This city paves its streets with ghosts. A pernicious chill followed us wherever we went, whatever we did. The parks were empty. Not a single home had a welcome mat; all the windows dim. Our first day, a single gray vehicle followed us all afternoon.
For a city of busy streets and neon lights, it was unnervingly quiet. There were no conversations on the sidewalk. Not even an ‘excuse me,’ or a ‘watch it, pal!’ Even the taxis whispered, not wanting anyone to know where they’ve been, or where they were headed.
The street signs changed every night, I swear. We were out shopping, and stopped for a couple sodas at the pharmacy on 3rd and Talman. The staff fought over who would serve us. The young one with the ponytail lost. She made our change and handed over the receipt without saying a word. This morning, we saw the pharmacy at 5th and Jacobs.
I don’t think they like visitors here.
We spoke in hushed tones. Normal voices would have sounded like bar room shouting. If anyone heard us, they never acknowledged it. We stood against a shop window while locals walked past, and listened. Everyone was silent.
In the afternoon, we bought groceries. The buggy wheels did not squeak, and the till did not ding when the cash drawer opened. Again, we received change from a mute employee. We sat alone in the park, with a picnic lunch of the cheeses, pickles, and bread we purchased. We read, we ate. The ducks did not quack, the squirrels did not chatter. Elana took out her purse sized notebook and checked off ‘lunch in the park.’ She was a great one for lists, and never left home without her notebook.
That evening, on the way back to our Bed and Breakfast, on the corner that used to be 6th and Archibald but was now 11th and Station, a man in a wool cap raised an arm to stop us. He furrowed his brow and shook his head, holding us at bay. He looked down the street to his right, obviously watching something. He shook his hand back and forth, urging us to stay put. We were about to return to our bed and breakfast when the man retreated a step. Mime like, he smiled broadly and gestured down the street with his right arm, sweeping his left arm across his body to welcome us down the momentarily forbidden street.
Elana pulled her coat close around her, and I pulled Elana close to me. The street was an empty cul de sac of aging Brownstones, tenement housing, and small shops. While admiring the shoe store window display, I noticed the reflection of the pony tailed girl from the pharmacy. She stood silently behind us. Shortly, she was joined by the man from the corner. I nudged Elana and nodded towards the reflections. She looked up from the display, gasped, and grabbed my arm so hard her nails left white scars in the blue nylon.
We turned and witnessed a small, silent crowd gathering behind us. The young blond child that had stared at us in the grocery store, the taxi driver from our trip uptown, the gap toothed matron from our B&B; the janitor from the subway, the shoe shine man, and the old apple seller lady from mid-town. Along with others less familiar, but no less silent, they crowded the opening of the dead end street ten, maybe twelve deep. They started walking towards us. We backed down the street, into the round about, sucking in small breaths, struggling to remain calm and come up with a plan.
Behind us, we heard two distinct sounds. The diminishing clang-lang-alang of a silver bell on a shop door, which was followed by six quick passes of steel against sharpening rod. Recognizing the sound, Elana and I spun on our heels and were greeted by a barrel chested man in a red and white striped apron, his white sleeves rolled up to the elbow. He had a flat, wide smile topped by a bristling black mustache. He spoke the first, last, and only words any local said to us:
“Hello, and thank you for coming.”
They took Elana first. I have filled the hours writing in her small notebook, vainly trying to ignore the block party happening in the cul de sac. I remain in this room, waiting. I hear laughter, the clink of ice in glasses, a fog of gossip and mindless chatter. Children playing tag, crying babies, the scrape of serving spoons in near-empty bowls, and the sear of meat on the grill.
When I dare to look through the scratched glass and rusted bars of the basement window, I see tennis shoes, work boots, penny loafers, high heels, and dogs snapping up scraps from the barbecue. I hear words that make my heart go cold and sink in my chest: “Tell him we’ve got more room on the grill now.”
If you are reading this, know that these are your last moments. It turns out they like visitors just fine.