Ralph was the only person I knew who free willingly walked around 12th Street at night. He would shuffle along the dirty street with his hands in the pockets of his jacket, kicking around trash and litter as he walked past. His back was always hunched over, eyes glued to the specks of dirt on his tennis shoes. He would make his loop around the block at one in the morning, never really lifting his head up to see the dark shadows on the wall.
It was a rundown city block, to say the least. Everyone in the neighborhood would constantly warn you about 12th Street, and remind you to never get out of the subway stop there if you could avoid it. There was an old industrial feel to the town as though it had been the center of a bustling industry decades ago. The air was full of smog, and police sirens could be heard all day long. The filthy streets were usually vacant except for the occasional stray cat walking through, and old rotting furniture sat out at every corner, waiting to get picked up by the garbage truck that never seemed to come. It smelled like smoke and greasy fast food. There was an eerie silence to the place and every small sound you heard made you think that there was a murderer hiding around the corner waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
But Ralph didn't seem to notice these things, or at the very least, he didn’t mind them. It’s always puzzled me why he found comfort in his midnight walks, walking through the shadows and haunting the city block, but somehow he did.
It was on one of these nights that I first met Ralph. I was new in town, meaning that I was fresh out of college and this was the cheapest place to live near the big city. My head had been full of great big ideas about all the things that I would soon accomplish, but all of my dreams were slowly destroyed with every rat I found in my cupboard and every job interview I didn’t get.
On this particular night, I found myself locked out of my run down apartment, my keys mysteriously vanished along with my wallet and the rest of my belongings in my purse. I’d always known that South Benton wasn’t the safest neighborhood, but you would have thought I could’ve trusted my purse with the ninety-year-old woman behind me in line at the 7-Eleven bathroom.
“It’s all my own stupid fault,” I groaned to myself, covering my face with my hands and slowly lowering my elbows onto my knees as I sat on the crumbling concrete steps of my building. My phone had died hours ago, and the sun wouldn’t be up for another five. I was stuck here.
The absolute worst thing about 12th Street was how quiet it could get during the night. Sure, you could hear the occasional police siren from a couple blocks down, and the rustle of the wind blowing through the broken windows in the abandoned buildings, but the lack of any human sound could make you feel as if you were the next victim in a horror movie. And on that quiet fall night, I couldn’t help but feel like the last person left in the city.
I was thinking over this possibility as I stared down the street, past all the dusty gray buildings and the cracked sidewalk and to the fenced in basketball court at the end of the block that had neither a net nor a backboard. One flickering streetlight illuminated the whole area, casting a stark white light through the otherwise ebony night. My dark brown eyes followed the cracked cement between the bricks of the building across the street from me when suddenly I knew I wasn’t alone anymore.
Ralph’s shadow appeared long on the wall before he did, slowly getting closer and closer to me as a million thoughts ran through my head. All the blood drained from my face as I took notice of the approaching figure. How many people get murdered on 12th Street each week? I frantically thought. Too many, and I didn’t want to be one of them. I glanced at my own frail and small five foot two body, quickly coming to terms with the fact that I would be no match for whatever monster appeared around the corner.
“So this is it. This is how I die,” I whispered the words, as my eyes stayed glued on the shadow before me. “I’m going to die on these hideous old steps all because I trusted some lady at a 7-Eleven.”
But the figure that appeared before me a moment later wasn’t an old mafia leader with a gun, a wanted criminal who had escaped from federal prison, or an ax murderer thirsty for blood. It was the most harmless looking guy that I could’ve imagined. It was Ralph.
He stopped short as soon as he noticed me, picking up one foot as though he was about to turn on his heel and run away in the opposite direction, but he just stood there frozen in place. He was wearing an old jacket with what looked like a million pockets filled with everything from gum to pencils to floss, as I would later learn, and a bright blue baseball cap with a sports team's logo that I didn’t know.
Looking back on it, Ralph must have been more terrified to see me sitting motionless on those steps than I was to see him.
We looked at each other for what felt like an eternity before he finally broke off his stare and instead fixated his gaze on the broken planter behind me.
“Sorry if I scared you,” he said, more to the plant than to me.
Our brief conversation felt as cold and lifeless as the old street we were standing in, but he pressed on.
“I don’t usually meet people out here this time of night.”
“Uh, yeah,” I paused trying to come up with the best way to explain my little predicament. “I had a problem with my apartment.”
His eyes flashed back to meet mine as the smallest of smiles crept over his face. “You didn’t get locked out, did you?”
I shrugged, looking at the dirt beneath my feet and anything else to avoid looking at him. “I might have.”
“So, no key?”
“How’d you lose it?”
I cringed, “I’d rather not say.”
He was starting to get excited now, as his body swayed slightly back and forth, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “I bet it was Mrs. Jenkins, she’s always taking people’s stuff. Sneaky old grandma, that one,” he paused. “She’s probably the biggest con man in this whole town. I’d avoid the 7-Eleven, that’s her home base.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. The biggest con man in town was the fragile, ninety-year-old woman I had met only hours ago. The one who looked like she could get a heart attack from a small sneeze. “Yeah. That’s the one.”
He smiled and after a moment said, “I’m Ralph.”
We didn’t shake hands, we didn’t dive into our own personal histories and spend the rest of the night getting to know everything about each other. No, our short lived conversation seemed to die in that street. The eerie silence returned and surrounded us in a cloud of awkwardness. I’d like to say that that was the end, that Ralph said goodbye and went on his way and that I waited until morning when the super showed up and let me back in my apartment.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, a mere fifteen minutes later I found myself perched on top of the rickety old fire escape of my apartment building that looked like it would crumble into a fine powder at any moment, with Ralph by my side.
He was crouched down in front of my kitchen window, picking at it with an old screwdriver and trying to pry away the cheap locks which kept me out.
I was watching him with curiosity as every so often he would start to hum a verse of a song that I didn’t remember the name of. How we got to that point was a mystery to me. One minute he was telling me about Mrs. Jenkins’ most recent crimes (she kidnapped a puppy from someone’s apartment because her granddaughter wanted one for her birthday) and the next he was helping me climb up six flights on the worst fire escape in the city.
It was colder up there on the fire escape than on the dusty old road below. The wind wasn’t cushioned by the tall buildings and was free to blow as wildly and freely as it wanted. I shivered, rubbing my hands over my arms in an attempt to get some form of warmth.
Ralph had been digging at the window’s lock for a few minutes now and through his constant sighs and grunts, it was clear he was starting to get annoyed. We hadn’t talked since we reached my window.
“You can leave if you want to.” I broke through the silence.
“Nah,” he waved me off. “It’s fine, I think I almost got it.” And sure enough only a few seconds later there was an audible pop and Ralph dropped the screwdriver onto the floor.
I inched closer to him as the prospect of making it back into my home before the sun came up started to feel like a reality.
Ralph grasped the bottom of the window pane and pulled upwards with both hands, his arms shaking as the window refused to budge. He let it go, heaving heavily before turning back to me. “Hey, Jade?”
“Yeah?” My response was quiet and high pitched, already knowing what he was going to ask me.
“Does this window even open?”
I bit my tongue, mulling over what to say for a moment before settling on, “Well . . . it’s supposed to.”
Ralph narrowed his eyes at me more, a slight smile crossing over his face before immediately disappearing again. “But does it actually open?”
I tore my gaze away from his, “Honestly I’ve never gotten it open more than two inches.”
I had expected him to yell at me for wasting his time, or just ignore me completely and descend back down the fire escape without saying a word, but he just laughed. It was a hearty laugh too, like he had been holding it in for a really long time and it finally had a chance to escape.
His laughter was infectious and quickly overwhelmed me with my own fit of giggles. The laughter took over both of us as we fell to the metal grate floor, gasping for breath and clutching our stomachs. We drowned out the faint sound of the police siren a few blocks away, and the dog barking in the building across the street. We filled the eerie silence of 12th street with our chuckles and giggles and suddenly it didn’t seem so scary anymore. The dark shadows that loomed around every corner disappeared and the frightening wailing sound of the wind blowing through the broken windows sounded more like a song than a ghost.
Our laughter finally subsided as the need for oxygen became more prominent. I smiled, resting my head on the cold metal railing and gazing up to the cloud covered sky. “You know maybe I’ll just live out here on the fire escape,” I mumbled quietly. “It’s not that uncomfortable, and it’s got a great view.”
“That’s not the worst idea I’ve heard today,” Ralph answered with a yawn.
I risked looking over at him and saw him also staring up at the sky, his arms folded together behind his head as a pillow.
“Hey, Ralph?” My voice was quiet again.
“Thanks for helping me.”
He chuckled, “I don’t think I actually helped, but you’re welcome.”
“No, you did,” I reassured him, closing my eyes briefly as for the first time since moving to 12th Street I finally felt safe. “Trust me, you did.”