Some late evenings I would admire the alleyways of town and watch the young sauntering outside bars on the corner of Elk and 7th. They leaned in against the ironworks and each other. The streets there are forever dark. And the young men and women are all restless — they lay awake with their golden hours.

My cigarette burned perpetually as an Oseberg ship burial might. My coffee cup was vaporous. And really there was no reason for being there, with my trembling hands and my chapped lips.

I flicked the little cigarette and the ashes flung, lingering in the air, as if biding its time. My belly was bloated filled with booze and caffeine. There was nothing else but the fireflies that jittered in the toasted almond streetlights and the flood of the young.

A woman walked confidently out of the corner bar and tucked her short brown hair behind her ears. She paused and asked quietly, Do you have a light? She paused and smirked, patted me on the shoulder, and asked, that’s what they say, right? She held her words and the cigarette in the air. Do you think there’s a place for us, somewhere, out here?

I reached into my pocket and found a box of matches and scrunched my body together to block the wind. I can’t say for sure, I told her as I struck a match and nothing happened. I wanted nothing but to light it in one try but it petered out and I looked at her in defeat. I only have an hour, I told her. That is, before the next bus comes.

You don’t belong here, she said. I can tell by the way you rushed that match.

The piano music next door was decent, I told her. And the people seemed nice enough. She walked all the way around me, tapping her fingers on my shoulders, rhythmically, just as the sky began this early rising change, but no sunlight. Just a heavy sigh, and the wind breathed gently on my neck, or maybe it was her. Nobody belongs here, she said, touching my elbow. We don’t belong here.

I tightened my scarf. She came back around into my peripheral. I’m not sleeping with you, she said bluntly.

I am supposed to observe, and not get involved, I said.

She buttoned her black coat and bent down and to tie her left shoe. Make a note, she said. Write it down. The girl ties her shoelace and grabs the boy’s hand.

The woman carried my wrist to the back alley and we walked for a few minutes down the dimness where it began to dust snow over our heads. Nightlights could be seen in the windows of homes colored in faint marigold and iguana skin green.

Low clouds floated hazily above and she told me her name was Marion, like the maid of medieval times. Our feet looked tiny as ever in the thick icy ground. This is my castle, she said looking up to what looked like a loft above a bakery where we could see the bakers drinking a cup of coffee and laughing, but a silent and broken laugh through the glass of the shop. I’m not sleeping with you, I said firmly, and she hit me over the head, softly and playfully, like a small twig fallen from above out of a broken nest. That’s not all, she said. Don’t tell me you had nothing better to do tonight than to walk the alley alone with your hands clasped behind your ass. Come inside and drink a cup of chamomile with me.  

I looked behind me at the void of the alley. Behind some fences were wooden playgrounds and mounds of mulch; a tire swing that was being pushed by the slight wind. She started walking up a spiral staircase, one that was too narrow for us to walk side-by-side. I could leave now, I told myself. Still make the bus.

You could, she said, her voice a crackling ember. And then I realized that I didn’t tell her my name, my true name.

I was supposed to watch people tonight, I half-yelled and half-whispered. It was for a story. Just for an hour.

Just for an hour, she volleyed. She opened her door, slowly as if she didn’t want to wake anyone. Marion looked at her wrist, which didn’t have a watch strapped onto it.

I’m not supposed to get involved, I told her. With my subjects.

You won’t, she said. I know how these things end.

There’s often this paresis that follows me most evenings, threatening to overtake my limbs, just after the sky cools in a muddle of grey and the streetlights burn for so long. Marion made my words shrink to only mumblings and motions of timidity.

The door remained open. I could hear a record needle crack and the beginnings of a soft piano verse and she walked outside in her socks and clasped her pale and loose jeans by the belt loops and moved her hips up and down like a seesaw and asking in a full voice, Do you dance?

I loosened my scarf. My great uncle was a dancer, I half-whispered again. I was named after him. Homer, my name is Homer.

I suppose that is good enough to get you in. Her legs twitched, perhaps with the push of cool air as I shut the door. I began my ascent up the loud steps. I looked up through the grated balcony as she tiptoed around the deck.

I can’t touch you, I said. That would be against the rules.

You don’t have to, she said as she started ballroom dancing, making it seem like I was holding her as a phantom, but she was leading the dance. She closed her eyes, occasionally opening one to see if I was still looking.

I walked up the stairs cautiously and when I made it to her on the outside deck, I waltzed with the space between us and then closed my eyes and opened one occasionally to make sure I wouldn’t run into her. How do I dance with you? I whispered to her. She backed up slowly into her open doorway. The streetlight cast Marion’s face in variegates of blush red and deep ember that soothed me into joining her in the blanket of her dark living room and golden sleep.

She squeezed my fingertips and then let go. This is how, she said, abiding to my rule with her three-step and the piano keys, only opening her eyes now and again while the door closed shut with the wind.

David Cumming