It isn’t the gray. It is not the shaft of air tunneling down the black or even the thin promise of light. It is not the howl of gears in need of oil and spit and breath, the places where teeth rub against brittle skin worn to rust and grit. It is not the blood even or the lost child or the empty wallet or the anticipation of want.
It is a recollection. Become a parent and everything changes. Down we go, compelled.
Once I played Mancala on the sofa of a shelter with a girl who had a child.
Her own mother stayed there, too. Three generations in one borrowed room. She told me her mother had taught her the game. In the smooth divots of that wooden palette, she doled out glass beads. Our turns shifted the place they needed to land. Each play altered the number of beads in our hand. The little marbles dropped, leading us around the board. We were Hansel and Gretel following gemstone breadcrumbs, trying to find a way home. Count, calculate, move, hold your breath. Nothing stays. Someone comes like a crow to pluck your shiny things. She told me she learned so well her mother refused to play her anymore. She needed someone who would be willing to lose. She had never lost.
We sat in front of the ceiling-high windows. The panes of glass looked out onto a street in her neighborhood. It was the place she had been born and raised, the place she could not find that just-enough combination of work + babysitting + bus fare to make rent. Who would have taught her how? Her mother was on the other futon in their room upstairs. She slid the gleaming bits of glass, 2-3-4. She said she decided she was going to master this game. She didn’t care if it made her mom feel bad to lose. She needed to win. This was her chance.
I was no help at all working there. I had no job leads, no contact at the ANFC. Nothing but the key to the locker where donated diapers and spaghetti-os lived. That, and keeping watch. In the heart of a city both cagey and caged, I could bar the doors and ensure an unmolested night.
There on the sofa, I was merely a convenient opponent. Company. This was more than nothing, though not by much. Do we not know this now? In a situation so dire, who can endure remembering without pause? The relentless press of need will cripple the very capacity required for filling it. Who can hold awareness of how much is required, how many miles the blistered feet must still cover, without curling into a ball? Without giving up entirely? I was a vehicle for distraction. For collecting glittering baubles. Anything but the Real for that precious pause.
You work and work and work just to keep getting up again to work some more. You are an accident of birth and the blind flailing towards some kind of coherent life. From the time you are little. You do your homework or you put it off, you start a lemonade stand or you peddle drugs. You aren’t getting closer to anything it all it seems until one day, there it is: A door. One of your company walks on through and the other is still trying to stumble down the corridor. Then it whispers shut. Then is gone and with it that first one, the one who was only just steps ahead. Behind a wall without a way through. That other self. That could-have-been.
Who sits across you from the couch, offering nothing but company. And a silencing of the noise of everything that still must be done to keep your child safe, to give her some chance of getting down that dark tunnel faster than you ever did before the door slips shut.
In the low light of those oversized windows, the girl with no place to live taught me her game of strategy and luck. She beat me every time until I learned. Then she didn’t stand a chance. I was young. She was younger but had more years under her belt by far. Ages. Epochs. I held all the advantage and forgot to let her win there in that one place where she could. We put the board away. She went up to the room to rouse her child from her hot nap. I went home.
Her baby would be 20 now. Older than the girl was then.
Did her little one make it? Did she arrive? Did she beat her mother at the game?
There are doors here. We find them. For our children. We push our way down that black tunnel. Push past the terror. Down past where we know others have gone. Some have tipped over the edge into pits we dread. Others slipped out into those places just beyond, those places we ache to be.
We feel blindly at the edges of damp concrete and steel, press our hands down into those cracks where the grime collects. Where the gears bite and groan. We know the danger. We also know there is a treasure there. A lever to pull. A place where things fall open. We seek the shape of the doors we only vaguely recognize. We have seen the shafts of light. Even if we missed our own chance, we remember the feel of the air blowing through. That noise, that thump and howl, it could just be the empty wind. Also, it could be a trumpet song trying to find its way to our ears. It could be music somewhere here. A stage door opening onto string and brass. The velvet curtain lifting. A trough of glass beads. All of what was lost and more, glittering there for our children to claim as their own.