The Knowing Wind

Oct 26, 2016 at 12:17 pm
The Knowing Wind
Illustrations by Jimmy Angelina

The knowing wind makes you die.

The phrasing stuck with Becca, so she repeated it to her mother and adjusted her purse on her shoulder. She rattled her keys to signal her final intent to exit and said, “What does it mean, anyway?”

The 20-year-old didn’t know which was worse: her mother for buying into absurdities muttered by a so-called psychic, or herself for sustaining absurdity through repetition. At least her mom wasn’t afraid to set foot in a part of town that would be invisible to those for whom “Louisville” meant downtown, Old Louisville, Bardstown Road, Frankfort Avenue, NuLu and the suburbs. Mom knew she was safe enough among the plainer folk on the South End, and she’d even grown wise about not shouting about all lives mattering after she crossed those wide lanes at Ninth. Oblivious Whitey Syndrome was selective. Still, Becca had at least some sense of how the larger world worked, and Mom lived in a fantasy.

Mom’s eyes looked old. “I hope you don’t find out.” Becca’s mom flicked at the cut-off straw she’d been carrying around like a cigarette for about a year. She faked a laugh. “I guess if you’re tempting fate, you could jump off the Lincoln Bridge while you’re there. There’s no toll for that yet.”

Becca set her coffee mug by the sink. The trouble with going to the University of Louisville when your parents lived in St. Matthews was that you couldn’t avoid stopping by sometimes, even when you were supposed to take your boyfriend to an important internship interview, so of course your stupid mother gets this idea that tonight is the one night of the year no one should go downtown.

Why, Mother?

Nobody should be by the river. Not on the city side.

Why, pray tell?

Mom didn’t want to tell. She didn’t want to because her middle-aged, middle-class white friends wouldn’t approve. Mom tried hard to act like they were one of the families transplanted from the coast instead of from a place where the blue of the grass made Looeyville look as fancy as New York.

“OK, but if I can’t convince you to reschedule his interview because downtown is too dangerous tonight, and I can’t convince you because an evening interview is simply too weird anyway, can’t I just play the mother card? Can’t he make an excuse involving his girlfriend’s crazy mother?”

According to the psychic, people were going to die tonight. Something to do with the phase of the moon and starlight being blocked by pollution, while at the same time extreme temperatures since summer had created “haywire convection.” The psychic apparently said “haywire convection.” Crazy wind. “Wind picks you up, won’t put you down.” That’s what the psychic said.

#

Dan looked good in his white shirt and blue jacket and red tie and patchy beard, but beards were on reality shows now, as if the rest of the world had caught up with Kentucky. Becca supposed everything was circular, so the need to change so much was baffling, probably generated by companies with offices in this very building. People still called this tower the Aegon Center, even though it said Mercer at the top and was really 400 West Market. She’d heard it called the Roll-On Building, too, because its top — rounded and marked with as many white lines as a slot machine set to maximum greediness — looked very much like a supply of roll-on deodorant. The comparison suggested itself when one viewed the city’s skyline, but Becca could not imagine choosing to rub such a corporate building under her arm.

“You’ll do fine,” Becca said. They’d done fine getting here. No murders yet, despite Mom’s dire predictions. “Besides, you’re interviewing to work almost entirely for free. They’ve got stakes in this too, right?”

“I guess,” Dan said. He was so skinny, the clothes hung loosely on him, even though they were as close to fitted as hemmed rack-clothes could get. He understood that a girl might worry about her weight, and he even understood that Becca did, even though she took a while to accept that the idea never occurred to him until after they’d slept together several times. His understanding was awesome. She loved him for it.

They reached a high floor, Becca found a chair to sit in, and Dan disappeared behind a door. She felt like she ought to be at Union Station, waiting for her lover to come back from some momentous occasion. Of course, when he arrived, he would be in a bowler hat, and the station looked like Victoria Station in London, and the fantasy looked very steampunk in all the colors and costumes.

She waited.

A. Very. Long. Time.

He emerged, and the contrast with her fantasy struck as swiftly as the train she’d fictitiously awaited. The skin around his eyes appeared red and swollen. He crossed from the door to her chair, almost stumbling, and she took him in her arms for lack of better ideas. She could tell he was weeping.

“They made me do it!” he cried.

“There. Um. There,” she said. She guided him out of the building.

Downtown was silent. On many nights Becca had sensed it coming. She’d traveled enough to know that some places — New York, Los Angeles, Paris — didn’t shut down, but others — Rome, Boston, and certainly Louisville — shut off. Becca, drunk off her ass, had caught a bus out of Fourth Street Live!, fleeing the shut-off. She had also caught “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at Baxter Avenue Theater and gotten out before the ghostliness of Sunday morning set in. She’d always escaped, however, before the city had abandoned itself. Now, the city stood emptied. Market Street was hollow, and the wind whistled.

The knowing wind makes you die.

Becca thought she could hear the river sloshing at its banks more than a block away. She had to be imagining it, but the kinetic atmosphere made her mental image of raging water seem possible. The last thing she wanted was to go toward the river, but she’d parked on Main in a spot that might have been designed for the view. As they walked away from the tower, Becca looked at Dan.

“What did they make you do?”

They stood together, about to cross the street. Dan said, “It was like a verbal striptease. They asked about my childhood.”

The walk sign lit in their favor. Becca thought propriety might demand standing still for Dan’s serious revelation, but she took his hand and crossed the street anyway. “Can they do that?”

“This city is kind of an island. They can do whatever they want. They said...”

That darkness ahead, where the density of light dispersed, marked the river, and as Becca recognized it, the wind’s whistle became a long, low blast through a heavy glass pipe, hollow and resonant. Did a quality of sound make a wind knowing? With hair and clothes flapping against resistant air, Becca and Dan reached Main Street.

A man stood near Becca’s parked car. He was white and had on a brown jacket with broad lapels and a fluffy collar. When the wind blasted hollow glass again, and the man raised his arms into the force coming off the water, Becca grabbed Dan’s arm because she was going to be afraid no matter what.

“I agree,” Dan said. Becca hadn’t said anything to agree with. “Let’s go another way.”

“What do you mean? He’s standing by my car.” Becca pointed.

“Right.” Dan nodded.

They stood stunned, and after a pause, the wind blasted hollow glass a third time. The man pulled a handgun from a holster at his hip and started firing at them.

Becca knew the weight careening into her, knocking her off her feet, belonged to Dan, but she couldn’t stop the scream from escaping her throat as she collapsed toward concrete. Dan was tackling her to shield her with his body. He had no military or even self-defense training, so he was acting out movie-modeled chivalry. Becca had time to think about how sweet he was and about how the concrete collision would bruise before she registered Dan tackled me to save me from bullets, which meant bullets were flying at them.

Dan sprawled beside her. He looked dazed. Becca’s backside hurt like hell, but the gunfire had stopped, and she knew they had to move. She grabbed Dan and pulled him to his feet while struggling to her own. He had torn his blazer and lost a button on his shirt, but he looked okay.

The man in the brown jacket stood with the gun pointed, waiting. Reorienting themselves after their tumble, Becca and Dan had no cover. They could run, but if the gunman had any aim at all, he would hit this time. Becca saw what Dan was thinking too late to stop the skinny boy from making a dash at the gunman. The gun went off. Becca couldn’t see whether Dan was hit, but she saw the blue jacket close in on the brown one. The two rolled on the concrete, Dan on top, then the gunman, then Dan, and now the gunman was straddling Dan’s waist and pummeling his face with a bloody fist. The gunman struck, leaned forward, whispered something in Dan’s ear, and struck again. Becca decided to run at the gunman, to stop him however she could, but first his bloody fist reached to the ground and retrieved the gun. A shot through the mouth removed a portion of the gunman’s head, so his brown-jacketed body collapsed to one side, freeing Dan as it fell.

A million thoughts. Call someone. I’ve never seen a dead body before. Someone must have heard the shot. They’ll think we did it. Tell him not to touch the gun! We have to run. What was that noise? This is only the beginning. Maybe he’s still alive? I think my hearing’s been affected. Mom knew this would happen. It was like watching that tape, the Zapruder film, in 3D. Mom knew this would happen. Call someone.

The knowing wind makes you die.

Dan was getting up as Becca’s shaking hands pressed 9-1-1 on her phone. As she waited for the call to connect, she said, “Don’t touch the gun.”

“Why would I touch the gun?” Dan asked. He knew why.

The call still wasn’t connecting. Becca always had trouble getting a signal around here. Must’ve been the river or the bridge, or maybe — “Hang up the phone,” Dan said.

Becca held the phone away from her ear but didn’t hang up. Any second now, it would ring. “Why?”

“Because we’ve got to get out of here.”

He’s right. He knows something.

“And we can’t trust the police anyway,” he said.

For once, Mom and Dan seemed to agree. Danger was everywhere, especially tonight. Becca hung up the phone. Mom might vote for trusting the police, but she would agree that getting the hell out of downtown was a high priority. Becca checked the whiteness of Dan’s shirt and realized the angle of the gunman’s shot had spared him — no blood. No splatter on her, either, but her car hadn’t been so lucky. It would have to stay behind to be part of the crime scene. Becca and Dan were on foot.

Anyway. The phone wasn’t going to connect anyway. What did Dan know? What had happened during his interview? His childhood? What did that man whisper in his ear?

After the tumbling and shock, neither one of them walked steadily, but they walked. Without saying anything, they knew they would go to Dan’s apartment, which was on the other side of UofL’s campus, and since it was too late for buses, and they weren’t getting any help, they’d be walking for more than an hour.

She’d just seen her first dead body, and they were leaving it on the sidewalk behind them. It tried to kill them, and then it whispered something to Dan.

The knowing wind makes you die.

Dan said they couldn’t trust the police anyway. She’d been with Dan over a year. And the phone wasn’t connecting. Did they really want to get involved with the suicide of some random guy on the street? Some crazy guy who attacked them? “Come on,” she said. He needed no encouragement.

They got to Fourth and Broadway before Becca couldn’t resist anymore. The question nagged at her. Through the unreality of what she’d witnessed, it nagged: “What did that man say to you?”

As if answering, the ever-blowing wind picked up at their backs and blasted hollow glass, profound piping, and Dan stopped to turn his face into the rush. The sound of air sucked through nostrils gave Becca a nauseating chill, and Dan’s eye gleamed. The night sky above the wide intersection had a bright moon — not full but luminous — and tadpole squiggles of disarrayed stars. The glass sound died, Dan’s expression vanished, and Dan resumed the walk.

They kept walking, and Dan stayed quiet. To go through whatever he went through at that interview, and then to have that man on top of him when he died — it had to be worse for Dan. Traumatized. His childhood? The word was traumatized, and in fact, they were both likely in shock. Becca couldn’t let herself get confused. Dan’s behavior was perfectly normal, considering.

Some homeless-looking people lurked around these blocks, but Becca wasn’t afraid of them. She and Dan kept walking away from the river, toward campus. The wind kept pushing their backs. Every muscle squeezed, expecting a harder push, expecting whistling to become hollow piping…

Three. Becca had heard the wind blast its strange hollow glass noise three times, and on the third, the gunman had tried to kill them. Since the wind had gotten Dan, she’d heard the hollow glass once.

Had the wind really “gotten” Dan? Her imagination! But she had seen a dead body tonight. And if that really happened, what else was possible? Mom warned her.

At the corner of St. Catherine, one of the big churches that looked like cathedrals loomed. She was already tired from the walk, tired from her heart doing the hummingbird hustle, tired from freaking out because Dan wasn’t talking and then realizing that she wasn’t talking, either. She hadn’t tried her phone again. She figured they could reassess calling once they were safe and inside. What made outside unsafe? What made not moving unsafe? This was a thing now. She felt like the wind might blow harder if they stopped. If they stopped, the wind might make a loud protest.

At Oak, Becca stopped, because two women blocked the sidewalk. Except maybe they weren’t women. She was fine with that, only confused for a moment, but in that moment, Dan turned around. One of the women said hello to him, and he raised his arms. The wind blew hard, and his clothes, disheveled, torn, untucked, began flapping as the blast of hollow glass made all look up at the night. When it ended, Becca didn’t wait. She yanked Dan away from the women and ran.

Moments later, Central Park, with its tiny police station, was at their side, but they kept running. Becca’s heart could explode, and she’d fall on her face, and that would be that, but until then, she would run. Or jog. In a few blocks, it felt more like hobbling, but Dan stayed beside her. His presence would have reassured her, but his slight frame almost floated on the wind pelting at their backs.

They crossed over toward campus and entered at Third Street, passing bench after bench where sitting down would have been nice, would have made sense, even, because nothing they were doing made sense, but she had to keep going. One more of those sounds, and Dan might change. The knowing wind would make him die. Or her die. Or both of them. Or something. It made sense, didn’t it? Had anything her mother said made sense?

Up ahead, she saw the brick, the windows, the dome, the architectural symbol of the University, Grawemeyer Hall. Its façade’s cold stone steps had never looked so inviting, and they could sit there before getting the rest of the way to Dan’s apartment and figuring out about this mess. Maybe nothing was real but the dead guy, but that — they had to deal with that. Someone had taken out a gun and started randomly shooting. That was what the 21st century called reality.

The sound, deep and low, a blast of hollow glass.

Becca took a few more steps before she turned to acknowledge that Dan wasn’t walking with her. With her back to the stone steps, she faced him. He didn’t have any weapons, but his wide eyes were predatory. She remembered something about his childhood, what his mother had done. Had they asked about that? How had they known? The knowing wind…

He stepped toward her, and she moved back. He backed her up the stairs until she pressed against the base of the Thinker statue, when he ran at her, and she collapsed with bended knees, crumpling and rolling.

Dan didn’t stop. He rammed the concrete pedestal base head-first. Rocking the weight of his skull back on his neck, he threw his head forward for a second hit. A third. As Dan’s head painted the pedestal a darker color, Becca thought unconsciousness should have stopped him. It didn’t.

Dan fell, and the shape of his head looked different. Becca expected to find no breathing when she moved toward him to check. She leaned in to feel his neck for a pulse and to say goodbye. He whispered in her ear. Touching his neck got blood on her fingers, but she didn’t care. She looked at her phone — a strong signal. She called her mother, who pretended to have been asleep but was really up worrying. Mom would pick her up, and they’d drive to the river, to retrieve the car. The gun would still be there. Becca would show Mom how the world really worked.