In the future perhaps he will have another chance
by Catherine Gammon
He attracts attention. How? He is clean. His hair is long. He has taken off his clothes. No one can read him. He is not young. He is not old. He is not white. He is not black. He is an immigrant perhaps, or an original inhabitant, brown, golden, hairless except for the long black hair. No one can see his eyes. He has covered his eyes with a blindfold. A black scarf tied around his head. Or someone other has covered his eyes. He is not quite naked, not as naked as at first he appeared, but wrapped in a pale loin cloth, just sufficient to cover him, his essential privacy, his sex. His wrists bear marks of binding.
Caroline lived in Iowa
in a town that no longer had commercial prospects. It was only the second town she’d ever lived in and she wanted to get away. One night she dreamed of a pearl, a man named Kains, and a shoreline, a crashing sea, and crows, she counted them, sixty-seven, seventy-seven, until they flew away. When she awoke she went outside to her porch and watched the sun rise and smelled the lilacs, all in bloom because it was already May. Another year had passed of not leaving, not getting on that highway, not heading for that shoreline, her ninth year in that town, that shrinking town, that village, and still she had no sense of how to move, to uproot, to take herself off. Until suddenly she did.
Voices in the Crowd
In the present he has no luck. The clouds are forming, thunder written—future storms already here. Perhaps he deserves something kinder? He deserves nothing. Will they help him even so? Have they found the heart of mercy? Another opportunity waits at every corner. Chance sets him up—succeed or fail.
From the safety of her car
Caroline saw the naked, blindfolded man, saw something beautiful, the circle of space opening around him. She sat transfixed, by the spectacle or by his beauty. Nothing happened. The circle grew. The man spread his arms. He might have been speaking. Or singing. She couldn’t tell from where she sat. She waited for something to happen, anything. For the police to pull up. For someone to intervene. To take the man by the hand. To try to speak to him. To give him a shirt, or a coat. She has waited three hours. She will wait while the sky goes from cloudless blue to stormy gray and back again. She will wait while the sun lights windows gold before disappearing beyond the tall buildings to the west. She will wait into nightfall. No one will be in the street but the man and herself. All others move, pass through. Only they are rooted here, she and he.
The Palm Tree and the Jacaranda
I’m more beautiful, says the jacaranda.
I’m iconic, says the palm tree.
People come to this corner to look at me, she says.
Me, he says.
You have no color, the jacaranda says. You’re shaggy. You shed all over the sidewalk. The only people who stop at this corner on your account are street cleaners. You obscure my view.
You’re so vain, says the palm tree.
Of course I’m vain, she says. I’m beautiful. You would be too.
I’ve been here longer than you have, he says. I’ve always been here.
Not always, she says.
What do you want from me? he asks.
Nothing, she says. I want you to be tidier, I want you to move, you’re crowding me. You could be on that other corner over there, with your brother. He’s more handsome than you are. You would be handsomer from a distance.
You know I can’t move, right? the palm tree says.
Nonsense, says the jacaranda. The palm frond cleaners move you boys all the time. They take you down.
You’d miss me, the palm tree says.
Fat chance, she says.
Who would you talk to?
Myself, she says. And the people who come to gawk at me. I can sing, you know, she adds.
I didn’t know.
You haven’t been listening.
All I ever hear from you is complaining. You’d stop listening too. I do enjoy just looking at your flowers.
Hmm, she says.
I like you just as much when the flowers fall, the palm tree says.
You’re not so tidy then yourself.
When do my flowers fall?
Every year. Have you forgotten? You slime the sidewalks.
That can’t be true, she says. This is the land of eternal springtime.
Only in your mind, the palm tree says.
I don’t remember any other time.
That’s what I’m here for, the palm tree says. That’s why you need me.
Hmm, she says again. She rustles her branches, her purple flowers. A petal falls, and then another. She begins to sing.
A driver passing by
came here god knows when seduced by images golden sunshine balmy breezes seagulls on blue skies you know how it looks to everyone anywhere else the glamour the beauty of lights at night spread out all over the city horizon to horizon a human fucking galaxy that when you live here you come to realize you never actually see. The way you get stuck in your little habits your favorite route, Pico, La Cienega, the 405, whatever. When do you ever go up into the hills and take in the bigger picture? It’s not what I thought it would be, that’s the truth, and I can’t shake the disappointment, the whole place reeks of it, the pink metallic air, the rationed water, the dried-up grass, the burning eucalyptus trees. When the fires started that’s when I got that disappointment’s part of the draw, the fascination. I knew it would never live up to the image, the dream, I knew it would break my heart. When the fires started I knew I’d always known. This broken heart is what I came here for, this and to watch things burn. But the fires were only a spectacle and another disappointment. I watched from down below, the orange sky filling with smoke and ash, the air too heavy to breathe. I asked for this, I know, but what was in it for me? It just set me up to dream again, to yearn again for another place that can’t live up to its promises, New York or Paris maybe, maybe Barcelona. I’ve been reading about Barcelona lately. I can already taste it.
At the corner of a house with a pink magnolia, tall and blooming and shedding its petals, a man stood listening.
He had been a man with a job and now he was the man who had lost it.
The smell of bacon wafted through the window, and laughter too, loud and silly and young.
—I don’t want it.
—You have to take it.
When he showed up for work and they told him no, they didn’t want him, he kicked the trash basket and slammed the door and then drove around the city until he was nearly out of gas. Driving around, he saw things. Heard things. Voices.
The sprinkler hose was coiled on the grass and water sprayed in crystal droplets.
He had come to see his sister, but she wasn’t here.
A bird, red, flew into the florid tree.
—If you don’t, I can’t make it home. I can’t go home with this. You know that.
—Then don’t go home.
—Are you crazy?
Instead he found his mother, taking care of the kids, feeding them breakfast after school.
Suddenly there was thunder.
He wanted to tell her about the man downtown standing naked on the sidewalk. He wanted to tell her he had lost his job and didn’t know why, that after they told him he just drove around. He wanted to show her the red bird exploding out of the pale pink tree.
He couldn’t tell her anything.
Someone closed the window.
She would side with them, with the others, with his boss, or his former boss, with Jennifer, who didn’t want him anymore either, even with the dog.
—I’m telling you, stay here.
And then there was rain.
A woman walking hates the heat
that rises off the asphalt and fills the air with burned tar, hates the smog that greets her lungs and nose and eyes on late afternoons like this one when she leaves her air-conditioned building for the street, hates the street, the noise, the cars, the traffic, the people—yes, that’s true, she hates the people, especially the young ones in their shorts and perfect tans, but not all the young ones, really be honest, some of them are beautiful and kind and she loves their beautiful kindness, the way they hide inside the noise and chaos, their near invisibility, like herself she thinks, herself the way she’s always been, lost in the crowd, finding her way to her parking lot, her car. She loves the music on the last quiet station on the dial, loves that on the road she’s alone at last, enclosed in glass and plastic and steel, in listless traffic, in the mind she has forgotten with everything that came before—the world she has forgotten, the playgrounds of her childhood, the tide pools and her father’s hands, her mother’s breath, her voice, the children on the street who played outside at night without fear, in that time of innocence and ignorance. She would not choose to remember any of it, even if she could. She would not remember one thing, good or bad, that has ever happened to her or anything she’s ever seen or done and not done. Memory is overrated, she thinks. Although maybe there was a day at the beach, a wave, a swell, an undercurrent—wet, salt, cold, blue. A blue she would remember, a sky that blue, that green, a flower, a bucket, an ice plant, a room, a table, a meal, white plates and candles that same sea blue, sea green. On the freeway, a pinkening darkening sky, the same route every day, the sky each day new—this sky, this hour, her only life. She has no way to think about it. Everything else was function. She prefers her life without words. Without words she is no one. She prefers being no one.
The other one, the one called Caroline—
still sitting in her car, watching the nearly naked man, waiting, but for what?—is many things to many people. They make stories about her, big and little, a different Caroline for each, or many Carolines, and even for her, this one called Caroline, the many Carolines are fictions, fabrications, as she is herself. In other words, nobody’s home. Nobody’s ever been home. Still, there is a life that likes some things and dislikes others. Coffee, chocolate, cheese, a fresh tomato, digging in the dirt, the coming of rain, the end of rain, the singing birds, the cat, any cat but also the cat she thinks of as her own now, although she knows he can’t be, the cat the same countless cats as the countless Carolines, and even though the cat’s life has not yet been so long or various, the principle is the same, driven by liking and disliking, call of the mouse, the squirrel, the wild, and flight from rain and dogs. The cat likes his freedom and so does she, and every other she, future or left behind, unknown. Known, she will never be freedom, that force of the wild, would be only kept in a box, and even in the box, those boxes, would be traceless, always escaping, escaped—she cannot be kept, even now, in these moments, these hours of watching the man, about whom everyone who has seen him will have been making a story, a box to shut him into, to put him safely away.
(In Syracuse, she hears on the radio, they’re culling the deer who roam the city. Who, not that. Praise the mothers. Failure and flawlessness. The answer is no. Drive into the wreck. Language is a body. How does a body speak?)
If she were a fiction, which she is and has to be, she would have something more to offer here, in this her final moment—a chocolate to melt in the mouth, a coffee to savor, a tomato to bite into and break between her teeth, and his. This is what fictions do. They smell the rain, the fire, they chase the mouse. They get out of the car and embrace the man. They take him home. They clothe him and feed him and bind up his wounds. They remove his blindfold and receive his words. They listen and taste. They touch. They burn.
Enough now, she says, to no one.
Copper stain on sanded pine shining through layers of clear polyurethane, a floor as brilliant and artificial as any other polished thing she’d seen in this city.
—I want you to quit your job. I want you to say no to that man. Finally. I mean it.
The potted palms and lilies at least were real but grew in a medium as distant from soil as she was from Tennessee.
—I’ve put so much into that place. Half my life, she said.
An overloaded pickup truck barreled down the street, screeching, scattering debris as it rounded the corner, scaring children and dogs. A man ran after it, shouting and shaking his fist, like someone in a cartoon, a thought bubble over his head, Motherfucker.
The sky that was supposed to be blue was a dull steel, waiting for rain or sunset, it didn’t seem to know.
—It’s not half your life. It’s a drop in the bucket. One band of a rainbow. Get over it. Get over him.
—You don’t know what you’re talking about.
Motherfucker, the thought bubble read. Why did you miss me?
Out there somewhere birds were singing, but there didn’t seem to be any trees.
The dogs in the street kept barking, until the children began throwing rocks.
—I know that working for him in that environment oppresses you. I know it’s time to cut loose. Be free.
Maybe they were recordings of birds.
An acrid odor blew in on a breeze, followed by the scent of dust, and eucalyptus and fire.
—You’ll never get it. You can’t understand.
—Fine. I don’t get it. But you talk like a woman abused in a bad relationship, trapped only because she’s unwilling to walk out.
She closed the window and saw the glass in need of washing.
The driver was on his way to see his sweetheart, a bouquet of daffodils on the torn seat beside him, the radio playing Patsy Cline.
“Crazy,” she sang. “Crazy for loving you.”
Catherine Gammon is author of the novels China Blue (Bridge Eight Press, 2021), Sorrow (Braddock Avenue Books, 2013), and Isabel Out of the Rain(Mercury House, 1991). Her shorter fiction has appeared in literary journals for many years, most recently in Cincinnati Review and The Missouri Review, and online at Always Crashing and The Blood Pudding. A native of Los Angeles, she lives now in Pittsburgh, PA. More at www.catherinegammon.com.
Photo: Frank Albrecht/Unsplash