The street things played “Memory of Rain.” Drips slid from a power line onto trash cans and gutter grates—tck, tck, tunt. A transformer buzzed from its perch, and a stoplight clicked its indecision. A car rolled down the wet alley with all the sibilant slick of a cymbal swell. Graves closed his eyes to listen and thought of the rainsong from a Dr. Seuss book he used to read to Nina: dibble dibble dop, dibble dop dop dop.
Graves bolted the door and turned to the steps that led from the landing down to the street. He shook his head at himself. Imagining drizzle ditties was just another way to postpone the stairs. If his knee buckled again, then it buckled again. He’d just have to pick himself up and get on with it.
This time his knee held, though. Graves found the bottom of his stoop and shuffled off across the street. As he turned the corner he thought he heard the splink of a sidewalk puddle, as though something unnoticed had just fled. Graves looked around but saw no likely culprit. Probably just a rat scouting rubbish.
He reached the bus stop with a sigh and sat down. The stop was a low bench flecked with gum, a four-post awning, and a leaning signpost reciting times that the busses were sure to miss. They were like some late-night ensemble playing to an empty club: the squat snare, the bulky bass, the lanky horn lead hunched over a melancholy melody. A bus stop trio to tend the city’s beat like cavemen tended a flame—just to keep it going, just to keep it from flickering out.
The bus itself was, of course, late. Graves sat, hat in hand, looking down the deserted street. There were still a few stars, but they were fading as the darkness thinned toward dawn.
Graves had always loved the city in this hour just before sunrise. Way back whenever-it-was—before—he’d have just been stumbling out of some jazz club to take in that first breath of morning, his first smoke-free breath in hours. His ears would drink up the relative silence of the street while the night’s rhythms and whiskey still hummed in his joints and echoed across his skin. He’d grab a bagel and coffee, and then he’d do his first fares with Monk or maybe some small-session Miles playing on the cab’s tinny speakers—something whispered and urgent, something reminiscent of that first breath in the yellow lamplight. Something to help it linger. By rush hour he’d turn to Mingus. No one did bustle and jive like Mingus. No one played the city awake like Mingus did. The early hours, though—those were times for slow breaths, times to trace over memories with a muted trumpet or a long bass lead.
But that was all back in some previous life. A life with a different soundtrack—a younger soundtrack. In this life, he’d stopped smoking, his knee gave out sometimes, and he watched the sunrise at a bus stop instead of outside a jazz club. He’d sit on the bench listening to the tinkering sounds of the street, listening to nothing, and hoping that perhaps today his daughter would sit with him during her coffee break.
His watch read 5:27. Graves smiled to himself. The 14 Express was like a bad joke—it was always late as it took its plodding route through these more depressed neighborhoods, collecting line cooks and janitors and depositing them discreetly on downtown street corners before the morning rush hour. It would take Graves over an hour to get to Findley’s, the posh downtown diner where Nina pulled the early morning shift. The only thing “express” about the 14 was the lack of transfers, but that was still worth it. Taking the bus each morning was sort of a guilty pleasure for him: someone else drove, there were no fares for him to collect, no small talk to maintain. And with no connections to miss, he was free to settle into his retirement just as God had intended it: nothing to do but sit back and let it all wash over you.
Something moved across the street. Between the rows of the first and second floor windows something dark and sinewy slipped from one hidden place to another. The thing was quick—a flick of movement that skipped only once on the surface of Graves’ perception before sinking into memory. The thin ripples of his curiosity faded almost as quickly as the disturbance itself. A sparrow hopping between cracks, maybe. A cat on a fire escape.
Graves leaned back into the bench and put his cap on his knee. He found himself staring across the street at Jones’, a beleaguered storefront of darkened windows joined by some steps and a stoop at the corner. Jones’ was an odd place. It was a small shop in an almost entirely residential neighborhood of rented and rotting townhomes and teetering brick apartment buildings. Back when Graves was a kid, Jones’ had been a barbershop. When the original Jones finally retired in the early 80’s, he sold the place to a Dominican couple who turned it into a general store. They kept the name Jones’ so that they could keep the gorgeous, hand-painted sign on the window that said: “Jones’ – Established 1957.” They’d made a go of it for six or eight years, but nothing that opened up in the space since had lasted more than two. Record store, smoke shop, café, general store again, café again. There was a florist in there somewhere; Graves had bought Maya a bouquet a time or two. And there was a sandwich shop—he remembered splitting a salami on rye with Nina when she was eight or nine. And there were stints where the place was vacant for a while. But whatever it hosted, it was always Jones’ or some elaboration—Jonesin’ Jones’ (smoke shop); Jones’ Jams (record store); Jones’ Cellular Solutions—and the sign stayed painted in the window. Thirty years of failed Jones’ but still the most persistent name in the neighborhood.
As Graves sat up straight again to stretch his back, something caught his eye. Something was moving again, this time near the doorway across the street. He leaned forward and squinted through the pale light. The thing was bulbous but otherwise camouflaged against the peeling paint and long shadows of the shop front. It was like the door jamb had a burl growth at one corner. As he traced its odd contours, Graves found an unblinking eye staring back at him.
He cocked his head and then gasped with recognition: it was an octopus. An octopus had gathered itself under the stoop in the corner above the door. The animal’s limbs were folded around its head in some unfathomable knot the size of a soccer ball, now totally still but for the slow pulse of its breathing.
Well, this was something! Some of his neighbors had claimed to see a deer nibbling on weeds in a vacant lot some years back, but an octopus? Who’d ever heard of such a thing?
Graves watched it for what must have been minutes. Neither moved; a pair of gargoyles staring across the empty space and into one another.
He wracked his brain for any tidbits he might have learned about octopuses back when his daughter was going to grow up to be a marine biologist, but after a concerted effort he had located only a few facts: an octopus had three hearts, a good memory, and it didn’t live very long. Graves could almost feel sorry for the squishy thing slinking there in the dark—all heart and limbs and loneliness. But three facts were hardly enough dots to make much of a picture. And there was nothing Graves could use to draw the animal out. Nothing that would help him interact with the thing.
With no plan and nothing to offer, Graves just sat and continued to stare.
As he watched, the octopus reached out—slowly, haltingly—with a single sucker-toothed arm. For a long while the tentacle was stiff, unassuming as a branch bobbing in the light breeze. Then, suddenly, it snapped at a fluttering moth and drew it in. Then the beast was still again, and it stared back across the street at Graves.
Jones’ must have become a pet shop or aquarium shop of some sort. Maybe when Graves got downtown he’d borrow Nina’s phone to call someone. It didn’t seem to be dangerous or anything, but probably someone should know there was an octopus on the loose. It’d give him a good opening with her—“Saw a crazy thing this morning on the way here, an octopus just chillin’ outside Jones’, fishing for bugs. Crazy lookin’ thing.”
She’d like that one. Nina had loved nature shows all her life. When she was little, she and her mother had made a date for every one that aired: African safaris and Central American jungle expeditions and underwater spelunking—all within earshot of the microwave. It wasn’t really his thing, but Maya and Nina had wasted hours with it. They would make a nest of blankets for themselves on the couch and duck under the covers while the centipede stalked the ant like they were watching a horror flick. Graves might watch with them for a while, trying to join in the fun, but eventually he’d head out to go listen to the Steps’ boy play his horn down at CJ’s, or go check out the new pianist over at The Crossroads.
He’d never really picked up much from all the shows, but he remembered that their all-time favorites had been the tropical fish specials with all the flashing fins and wild spiny things. They sort of creeped him out. Best Graves could tell, a reef was like a huge, sunken skeleton that kept on growing a new skin. He didn’t see the fascination, but they’d watch documentary after documentary about them.
As he examined the thing, Graves felt a bubbling desire to cross the street and touch it, to connect with it somehow. Like those drum solos that veer off the beat in a tangle of improvisation and just as you’re convinced the rhythm is lost, it recalls the roots of the melody and you glimpse a path ahead—a path back to a shared space, a known space. He needed some way to approach the animal. He wanted its alien gaze to soften; he wanted it to recognize him.
The octopus seemed to have decided that Graves was of no interest or posed no threat and began to move. A tentacle inched out and grabbed the light above the door, and the octopus maneuvered up the side of the building, weightless and fluid. It was like paisley in motion, all curves and swirls. The texture and shade of its skin shifted as it slid over the painted brick wall. A tapping gutter was still counting out the time somewhere down the alleyway, dibble dop, dibble dop dop, but the octopus’ skin flitted and flecked to its own beat.
Graves couldn’t help but think that Maya would remember more about octopuses than he did. She’d know how to reach out to this thing. She’d remember from one of those shows what it was that an octopus liked and how the things communicate to one another. He shook his head to himself. Just another in a mountain of ways they had been ill-prepared for Maya’s betrayal. If it had been him—if Graves had chased after some skirt in a jazz club and moved out suddenly—Maya and Nina would have just kept on keeping on with their popcorn and their Discovery Channel. But when Maya moved across the country with the x-ray tech from her hospital, she’d left him and Nina adrift.
For a couple of weeks, back when Jones’ was a coffee and donut shop—when Nina was early in high school and Maya had just left—he had tried to get them into a new routine. He’d take Nina there before school and she would recite every event in the previous evening’s underwater drama. The sea turtles that hatched on the beach and raced for the tumbling waves. The hermit crabs that scoured the sea floor for a new home. There were names of things he still remembered even though he’d never seen them: jawfish, sea dragon, vampire squid. But the routine had petered out quickly. They had no interpreter to help them translate their coping mechanisms. Both had buried themselves in their hobbies—she in couch-centered naturalism, he in whiskey-laden jazz—and it only served to underscore how little they talked to one another even before Maya had left. So instead they just helped themselves through their frustrations and sorrows, two victims of the same disloyalty unable to share even their grief.
That was twenty years ago, and still he felt lucky when Nina agreed to sit with him over a coffee. She still seemed to tolerate his interest in her out of a kind of pity, as if she recognized their story had gone wrong and that he was ill-equipped to play the attending parent.
Maybe now, though, if he could just interact with this thing, maybe he could bring something to their conversation.
The octopus paused for a moment to investigate the anchor in the brick where the electric lines were tethered to the pole on the street, then moved on toward a second-floor window. An arm snaked up along the window ledge, the sure home of a spider or two, then pushed off the wall. It jetted over the sidewalk in a slow, graceful arc to the streetlamp, where it posted itself in the shadows atop the light.
Considering the street below its perch, Graves caught a glimpse of the neighborhood as it must have seemed to the octopus. Staples had spread like rusted algae around telephone poles, the announcements they’d hung now long gone, dissolved or torn off. Alleyways stretched in every direction, pale as bone under the full moon, held together with spit and long, long years. The branchy structures of parking meters and bike posts stood sentinel in the filtered light.
The octopus felt around the edge of the streetlamp, testing the seam between metal and glass as if it were trying to finger into an oyster.
For the first time, Graves thought of the jerky in his pocket. He usually brought some with him for a snack on the bus ride back. But maybe the octopus would like a nibble. It was clearly hunting, hoping for another bite before the sun rose and it retreated to some darker place. He pulled the jerky out of his pocket and began the noisy process of unwrapping it.
The octopus froze.
“Nah, it’s ok,” Graves said, as soothingly as he could. “I think you’ll like this. A little tougher than a moth, maybe, but it’s got barbecue sauce baked into it.”
He broke off a piece, frustrated that he had only thought of this now. He wished he had taken Nina to an aquarium or something years ago. Maybe they could have fed an octopus at one of those places. Maybe he could have practiced; maybe then he’d know what he was doing now. Graves held the piece out in one hand, as still as he could.
“It’s ok,” he said again.
After another bout of staring at each other, the octopus began to crawl down the lamppost. Halfway down, it unfurled like a time-lapse of a spring blossom, bursting open in every direction, and dropping smoothly to the street. It began crawling toward him.
Graves held his breath to keep his hand from swaying. The octopus rolled forward, the bulb of its head nested in the movements of its arms, its yellow eyes trained on Graves. It halted a yard in front of him, considering its final approach. Close up, it was bigger than Graves expected— the size of a trash can lid. Just as the animal was lifting itself up on its limbs toward Graves’ outstretched hand, the bus turned the corner, its huge headlights swinging across the pavement. The octopus vanished in a puff of black. A swirling shadow hung in the air like watercolor drawn from a brush. Graves couldn’t even tell which direction the octopus had fled.
“Damn,” he muttered, surprised at the depth of his disappointment.
The bus stopped in front of him and the door folded open with a protesting squeal. Graves gathered himself up from the bench and walked up the bus steps.
“You goin’ to the Pier?”
Graves looked at the driver for the first time, hand frozen with his fare card extended toward the card reader. “What?”
“It’s just, you don’t look dressed for dock work. Figured I should ask. This is the 57, goin’ to the Pier.”
Graves glanced up at the digital banner over the door to the bus: 57. He put his card back in his pocket. “No, no. Downtown. 14 Express. Sorry.”
The driver shook his head. “Think you must have missed it. The 14 should have been through ten minutes ago at least.”
Graves was bewildered. “Oh. Thanks.”
He stepped off and the bus drove away. Graves glanced around but didn’t see the octopus.
He stood, shoulders hunched against the morning chill, feeling somehow lost or out of place. Graves coughed into his fist and thought of Dizzy Gillespie, puffing out his cheeks as he blew into his trumpet like the Big Bad Wolf huffing and puffing and trying to blow the world away. He’d always imagined himself like Dizzy, forcing the world to attend to his rhythms, his breath setting the beat. But here he felt like a thing blown, not an ounce of bluster left in him.
Graves eased himself slowly back down to the bus stop bench.
He stared back across at Jones’, the shell of so many shops over the years. Each had rewritten the neighborhood feel—different loiterers, different business hours and traffic. None successful, of course. But each left a mark. And Graves had lived through them all.
He checked the time; the next 14 Express wasn’t due for half an hour. He’d miss his window with Nina—she’d take her last break without him. There wouldn’t be any time after her shift because she’d have to run off to get to her other job. But he could still go watch her juggle the trays and chat up the suit-types that ate at Findley’s for a while. Even if all he could manage was to catch her eye and give her a wink, at least she’d know that he’d come. Maybe that would be worth something.
Graves nodded to himself and perched his hat back on top of his knee.
He took in a long, slow breath. The air was clear, but the gutters still ran with the night’s rain. A little way down the curb, a burgundy scarf lay over a drainage grate, damming the flow. Not a dropped or forgotten thing, it was as if it had grown there. A threadbare anemone testing the currents, groping after mortar dust.
“Coral Street” by Elias Leake Quinn and the artwork titled Coral Street by Charlotte Bunney appeared in Issue 42 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Elias Leake Quinn lives and keeps a day job in the Washington, DC area. His stories have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, and his essays about law and language have appeared in Slate.
Charlotte Bunney is an illustrator, fine artist, and an occasional writer from England. She has a BA in Classics and is currently studying for an MA in Illustration. Her inspiration mostly comes from nature and the Classical world, and she often enjoys incorporating text into her visual work.