“Crumble” – Grace Uhlman ’21

The back alleyway between La Gourmandine and the apartment building perpetually smelled of stale baguettes. Between the time the sun rises and 9:00 am, all of the burnt loaves have been tossed into the 2nd dumpster to the right, on top of the discarded flour bags from the day before. Rifling through the scrapped baked goods as Lugh did every other god-forsaken day, he heard a disapproving voice echoing around him, bouncing off the graffiti-ridden brick walls.

“Lugh, not again.” Grimacing slightly, the haggard man turned around to face the owner of the familiar voice.

“Hey, Leo! How are you doin’?” A bright smile accompanied the high-pitched greeting, spoken a bit too quickly. Leonardo glanced around, hesitating before sighing and placing his cigarette and lighter away in his weathered pants pocket. Grabbing his yellowed chef’s hat off his head, he held it close to his apron that displayed the stains of his gourmet creations. Scratching his balding head and closing his eyes for a moment, Leo huffed and took a heavy step toward Lugh. 

“Lugh what have I told you, man? You can’t keep living like this. She wouldn’t have wanted you to have ended up like this.” The plastered smile on Lugh’s face cracked slightly, eyes dulling but maintaining his grin. 

“Leo, I’m fine. Look, I have converted to living the simple life and there is nothing wrong with that. I think these days it’s called living minimally.” The heavy Irish accent held a reassuring tone, his efforts futile as he tried desperately to convince his old friend that he was, in fact, fine. Leo, of course, did not buy this. Lugh saw the familiar glint in Leo’s eyes, the same shine that he saw when he got denied from his top choice culinary school almost 50 years ago. The same glint when he told Lugh that his mother, who had raised Lugh like her own son, had stage III cancer. It was that glossy sheen that momentarily wiped away the weathered parchment color of Leo’s glassy eyes. Ignoring the crumbling pull that tore Lugh’s chest, the feeling of rotting from the inside out, Lugh broke eye contact with Leo, cowardly hiding from his pointed gaze. Shoving down the visions from that night, the ones that Leo never failed to bring up, Lugh continued rambling on. “Also, the bread isn’t all for me. It’s for my frien- the birds. I’m just giving back to the community.” Lugh continuously babbled, just as curious as Leo to hear what blasphemous words would end up coming out. Lugh’s face contorted into an unnatural beam as he rambled, deformed as if an inexperienced artist attempted to sculpt a face but was missing very crucial lessons in anatomy. Lugh was gone again, like clockwork, at any mention of his past. Leo was yet again simply another voice lost in the vortex of Lugh’s mind, dragging him back to the night when everything changed.

That dark November evening had carried a merciless chill. The family was leaving from dinner, and it was much later than the couple had anticipated. The kids had begged him endlessly for dessert, and how could Lugh possibly say no? Their brown eyes glimmered with hope and mischief as they tilted their faces up to him, cheeks stained the youthful shade of blush, the color only ever replicated with a glass too many of wine after adolescence. Lugh could practically see the visions of decadent chocolatey goodness swirling in their clear, shining eyes. He, of course, succumbed to their pleas and his wife looked at him with disapproving adoration, before calling the waiter over to order the chocolate ice cream. 

The kids were falling asleep as they sluggishly dragged their feet to the minivan, Lugh’s wife having to bait them to the car with some of the chalky mints that she snagged from the restaurant’s jar. Their family piled in, securing their seatbelts with a sure clink. Before long, the giggles that danced playfully in his ears gave way to steady breathing with the rhythmic whistle of air that was gently pushed from their button noses. Their mouths were coated in the sticky, pungent candy, and the smell of sickly sweet peppermint dangled in the air of the car, their deep breaths of childhood slumber encircling the family of four. The roads were empty and the moon winked above with the knowledge of the universe. The soft murmur of the kid’s breaths, his wife’s long dark hair swirled around the car in the moonlight, under the spell of the wind. Lugh knew he was tired as well, he could tell by the way his eyes glazed and how his mouth hung slack, tongue dropping unknowingly from the roof of his mouth. He registered the lights of the 18-wheeler approaching him with fury. Within seconds, the moon was ripped from its place in the sky above and was thrown carelessly to the sky below. The car danced nonchalantly in the wind to the rhythm of the crickets. As quickly as it began, however, it stopped. The car ceased its haunting screams and the moon returned to its rightful place in the sky above. The air felt charged. Lugh could not feel his body. He thought as though he had become a drifting waif, purposeless, and disconnected. It was such a freeing feeling, unbound from the restraints of reality. He was content in his nonchalant bliss. But it was what he smelled that tore him from his dissociative euphoria. The crude aroma of deteriorating metal. The stinging stench of rubber on asphalt. Each inhalation brought Lugh back down from his delirium, back to his unforgiving world where he lived and where he felt. It was then, for the first time in his life that Lugh felt the dampening weight of utter silence. 

Lugh’s eyes shone like those of a racehorse stuck in the back of a trailer. Leonardo saw the unspoken events play like a tape in the back of Lugh’s mind. Lugh heard the distant calls of Leonardo as he abruptly turned from him and wandered away. This always happened when Leonardo brought them up. Leonardo always hoped one day reminding Lugh of what he had and what he lost would spark a flurry of passion and a newfound purpose, not letting the death of his family hinder his capacity to live. Regardless of Leonardo’s hopes, this day had not yet come, and based on Lugh’s slack jaw, improvement was far from the picture.  

* * *

The hum of the city buzzed monotonously around Lugh as he wandered around in a delirium. People passed in slow motion as he walked against the flow of traffic along the wide sidewalk. Faces riddled with pity gazed upon him like a mother would regard a scruffy cat on the back porch. Others held their noses high, scrunching their pointed faces as he ambled past, occasionally tripping over his torn shoes. Most kept their line of vision directly in front of them, walking with a false sense of purpose and importance, intentionally ignoring the poor man’s existence. He continued along, swaying with each aimless step, to a backroad that was much less densely populated by the bustle of people. A greasy man, perhaps a lawyer with questionable morals, approached Leo with the look of disgust. In his arms, he carried three battered suitcases, a cup of steaming coffee, and a slice of pizza with cheese dripping menacingly off the slack crust. His leather shoes, scuffed from years of wear, were clearly too large. With one exceptionally passionate step, the man’s shoe caught on a divot in the sidewalk and he went crashing down. Lugh, for the first time since earlier that morning, was snapped back to the world around him. Papers scattered around Lugh’s feet before drifting carelessly up and away. The man was shrieking colorful curses with great fervor as he watched his work float up in the sky. Lugh debated helping him but decided against it after another woman had handed him a few sheets of his lost papers and ended up getting the stack thrown at her. The steaming face of his cheese pizza stuck securely to the parasitic pavement, attracting the attention of some pigeons. Just as Lugh was about to mindlessly turn away from this character, he heard a pained coo. Whipping his head around, he saw the short man had carelessly kicked a pigeon as he went to pick up some papers around the pizza. Lugh felt his face burn a deep crimson as his body tensed up to the point of discomfort. Lugh did not care about this though. He only saw the limp of the injured bird, calling out to him for assistance. His ears rang so loudly he could feel the vibrations, pushing him forward, toward the poor creature. 

“What is wrong with you? He didn’t do anything to you and you still kicked him! You should be ashamed of yourself. Hurting innocent animals with no regard for any other living creature except your worthless self!” Lugh boomed, eyes flashing emotionally as the man stared at him, gaping. Clearly the lawyer had not expected to elicit such a visceral reaction from the bumbling old man for kicking a measly pigeon. Gingerly scooping the animal in his withered arms, Lugh gave the man the nastiest glare he could produce, met with a hesitant jeer from the lawyer, before turning away with the little bird in a protective embrace.

* * *

Lugh woke up on the corner on a street he did not recognize. Steam plumed in front of him, and the urgent commands of construction workers beneath the surface of the concrete jungle let him know that he had not been on this side of the city before. Head pounding, Lugh sat up and heard his body creak and groan in protest. Weakly wiping the side of his mouth, he took in his surroundings. What day is it? Not that it mattered, but he still wanted to know. It seemed to be the morning again. The little bird must’ve flown away after he nurtured it back to health with words of solace and a warm embrace. He finally saved it. Smiling gently to himself, he stuck his hand in his frayed coat pocket. Finding the stale loaf that he had managed to grab before Leonardo had stepped outside, Lugh held it up to his nose and took a tentative whiff. It smelled fresh enough, tainted slightly by the burnt edges that held an aroma of bitterness. He couldn’t have been out for long if it was still this crisp, presumably it was the next day. Ripping a small chunk with a satisfying tug, Lugh was quickly greeted by his friends.

“Giving back to the community” he mumbled with a grin, tossing some crumbs on the ground to ease the unseeing gaze of the pigeons. They pecked gratefully, and soon enough the loaf was gone and he was encapsulated in a coat of feathers. Their sporadic coos of content and the occasional ruffle of their wings comforted the old man as he lay back, succumbing to the timeless space of dreams.

The sound of wings brushed the air, creating a numbing quality around him. It was in the same way that white noise shivers just below the surface, turning the world from discontinuous bursts of commotion into an unceasing moment in time. When it begins, the droning tone is overwhelming, obtrusive. As time marches ceaselessly, however, it fades into comfort and becomes imperceptible, blocking the enduring tendrils of silence for a moment. That silence, that weighted, pressurized silence had become a reminder of the temporary nature of the world for Lugh. He had heard it that night. The deadened air that left him completely and wholly alone. It was him surrounded by the lifeless silence, where he was all too connected with the reality of his solitude. Unlike the detaching release of sleep, a suspension of consciousness, silence connected him entirely to his forlorn life. His friends, his kind yet unreliable friends, were able to provide a remedy to his suffering for at least a few moments. They swirled around him, allowing their glossy wings and harmonious coos to lure Lugh from his Hell. However, these beautiful moments were just that: moments. Before long, it would return. As sure as the sun sets each night, as sure as the seasons’ change, it was sure that the silence would creep back, entangling Lugh to the point of suffocation. But just before he thought he couldn’t hold on any longer, his friends would swoop in, freeing him of his captor. This is how Lugh woke from his blissful rest- entranced by the soft whispers of wings coaxing the air around him into quiet song. It was that time, the time when the crumbs had been thoroughly pecked and the wings sufficiently rested, that his friends departed. Lugh no longer blamed them for leaving. He learned that this was the way of the world. Comfort gives way to distress. Companionship gives way to solitude. Noise gives way to silence. His friends would begin leaving, one by one, in a steady trickle. The flaps of their wings bidding him noisy farewell, presenting him with a gift in return for the meal. And soon, much too soon, the last of the pigeons would vanish into the sky above. Gazing up into the hazy clouds, the kind that makes you forget the sun is just behind, Lugh settled into himself, accepting his fate with his head hung. They always left. They always do.