The narrow alley was hot and dusty. It carried the smell of distant spices and the sour stench of humanity on its acrid wind.
But Dali didn’t care. He had broken free of home and work.
He had run — weaving in and out between Jodhpur’s market stalls, hawkers, and brightly draped women selling fried foods, pineapples and mangoes — run until he was lost enough that no one would find him.
He was supposed to be collecting wood to sell along the street with little papery matchbooks. That was his job, his responsibility to the family. He was too young to do anything else and the cooking and household duties were reserved for his mother and sisters. They stayed home in the mornings to cook and clean while Dali went to school. In the afternoons, they carried their delicately fried morsels to the busy road on the edge of the market where they would set up their small trestle table next to the other food stalls.
Dali was expected to gather the wood early in the morning, before leaving for school. He would stack it by the house and collect it on his way down to the main road at midday. Often he would pass his mother and sisters along the way or as he moved up and down the road while the hot sun sailed across the glaring sky, and he would wave to them as they sat there on the dusty sidelines selling their wares.
But, early in the morning, he had escaped with the pictures that perpetually danced through his mind. He escaped and now he needed to help the pictures escape.
On his travels through the bustling market, he came upon a book and a pen. They had been left unattended, as though they were waiting for him. He pocketed them without hesitation. Now, having followed an unknown passage to a shaded corner, he sat on a ledge and pulled them out. Flipping past the first pages, pages that had been filled with foreign, unintelligible words, he found a clean sheet and began to draw.
Pictures spilled out of his mind filling the white spaces with red ink: a page of nameless faces; cities, their buildings piled on top of each other like puzzle pieces; individual sleek skyscrapers jutting into the sky; planes and boats; a car backfiring in a cloud of sparks.
He was just recalling Mr. Sharma’s rusty car, the one that always backfired, when a horn honked loudly nearby. Dali looked up quickly, jarred back to reality from his dusty dreams.
Snow was falling softly but the downtown traffic cut through it, a staccato over the white noise.
Dali inched the taxi forward, glancing in the rearview mirror. The female driver behind him was looking away now, her mind elsewhere. She nudged her large, black SUV forward, creeping across the space that Dali had just vacated.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a streak of colour moving between the snowflakes behind his car. It was a small figure in a hooded jacket, looking back over his shoulder as he ran. Dali recognized a younger version of himself in that furtive movement.
The thud was so quiet it was almost swallowed by the blanketing effect of the weather and the crunching of tires. His breath catching, Dali threw the car into park and flung open his door, motioning at the woman behind him to stop.
He didn’t notice her look of confusion. He was looking for the boy.
As he arrived at the narrow space between his back bumper and the SUV’s front bumper, he looked down. The skinny child lay in the grey and black stained snow. He was breathing, his eyes were open but the look in them was wild, scared.
“Are you ok?”
The boy nodded and took Dali’s outstretched hand. With his other hand, the boy straightened his brightly coloured jacket and stood up.
Dali stayed with the boy while the police were called and was there to translate for them when they phoned the boy’s mother to let her know about the accident. He decided to stay a little longer while they checked him for injuries, filed their report, and waited for the mother to arrive.
As the afternoon wore on and the sky began to darken, he wondered if she was coming. Maybe she was working, or stuck in traffic. For lack of anything better to say, Dali smiled at the boy and introduced himself. “I’m Dali.”
The boy frowned. “Dali? What kind of name is that?”
Dali chuckled. “Good question. That’s what they called me when I was a kid and it just stuck. Dali was a famous painter.”
“No. In Spain.”
“Oh. How long have you been in America?”
“Over twenty years now. A long time.”
“My mom, too. She never wanted to move here but her parents died and her brother brought her here. But that was a long time ago, too, before I was born.”
“I saw you, before the lady hit you, I saw you darting between cars. Where were you going?”
Dali nodded, remembering how he felt at that age when he was sneaking away to draw instead of selling firewood and matches.
A yellow leaf floated on the air, its brightness caught for a moment in the light from the street lamps overhead.
Dali watched as the boy’s eyes followed it. “I have to go,” he whispered, looking at Dali hopefully.
Dali nodded again, understanding all too well a boy’s need for freedom. The boy’s eyes brightened. It was the light of hope, Dali thought later as he stood on the street corner, still watching the place where the darkness of the alleyway had swallowed the boy.
As he continued to wait for the mother to arrive, Dali thought about his life, about the boy and his mother and how different their experiences in this country must have been.
* * *
I originally wrote this story for Yeah Write’s Speakeasy challenge at the end of March. I knew back then that I wanted to polish it, work in some answers to readers’ questions and consider a sequel but I never got around to doing that until this month, when I brought it to Yeah Write’s Bronze Lounge.
As always, I am indebted to my fellow writers there who took the time and interest to provide edits, advice and ask pertinent questions. When I had done all I could to respond to their feedback and was still stuck on how to better craft flashback and flash-forward transitions, I sent it to my friend, Jen Maidenberg from andyaddayadda.com. She had just written about Paul Auster’s skill at shifting scenes back and forth in time – the very morning I was struggling with it, in fact – and I had a flash of inspiration that she would be able to help. So, thank you to Jen as well.