Going down the track, Jack listens to the click and the clack. In his mind there are sunsets and streaming kites, memories, beach things. Jack stares at the wall of the train with a vacancy that borders on stupefaction. It’s not that Jack is bored, or manic, or a sociopath. He’s just the guy who punches tickets and prosecutes offenders. A small man, barely over five feet tall. Thin. Yet he has a look of power, a poise that would be threatening in a man of normal stature. He never touches the railings on the ceiling, and yet he never stumbles, his legs move like a skier’s, easing against the train’s buckling. Going down the track, Jack listens to the click and the clack. Like Coltrane, but out of whack. Like a man who’s taken too much flack. Like a crack shack. Like when you want your baby back. But baby’s moved on down the track, following that click, following that clack.
Jack likes rhythms, yet he has no rhythm. What he has is the ability to rhyme. Thanks to the train he knows a lot of words that rhyme with clack. But sometimes it’s other things. An outsider allowed a brief glimpse inside Jack’s brain would think two things. One, Jack is very into jazz and blues music. Two, Jack is incredibly, impossibly, ridiculously white.
Sometimes when Jack is on the train he stops rhyming and goes back in time. The lurching of the train is good for that, too. Conducive to the disassociate ramblings of an overworked mind. When Jack daydreams he remembers one moment. He doesn’t remember the details, but the feeling of the experience will wash over him and drench him, sometimes for days. The moment is this: Jack is eight years old. He is at China Beach. The sun is out and its saccharine glow lends everything a golden tinge. There are some older boys throwing a football, and they ask Jack to play. When they throw the ball to him he is filled with joy, a simple elation. He feels the soft grit of the sand between his hand and the synthetic leather of the ball, and it is like touching his father’s face at the end of the day. Like it is instinct, he begins to run; he feels swiftness in his blood. His feet rise off the ground; each step threatening to send him into the dusty blue sky.
When the boys gang up on him and tackle him and punch his ribs until they are sore, Jack is crushed. A tear sprints down his cheek, and the boys laugh harder. Jack runs as fast as he can until there is no more beach and he is thrashing into the frigid water. He is toppled, turned and spit back onto the beach, beaten and broken. He lies in a heap on the sand, chest heaving, the salt on his face drying and calcifying his features into a horrible mask of innocent pain. He decides then and there that he will hate everyone forever, that he will never trust anyone. That he will cut a bloody swath through the world, leaving only misery in his wake. Suddenly he is aware of a soft noise in the area outside his pain. He hears bells and sees a man with a cart selling ice cream. He walks toward the sound and when he is within sonic reach, the man behind the cart says hello, smiles, and holds out an ice cream sandwich. The silver semi-metallic paper is cold and covered with condensation. The slightly unpleasant smell of spoiled milk rises from the cart. The man is speaking. That was a nice catch, son. Don’t mind those boys, he says, they’re bad news. And, he says, they can’t catch for shit, anyway. It is the first time Jack has been cursed to. He feels big. Bigger than the beach and the sun and the world. He feels like he is soaring above the beach, disconnected from the sandcastles stuck like dried pickles to the earth’s surface.
Standing in front of his mirror, Jack looks at himself naked. He sees a gut beginning to form. He looks at himself from different angles and is disgusted. He only knows the way he looks now and cannot remember the way he used to look. He has lived every day with himself, immune to the gradual changes that his old friends try to ignore when they see him after an absence of some time. He pokes at his breasts and jiggles his stomach and contemplates suicide, starvation dieting, exercise, abstinence from alcohol. He dismisses each of these without realizing what his dismissal signifies because inside himself he is already gone: Look at you. Fat fucking fuck. Going bald and body run amuck. Driving your old beat up truck. No lady...no lady...no soft, soft mama to fuck. You suck. You fucking schmuck.
But then something will happen, a sweet, benevolent disassociation. Then Jack smiles softly and the rhyme continues: But someday...someday you’ll meet old lady luck. Make a buck. Buy a newer truck. Dine on roasted duck...and, soon enough, Jack will be in the shower, happily rubbing excessive amounts of soap over his stomach without any apparent realization that he was disgusted by its mere existence only moments before. He will float away on a cloud of soap bubbles and simple rhymes, shake his ass like an old black woman, and keep on keepin’ on. This, quite simply, is why Jack is still alive.
In his uniform, Jack still cuts a pretty mean figure. The cheap polyester uni-tayloring hides and disguises. It is on Sunday afternoons, when Jack is sweeping the sidewalk in front of his apartment, t-shirt stained under the arms, khakis hanging off his bony hips, sweat collecting over his belly, his forty-three hairs in revolt, that Jack is seen as he truly exists in the world: one man against ten million leaves. The leaves haunt him and mock him. They are a playground bully. An embarrassment. They are the howling winds and the flashes of lightning that frightened Jack as a child back home in Florida. They are the girls who looked sad and resigned when asked to dance at the Harvest Festival. They are missed job opportunities and sultry looks that are later recognized as intended for someone else. Even at night he can hear them, drifting softly onto the ground, defacing his clean section of sidewalk. The city owns the sidewalk. Jack knows this, but he doesn’t feel that the sidewalk is owned by the city. He feels that the sidewalk is owned by him.
Jack began sweeping the sidewalk when he first moved in. Initially, it was a civic gesture, an affirmation of all that is good and holy in San Francisco. A testament to patience and a less frenetic life. Over the years it became something different. Some people like to drink. Some steal. Some find nice women they are attracted to and then fuck them over. And some rake leaves. The downside is that the leaves became the enemy. They began to torment Jack. Now, bear in mind, Jack never thinks about these things. He thinks only that Sunday is the day he rakes and sweeps. He has no conscious awareness of how important the leaves are to him, or of what they are really doing to him, slowly, without his realizing it.
Amber is in her bathroom waxing, but she can see Jack out the window. This has come to be a Sunday ritual for her. Without knowing it, she has begun to associate Jack with the feeling of intense pain and then release that comes with the application and removal of the hot wax. The face-slap awareness of being alive. She stares, naked, at the sweat running off of Jack’s chin. She is thinking about the drummer she slept with last night, but she is staring at Jack. Jack would give all his money to know this. It would change his life. It would earn him an inch in height. He would stop slouching. He would buy new clothes. He would stop sniffing his fingers after cleaning his ears. He would never fart in a movie theater again. He would sleep the sleep of the beautiful, more restful than the thrashing, drool-covered sleep of the ugly. He would be reborn. Alas, he is aware of nothing except that it is almost time for a new broom.
Amber is the kind of girl that can turn normal men into stalkers. Respectable married men will follow her for blocks because they are hypnotized by her swinging blonde hair, her round ass, her giant breasts barely contained under a shirt that is ready to split its seams at any moment. She is a pin-up drawing come to life. She is sex on heels. She is the woman that every mother fears her son will ‘take up with’. She is carved from marble. Life is easy for her because men adore her and women fear her. Even sensible men, the kind who don’t think they are swayed by appearances choke and stutter when they try to talk to Amber. For this reason, she is a very popular person. Amber doesn’t keep count, but her “friend” Lucy from work does, and in the two years they have worked together, Amber has had sex with 49 men. This makes Lucy feel superior even though she drives a Pinto, is almost comically ugly, and is overweight and nasty to boot.
Giacento works as a parking security specialist at Long’s Drugs. His English is sometimes spotty, undoubtedly a result of the sticky covering of THC resin which coats his brain. Also, he was born in Italy, grew up speaking Italian, and has only lived in the U.S. for a few years. But the weed doesn’t help either.
It is Giacento’s job to place a ticket under the windshield wiper of each car that enters his parking lot. Assuming that relatively the same group of people frequent the neighborhood druggist, and assuming that Giacento speaks to each patron for an average of 30 seconds per visit, and remembering that Giacento’s brain is fairly constantly under the influence of Northern California’s finer strains of Cannabis Sativa, it is easy enough to understand that Giacento is involved in roughly 500 revolving conversations that never, in his drug-addled mind, reach any kind of resolution. Jack understands this. On some level he respects it. And for some reason, Giacento has taken a special liking to Jack (although he believes him to be two distinct people, which complicates their interactions). Like this:
“Hey Giacento, how’s the parking game?”
“Excellent, my friend. How is you parakeet; still with the coughing?”
“I don’t have a parakeet Giacento. I drive the black pickup, remember?”
“Oh yes, but you have other car...Toyota?”
“No Giacento, that’s the other guy.”
“But you are big fan of basketball, yes? You like to watch the game, eh?”
“Not really Giacento...I don’t care for sports much.”
“You are not for real!”
“I’m telling you the truth Giacento.”
“Oh, of course, you are with the leaves!”
“Yeah, that’s right, I am with the leaves.”
“Oh, che stupido. I am sorry, my friend. This man, he looks just like you.”
As Giacento runs to ticket the next car he is apt to offer an equally nonsensical farewell:
“Good luck with the new job my friend! Tell Antonio that his bicycle is still at my house.”
Jack may or may not try explaining to the departing Italian that he has held the same job for eleven years, does not know anyone named Antonio, and that he drives a truck, his only vehicle. Somewhere, he is sure, there is a bald, slightly overweight man with a sick bird, trying to learn the ins and outs of his new place of employment, all while his friend Antonio is constantly hounding him about the bike, the bike, the goddamn bike. This, in itself, makes Jack feel a little better about his life. Then he remembers that the leaves are still winning. He walks away chanting: Bike, bike, goddamn bike, if I had one I’d never hike, I just can’t find a style I like.
Amber never notices Giacento because, although he is very attractive, he is obviously quite poor. But Giacento notices Amber. Every inch of her. So does Jack’s doppelganger. Giacento is currently involved in a conversation with him:
“Hello my friend, it is time for you new broom?”
“You new broom my friend. For the...how you say...tree pieces?”
“I think you’re thinking of the other guy.”
“You drive truck?”
“No, I wish. Right now I ain’t driving nothing cause my piece of shit Toy-ota is in the fucking garage.”
“Oh, I’m sorry my friend. This other man, he looks just like you.”
“Are you telling me that there is someone this good looking walking around besides me?”
“That’s right, my friend.”
“You should tell him to meet me here. I’ll kick his ass.”
“I’m just kidding, dude. Hey, will you hold this birdseed a second. Thanks. Say, you know that blonde that comes here. The one with the body out to Berkeley and back?”
“Yeah. I know her, man. She only wants the money boys. Big...how you say...prostitute.”
The next time that ‘Not Jack’ and Amber are at the store together Amber is wearing a pink sun dress and big white sunglasses. Not-Jack works up all his courage.
“Excuse me...Miss...I was ah...interested...ah...in your services. The dude in the parking lot told me everything.”
“I just mean I’m interested, you know?”
“Do you mean what I think you mean?”
“Uh...I think so, how much?”
“Fuck you asshole. You fucking bastard. Security! Security!”
Luckily for the rapidly retreating Not-Jack and for this story, Amber is wearing sunglasses because she has just returned from having her pupils dilated. All she can tell the security guard is that the guy was white and mentioned a “dude in the parking lot”.
When questioned by the rent-a-cop security guard, Giacento suavely replies, “We got those donuts you like back in, Chief. Park in the handicapped is fine my friend.”
It is Sunday afternoon, and the sunlight does a silent dance on the gleaming dome of Jack’s head. Today he is using the rake. With each satisfying rip of the metal prongs against the sidewalk, Amber’s hypnosis deepens. Her breathing is shallow and labored. She is transfixed, incapable of looking away or of processing anything other than the vision before her. The bald head. The scrape of the rake. She feels her body become weightless and ascend into the air, she has the momentary sensation that she is floating before she is snapped back into reality. She collapses on the bathroom floor with an involuntary groan.
Jack does not hear Amber fall, and rakes on, oblivious. The birds in the trees hear but do not care. It is another noise, nothing more. Fifteen minutes pass before Jack feels that he can stop raking. The twenty-five feet of sidewalk in front of his apartment building are free from leaves, gum wrappers, pieces of newspaper, political campaign ads, and one condom wrapper. Jack feels at peace. The sun drapes an arm across his shoulders like a comforting baseball coach. Game well played, son. You showed a lot of heart out there.
Jack looks around him at the faded Victorians. The sounds of the Mission are soothing. In the distance, Jack can hear dogs barking. He hears engines and arguments. In his mind, he is rhyming nothing. He is totally in the moment. He feels the distant oompa polka beat of banda music blasting from bass-heavy car stereos on Mission Street. This is Jack’s neighborhood. It is a part of him now, and he is a part of it. A man stops on the street and thanks Jack for always sweeping the sidewalk. He is short and slight with big, black-framed glasses and a placid demeanor. He is earnest and shy. Jack tells him it is no problem, and he shuffles awkwardly for a moment before heading for the building next door. Minutes later Jack hears the sound of a distorted guitar coming from the building. Usually, distortion strikes Jack as a corruption, but today it is sweet. The rough sandpaper sound smoothes everything it touches, refinishes it, shellacs it. Jack looks up at the building and sees the guy with the glasses playing and looking out the window. Their eyes meet, and neither of them looks away for several seconds. It is Sunday. The sun falls on the Mission like a blessing, and they both feel its redemption. The leaves all stay attached to their respective trees.
Here is something that no one knows about Amber. Her passion, her reason for living, is to knit. She knits scarves and hats. She knits sweaters and shawls and afghans. She keeps little of what she makes. Most of it she gives away, as presents, or to Goodwill. Sometimes she sees a homeless woman wearing something she has made and it makes her happy, but the main thing is the knitting itself. You see, Amber is one of those incredibly unhappy people who thinks she couldn’t be happier. She is never visibly depressed. She thinks she is like everyone else. She is getting by. She wishes for more money, but has enough. Sometimes she is lonely, but that’s how Amber expected to be as an adult. Normally, she’s all right. But, when she starts to get too morose, when she wants to call a friend or take in a movie, and realizes that she hasn’t anyone to call, she picks up her needles and closes her mind. Hours later her brain is calm, and she is modeling a brand new caftan in the mirror.
Giacento lives above a bakery. It is a noisy apartment, but it smells like home. People always remark how nice it must be to live over a bakery and Giacento tells them that, yes, it smells just like Italy. What he doesn’t say is that Italy smells like a combination of yeast, sweat, and ammonia, and that the smell was much of the reason he left. On the walls of his apartment, Giacento keeps posters. They are apparently acquired and hung without much active thought on his part. There are one or two soccer posters, a Giants poster, some posters with girls in bikinis, some beer posters, some beer posters with pictures of girls in bikinis, a few bills for local theater productions, an Alf poster, and several posters which encourage youth literacy. They are in varying states of disrepair and attached at the corners by duct tape. There is also a clock that perpetually reads 7:30 which, ironically, is the time when Giacento has to be at work, although he always rises naturally at sunup and hasn’t touched the clock since he found it on the steps and hung it without adjusting its prophetic hands. The rest of the apartment is empty except for a mattress on the floor and a chair beside a table crowned with a reading lamp.
Giacento, like many stoners, is a little foggy on the details of life. Where he left his car, for instance. When he moved to the U.S., Giacento bought an old Buick, but within weeks, and after switching from hash to marijuana, he simply could not find it. The passage of time is not a clear thing in Giacento’s mind. He knows that he has been in this country for ‘a while’, but he does not know that it has been three years. If you told him that he has been here for three years, he would be shocked that it has been so long. If you told him this at a different time he would be staggered by how quickly the time has passed, like an afternoon spent making love.
Giacento smokes weed because he started it. It has been the modus operandi of his life that once Giacento starts something, he does not stop. He drank his first glass of beer when he was nine and quickly took on wine and liquor. He began smoking cigarettes at age twelve and never looked back. At fourteen he smoked hash and then smoked every day that he or someone he knew had some, which was most days. And when he moved to America and realized that hash was a rarity and expensive, he switched to pot and soon enough provided the dealer next door with the means to purchase a Vespa and a computer. Sometimes Giacento earns weed by selling it while he works, but he often has to pay for it himself. He is not a businessman. Money does not move him. Few things do.
Giacento is one of those poor, charming, attractive guys who has no trouble getting laid. There is usually some older married or divorced woman giving him the eye. He does not have relationships. He doesn’t want them, and the women he sleeps with do not expect them because he is Italian. So, he starts sleeping with them and then within weeks it is over and he will see the woman at the grocery store and she will say ‘hello’ like an old friend and it will be fine, not awkward. But Giacento will feel lonely. Then he will go home and get his bong from under the sink, or roll a joint, and he will smoke and forget.
It is Sunday afternoon and the intensity of Amber’s gaze threatens to peel Jack’s skull open. She watches the man, hears the rake. But, what has been merely a focal point for so long is now something more. Amber feels the change wash over her like an unpleasant chill, the feeling you get when you almost remember something that disturbs you, but then it slips away. She knows that something has happened that will change everything. She feels tenderness and is shocked by it. She suddenly wishes to be close enough to wipe the sweat from Jack’s damp brow. She wants to lie with his head pressed against her bosom. She wants to wrap him up and protect him. She wants to feel his goodness, to feel protected herself. She wants to feel vulnerable. To be the rabbit and not the hawk.
Amber is shocked by this. Why now? Why him? She does not immediately recognize that he has something that is hard to find. A soft and quiet dignity. It reminds her of someone, and the realization takes her breath away. The rush of memories resurfacing is like a storm wave demolishing a pier. Images flash through her mind; snapshots of the one other place she has seen this dignity before. It is the first time in years that she has even thought about her father. Amber used to watch her father at work, it was about the only interaction they had for the few short years he was at home. Everyone else at the co-op just threw the groceries in the bag, but he did it right. And Amber loved to watch him. What would take three bags for most of the baggers would fill only one of his. He put in cans, soap, candles, tuna fish, toilet paper, eggs, and finally bread like he was fitting together a puzzle. When Amber was eight her dad went back into jail. When she was nine he was raped in a shower and died of the injuries he sustained trying to fight off his attackers. For a long time Amber missed the feeling she got watching her father bag groceries. He was an ex-con, just like the others, but different in some way. He didn’t look for shortcuts. He did his job with...well, feeling.
A tear rolls down Amber’s cheek as Jack trades the rake for the broom.
A week has passed. The Mission is coated in caramel sunlight. It drips from the branches, explodes off the faded Victorians and settles with dignity among the trash in the gutters.
Jack turns suddenly, snapped out of his reverie. He has spent too long with the leaves, and it takes his eyes a moment to adjust to a human form. When they do adjust, Jack sees this: a beautiful woman, tall, blonde, dressed in a simple black dress and small black shoes whose flat soles put her eyes a few inches above his. Jack is, quite simply, speechless. Not in a colloquial way, but rather utterly devoid of words.
“My name’s Amber...I live next door.”
Jack clears his throat violently and almost chokes.
“I’m Jack,” he manages to stutter.
For both of them time seems to stop at this moment. For Jack, it is a cessation born of complete inner turmoil. This is one of those masturbation moments. In the privacy of his room all of this would make sense. The woman would drop her dress, and they would embrace. They would sail right past conversation and foreplay to a brief but intense copulation ending in simultaneous orgasms that would leave them breathless and spent. And then Jack would button his pants and go about his life. In reality Jack does not know what to do. He feels every awkward second pulling them apart. He is frozen. He is a kid again, being chased in his dreams by a gnarled old man, unable to escape or call out. He is at bat, with the bases loaded, two outs, knowing with absolute certainty that he will miss the pitch by a mile, his pants will fall down, he will piss himself, the girls in the stands will laugh, the oranges after the game will taste bitter and rotten. Soft and ineffectual. His brain is screaming. Say something! Fucking say something you dumb bastard!
For Amber this is something totally new, and it is her discomfort that halts time. In a bar, with a drunken, aging frat boy, or backstage with a sweaty, apathetic drummer it would be easier. The rules would be clear. Push your breasts out when their eyes begin to drift. Giggle at the right time. Appear interested. Ignore the drunken banality of their rambling conversation. It would be like checkers. But this is different. This man is saying nothing; just staring deadlock scared into her eyes. Amber wants to run. Instead, she laughs, and to her great relief Jack laughs too. Later at the coffee shop, the conversation flows more easily. Amber finds herself opening up, and Jack is surprised to remember that he is funny. The hours pass and it is closing time before either realizes it. They stop off for burritos on the way home. The goodbye in front of their building is awkward, but in a good way.
It is a week before they kiss, and a month before they share a bed. Amber initiates both advances. She goes with Jack to buy condoms. Giacento is so surprised to see them together that he almost sobers up:
“It looks to me like the air is full of love, my friends.”
“Hey Giacento. How’s the parking game?”
“It is good my friend. But I thought you moved away, you were here last week to get all the boxes and the whacking tape.”
“Packing tape. That was the other guy Giacento, I’m not going anywhere.”
“Ahh, you must stay with the heart, yes?”
“Uh...so, the other guy left, huh?”
“Oh yes, the police look for him my friend. Serenading prostitution. You never know, eh?”
“That’s right, you never know.”
“Who will drive the trains and pick up the broken trees now?”
“Who indeed. Goodbye Giacento.”
“Goodbye my friend. Goodbye to the lady. Your heart flies free like the parakeet today, no?”
It is Sunday afternoon and the sidewalk in front of Jack’s apartment is covered in a soft, rustling blanket of leaves. The rake and the broom are in the closet of Jack’s spartan kitchen. They are connected, leaning against each other, secure within their camouflage of delicate, dangling cobwebs. There are few people who notice the leaves on the sidewalk. Fewer still who remember that it wasn’t always this way. Few who miss the battle which Jack waged for years. The man with the guitar was concerned at first, but after seeing Jack and Amber together he is jealous and sad. That special emotional cocktail that children usually have the patent on.
In the bedroom of his apartment, Jack and Amber are lying on the bed. They have spent their Sundays this way for almost a year now. They are talking of marriage. Amber’s period is late, but they are not concerned, they both want kids and are looking to the future. It is a peaceful day in the Mission; there are children playing in the alley, and a strong breeze whips the trees at the top of Bernal Hill. Jack has the communal feeling that he is not alone in his tranquility, that all over his neighborhood people are curled together in embraces or clutching cold bottles of beer as the smoke from a barbecue becomes thinner, tendrils licking the smell of Sunday across the rooftops. The banda music from the trucks in the alley complements the soft breeze through his window. Amber is nestled between Jack’s arm and his torso, his fingers gently stroking her arm. Amber is asleep, but Jack is happily awake. His brain is quiet. He does not hear the leaves outside, and he has long run out of words that rhyme with love.