The Sound of Broken Glass

by: XC Atkins

The small Asian man driving the bus didn’t care that we were in the back getting drunk and making the other passengers uncomfortable. He had a destination. His apathy toward everything outside of that singular purpose made him untouchable.

Sam, Timothy, and I had somehow discovered this mystical secret, and since we were on the bus with him, knew we shared the same gift. The knowledge was exhilarating.

The whole letting go while still moving.

I would try to replicate that feeling many other times in my life. And many times, I got away with it.

A couple years in the future, I was riding my bicycle after leaving the bar. It was a nice night. The breeze would wash in, crisp and sudden, like sinking to the bottom of a lake in summertime. I was riding with no hands, sitting up straight on the seat, coasting. I dared myself to see how long I could ride with my eyes closed. I was in the middle of the road and it was empty.

The first few tries I would open my eyes within half a second, lurching forward for the handlebars. I forced myself to keep my eyes closed longer. I could feel myself drifting. I let myself be taken by whatever power would have me, surrendering to it completely. It felt like years of my life. When I finally opened my eyes I’d somehow found the exact spot in the road to ride up onto the sidewalk. I grabbed the handles again and stopped immediately, eyes bulging. I was instantly sweating. I could barely breathe. But after the sick feeling left me, I thought it was hilarious. I laughed for probably two minutes straight, right there, alone on the sidewalk.

There were several reasons why we were taking a trip to the big city, but the one we could all agree on and wave above our heads like a banner was that we were going to make a man out of Timothy.

Whatever that meant.

The bus swerved in and out of traffic like a video game, like the whole thing was controlled by a joystick, and women would gasp and say, Oh my God! We held our forty ounces low at first, and then the more intoxicated we became and the farther north we drove, the bolder we became, laughing loudly and throwing things across the aisle at each other. I pissed all over the walls of the bathroom in the bus. It wasn’t a malicious act. I couldn’t stand straight.

Our first taxicab driver in the city told us he knew all the places you could go to get a massage. He told us he’d had a girl in the backseat. Me and Timothy both jerked up from the seat and started making a fuss.

“C’mon, baby! You see anything back there? You see even one stain? I keep this motherfucker squeaky clean, baby! Squeaky clean!”

Sam always sat in the front because he loved to talk to the cabbies and it was pure entertainment to watch. Sam was a first class bullshitter.

The last cabbie we had that night, friends were pushing us in and telling the cabbie to take us to such and such address, just get us the hell out of there; Sam and I had started a street brawl. Initially it’d only been between the two of us over reasons neither of us would ever remember. But as we rolled around on the street, other people started jumping in. The whole time, Timothy had been down the block, sitting with his feet in the gutter with drool dribbling down his chin, singing Maggie May to himself.

We kept the same order of seating in the cab though, Sam up front.

I could feel blood leaking out of my back, where Sam had impaled me on a bike rack. My hands felt raw and burned from the concrete. But I was still absolutely wasted, and still bloodthirsty. And I only had Timothy to take it out on.

Sam was reaching his short hairy arm through the little window in the cab that separated the front from the back, swinging desperately to catch me across the jaw or eye socket. I had my hands around Timothy’s throat. The turban wearing cabbie kept his eyes on the road.

“I’m going to kill you,” I told Timothy.

“Do it. Do it,” was all he kept saying.

We all woke up the next afternoon, cut, bruised, and aching but with no memory of the night before. And so that meant all was forgiven and that the adventure must go on. I was standing outside of a Dunkin’ Donuts, waiting on the two of them. It was late, maybe around midnight, and they’d followed some girls in there. I stayed outside. I hated awkward situations that weren’t of my own creation. Also, we’d taken drugs. They weren’t in the Dunkin’ Donuts for too long and when they came out with the girls, the girls started walking away. Sam and Timothy came back over to me.

“Nothing?” I asked.

“Fuck ‘em,” Sam said.

“Sam bought them a donut,” Timothy said.

“Aw. That’s sweet.” I said. Timothy laughed.

“Fuck you,” Sam said and popped a cigarette in his mouth. We started to walk the opposite direction.

We wanted to find a bar but had no idea where we were going. We took random streets and laughed over nothing. There wasn’t anything I cared for very much waiting at home, so I was all there in the present.

A tree had fallen down onto the sidewalk the next block we turned down. It was a large tree, with branches and leaves stretched out like arms, almost as if to create some kind of gnarled hallway. Instead of steering clear of the tree, we pressed on, determined to stay true to the path before us. We laughed and tripped forward and onto each other and soon we were in the very thick of it and we could barely see anything except bark and leaf. It came up all around us.

“We’re in a goddamn rainforest!” Sam yelled.

I don’t know how far in we went before it felt like close to winter. The limbs of the tree began to thin out and we stepped away and found ourselves in an alley and there the walls and sidewalk were no longer a dull yellow from the streetlights but a grayish blue. Lights glowed from very high above and, higher above that, the moon. None of us thought to walk back the way we’d come.

It seemed as though we’d arrive to some whole other land, or was it some other time? I couldn’t believe it. I could see my breath come out of me.

Winter in the middle of summer.

Sam turned around, facing Billy and I. And he said nothing. When he turned back around, at the end of the long alley we had found ourselves in, stood a stag, staring back at us.

It was a big animal, the horns on its head like some regal crown. Its eyes were the deepest black and its chest drew in such a breath that I felt if it were to exhale it would blow us all onto our backs. It wasn’t as though the thought ever crossed my mind, but even if it had, I don’t think I could have moved a finger at that moment. It stood there and we stood there and no one said a word, no one made a move. The three of us breathing so faintly and the stag so deeply the entire alley seemed to shiver.

A couple of months later when I would be dropping out of college and leaving the country, my mother stood in a very similar fashion to that stag, at the top of the stairs in our house in Virginia. I had my bags packed and was ready to go. She’d protested the entire summer and used every excuse to deter me. I didn’t listen to any of them. I was like her in that way. My Dad had given in some time ago and was even giving me a ride to the airport.

I asked her if this was how she wanted to leave it. It would be a very long time before I saw them again. We were very close but not in a way that you talk about. Her answer was to walk into her bedroom without a word. I slept the whole ride up to Dulles.

When my Dad walked me to the gates, all he said was “Be careful with your money.”

That’s what Rod Stewart’s dad had said to him when he took off at his young age.

Good ole Pops.

It wasn’t until the stag took its first step that time could referenced once again, because it felt like it had been forever since I’d heard a real sound. It was the sound of a hoof on concrete. That click, the stomp. It brought all three of us back. We could feel the blood in our veins again. And then it disappeared. I mean, it walked away. We could hear the hooves clicking.

When we got to the end of the alley, we didn’t see anything. The alley just turned and went out into the street. And it was summer again. My breath was no longer visible. We came out onto the street and looked around and then looked to each other.

Sam said, “What the fuck?”

We suddenly knew how to find a bar then and did and ordered some drinks. The bartender was a kind old Greek who wore rimless glasses and worked alongside his wife, who had very long black hair, wavy just like my mother’s when she was young and smiled often.

I went outside to smoke a cigarette. A skinny, greasy haired guy wearing an army jacket that swallowed him followed me out. I knew he was going to ask me for a cigarette. He asked me for a cigarette. He had his own lighter.

“Do you like the sound of broken glass?” he asked me.

I thought long and hard about that before I answered, “Sure.”

He reached into the folds of his jacket and came out with a pint glass, probably stolen from the bar we’d just been in. He held it before him like some shimmering talisman and we gazed upon it, mesmerized in vapid awe, and then, as I could only anticipate, he let it go. The glass shattered on the concrete into seventy-nine pieces.

I followed him three or four blocks to his apartment, a faceless building, completely inconspicuous. He had to jiggle the key to get the door to open. The bulb in the hallway stuttered. The elevator was one of those that you had to pull a strap down to close the doors. They came shut with a dull clang. We went up.

There weren’t any questions in my mind. I sort of didn’t even feel like I was there, in the flesh. Like I was just a cloud following this guy in an army jacket, an observant entity. The whole trip, we never spoke. We got out of the elevator and walked down a hallway as badly lit as the first and came to a door where he took his keys out again and cycled about three of them before we went through.

When the light came on in the first room, I found myself surrounded by heaps of trinkets and things of all nature. Stacks of comic books, lamps ranging in height, heavy-looking dusty chests, a pair of tall rain boots, television sets, a microwave. Bookshelves with figurines and ornaments but very few books. Dolls with black eyes. Framed posters of various Broadway shows, bicycles and huge speakers. Two couches and a ripped leather ottoman. An easel. A waist high statue of a leopard caught in a permanent roar, with one of the fangs chipped off. The place was a huge museum of
nothing and everything. He led me through the maze of this room and into the next.

The room was smaller and dark save the blue light coming from the television. On a couch several feet from the television, a girl sat there, eyes fixed on the screen and utterly motionless.

“This is my sister,” he told me. “Just wait in here a second. I gotta get it.”

Her eyes never left the screen. She sat with her legs tucked underneath her, Indian-style, black hair going long past her bony shoulders. Her skin was blue from the television. Somehow, this made her softer. She had larger than normal eyes, saucer-like, which seemed to never blink. Things that seldom blinked made me uncomfortable. I had a deep-rooted fear of spiders. Her lips were just slightly pouting; she seemed genuinely oblivious. We didn’t exist to her.

He came back into the room and held his hand out to me and I took the small bag and gave him the rest of my money. He saw me looking at his sister.

“You can kiss her if you want,” he said.

I didn’t. I took a seat on a toolbox just in the line of her peripheral view, to be courteous I guess, and watched her as she watched the TV. He took a seat somewhere but I paid no attention. It dawned on me that there was no sound coming from the television. The three of us all sat there in this insulation of silence, she staring at the television, me staring at her, and the brother at me.

He repeated himself after some time, a voice in the dark, and added, “Isn’t she beautiful?”

I said she was with a voice that didn’t sound like my own. And then other questions began to materialize in my head. Why was it that she sat there, not showing any sign of life besides that very seldom blink and the smallest rise of her chest? I moved, tentative and discreetly, from the toolbox over to where she sat. Still no reaction, even to my approach. I came closer. I touched her hand. It was warm. She turned her head, the slightest movement of an indigo neck, and looked into me.

It wasn’t for me, shouldn’t be for anyone, to describe what I saw in that girl’s eyes. But everything there was wrong. I got up and got the hell out of that room and through the maze of things that made no sense and when I got to the door he was there, putting his hand on my arm. I turned on my heel and punched him in the mouth, hard. I didn’t stop to watch him fall into all the junk, only heard the world crashing down behind me. I hurried to the elevator and pulled the strap down, slamming the doors shut. I was breathing hard. I went down.

I got out of the building and walked the three or four blocks back to the bar, never looking back. When I got back to the bar, it was still open, but my friends were no longer there. They’d left. I took out my pack of cigarettes and put one in my lips and lit it. On the street, the shards of glass still lay there. Not one of them glittered.