Wednesday, May 4, 2011

People Watching

The boy wore a black parka, a matching ski cap, bluejeans, and sneakers; he appeared to be five years old; and he was weeping. He was alone, standing on the sidewalk at one corner of a busy intersection. Cars whizzed by as the traffic lights changed colors, people strolled lazily across the crosswalks or strode with the pace of important businesspeople when the sign said WALK, and the boy stood there, weeping. He didn't seem to be looking for anyone; he wasn't searching the faces of the crowd for missing parents, or craning his neck to see through the sea of people, or turning around and around in place trying to find whoever had left him. Even between his tears, he didn't sniff, or wipe his nose on the sleeve of his parka, or even reach up to wipe his eyes.

No one paid him any mind. The fact that a small boy was standing on a street corner weeping wasn't enough to stir any of the hundreds of passersby to pause for a single step or even glance down at him. And the fact that he was dressed so heavily in the middle of July wasn't enough cause for comment, either.

The boy was pale, as if he hadn't seen the sun for weeks. from under his ski cap, tufts of coppery hair stuck out in odd places; tears streamed from green eyes made bright by the contrast of his black parka and cap. Only the color of his eyes and the red rims around them gave his face any real color.

I watched the boy for a long time, watched buses and taxis and patrol cars pass by, watched people enter and exit the cafe and the handbag store that were on the same corner as the little boy. Hours passed. Morning turned into afternoon, and still, no one paid so much a one second of attention to the boy. And still, his weeping did not cease.

The bells in city hall chimed the half-hour, ringing loudly over the business district. At the very moment the sound faded from my ears, the boy stopped his weeping. Like flipping a switch, he was done. Now, his head turned this way and that, not in a searching fashion, but simply looking. He must have met the eyes of a dozen or more people, perhaps two or three dozen, even. Even from the distance I was, I could tell that even though the people were looking straight at him, straight into the bright green eyes of the little boy in the parka, they still did not see him.

A woman in a pinstriped business suit who had her dirty blonde hair pulled back in a sensible ponytail came up to the corner, purposefully walking like only self-important executive-types can. The boy met her eyes, and she met his. Without missing a step, she walked straight through him. In the blink of an eye, the boy was gone.

I stared until the clock chimed again. And again. A full hour I stared at the place where the boy had been, as if by keeping my eyes locked on that very spot, I could make him reappear. I worked over in my mind what the significance of the boy might have been, why his crying had ended when and how it did, the meaning od his behavior, what the woman meant, and the suddenness of the boy's disappearance.

I could think of nothing. At first.

Some time ago, I read a joke called "The death of common sense". As I sat staring, it came to mind again. Had something else died?

As abruptly as the thought of that joke had come to me, I had an answer to the significance of the boy. I know what died. Can you really look at society right now and honestly say that common decency is still alive?

"People Watching" was written, as many other of my recent short stories, for a First Line Fiction contest.

Those of you who read it, I'd be curious to hear your perceptions of it. This is one of few stories that I actually (intentionally) wanted to be seriously symbolic. Thoughts?

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