The long week is over at last.
I catapult through the front doors of the old building into the golden light of a late-winter sunset. A few errant snowflakes trace glittering meteor paths through the canyon of sky between the old buildings of downtown Detroit. The breeze is wonderful after a day in a stuffy cubicle, clear and brisk, but powerless to chill in the gilded wash of sunlight that pours through it. I jaywalk with practiced ease, cutting across two corners to the bus stop. It's a long weekend. In an hour I'll be home, where my wife - my beautiful, brilliant partner of almost three years now - will be waiting. I turn my back to the warmth of the sun and watch for the bus.
The body heat from my swift passage dissipates as I make plans for the weekend, three days to spend on myself (and her.) And after that, then - what? My mood drops a notch. On Tuesday I'll be back on this spot, but headed in the other direction, in the uncertain light of morning. A bus - not mine - roars and grinds by, trailing a stream of foul smoke. I hold my breath, pull my coat a little closer around me, and shiver. The snow has stopped falling, but the air has grown colder. I am standing, I see, right on the edge of the shadow of an old hotel, in the grey area between light and dark. Still, the bus will come soon, and I'm going home.
But the bus doesn't come, and there's nothing to do but stand and think and try not to breathe the contaminated air. Three days suddenly doesn't seem very long, and then I'll be back for another week of this deadly, dead-end job. Three days, when I've been here three years now. My mood plummets again. A weekend is no kind of goal to have. In all reality, I'll probably play computer games for most of it, just killing time until I have to be back here, in a dirty building, doing a dull job. I spend more time at work than I do with my wife.
I certainly never imagined that I'd be here for three years, doing the same uninspiring work with the same uninspiring people. Three years is only a year short of the time I spent in college. Three years ago, I'd just graduated, and I could tell you everything you never wanted to know about ancient history, at length, with a kind of enthusiastic animation I haven't felt in a long time now. These days, I might be able to tell you what web pages I looked at yesterday - if I cared enough to remember, which I probably wouldn't, and if you cared enough to ask, which you probably wouldn't either. How the hell did this happen?
Thoroughly depressed now, I look away from yet another bus that's headed to a place I'm not going. I look around, at a scene lit by a light now more yellow than golden. It's gotten colder again, and I look down to see - to stop, to freeze in sudden, inexplicable, but holy dread:
The shadow has moved.
In a sparse handful of brief minutes, it's crawled further down the street, further up my legs. My feet stand on darkness-dingy pavement and my waist swims in fuzzy half-light. The sun is still warm on my face, though, and I'll be out of here before too long - although not if the damn bus doesn't arrive soon.
My mind drifts again. I liked college a lot - I was doing things I cared about, jumping from one subject to the next and feeling a little thrill every time something became connected to something else in the jigsaw inside my head. The quarters marched on, and every three months came something new. And when I wasn't studying, there was her, the girl I met by chance and knew I was going to marry before I realized I knew it. Those days were harder - we didn't sleep enough, or eat enough - and sometimes we'd fight, terribly. We didn't fight about anything real, though, and we knew it; not long after college ended our marriage began. I remember how amazed I was at how wonderful things had become, how I'd basked in it almost as I had the sunset just a few minutes ago. We didn't have a serious fight for a year and a half.
Which just reminds me of the one we had last night. It didn't mean anything much, honestly. But it happened, as did the argument on Monday, and the two days of uncomfortable silence that followed. Honestly, she'll probably still be upset when I get home, and now I'm feeling tired and not at my best. I won't be happy enough to see her, or she to see me, and someone's feelings will get hurt. Then we'll fight again, about the hurt feelings, but with hard words about other things, petty things that we won't quite be able to forget afterwards.
What happened to me? What's happening to me?
I look down, and the shadow has crawled up to my chest. I turn to look at the city, at the eyeless hulk of a hotel behind which the sun is sinking. Almost all of the buildings down here are like this - shattered and crumbling, riddled with asbestos, too costly to repair and too costly to tear down. The yellowed, fading sun is dropping towards this one, behind the stunted trees that have started growing from its roof. I hate this city. I don't want to be here, don't want to be doing this work, stuck in a dreary job where I never have to think, and going home to a marriage that seems to be dying for no real reason. One day at a time, it's dying, and I'm dying, getting older and more set in my ways, knowing less and caring less. What's happening to me, indeed? The last time I checked my life and fortunes were on a beautiful upswing - I had knowledge, enthusiasm, and love. But now I realize that I've blown it all, and I don't think I have the energy to pull out of this freefall.
I know that my face is in the semi-shadowed zone now, as the sun begins to disappear behind the wrecked building. The half-light feels dirty. It's bending around the edges of the awful ruin of a city, tearing off bits of ruin and decay and hurling them at me at millions of miles per hour, burying them in my flesh, in my mind. I shiver again, and am suddenly struck by the conviction - the absolute, certain and awful knowledge - that if I don't get out of here, if I don't get out of here right now, before the shadow falls over me completely, I'll never leave. I will be trapped forever in the yellow-lit amber of downtown Detroit's evening rush hour, buried for all time in a morass of dumb misery, bottomless inertia, and a sad haze of longing for a woman I still love but don't know how to reach anymore.
The sun is half gone, now three-quarters, and suddenly there's the bus I want at the stoplight across the corner. It's one of the old ones, the dingy ones that reek of exhaust inside, and the reader board is half out. Still, I can see the number, and it's the one that will take me where I want to go. My panicky mind shouts at it, furious at the delay:
Hurry the hell up!
and I look back to the sun, which is almost gone, and then back to the bus, which is now waiting to turn left. Suddenly, I'm not angry anymore, just cold and afraid. Terrified.
Please, please get me out of this awful place.
The sun is now nothing more than a glowing ember peering from behind the cavernous ruin, and I strain upward as if to expand into the light, to spread the sails of my soul and catch what's left. At the last second, I tear my eyes away, unable to watch. The bus pulls up, doors open, and I rush - no, I dash, I hurl myself over the curb and into the reeking interior of the aging vehicle. Outside, the sun's gone down behind the skyline and night has fallen.
I don't know if I made it in time, or not. I guess I'll find out when I get home.