Rain on a river that runs to the sea

RainA long time ago she lived in a fourth-floor walkup on a steep hill in the middle of a city on the ocean.

The city was bisected from another, smaller city by a river. The river was a few blocks steeply downhill from her steeply staircased apartment building.

She got up before dawn every day, not out of a sense of moral obligation but because she always woke up before dawn.  To pay the rent on the steep apartment, which she shared with her sister and thousands of cockroaches, she typed papers for college students.

The college students took the subway to her steep apartment and dropped off their penned or penciled papers, and she called them when the papers were neatly typed. She was only a year out of college herself.

This was a long time ago, when she was trying so hard to be what she wanted to be.

She had a part-time job a few miles away, in the city across the river. Instead  of taking the subway she liked to walk to the faraway job, and she started walking at dawn, down the steep hill and across the river on an arched bridge.

The bridge was old, with old stone turrets built onto the sides. She liked to stop at the turrets and look down on the river below. The turrets reeked of urine and fish and the salt breeze off the ocean.

After she crossed the bridge she made her way along the other side of the river, two, three, four, five miles to the busy square where her part-time job was.

It was quiet at dawn – it usually is, no matter where you are in the world. Even the birds cease their singing, if only for a little while. She was usually alone at dawn, green paths to her left and a highway to her right. Scullers stroked by her on the river, their long boats silent and swift.

At some point the geese appeared. They lived by the river, and they disliked her. Fowl of all kinds had always disliked her, beginning with the chickens she had raised at age nine.

These geese would hiss at her and even chase her. Lest you accuse her of poultry savagery, rest assured that she was innocent of all crimes when it came to the geese. Yet still, she knew in her heart that had they managed to corner her – against one of the turrets on the bridge, say – they would have gladly killed her.

She was tired by the time she turned from the river and onto the busy streets that surrounded the bustling square. It was a good tired, though, a stretched-out-muscle-beating-blood kind of tired.

She was young, and trying hard, and full of questions, and sometimes she felt lost, and walking was something that wasn’t lost and wasn’t full of questions. Walking was always good. Walking was what she depended on.

When she got hungry in the busy square she walked to a sandwich shop a few blocks away: curried tuna salad, or tomato and cheese on heavy wheat bread. They were the best sandwiches she’d ever eaten.

Some afternoons, before the took the subway back to the steep hill where she lived, she went to the old bookstore a few blocks away.  Straight downstairs she went, to the many tables and wooden shelves of discounted books. Novels and poetry and essays and scholarly treatises on subjects she’d never heard of, in languages unknown to her. She could spend hours there, in that bookstore, the best she’d ever been in.

Once, she had an errand to run on the busy streets of the busy square. She was looking for the address, which she couldn’t find, when the skies opened up. She skittered from doorway to doorway, peering up at the numbers, huddling against the sides of buildings, trying to avoid the deluge.

“Are you lost?”

It was her friend, materializing off the cobblestones, holding an umbrella and laughing, which made her laugh too. She gave up on the errand and took shelter under the umbrella.

Together they walked in that awkward sharing-an-umbrella way to the nearby bakery, the one where the old men played chess by the clock. She, the non-chess player, watched them and marveled at their intensity, and how they seemed to know exactly what to do.

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