Diptych: A Study of Flora and Fauna in Two Short Tales
A Man of the Country
When walking city streets, I am often overcome by a strange sensation; there is no one left I haven’t seen. In the park, I spy a young lady. She wears a velvet skirt and too-tall heels, kicking dust into the face of the little dog following on a leather leash. With but a glance, the pair dismiss me, for the benches are filled with middle-aged men much as myself, sitting in once fine suits. I need only turn my head this way or that to see their fraying collars. Nevertheless, even with such dismissal are not the young woman, her dog, and I somehow linked? Why I saw a-nose-in-the-air-pair much like them last week. Just as yesterday, while waiting for the tram, I spotted an old man with thick glasses, looking exactly like a man I observed three years ago spitting grape seeds across the platform’s varnished floor. Or is this man, now staring at me blankly as if I were a stranger, the very man who has lived above me for years? Surely it is he who nightly crosses the room overhead with the aching pace of the infirm. Yes, I say to myself, I have already seen each of you.
Dear friends pass by without saying hello, for we have yet to meet. A distinguished man turns the corner in boots I recognize as being much like Hagenbeck’s, who bought them upon joining the firm. But the man before me is not Hagenbeck. Nevertheless, perhaps this man in boots much like Hagenbeck’s, is a better Hagenbeck than Hagenbeck himself. Is this not the man I was meant to befriend all along? How different life might have been had I spent decades of mid-day respite, consuming cold cuts and boiled egg, across from this polished leather toe-tip instead of the other I know too well. How high I might have risen!
Perhaps the impoverished grandmother now gathering tin from my apartment building’s dust-bins is, after all, a less accurate representation of the grandmother gathering tin I noticed upon moving to the city 30 years ago. To her I had given a few coins. But this did nothing to remit the tide of grandmothers––their swollen ankles and hunger––for it seems some one of them is always at work. By now it’s as tiring for me to imagine domesticity for the tin collectors as it is to imagine it for the young lady and her dog, whom I now recognize waving goodbye to the young men gathered at the back of the cafe where I drink beer. From what district does she emerge in the morning and return each night? Surely some borough at the city’s outer edge, for even though she wears fine garments, rents in my neighborhood are now too dear for someone so young. During the long ride home where might the little dog rest? Could this be the purpose of the oversized bag, which hangs so heavily from her shoulder? How crowded it must be in there amongst the detritus of her existence! The party flyers and lipsticks. How does the little dog sleep?
And me? Should I be living under the apartment of the old man, whom I now watch, broom in hand, sweeping café sidewalks rather than the old man who will cross creakily overhead tonight? For this sweeper’s crooked gait is not dissimilar to that of the old man’s whose sounds I’ve come to know too well. Is this street side with this café and this old man, the side I should have called home all along? I ponder it, wondering had I unknowingly ignored my one true destiny. When I see a woman enter, looking nearly like my mother in a photograph taken long before I was born, I am overcome with exhaustion. The same red-scarf and dark, disturbing curls. But I already know someone just like you, I think. For these reasons, I feel it is now time I move to the country.
When I was six years old, a pink and yellowing corpse, bright against a playground’s black asphalt, caught my downcast eyes––a hatchling, feathers unformed, fallen from its nest. I slipped it into my pocket quickly, for I did not want my classmates to see. I was afraid they would prod and kick the strange mass, which to me was already precious.
Understand, my father was away at war, and I was alone much of each day.
Mother’s letters to Father swore she was at home with his namesake, Junior, the boy she called baby, which was me. But as I was hours away at school most days and often unable to enter our locked house afternoons into evenings due to her absence, I believed my mother was likely a liar. Then too, some nights I doubted my father’s existence. Yes, I had his letters, tight black script, filing across the page like lines of marching soldiers, but as I hadn’t yet learned to read, his words were meaningless to me. There was not enough proof that the man from the letters, nor the woman for whom I waited on the stoop, were the origins of my birth.
I was my own man, I decided, calling myself Spencer, Walter, Cubby, George.
The bird I named Casper, as in the movie cartoon, which Mother took me to see one Saturday between shifts at the diner and the factory where she sewed silk into parachutes. I remember her damp arm resting on my shoulder. The precise odor of the theater, a smell that is all but extinct: tobacco, popcorn, an old man sucking mints, a faint smell of urine, and a flickering that I swear was celluloid itself, all lit up by Mother’s perfume. Even now, these seem like pleasant sensations. So what are memories to me if they neither clarify nor determine the weight of my mother’s love? Was she the woman of my movie dreams, dozing in the next seat, or the abandoner who left me alone in the streets?
I hoped the name Casper would give my bird new life like the cartoon ghost-boy from the screen. Someone to love me and fly about my head.
Now I know, the names we give things mean nothing to the things themselves. Me here, for example, in this room, knowing neither friend nor foe. All night beyond my door I hear the sounds of shuffling others pacing the hall as memories arrange themselves in patterns of close but meaningless association.
How can I say this? On my way home the bird spoke. “Your father is a murderer. Cheep. Cheep. Your mother is a whore.”
I thought of the newsreels I had seen of the Japanese soldiers, a time when Mother sat riveted in her chair. And the prison camps filled with men from unknown lands. I tried to see Father among them. I felt the weight of a gun in my hand. Father’s gun, I thought, feeling his sweat running down my brow. There was a horrible sound of palm trees collapsing, a near constant whistling of bullets and rockets and bombs. Under my thumb, the little bird pulsed, while my father bashed the heads of our enemies into the sand.
Will you think him a hero if I tell you my father never came home? My mother remarried. The new man called me son.
Before all this was to happen though I dropped the bird where I stood on the sidewalk and deeper into the city I ran.
Kimberly Jean Smith is a writer and teacher. She is the fiction winner of the Iowa Sweet Corn Contest, and her work has appeared in Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment as well as Enizagam, where she was a semifinalist for a Literary Award in Fiction. Elsewhere her work has appeared in the Rio Grande Review, Ping-Pong (the literary journal of the Henry Miller Library), and The Collective among other publications. She teaches at Gavilan College in Gilroy, CA and lives in Santa Cruz. In 2012, she completed an MFA program at Warren Wilson College.