By Amber Duncan
It’s hard not to stare at people when you’re told not to. I can’t bring myself to look away from the guy—the one with the lazy eye—his shirt rumpled and red. His teeth yellow and crooked, his shoes untied, and his hair long and crusty—sprinkled with whitish, no reddish substances—maybe dandruff or lice large with blood at a thousand times their normal size. I could be that guy.
My foot bobs up and down on the carpeted floor. My finger taps to the dulling sound that constantly plays in my head—mysterious and static-like, but not static, a noise I recognize, but I don’t know from where. The noise that goes up and down, up and down, WOOO wooo WOOO wooo. I’ve come to accept the sound as a part of me. I think the waitress asks me if I want something to eat, but I don’t know if I answer her. I sip the water through one of those bendy straws. I love bendy straws. I hate it when there’s a tiny hole in the crease of the bendy part and I have to suck harder and pinch that part of the straw to retrieve whatever small amount of liquid I can get at a time. I could ask for another straw, but I don’t.
Kort sits at the table to my right. A regular, like me. Wisps of white hair combed over a shiny scalp freckled with liver spots. His eyes bright blue and soft are red-lined and watery. He carries a handkerchief with him and dabs at the corner of his baggy eyes. He slouches over a crossword puzzle. His chewed pencil is nothing more than a stub now, but, like me with my straw, he continues to use it. Use it ‘til it’s got no life in it, I think about what he once said to me. Kort’s one of the few people I talk to. It’s like life, he continued, you use a life ‘til there’s nothin’ left of it. Kort’s about seventy something, I think; he told me his wife of thirty years died—or left him—a few months ago. And yet, he continues his Thursday night ritual of going to Luna’s Luncheon. Thursday’s special: roast beef, any potato, and a veggie side—Kort likes cabbage, I don’t—and coffee or tea—$5.99; a good deal. I’ve never tried that special, but Kort seems to enjoy it. I prefer the fish on Friday. Maybe it is the repetition of the “f’s” that draws me to it, but that’s my ritual dinner—Friday fish. Fried fish Fridays; there’s something oddly comforting about that. I always go to Luna’s after I work, no matter what day. Sometimes I just sit in a booth—watching, reading, and writing. I write down and catalogue what I see—I have to so I don’t miss anything again. No, not again. Sometimes I drink coffee, but most of the time I watch people—make up stories about their lives. Sometimes I’ll imagine that I’m a man cheating on his wife or a woman running away from her abusive lover. Or sometimes I pretend to be a son or daughter celebrating a victorious soccer game. I don’t play soccer, but sometimes I think I do.
I like to watch people, but I have to be careful. I don’t like it when someone sees me watching; it makes me uncomfortable and embarrassed. When someone notices me, they always give me this what a weirdo look. I know the look. I’ve seen it for a long time now—ever since I started watching and cataloguing what I see.
I sit down at the booth around eight—my usual time—and don’t leave until three —maybe I get there at five and stay until one—I don’t know. I used to go to the bar after finishing a shift, but that stopped after the accident.
The accident. My mind grasps at something and then forgets. The accident. I used to drive an ambulance. I remember. I had a partner who would ride beside me, hold my hand, I think. Yes, I had a partner. We used to hang out on our off days like best friends—or lovers—and just talk. But then the accident changed everything. We hit a little girl—no, I hit a little girl. A sterile taste rises in the back of my throat like saline and I forcefully swallow it down. Maybe the little girl was six, or five, or four—could have been eight—I don’t know—I hit her and she’s dead. I walked away—or actually, I was airlifted away. The EMS vehicle flipped a few times—I’m not sure how many. I tried to swerve to miss her, we were en route, going to an accident scene, and I tried to dodge her but didn’t, and a truck hit us—I hit the truck head on—and we flipped and flipped. I came out ok—I’m alive—but I killed a little girl. I shouldn’t say I’m ok, though. Ever since then, I’ve heard that noise—that revolving loud and soft—circular sound. WOOO wooo WOOO wooo. The noise pulsates in my brain and I hear it all the time and it washes out all other sounds. The accident was about five years ago. Thinking about it hurts my head and makes me tired. My partner, she died too. Yes, that’s the accident. I think. I remember. I forget.
I place a decent tip on the table and leave Luna’s. My hair falls in my face as I watch my feet step off the curb. I walk along the gutter, trampling over leaves, cigarette butts, a dead frog flat and gray, a condom: stuff that is natural and unnatural, human and inhuman, real and fictitious—like me, like her and her, everything, and nothing.
The black spiral notebook I hold in my hands makes me feel powerful. It possesses the contents of this week’s log of individuals that I watched. My head hurts. My fingers tap on the back of the notebook to the continuous droning in my mind. I shake my head to stop the pain. After a while the pain subsides. I’m thankful for the notebook because as I flip through this week’s events, I don’t focus on the pain.
The sun starts to peek out, just barely—like a flash—behind Fifth Tower. I never quite understood why it’s called Fifth Tower for there’s not First, Second, and so on. I’ve thought about asking someone inside if they know why it’s called that, but I never do. I pass Fifth Tower and turn left on my street—Elks Drive—and walk a few blocks to my house.
The house is old, but that’s alright. It has character, I think about what the realtor said through pursed lips when I bought it. I don’t care about the character, I told her, I like the view. I remember her giving me one of those weirdo looks—her eyebrows thick and arched on one side and her mouth twitched a bit to suppress something—a laugh, a scream, a smile—maybe she wanted to cry. She turned her head back and forth, her reddish hair, probably dyed, swept left and right across her face. I think she shrugged while handing me the keys.
I fumble in my jeans pocket, forgetting why I stuck my hand down in there in the first place. My eyes are fixed on a tree a few yards off bowing in the wind. One of the limbs sticks out off to the side and looks as if it’s waving. Maybe it’s waving at me, I think. I wave back with my free hand, and the fingers of my other hand brush over some of the objects in my pocket: change—maybe a few dimes or pennies—my clicky pen, the motion of pushing the pen up and down soothes me, a piece of paper—maybe a receipt—and keys. Keys—that’s why I stuck my hand in my pocket. I pull them out, select the right key and insert it in the lock. The door sticks a little and I shoulder it to pop it open.
Silence screams at me as I step inside. Institutional ecru paint coats the walls in stark emptiness. Living colors frighten me and the few photographs on the living room wall are developed in shades of gray. The photographs, black and white, help me to remember what I don’t know anymore. I can taste the grainy texture the pictures give off like a handful of sand crunching around in my mouth. I swallow the miniature pebbles down and squeeze my eyes shut. I think I’m choking on sand. I have to pause and take in deep breaths through my nose until I can feel the several beads of sweat dot my brow and know that the moment passes.
I open my eyes and stare at the picture of a man or woman, embracing a woman of whose face I can see. The back of the faceless other stares at me and the woman looks right into my eyes. I gaze at the photograph for a long time. Thinking. Thinking what? I don’t know, just thinking until I see my reflection in her eyes. I place my black notebook up on the shelf and pull off a red one opening it to a blank page. I wait. I label the page Her and The Other and start to think about the photograph. The woman is familiar but I don’t know who she’s with. Her arms look like they stretch out into nothing as they float out of the picture on either side. Why are her arms like that, I question. She took the picture—I remember her taking the picture, at least, I think I do. A smile forms across her lips—maybe she sees me. Am I expected to join them? Am I late? My heart begins to thump a little faster as I write what I’m thinking down. Will the other get mad if I’m with them? I look at my own hands and imagine that the other’s hands large and creased and press against her back in the permanent embrace. I write that her sweater is indented forever where the other’s hands are and she smiles. Is smiling. At me. I smile too, then frown and sigh. I don’t know if I like the thoughts that come out of me.
I finish writing and am satisfied—as much as I can be—and close the notebook and shelve it with the others.
I kick off my boots and walk over to the couch. I don’t really walk though; I kind of slip and glide on my socks without picking my feet up. I guess it could almost be a strut, but I don’t think I qualify as the “strutting type”—maybe I was that kind once—cool hair, cool clothes, cool talker—cool, cool, cool—I’m usually hot. I sit, or more like slump, on the couch and throw my feet up on it and rest my hands behind my head. I interlace my fingers together and can feel the pulsation in my head hammer against my hands. I stare up at the ceiling and capture a memory that passes before my closed eyes. A pair of black cowboy boots with red and pink hearts and endless swirls. Jean overalls—one hole on the left knee—grass stains—a park behind her. Hair white and still as it droops over her shoulders. Red top with tear shaped eyelet holes lining the collar…
I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I remember is my alarm going off at 4. Mornings are never my favorite time of day, but after a cold shower I’m able to make the best of it. I pull on a clean pair of jeans and a t-shirt after drying myself off—sometimes I forget to do that—and search my bedroom for my boots before I recall taking them off by the front door. I slap myself with the heel of my hand, mutter Stupid, as I walk to the door where I see them leaning against one another, waiting for me. I tug my boots on and stare a moment at the photograph. I sigh.
The droning static-like noise in my head grows louder; what am I doing? I think for a minute—shake my head—and finish getting ready: brush my hair, teeth, double-check my pockets for my keys. I grab my canvas bag and leave the house and walk to the bus stop. Sometimes I forget and leave the keys outside in the lock, just dangling there, waiting for someone to take them, but no one ever has.
I look down at my watch—it’s early. I dread the ride out of town. It takes three buses to get out of the city and into rural land where farms and ranches appear around every two, maybe twenty, acres or so. As I sit on the bus, I think about the work I do now. It was hard finding work again. It was hard doing anything again. It’s still hard to get up and go. My partner is not with me anymore. She was beautiful when she smiled. Alycks. I can remember exactly what Alycks looks like—but I have a hard time remembering what she smelled like. Vanilla or coconut, peaches or strawberries, juniper or lilac—I just can’t remember. I carry a picture of her in my wallet—I tore myself out of it a long time ago. I pull out my wallet that is conveniently attached to my belt loop by a silver chain with thirty-five links. I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be the only owner of my identity if that damn wallet wasn’t attached to my hip. I rub my thumb up and down the rigid side of the photograph. I release a sigh, or make some kind of noise, because the woman holding her purse in her lap beside me glances at me and scoots closer to the window. I think another person could have comfortably sat between us as she is nearly scaling the side of the bus. I frantically place the picture back in the wallet, replace the wallet in my pocket, and take out a blue notebook that I placed in my jacket before I left the house and start writing about her. She’s middle-aged, with skin olive and toned. Her face stern and handsome. She’s going to work too—maybe—her feet scream in her shoes—they are too tight for her, foot fat bulges up and over her shoes—high heels and black with white and gray scuff marks on the sides by her pinky toes. Alycks hated wearing heels, she was already tall and she would say I look like an Amazon. I laugh, but I can’t remember why it’s funny.
I look at my work and question how it goes from the middle aged woman to Alycks. I slowly close the blue notebook and place it my jacket.
My mind wanders until I envision myself holding hands with the woman next to me. She smiles at me and I return the expression passionately. I pretend this—and I pretend that we have been together for years. She asks me about my day as we travel home—but this isn’t real. I shake my head and reality sets in like an ice-cold slap across my cheek. I think I can feel the sting and rub my cheek to ease the pain that isn’t even there, but I think it is.
The bus bumps along the pot-holed road. I long for the ride on the dirt covered road, but that’s another bus later. My fingers rap against my knees while my head bobs to that inaudible sound that only I can hear. I refrain from humming it, which I’m sure the lady beside me appreciates. I’ve hummed it before and realize that it has a pattern but it’s not a real song. I’ll start by humming loud, then soft, loud, then soft, over and over again. WOOO wooo WOOO wooo. Maybe I hear this in my sleep too. Maybe I’m not the only one who wakes up after two weeks in a coma and hears this noise.
The bus pulls over and the woman stands up quickly. She’s in a hurry, maybe. She’s late or perhaps she wants to get away from me. Maybe she’s late for a doctor’s appointment—I think maybe we have an appointment together. I quickly write in my notebook again and document this information. I follow her lead even though I’m sitting on the aisle side; I step back and allow her to walk rapidly to the front and down the steps. She turns to the right, and I watch her go. I watch her for a moment and turn and begin to walk in the opposite direction to the final bus stop. My head down and my eyes watch my feet on the dirt road littered with dead leaves and soda cans.
From where I work today, I can’t see Fifth Tower. I’m isolated from the city and yet could never escape it because it’s what I know. The country fills my nostrils as I take in a deep breath and release it through my parted lips. My eyes sting against the fresh air. The only things I can see are the horses galloping through a lens. I can see whatever I point my camera at.
I carry the camera in my canvas bag, but sometimes I forget my bag. I didn’t today though. When I forget my bag, I have to carry the camera around my neck with the strap. The strap digs into my skin. I think I have a callous running across the left side of my neck—the strap-burn has come and gone.
I swing the camera around left and right, up and down and continue to take rolls of film—a constant click, click, click. Before I know, it I use seventeen rolls of film and the sun has lowered itself into the horizon. Sometimes I don’t even know how I started taking pictures. I think I remember a friend from work—my old job—yes, I think he was a friend, a fellow “cruiser” we called ourselves. Yes, he knows someone in the magazine business that was looking for a photographer. That’s how I got this job, I think. The horses I shoot are for the cover of Horse Trader. A magazine that I’d never heard of, but didn’t care.
I hold the black camera in my hands. Adjust the lens to focus on the horse gray and black spotted running through my line of vision. This is not my camera. Not mine. Alycks’. She was the photographer, not me. I’m looking through the lens like I’m looking through her eyes—how she saw things. She saw everything. I think she’s the one who yelled Look out! But it was too late and I hit the little girl. The little girl with a bird-like face in a pair of jean overalls with green stains and cowboy boots with red hearts. The little girl with white hair, in the street, in my way. I was in her way. I don’t know why she was in the road, I just know that she was and I hit her. The park—in the distance—behind her.
I’m sure Alycks screamed. I’m sure her voice cut through me like a scalpel separating the layers of skin, tendons, muscles, getting to the bone and a bone-saw severing the hard, white skeletal material—going through the milky amber substance and coming out on the other side. Cutting me in two. But I can’t remember. I don’t know if I screamed—I think I uttered an Oh God, but I don’t know if that’s just something I say now when I think about it. Oh God, my head hurts. The pounding in my head is like a tidal wave—its volume, high and low, seizes my muscles into an atrophic state. I close my eyes and focus on my heart beat—pumping to the mysterious noise. I open my eyes, the moment passes.
The horses dance in front of me—twenty or so yards, or feet, off. They don’t notice me or if they do, they don’t seem to care. The horses smell like ass. But what does ass smell like? I think. Nature? Natural? Nature. Horse shit, feed, and sweat. I swing the camera across my neck—the straps digs into me and I cringe at the feeling, sucking in air through my parted lips— and I climb on top of the fence separating man from beasts. I snap picture after picture. I wonder which side of the fence I’m on.
© Sagebrush Review IV Spring 2009