Written two years ago in Intro to Creative Writing. I was asked to write about one brief moment in time, elongated by mental narration. Getting off work late one night, I sat waiting at the red light and this perverse little piece was born. Enjoy.
“The Man and the Red Light” by Ash Valente
Guy Tredinnick’s car might have made it through the light at Gable and First Street if he’d been driving a little faster. He would have driven faster if he had the nerve; but it had only been two years since he first learned to drive, and yellow lights triggered his sense of panic.
He slammed a sandaled foot down on the brake pedal and turned the radio up. Glancing idly over his right shoulder, he saw a solitary figure, its hunched back pressed against the curving concrete wall below the overpass. Guy quickly looked away, focusing on the red light in front of him. He remembered that his parents always behaved similarly with strangers on street corners, forcibly molding their mouths into straight lines while refusing to acknowledge the cardboard signs they held. “Give them money and they’ll just buy drugs,” his father always said.
Guy drummed his fingers against the steering wheel, trying to find the beat of the song that was playing but not sure there was one. (He didn’t know much about music, since his parents never taught him.) But very soon his fingers stopped drumming and his searching eyes flew to the passenger window once again.
She was closer than he realized. Close enough for Guy to know see she was a she, and a miserable she, to boot. Guy never understood that phrase, ‘to boot’, but the girl outside the window looked like she’d had a few kicks with one. Even in the harsh crimson glow of the stoplight Guy could see bruise-like shadows on her neck, above which sat a face that must have been beautiful before the nose became crooked and the eyes deep-set.
Actually, she was still beautiful. Guy continued to stare, ignoring his innate instinct to look away from people who wanted money. She was thin and small; he pictured her as a forest sprite (not the drink, but the fairy) and wondered how long it had been since she had that drink, with a Big Mac and fries. Her ragged hair was bathed in red light, so he couldn’t tell the real color. And he couldn’t tell the color of the shitty, probably not warm sweats she wore, though he was fairly certain her high heels were red. She sat Indian style on top of a sleeping bag, from inside which a tiny kitten poked out his head and looked at Guy’s car with glowing miniature eyes.
What exactly was she doing? She wasn’t holding a sign, and he didn’t see any squares of cardboard lying defeated on the sidewalk. He did see that she was young and hungry, and Guy wondered where her father was. He instantly hated the unknown man, certain he was a dipshit who hadn’t worked hard enough to keep the house from foreclosing. Guy thought she deserved a big, beautiful house, with a five foot long vanity and a queen sized bed.
Guy pounded his forehead with his fist. Who was he kidding? He was in massive student debt, he lived with his parents, and his job that paid barely over minimum wage was hanging on a thread. No way could he get that kind of house for his daughter; his daughter, if he ever had one, would probably live under the overpass too, eating stale Cheetos from a garbage can. “Sorry, honey,” he’d say as they left his parents’ home, “we can’t afford rent anymore.” And here he was criticizing the homeless girl’s father…
Was she homeless? She could just be sitting outside after midnight. The high heels made him think she was a prostitute, though sitting on a sleeping bag in nondescript clothing wouldn’t get her many customers. Was she gentle and willing on top of that sleeping bag, he wondered. Or was she kinky and wild, her painted nails clawing into men’s backs as she made noises to match the cars on the freeway above? If a customer didn’t like scratching she probably blamed it on the kitten. She wanted to get paid, in spite of her urges.
His last girlfriend didn’t have many urges like that. It had been three years since they broke up and he found he barely remembered her now. But he remembered her name was Paola and she used to drive him to class because he didn’t have his license then. Sometimes he’d be so horny he would force her to pull the car over and park in the grass while she touched him. Then he’d recline her seat and take her with the two of them barely undressed. Afterward, when Paola re-buckled her seatbelt and claimed embarrassment he would tell her reassuringly, “Don’t worry, no one noticed. It’s dark and I barely took five minutes.” She never did explain why she broke up with him.
Guy shrugged away the memory and watched the girl again. She was holding her kitten now, clutching it lovingly to her chest and rubbing her cheek against its tiny, furry chest. Guy felt something stir inside him, a feeling that swirled in his stomach and felt like having the flu. Tenderness, maybe? He had always thought tenderness was a myth, never having seen it at home.
His mom and dad were sort of partners, barely friends, existing only to blame each other when their son didn’t get his way. “Don’t give me that look,” Dad would say, “your mom’s in charge.” Just once, he would have liked to see his dad stand tall. Maybe if Dad had been around more, – if he had fixed the car, mowed the lawn, balanced the budget, taught his son about girls and pets before they dumped him or died, – maybe Guy wouldn’t be living at home with unpaid bills and a rubber goldfish for a wife.
Another crazed, beat-less song came over the airwaves and Guy turned off the radio with a sigh. His head felt heavy as he turned to look at the girl and her cat, regret pooling in the rims of his eyes like tears. Whoever she was he wanted to help her. Should he get her a McDonald’s meal with a Sprite to drink? Should he ask for a quick one and promise to pay her well? Dammit, nothing he could do seemed like enough.
His hand inched toward the passenger door, and he paused. He could save her. He could climb out of his car and run to her, get down on one knee on her worn, tufted sleeping bag to offer her marriage. Once she said yes he would pick her up and carry her bridal style, her and her cat, safely sheltered from the night; he would hold her all the way to Ashley Furniture to pick out her favorite dining room set, and he would carry the furniture home too! Fuck his 2013 Chevy, he was strong enough! Then the new Mrs. Tredinnick would get a house with a garden and a five foot vanity, and they could afford it because he buckled down at work and got promoted. He’d give her everything she wanted on her wedding night, and he’d hold her close in bed while she smiled like she never had before. They’d invite her father over for Sunday dinners with the kids, and when his son didn’t eat his vegetables Guy would say, “Your mother and I are in charge.” He would grow old with her, he would stand by her side, and he’d clean her kitten’s litter box and never let it die.
Guy’s adrenaline soared as he put the car in park, tugged the handle of the passenger door and leaned over to push it open. The girl instantly looked up from where her face was buried in the kitten’s fur, her red-soaked gaze alarmed. “Hi,” Guy called, pleasantly surprised to hear strength and assurance in his voice as he said the word. He reached to unbuckle his seatbelt, smiling as he wondered how he would begin to offer himself as her guard, her friend, her man, when the red light suddenly vanished.
With the abruptness of a slap Guy was startled by the appearance of the green light above his head. All around him the night was suffused in the riotous color, sending signals screaming through his nerve endings, Go, go, GO! He reached for the buckle again and could feel his heart pounding through his blood to his fingers, against the button that would release the belt.
Behind him someone slammed on their car horn. The long, bellowing sound blocked his ears, but Guy could imagine the sound the cat made as he watched it rear up on its tiny pads, back arched and fur raised in fright. It leapt out of its mistress’s arms and made a mad dash off the sidewalk into the street. Guy could almost hear the cry that rose from the girl’s thin lips as she threw herself off the sleeping bag, arms outstretched. She ran after the cat, blindly throwing herself in the pool of green light, running across the horizon of his windshield toward the line of cars beside him.
He wasn’t blocking the next lane. Guy realized in an instant of panic that every car was driving straight through the intersection at Gable and First toward the shadowed girl and the black cat. Full throttle. They didn’t see her. No one would stop it. The car behind him stopped it’s blaring horn-blowing, and the world held itself in momentary silence. Then he heard brakes screech, a feminine scream, a tiny, mewling kitten-squeal.
Guy threw his hands over his eyes and screamed over the resounding chorus of horns, picturing himself as the hero he wasn’t. “I can’t do it!” he cried into his soft, young palms. “I can’t…”