Together Underfoot

Writing by Eitan Orenstein. Illustration via Unsplash.


The cage was old and mostly unused. It was used for some things, but not nearly as much as it had been before, and not for the sorts of things people had in mind when it was built. It had once been a source of pride for the residence. Big trucks had rolled in and builders set to work, hammering and digging and using machines that sent sparks flying. And then it was there. New and solid and clean. People came often for a while. Children would drop bags and go. For hours their shouts and the rattle of ball against metal could be heard three streets down.


It looked small from the outside, but inside it felt big, with tall railings and cement that was flat and hard. In the night, there were floodlights that were weak enough to cast long shadows that went bendy when you moved, and strong enough to converge on you when you stood in the middle. Now it was mostly dark and quiet. On Friday nights there was laughter and music, but the laughs were too loud and sounded wrong, and the air burnt a pungent, earthy smell. This made mothers worry and fathers angry. People began to hurry when walking past, and they no longer bothered to clear up the things that glinted on the cement. Tall weeds crept in through the gaps in the railings. And for a while, the cage was forgotten.


*


The man sat on the kitchen counter and wondered where he might go. He wore an old scally cap, a collar and tie, black oxfords. The clothes were sober and heavy. The cap concealed a pock-marked, domed head, the collar a neck beginning to sag, the shoes a pair of pale, soft feet. He sat high at the counter, eating a bowl of tinned tomato soup. The soup was hot, and he had to sip loudly. Each sip set his jowls and the skin under his neck quivering. His hand was unsteady, and he bent low for each spoonful, his eyes dewy and absent. A television glowed dimly in the background.


It had been over eight days since he had gone to play cards at the community centre. It happened on Mondays and Wednesdays, but he rarely went, even though he felt better when he did. His head started to tell him odd things when he didn’t. He remembered looking outside the window that day, a Monday. There had been a dead pigeon on the ledge opposite. As he bent low for a sip, he brought his eyes to the window. The pigeon was still there, now a grim, sinewy fold of something. It hung off the ledge, held in place by a drainpipe.


*

The boy lay stretched out on his bedroom floor, his head near the door. He lay on his back, pushing the door without looking at it, keeping his eyes on the ceiling. He was trying to push with the right amount of force to shut it. Push it too hard, and the door would rebound back towards him. Too light, and it would make contact with the latch but not catch. This was worse, as it meant the boy had to raise himself and retrieve the door again. He vaguely wanted to hear the thunk, round and sure, which meant the latch had caught and fastened.


He lay and listened to the sounds of his home. The door whooshed. Happy voices and loud clattering came from the kitchen. Music and laughter came from the bedroom of his older brother and his girlfriend next-door. The noise from the kitchen stopped and he recognised his mother’s footsteps coming down the hall, feeling the sounds in the carpet beneath him. They paused briefly, and he heard his mother sigh as his brother’s door snapped shut and the music became muffled. Then they came closer, and fingers curled around his door’s edge as it swung forward, mid push. His mother lent in holding a ball. She thrust this at her son, along with instructions to go play.


*

The man took the step down gingerly from his front door to the pavement, turning fully as he fumbled for his keys to close the door behind him. The cold air smelled sweet and made everything look limpid and angular in the dying light. His brow furrowed and his lips puckered in concentration as he made his way down the street, head bowed. He still wondered where he might go, but less urgently now, for it felt good to walk. Hard but good.


*

The boy trudged out of the front door, his mother tutting at the way he hung his head as he left. He walked on silently until he felt far from home, dimly aware of his surroundings. The cage came into view, a big dark shape against the wide sky.


He pressed the rusty floodlights switch and was surprised when they sputtered into life, casting a dingy, orange light. Paint peeled from the corrugated metal walls and cracks split the cement. Several years before, the boy remembered peeling from this floor a used condom and proudly wielding it at his mother, perplexed at her gasp of horror. He had not been back here in a long time. He felt sad and did not know why. But he set his ball down and proceeded to kick it anyway.


Maybe ten minutes had passed when he noticed the man. He was standing by the gate in strangely formal clothes. The boy continued playing with his head down, shifting the ball from side to side with no real conviction, occasionally keeping it airborne for a few seconds. The man watched patiently with his hands behind his back. His presence did not scare the boy, but it did make him curious. After a while he rolled the ball over to the gate, which stood ajar.


“Want to play me?” he called. He expected the man to shy away, embarrassed at being addressed directly. But to his surprise he extended a black shoe, trapped the ball beneath it, and sent it skittering back toward him.


“Only if I’m not interrupting,” the man said, slowly making his way to the centre of the cage where the boy stood.


“No,” said the boy, intrigued, “I prefer playing against someone.”


“So be it,” the man said, smiling a little. “Me against you.”


“Yeah, sure.”


The boy dribbled as the man carefully removed his cap, jacket and tie, laying them in a neat pile in the corner. The goal’s frames were damaged beyond repair, so the two found bottles and propped them up at each end agreeing that to score, one had to knock the other’s over.


“What was your name, by the way?” asked the man.


“Adam. You?”


“Nick.” They shook hands quickly, and Adam rolled Nick the ball again.


“You start.”


They began awkwardly. Nick was stiff and ungainly, shuffling several steps between each touch of the ball and losing control if it bounced as it wasn’t supposed to. Adam was afraid to challenge him too heavily. They soon became absorbed. Nick felt his rigid ankles loosen, and he was able to guide the ball as his mind told his feet too. Adam became bolder and chased the ball happily. He was lighter and more skilful, feigning one direction and going the other on a much-favoured right foot.


They were a strange sight, Nick in his ironed shirt and shined shoes, Adam scrawny in a baggy t-shirt and worn trainers. Indeed, the two rarely spoke, save for the occasional laugh or muttered complaint when a bottle was knocked over. They quickly forgot themselves and all around them as the sky grew black. Sweat, clean and cold, dripped from Nick’s forehead. Adam was red faced. Their awareness narrowed to their small, shared space. For a while, neither knew anything else.



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