Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Spirits

           They come and go as they choose, but prefer the cover of darkness.  Red eyes and skin stretched bow-string taught across their gaunt, yellow faces.  They peer out from oblivion; they are snatches of mist and fog.  Wisps of air that melt into shadow.  They are often formless, but they can appear in many forms.  They are reflections of the past, glimpses into lives long turned to dust.  They are unpredictable.  They torment me.  They are full of lust, weakness, hunger…they lie in wait.  They lie about many things.
            I often fold myself into blanket straightjackets and listen to them claw against the drywall.  I picture old yellowed claws.  Raw, red cuticles torn into torrents of thin, sickly blood.  They rarely speak.  They use my own thoughts against me.  It wasn’t always this way.  It is the fear.  They feed off of the fear.  When I am strong, they are a whisper…a soft lurching in the shadows.  When I am weak, they cackle as the walls draw closer, forcing me further inside myself where I can feel their sharp teeth inside my rotten flesh.  There is help and hope…this is what I have been told.  By honey-tongued dreamers full of God and good intentions.  I try to be kind.  They don’t understand.
            The daytime is often bearable.  Sometimes even pleasant.  There are afternoons spent in the great expanse of green fields, eyes closed red and veined, veiled against the brilliant sun.  It is the nighttime.  It comes suddenly.  Twitches and jumps inside my mind that tell me they are lurking.  I hear their voices.  Vague screeching and whistles.  Am I honest with myself?  Sometimes.  Sometimes, I can look them in the eye.  They cannot stand the confrontation.  They cannot abide my strength.  But too often, I am weak.  And the weakness begets more weakness.  They slip in through the cracks of my resolve and I hear my heart pound, feel the sweat break out on my forehead; I twist the blankets around myself. 
            Ignore them.  It is easy for you to say.  It is easy for you to use fiction as a shield.  To wrap yourself in velvet myth.  It is easy for you to say that it will get easier as the days pass.  You don’t know the first fucking thing about it.  And it doesn’t matter if it is “real” or if it is “all in my head” because the things in my head are real.  You don’t understand this.  They understand, and that is their power. 
            The walls pulse and throb, and sometimes, I must leave.  Go someplace.  Some well lit place.  The drug store.  The grocery store.  But I feel people’s eyes on me and it is almost as hard to bear.
            I have been marked.  I do not know what the mark looks like.  I do not know where it resides.  If I did know, I would carve it from my flesh.  I would dig it out with tweezers and razor blades.  I would burn the skin until all that remains is a thick roped scar.  No, the mark is something subtle.  You see it.  I feel it.  They put it there, and I can sense it in the night. 

            It wasn’t always this way.  I used to be a dancer.  I used to slip through the corridors of life, unstoppable.  Now, my feet are bound, but it was not always so.  It was a gradual descent.  They came slowly.  I remember.
            I remember days spent laughing and feeling a sickening power inside myself.  Feeling like all the world was mine.  One giant red apple waiting to be plucked and devoured.  First kisses and passionate glances.  I had these things.  I can still taste them.  I was a monolith.  I was a fortress.  They bolstered me because I reveled in their wrath.  But years pass, and feelings decay…erosion is an unstoppable force.  Allies turn against you.  When I first saw them, red eyed and wistful, they amused me.  They were something to pit my strength against.  The idea that they could turn the tables never occurred to me.  But that is exactly what they did.  Not suddenly.  No, it was a campaign fought over years and years.  They were patient.  I was not.  And perhaps that is how I began to lose the war. 

            Oh, don’t be fooled by my revulsion.  I courted them.  Actively.  They were my ace in the hole.  They made me powerful because I could avidly stare while others averted their eyes…pretended at innocence.  That was the seduction.  I invited them in, and they buoyed me.  Together we sailed over rooftops and laughed in the very face of reason.  And then they gradually began to snatch at power.  One tiny piece at a time until I was clearly the hunted and no one cared what I had to say.  They lived with me, not with other people, so really, why should anyone care?
            That is the ugliness I live with.  This is the hell of my own making.  My brain is wrapped in barbed wire that, every day, is cinched tighter and tighter.  Yes, we lived in a kind of symbiotic nightmare.  Devil and vampires.  Yes, I stole from them as they stole from me.  We were parasites.  I knew the fire I was playing with.  But the fire illuminated the darkness that had ruled for so long.  Deals were struck.  Negotiations played out.  I traded a part of myself…they accepted readily.  They stroked the cheek of my rare suspicions.  I defied the world.
            One day, the turn came, and it was too late.  Too many nights spent huddled inside my mind.  The walls closing in.  It is a nice cliché.  But it is anything but nice when it is actually happening.  And that was how it started.  The world became too small.  I bumped my head and knocked my elbows.  I could not navigate.  I had become a separate thing.  I was not part of anything.  I did not eat.  I slept when the rest of the world was awake and I woke when the darkness came.  And they were waiting for me, flitting back and forth behind my eyelids, gossamer confusion, shadows, piercing hate and horror.  Sliding down the walls to collect in laughing puddles on the floor.  They shone with a ferocious abandon.  They were important.  They were my allies.  They convinced me, even as I knew that they were feeding off me, that I was becoming like them. 

            As a small boy, I had an imaginary friend.  That is what the adults said.  They were incorrect.  He was not imaginary.  He was as real as I was.  Perhaps more so, because I knew that he existed, whereas he ignored me.  I do not mean that he was flesh and blood.  I am not a simpleton.  I mean that he and I were one and also distinct.  I worshipped him.  He was not afraid of school.  Not afraid of bullies.  He got me into trouble, but I loved him. 
            We grew apart.  He was cast off with other childish trifles.  Things that held no value in the eyes of the world, but meant everything to me.  But I did as I was supposed to do.  I relinquished my control.  I allowed myself to be guided.

            I am a coward.  I am a thief.  I am a braggart.  I have accepted my sentence.  I deserve all of this and more.  I have sold my soul.  Or whatever it was that made me.  I have tarnished myself.  And I have been tarnished.  I give in to them because it is easier than taking a stand.  Because, in my surrender, there will be one brief moment of peace.  And that moment is worth a million nights of terror.  A million nights of smoking cigarette after cigarette as the room shrinks around me.  I hate them, but I will dance with them, embrace them, placate them…because it is useless to fight.  Pointless to resist. 
            It is all soaked in blood.  Drenched.  This life.  My clothes.  I wake with the taste of it in my mouth.  With teeth clenched and jaw throbbing.  I feel the sticky ooze in my ears and I am blinded by the sanguine film on my eyes.  Their song is horrifying and beautiful.  It is like nothing you have ever heard.  It is a siren song which washes me up upon the shores of my own indifference.  I crash because, even in their repugnancy, they are almost angelic.  Because they are terrible and beautiful.  Because the fear they bring is an emotion so pure that it forces everything else out.  Who has use for happiness?  For laughter?  For friendship?  For watered down, ambivalent life?  How can one settle for this when they can choose that beautiful terror?  It is stronger than love.  It is palpable.  My heart races and my muscles ache.  There is some part of me, always, that whispers warnings, dire, into my ears.  There is part of me that wants to dive into the pool of blood, to drink it in and feel alive.  You don’t understand this.

            I find myself hiding in the periphery.  I beg them to leave me be.  I make promises that I know will never come to fruition.  I am willing to do anything.  They sway like satin curtains in a summer breeze.  They brush against my damp cheeks.  They sweep the wet hair from my eyes.  Tonight, I must appease them.  I let them feed.  I open myself to their hunger.  I feel warmth throughout my body.  I sink back and let my mind go blank.  I am offered soothing images.  I take voyages through time.  I visit the world I used to know.  I soar across the barren trees of winter night.  I gaze inside yellow windows at the banality of “life”.  I am distracted by the flickering of a million televisions.  But it does not matter.  I can stay up where no one can touch me.  I know, in the back of my mind, what awaits me.  I know that I will soon be back, wrapped in blankets, full of fear, cowering from the ghosts of retribution.  But it is a small knowledge when compared with the greater understanding I have achieved. 
            They wait for me as they wait for all of us.  It is a simple matter of recognition.  I have decided to stop running.  I accept my lot in life.  I accept it all.  The fluid simplicity of abandon.  It has trapped me and made me free.  I would not trade it for anything.  I would not go back.  Even if I could.  


            The concrete was cool against the side of my face.  That cold stone feeling.  It flashed on a thousand memories: the heft of a rock too big to skip, the feeling of too many gravestones, too many hours spent tracing the names of people who had lived before me.  Our house backed onto a graveyard.  We spent hours there, my sister and I, playing, pretending we weren’t scared.  Our house was brick and on hot, summer days, I would lean against the shaded side of the house.  The bricks were cool and smooth.  The concrete was not smooth.   It was uncomfortable.  But that was the way it was supposed to be.  Rebellion is not supposed to be easy.
            “This sucks.”
            My sister sighed a deep, soul cleansing sigh.  At ten years old, she was four years my senior and an expert in everything. 
            “We ran away, doofus.  It’s not supposed to be a vacation.  Don’t worry.  What do you want to do, go back and live with them?”
            I shook my head.  No way we were going back.  Ever.  We had a box of cookies and a thermos full of water and the future was opaque and exciting. 
            “How long are we going to hide here?”
            “Until it gets dark.  Then we’ll make our move.  Stop asking questions.”
            I put a cookie in my mouth and chewed it slowly.  We were lying underneath a big, gray van.  I had never seen the underside of a car before.  It was surprisingly complicated and simple at the same time.  It was dirty, and that seemed right, too.  We were warriors now.  Life was supposed to be hard.  It was the path we had chosen.

            The summer was almost over, and the proverbial last straw had crippled the camel.  It had been an unfair summer.  First, the move.  Not that it was the first time.  But it was the first time I had realized that it hurt.  I didn’t know any kids except my sister.  And she was usually buried inside some book, pulling the words around her like a shroud.  Closing out the world, including me.  I didn’t blame her for it, but I was tired of being lonely.  I was tired of making up games to play by myself in the back yard.  I was tired of besting my record for juggling a soccer ball.  There were no more pranks to play, at least none that could be laughed off. 
            With effort, I rolled onto my back.  I was rewarded with a shower of rust.  I squinted and blinked my eyes clear.  I lay quietly, making shapes and characters out of the patterns of rust decay.  I was silent for as long as I could stand it…about four minutes.
            “Beth?  Why are we running away?”
            “Because we refuse to live under tyranny, Dan.  Because we are people.  Just because we’re kids, that doesn’t change the fact that we have certain enviable rights.  It says so in the constitution.”
            I rolled this around in my head.  I had no idea what she was talking about, but that was pretty normal.  My sister was the smartest person I knew.  And I got the idea.  Fair.  It wasn’t fair.  And we hadn’t lived enough to realize that fair is a largely malleable concept.
            Beth was reading a book (big surprise), so I lay on my back and closed my eyes.  I tried to think about nothing, but my mind kept returning to the past.  At one time, everything had been perfect.  Family dinners had been the highlight of the day.  We’d tell jokes and talk about things I didn’t understand…but that didn’t matter.  I was used to that.  I just liked the sound of the big words.  My family was not one particularly made for small children.  I was constantly being complimented by teachers on my large vocabulary.  They didn’t understand that a large vocabulary was a necessity at my house.  Even with one, I was lost most of the time.  My parents loved to read as much as my sister.  I liked reading, but not as much as I liked playing soccer or setting things on fire. 
            I especially liked to set things on fire.  I always carried matches and lighters and fireworks if I had them.  But I rarely did.  I sprayed WD-40 on brick and set it on fire.  I wrote my name and the few curse words I knew.  I drew pictures.   Ephemeral artwork.  Gone in seconds.  I left sooty marks around town.  I stole cigarettes from ashtrays and pretended I was going to smoke them.  It was more fun when there was an audience.  Now my friends were a million miles away.  And I was under a van.  Waiting until it was time to move on.  Ready to sleep in old abandoned freight train cars.  Ready to start a whole new life.

            “Beth, I’m getting cold.”
            “It’s only been an hour, Dan.  Don’t be such a dope.  Do you want me to run away by myself?  Maybe I should.  I mean, you aren’t exactly exhibiting…”
            “No!  No, I want to go.  It’s not that cold.  Sorry.”
            “Dan…you need to prepare yourself for what is about to happen.  It’s not going to be all Boxcar Children.  Allright?  It’s going to be a lot more like Hatchet.
            “You mean we’re going to starve and get attacked by bears???”
            “No dummy.  We’re not going to get attacked by bears.  And we aren’t going to starve.  We might get a little hungry from time to time.  I still need to work out a lot of the plan.  It’s complicated, you know.”
            “I know.”
            “And I’m older than you, so you’re just going to have to trust me.”

            I did trust my sister.  Always.  She was my defender.  We were a few years from becoming competitors.  Sometimes I felt like I had two mothers.  But that wasn’t such a terrible feeling.  There are a lot worse things than having two mothers.  At the last school there was a kid in my class whose mother was dead.  I didn’t know him well.  But there was something about him…like some part inside of him had broken.  Or been bent.  He was unpredictable and angry.  I tried to keep my distance.  And I accepted absolutely that two mothers is better than no mothers at all.
            The truth was that my resolve was starting to weaken.  I couldn’t even remember what my parents had done that had made us angry enough to leave.  It must have been bad.  But if it was so bad, why couldn’t I remember?  I wanted to ask Beth, but I knew I shouldn’t.  She would know that my heart wasn’t in it.  She would know I was weak, and above all else I didn’t want her to know that I was weak.  Because I was.

            Once, when we were younger, we were playing at a park.  It was just my sister and me.  We played on the swings and then we got lost inside our imaginations.  And then, out of nowhere a rock hit me on the side of the face and someone laughed.  We looked out into the woods and saw a group of older kids smoking and laughing.  My sister told me to ignore them, but the rocks kept coming.  And then something amazing happened.  My sister transformed from a quiet, reliable, bookwormy older sister.  She became fury and it was both exhilarating and terrifying to see.  She grabbed a handful of rocks.
            The scream was from deep inside her somewhere.  It was an animal noise.  It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  And then she was throwing the rocks like hand grenades.  At first the older kids laughed harder, but soon they were yelling.  Then running.  I was confused.  Trying not to cry.  My sister turned around and her eyes were murder.  Her face was mangled with rage.  Even then, I understood that it was not about those kids.  It was not about that day.  And I realized that moving hurt my sister even more than it hurt me.  And I decided that someday I would make it up to her.  I just didn’t know how yet.
            In hindsight, it was a very strange time to be a kid.  It was a time of posters and slogans and Police officers burning cheap dirt weed in our classrooms.  Passing around boxes with glass tops…boxes filled with pills and powders and temporary tattoos.  There were razor blades in our Halloween candy.  There were hypodermic needles stuck in the backs of movie theater seats.  There was a new disease that was killing like a plague, but we never talked about it.  Instead we talked about how some kid from my class was going to make me do drugs with him.  How I would turn to a life of crime.  Steal my parents VCR.  End up broke and dying of some disease that no one ever talked about.  It all seems stupid now, but I was scared.  I didn’t want to “do pot”.  I didn’t want to put on a temporary tattoo and go crazy.  It would be years before I was hoping that someone would try to force free drugs on me.  It would be several years after that that I realized that it didn’t work that way.  And several years after that that I realized the damage Nancy Reagan had done convincing us that ALL drugs were evil.  Once I figured out that weed was safe, there was no stopping me.  And by the time I was sitting in an empty apartment, hugging my knees and trying not to cry…waiting for my nose to start bleeding again because at least it would be a diversion…it was too late.  By then, it was all kind of hazy, but I realized what the propaganda and fear-mongering had accomplished.  With me.  With all my friends.  And I wondered if Nancy Reagan knew.  And I hated her for it.  But that was all in the murky future.  I was still a scared kid.  Scared of being beat up.  And, thanks to Nancy Reagan, scared that I was one step away from robbing liquor stores to buy heroin. 
            Kids have no frame of reference.  That’s the problem.  And it would not be oversimplifying things to say that Beth was my frame of reference.  I accepted everything she said absolutely.  And she was usually right.  And that was how I ended up underneath a van trying to stay completely still so I could avoid the rust showers.

            “Yeah, kiddo?”
            “Do you remember when Aunt Rita died?”
            “Did it make you sad?”
            “Yeah, it made me sad.”
            I felt the tears starting.  I cried too much.  It was one of the things I hated about myself.
            “I wasn’t sad, Beth.  I wanted to be.  I tried to be sad.  But I just didn’t feel sad.”
            “That’s okay, Dan.”
            “NO IT’S NOT!  I should have felt sad.  Everyone else felt sad.”
            I felt my sisters hand squeezing mine and realized that I was sobbing.
            “Danno, it’s OK.  You barely knew her.  You only met her once.”
            “That doesn’t matter…she was family.  Everyone cried except me.  And I cry all the time.  So, why didn’t I cry?”
            “Kiddo, calm down.  Breathe.  I’ll tell you a secret.  Not everyone was sad.  And there was no reason for you to be sad.  No one thought it was weird.  You’re a kid.  And you barely knew the lady.  The only reason I was sad was because Mom was sad.”
            My eyes burned, tears washing away the last of the rust particles.
            “Yeah, kiddo?”
            “Do you think Mom and Dad will ever let us get a dog?”
            “Because we move all the time.  Because Mom doesn’t like dogs.  But it doesn’t matter.  After we run away we’ll get a dog.  He’ll help protect us.”
            “Can I name him?”
            “Cool, then we’ll call him Aunt Rita.  So we never forget.”
            “I’ll name the dog, OK?”

            It’s funny the things you remember.  I can’t remember my first kiss.  I can’t remember the first goal I scored in a soccer game.  I remember laying under the van like it was yesterday.  I remember the taste of Nilla Wafers in my mouth.  I remember the rust.  I remember watching the sun move across the sky via the shifting shadows of the van and the glimpse of the world we had from underneath it.  I remember watching a beetle for a really long time, wondering what it would like to be a beetle. 
            I was a “sensitive” kid.  That’s the word everyone used back then.  Except the other kids of course…they were far more creative.  But it was always in the reports sent home by teachers.  It was the word my mom used to make me feel better about myself.  But that’s the irony of childhood.  You try to hedge your bets with kids.  You don’t want to tell it like it is, so you say they are ‘sensitive’ or some such nonsense…and pretty soon sensitive just means the same thing as pansy, pussy, wimp, wuss, girly, retard.  I suppose it is true.  I was sensitive.  And I had speech problems.  I stuttered.  And I took things very seriously.  I still do.  I was just lucky enough to grow up a few years before doctors decided that all of man’s problems could be fixed with medication.  I’m sure they would have had me on something.  And Nancy Reagan probably wouldn’t have liked it.  So, I was sensitive. 
I’m not sure how long it took for my resolve to really start weakening.  Not long.  A few hours.  I don’t remember that part as well.  I’m sure my sister was disappointed.  I’m sure I was disappointed in myself.  I do remember how it ended.
I watched my Dad walk towards the van.  He was smiling.  I watched him walk towards us until all I could see was his ankles and the old running shoes he wore when he got home from work.   
            “If you guys want dinner, it’s ready.  We’re having pizza.”
            “You can’t buy us off with pizza, Dad.  Dan and I are leaving.”
            I looked at my sister and something shifted in her eyes.  She sighed. 
“OK, Dan.  Let’s go inside.  We won’t run away.  THIS TIME!”
It was getting dark.  I was hungry.  We were both dirty.  We left the van sitting in the driveway and went inside to eat. 


Dust to Dust

“I must say, that piece is particularly exquisite, Rowing Machine, where did you stumble upon it?  I have seen feathers before, of course, but that one is quite lovely.”
            “Why thank you, Treadmill.  The truth is that it stumbled upon me.  I guess that’s the way it always happens, eh?  It was in 2003, I believe.  The great, bumbling buffoon came around with her rag.  My whole collection was wiped out.  Vintage cracker crumbs, gone.  Spider webs, obliterated.  I was shaken.  I was depressed.  And then, out of nowhere…”
            “Same thing happened to me in the move of ’98.  I had worked so hard.  I had the perfect spot, right by the window.  Every time the wind blew…small flakes of pollen, almost like a snowstorm…beautiful.  And then the move.  Everything gone, all at once.  I was heartbroken.”
            “Ab-Blaster, you should just feel lucky that you had that spot…even for a week.  I have to find my own pieces.  Usually when the cat walks on me.  That’s how I got into cat litter.  My collection is strong, but I need diversity.”
            You need diversity.  God, StairMaster.  Let me tell you.  She takes me out into the garage and leaves me there sometimes.  I guess it’s because I’m big.  Out there, it’s a whole different world.  The Dryer…Christ.  ‘I’ve got more dust and lint than anything in the house’.  Must be easy to build your gallery when you actually get used on a regular basis.  But again…diversity.  There’s no diversity.  You know what I mean, Row?”
            “Certainly, BowFlex.  Personally, I always admired the pieces in Trampoline’s collection.  Poor Tramp, God rest his soul.  He only had 15 or twenty works in his gallery, but what treasures!  The hairy lint ball.  The pencil shavings.  The ball of earwax stuck underneath the mat.  I can’t even bear to think about it.”
            Don’t think about it.  It will only cause you pain.  And Dust is transitory in nature.  That’s what makes it so beautiful.  It’s like the paintings She collects.  You take care of your pieces as best you can, but time takes everything.  Just like her paintings fade in some places and darken in others.  The same will happen to ‘Dead Fly’.  It is already happening.  I try to be vigilant, but…but…”
            “Hear, hear.  Chin up, Blaster.  You do what you can with what you have.  That’s what makes this worthwhile.  That is why we collect!  You may have admired Tramp’s collection, but I admired his spirit.  Dust was his passion, but it never ran his life.  He never shed a tear.  No matter what.  Not even when the neighbor’s kids would come over and he’d lose his whole collection with one snotty jump.  Have you read any Buddhist philosophy?  You really should.  It helps put things in perspective.”
            “Look, I understand.  Everything is temporal.  Life is life.  Destruction and rebirth.  I get it.  What I really fear is that She will start working out again.  Starting a new collection a few times a year…I can do that, but…every day?  Or even three times a week?”
            Ahem…look.  I’ve been here for almost twenty years.  You look surprised?  It’s true.  I watched you all come, and I have watched some go.  I don’t usually join in the conversation, and I understand this is viewed as snobbery.  It’s not.  I just can’t afford to make emotional attachments anymore…but, trust me, as long as I’m here your collections will be safe, aside from the random gust of wind or drunken collision.”
            And with that, the machines were silent.  They were still.  Their minds at ease, if only for the moment.  Dust would come and it would go.  Collections would be built, coveted, destroyed.  Masterpieces would be discovered.  Forgeries denounced.  But it was the way the game had to be played.  The TV’s wisdom had touched them all.

The Sow's Ear

She had lived in the house for as long as she could remember. And for as long as she could remember they had called it a house, not a trailer.  There was some kind of shame in this…it caused her to flush and grow warm…to doubt the validity of her existence.  She had been born up north, but the Keys were all she knew.  Stupid Jimmy Buffet wannabes.  Fat, old, leathery women pretending a life of glamour.  Old men with big round stomachs that they used to navigate the crowded streets and bars.  The tourists were the worst.  Skin like dough and delusions of vacation respectability.  Trying to pretend they wanted to be at the ass end of Florida.  They drank and talked about how the Riviera was overrated.  How Hawaii was too “commercial”.  And then there were people like Sarah and her mom.  People who never got to go back home with sunburns and pictures and seashells painted by junkies.  People who lived in trailers and called them houses.
It was a hot day and somehow the breeze made it seem hotter.  Sarah was in the kitchen ironing her clothes, her mother’s uniforms, the tablecloth, anything.  She had been ironing for hours.  She needed it.  Needed to see the wrinkles turn to nice, smooth fabric.  She spent so much time ironing.  And cleaning.  And trying to turn the ugly things in her life beautiful.  She painted empty soda cans and made them into birds, flowers, exotic fish.  Her mother insisted she sell some of them, but she never did.   She couldn’t imagine them in some Midwestern duplex.  They belonged to her.
Sarah put the iron down and closed her eyes.  She could hear the soft murmur of the waves crashing on the white beach.  She could feel drops of sweat running down her back like earwigs.  She slowly exhaled and things started coming back to her.  Thoughts bloomed in her mind.  It had been so long since he had left.  But she remembered.  Hank.  She remembered his laugh and the soft wrinkles around his eyes.  She remembered his sour breath and his rough hands.  She remembered her mother coming home early, finding them, Sarah not understanding why everyone was so angry.  She was six then.  Seven years had passed, but she remembered it all.  And now she understood it.  That it was wrong.  That Hank was an asshole.  That there were parts of Hank that they had loved despite it all.  And that her mother would never forgive her for what had happened.  She didn’t blame her, but she would never forgive.  Sarah knew that without a doubt. 
She opened her eyes and looked around the tiny kitchen.  Decorations and drawings and wildflowers in empty coke bottles.  All of it made the room look cheaper.  ‘Making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’…wasn’t that what her mother said?  But what was she supposed to do?  She had to try.  She had to hope.  A tear slipped out of her left eye and she wiped it quickly with a tan finger.  Ironing.  She had to finish the ironing.  There was so much of the day left and she did not want to be left alone with herself.  Alone with the loathing she felt.  The seeping anger and frustration.  She wished there was a switch that could turn off her brain.  But she had not yet discovered alcohol, drugs, drag races, motorcycles, sex with nervous tourist boys.  That would come.  But not for a few years. 
Sarah picked up the iron and spit, watching the sizzle and dance of the saliva before it evaporated.  She was hypnotized by the heat.  These were things you could count on.  Heat.  Pain.  Anger.  She did not trust love.  She did not trust kindness.  She did not believe that life should be painless.  With a guilty look over her shoulder, she licked her finger and touched the hot metal.  She did this for several minutes, a little bit longer each time, daring herself to see how much she could make it hurt. 
She was hungry and had lost track of time.  Sarah made a sandwich and sat down on the couch.  She could hear some tourist boys running to the water, their shrieks in harmony with the gulls.  She thought about the water.  She pictured herself laughing, sprinting through the hot sand until she was submerged.  But it was never like she hoped it would be.  It was never the shock of cold water she wanted.  There was only the gentle defeat of the tepid, luke-warm waves. 
On the table lay a pair of her mother’s jeans.  She placed them gently on the ironing board and ran the iron up the faded leg.  She watched the wrinkles, like ripples on the ocean, disappear.  She smiled.  The smooth glide stopped abruptly at the pocket, like the click thump of a rollercoaster before it begins its ascent.  She reached her hand in and felt it close around something small and hard.  Cold.  It was Hank’s ring.  The ring he had been so proud of.  The one with the name of some college he had never attended.  She slipped it into her pocket.  Now it was hers.  And she knew exactly what that meant.  

Trim it Out

            Jackson was the kind of guy that dogs hate for no reason.  That being said, he was not a particularly evil or immoral person.  He was just Jackson.  Or maybe the dogs knew something we didn’t.  Anyway, he and I were OK.  Jackson was over a ranch outside San Antone when the engines on his B-17 went out.  He said it wasn’t scary.  Not in the least.  He heard the words in his head even as he sensed the last sputtering breath from his left wing.  The words always came to him.  The words that made him decide to be a pilot all those years ago.  When the shows would come through town, Jackson was the first one in line.  The planes were fine, but he wanted to hear the words.  Aileron.  Flyboy.  Groundgrabber.  When he enlisted in the Air Force the words became his own.  He wore the jargon like a suit of armor.  Held it like an old stuffed toy.  And they came to him when he needed them.  Line it up.  Firewall it.  Trim it out.
            We all heard the story back at camp.  Not from Jackson.  That wasn’t his style.  Not that he was modest.  He was just smart enough to know that someone else will tell your story if you’re patient.  And he knew that people who don’t tell their own stories can become legends.
            We’d been in San Antonio for so long no one kept track anymore.  Overseas, our boys were kicking ass.  Or getting their asses kicked.  Depending on who you listened to or how you looked at it.  Depending on what time of day it was.  Depending on whether we were drinking or not.  The waiting could get to you if you let it.  We’d been close to shipping out so many times.  Waking up to yelling, packing bags, standing in a row.  Thinking of killing Germans and what that would mean.  Good and bad.  And then nothing.  Again.  Sawbox would be relieved.  He was scared.  The bad kind of scared.  The rest of us guys would be disappointed.  In July, sweating our asses off and getting soft, we wanted to go.  We were dying to.

            Growing up, airplanes were all I thought about.  My father was a coal miner.  And his father before him.  We all were.  They all were.  Somehow I got it in me that I had to fly.  It developed into an obsession.  I needed to be up in the sky.  Just had to be.  I got a job at an airplane factory when the war started.  I started out with a broom and pretty soon I was working on autopilots and doing test flights.  I didn’t want to kill anyone.  Never did.  I was happy.  I could fly as much as I wanted.  I had more freedom than the Air Force boys.  But people in town started talking.  Talking to each other, and talking to my Mother.  And all the time, more boys kept leaving.  So people talked.  “Why doesn’t Raymond go?”  “Doesn’t he want to fight?”  Then my Mom started asking.  Then the old man sobered up long enough to join the cause.  Soon enough I couldn’t take it anymore and I joined up, too.

            Basic training was basic training.  The hours in the classroom were like all the hours I spent in church as a boy.  Only back then it was fifteen minutes of singing and then forty-five of boredom.  In training we didn’t even get to sing.  And we only saw airplanes in pictures.  Still, time went fast.  I couldn’t wait to start flying.  And then one day I did.  I started out in a Piper Cub.  A nice little plane.  I was a natural.  Everyone said so.  I moved up quicker than the other guys; while they were still in the Cubs I was getting checked out on every plane in camp.  PT-19s.  PT-13s.  I flew a nice twin-engine Cessna.  B-24s.  No one wanted to fly the B-24.  We called it ‘the killer’.  I had one undershirt I wore every time I had to fly the B-24.  I wore it on my first date with Selma.  It never let me down. 
            Before I knew it, I was flying the B-17.  It was bigger than I’d ever imagined.  Like flying a condominium.  A smooth and reliable plane.  One of the best ever.  It was as forgiving as a good woman.  If you needed power she gave it to you.  If you needed lift she was there.  If you dropped a wing coming in for a landing, all you had to do was kick in with the opposite rudder and you’d be right on target. 
            There were moments of pure bliss when I was up in the B-17.  It was like an older brother you looked up to.  I can remember all those evenings.  The sun would just begin sliding down behind the mesas and we’d be up so high that not even God had as good a seat as us.  The colors would spread out across the sky like the innards of a fire.  Red.  Orange.  Sienna.  A different red.  A different orange.  I’m not even totally sure what color sienna is, but it was up there.  It was so bright that you would have thought it ugly had it been painted.  And we had front row seats, flying straight toward heaven.  All the bastard Sergeants and that asshole First Lieutenant.  All the shitty meals and lonely nights and hours spent listening to Sawbox grinding away all night long.  All the bombs and all the Germans and all the bullshit posters about Uncle Sam would disappear, and we would be pilots.  It was all I ever wanted.
            Sometimes I’d think of Selma, out there in San Francisco.  I’d wonder what she was doing.  And who she was doing it with.  I wouldn’t get jealous.  Just sad.  That was when I really hated the goddamn war. 

            All Jackson ever wanted was to talk.  That kid had a word for everything.  A lot of the guys thought he was pretty sharp.  Called him professor.  But big words don’t impress me, and he sure didn’t act sharp.  He was an adequate pilot.  I didn’t mind flying with him.  But to hear him talk he was the Red Baron and Lindberg all rolled into one.  Still, he got the job done.  But he was lazy.  And a coward.  He lied as much about his women as he did about most things.  He was quick with a compliment when the brass was around and quick with an excuse when it was time to pick up a wrench or a broom.
            Still, I liked Jackson well enough.  He played a decent game of bridge and we’d partner up sometimes.  That, and he was a good drinker.  Solid.  A good man to have around if there was a bottle of bourbon giving you a hard time.  And whenever we were lucky, there was a bottle around.  They told the men not to drink, but telling men not to drink is worse than telling them they have to.  Plus, it was something to kill the boredom.  There’s only so much scrabble, poker, darts, softball, basketball, Chinese checkers, horseshoes, boxing, blackjack, dice, and football that one man can take. 
            I was having a drink with Jackson when I got the call from Selma.  Pregnant.  8 months and she knew she should have told me sooner, but she was scared.  I told her not to worry.  We would get married, everything would be fine.  And I asked for, and was granted, leave to do just that.  We managed to have the wedding and the childbirth in the same week.  And then I left, and Selma stayed on in San Francisco doing her part to beat the Germans.
            Back at the base I was like a caged animal.  The months dragged on and now I didn’t even want to go fight.  All I wanted was to be with Selma and the baby.  My son.  The little boy I had held in my arms for about 6 total hours.  Not long enough.  But long enough to make it hurt when I thought about how the small warm body had felt.  And the bigger warm body.  Damn, it hurt to think sometimes, but it hurt even worse not to think about it. 

            Jackson liked to talk, like I said, so no one really paid him much attention when he said the war was almost over.  For one thing, he’d been saying that since the second week.  I hated him when he said it.  We were all hoping for it in one way or another.  They’d given us too much time to think.  Too much time to watch people come home missing arms and legs.  If they’d just sent us over there right away it would have been fine, but instead we waited, and the waiting ate at us.  Took away our resolve.  Turned us into apathetic prisoners. 
            Flying was the only escape we had that didn’t give you a hangover, so we did it whenever we got the chance.  Up there, in the sky, everything was gone.  It was just us and the clouds.  It was when we touched back down that the ugliness of reality would descend like the curtain at a high school musical.  Not smoothly, but in jerks and twitches.  I was in my own world.  Trying to be a Dad by mail and not doing a very good job of it.  I was reading a letter from Selma when the big news came in.  It was official.  It was over, and we were never going to see any fighting.  In the history of the world, there have been many great celebrations, but none like this one.  We were cartoons.  We stumbled around with wide eyes slapping each other on the back.  I got Selma on the phone and, of course, she had known for days.  We were always the last to hear anything.

            I packed my stuff up and waited for the paperwork to clear.  For the right man with the right stripes to put his initials on the dotted line.  The waiting was torture.  And then they told us it was all over.  To show up at 0600 and we’d be on our way.  They were sending us away in stages.  The night before we were supposed to leave we got drunker than I had ever been.  0600 was a blip on the clock.  We were half-drunk and half-asleep and all surly.  The next night was the same.  And the morning.  Those kind of patterns are hard to break.  Maybe we were scared to leave.  We finally made it on the third day.  As we signed papers and hefted our bags, I caught our reflection in the glass of the door.  We looked terrible.  It had been a tough war.

Tree Pieces

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 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:
“ friend.”
“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 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. 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 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.
“Excuse me?”
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?”
                “, 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.