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If At First You Don't Succeed
A Danyael story
Start at the beginning of the Danyael series
The day was still young, so I decided to drive downtown and capitalize on my newfound sense of purpose. Motivation and drive can be fleeting things, and as I'd always lacked for both I thought seizing the moment would be best. Too often in the past I'd felt fleeting flashes drift away into a sea of apathy. I had no specific destination or goal in mind but I suspected that something would present itself to me. A true crusader doesn't see the goal of the quest until it's shown to him.
For once the angel didn't need help getting into the car. I just popped the hatch and lifted the back, and the angel climbed right in. It pulled itself in mostly with its arms, scrabbling a bit with the legs. I think its legs were weaker than its arms, which makes sense for a creature that spends most of its time in flight. As I slammed the hatch closed I saw it curl its feet forward to keep them out of the way. I don't mean that it pulled its legs up; I mean that its feet sort of bent in the middle and the front curled up toward its knees. That was almost enough to shock me out of my state of euphoria. Almost, but not quite.
I hopped in the driver's seat and actually squealed the tires a bit peeling out of the parking spot. I let out a burst of laughter, and cut it short when I saw the angel's head turn toward me. The endless dark sockets of its eyes were lined by no hair whatever, nor could I see any lids or lashes. Still, it seemed to me that it narrowed its eyes at me, furrowing its brow slightly. "Sorry." I apologized and applied the brake, bringing down to the speed limit. The angel looked away, and I assumed that it was satisfied.
Since I had waited so long for my appointment, the morning traffic had died done quite a bit. It was an easy drive into the heart of downtown, and I spontaneously decided to park in an actual garage. I usually just circled around like a vulture looking for a free street spot, but I had some extra cash today and decided to splurge. Besides, I didn't feel like making the angel wait. I pulled into a garage just off Pike, on a hill I'm sure gave many a child sledding nightmares. It was one of those garages where you have to stop and take a ticket a gate raises and lets you in, so I grabbed a ticket and turned to put it in the glovebox. The angel looked at me as I held the ticket and started to move toward it, and then I thought better of the action and slipped the ticket into my jacket pocket.
The first level of the garage was half full, with the parked cars all clustered in the center of the large space. Snow had blown in to form small drifts around the edge. None were more than a foot high, but it was enough to push most drivers to avoid the spaces. I pulled into a space only lightly dusted, in between two foot high drifts, and hopped out. I choked off a curse as snow immediately spilled into my boot. I tried to dig it out as best I could while quickly hopping around to the back of the car. When I lifted the back hatch the angel actually wriggled out under its own power. I stepped back in surprise. I wasn't sure what to expect. I thought maybe it might stand up on its own, or say something. Instead it just pulled itself out into a kneeling position on the concrete, lifted its arms toward me, and let out a bit of a piteous moan. I closed the hatch, making sure its fingers were well clear of the edge, and then turned and knelt in front of it. The snow immediately soaked through my pants at my knees, and I lurched forward and scraped both of them painfully when the angel lunged to throw its arms around my neck. I actually had to put one hand on the ground and brace myself for balance. What a splendid picture would I have made, spilling onto my face with my wounded angel on top of me and shrieking? Instead I grabbed the back of my car and pulled myself to my feet.
The wind whipped up the hill from the waterfront and sucked the heat right out of my body as I hit the street. I wanted to pull my jacket higher and bundle my hands up, but I couldn't with the angel on my shoulders. Instead I just gritted my teeth as the cold went straight down my open jacket neck. Then I closed my mouth as my teeth instantly started to ache from the wind. I hunched over as best I could and turned my back to the water, heading up the hill. The wind seemed to catch under the angel's splinted wings and give me some lift.
When I got to Pike I hung a left down the street to get out of the immediacy of the wind. There were a few people in the shops, but it being a weekday and given the cold, the usual street traffic was absent. The street stood empty but for the cars and the meters standing their ticking guard over them. As I walked down the block a car would occasionally buzz past, or someone swathed head to toe would dart out of a door.
I ended up pacing nearly empty streets in the cold for at least three hours that day. At first I thought there would be some great wrong for me to right. A burning orphanage or a bank robbery to foil; some situation where I could swoop in to save the day. After about a half hour in the cold, I figured out that getting even with a soulless bureaucrat didn't make me a super hero. Then I just looked for some general good to do. I wanted to give some of the money I'd taken to someone who needed it, but the cold had driven most of the homeless inside to shelters and warmer avenues. I thought about driving back to give The King of Winter some money, but I hadn't felt any spark of inspiration when I'd passed him earlier. The drive to do SOMETHING burned at me as I walked up and down Pike, waiting for a divine message. The angel simply clung to me and coo'd when the wind gusted. I began to search for any charity or good deed I could possibly do, but found nothing in my path that would allow me to do the good works.
At last my feet were so sore I needed to stop and rest. I slumped down on the cold sidewalk and leaned forward, putting my head against a parking meter. I sat for a few minutes, letting the feeling return to my soles. As I rested, a parking meter came by and read the meter, not saying anything to me. She filled out a ticket, put it under the windshield of the car, and moved on. A few minutes later a young woman came running down the street to the car. She ran up to the meter I was leaning against and started to put some change in it before swearing and moving to the car with the ticket. I could see a tuft of pale blond hair sticking out from underneath her red wool hat. Her nose was red in the cold, and I watch it crinkle as she cursed, and then threw the change down on the ground and stomped her foot. A quarter took a few bounced before landing on its edge and doing a broad circle on the sidewalk, coming to rest against my foot. I stared at the quarter, and then looked back at the cursing girl. Even in her anger, the ethereal blond seemed to stand in her own aura. Only her cursing broke the picture of heavenly elegance. I held up the quarter and came to understanding.
I forgot all about the soreness of my feet as my renewed sense of vigor and purpose filled my legs. Practically leaping up from the street, I lurched around wildly before recovering my balance. Sitting still for long periods sometimes made me forget the angel's immediate presence. Then I would move and the extra weight would strain my back muscles and throw off my balance. After catching myself, I smiled and waved at the woman, who was staring at me like I was nuts. Then I turned and practically jogged down the street toward Landino's Arcade.
The arcade opened onto Pike like a great gangly spider lurking over its prey. Four big steel poles held up a dark maroon tarp that had long since bunched together and knotted at the top from the waterfront winds. A glowing neon sign flashed out bright even during the day, luring unsuspecting flies into the web by promising CHEAP GAMES! PLAY THE CLASSICS! I'd whiled away more hours than I could remember caught in the silken threads of my lost childhood. Hunched outside the doors of the place where a bank of quarter machines.
The grey and tan metal was badly dented, and painted words alluding the size of various local patron's genitalia covered every flat surface. The draw of Landino's was that games were still a quarter to play, and used actual quarters instead of tokens. The machines got ripped off at least once a week, but this early in the day it was still possible to change my dollars into silver gifts from God. I changed a hundred bucks into quarters, patiently sliding ones and fives into grumpy machines that spit them back out at me as often as accepting them. I think I just about knocked the whole bank of them out of quarters before I was done. I ended up taking off my scarf and making a sort of bag out of it, after the change stopped fitting into my pockets. Four hundred quarters weigh a LOT.
So, walking hunched over and nearly dragging a red scarf bulging with jingling change, I lurched away on my mission. I trolled along the street searching for meters that were expired, or were about to. When I found them, I made sure to load them up with at least an hour's worth of time. I figured with as many quarters as I had, if the people weren't back in an hour, I probably would be to re-feed the bureaucratic beast. Each clang of a coin in a socket made me feel the relief and happiness my charity was bringing to a stranger's life. In my head I could see the blond woman returning to her car only to find that someone had helped her by paying her meter fee. Instead of an explosion of anger she would smile in relief and reflect on a brief glimpse of the beauty of humanity on a cold winter day. Without the disappointment of a parking ticket in her day, she might go on to help someone else, feeling compelled to "pay it forward". She would be more pleasantly inclined toward everyone she saw for the rest of her day, and in turn make them more inclined to do good by the mere dint of her smile. I was amazed that I hadn't realized before the great good that can come from the simplest of deeds.
I paced up Pike until the shops turned into homes and the meters changed over to free curbside parking. Then I hiked up the hill to 3rd and started back in the other direction. A few times people saw me feeding the meters near their car and thanked me. One guy in a big parka walked past and saw was I doing, and then pumped a fist in the air and shouted "Fight the power!" I always just smiled and nodded, moving on quickly. I wasn't quite sure what to say or how to act. I've never been good at being recognized for things, or getting public attention. I tend to just curl in on myself.
I got about halfway up 3rd and had used up half of my change when I crossed paths with the meter maid again. She was coming down the street toward me, writing tickets as I fed meters and moved toward her. I could tell she was watching me feed the meters as we slowly walked toward each other. Finally we met in front of a big black SUV with a meter showing red. I wasn't certain what to do in the face of my new found nemesis. She was taller than I was, which was off putting, and bore the shoulder patch of authority, which was even MORE off putting. She wore heavy black gloves with a scarf wrapped around her face, and wool brimmed hat pulled low over her face. She had vaguely Asiatic eyes, which were then narrowed and looking at me in annoyance. "Excuse me sir. What do you think you're doing?"
I took a step back and looked down at the digital pad she was holding. Apparently she entered info on the pad and it printed out tickets for her. Handy not to have to write in the freezing wind. I tried to duck down deeper into my collar, but it was still slightly open, so the hiding effect was lost. I responded, "Ummmm…I'm just trying to help people avoid some tickets. Got some extra cash, thought I'd get into the holiday spirit."
"Son, you know that's illegal, right?" She sighed and lifted her pad up to begin fingering in some data. "The ticket for feeding a meter past its expiration is about the same as for jaywalking. You said you've been doing it all up and down the street?"
I felt the cold seep into the base of my belly. The principal had called me down to his office, and now I was sitting outside his door, waiting for the hammer to fall. If I didn't like public attention, I felt the stab of punitive focus a thousand times worse. The sidewalk expanded into a great frozen desert around me as I shrank to be a single inch tall. I'd fed dozens and dozens of meters. The weight of the coins in my scarfsack suddenly seemed lighter as the government laid claim to them. "Ye. . .yeah. I have. I didn't know it was wrong. What's wrong with it, actually? What's wrong with me paying for other people's parking?"
She didn't even look up at me when she responded. "Nothing. It's not against city ordinances for you to pay for other people's parking. It's against city ordinances to remain parked beyond the maximum limit set by the meter. It's also against ordinances to try and extend that time by re-feeding meters. So, pay for people's parking all day if you like, just don't re-feed the meters." She punched a button with her thumb and the digital clipboard whirred for a moment and then spit out a sheet of paper. The spool froze for a second, and she had to tug it the rest of the way out, blurring the ink on the bottom letters of the ticket. I took at and looked at it without actually reading. I just stared and felt my brain gel and shake like a mold. It seemed unreal that I was going to have to pay a fine to help people out. Wobble wobble.
"I don't understand. Isn't the city getting the same money no matter who is parking here?" I tried some logic, and the Moses parted the Jello sea of my brain. "Why does it matter if the meters are re-fed or not?"
The parking officer moved down the street past me, forcing me to walk next to her to continue the conversation. She checked meters as we walked, even the ones not showing the red of the death of freedom from a governmental backstab. "Parking meters have nothing to do with the city making money off of each individual space, son. That's not what parking ordinances are about. If it was just about renting parking space on an hourly basis there'd be nothing wrong with what you're doing. It's not about that, it's about making people move." We paused as she filled out another ticket.
I took the opportunity to set down and rewrap my scarf full of change. My arm was aching from hefting the shifting weigh of the coins, and my bicep was burning. I couldn't sling the coins over my back, of course, because of the angel, so I had to carry them at my side, which strained my elbow and shoulder. I rubbed at them and looked up at the meter maid. "It's about making people move? What the hell is that supposed to mean? I . . . I mean, why would you make a law that forces people to move just so they move? That's crazy. It's like . . . just trying to spoil people's day for no reason. Just put people into a bad mood . . . and . . . you know, people do bad things. No wonder we have so many pissed off people." The maid starting moving again, so I hefted the coins and stood up. My back cracked once in protest, and I had to hunch over further to keep walking.
The woman stopped at the next meter and rubbed some snow off of the plastic. The readout inside was a red and black strobing pattern. Still without looking, she thrust her digital pad toward me. "Hold this."
I took it and gave it a brief glance. It looked like an overgrown old calculator with letters as well as numbers on it. I could see the small grey screen at the top read "3rd Street". The meter maid pulled out a smaller black box and plugged a cable into the bottom of the parking meter. She turned and faced me again finally while she stood there holding it. "It's not about driving people crazy. No one makes laws to drive other people nuts. Well, maybe the Mormons do, but not around here. It is about money, yes, but not about the money from parking tickets or parking meters. It's about commerce. A city depends on people being in motion. Restricted times for parking means that people move through their business quicker, allowing time for more customers per service in the city. The more people move in a city, the more money gets splashed into the economy, which is good for local business, which is in turn good for the people of the city. You're looking at the parking meters as a single transaction between client and service. It's larger than that. Parking meters are the blood pressure of a city, the organ that pumps the people through the streets and prevents clogged arteries that will give the city a heart attack. You said you're trying to give people a gift for the holidays?"
I nodded at her. A shrill beep came from the black box she was holding and she pulled the cord free from the meter before rapping it around the box. The whole thing went into a satchel I had assumed was part of her jacket until she lifted it free. She held out her hand for the digital pad and I handed it back to her. The angel hissed as I let the hard plastic go, making me wince. The cold kept me from smelling its breath, which was a small blessing. The woman turned and continued moving down the street. I groaned and followed.
The woman was a machine. The cold didn't seem to affect her at all as she speed walked and talked at the same time. "The holidays are the time that more people are moving around that usual, though you wouldn't suspect it today. The streets are usually crawling with cars at this time. Now, imagine that you were in a car, looking for a place to park so you could do some Christmas shopping for your kids. Then imagine that some yahoo was running around feeding all of the parking meters for people, so that no one felt inclined to move along with their day. How long would you circle for parking before giving up? I know trying to find parking drives ME crazy. Even if what you were doing wasn't against the law, you'd still be rewarding people that break the social contract and punishing people that just want to park their cars. If you want to give people something for the holidays, donate money to charity. Work in a soup kitchen. Don't give the city a heart attack. Motion is life. Feel free to pay your ticket online, through the mail, or present yourself at the courthouse if you wish to dispute it. But don't dispute it. No one wins against me."
With that, I stopped following her. I stood on the sidewalk and watched her move from meter to meter, filling out her tickets with ruthless efficiency. The angel slipped a bit down my back and I flexed my knees and gave it my elbow to hitch it back up to my shoulders. I turned and walked without thought back down the street toward the garage. I refused to allow myself to dwell on anything the meter maid had said. I desperately wanted things to be simple, like a child discovering for the first time he will not be taken care of by his parents for forever. Things are complicated, and they change. Life is brutal. I wanted to stay in that childhood Elysium.
The wind cut me as I hung a left down a steep alley. The buildings on either side hulked over me like two mob goons waiting to collect. There was only enough room for one person to walk abreast between the brick walls, and the hill was steep enough that I had to turn at an angle, both to keep my balance and let the angel's wings pass. I must have looked ridiculous sidling sideways between the buildings.
Standing at the end of the alley, wearing far too few clothes for the cold, was the mafia goon's moll. The woman had blonde hair that had once been streaked some shade of pink, but now was running out to a dull greenish seawater. It blew around wildly in the wind as she shivered and hunched over to light a cigarette. She had a little green turtle shell print purse tucked under her arm. Her faux fur coat was stained on the back with something that had crusted into spots, and the fishnets on her legs were worn thin. As I approached she straightened and opened her jacket, revealing a loose fitting pink leopard print dress cut hit about the knee, with not enough cleavage to fill out a Star Trek unitard, much less a v-cut dress. "Hey honey, looking to get warm?"
I'd never been approached by a prostitute before, at least that I know of. My mouth definitely fell open, and the wind whipping across it made a kind of "Oooooooohhhhhhhhhh" sound. At least, I'm going to claim that it was the wind that made the sound. I tried to stammer out a respond, but my mouth failed me. I loved watching television and movies for the hardboiled characters that always have a snappy answer, no matter what the situation. My snappy answer sounded more like "Ah bloo bloo bloo bluh". Not terribly eloquent. The woman replied by staring at me like I'd grown a third eye.
While I was staring at the woman, the angel leaned its head over my shoulder and began sniffing the air. It flicked its tongue out and snapped quickly through the air, almost like a serpent. The snuffling breath kissed the side of my cheek and froze to my face. I became obsessed for a split second that the breath was burning my face, a greasy napalm sizzling my skin. I brought my hand up and almost pushed the angel's head away before coming to my senses. Instead I tried to play it like adjusting my hat. The angel turned its head and whispered into my ear. "Unclean."
The single word stiffened my resolve. I straightened as best I could with the angel in the narrow space. The scarf full of change hung heavy against my leg, and a quarter tipped out and bounced down the hill. I sucked in a breath and steeled myself for another sally in my crusade. "You . . . you don't have to do this. You can live another way. There are . . . uh . . . programs and things for people like you."
I stood there with my hand out, the other holding my sack of change. The angel darted around behind me and poked its head over the other shoulder, hissing again. The woman looked at me in disbelief for a minute, then took the cigarette out of her mouth and spit at my feet. "Get the hell out of here you faggot!" Her voice was shrill, and she broke into a fit of coughing before horking up . . . something and spitting at my feet again. I danced back up the hill as best I could.
"But . . . you don't have to be a, a hooker, you know . . ." I trailed off, feebly grasping for a way to describe what seemed pretty clearcut in my head. I couldn't imagine why someone would want to be a whore, and here I was, trying to help, but getting anger in return. I threw up my free arm in defense as she swung her little green purse at me. "Hey! I'm just trying to help, you know? Stop!" I scrambled back, dragging the sack of coins on the ground, spilling quarters out everywhere. The angel was gripping my shoulders and neck so tightly I thought it might pop my bones out of joint. It was throwing itself from side to side behind me, leaning all over the place and hissing and making these weird dog yawning noises. She yelling mostly incoherently now, just dashing at me and swinging her purse. I just turned to the side and ran sideways up the alley as fast as I could. The angel's arms slipped up from my shoulders to my throat and squeezed as it bounced up and down on my back. The woman stopped chasing me after a few steps and leaned against a wall coughing, but I didn't stop.
When I got to the top of the alley, I sank down to my knees and had to reach up and pry the angel's death grip from around my neck. I struggled with it for a minute and got it to adjust its grip back down to my shoulders so I could breathe again. Down the alleyway the woman was also on her knees, picking up the quarters I'd dropped. She looked up and me and shouted, but I couldn't make out what she said in the wind. I struggled to my feet as the angel tossed back its head and wailed, and hustled down the sidewalk. I didn't want to be there in case she decided to keep coming at me.
The walk back to the car was a study in humiliation. I was certain that every person I passed, everyone that glanced at me out of a shop window, was judging me for my failure. I'd set out to spread some holiday spirit and improve some people's lives. I was returning with a city ordinance violation, bruises on my arms, a possibly dislocated shoulder from carrying a sack full of hundreds of quarters for hours, and spit on my shoes. This was not a good start to my mission. The feeling of failure worried my stomach like a great worm, twisting in my gut and feasting on my morning's enthusiasm and hope until it was gorged and swelled. I felt corpulent with shame, the weight of my guilt dwarfing what coins where left in my scarf. I swayed back and forth in the wind back to my car; a great Macy's Day Parade balloon of loserdom.
It was dark by the time I got home. I'd forgotten to set the thermostat when I left, so the house was freezing. I pushed the temperature up to seventy-five and then hit the couch. After sitting for a few minutes I realized I was still clutching the sack of quarters, and had been all the way home. It took me a minute to pry my fingers open with my other hand and let the sack drop to the ground. The quarters landed with a thud and then jangled and slid out onto the carpet. I didn't care. I lay my head back and tried not to cry. Deciding I didn't want to sit in the dark, I thumped my hand against the wall and groped around for the switch. The bulb came on in a white flash, and then blew out with a pop. The light bulb itself actually broke and sent little pieces flying about the room. I didn't even notice. I was far too enraptured by what I'd seen in that brief flash of light.
Silhouetted in the flash, standing upright at last, was the angel. It stood in the middle of the room and in that tiniest of seconds that it was illuminated, I watched as it flexed its wings. The pipes and duct tape tore free in an explosion of feathers, and the wings flexed out until they covered the ceiling and walls of the room. The flash rolled across its body as it stood proud, arms flung to the sides, head hurled back, and wings fully extended, stretching them on Earth for the first time since its fall. As the darkness returned, I heard its cry - a long and full throated wail of triumph resounding through the night.
Story and image by Nick Bergeron, Copyright 2009