What the City Wanted to Show Me

note: in progress
The curved wall drops into a parking lot, with a higher, much bigger wall behind it, old-paint block letter warnings TOW AWAY ZONE, NO PARKING ALONG THIS WALL. There is a network of fields and fences stretching out under the slow setting Northwestern sun, a tangle of empty play equipment on a Sunday night. The woman sits there on the little ‎wall, beside the entrance to the back-of-the-school’s parking area and looks like she’s waiting for someone. She’s typing into a phone and maybe it seems like she’s texting, like she’s talking with someone.
She’s writing an email to herself, and wondering if she should call her children, who are a long-drive a day further south, on a different trip. 
‎She stood up and dialed their number, saw that a man was standing in the window in the house across the street, which was smaller than the gracious old-wood relics of early-20th century neighborhood prosperity that flanked it. He was shirtless, and she wondered if he had been watching her. She would watch a person sitting on a little curb-wall across the street from her house, just because she would be curious about what they were doing, why they were sitting there. 
She wondered what she looked like, with more curiosity than caring or concern. 
Her daughter’s voice sounded loud on the phone, and there was music in the background, some noise. She tried to say hello, but her daughter couldn’t hear her. She said it louder. 
“Can I call you back in a minute?” The girl said, “We’re at a park.” 
“Yeah, sure, sweetie! I’m at a park, too!” She looked around. She wasn’t really at a park, the park was up the street a ways. ‎She was near a park, though. 
She hung up the phone, walked into the park, intending to walk through. She saw a girl her daughter’s age playing in the fountain. The girl was big like her daughter, strong and tall, but still oddly baby-shaped, toddler-shaped, with a belly. 
She was laughing and happy, healthy in a bathing suit. On the bigger and well-populated play equipment, kids swung from bars all singing the song from that movie, about the princess with powers, who spent time in a castle alone at the top of a mountain. Adults lay on the grass, smiling, many in couples, with arms crossing backs in the slant of the warm setting sun.
The woman thought she might walk back to the house where she was staying, in a yellow room. The night before, she had ‎sweated, waking up in the pale dawn to find the guest sheets soaked. She’d gone into the organics store and purchased an expensive bag of detergent cubes. The thought of doing laundry in the house was anxiety-producing. It was a quiet house, with everything in its place. She was a messy person, whose place tended to shift and spread, to strew itself around.
Before dinner, she had read a report on a window factory in Illinois, where the workers had taken over the ownership and operation, an essay on a slum in India. These things – the look of the words on the page, the images of faces and buildings – they sat in her mind like a film, running in loops at the edges, stirring and distracting.
She was who she is. She is real.
She got to the place in the park where men sat on a concrete wall that was built for sitting, an arc around a statue, an obelisk made of 3 slabs, so that the vertical face was empty, imagined. She turned around, walked in a half-circle around a wooden bench, where two men sat, seemingly not together, one reading, one writing. Something about this made her feel amazed.
“This is what people are like, when they come to the park. They are here to enjoy the park. They are spending time doing things that they want to do.”
She could feel the pleasure of the people, the ease of them in the early evening.
The grass was thinner than it looker, worn down from sitting and playing, dry from the hot days of the weekend. White feathers were strewn about, downy and curled, some evidence of some incident that had since passed.
The seagulls sang in the trees like a heartbeat for a moment, all cawing together, syncing.
The woman sat down and took her phone out of her bag, set her other bag aside. Thought about it, pulled it closer and then began to pull things out. What would she need, to sit here in the park? She felt exhilarated and also nervous. She was happy. Her life felt real.
She looked up, saw the line, the darker blue. Would it happen, she wondered. Would the sky open up here, in this place? She thought about her wish, the one that she’d made public, the one that she calls art.
She didn’t think it’d happen there, at the park, but she thought about the gallery owner’s words earlier that day, speaking generally about the value of having seen something and said something about it, so that others know they are not alone in seeing things.
Her children would be in the city in two days. She did not tell them where the art show is. She didn’t know how to explain it to their father, who knew almost nothing about her life or to know everything and to be forcibly avoiding acknowledging any of it as real or of value. Maybe they would walk by the window on Cordova and see her name on the wall. The thought was astounding to her. It felt like a collision in her mind.
She began to write from where she was, from where she had just been, about what had happened, what was happening.
She was writing to remember, because remembering makes things real, carries them into the future, reminds her of what is important. The man said that he didn’t like his picture taken, that he was nervous about his story, because of all the people watching, all the people, all the time. She wondered about whether or not she should tell his story, as it intersected with hers. Was that exploitation? To tell his story, because she knew that it would be a good story to tell? Was there any justice in the telling?
She thought about the significance of their conversation, the brutal poetry of what he had said, his abject honesty and the hook of his nose, the golden fur on his head, his quick grey-clad feet and mangled thumb. His missing tooth and the way he had looked right into her eyes, with true joy and amazement.
She wanted to write down every single thing that he had said to her, every thought she could remember having. She knew that they would fade, those thoughts and their significance. Walking down the street with a clattering cart in a tight black dress with her hair in the usual braids and ‎her cheap yellow shades on, she was that person for a few hours, that person walking with the man who called himself, on that day, Mother Parker, round and round the Gastown blocks, the hot sidewalks of E. Hastings, walking like she belonged there, like it was her home.
She knew it wasn’t her home.
‎She is at home now. Days later, days after the park. With a catbird in the yard squawking about something important. Fussing about a nest, asking a question, seeming lost, wanting something.
As she lay on the floor of the airport, waiting to get on the plane, finally, she let a tear slide down her face and remembered that she was supposed to call her friend’s mother, to tell the woman: “I don’t know where your son is, but I drove past the place where we played music in the grass once, outside the state hospital. He had on a button up shirt, red, and played his white violin and was happy. That’s all I know. I’m sorry I lost touch with him. It happened fast. During a busy month. I let him down. I’m sorry.”
She will probably only tell the woman that she doesn’t know where her son is. That is all she’ll say.
Today, driving to work on just 3 hours of sleep, with her face feeling strained and heavy, listening for songs on the radio, some sign, she realized that she hadn’t finished writing the story she meant to tell, and she took a quick inventory, checking to see if the memories were there, and they were, but she could feel them getting jumbled, eclipsed by other things that had happened and might happen, that are happening, right now, as she writes this.
She tried to draw his picture at the coffeeshop, just hours after she got home, a lifetime away from looking out the window of the plane, waiting to see the mountains she calls home, wondering about the clouds, seeing them differently, she was moving too fast, she was too high up in the air, buffered by steel and aluminum, fiberglass and plastic, encased in canned, filtered air, the recycled breath of strangers, just small streams of cold air from outside, sneaking in around her ankles. She could not remember his face, only parts of it, and parts of parts. The green circumference in the brown field of his eyes, the way his ears did not look like hers, how they looked nothing alike and yet, when he raised his shirt, sitting there on the grass, and said, “Look, of David, see this here…” and pointed to how his ribs grew outward instead of down, how they jutted like wings a little, splayed out in a smooth mountain of bone, she immediately showed him her own right rib cage, which has the same abruption‎ in downward, tapered growth and it made sense to her that they were related.
She had opened her eyes quickly when she heard the stutter of his shoe on the pavement beside the sunny spot in the grass where she slept in the early morning. She had felt him reach down, heard something being set in the grass. It was an unopened beer, warm, alone in its six pack ring.
“Hello,” she said.
“Oh,” He seemed surprised, though it was him that had surprised her, “I just wanted to give that to you. I don’t need it. You can turn it in, for money, save the can.”
“Oh, I don’t need it either.” The woman looked at the beer in her hand and at the man who had given it to her, with his head large in a bicycle helmet, his legs wiry and spry-strong in grey sweatpants with straight-hemmed cuff, a sweatshirt, grey shoes. He was beginning to peer into the garbage can.
“Can I just leave it here? For that guy,” she gestured toward the man who was sleeping in the shade, further down the small slope, began to walk toward the lamppost, where she set the can of beer on the corner of its base.
“Yeah, yeah,” The man seemed a little nervous. He asked if there was a machine gun in the black bag that was only 1/2 covered by the thin airline blanket that she’d gotten for free from a stewardess near midnight the night before. “We usually charge 7.00,” the woman said, “but, it’s a night flight. Don’t worry about it.”
The woman had curled into the smallest ball she could in her seat, and her bones hurt immediately, her arm numb, her tailbone bothered, her feet jacked into an angle fitting only for a baby’s soft ligaments. She was cold and glad for the blanket, but did not sleep on the plane. She wanted to put her head on the shoulder of the man who sat in the window seat. She didn’t find him attractive, but she had wanted to hold him, to curl into him. She had felt like a lonesome animal.
She had slept for a few hours on a bench outside the airport, under the province flags, and feeling quite safe and exhausted.
By the time she stood beside the garbage can and told the man that, no, it was ukulele, not a machine gun, there in that case, she had already taken the first train into the city, and walked dozens of blocks, watched the sunrise in Victory Square and cut through a long alley. She had been sleeping in the park because she had nowhere to go until later, and the feeling of grass, after the hard bench of the night before, the tiny seat of the airplane, it was like the softest bed, there in the sun.
“I’m sorry I woke you ‎up.”
“It’s okay. I need to get up.” She moved toward her things, spoke over her shoulder, “Hey, is there somewhere to get coffee around here?”
The man began to list every place that sold coffee, the 7-11 for 1.98, McDonald’s for a dollar. A restaurant on Hastings.
The woman became aware that she had to pee, and that she was hungry.
“Want to go get some food with me?”
“I’m not asking for anything.” The man’s tone was uncompromising.
“I know. I’m just hungry. Want to go get some breakfast?”
The man hesitated for a minute, watched her pull her bags onto her shoulders. “Here, let me carry something.”
“They’re heavy,” she held out the ukulele, the lightest bag.
“No, let me carry a different one. This looks too much like a machine gun and, you know, I wouldn’t want anyone to think I had a machine gun.”