The sky was raining gold the night that loneliness became a friend. Street vendors clamored under the golden fire, plying their trades for a hope to feed their families. Rich and poor battled to be heard through the explosions, and I sat beneath it all. Soggy popcorn grew cold in a greasy bag that dangled from my fingertips. A couple behind me was sprouting some new age bullshit about how the fireworks contained tiny pieces of their loved ones, raining down on them, providing them with some motivation for basic adulthood.
On the corner, a disheveled man with a greasy face waved around a homemade pamphlet and shouted till his voice was hoarse. “Get your soul right before it all ends!” A small child stopped to listen, only to be jerked along by his mother, who was clearly unbothered about the world’s certain demise. The man screamed after her, desperate to save souls, or maybe just to make a dime. The child tripped over his own feet trying to keep his eyes on the man while walking with his mother. I watched them until they rounded the corner, and then my eyes were drawn as if by a magnet to the eyes of the proselyte, who seemed desperate to connect with me.
“New age bullshit,” I muttered, stumbling to my feet. The alcohol had taken root within me, and my head swam. The cobblestones reached up to trip me as I started toward the town square. The gaiety made a tunnel around me – happy families playing charades, melodies dancing out of instruments, delicious smells crawling down my throat. I glance down, grabbing at air. I seem to have misplaced my popcorn.
The fireworks were getting louder, nearing their final chord, as I reached their source at the town square. Red and green mingled with gold and fell down on us, showering us in the joyous pastimes of those more well off than I. The lights and sounds around me blended and I found myself drowning in a blurry nightlife oil painting. It was louder than it looked on canvas, but it felt the same – like falling and spinning and flying and falling again.
I woke up to a rounded snow globe sky, my friend from the street corner standing over me. “Get your soul right before it all ends,” he whispered, holding out his arm for me to grab. He had no dirty papers with him this time, and his face was as white as the snow around us. Only it wasn’t snow, I now realized, but ash.
“What happened?” My voice came out all wrong, like rice soaked in whiskey.
“The fireworks, son. I told them rich fellas, and they didn’t listen. I told them their pride would be their demise.”
I rubbed my neck, refusing his hand. My head ached, and my stomach churned, and the proselyte winced and sat on the uneven stone sidewalk next to me. “There’s nothing wrong with fireworks. It’s New Year’s.”
“That why you got so drunk you slept through an explosion?”
I didn’t answer.
He went on. “No. There ain’t nothing wrong with fireworks. The fireworks ain’t the problem, though they did hurt a little kid.” The man coughed. “No, the real problem is their pride. They ain’t got nothing to be prideful for and yet they still are. You are too, you know.”
“Hey, I didn’t hurt a little kid.”
“No sirree, just yourself, hmm?” He raised his eyebrows at me, then held out his hand once more. “Name’s Whitacre. Glen Whitacre.”
I choked as I reached for his hand. “Glen. That’s my father’s name.”
“Huh. Not a common one. And you are?”
“Michael Thurston. I’m not from here.”
“I figured. You hungry?”
The question was a complicated one. I was hungry, of course, but I had no desire to listen to Glen talk more about whatever religion he was selling. But I was in no condition to take myself anywhere to eat, and here was Glen now, pulling out a plastic wrapped sandwich and a browning banana from his rucksack.
The ash continued to fall around us as I choked down dry roast beef. Glen monologued while I ate, and my sandwich was long gone before his story was through. He spoke of his childhood and of the place he called home, and his words ran circles around me until I was dizzy from following them. The story he spun was a convoluted one, full of true love, betrayal, lost fortunes, and an unbridled passion for justice and salvation. It was the kind of story you hear as a subplot in coming-of-age movies, permeated with a fear of being unknown and left alone, a fear that I, too, grappled with. Until last night. I told him as much.
I didn’t have an answer. “Maybe it was the fireworks. Or the booze. Or maybe... maybe it was seeing the whole spectrum of life being lived on one cobblestoned street in a nearly nameless town. But something clicked in me, Glen, something big. I was jostled around by real people. I could smell their sweat and they dropped crumbs on the same streets I walked on and they played music for me and their words drowned in my ears. They were everywhere, around me and in me. It was intoxicating. And though I was lonely, I wasn’t alone.”
We sat silent for a moment.
“Those fireworks last night.” Glen folded his hands, then unfolded and folded them again. “Looked like golden rain. Like a sunrise over still waters when you get up early to fish, only it wasn’t peaceful. And all I could see was these people who were so lost in their own stories that they couldn’t find the end. Women and children and grown men leading families without having any way of knowing where to lead them to. I thought I knew things.”
I nodded, understanding now. “And then the rain stopped, and the snow started, and you realized you don’t know things?”
“No. I know things. I don’t know people.” He pressed my hand. “Thank you. There’s a lot of work I gotta do. A lot of people to know.”
“I know, Glen. Go on. Get your soul right before it all ends.”