Life at 26th & Lyndale

He comes down 26th Street half-pedaling a discount bike with sagged tires and there’s a look about him that’s part earnest and part lost. Early 40s, maybe, but it’s always tough to tell which of life’s vagaries carry which effects to the body.

Twenty yards from the intersection, he brakes to a stop, tires hissing against concrete, the hot morning sun on his back. He shuffles his flip-flops on the sidewalk, pulls a red cell phone from a bag latched to the seat, then a pack of cigarettes. He lights one. This may take awhile.

The first few minutes of conversation are swept up in the hum of delivery trucks rumbling through the intersection. And then this floats through:

“I’m not with them, I don’t care about them, I’m with you, I love you,” his cadence uninterrupted, then silence. He listens for a minute.

“You know what, they left you, they were all scared …”

He tries again. “You know what, listen, they left you and I got you.”

The swell of traffic, then his voice:

“What kind of a woman walks away from her children? The same kind of woman that walks away from a man. It’s not my fault. I didn’t do anything to make them walk away. I don’t know why they left me. I waited for them to come back. I waited and I waited and I waited but they never came back.”

He realizes he is practically shouting, he lowers his voice, pulls on the cigarette.

“You’re the one I want to go hang out with.”

Pulls again. Exhales. The smoke a transparent veil across his face in the morning stillness.

“I love you now. But I can love you better.”

Listens for a moment.

“I’m not lying to you.”

Puts down his kickstand, sits cross-legged on the pavement. Lights another cigarette.

“No.”

Listens.

“NO.”

Listens, shaking his head.

“I said it was my fault. I’m sorry.”

“I love you.”

“I’m so sorry but I never did anything.”

Listens. Listens. A woman passes on a bike, her boy in tow, seated inside a rear carrier. He smiles briefly and warmly at the boy, holds his open palm toward him.

Listens. Puts the kickstand back up as clouds block the sun.

“I love you, and you can’t do this. You gotta be safe.”

“I want you to be in my life.”

He fiddles with his shirt buttons. The bottom two are missing and when the wind blows, intermittent and stale, his shirt flaps balloon out like paper airplane wings.

“No.”

“NO.”

Listens. Bows his head, studies the handlebars, fiddles with the brakes.

“OK.”

“I love you.”

Listens. Louder, now:

“I love you.”

Listens for several minutes, begins to pace, pull at his short greying hair. Throws his left hand in the air. Shouting, now:

“I even asked you, ‘Where are you going?’” You said, “West, young man.’ You know what? That’s not the answer to the question.”

“Where are you going?”

Listens.

“See, see?” Hangs his head and swings it sharply side to side.

“See, when I ask you a question and you don’t give me the right answer, this causes me, this …” He pauses and watches as a motorcyclist, flying down 26th Street and seeing the red light at the last second, screams to a stop, leaving a long rectangle of hot rubber across the asphalt.

“Sorry, wow, there was this guy on the motorcycle …”

“Is it wrong for me to worry about you? I ain’t doing nothing to you … OK. So be careful, be safe, OK.”

Listens.

“OK, baby.”

Listens.

“I love you.”

He hangs up the phone, drinks from his water bottle, lights another cigarette and mounts his bike. The phone, still in his hand, rings again. He stares at the display and sighs.

To check out Brian Voerding’s new blog, go to www.26thandlyndale.com