Rustic North

Inman Square, April 19th, 2013

The Bradford pears in bloom on Cambridge Street shed perfect white petals that flit down to the sidewalk and across the hoods of Humvees and police cruisers. In two weeks, the trees will rot and smell like yeast, but not yet. The bars, the convenience stores, the diner, and the cobbler’s closet-sized shop, are all shut up and dark. The streets usually echo with the sound of shuddering trucks delivering milk and crates of eggs or kegs of beer to the restaurants; on the sidewalks, there is typically laughter and shrieks, clacking heels and thwapping sneakers and the radio wafting out of the sushi place, or barking dogs and drunken arguments and the murmurs of the old men in high-waisted pants and nice shoes who watch everyone and comment to one another in Portuguese from the concrete ledge outside their apartment complex. But now, the streets are empty.

In one apartment, Mommy and Daddy say it’s like a springtime snow day, and we’ll all be okay, but we have to stay inside. Jenny is not allowed to watch the TV. Mommy and Daddy take turns watching it.

One block away, a woman is trying to write a research paper on Victorian literature at her desk in her underwear while the radio drones on, giving a brief history of Chechnya. She stops to answer text messages, emails, and phone calls asking if she is okay. “Fine. Just bored.”

On the floor above her, the newlyweds drink beer on their couch and watch TV news until they can’t listen to constant updates about what possibly might but isn’t actually happening, about what a resilient city Boston is, about acts of valor and people scattering and then running back toward the finish line, about the raid of an apartment on Norfolk Street. If they leaned out their window, they would see the same cruisers and Humvees. But they don’t look out the window.

The city is quiet, too. At Downtown Crossing, where the kids buy sneakers when they cut class, and the city hall types wander to escape the concrete hive where they work, and the venders sell Red Sox hats or discount produce and Washington Street is always crowded with pedestrians—there is no one. The Mass Ave Bridge sits without a single car, just a bald strip of concrete spanning the Charles. The Financial District is solemn, not a single woman runs into a skyscraper in a pantsuit and white tennis sneakers. In Southie, no one plays a pick-up street hockey game, and the basketball courts in the city parks sit empty. The city without its people, like a bloodless skeleton without meat or skin or any of the vulnerable tissues that make it whole.

On Cambridge Street in Inman Square, there’s just the sound of sirens and murmuring journalists, and a SWAT cop slowly chewing a stick of gum on the corner.

The academic, who planned on sitting inside anyway, begins to resent sitting inside when it’s demanded by municipal decree and not her own to-do list.

The newlyweds turn off the TV and split a sandwich at three in the afternoon in silence. The orange afternoon light filters in, the window sash casting bars of light and shadow across the linoleum floor. The windows are open for the first time since September. The air is sweet with pollen and warm, and she wants to walk outside and stop waiting for controlled detonations with her fingers in her ears, stop listening to sirens and listening for more bad news. She wants to go back to being annoyed about cancelled plans, worried about her work performance review, angry about overpaying for a plane ticket. She will go back to that, and all this will seem so strange and gauzy that it will be as though it didn’t happen. She will look it up on her computer years later, to confirm she didn’t make the whole thing up.

Jenny sits with Daddy on the floor, arranging an elaborate circus performance with Playmobil animals, until she can’t pretend to animate their stern plastic faces anymore, and instead sticks Goldfish crackers in her nostrils and her fathers’. They make schools of the snacks swim through the air and into their mouths.

“They’ve lifted the lockdown!” her mother will say from the living room. Then, a few hours later, she’ll shout, “I think they’ve got him!”

The bars on Cambridge Street will reopen, and the newlyweds watching television will clink glasses and say, “Thank fuck that’s over,” while a drunk man who spent the day inside will stumble from table to table shouting, “We did it!” and demanding people shake his hand.

When Jenny gets older, she will realize that sitting on the floor with her father while sirens wailed outside is one of her favorite early memories, simple and caused by pressure cookers exploding trash cans six miles away and five days before, that while she was ignorant of suffering, giggling on the floor as families mourned and prepared memorial services, athletes got their legs amputated, and cities were scared and locked up. And a kid who had done a thing he could never undo bled in a boat shipwrecked in a suburban yard.

The police will find him with a bullet in his throat, and they will cuff him and their muscles will finally unclench, but not yet. In a few days, he will plead guilty with a nod of his head, but not yet.

When Jenny is older, she’ll feel guilty about that concurrence, but not yet. For now she feeds her father fish-shaped crackers while the city around her holds its breath.

Cara Bayles lives, writes, and works in the Greater Boston area.