The Homeless Ones
Because his mother got sick again, he decided it was time to get away. Away, he fell in love with this young woman from outside Spokane. He was an artist with small arms and hair on his stomach and he was prepared to hate her. She wore her dark braids in two pink barrettes and when she let them fall he thought of how his mother pulls the curtain rods out each night. The roads were dust orange; men biked early, just outside the city lines, delivering dry jugs of water to the houses the government marked with stern red exes. This morning, instead of working, he and she searched the town for avocados and flat bread. The streetside samosas had started upsetting her stomach. Single-file they padded along the road and when the roads widened, they walked side by side. When her side started stitching, he slowed and they took breaks at each street pole, her hands on her knees and then her cheek pressed against his shoulder. She told him about the avocados she kept on her counter at home and how they darkened deep green over too long a time as she often forgot where she stored them.
She was a rather delusional woman, as she had a man she was planning to marry back in the states. She brought Tim often into conversations with him. Tim ate only green apples, he worked at an insurance company ten minutes from their two-room flat and he must sleep with the blinds down. She liked sleeping with the windows wide open; the sun was the sweetest entrance into morning. This was often a point of contention for her and Tim.
The third week of the job, he slept with her. That night, they had sat on a blue bench. The bus station crowed with noise until night deepened. Near midnight, when she kissed him, all who witnessed it in the empty lot were a woman in a blue and yellow dress still selling lemons in front of the fence and meters away a thin shadow of a man buried in the screen of his phone. The next morning, she brightly said that sleeping with him confirmed only how much she loved Tim; she saw their friendship as taking nothing from her relationship and her relationship taking nothing from their friendship. Nothing was the matter, especially here as they sat up against a stone fence, their ankles brown with the heat and she laughed through last night as something so gusty and right for then, but not for now and after. What made his eyes ache was knowing that when he returned home to his mother, he still would be thinking of her and she’d be thinking nothing of him anymore. He was a product of a situation but she would forever permeate his brain in poisonous yellow what-if pirouettes.
Finally, they found a street stand and bought three avocados and two small light green mangos. They started home and as the stitch in her side flared, they stopped and started. She told him how to collect FedEx labels from packages and use them to take hair off pressed shirts and he told her how the lilt of her name perfectly suited her heart-shaped chin.
They both, in the end, were lonely people. She must be. She must be. They were thousands of miles away doing refugee research for an anthropologist he met through his university and she met through her uncle. As they traveled to the different camps, they slept in tiny hotel rooms. A bed. A sink. A line outside for dirty clothes. A purple wash basin and one afternoon they lay in the bathroom barefoot, soaking their clothes in suds and brown water and waiting until the underwear dried, splotched forever in the scent of soot and egg.
He complained about the difficult days of fieldwork when the work got to his head. Little boys with stomach pouches and cuts all over their lips. The snot and scabs on their foreheads and huge beautiful watery glassy eyes. These refugees could dream of no tomorrow, the polite dehumanization in robbing people of a future and the arrogance in everybody else for ignoring the privilege it is to plan ahead. She told him to get over it and keep a steady head.
He used to be in and out of the hospital for instability, ever since his friend electrocuted himself in the twelfth grade. Since, his life hollowed out its trajectory in terms of the sadnesses. She knew nothing but peace. He lived waiting for the next tragedy; for her, sadness was a shock. He was going home to a sick mother. She’d run into the arms of a clueless man.
When she couldn’t walk anymore, they jumped together on the back of a motorcycle and it glided and bumped over the divots on the dirt road. They passed the stands where meat hung drying in the sun for many endless afternoons. He felt the obvious comfort of tightening his arms around her and the strange jealousy seeing her arms wrap around the faceless blue-helmeted man in front. When they passed the corner bar with the slot machine and pool table, she turned, lifted her hand to the back of his head and kissed him. The air whipped his ears flat to his face.
When he returned home, he spiraled the same way he did after his friend was electrocuted. His mother had started crying again whenever he’d administer the needle and so he’d hold her arms down and shout vicious things that seemed to come not from his mouth but from the angriest places in his body, from the tight long muscles in his neck. The cat scratched the yellow armchair to threads. He waited for his mother to die so that the sickening anticipation of it would leave him. He waited for her to call, at least once.
He started taking evening walks and stopping at street poles. One night, he watched the sun, in an assault of phantasmagoric light, speckle a brick chimney in such a way he thought the spots were muttering false niceties at him. At night he got itchy; there were fleas trapped under his kneecaps. When he read about self-driving cars, for the first time he believed, irrefutably, that the world could improve. The dirty white patches in that puddle on the street and the pockets of maple seeds floating in it. The dark brown bricks were few and rare in all the red. Outside his father’s old magazine stand, a deck of cards soaked on the side of the street. He found neon green letters on the overpass and white ones on the sidewalk and he invented two boys in gray overalls who spent the entire evening painting and talking of women. He almost lost it, driving home from the hospital, when a sign prevented him from turning left. Nothing in the world could be more abrasive, and it hurt his eyelids. He decided to grow out his hair.
And then he went through a period when he became obsessed with the homeless.
A homeless man sat on a stoop with tortoise shell glasses and a t-shirt of a bear surrounded by bubbles. The speckled frames reminded him of the teal mug his mother always left unwashed on the counter. The next day he bought a painting of blue hydrangeas off a crippled woman on the highway who had a small yellow dot in the center of her eye. She had also painted one of a young lady in a flowing pink dress surrounded by green hills; it was too simple but her favorite so he thought of buying it too, but too costly and she kept making the price higher. He bet it reminded her of some daughter. He passed a fat woman sleeping on the steps of a storefront. The only thing peaking, besides her forehead, from her several blankets was a heavy ornate wedding ring on her left hand. He squirmed with the crisping sensation to tuck the hand back into the blankets to keep others from stealing it, but then no others would see it. He wanted to touch the ring but then worried it would not be as heavy as it looked or not there at all. A car honked, as he was standing in the middle of the street, and the lady’s eyelashes didn’t even flutter. On an early morning run, he watched a man sleeping in the park. How horrible it must be to wake up each day like that, having to face the scabbed reality of your existence.
He could barely get out of bed and started sleeping with the windows open. The sunlight was hard and stinging. He started asking about their cardboard signs. He told them he was doing research for his uncle anthropologist. Some answered—they tried to be clever (“spare me change or a novel?”), self-deprecating (“I’m dumb and stupid”), genuine (“mom with two kids”) or they did not want to talk with him at all. One day, a young homeless woman with ripped jeans, sweet large eyes and dirty freckles, cowered away from him as if he were the frightening one. Then one day a jogger called the police because she thought he was stalking her but really he was just intrigued by her broad shoulders and the bruises on her knees—they changed pink to green in the light. He spent evenings on Blautt bridge until the same officer told him no loitering after hours so he watched the water from the window of his flat. He remembered it differently when he was younger; it used to be that the whole blue tower across the way was visible in the reflection but now the trees blocked it. Then he remembered trees grow, and the landscape ebbs and surges with the spoils of lost plastic bags and vandalized street meters and the construction of that stunning gray art museum dabbling against the honeycombed sky.
He picked pieces of lint out from his mother’s rug which was too cheap to be worth a proper cleaning. He went to the local market to buy his mother peppers and rolled his cart behind an old man in a purple cardigan in the checkout line. The old man was berating the young shocked cashier about the town paving his dirt road as if the boy could reverse it. He thought of the light-skinned refugee that came stammering up to him pleading for money and then whispering in his ear about the government secretly trapping thirteen of them in a room and murdering all but him. This old purple man was delusional. His ears were large and flapping with anger; the geometry of his lobe curved in the shape of a heart. A dark vein or birthmark stained the top corner of his forehead and wisps of hair kept the florescent market lights from slipping too glossily across his head.
He realized that maybe the meat hanging there is not the same every day and the cowhide from yesterday was just bought and replaced. He realized he was probably not as attractive as he believed. He believed it could be that the world was contained in the crinkle of a knuckle.
His eyelashes stung. Hers were so short and his were so long she said, as they sat in suds on the bathroom floor, that she wondered how they didn’t ever get caught. She bit her fingers until they bled. “I’m always trying to destroy myself,” she told him that time on the bus station bench, but she was always laughing underneath everything she said. Her thin lips. He told her about the puddles on the poolside edge that he always avoided stepping in even when his feet too were wet. She kept a corkscrew in her purse.
His mother was specific about red peppers and wanted only the best.
He rolled his cart down the fruit aisle and found the firmest ones, then went to the oats and wines. At the freezer section, he picked up yogurt. An old man in a purple cardigan stood in front of the milk with a blueberry yogurt and a strawberry one in each hand. It seemed absolutely essential to the man that he choose correctly. He waited until the old man finally put the blueberry in his cart, the old hands veined and trembling.
The coldness of the freezer section was startling. He had ironed his shirt before coming to the market and one crease now crinkled the middle. The crinkle almost sent him spinning, but the coldness of the freezer, and the small black bug crawling into the vents on the floor, calmed him down.
At the register, he rolled his cart in line behind the man in purple. The man was complaining about something to the young cashier at the register. The boy wore a green apron and gel in his hair.
“I came home to a paved road,” the old man said. “You idiot! How dare this town commit such an atrocity? Are you blind?”
The boy looked shocked, then stammered quietly as he put the last of the man’s groceries into a paper bag. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“You can unpave it! I won’t leave this here hall until my road gets unpaved.”
“You can use the self-checkout if you’d like.” The boy looked above the old man’s head and gestured. He felt a ripple of movement as the people in line behind him filed away, but he stayed put as did the purple man. Hands on hips, heated and indignant.
“I wake up every morning to see who’s visited me at night. I look for animal tracks in the dirt road. You can’t find tracks in pavement.”
The boy was at a loss. This old man was delusional. As the old man’s volume increased and he continued spewing grievances to the cashier, the boy’s face shifted, finally realizing the reality of this man speaking to him with the firm belief that the boy was responsible.
“There’s a fox who lives in my shed and I know his tracks. But now with this awful, ugly, hideous pavement I see nothing of them! These changes must stop, you know. Please tell your higher-ups to stop this, and also to funnel more money into the town dump. I will not budge until I talk to your supervisor, young man.
“My grandchildren bike up and down that dirt road. We collect pebbles together. My wife used to walk barefoot just to feel those pebbles under her toes. Do you know what pavement feels like?” The purple man pointed a wild finger at the boy.
The boy shrugged. “You can really use the self-checkout,” he said, turning to look behind the old man, at him. The cashmere of the old man’s sweater was soiled. It must’ve been much brighter at a much earlier time.
“Hot and hard and my feet are already blistered. I won’t have it any other way. I won’t leave until you undo it. How will I know who visits me at night? I won’t sleep unless I wake up to dirt.”
He needed to run again. Away, away. He must. His stomach churned at the thought of his mother drinking teal tea at home and waiting for the peppers. The old man wasn’t budging. The old man was making him late. The only thing between him and home was this purple sweater and this young stammering boy behind the register. His elbow shuddered into the shelf of candies and a gold-foiled chocolate tinkered to the floor. The boy looked over, rose blue eyes. He felt an immense amount of stress suddenly about those green avocados dying on her counter.
His evening walks: A woman's bun came undone as she went running down the road and she left it spilling, strands of sunlight tangled in it. A boy walked one foot in front of the other down the middle of the street, following a line that was not there. The world was destroying itself. Everybody looked at their phones. That girl was too fat to be wearing black strappy shoes so small.
He waited for her to call.
He sat in the armchair with his chin in his hands watching his mother sleep.