Jocelyn Royalty

The Night Market

At 8:30, when the cosmic switchboard ladies above Manhattan flick the sunlight off, Bo prowls up and down the fire escape behind his apartment, climbs every rung, thinks about rain and kissing and Greek yogurt and train crashes. On these nights, he can’t be inside. The walls of his studio contract arterially around his shoulders, humming in his ears and breathing warm air into his face, the way big cars exhale through their exhaust pipe nostrils as he passes close in front of them on the street.

“I can’t help it,” he tells his neighbor April one night. “Stop looking at me. It’s, like, automatic. Okay?” April glances up from her phone. Her face is illuminated, shadow-puppety by the blue-white light.

“What?”

“I can feel you looking at me,” Bo says. “Everyone’s looking at me.”

“I’m not looking at you,” April tells him. She adjusts her place on the fourth-floor landing, adjusts the trajectory of the Lucky Strike in her notched teeth. She has a chip in her canine that cradles her cigarette perfectly, Bo notices. It’s beautiful.

April watches him watching her for a long time. She stands, brushes ash off her fraying, coffee-stained jeans and sighs. “My daughter,” she says, “used to get nervous just like you. When she’d wriggle around like that I’d send her down to the Night Market for my Fanta and chili popcorn. The walk cooled her off, you know? Got her focusing on lights and all.” April plucks a bill out of her bra, hands it to Bo. “Fanta,” she tells him. “And the orange kind, too. None of that grape shit.” She crouches, back snapping and shoulder plates shifting, unlocks the window. She slips into her bedroom head-first. From inside: ​click.​

Bo walks six blocks before he finds the Night Market nestled in the crook of Manhattan’s collarbone, dingy and dusted-over with neon lights reading SMOKES 2 $ and HOT SANDWICH in the grimy windows. A couple of the letters have dwindled out, and Bo thinks that they look like April’s smile: notched and cavernous.

The first time he met her, she was perched precariously on the window ledge, staring intently downwards as two men fought in the alleyway. He’d asked her what she was doing, and she’d looked up momentarily, flicked her hand downwards. “The big game,” she’d said.

In the Night Market, Bo spends minutes picking out the perfect chili popcorn and Fanta. He checks the tin can for dents, checks the popcorn packages for tears or air pockets. He measures their weight in his palms.

“You buying?” asks the cashier. He’s old, older than Bo can comprehend. His face runs with wrinkle rivulets, crow-footing from the corners of his eyes to the base of his chin in dotted lines. He looks hurt.

Bo puts the food on the counter, folds and unfolds April’s bill. $4.99, total. He pays. The cashier twists his torso 90 degrees to open the register, so slowly that Bo could have believed he was trying to convince someone that he wasn’t moving at all. He had read about that once, in an article called ​The Power of Deception.​ Bo had been reading lots of articles lately, because April had been reading them and leaving them on the fire escape when she was done. In the article, author AJ Montgomery told about how the eyes could not recognize minute movements, so one could, excusing gravity, do a backflip in front of an audience without anyone ever noticing that they’d moved.

AJ Montgomery is Bo’s favorite author. He writes eight or nine pieces a week for a little underground publication that April subscribes to, called ​Cynical Thinker​. It is not run by real journalists. Bo likes that. On his way home, popcorn and Fanta clutched to his chest, he imagines that he himself is AJ Montgomery, a leading mind in the factual revolution. He analyzes each object around him for its true the traffic lights, for example. AJ would hypothesize that they aren’t on a timer but run by a commune of human workers, lurking deep below the city and carrying lights back and forth when they are needed.

Bo likes these theories. He believes them wholeheartedly, mostly because he can’t fathom that the world really is this dull. He takes the back alley home. Even before he reaches the alleyway, though, he can smell April’s apartment: mint tea, hash, turmeric apothecary lotion for her arthritic knuckles.

From the ground below April’s window, Bo can see a multitude of magnificently boring people. They zombie about, talking into earpieces and adjusting backpack straps. Bo imagines that he is far more interesting than these people. Maybe that’s why he prefers to stay home.

“Yes,” Bo says to himself. “That must be it. The lot of them are just too dull.”

“Watch it,” says a man in a blue hoodie as he whizzes by on a skateboard.

“I am watching,” Bo says, but the man is already a block ahead, maneuvering around sideways-spilled garbage cans and soupy, oversaturated pools of gasoline. Above Manhattan, someone is flicking switches. The sky turns velveteen, webbed with light and pollution. The traffic lights blink, wink, say ​good​ ​morning.​

“Hey!” Bo shouts. The man looks over his shoulder for a split second — it’s not for him. “Hey!” Bo says again. “I’m watching.”

~~~

Jocelyn Royalty is a high school senior at New Haven Academy and the Educational Center for the Arts, where she specializes in creative writing. She plans to study writing at University of Maine at Farmington this coming fall. Jocelyn currently lives in New Haven, Connecticut with her parents and dog, Fable. She is passionate about community gardening, local activism, and her work at the local literacy center as a tutor.