Fragments from Old Stories

[W r i t e r' s N o t e b o o k]

Sketches of Those We Have Known: BERKELEY PEOPLE

Watson walked on listening for the creep of the bus behind him. It reminded him of an animal, old and slow but indomitable and fated to rule the earth. He turned and watched the old eyes glower through the mist that were like beams of radiation. In the distance were the buildings; only two were visible. One was brick, with large rectangular windows. The other was a steel obelisk directly across the street, it's windows retracted into the black steel. The fog hung along the tops of each on of them, concealing the watchtowers. There were two watchtowers, he remembered. One on the old building faced east, toward the surrounding hills. The other faced west across the green expansive bay between the spires of the Golden Gate and out to where the ocean and sky danced together in a vaporous line.

He briefly thought of the women in those buildings. He thought they were damsels from another age looking for heroes. One used to stand all day combing her blond hair that fell down her back and rumpled along the floor like some hairy snake. Occasionally she would pick up glasses and search along Grizzly Peak.

The other paced with a cigarette in her mouth and held a trembling mirror to her face blurring the room in the background. She had told him that work was boring. But at least it was work and honorable, useful work was hard to come by.

He had forgotten their names but remembered vividly the day he had met them. They would search Shattuck Avenue for the "loners" they told him. They were sitting in a cafe on the corner of Shattuck and Allston.

"Am I a loner?" he had asked defensively.

The blonde one had laughed like a little girl who sees her father naked for the first time.

"I'm not a loner!" he demanded.

The one with the cigarette nodded her head, "that's right, you have your pestering dreams. I can always tell a dreamer by the fog in his eyes....and, mister, you have fog!" Then she laughed a husky, friendly laugh that made Watson smile.

They said they worked for the city and when he told them he worked for the post office the two of them took him down to the park. It was not late at night but it was dark and Watson held onto the two hands that escorted him down to the tiny creek running through a cool bankside.

There was something supernatural about these women even if they said they were simple city workers.

Watson asked the blonde how old she was and she turned her head and looked into the creek.

"I'm a silver leaf." Watson opened his eyes and, yes, it was true taht a leaf was snagged on a rock and the woman bent to put her hand in the cold stream and swirled it gently until the leaf was bumped from the snag. The current pulled it gently into the middle of the stream. The other woman flicked her cigarette into the stream, then stood behind Watson and brushed her hand through his hair.

"I'm from Neptune," and her hand slid before her moved down his shirt. Watson quit asking them questions, in the park, down by the creek, empty of sound but the hurried feet of the squirrels somewhere behind them.

At that moment he would have given a five-dollar bill for the croak of a frog.

Watson perceived a groan in the creek. It wasn't a bellow but an eerie sigh that became a groan in that delicate gurgle of the water rounding over the pebbles and rock.

A green stake, like the one used for surveying, suddenly became visible to him. It stuck in the middle of the creek directly in front of him and he wondered at the illusions of night that could make noise and things, alternating like drunken eyes looking like blinking neon signs.

The two women were then opposite him, asking personal questions. They wanted to know about everything. His age, his income, address, phone number, place of birth, exact time of birth, his favorite color, favorite books, favorite music. Did he sleep on the left side or right. Right-handed or right-handed? Smoke? What was his philosophy of life and if he was too boring to have one, where had he been? What did he do? What did he know...exactly?

He answered as best he could and when he stumbled over something they went to another question, to return to the previous one later. He didn't question what they were doing. Perhaps it was out of the ordinary he didn't know because often, he wasn't sure what he was saying. Even in the cool air he felt hot and sticky with sweat.

The last thing he remembered saying was "letters" then they attacked him.

On the bank they stripped him of his clothes and threw them in the water. "What...what are you doing?" he yelled, kicking and scratching as he tried to pull from the women who had suddenly turned on him. They didn't say anything.

When his clothes had been disposed of in the creek, the blonde one (and he remembered the monstrous green eyes palpitating in their sockets) pointed up to the moon that was half a yellow grin, toothless but filled with a pale cheek.

The two stood and started running through the park and when they had disappeared Watson could hear a chilling, whining shriek that was joined by a rebel call, "yeyeyeyeyeyeyeye" as if the tongues were vibrating like the blades of a reaper against the roof of the mouth..

Watson was cold for a long time. He sat stunned, unable to fetch his clothes from the water. They hadn't drifted downstream. His shorts and pants were twisted around the rocks and fallen twigs that lay haphazardly in the water.

On the bank naked and shivering, Watson could hear the squirrels or ground birds rustling behind him. He knew if he turned there would be line of curious and staring eyes, twinkling and fixed and bright

The bus was coming up behind him and he ran, then walked quietly to the stop that was in front of the railroad tracks. The tracks ran parallel and strung for a mile before bending around a small hill that was part of someone's backyard. They were filled with broken green glass that nestled with the crushed rock between the ties. Watson himself had thrown a few of the bottles there, late at night. That is, when everything was shut up in the neighborhood and he could experience the extravagance of sound that exploded from the glass breaking on steel.

Before he reached the bus stop he suddenly halted. He had seen a crack fissured slightly in the concrete. It had split just a fraction and he had seen it, seen it like one could see the hands of a clock move when the mind was concentrating adequately on it; on anything. Just so the eyes blinked occasionally and not miss the movement of the hand. He was glad to be outside. He had lived with earthquakes all his life and recognized, now, how subtle they began.

He bent closer to the crack still reminding himself that he'd seen it. After all, there it was. But, then, he had seen a sign in the distance that enlarged his imagination and turned out to be a swab of paint some vandal had put on.

He dropped his eye into the sliver that was nearly a foot long. It had split through a handprint someone had made in the cement years before. The hand that made this, he thought, is now red and beat like the porches and roofs on the cottages that fell inward throughout the neighborhood.

The print was larger than a child's but smaller than a man's hand. They had pressed hard because the print was framed by a rim of cement.

Watson pressed his ear to the crack, remembering an old prophecy that earthquakes could be heard coming before they struck. He heard a faint roar as if it were caught deep in the interior of the Earth and yelling for help. He didn't hear any cries of help. Perhaps it was the ubiquity of the ocean.

He looked to see where he was in relation to the telephone pole but when he raised his head the bus rambled past him and he stood to run after it, fingering his pocket for the quarter. But at that moment the red signal light changed, black and white arms crossed the road, and in an instant the area was shook by the stampede of cars, one after another, in an endless row, led by a Gothic engine, all the wheels clacking like playing cards hitched to a bike wheel.

Out of breath, hunched over with hands on his knees, feeling disaster was going to strike at any moment with what he'd heard from the crack, from the depths of the Earth, sweating, his belly punching in and out in short pants, wondering in a flash what had happened to him, why he was on his hands and knees in the dark without a job or prospect, riding busses with the poor and crazed, in this state he looked up to see the two women, standing on the back of the train, with no expressions, arms crossed, flicking a cigarette off the train to the ground below.




David Eide
January 24, 2014