I found the night where I had thought it would be; exactly where it should be — outside, that is.
The merry cacophony of the Friday night escorted me to the door, right to the bar door, and even farther, beyond that — to the street. Reeling a bit, a dwarfish cigarette butt dangling from my mouth, a fresh one stuck behind my ear, an expression of drunken lassitude pasted to my face, like a sarcastic sticker to a bumper, I propped myself against the door on my way out. I propped myself against it at the last moment. Then, dodging an embarrassing fall, I swerved to the right, allowing the door to slam loudly behind me of its own accord, like a starter pistol barking at the runners. It slammed shut thus cutting me off from the echoes of laughter and singing and from the whole delirious bedlam of an evening well spent. But it was night now; it was night, all of a sudden.
I had ruined my suit jacket — a brand-new one, too. I didn’t know where, I didn’t know how, but it was in tatters — in pretty expensive tatters at that. Someone must have spilled something on it, right on it. Someone must have ruined it for me. Perhaps it was that woman, the one I had noticed dancing and thrusting her head in this way, and in that way, her fingers snapping, as if she had been exorcizing some demon or other — it must have been her. But I wasn’t sure; I couldn’t be sure with the aftertaste of the loud music still thudding and throbbing in my head — no one would have been sure.
I had lost both of my cigarettes — they were missing in action. I was like a painter robbed of his brushes at a crucial moment of inspiration. The half-burned one I didn’t miss, but the fresh one — it was another thing to waste a perfectly good cigarette for nothing. It must have fallen out from behind my ear during that breakneck maneuver near the door — it was a miracle, a real miracle, that I had made it. I would surely have berated myself for it — the last cigarette having been gone, and so foolishly at that — had I not been afraid of spewing up my late dinner the moment I opened my mouth. So, I decided to shut up and stay that way — for now, at least.
Then it struck me: how calm it was. It was oddly calm out there — too calm to my taste.
I straightened up, swaying a little bit, and listened. My leather shoes squeaked discreetly as I strived to keep my balance, like the rusty hinges of the old door that is being tickled by the playful gusts of wind.
The wailing of an ambulance siren erupted and then tapered off in the distance; someone, somewhere, was fighting for their life. Some poor guy must have choked on a fishbone, like a tailor on a pin, or gotten a heart attack after shoveling down too large a steak. A plane drifted across the impenetrable sky; it blinked at me meaningfully from above, broadcasting some secret message in the Morse code of quick red flashes on its wings — but I couldn’t send anything back to it. I was unable to respond adequately, like a mute person caught in a vicious quarrel. I wondered whether those people aboard could see me, whether they would see me if they only bothered to look down, whether I could be seen in this tangle of shaded streets, gloomy squares, and lugubrious bridges.
A can rolled out of a dumpster in the dark back alley; in this silence, it sounded like the roar of road roller oppressing a fresh layer of asphalt. A couple of cats and dogs continued their eternal battle; one here, one there, the whole city sounded like a pet battlefield. I listened to it; I listened to every one of it; I listened to all of it — the city variation on the crickets of the night.
“It’s closed,” the old man said. “The subway is closed for today. Come back tomorrow,” he added in the voice as coarse as sandpaper applied to one’s forehead and cheeks instead of a healthy beauty face mask.
I let go of the grille door barring me the way. I glanced at the man; he stood on the other side of it, like a prisoner of an undeclared war. The first thing I saw was his face, terribly crevassed with age, as if it were a botched sketch that had been squashed after it had failed to meet the cartoonist’s unrealistic expectations. I saw his worn-out boots, smeared and stained all over, peering from under his garish subway uniform, from under the uniform that tried to mask its owner’s parlous state with its suspicious spotlessness. He clenched a sandwich in one hand, a broom in the other — the only attributes of decency he had been able to get.
I took a step back and, a bit dazed, a bit plastered, tried to retrieve a nonexistent cigarette from behind my ear. Then it struck me: it wasn’t there. I had lost it: a partygoer’s phantom pain.
The man understood what I meant; he understood it all too well — he must have been there himself. Without a word, he leaned the broom against the wall and dug his old hand into his breast pocket. A battered pack of cigarettes came out of it, like a diver thirsty for a breath of fresh air. He shook the pack as if to put its unruly contents in order — even though there it was: the last one. He offered it to me, also without a word.
I rubbed my fingers together — the thumb and the index finger: that perennial duo. I looked back at the man and his unmoved, unsmiling face.
I took it; I did it reluctantly, but I took it nevertheless.
“Quite a night tonight, isn’t it?” I said uneasily, lighting the cigarette. I hoped that I seemed cool and relaxed; I hoped that I looked as cool and calm as a movie star. I even tried not to sway too much — I used the sidewalk tiles as the reference points; using the grid made of the gaps between them was a proven method of mine. It was like playing a Battleship game, but with me myself serving as a ship striving to stay within the lines, and not to get hit by the enemy artillery.
The man stepped back, reclaimed his broom, and sat down on one of the steps to finish his lunch, or whatever it was. I remembered walking over those steps on my way here, earlier this afternoon. He sat on them as if they were a bench in a cafeteria. A battered vacuum flask sat right next to him; an old lighter flanked it on the left — a private little corner he got himself there. He returned to the sandwich — it seemed to be wrapped in last-week’s newspaper. The once-screaming headlines were oddly subdued now, as if tranquilized; they were all blurred and smudgy from the touch of too many dirty hands — the stories and tragedies no one cared about.
“I’ll get going, sir,” I said. “Thank you once again for — ,” I pointed at a cigarette. “Much obliged.”
I reeled away from the grille door; I reeled away from the subway station; I reeled away from him — with the grid of the sidewalk gaps being my only friend and guide, as if I were a prodigal pawn making its way home across the chessboard. I wanted to get away from there as fast as possible: it was no place for me. I left him there alone; I left him there, for now I knew where to find him, now I knew where to look for him — he would be where the night is.