THE SINGER, NOT THE SONG
Lionel screamed and sang to the wind as he pushed the rickety bike faster than it had ever gone before, his tall brown knees rising comically with each tiny revolution of the pedals. The potholes and pitfalls of his known world were a song he had memorized, the dangers and exhilarations of his street inseparable from this explosion of self, this self that was growing faster than he could keep up with, that was pushing against the inside of his skin, muscle, mind, lust, words, eyes, heart. He went faster. The hill of 18th Street rose steep in front of him, and he stood on the pedals and sped up it as if it were an Olympic event, as if his domination of it would raise the dead, as if everything depended on it.
At the top Lionel jumped off the bike and threw it down against the curb. Sailboats and cargo ships on the bay appeared to be motionless in the blue distance. Even the waves and whitecaps seemed to be unmoving, frozen in place. Only he, Lionel, was alive. Only he, Lionel, sucked in air and hurled it out again, breathing so deep into his lungs that he could feel it hurt all the way to the bottom of his ribs, each molecule of oxygen pressed into service to feed every hungry cell that strained to grow, learn, conquer. Lionel stood panting on the top of the paralyzed hill, increasing.
He closed his eyes and felt the breeze cool his damp skin. His blood raced around, carrying his ideas everywhere beneath the surface of him. The top of his head prickled under his hair and he felt the plates of his skull shift, like the pupil of an eye, the reptilian rearrangement to let in more light. The top of his head was an open shutter, wide open to the sky, to whatever god or gods wanted to claim him, and his heels shot hot tendons through the asphalt to connect him to the molten core of the earth. He was out of his head, almost. He resisted the urge to raise his arms, stretch his palms toward the heavens. Lionel didnâ€™t mostly care what anyone thought of him. He was fierce in his aloneness, uncoolness, regular blue jeans bought by an old white lady and ten-dollar Sears sweatshirt. But one tiny little part did care, was aware that some kid might be sitting in his window, looking out at the street, watching, and that part kept his long arms loose at his sides, only the crown of his head reaching upward, his soul stretched and elastic between earth and sky until his breathing slowed and his swarming thoughts regained some space between them.
That night Lionelâ€™s spoon clacked against his soup bowl, and Abigailâ€™s spoon clacked against her soup bowl. The two clackings did not make a rhythm. They lived in a tiny apartment on 16th and Folsom over Teriyaki Donuts, a small Chinese takeout that sold neither teriyaki nor doughnuts. The red neon of the sign bled into his bedroom day and night.
Abigail was kind and boring, fat, old, and white. She liked Lionel. He had lived there four years, since he was eleven. He was used to her. She bought him new jeans and notebooks in the fall, took him to the dentist, put candles on his birthday cake. Lionel had no people. Abigail had no people either, but that did not automatically make them each otherâ€™s people.
Lionel looked at the soup. It was oily and gray. The words â€œthin gruelâ€ came to mind. He didnâ€™t know where he had read that, but he knew that thin gruel was what prisoners got fed, prisoners in dungeons and hostages held for ransom. Lionel did not dislike Abigail but sometimes he could barely tolerate being in her presence. Everything about her. Her fat ankles, two tubes encased in pantyhose under her polyester pants. The coarse black stubble on her pale chubby arms. The plucked chickenflesh of her neck. Her dyed black hair and its inch of greasy white roots. For these reasons, he did not look at her. Then her voice, warbly and old. It was hard.
â€œLionel, I was wrong youâ€™d be getting those white shoes dirty. They still look brand new.â€
â€œLionel, pass the saltines on down this way.â€
â€œLionel, did you see on the news? There was another boy killed in the neighborhood, just around the corner. The sirens last night. I think he went to your school. You must have known him.â€
Lionel dropped a saltine into his bowl and watched it soak up the thin gruel. The crisp, dry cracker bloated to a soft puffy square and disintegrated into cracker slush.
â€œNo,â€ Lionel said. But he had known him. Had liked the same girl as him. Had watched him draw an elaborately detailed dragon on his notebook, one entire geometry classâ€”a wrathful beast with claws and wings and fangs which seemed at odds with DeSotoâ€™s toothful grin and little-kid size, his friendly habit of giving everyone a nickname. Lionelâ€™s nickname was Roof-Busta, because heâ€™d gotten tall so fast you could practically watch him grow. It was the only nickname heâ€™d ever had.
Later that night, Lionel sat sideways on the sill of his open window, one leg dangling toward Teriyaki Donuts, his entire body bathed in crimson neon. He watched the orderly dance of cars stopping at the red lights and going at the greens, their twin headlights and twin taillights moving and stopping and flowing in unison, the occasional left blinker adding an extra yellow beat to the mix. Lionel sometimes sat and watched the cars for hours, really watching them, the patterns rolling in and through and around and making a certain kind of sense to him, like waves at the ocean. Last night the police cars had burst through the grid of the intersection, lights flashing and sirens wailing, and Lionel had watched them, just as he watched now. Soon, an ambulance had followed suit, busting through the rules, breaking the order of the night. DeSotoâ€™s ambulance, he knew now, with DeSotoâ€™s head or heart or gut exploded and his life spilling out inside. Lionel had watched him pass.
DeSotoâ€™s death was taking root in him like a tree, a fast-growing tree, a tree growing faster than Lionel himself was growing. By the time Abigail had asked the question at dinner, it was already as tall as he was, and now it was pushing against the inside of him so hard that it hurt. Its branches poked him, and on the end of every branch hung a word waiting to be spoken, a tear, a poem, a shout. But it all stayed inside of Lionel, pushing and pressing against his insides.
Lionel slid off the windowsill back into his bedroom and quietly opened the door. Abigail was snoring. For the first time, Lionel snuck out after midnight, closing the metal gate gently behind him. The key was around his neck, under his t-shirt, on a piece of shoelace. His white shoes gleamed in the red light. He didnâ€™t have a plan. But he needed to join the dance of the night, be part of the pattern. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his hoodie and disappeared around the corner.