Two men are walking, side by side. The smaller one is lightly holding the other’s backpack strap. Just that.
Archive for September, 2009
Up at the counter, the coffee girl is talking to a guy who used to work there. I walk up just as she’s asking him, “How are the women in your life?”
“Whoa, I’m not sure how to answer that.”
I turn to him, we’ve always had some banter. “Got a lot of sisters?”
He laughs. “That’s a good one. Nice work.”
He steps back a little and glances at the coffee girl’s back, she’s fussing over the espresso machine. “I’ve got a few women who probably wish they were related to me so I’d stop bothering them sexually.”
“Ok, that’s just weird.”
“Yeah, like many things, it sounded better in my head.”
When last I saw him he was baking in the hot sun, and his browned skin put me in mind of death. Now, as if revived by the chill air, he’s back in front of the far-corner bodega.
“Good luck to the peoples,” he says as I approach.
“Haven’t seen you here in a while, where’ve you been?” This may be the first complete sentence I’ve ever spoken to him. He’s always seemed one of those who’s better not encouraged.
He tips his gnarl-haired head sideways, it’s every animal’s gesture of harmlessness. Then he rights himself. “Got a quarter for a cigarette?”
He’s never asked me for anything in all these years. I dig in my pocket and hand him a shiny coin. “But where were you?” Now we have a transaction going, I’m thinking.
He looks askance again, and then all around him, as though a secret is coming the sidewalks can’t keep. “Good luck to the red lady,” he says, nodding at the air in front of him. I wait while a few people slip past me into the bodega.
He turns and looks me in the eye, takes a sip from his paper bag. “Good luck muchacha roja. No English. Good luck to the ladies and the gentlemen.”
Overnight the bodega is gone. Now it’s just two walls, a foundation, and a column holding up the rest. I peek in as I’m walking by, and a small man steps out of the dim interior onto the sidewalk. He’s got his white dust mask down around his neck and one hand on his chest.
“You are my heart,” he says in a melodious accent I can’t place. I laugh, this is nothing new.
He smiles and pats his chest. “Do you want to be my heart?”
“I’m somebody else’s heart,” I tell him.
“Are you sure?” he asks as I pass by. Over my shoulder I hear the laughter of a handful of men ringing out from the darkness at the back of the bodega’s shell. I turn and see the man disappear into the shadows.
I can’t tell if they’re laughing at him or at me, and either way, I don’t like it. I feel the space where the bodega used to be fading from the map of what counts as my neighborhood.
His stiff, thick mustache has to be fake. Her ankles are almost too spindly to support her and her hair is dyed, it’s dry and frayed, the color of damp straw. Their accents are slavic and nonspecific. It’s all an illusion. They lean over their elbows on the table, heads bent close. I think they are plotting a heist.
What’s here this morning is an absence. The thin, grizzly drunk who occupies this corner or that one, and nobody pays him mind. He’s out there all day, in every season, his skin has thickened and tanned deeply by consequence. He sits and stands and sometimes drinks from a paper bag. When people pass by he slurs pleasantly, “God bless the peoples and the gentlemen and the ladies.” I realized at some point the blanket blessing came on account of his vision being too glazed to tell the difference. Sometimes he had fresh clothes, and other times they seemed stiffened and layered like the skin itself. Once he must have stepped outside the bounds that render him harmless; I saw some cops come pick him up. But when he slept on the quiet sidewalk around the corner, he blended in with the weeds sprouting between the sidewalk cracks, the dumpster that gave him shade.
You see, I’ve switched to the past tense. The thing is, the last time I saw him was a day of punishing heat, and he was curled and sprawled on the sidewalk in full sun, as if the body hadn’t the tension to maintain the sheltering tuck. I saw that he was breathing and left him alone. He had been the wanderer of a three block radius for years, looking always as though he existed at the edge between death and life, hollowed and overgrown. Why at this one moment would I interfere? A few other people passed by, paused to wait for the slowly moving chest, and walked on.
Now that I don’t see him around, I’m thinking back to that moment in the sun, to how severely dark his face was, darker than any tan an outdoor existence could produce. It was the darkness of the body dying, of systems shutting down.
I want to ask someone what happened. I don’t know who to ask.
He’s from Cairo, and mostly what I can see from the back seat is the gorgeous brown of his bald head. He’s been here eleven years. “I won the lottery,” he tells me.
“Really?” I ask, looking around at the dingy cab.
“The other lottery. The green card, not the green money.”
Now he lives in a Portuguese neighborhood. “Their food,” he says. “Everything they do on a grill is so good, beautiful. And near me is a pizza guy, so good all the cars double park outside and make everybody mad. So thin crust.”
“You’re making me hungry,” I say, and he turns around with the most pitiful hangdog eyes. I’m startled, and then all the sudden I get it. It’s Ramadan. “How long until sunset?”
“So you’re just making yourself hungry until then?”
“Talking is ok. I can talk, I just can’t eat. But maybe you have a point. So, no more food. What do you do?”
“I make ads. For the internet. You know how when you read the newspaper there’s this annoying thing off to the side?”
He’s laughing. “The flashing things. You get paid to annoy people?”
“Yes,” I say. “I get paid to annoy people.”
“At least you better make it funny. You make it funny, right?”