The bright orange, red and yellow of crushed leaves on the gray concrete just outside the open door. Charles’s pale blue irises highlighted by red streaks crossing the whites and the puffy crimson rims of his eyelids.
A dog looks in the window at me, just the brown muzzle and the floppy ears of a canine, peering in through the lower left hand corner of the window. Men are laughing out in the street where I cannot see. Another yellow leaf drops and blows wildly in the wake of a passing car. More cars with their anxiety making noise passing close to the open door. When they pass on the other side of the street the noise is soft and pleasant like the crashing of distant waves. Even on this side of the street some cars manage to create a gentle whoosh while others gurgle, grunt, growl and roar.
The cars are small bursts of motion and color streaking past the glass like fish in an aquarium. The trucks are slow, crawling monsters of loud carbon emitting wrath. I see a bicycle leaning against the meter that serves the whole street.
A man passes by and looks in. His nose is a cruel shape, his mouth is agape slightly as if he were breathing through it, incapable of smiling with it. The eyes of a zombie, hard like marbles, uncaring. But he is young and women who like tall lean bitter young men will find him attractive. I shudder.
Charles is soft and friendly and mumbles. His flesh looks pale and soft. There is enough of it that if you squeezed him it would be like squeezing a marshmallow. Because of the way the red made the blue of his eyes look, because I was looking in his eyes and he was looking in mine for just a moment as we spoke, I contemplate what that squeezing would feel like.
That way that he talks quietly with his back turned as he moves and I’m not sure if he is speaking to me or to himself, at first it reminded me of a dream in which you can’t quiet understand what is being said. It made me feel confused and uneasy. I wanted clear bright communication.
Today it furthers his aura of softness. His mumbling fills the air around us like clouds of cotton, cushioning us within this space of hard floors and polished mahogany.
When we first met he seemed accusing, threatening, alien. He is still alien but I like being in the room with him. I wish he would not go, not now that I suspect that what disconcerted me before was only softness.
Another leaf, this one orange like brass, summersaults down behind the back of a black man in a navy blue sports jacket who is feeding the meter.
I wish Charles would not go, but he is already gone, and I am here so that he need not be. I am left wondering over the only curiously human things we said, the few words that we exchanged that weren’t about change and cream and bags and glass cleaner.
I said: “You look tired.”
The counter was between us.
He answered: “I do? Naw. I only got up at five this morning.”
At this point he is drifting away from the counter towards the door, moving backwards as if rewinding in slow motion. “I only got to sleep for like two hours the other day.”
“Geez.” I say trying to express sympathy.
“Naw.” he says, and actually what he says sounds more like ‘No Ah‘, “I figure it’s good practice, you know, for having kids.” And then he’s out the door drifting away down the strip of gray concrete with the leaves and the cars and the others.
I compile a list of data. What do I know about Charles? He is in school because he mentioned exams when he asked me to take his shift last week. He sometimes sleeps in his car. He bakes bread and manages this store. This is precious little information. His curious remark about practice for having children, does it mean he is about to be a father? Does he have a wife? A girlfriend? Is he a bachelor who actually thinks of a future in which he has children with so much hope that he takes today’s trials as preparation?
There are not enough clues for me to come to a conclusion, not enough for me to form a working picture of what Charles’s life is like.
A fire engine screams by, a big red rectangle with flashing red yellow and white headdress rushing for disaster.
I try to imagine what it would be like to be the girlfriend of Charles. I find it difficult to imagine a conversation with him. If we got together in a different setting for coffee, what could we say to each other?
It is a challenge to imagine him saying anything deeply philosophical. This after all is the man who came out of the restroom half an hour ago and didn’t wash his hands, not even for show.
Nor can I imagine myself being a convincingly interesting person to speak to without the conversation getting philosophical. Politics is a challenge for me, and anyway I can’t picture him being passionate in that regard. Books? He can read, he is in school, but does he like to? I move on assuming that we have schlepped our way through the small talk with lots of eye contact.
I can imagine a kiss, a hug, soft warm embraces. That part is easy. He is a man and I am a woman. These two simple facts are often enough to bridge the distance between two human beings. It is enough to allow for at least brief moments of bliss.
I try to imagine him as an older man, as a husband, as a respectable member of society. I can picture him in a sweater vest.
As if to illustrate my inner musings, a man in a bright yellow dress shirt and sweater vest tromps by the window. A paper bag holding lunch swings in his hands. There he goes, my dear Charles, on his way to the office.
This is as far as I will bother my imagination to take me. The plot is already stretched thin by the fact that I could not be myself in even those earliest conversations. A life time of hiding myself is the lifetime I have already rejected. And honestly, if you were Charles and you read this, wouldn’t you find it at least mildly disturbing ?
More bodies pass by the window, a few faces turn in to see me. Many manage kinder noses and inoffensive mouths, but their eyes are those same inexpressive marbles. Cold eyes that deny entry to the soul. Leaves tremble on the sidewalk under the caress of a breeze, but never quite lift off. A man across the street turns the corner, his reflection accompanies him in the mirrored glass of the tall building he passes. A harp sings incessantly from the speakers behind my head. An older man limps by with the help of his cane.
Charles alone after I am dead and gone… Lives in motion before my eyes, lives imagined in the eyes of soft spoken strangers.
A young couple strolls by arm in arm, her red sweater against his cobalt blue coat sleeve. Just outside the open door the high heels of her black boots crush the bright orange, red, and yellow of winter leaves into confetti upon the concrete.