by Patrick Fiorilli
I was seven years old when I first saw what death looked like. And she was a girl, just in her twenties, hunched over on the sidewalk, with her head buried in her hands.
At first we drove past too quickly for me to notice much besides the policemen gathered around her. My father knew, but he was trained to recognize such things.
My mother twisted around in the front seat to see out the back of the car. “There’s no way.”
“They’d be helping her, otherwise.”
My mother, unsatisfied, asked my father to make another pass.
The girl wore a green oversized jacket with a worn t-shirt underneath. Her jeans flared out over the tops of her faded sneakers and though her head was too low to see much of her face, a mess of thin blonde hair blew in the light breeze.
The policemen were almost as still as the girl. The scene like a frame from a crime film. But it was too bright out to be staged. Too well lit. Fictive death requires more dramatic lighting.
We only stayed in the city for one night – a stop on the way to somewhere else – but my mother scavenged for context anyway. She watched the news that night in the hotel, and read the newspaper the next day but found nothing.
Years later, I traveled through the city on my own, and drove across the same street I saw her on. The sidewalk had the same pinkish tint, the breeze blew in from the same direction, and the afternoon sunlight was again broad and flat. The street seemed for all the world to have stayed as still as it was that day. But the overwhelming sameness of the place unsettled me – like the break was too clean when this girl detached from the world. Not a splinter left behind.
I parked my car on the corner and went into a nearby coffee shop. It had a sign outside that said “Since 1946.” The place was old-school, no hip baristas swirling latte art, no jaded writers struggling with their first drafts in the corner. Only a handful of old men scattered like dice around the room.
I sat down and ordered from an older woman whose name was sewn into her uniform rather than pinned onto it. When she came back with the coffee I couldn’t help but ask.
“Do you by any chance happen to remember a young girl who was found dead just outside on that sidewalk there? This would’ve been a while ago.”
“The Fishel girl? ‘Course I remember her. Laurie, I think her name was. Why d’you ask?”
“No reason, just a memory that stuck with me. You know what happened to her?”
“Don’t think anyone really does. The police said that there were drugs involved but I don’t think they looked too much into it. Poor girl didn’t really have anyone in town. She moved here on her own, never talked about any relatives, least in the few times she came in here. Very nice girl, though. Shame what happened.”
I would have asked more questions but I didn’t want to interrogate the woman, so I just thanked her for the information and the coffee.
As I walked out of the shop, I noticed how the shadows had shifted the scene. It was getting late, and the low sun seemed to cast the street in amber. I walked over to the curb and sat down next to where I remembered they found her. Feeling the sun on my back, I looked out.
From that angle, you could see straight down the avenue – and I realized that if you were there at just the right time, and you looked past the coffee shop filled with old men, and the boarded up antique store, and the run-down movie theater with the empty marquee, and past all the other pieces that hadn’t yet broken off from the whole, out to where the distant hillside rose above the rooftops, to where you could barely see the outline of the trees, to where the sky almost seemed to curve downwards, you’d see what I could only hope was a beautiful sunrise.