Moth Man

moth

I don’t wear a hat anymore, not because it would be as old fashioned as putting on tailcoat or dangling a watch from a suit pocket. No, I don’t wear a hat because I don’t want to spend my nights trapped underground, my wooly wings fluttering against the doors of passing trains as I wander through dark tunnels in fear of touching the third rail.

The first time it happened I was waiting for the local in one of those underground stations that lets a few rays of battered moonlight through the grates on cloudless nights. Trains came less frequently after midnight, so I stood on the platform right on the yellow tape, watching the light glide across my fingers.

It took me a long time to trace the catalyst for my transformation, but, looking back on it above ground, I am almost certain it began with the hat. The light hit the edge of that platform at such an angle that all of me, my whole shadow, was contained within the perfect circle that lay at my feet. Somehow, the hat had tucked in all of my limbs, smoothed all of my sharp edges, so that I became an inverted pin, my gaze magnetized towards the moon.

What remains fixed in my mind, and makes me want to take that hat out of storage, was not how I scaled the faces of buildings, my shadow dragging behind me like the velvet cloak of an overdressed superhero. I did not think much of the slippery surface of windowpanes, or the smell of dinner escaping from a stranger’s half open window. No, what tempts me still was my unwavering belief that the moon is a hole at the top of the sky, and that if I climb far enough I will be able to poke my head through that opening and drink in the moonlight.

On that night the kiosk vendor had no such illusions. “Step back, sir,” I could hear him shout as I tumbled towards the ground, my tired wings fighting a losing battle against gravity.

“A pack of salted almonds and a water, please,” I said and examined the faces of magazine cover models to avoid his gaze. But he had a flashlight and pointed it directly at me so that when I gave him the money I thought, for a moment, that I was facing the moon, that I had come closer than I ever had before. He switched the flashlight off and left me blinking in a daze of pastel colors.

“Your eyes,” he said. “They’re black. The pupil, whites, everything.”

He was still staring, waiting for an explanation, so I cupped my right palm over my right eye and handed over a tear, my only possession, as precious to me as a bee’s sting.

“It’s pure enough to drink,” I said, and turned towards the approaching train.

Icehouse

ice

It was noon and cloudless when I pulled over next to the icehouse, wedged in the X formed by two dirt roads. I could hear the crunch of aluminum under my wheels, and, when I opened the door, picked up one of the thousands of bottle caps already crushed by the pick up trucks I had passed on my way through the desert.

“There’s more where that came from.”

The first thing I noticed was his socks, a checkerboard of neon squares set against the concrete porch shaded by a rusty corrugated tin overhang. He was sitting, trousers pulled up, next to a rotary phone, its wire snaking up the pale gray wall right through the three letters drawn in chalk: ICE. The drop shadows seemed an unnecessary, if ironic, touch.

“You sell beer?” I asked.

“No,” he laughed, twirling an ice pick between his fingers. “I just sit here watching these big blocks of ice melt and dry up in the sun.”

He had everything he needed to sell ice right from the porch: a chute built into the wall, a ball of twine, a cash register, and a fresh block that was starting to get soft around the edges. He even had a small note tacked above the chute that said “employees only,” as if I would chip off a piece and make away with it while he was inside. I followed him into a room that smelled of sweat and sawdust. It was dark, but I could make out faded Coca-Cola signs and the cloud-shaped stains left by storms that had seeped through the concrete.

“What if I told you that there’s a way to store your beer ice cold, in a box half the size of your freezer?”

He reached to hand me a bottle but stopped halfway and leaned against the counter, his figure framed by a jar of beef jerky on the left and another of hard boiled eggs on the right.

“Are you trying to sell me something?”

Flip a finger, and zing — there are your ice cubes, I was supposed to say, pointing to the brochure I had forgotten in the car. No need for a crowbar to get Frigidaire’s Quickube Tray out the refrigerator. You can get ice easily, instantly, I should have emphasized with all the enthusiasm my supervisor had demonstrated back in a cool, carpet-lined office.

“Just wondering if you’d be interested in a Frigidaire,” was all I could manage to say.

He took a long draft of beer and crushed the cap with his boot. Before I could make up my mind whether to retrieve the brochure, with its color-blocked couples marveling at crisp lettuce, or to stay and elaborate on the wonders of modern refrigeration, he said:

“Let me show you something.”

He lead me out back, past the closet-sized building made of plywood packing crates I assumed formed an outhouse. We were in the sun for a brief moment before stepping into a tangle of shadows cast by branches wider than the icehouse itself.

“It’s a mesquite,” he said. “Ancient. It’s tapped into a deep spring that has fed it for hundreds of years. That’s why it’s reached twice the normal height.”

We looked up through the leaves, silent and still in the deadwind, until the distant sound of bottle caps being crushed under car tires came to a stop.

“That’ll be a new delivery,” he said.

Gateway to the Continent

voyage

I got to Victoria station at quarter to eleven on a Friday with nothing but a small leather bag and the vague idea of getting out of London. The timetables and train routes spread out above me like the plot lines of so many of the paperback thrillers piled up on my bedside table. I could be in Paris by late afternoon, crossing the Alps the next day, and end up in Egypt before the weekend was over.

Bing bong! The Golden Arrow to Dover will depart from Platform 8 in 15 minutes. A soft, disembodied voice echoed against the steel rafters and glass roof. There was still time, I thought, to decide where to go, buy the ticket, and change my mind along the way.

“There’s really no one quite like Michelangelo.”

Before I could connect the voice to gray hair, sensible shoes, and a long carpet of a coat, the sickly sweet floral musk incapacitated my senses. It was almost as bad as my earliest memory of Victoria, when the air was fetid with soot, stale poison gas and gangrenous wounds.

“It’s so hard to find a man who can paint ceilings properly, you know,” her companion said and parked her suitcase in front of the map of Europe.

I started to pace around the platform, glancing at my watch every so often to give me a false sense of purpose. There was still time, I thought, to reach one platform and cross over to another.

“I thought about staying in the house to keep an eye on things. You know how oblivious Gerald can be. They could carry out his whole library and he wouldn’t notice. But the fumes are too much. I just hope the windows are open to let the place air out.”

While my eyes lingered over “ALL PARTS OF ITALY” under the London-Paris Express, I realized I would be following an Italian housepainter, not his Renaissance namesake. That morning, I had thought I would be decisive, deliberate in my decision to escape. Now, the bag I was holding seemed too light for the trip. My hands began to sweat against the leather handles. I had forgotten to pack a toothbrush. There was still time, I thought, to go home and pack it before returning to catch the Night Ferry train to Paris. Victoria at night was far more suited to the Grand Exit, anyway: cinematic goodbyes staged in sepia shadows, the distant glow of the city as you pulled out of the station.

The two women started moving and I followed their perfumed trail to Platform 8, watching their silhouettes disappear into white haze.

Bing bong! Ladies and gentleman, in consequence of fog, the Golden Arrow will be delayed.

There was still time, I thought, to return to my desk before the secretary began asking questions.