It isn’t often that a man runs aground the ship of his life sailing on dry land. But, I did. The alley was dank, smelled like baby diapers sitting too long in one of those funky buckets pedaled to expectant mothers on late night TV. Talk about expectant…I mean, I really wasn’t expecting to find anything I was looking for there, under the shaded back door bulbs and the dripping fire stairs. I had high hopes though, and when I flashed the light of my thousand candle power prowler past the overflowing dumpster and caught sight of her; well, I couldn’t tear my eyes away. She was incredible. Even half hidden her innocence, her gentle presence radiated out and lightened the air. Mesmerized by her lid veiled eyes I drew close enough to reach out and touch the cold brick that was her canvas. Untainted by the overflowing rubble shadowing her hiding place, she existed there, under the stairs, in a world all her own. Why would anyone capable of such expression, leave their gift untended in this horrific gallery?
I quickly forgot why I ventured into the alley in the first place. The fleeting whisper of conscience wasn’t enough to shorten my perusal of the beauty on the wall. I took my time. Noticing the silver tones to the midnight blue gown she wore, I wondered aloud how such coloring was possible on a crumbling canvas of brick. She was dressed in an evening gown—one of those almost mystical, flowing outfits that accentuate without revealing. Striations of seductive color appeared to waft from her body, transparent yet vivid. The whole thing gave a three dimensional effect...she was being softly blown out through the wall, the dark tunnel of her passing through undisturbed by any other permeating light. The longer I stared at her the deeper my gaze penetrated until it seemed as if I were looking through her, into somewhere far away. Exotic. I swear, I thought I could smell myrrh.
A cat, clambering out of the garbage can two doors back up the alley startled me out of my reverie, bringing my thoughts back to the business at hand. My time was being paid for by another suspicious wife trying to catch a philandering husband. It was the fourth case I’d had in the last seven months that involved searching this same alley at one time or another during the investigation. Three of the men had disappeared altogether before I could turn in my report and it had begun to look like something more sinister than a plan to skip out on a nagging wife. Stewart, the accountant I followed from his office earlier in the day, passed right on by the alley without turning in. I wondered if he had caught onto the tail but didn’t think so. I’m pretty careful. It was the second time I had followed him to this alley though, so I thought I better check it out. That’s when I found her.
Now what? No doors down the remainder of the alley were open, or even looked as if they had been opened for at least a month. The height of the piles of trash blocking the alley testified not only to the City worker’s strike, but to the fact that no vehicle had come in from the other end. None of the fire escapes were down, and if they had been I wouldn’t have trusted them with my own weight and couldn’t imagine anyone dressed in an Armani business suit doing it either. Seems like these guys I followed here had more in common with one another than the alley--they were all snappy dressers. I took another long look at the babe on the wall and reluctantly turned away, feeling a little woozy.
I’m going for my camera. I can't stand the thought of not being able to keep her for myself. Keep her? Just one more look...
Back at the car two blocks away I quickly loaded the camera with fresh batteries and checked the memory card. Digitals were great but the long distance photos wore them down and, just like film, when they were 'used up', they were done. Getting caught without juice or memory could be disastrous under most circumstances in my profession. Somehow my current mission to record the beauty in the alley lent a gut level urgency that even finding wayward husbands in the act didn’t create for me.
I slammed my trunk lid and turned around to head back toward the alley when I saw my mark again. He was coming from the opposite direction, carrying what looked like an artists stand. He had a duffle bag thrown over his shoulder and a framed canvas under his arm. If I started walking now, I’d meet him about a block from the alley—good thing these “Air Jordans” are comfortable. As far as I knew, he’d never really seen me so I thought I’d be safe intercepting him. I was conflicted by my desire to see what this guy was up to or forget him for now and just go and take the lady's picture. In the time it took me to decide what to do, my mark had quickened his pace and was angling across the broad sidewalk toward the entrance of my alley.
Oh no you don’t buster. I saw her first, and you are not going to take her away. The jerk's a graffiti artist. What does he think he’s doing? Hurry idiot. He's going to find her first.
My legs were as lead and my stomach growled like I hadn’t eaten in a week. It seems that I’m walking in slow motion as I cover the final block between me and the alley he disappeared into. I wasn’t even trying to be cautious now. I slipped the lens cap off my camera and hit the ‘on’ button just as I rounded the corner of the alley. I couldn’t see my mark anywhere and didn’t understand it. I wasn’t that far behind him, turning down this rank alley, yet he was nowhere to be seen. A quick glance behind me, no one following me.
Wait, I’m the one who’s following someone—I’m the …I’m the man who is going to make her …no take her picture. Whose picture? Her picture, where is she?
Halfway to the concealing dumpster I dropped my lens cap but didn’t bother stopping to pick it up. I couldn’t lose sight of the grotto where she was waiting for…
Grotto!? Where she, what? Waiting for me? I am losing touch with reality here. Get a grip Jake. What are you doing? What is that black circle on the wall? Where is she? I know this is the right alley. Where are you? W h e r e a r e y o u?
“Here I am Jake, here I am.” A soft voice purred from inside the black circle where her picture had been. The scent of myrrh, frankincense and cedar beckoned him forward. He rounded the dumpster, led mesmerized toward the inevitable by the taut cord of her voice... and walked straight into the wall.
The old bum crawled out from behind a stack of flattened cardboard with his artist's charcoal in hand. The camera that hung around his neck was missing the lens cap. The artist's stand and canvas he withdrew from the dumpster looked brand, spanking, new. The Armani suit jacket seemed a bit out of place with the Nike tennis shoes he wore. His hand shook only slightly as he lovingly began his work on the background-- in black.