"Short Story": Søren’s Problem

image credit: sacrevoir
ON A WOODEN, MOLDING PARK BENCH in Dante Square I watch people, in cars, or scurrying to the subway entrance, pass the bruised statue of Dante Alighieri, slightly smaller than a person, standing amidst some guarded poplars and dogwoods, a singed bronze laurel atop his head, an open book in his hand: abandon all hope ye who enter here; his hard eyes peer ahead to the steel, adamantine buildings, beyond the trees, etching out a damned vision. I do not smile as I sit, nor do I frown; I just sit here transfixed. Images. Pastels. Dot-matrix printouts of experience. A feature-length film queuing in my brain, snapshots of Christine placed between the frames. I snip the celluloid, hungry and bone-weary. I have a story to tell. In the Cinema Paradiso of reality, a guy runs up to me, a runner on his beat. He stops his stride and backs up a few feet, looking over my head.

    “Got five bucks?”
    I do not know he’s talking to me; I hear him speak, but, as usual, I am adrift in my own ideational landscape.
    “Excuse me, man — you got five bucks?”
    I shed my Saran wrap and look up, notice his face then his clothes: muscle shirt and black trunks; he isn’t too sweaty, only breathing hard. White, pasty cheap deodorant stains his armpits. I shiver my head and squeeze my hands into my pockets. Am I being robbed? I don’t have my wallet, only a Susan B. Anthony dollar, three ones, and a nickel, which I keep for myself. I hand the crumpled greens to him (whether in generosity or fear, I do not know) then the dull, awkward coin. He is grateful. I guess he doesn’t notice the difference between fives and fours.
    “A Susan B. Anthony dollar,” he deadpans, turning the coin over and over in his hand, placing it in a different pocket separate from the others. "I haven't seen one of these in years,” he concludes. “Thanks.” He’s about to run off when I call, “Hey wait —” I call him back. I want to intrude on my own passivity, not sure of my own generosity. “Why did you need five bucks?” My way of asking, “Why did you rob me?”
    “I gotta have some sugar, need to buy a fruit drink or something at the Starbucks on the corner,” he explains, pointing to the coffee shop in view across the park. He adds, “I’m hypoglycemic.” Then he runs off, rubbing his acne-scarred face with his left hand. I watch him run through the loose gravel that leads to the south entrance of the park, and then he disappears into the mélange of vehicles that dimmed a straight vision of the Starbucks. That is my altruistic deed for the decade. “Ship-shop shabam,” I mutter, possibly to the pigeons pecking for food, looking up momentarily then bobbing their heads back to the gravel. I helped a guy suffering from hypoglycemia. It lured me out of my daze.
    It catapulted me to some aspect of my already screwed up reality. My life with Christine. Christine’s life with me. The reason I’m sitting here, my back against the grating wood of a park bench: My life with Christine had melted into the innocent rhythm of the M train rumbling beneath Satsuma Avenue. A ritual had begun between us: I would wake up before the alarm, get up, carefully recalculate the clock so it wouldn’t begin to ring, find her still by my side, an injured salamander. Like a jellied Christ, she was cold, lying cruciform. She always slept near to me, breathing on my neck, her arm draped over my chest. As I peeled her arm away, I remembered last night. She shushed me when I tried to speak — I had something to say! — and I placed her head on my breast and felt my chest slowly cave in and expand while some insane TV show glared. The planned cachinnations from the boob tube complemented her figure-eight motions skating my belly. She insisted on music playing all night, softly enough to lull her to sleep.
    I got up. I brushed my teeth with a shared ebony brush, pacing around the empty rooms. My bedroom is quiet, insulated from the insane blundering outside my window, so I can float among my possessions in relative tranquility, to finger at ease the rim of my coffee cup, to trace my toes along the straightedge of the lintel. From my window, there is a slight view of the Cherry River. At night, the sounds of the river travelers keep me up, and if not, the long, wailing penetrates my dreams like Queen Mab, distilling the imagery with choked fog and depthless churning current.
    I use the pane of my barrister bookcase to see myself; a few shelves are open, I can see Hart Crane’s poetry and a work King novel. I scatter papers on my bureau, looking for vestiges of memory, reminders of my extended life; I kick an aluminum can that leads into the small living room, made smaller by spiral-bound notebooks, coffee cups, utensils, records, and the added collection of Christine’s things: word puzzles, a radio, magazines, papers and marble notebooks she stuffed into a mostly empty desk.
    During Spring evenings I had come to know her dual personality, her often manic expression and solemn undercurrent, which often raced beside one another. The pale-faced moon chaperoned our discourse. An endemic, endangered Pacific fruit sheds her husk, rolls towards the ocean, smooths against the rough texture of the beach; the ocean massages and she becomes living — sullen only hours before, clinging to me, while I tried to clean. When Christine activated, she became the living life force itself, at least to me. Christine expressed herself vividly; she reminded me of Clarisse in the Truffaut film (Julie Christie’s doppelganger). Her hands would flail, her cheeks arched and her smile broadened.
    “I won’t leave you,” she would say.
    “Of course you won’t.”
I was glad we lived together, shared the same bed, that I had rediscovered her.
    I opened the windows, the void of silence ending. Our nude table was small but spacious. The light came in. I sat at the table, waiting for Christine, spreading my fingers across the raw, grooved curvilinear wood trace.
    When Christine came into the room and sat on the carpet next to me, I was relieved. She was a pale, white girl. She was dressed in my clothes: jeans and a collared white shirt with verticulated black stripes. She glistened a little from the mineral-rich water; she smelled of the dense, released vapors. “Hmmmm.” We rocked.
    I had forgotten that I’d found her dead. I mean she was near death, muddied. January’s hatred. The city was Cocytus itself, criminals were frozen in their crimes and I hated being alone. I saw her under a glowing street lamp, my headlights igniting her body, falsely peeling away the blue. In a visceral hunger, I stopped the car; adrenaline picked her up and placed her, harshly, in the back of my seat. Was I kidnapping her? Like Asterion she put up no fight to my strange rescue, and I felt guilty for touching her bare nape. I felt guilty for wanting to find nothing. I uncollected my thoughts. I drove in circles. I stopped. A shelter. Drop-off. Gone.
    My memory maneuvered a more romantic (false) nostalgia. In my dream that night she wore black to her ankles, a blue coat over ruffled fabric and her hair hung wild, an opal pendant in her pocket. It was an image from the movies: we were kissing on a boat while Homer’s Odyssey played on an outside screen, floods of people crowded together on boats, on the wooden docks; then it began to rain and I told her I loved her. She couldn’t say anything because we were so wrapped up in it, my blood my language. We fell in love and planned to meet again on top of the Chrysler building.
    I laughed at my own silly imaginings.
    I lingered that following day, at the shelter, craning my neck to find her. Two grossly obese black women were behind a desk. They both wore stretchy pants. They gesticulated nervously, engorging each other with turgid language, their bodies lurching. I was standing near a skeletal man, his smell evocative of damp socks. He had a traveling beard, a slate hue, and did not look up. He was deeply involved in a yellow tablet that he had buttressed on his knees. He swayed back and forth, pen in hand, jotted down times and words, remarkably legibly, considering how much he moved about and how disastrously unsteady his ledger tottered. 5:00 PM he wrote, eat. Then he listed some more:
    6:15 read
    7:00 write
    8:30 sleep at marty’s
    10:15 bathroom
    6:10 AM call susan
    8:00 AM call jack
    900 appoint. w/alvin
He stayed that way, still jotting even after I had lost interest; he remained staring at his columnar yellow notebook — memorizing times and activities, totally oblivious to me. I had this tremendous urge to give him a tip.
    “She’s at the Convent Health Center,” they had told me. “We don’t got her name here. They done brought her last night.”
    I walked to the Convent Health Center, thinking about rejection and insecurity. There on the docks that day, in front of a cherry tugboat and amidst tourists, boys walking dogs, and cats stuck in trees, I imagined her holding my hand, guiding it, as if she knew where to go — I just went with the image, not questioning and hoping all would be said and done.
    I remembered Christine noticed me first, her body under a coarse blanket. “Hello.”
    “Hello,” I said. “Do you remember me?”
    “I think so. You brought me here didn’t you?”
    I wore a green parka and a quizzical grin. “Well, no actually, I brought you to a shelter — someone else brought you here. Last night you were frozen into the concrete. What were you doing?”
    She coughed, her skin sky blue now. “Don’t know,” she questioned. “I feel sick right now. Kinda sick.” The green carpet stopped glowing, the cartoon façade faded, the reality of the situation blanched the environs. My father would have deemed it a miracle that she was still alive: “That’s a miracle she didn’t die. That’s a sign son, a sign that she’s yours. Don’t pass this one up!”
    I stood there over her hospital bed smiling at her slow pronunciation of each word. Her vowels were long and arduous and her consonants proud and singular. In that moment Christine was safe, in that bed, by the charity of Christian doctors, unlike me, she was safe and I knew I had to leave.
    I know this sounds weird, maybe even bizarre. As I stood there, confused, I thought Christine must have been my sister, for when I looked at her I thought for sure that I was looking at a beautiful semblance of myself. That was the strangest part.
    “I really don’t want to leave,” I told her. “Not help you at all. But if you want a place to stay, I mean if you need a place to stay for a while —”
    “You mean to live?”
    “I mean a place where you can stay until you get on your feet.”
    “I’m fine I really am. I can manage. Actually.” She stood up, surprising me. “I think. Let me just slide over to the bathroom.” When she came out, she was in faded jeans, a rumpled shirt and a thin jacket. Tennis shoes, too. “The nurse brought these over — they give something to all the outgoings so we don’t freeze in our hospital gowns. Isn’t that something?”
    I shook my head. “Do you have a place to go?”
    She stared at the floor. “Just stop asking questions okay. Thanks for your help. Really. But I have to go now.”
    “But what’s your name?”
    “Mine’s Basil.”
    “Or Baz for short.” I handed her a creased card. She pocketed it without a word. She blindly put it away, not even scanning my name in print or where I lived.
    “Baz,” she copied, drawing out the z as she looked around the room as if for the last time, attempting to eradicate me in the process.
    “Christine — if that’s your name — didn’t you just say you were sick?”
    “Sick. Yes, I did say that. But I’ll manage. Look. Basil. Thanks. Again.” She slipped past me.
    That was the last time I saw of her. I thought. I saw her again in front of my apartment, a brown and gray building built in the ’30s. The stones were spread out in equal sizes, serving as a background to a scared Christine. She was thinner and bonier. I invited her to have some soup. It was a swollen February. She sat at my table, traced her fingers along the wooden edges, feeling tattered aromas beneath, until she touched my hand slightly. It was a tactile, soft touch, like an accidental finger bump with a stranger, which only elicits a slight gaze. I didn’t want her to leave.
    “I hated it Baz,” she said. Truncating my name and drawing out the z again as she sat near me and retold stories of her life as a girl. She told me she was afraid. She told me how cruel the early mornings had been: harsh and bitter. Early workers would pass by, gingerly stepping over her bare feet, her vulnerable body.
    “Once when I was a little girl my father caught me on the steps one breezy morning and scolded me for being out in the cold at such an hour. He took me inside and gently put me back to bed. I didn’t know if he was mad or afraid. I told him. I told him I wanted to run … run … run … but he quieted me. My mother found out, but then again, that was a horrible time. I was afraid. I didn’t care what happened to me.”
    That night I slept next to her but on the floor. The traffic and river sounds put me uneasily to sleep. I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid too. In my dream, I cried over a coffin. I was in a movie with James Stewart; one of his serious ones, like in It’s a Wonderful Life. I was standing on that bridge — the one in the movie — in the freezing cold, the world empty and hollow all around me and I wanted to jump.
    I expected her to say she needed to leave, to thank me for all I had done. She would move on, possibly to some other state, then back to wherever — away from Basil Manner. If it had gone that way, maybe it would have been better, because then she would have only been a crystalline existence in my life, not an embedded image, forever grained into my senses, even in smell.

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