A Moment of Nothing
by Joel Caris
Needing a walk, he shrugged a heavy flannel button down over his undershirt, then took his winter coat off the rack and added it over the top. He slipped a pen in his pocket—always ready—grabbed his keys and opened the front door to the dark night outside, wet and cold and just past the throes of breaking apart from the freezing rain the day before.
The previous day had started with snow, transitioned into freezing rain in the afternoon, and then held there, the ice building a steady sheen, slickening the world about. It held overnight, despite the warming temperatures, and not until 24 hours after it began did it finally start to break and dissipate and then relent against the pressure of steadily warming rain. Now it was just rain, steady and calming, and only the occasional kaleidoscope of broken ice on the sidewalks, slush lines on the roads.
The neighborhood huddled quiet around him, the sidewalks empty and street lights few and far between. The house’s windows held light, but less than it seemed they should. The holidays kept echoing: Christmas lights still strung and lit here and there, some multi-colored and some white, some tiny and some bulbous, some displays neat and others a garish mess. One blow up Santa, its fan whirring, fought against the competing white noise of steady rain.
He didn’t know where to go and didn’t care, so he walked straight for awhile and then turned and straight and turned and wound his way through the gridded neighborhood. It wasn’t quite the right jacket for the rain, drops falling and soaking in and the coat so slowly growing heavier as he walked, taking in the winter’s runoff. It fell all around—tiny and incessant hollow thumps on the hood of his coat. Its steadiness calmed him, though, and set his mind adrift in the best of ways. His steps echoed the raindrops: one for a hundred, or for thousands, dependent on the area surveyed.
He kept trying to understand the year stretched in front of him, shaded in an outline that shifted every time he tried to comprehend it. The year behind he understood better, even if he knew it would continue to echo across his life for many more years to come. But he couldn’t yet grasp the one in front of him.
An occasional car passed him slow, it’s hissing tires turned to waterwheels in the wet streets. The sidewalk kept greeting him with puddles and ponds: ice and rain, joining forces and becoming one. He stepped around them and in them and sometimes it wasn’t puddles but cracked messes of water and ice, pockets of cold that refused to give way to the warming. He kept leaving the sidewalk for the street, walking its cleaner edge and slowly drifting toward the middle until he felt unknown eyes on him, telling him to get back in place.
Passing under a cluster of thick pine trees, the steady sound of the rain muted back to a whisper. The rain entered the trees and filtered through its branches, coalescing into fatter, clumsier drops that tumbled out of the pine’s needles, landing messy on his shoulders, the hood of his coat, the concrete surrounding him. He stopped, and even as he waited the rain muted more and more, faded, and became almost nothing until he realized it was slowing beyond the trees, too—the clouds were tightening, closing in on themselves, taking a deep breath before deciding what to do next.
Not completely, though. It still rained, he found, as he emerged from beneath the trees, the dark street unwinding before him. It rained light, but it rained, the drops much more few and far between now, small and uncertain. The houses on either side were dark. He didn’t understand what had happened to them, so early in the evening. Where was everyone? What were they planning?
A vacant lot rose on his left, at the top of a sharp slope of muddied grass that flattened out at close to even with his head, a broken fence strung around the lot’s edges. A backhoe waited just beyond. The ground was torn apart, the earth gaping and waiting to be covered. Halfway along the lot’s ragged edge, a cat’s face emerged out of the darkness on the other side of the chain link.
He startled. The face was feet from his, low to the ground, too large. It was sharp, pointed, a cat and not a cat and—
He stumbled, but stopped. Pushed the hood from his head. The bobcat shifted and the full length of its body came parallel to the fence, so dim in the night’s dark. But a bobcat. He had seen one once before, at a good distance, slipping out of view ahead on a trail. Nothing this close, though.
This one stared at him, calm, and even as he both backed up and moved forward, it paced him along the fence with soft and silent steps, padded feet sure of each placement. They watched each other. It sunk its head low, then high, and brushed its nose soft against the fence. He remembered to breathe. Then he continued to walk, watching the fence ahead to see if it was solid, if it held gaps. He could see none. But he knew it wasn’t solid; it was barely upright and no doubt this creature could leap over it, push through it, get to him if it truly wanted to. Still, he felt little danger, just fascination and a certain nervousness at the surprise of the situation and the small background pressure of his mind turning over what this might mean, what its significance was.
At the edge of the lot, the corner of the next street, the two of them stopped and eyed each other, their breathing now synced. A rumble and hiss rose behind him and he turned in time to see a car passing slowly. A young girl stared at him out the back driver’s side window, illuminating by the passing street light, her eyes widening at the sight of the bobcat waiting at the fence. She put two fingers against the window’s cold glass. In front of her, her father gripped the steering wheel tight, eyes straight ahead even as he turned the car at the corner, head rigid, refusing to look anywhere else, not even where he was going. “Daddy,” the girl mouthed, but he made no indication he heard her and then the car was gone, slanting around the corner and down the street, the father’s head still turned to the right and searching in vain for his pre-turn view.
He stared after the car for a moment and, out of the corner of his eye, saw the bobcat slip backward into the darkness, the vacant lot swallowing the animal’s presence.
He continued on. After another block, the rain ceased falling and the night’s quiet grew. He passed signs for various political candidates from the just-passed election, the corrugated plastic flat and sullen in its January impotence. Take them down, he thought. Was it inertia or laziness that kept them up? Denial? Rage? A wistful hope?
Now he looped back, coming within a few blocks of his apartment. The year past continued to echo and the year coming kept flexing around the edge of his vision, not quite ready to come into focus. Turning a corner, he started down a hill, the sidewalk lined with spindled deciduous trees, leafless in the winter gloom. The one above him held a crow, he noticed—just barely spied in the diffused light of a distant street lamp. He stutter-stepped. He could remember no other time he had seen a crow at night, still or otherwise, and even as he clumsily paused to consider this, the corvid swept down out of the tree and toward the top of his head, dropping fast, and it ruffled his hair as it rose just as fast, swooping into a settled perch the next tree down.
Okay, he thought.
He walked, watching the crow as he approached. The bird stared back at him, just barely an outline against the night sky. As he passed under the next tree’s branches, he forced himself not to look up at the crow, not to look back at him, and soon he felt another rustle as it flew silently past again, a wing brushing the crown of his head.
The second time felt more familiar and so he continued walking, steps heavy on the sidewalk’s slope, the crow’s presence heavy above him. Again he passed the tree, again the bird dove and brushed him, again it settled in the next tree beyond. Twice more it happened before he came to the corner and turned right and then, ten yards on, stopped and turned back to look for his companion.
The bird waited on a sturdy branch halfway up the tree on the corner. A moment after looking at it, the crow dipped its head twice and stretched out one wing and then, after a long beat, the other.
He said nothing. Turning back, he continued on toward his waiting apartment. Above, the clouds made their decision and opened back up, this time wider, and they drenched the world below. The rain pounded against his coat, spattered his jeans, echoed upon the concrete all around him. For a moment, the world was only a cacophony and he knew nothing then except the past half hour—the bobcat and the girl and the crow, the Christmas lights and yard signs, the eerie silence of the street and breaking, melting ice. He could hardly even see the past year then, and the one stretching before him became nothing but an inevitability he couldn’t know, a future knowledge he had no hope of predicting. The rain drowned it all out, and that moment of nothing became the only thing he understood.