by Jonathan Starke
The day after my mother left us I put all my wind-up toys in a backpack and went downtown. She drank whiskey out of a soda can before work and then went downtown on her lunch hour to a section of the city known as Alchy-Row.
We lived far outside of town. My father called it “the sticks.” I’d often find him out in the barn, listening to songs by scratchy-throated cowboys who sang about wanting to be filled up like an empty glass, feeling around in the dark, spinning eights in a truck on a mud-covered field. This isn’t what my father did. Through days, nights, I’d watch him pitching hay from one side of the barn to the other with no reason behind it. I’d ask him what he was doing, but he’d just say, Boy, what does it look like? and return to spearing a clump of skinny stalks and tossing it over his shoulder, pivoting at the waist and turning back like a cog in a machine.
Sullivan Street was busy. The windows there weren’t for looking out of, but for enticing. I could have sworn I saw my mother through one of those windows. She was deep into a booth with her leg up on the table, her calf smashed down like a thick Frisbee, and she kept laughing so hard with her hand on her chest like her heart was threatening to come out of it. She repeatedly kicked her foot, which was dangling over the edge of the table, and her shoe came off the heel and went back on like she was pulling it with a string. There were two men across from her in the booth. One put his hand out and ran his fingers across her shin. I must have looked lost. A man got down on a knee and took me by the arm. He called me boy like my father might have. I pulled away from him and ran down the street.
The intersection of Sullivan and Meacham was scary. A lot of accidents happened there. The stoplights were always dim and often broken. Signs? There were none. In some parts of town, people didn’t believe much in rules. This was one of them.
I set my bag down on the ground and waited for the light to switch from halt to walk. It seems life is that way, a constant stream of abrupt movements. We stop and we go and we stop and we go, and at some point someone makes us stop when we were completely fine with where we were going. We were completely fine.
The light blinked. WALK. I waited a bit then moved to the middle of the intersection. The walkers were mostly to their respective sides and not paying attention. I got down on a knee and unzipped my pack and wound up a little blue duck. I sent him wobbling to my left. Then I wound up a red chicken and sent him along after. Then a black boat. I turned to my right and sent a goat, a truck, a cow, a seagull. I turned back to my left and sent a penguin, a tank, a motorcycle, a dove.
The light changed, but nobody in the cars knew what to do. I’d sent about twenty of the little wind-up toys across the intersection, and their gears were ticking, charging their little hearts to keep pressing on, to rush amongst the traffic because they’d been sent that way, and what else could they really do now?
Horns honked. Onlookers waiting to cross screamed at me. Get out of the road! But I didn’t. I stayed on a knee and watched the toys swivel and zig and zag across the scratchy asphalt. The cars, they didn’t move. They had the green. It was their turn to go, but they just stared at the frantic wind-up toys and honked like metal birds who didn’t yet know how to fly.
Jonathan Starke is a former bodybuilder. He's currently vagabonding the globe and often missing the Golden (80s) and Attitude (90s) eras of professional wrestling. He is a creative writing coach and the founding editor of Palooka. His work has appeared in The Sun, Missouri Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Brevity, among others. You can find him at www.jonathanstarke.com.