside. I pace the edges of my asphalt turf, book in hand. I speak his words quietly at first—after all, people are sleeping nearby with their windows open. But that won’t do. These words are a wake up call; they’re meant to be delivered:
Press close bare bosom’d night
--press close magnetic nourishing night!
Night of south winds--night of the large few stars
Still nodding night--mad naked summer night.

The air is so still it is pure vehicle; near and far merge into one: The small clickings of moths bumbling their way along the aluminum siding, the pffft of their wings melting in the neon lights above the pumps. The startling violence of a cat fight. The snare drum of train wheels on a loose rail. A rustling in the creosote bushes along the north wall—larceny of the nests! In the alley, boots on gravel, stream of piss. A burglar alarm. A woman's chilling scream that sends me to the edge of the property, straining at my leash. It does not come again, but from within me, a voice, Robert Frost’s, rises in reply:
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-by...
I have been one acquainted with the night.

A gaunt coyote trots proudly by, ignoring me. Across the street, a black cat slides along a wall. A skunk drifts through. The police helicopter—that Eye in the Sky—darts above the neighborhood, chasing shadows with its spotlight. A behemoth street-cleaner mows the blacktop, spitting sparks, hissing steam, making the dogs weep.

Summer nights are small relief from the inferno of a desert city's day. The asphalt gives back its heat even in the late hour, and the air is like a body blanket that you can't shrug off. The kingdom of the gnats, roaches, beetlebugs is in full reign. Sometimes in the west, the silent violence of a storm above a distant range commands my eyes; I yearn for it to rise up and take the sky.

One night the storm advances and does not die. It achieves depth—bolts behind bolts. The first movement of air, like an undertow of tide; the first mutterings of thunder. Garbage skitters across the asphalt, then begins cartwheeling: newspaper broadsheets, trash can lids, hubcaps, ungainly cardboard boxes. A dust-cloud roils through. The creosote bush sharpens its claws on the brick wall. Palm fronds are wildly flaying, flagellating themselves, tearing loose. Suddenly, wonderfully, the desert smells like rain, or rather it smells at long last like itself: the essence sweet or sour of each rain-touched plant flung forth on the body of the wind.

And then the rain, the vanguard smacking the glass like pellets. Then the sheer bulk of it pressing down, filling the cone of the streetlight, rebound­ing knee-high off the asphalt, turning streets to rivers. The lightning, blue and whiter white, is thick-tongued as it lashes the treetops, the thunder so explosive it leaves a blank spot in the ears. And I am afoot, moving from window to window, leaning out the door on the leeward side, all my molecules humming—yearning, even in this, to be outside!

In the wake of the storm, my brother Jack arrives. He peels off his sodden shirt and drapes it on a gas pump to drip-dry; mops his hair and shakes it back. He has brought me a giant magnolia leaf, an immense glistening teardrop that I place on the counter under the neon to begin its dying. Muttering "Never too cool in this town," he props open the doors and adjusts the trash can seat so as to catch the cross-breeze. “Hermano de mio, that seat was made for you," I tell him, meaning of course that he and no one else is truly welcome here. I brew a fresh batch of coffee, crack a pack of smokes. He recounts the high­lights of the storm: a lightning-splintered tamarack tree, the lowest-lying streets flowing two feet deep, a pickup foundering in the swamped underpass. But mostly we just sit quietly, sipping and smoking.

We are visited twice, once from each direction, by an old and then a young man, both seeking crude release: “Which way to the dirty flicks?” “Where can I get some pussy in this town?” With an elaborate rigmarole of gestures and directions, Jack sends each of them back where they came from. We shake our heads over them for awhile, and then he leaves, walking north towards his eventual bed. The breeze leaves with him, and the humid air weighs down. I close the doors, turn on the cooler switch. It's true what the revelers say when they burst in at 12:55 to buy beer: the night is still young. Too young, in fact. The gift of magnolia withers on the counter. And a job grows old.

The notion of my being the only hand on deck was pure fancy. Out beyond my neon fringe were solitary men who, like the kamikaze moths, came alive at night. Too troubled to sleep, goaded by loneliness into a perpetual cruise, they were in dire need not so much of sex but of company, contact, acknowledgment. The merchandise was merely the pretext for their approach: who on earth needs to top off his tank at 3 a.m.? Their real objective was me—someone else alone, awake and, best of all, captive.

My smallest pleasantry as they paid would be a gesture charged with promise, an invitation. As soon thereafter as they dared, they would be back. They'd order coffee, if none was brewed, to gain time. The cigarette we might share while waiting, for me a diversion, would be their watershed event, the act that sealed a friendship. Before I knew it, they'd have made themselves at home in small, nagging ways—moving the trash can up close to the counter and perching on it, engaging in weird talk with any others who might come in, watching my every move with their red eyes, advising me on how to mop or arrange the floor displays. Such closeness was almost immediately too close; I would have to drive them off.

The expulsion itself came easily, if I were rankled or grumpy enough—just flick on the cold energy spigot and hose them down, send them reeling back into the night. But in the aftermath, in the quiet I reclaimed, my actions haunted me. The paradox was inescapable: that the self-proclaimed Merchant of Good Energy, the amateur Doctor of the Human Element, should be so cruel! I had thought I could treat my good energy like any other commodity, something to dispense and be done with, something for the customer to take home and use. Such energy, I came to realize, was as addictive as any of the legal drugs that I sold so much of, and it had to be carefully rationed: a small dose to those whom I judged would not misuse it, none at all for the addicts. Thus the loneliest, the ones most in need, were ineligible to receive.

There were other men for whom my silhouette in the window was not a magnet but a target. They would demonstrate the falseness of the assumption on which my world was based: that because I felt in control, I actually was.

The first assault, which occurred when I’d been on the job ten months, was the easiest. The guys were professionals. They gave no warning, left no choices I could make wrong. They stormed in when I was splashing water on my face at the sink in the back room, pushed my head down, kicked me in the ass, yelled “Crawl, fucker!” Like a giant stink bug I scurried to a corner and pressed my nose against the floor. A rank smell, a mixture of mold and stale beer, assaulted my brain, and I thought I sure do need to mop this place. When the knife pricked too deeply in my back as they pressured me for the combination to the safe (which I did not have), I yelled, in their own hyped-up lingo, “I'm cool! Be cool!” When they left I stayed down longer than they warned me to.

There's a certain status to being held up, I soon learned. By shift's end, the event was on the airwaves and my story in demand by customers. I stream­lined it to a vivid half-minute spiel, minus the crawling part, and delivered a vigorous “Hell no!” to any who asked if this meant I'd be quitting. Why should I? What happened was out of my control; I could not have acted otherwise. I was, if not a hero, a survivor, larger in my own and others' eyes.

Eight days later came a second event that did not permit such a generous spin. The details this time were ludicrous, more like a satire of the real thing. The perpetrator was a walking burglar alarm—a big man in a straw hat and bright green shirt etched with yellow coconut leaves. He stood in front of my counter and hissed, cinema-style, “This is it, man, fork it over.” He made no aggressive moves, just stood there, swollen eyes fixed on me, one hand down his pants like he was playing with himself. At first I just stared back, waiting to see if he was kidding or not. He cleared that up quickly enough: “Do you want me to blow you away? I'll blow you away. You see this gun?” He pointed his chin toward his crotch. I didn't see any gun.

The unofficial store “head-cracker,” a polished wooden baton with a sugges­tive chip on one end, was underneath the counter. I could've as easily grabbed it as the paper bag that I reached for. (I grabbed it a hundred times in retrospect, broke a thousand of his knuckles.) But in the grip of his in­solent eyes, I sprung the register door, scooped out the bills, slammed it on the change (although he was motioning for that as well) and tossed the bag across the counter, saying, “That's all you get.” His upper lip curled, and he clicked his tongue as if to spit. He browsed the aisles, selecting a bag of chips, a beer and two cans of oil, then sauntered out.

His disdain was like a blade that ruptured my self-image. The idea, that one only had to ask me for something to get it! Some attendant I was! In a stupid attempt at damage-control, I altered the facts in the police report: “Yes, there was the definite glint of a gun; no, he didn't take anything but cash.” But this only increased my anguish, made me a co-conspirator, afraid the police would actually catch him. Worst of all, in the only circle that mattered, the living room of thieves, my face was beyond saving—I pictured him smirking the story to his friends, his friends coming over to help themselves.

The company line, which Monty later mouthed, was that I had “acted rightly.” But he averted his eyes as he said it. This time there was no fatherly neck massage, no twenty dollar “trauma tip.” Unspoken between us as we soberly counted our losses was the reality that I was losing control, that there was something I could've done but didn't.

For a long time thereafter, I kept the doors closed, the overhead lights on. I devised an “all's well” signal system with an over-eager rookie cop who promised to cruise by every hour. My reflection in the plate glass as I stood before the customers was tight-lipped. More of them than ever before looked sleazier, suspi­cious. Each night for fifteen minutes I punished the air with the baton. The nightshift became work, every hour of it.

The third and final assault occurred a season later. Months of uneventful­ness had overlaid the anguish and blunted the stigma. The illusion of control had even become possible again. I had just finished locking up the beer coolers for the night when a woman came in and headed that way. “Too late, sorry,” I told her, and I stood firm as she ran the gamut of entreaty: smiles and charm, winking promises of favors, indignance, even a threat (“I can make it hard for you”), to which, laughing, I replied “Anytime.” Cursing me, she stormed out.

Minutes later, a wiry young man entered and stood in the back, awaiting his turn at the counter. I instantly sensed his connection to her. His dark eyes were focused not on me or anything else in the room, but inward on some intention. One of his hands was hidden in the full-length overcoat he was wearing. Trouble was palpable; the man in front of him could smell it too and raised his eyebrows at me as we transacted, as if to ask, “Should I stay?” But I put the change in his hand and let him go.

Now there were only the two of us in the store. As he stepped up, I stepped back, hands free of the counter, body tensed. “What'll it be?” I said. His little eyes wandered from the candy to the gum across my face to the cigarettes in the overhead rack behind me. “A pack of Camels,” he muttered. I didn't have to look to reach for it. I thought of dropping it, as a pretext to grab the baton, but how could I be the first to show a weapon? Maybe he was, after all, just here for smokes. I tossed the pack on the counter, flicked my eyes to the register, punched a key...and then I was cut loose, flung backwards by a tremendous blow to my face. The thunk of my skull against the tile floor was the last sensation to penetrate my sudden sleep.

I was lucky, the doctor in the emergency room said. If the guy had hit me with his fist instead of with whatever he was clutching, I might've lost my eye. As it was, only six stitches were required—four along the eyebrow, two on the cheek. The scars probably wouldn't show, and the black eye—a spectacular souvenir—would eventually fade. But although I was sewed up, I was far from settled down. As I left the hospital, every molecule of me, sprung from its proper place, was vibrating wildly. I was afraid that if I lay down I'd disintegrate, and so, all the rest of that night and into the day, I walked the streets and eventually went into the first open bar I found.

I staked out a table in the darkest corner and tried to unscramble my thoughts. Questions, first. Why hadn't I motioned to the other customer to stay with me? Why didn't I grab the baton that I was on such close terms with? Each new bottle of beer suggested an answer: Because I was passive by nature. (How else could I have managed to live twenty six years without ever using or encountering a fist?) Because I'd been actively cultivating this passiveness: reading Gandhi, satyagraha and all that crap. Because—disturbing thought—I actually enjoyed being a victim; I savored the pleasures of surrendering, the identification with victims everywhere, the sympathy that would be rained on me (which did not need to be earned, like respect).

But the real surprise was that I had needed three assaults and a blow to the brain for an obvious fact to register: my self-appointed role as “creator of a new order” was—like I had told the woman who doubted the eclipse—“all in my head,” not real. I remembered how once, just before sunrise, when a customer exclaimed, “God, it’s dark in here!” I answered, “Is it?” then raised my hands above my head and bellowed, “Let there be light!” I was trusting that Monty, who was rummaging in the back room where the light switches were, would pick up the cue, and sure enough the place came ablaze with neon, and I bestowed the smile of the almighty gift-giver upon the astonished man. Hilarious at the time. Even in the bar, as I cradled my throbbing head, the image of him backing out the door, unable to take his eyes off me, stirred a smile. But now the joke had an ironic twist: it was emblematic of the hubris, that infamous head-in-the-fog disease that afflicted me. Earlier, I had viewed the eclipse in symbolic terms—admiring the cosmic certainty of it, aspiring to exert a similar control in my own realm. I saw now that I had taken the metaphor too far. I am not at the center; I’m in the grip of larger forces. I am not the source of light; at best, I’m a secondary source. These are easy enough truths, and I probably always would have admitted them. Finally I had discovered them. Such self-knowledge was harvest enough for my troubles; I never worked another night.

But there is one other harvest to be shared as well, less jarring than these truths exposed by darkness. “Only that day dawns to which we are awake,” Thoreau wrote upon surfacing from the extended reverie of Walden, and it was my good fortune to have been awake for a year and a half of dawns.

The arrival at 4:20 of the earliest of the early birds signals the start of my surfacing. With his stooped, wiry frame and his wild white hair, he is my private John the Baptist, proof that the night and all it contains will soon give way. I would like to chat with him, but he has to be somewhere fast—leaves the pickup door open, the lights and engine on. His two packs of Pall Malls await him on the counter, and the day's first pot of coffee is his to skim. We test our crusty voices with small talk while our hands transact. The startling hardness of his palm stays with me after he leaves.

I walk the borders of my turf one last time, feeling my way outward. Whatever event will signal the start of the new day, I want to witness it: the first white crack in the black clam of the eastern sky, the first tiny thread of air, the sudden cry of a bird whose finer sensibilities have caught the drift. The birth of day is not dramatic, like the raising of a curtain, and it does not happen in any one place. Rather there is a slow diminishing of darkness all around and above, a private daybreak in each air molecule. I fix my eyes on a star, hoping to witness its vanishing, but my vision expands with my focus. Eventually, my attention is diverted by a nearby sound—a ruffle of wings or a patter of paws—and when I look back, I see only an empty space where it was. In the same peripheral way, the outlines of the mountains, the rhythmic curve of the power lines, the angles of the buildings find their form.

Meanwhile, all things human work in patterns: the first jogger’s pre-measured route, the blue van that comes from the west and turns north, the white V.W. rattling out of the south, the choreography of the garbage and newspaper trucks. At precisely 5 a.m., the streetlight shifts into its daytime mode.

At 5:10, a young woman in the yellow uniform of a fast-food joint arrives for her Virginia Slims. She looks like hell, crippled with work-hate or lack of sleep. Meanwhile, the mountain over her shoulder is flushing pink. If only she would lift her eyes! I wonder if she would miss my few cheerful words if I withheld them.

At twenty to six, Donna Jo, whom I think I love, zooms in. Just released from her own nightshift in a bakery, she brings me two donuts, buys Kool Lights. A few minutes later comes the big man on his tiny motorbike, belly straining against a cruddy t-shirt, oily hair stuck in place, to buy a quart of Diet Coke. Even he, with his lopsided grin, I miss on his day off.

In every free moment I am at the door or beyond it. The world is new each time. Now the date palms that have brooded so quietly along the north fence are shivering with excitement. Could it be possible that the birds were there all through the night? A wilder clatter overhead draws my eyes. Starlings--hundreds of them!--their dark bellies glossy with sunlight, are making a tight, uniform arc as they come in for a landing on the top of the billboard and the power lines. Then the sunlight hits my eyes, and my cheeks flare with their first warmth. I stretch, slowly and luxuriously. From the bottom of my lungs to my fingertips, nerve ends are stirring. I finger the key to my bike lock and peer up the sidestreet for the bright red glint of Monty’s Datsun.

Out in the street, people are already marking the day as unique, making something of it. A little girl on roller skates, yellow dress flapping and pigtails bobbing, glides alongside her puffing dad. Two boys on bicycles tow golf carts behind them. A beautiful woman does jumping jacks at the red light, then jogs on. Picnickers in short shorts and sunhats hit the store, buying drinks and ice and gas for the extra tank.

At 6 a.m. Monty arrives, his wide forehead brimming with light. He is in love and it shows. For the next half hour, while I close out my shift, he fills the air with weird whistling, snippets of songs and the previous day's collection of dumb jokes. He adjusts the atmosphere to his liking—closes the doors, turns on the lights and cooler. When I hand over the register, I sit for awhile on the garbage can, a fixture in his scene.

Then I too am swinging through that door and entering the street. With Thoreau, I am thinking, there is more day to dawn.

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