The roads become grimy from city trucks chuffing exhaust and spreading salt and gravel through the long, hard winter so that in May brisk winds from the mountains will kick up dust – a dense haze breathed and deposited daily, coating cars and windows repeatedly with an insidious layer of fine grit.
They’re on a quick shopping trip on the southeast side of the city. The vista here is painted with a different palette; the socio-economic reality and the difference in demeanor of the people strikes the eye with embarrassing clarity.
The parking lot is almost empty this morning – this affords a parking spot near the entrance of the Co-op. He is grateful, the day feels light. There is planning, a sister and mother coming over, a few kids in the house to play in the backyard and maybe a BBQ later on.
Groceries are gathered from displays and stacked in the cart and checked out under the watchful eye of regular clientele. He always wonders if they’re judging his purchases as luxuries, and then feels uncomfortable for the thought, wondering what it says about his heart or his mind as they pay and pack the groceries into the cart for the short trip across the lot.
Approaching their van they become aware of a problem; there is yelling, anger – a man’s voice, violent and loud. An assault of words, ”Your goddamned mother – your goddamned brother, that shithole of a house I have to clean up every day.”
They are both stunned. There is a quality to this anger that recalls television programing, and they can’t process that this kind of venom might exist in reality.
Just a couple of vehicles to the left it continues, “I can’t get paid fast enough to feed you little fuckers and that bitch blames me for the price of metal. I can’t do any more than I’m doing and I can’t buy you any useless toys until I can make rent. Life is not about your toys, it’s about making money so we can eat. You expect me to buy you shit every day. All you do is watch the goddamned T.V.”
They both hesitate, she moves backwards – away from the voice and he stops, feeling her tug on his sleeve.
“Hang on”, he says, pushes and stops the shopping cart against the bumper of the vehicle and pulls out his wallet.
Digging into the sleeve at the back, he grabs a wad of twenties and hands the wallet to her, “Here, put this in your purse. Stay behind me, stay a few feet away.”
He is counting the bills.
She’s afraid and doesn’t get the point.
“Just take it, do what I say. Please.” Gently.
He walks toward the back of the vehicle keeping it between his approach and the man he sees leaning into the driver’s side window. In his hand is two hundred dollars in twenties stuffed into his pocket.
He looks back, she is five steps back looking down at the pavement, cautious.
The vehicle is a pick-up truck. Rust around the wheel wells and the bumper at the back. The truck bed contains a collection of metal – wheel rims, two ovens, an assortment of metal pipe, and a stack of coil and leaf springs – rusted tension – and wire, tangled in the open air.
The man is lanky, skinny shoulders and a baseball cap. Dark caterpillar eyebrows and dark beard growth – a couple of days old.
The boy is six or seven. He has glassy eyes. They are angry and defensive, and a rivulet of clear watery snot is visible from each nostril, quivering with his breath and stopping just before his upper lip. He sports a t-shirt and a dirty face.
He is about twenty feet away when he begins to speak, “Hey there, can I talk for a second?”
Tentatively, “Hey, hello?”
The man stops. His stature changes, barely perceptible. A forward kind of defeated slump, and he turns from the neck up to glance back.
“Just fuck off, OK? Fuck you, and fuck off,” delivered matter-of-factly.
Relief, there is no violence in the reply.
“No, just a second. Listen. I just want a minute.”
“I do not have a minute for some lecture. Fuck off.”
“I’ll give you two hundred bucks to listen to me for five minutes,” he extracts his hand from his pocket, fans the money.”
The man pauses. His head and neck stiffen in question, “Look, this is nothing, just go away ok?”
“Let’s talk. I’ll give you two hundred bucks just to talk for five minutes. What have you got to lose?”
“Who the fuck do you think you are? Why don’t I just swat you and take your fucking money?”
“Because I wouldn’t let that happen.”
“Really.” The man shifts his weight to one side, resting a hand on the sill of the truck window.
“Look, what do you have to lose? You entertain this idiot suggestion from an asshole in a parking lot for five minutes and you net two hundred bucks.”
He looks at the woman, notices her for the first time.
“Lady, get this fucker away from me.”
“Look. See that light? Let’s sit at the concrete there.” He walks back toward his shopping cart, grabs two bottles of water and moves sideways toward the light standard – a monolith spire with four arms dangling huge lenses. He holds out one of the bottles, and searching for his pocket with the blunt end of another, lowers himself onto the shelf created by the block of cement, the anchor for the huge tower.
“Here, just sit here for a couple of minutes. I’ll give you the cash.”
The man moves slowly, looking left and right.
“You are one fucking weird dude. Alright, preach.”
“I don’t need to preach. Come on, sit.”
The man moves cautiously now, into the space of another being, the influence of a strangers reach.
He sits, and slouches elbows onto knees. A large mole rides the side of his neck and whiskers of hair point in all directions from the lobes of his ears when he aligns his head appropriately to the sunlight.
“Have some water.”
He grabs the bottle, “Get to it.”
“I’m not preaching. I’ve nothing to preach about.”
“I just thought about it when I saw that kid. That’s all. I don’t want to tell you how to live.”
There is a moment of uncomfortable silence, tension.
And then he lets his mind wander out loud;
“I remember being at a mall with my dad once. In a bank I think. I remember standing in a bank and somehow I got shuffled over a few feet. I don’t know what was going on. Boys wander I guess. Anyway, when I went a few steps back and grabbed his leg, it wasn’t him. It was some other guy’s leg. There were some remarks exchanged about parentage. I didn’t get the drift. I just felt stupid. I remember feeling strange about it. There was something going on with that day. It felt like I was on the edge of it. Like I didn’t belong. That was a grey day. At least I remember it that way.”
Looking down at the ground, the angry man twists his foot on a cigarette butt, spreading contents and rolling the poison stained filter into a little ball.
The awkward silence begs him to fill it with …something.
“He used to put us up on his feet, lift us into the sky on his feet. He’d lie on a bed on his back and you would sit on his feet and he would just straighten his legs and up you’d go.”
He is a little embarrassed about the turn of subject. He looks at the man.
“What’s the best thing you remember about being a kid?”
The man looks back, one eyebrow cocked up. He pauses, searches. He is puzzled by the direction this is taking, and by his own thoughts.
He starts slowly, “Shit, I don’t know. I don’t remember much.” A gulp of water. He wipes his brow and puts the cap back on the bottle. It balances between his boots.
“We had a dog for a while. I used to take it to school. Wouldn’t stay in the yard. I used to take her fishing, but she always went into the water. I couldn’t catch shit with that dog around at a river. She was a good dog though.”
He feels like there is nowhere to go. He doesn’t have any plan and can’t think of any way to take this conversation forward. Just try something else.
“What’s the best time you ever had with a woman?”
The man barks a loud laugh, “You don’t already know that?”
“I mean just walking around.”
He pauses, tilts his head and considers, looks right at him and says, “Faye”.
No hesitation at all.
“Faye? That’s all I get is a name?”
“We used to ride horseback up in the foothills out by Ghost River. We were fourteen, fifteen maybe. We’d go out the deer trails into the forestry and crown land. Just wrap up a lunch and go. You can go for days up there.”
“I know that. I’ve camped it. Fished too. That’s one cold river.”
“You from here?”
“Yeah, I was born here.”
“Well you’re right. That water is right out of the mountains. It’ll freeze you. My uncle had some land up there and my mom would drop me off for a week or so. I’d work his farm with him. Cows and hay.”
A smile breaks at his eyes.
“She taught me how to ride and when we got up there we’d stop by the South Ghost and talk.”
He looks at the pavement and shuffles one boot against the asphalt.
“I kissed her once, and she let me. But I never got to again. That’s all. We just kissed. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have a car or…” He stops and looks out at the buildings, distant concrete on pavement.
“I just remember her. That’s all.”
He pauses for another drink.
“I don’t know where she went. I miss that place. He died. I don’t know what happened to her. I think about her. I don’t know why. Do you have that?”
“That’s funny isn’t it? It was nothing but I still remember it. It’s the best thing I can remember. All the others are kind of…”, he stops, unsure. “Grey, like you said. Like water in a ditch.”
Silence descends. They both look up at the clouds. There are a couple of layers approaching from the east. The lower one, the closest is dark and looks ripped at the edge – like a torn sheet.
“What do you think was the best moment you ever had in your life?”
The cloud is moving rapidly from left to right. There are gulls just east of them and they’re riding stationary in a wind that hasn’t come down to the ground yet. They bank away and chase downwind to turn back into the flow, circling, monitoring the parking lot for scraps.
“I could have told you that a while ago maybe. I don’t know right now. You?”
“Same. There are things I’d like to say, like getting married, having a kid, having a dog, whatever. But they don’t seem big enough now.”
“Here, take this.” The stack of twenties, dangling.
He hesitates. “I don’t want to.”
“You did what I asked, you earned it.”
“I can’t pay it forward.”
“That’s stupid, don’t think about that. That’s a stupid promise. This isn’t about what you can do for somebody else. This is about taking some time to just sit. You need to find a piece of you. I bought your time”, shrugging, “It’s wages.”
The man takes the money and feels its weight in his hand. He slaps it once against his palm.
“I don’t care what you buy with it. I don’t care if you buy a toy for the kid, groceries, or five bottles of scotch. All I know is you can think now, right? You’re not mad anymore.”
“Yeah. I’m done with that I guess. I get pissed off though.”
“He’s just a kid, you know? You remember. I’m sure you know.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“Try to remember this. I guess that’s where I’m going. How did it get so fucked up? Do you remember signing anything that said you would have nothing to save you? No moment to just give up and sit? I can’t. Just sit down. Try to find time to just sit and think. Think about Faye if it helps, or think about your dog.”
“Yeah. OK. I get it. I used to try something like that, but it’s not easy.”
There is a car horn honking over across the parking lot and someone is yelling, “Get in the goddamned car!”
The man with the money stands up and then the water man does the same.
“I should say thanks. And sorry I guess.”
“No need. Don’t be sorry. I’ve been sorry all year. It doesn’t go anywhere.”
“When you spend that, save five bucks and put it somewhere in your wallet. When this happens again, take it out and go buy a bottle of water and just sit down for a while. You should try to do that.”
“Alright. I get it”.
“I have a day to deal with.”
And then they’re driving away on the street into downtown. The traffic has picked up and their progress is slowed by construction and the weight of incidental chores stacked up in other people’s lives, complex, ambulatory and interfering their way down crowded streets.
“What did you say to him?”
“I just told him to take it easy, that’s all. That there was time for him to think.”
“What did you talk about?”
“His dog. My dad.”
He remembers his father, sees a ghost in a pair of whitish khaki pants and a jean shirt in the periphery of his vision.
He suddenly feels embarrassed, puts his hand up to his face as if to shield his eyes from the sun. He’s holding back tears and can’t fathom why.
“I need a coffee. Let’s stop for just a minute, alright?”
“Ok. But we can’t be long.”
There are birds in a tree to his left. Stopped at the light he can see them dart from branch to branch and he thinks that today would be a good day to walk the dog out the bike path and just breathe for a while.