He is walking down the road. It’s a road he has been on a thousand times before, a road like any other, a road like every other. The sidewalk is clear and wide, beech colored, its edges perforated by parking meters. He walks the centre of the cement, keeping his distance from the storefronts and their pleas for transformation.
Make it a night you won’t forget.
Need a change? We’ve got it.
He walks carefully. He mustn’t lose his way.
There is a Target approaching on the left, its red and white bulls eye growing larger, easier, more fulfilling. It comes closer and closer. Soon the bulls eye is larger than he can imagine, blotting out the sky above. Finally it passes, and his relief is tinged with fear. He knows he has left a nameless town, entered a new unknown. The dotted line under his feet turns into an old game, one he can’t play anymore. How much further does he have to go? He can’t say. What lies behind? That too, is unclear, subsumed under history he no longer owns.
But he can walk. That old and primitive motion. The loss that lives inside him hasn’t gotten to that station yet. He imagines his brain a battleground, a knight on a sea horse, banners and banderoles streaming through a bloodrush, a losing cause. But he’s still keeping time, if only for marching on. Each second ticks by, measure by measure, that rhythm that lets the body walk, that undulating gait, poor cousin of flight, of the liquid dart, of even the four legged pounce.
The prophets of commerce keep insisting themselves.
Go on, smile.
Winter is coming, so come in.
Everything must go now.
One knee crackles, and the other throbs with every step. His right hip sticks. His knuckles curl his fingers into claws. His lungs heave. But he walks without stumbling, without suspense, itself a derivative tenuous grace.
He remembers his daughter’s first steps. She crawled for so long, even he wondered why, though milestones have never struck him.
“Expectations are the mother of misery,” he told Cruz once. This was before the blanket silence, when he could still speak, and she might still answer.
“I told you not to speak to me in abstract,” she said.
He had laughed despite her cold easy tone, because of it. He had meant what he said in concrete. He had been sure she would understand. It was why they had gotten on so well in the beginning, the way they both liked to play off precision with pop. But maybe, like Lai, she was refusing to play.
He broke it down to the simplest smallest most naked cut. “I’m wondering when our girl will walk.” It had its own genius, the gist.
Cruz only shrugged.
But the day Oola got up off her hands and knees, she ran.
“It’s her head,” Cruz had said. “She’s running to keep up with that monst-”
He interrupted her before she could finish. “What a jazz you are,” he said catching Oola up just before the fall, her blue bib dress smelling of Tide and rot, her body still in forward motion. He pressed his face against her birdwing ribs. “What a blue moon…”
Even as Oola shouted in delight, her rubber band arms choking him, the distance between him and Cruz grew. He can’t balance one gain with the other loss. Each lives large, bloody minded, unheeding of the other.
The sun is fat, juicy. He’s a quarter slice, sucked dry. It drains out of him through the soles of his heated feet. It evanesces off his skin. He is growing smaller. Every sense tells him so.
Time was when he thought he just had to wait out growing, using, falling. It would settle, the world, it would pass for normal, or at least human sized. But the menace grows, clarifies with time. He only has to look back to see all the ways to fail. They yawn, beautiful killers, as if sleepy, but he knows better. One stray move and the swords draw.
He tried once or twice, in the beginning, something sweet and mellow, inhaling and holding, easy as blinking. But every time he felt that familiar stealing away, there came the roaring in his ears, drowning out all other sound. He had forgotten about that, about not being able to take the silence. Not that it’s easier now, but he needs to hear Oola if she calls. He knows this is too much to put on her, that it’s not even the right reason, but it’s one he can hold up against the voices.
The light is falling straight down from the sky, the next intersection a twisted system, black roads with intersecting orbits, the sun at the slanting center. A constellation of electric eyes swivel above. Red. Tick. Amber. Tock. Go.
The rosary beads clink in his pocket, the same ones Martin gave him a lifetime ago, next to his car keys, next to the cigarettes, next to the pen. He slips his hand into his pocket and finds the beads, fingers so fluent, it’s like feeling, not doing. His mouth frames the words.
Lad through a window. Light on the knife. He knows where the latch key is hidden.
He knows which way to walk, which color means walk now, which lines mean walk here. He just doesn’t know where he’s going until he gets there. Each step is an opening aperture, bringing him to sight, leaving the past in dusk.
When he was young, it was different, desirable even, the click by click life, like a movie he was watching from behind his eyes, no telling what would happen next. Also because he could take it or leave it. Now he’s old and tired, and he wants out, but it’s no longer in his hands, his memory. So he has to rely on everything else to tell him what is happening, what he feels. The problem is that everything else doesn’t always tell him what to do, or why.
When Cruz came back, he knew immediately what to do. This was because she had brought Oola with her. The fact that he hadn’t known Oola since the second of her conception, that he had missed almost her entire first year, was a sign. Like Lai, Oola was not from the born world, though he couldn’t tell Cruz this.
Cruz is gunpowder, crying for flame. When she presents Oola, fully formed, dark ringlets, pudding skin, jewel eyes, it is not without a small amount of rage. That rage only jacks up when Oola holds her arms out. It isn’t that she begrudges him Oola’s love. She blames him for Oola herself, for the year the two of them spent alone, for the nine months before that. She blames him for her walk to the clinic and then walking away without going in. Whatever good has come of it only shows how ironic it all is, how stupid, how wrong.
Is Oola where he’s going? He can’t remember. She must be. It’s late afternoon and school is out. Or is it work? He tries to concentrate, imagine his only child. But only her baby face comes to him, the one that tells him everything but her age. She’s smiling, the smile she got from Mamma, the one that means ever so much with ever so little. Not like Cruz whose smile is overwhelming, unmistakable.
His history flattens behind him like a ruler of his making. He has etched out the events, pouring acid as he goes. They stand in relief against the blank, the protected. His companions, the versions they have lent to him anyway, have moored at different markings on the straight edge of time. Sometimes it’s because they died, but more often, it’s an unknown quantity that stopped their motion. Why Cruz is yet the driver, he can’t say, but there she sits, corded forearms, copper skin, clear eyes. She’s tapping her nails against the wheel, the wild west behind them, all love to come.
He stumbles and fears. Has the time keeper clocked out? Or is it his knees? Or his eyes? Which part of his body has given in? When does the judgment stop and the descent begin? But then he sees the pavement below, a small section sheered, out of sync. The rest of the sidewalk stretches smoothly, before and behind. Just this one corner has fallen out of line.
Anyone could have tripped.
The wind whips its assent around his head and he smoothes his hair down. What used to be fine pale hair has faded and thinned, threadbare velvet on his scalp. Sometimes his fingers, rough and cramped as they are, don’t feel the hair at all.
The music starts up again, like a prayer inside his head. Say, I seek refuge…
It never leaves him, the sound. Even when it stops, its absence is a shape, a summons.
He enters a stretch without any stores or strip malls. Ahead, a straight shot into the sunshine west, and further, past the horizon, on the other side of the bay and the swinging bridge, is the cold blue beast, the sea. To his left, a road runs towards pastel Lego houses, nestled around toy chest hills. These hills have never impressed him, middling height, brown and drab, old carpets draped over rock furniture. To his right lies a scrubby stand of trees, desert origins clear.
He’s sweating into his clothes. Checkered button down shirt, brown khaki pants, loafers, windbreaker. He shrugs off the thin grey jacket and fists it, and for the first time thinks of his hands, now no longer empty, now half full. Did he leave home with a bag? An old leather satchel resolves in his shifting memory. It has buckles and outer pockets that are too small and stiff for his wrinkling fingers, a long strap he never uses, and a briefcase handle on top that sits in his hand, soft and satisfied. Inside the bag are notebooks, yellow post-its, a box of click pens, as Oola calls them, and one blunted pencil.
He wouldn’t have brought the bag, not with a memory this grasping, this failing, would he? Or would a moment of clarity have made it feel like a done deal, taking and remembering? Maybe he left it in the car? And of the Bel Air, where is it? He’s sure, almost sure it wasn’t in the parking lot. The lot is huge, and then there are blocks and blocks of street parking spots, radiating around the lot, maze like. It’s true he might have overlooked a section of the lot and not noticed or remembered. Or he may have not looked at all.
These days, he finds himself giving up in the beginning, because he’s demoralized by the idea of looking in the wrong place a hundred times, and the right place none at all. Sometimes, he’s so tired at the thought, it feels like he’s already looked and failed, even though he hasn’t even started yet. Is that what happened today at the lot? Did he think he had looked but just walked away instead?
The needle on his mental gauge flies. There is something. Something to do. Something to check. It’s too much to do at once, so he stops, flexes his hands stiffly, looks at his left palm. There, to the right of the wrinkled center on the heel of his palm, because the center itself is too damp to write on, is a grid drawn in red pen. It’s a map of the parking lot, with a dot to show his car, and a code.
He double checks with his IronMan, a gift from Oola years ago.
It matches, so it must have been today, not yesterday, or last week, or three years ago. Plus any other day than today, and the grid would have washed off his hand by now. His system has layers of backup, in case any one part of it fails. How long he looked for a pen whose ink would wash off his skin in one go, rub off within a day. The pen is only part of his system, along with the furling post-its, his four legged alarm clock, the IronMan, the constant updating of time and date and place and self.
Without his noticing, the sky has come closer, darker. Thunder in the distance. He looks to the hills, and sees them fading, vivid to sepia to antique to black and white. The rain menaces. His lungs will not survive a dousing, not after last year’s pneumonic bout.
He starts walking again. The trees on the opposite side of the road are planted evenly in spokes, and as he passes, they wheel past his sideways eyes, like time running out.
He hurries, he hums.