The girl with a face that said "Antarctica" walked out of the bushes behind the mall. She held a kitten to her chest. I never asked why she was there. Keeping my mouth shut is what I've learned to do. Maybe she was digging up worms and feeding them to the kitten mouth to mouth. Her face was shiny cold and I wanted so to warm up it but I was paying my debt to society and I've learned when your heart almost falls to the dirt you still have to maintain some dignity. I carried on, sealing my chest shut with leather strap will, picking up trash with a forked stick.
She walked on. I thought she was going to miss it. She had never once looked my way, tending to the kitten with fluffy gray hair. The kitten looked like an old man shrunk by some mad doctor's machine. The kind they use to look inside our heads and try to determine our species. Even in the shadow I could see into the kitten's tiny mouth. It seemed endless. There was a small, ghetto park down the street. That would be a good place to let the kitten frolic. If it wanted to frolic. I'd be happy staying in the park in her arms but I wasn't a kitten.
Right when I breathed and sighed and began my reflection on how stardust is never lost she stopped walking and turned to me and said “Goats have four stomachs.” Before I could tell I knew that, she said “Only one of them is used for digestion.” Then I caught the look in her eyes and stopped wanting to talk to strut my stuff. It wasn't necessary.
“I just got to finish cleaning this little bit of mess up against the building. Won't take but a minute.”
She petted the cat's head and said, “We'll wait.”
Everything isn't for everyone. That is the first thing we all need to learn. Take parks. They're nice, aren't they? Trees and mowed grass and short walkways filled with little stones that make it hard to walk without twisting your ankle. I don't like parks. Won't say I hate them, what's to hate, but I don't like the patterns and all the thinking you can feel hanging over the design. I always feel like I'm walking through someone's mind when I'm walking in a park. I feel like a stranger in someone's house. She didn't seem to have the same problem and neither did the kitten but of course, a kitten wouldn't. So small, focused on the ground that's so close, the little thing wasn't capable of looking up and seeing the big picture. For me, she was the big picture, but the problem was I still couldn't tell if I was hers. If I was one of those giant drive-in movie screens from the old days or just a face of a little phone.
The park was green. That was something you could see even in the dark. The streetlights cast a little light that was bruised by the darker patches of night. I was sweaty, salty, and the longer we stayed the more like a stranger I felt. Truth is, I felt myself start to be a little pissed. How long must my feelings be held in abeyance by a kitten?
“You look like someone who reads books to escape the planet,” she said.
Before I could answer she said, “I'm thinking your criminal nature comes from an inability to make intimate contact with other humans.”
I stiffened my spine like they'd taught me in juvie. “I don't need a doctor,” I said.
“Yes you do,” she said, without looking up. “But we can't afford one.”
13666 Yahweh Street
When we got to her apartment I asked her where we were and she said “13666 Yahweh Street.” I found out later that wasn't the real address. I'd never spent much time on her side of town. It wasn't particularly poor or particularly rich but not quite in between. My problem was I couldn't tell which side it leaned to but did know it wasn't my sixteen-foot trailer hooked up to my cousin's septic tank. It was a real house with a wooden door and windows.
“It was left to me by my grandpa,” she said as I looked around. “He was into gold and certain other things. Worked a lot at night.” She had attached a crossed pair of snowshoes on the wall. We didn't get much snow in our town. I figured she traveled and would need them when she was far north. There were all sorts of trinkets and little knitted pieces of cloth in all sorts of shapes on the wall.
Scribbles on tiny pieces of paper were scattered across the fourth wall. The papers were not as big as post-it notes and the writing on them was too small to read. I felt ancient when I threw glances at them and saw only dashes and dots. The wall lured me toward it, asked me to go down on my knees and read the scraps from bottom to top. At the same time, I felt it push me away. Something, somewhere, pushed me back. She left the room a couple of times and I had chances to give in to the lure. I resisted moving my feet but my neck and then my shoulders began to lean in the wall's direction. I was about to give in and move my feet and kneel down and begin trying to decipher when she walked back into the room and said, “My name's Constance. You can tell me yours whenever you're ready.”
Sitting on the little porch, really more of a stoop, the next morning, listening to the birds chatter and the school buses from the elementary school around the corner heave and smoke, she pointed to my old bicycle and said “How many miles you got on that thing.”
I looked at her closely. She gave no sign of joking. “I don't know,” I said. “My odometer broke about a hundred thousand miles ago.”
She nodded. “What I thought. About time to retire it.”
I didn't ask her “And replace it with what?” although that was the question pushing like steel against the back of my teeth.
“I've got a child,” she said. When the final bus wheezed by she said, “Thought you ought to know. He's not with me now but he soon will be.”
“A boy,” I said, and left it at that. I didn't ask her why she thought I needed to know. I didn't ask her anything because I knew there would be no answers. It was all left up to me to find out and determine and that wasn't something that had ever turned out good for me or anyone else
My name's Jonah. I forgot to tell you that before. I was preoccupied you could say, with all that was happening, except for the things that happened in our alone time that I didn't mention and ain't going to mention now. I do guess I was preoccupied then too, not that I'm complaining. There, that's all you need to know.
Constance, this is the first time our names have been on the same page, said she needed to take care of a few things and walked off. I don't see a car anywhere and that is a relief. She has this house and stuff already and I don't have anything so I'm feeling a little better that she doesn't have a car too. Maybe I can work some wonder and come up with one. Right. Me working a wonder. My future is a wobbly fence. I don't have to tell you that.
Once there were things for me to paint. I am a good painter. I have the eye. That's what my uncle who taught me said. That I had the feel, the eye. That's a way I could pick up some good money fast. A way to show to her that just because I had a little problem with the county didn't mean I am a dope head. I know lots of dope heads, good and lost people most of them, but I ain't one myself. I'm just an anxious guy, looking for a place to go where I can relax, really relax, for the first time in my life, and sometimes that puts me at cross-purposes with the judges and they pull out some dusty law book and there you go. I'm picking trash up along deserted railroad tracks and watching the sunset burst across the west.