I haven’t worn glasses since I was sixteen, so I heard him before I could make out his features. “So you’re not coming?” Pacing back and forth at the corner of Ninth Street, he shoved the phone in his pocket without hanging up. Let the other guy do it.
He walked into a pizza shop, a narrow hallway between Ninth and whatever street runs behind Ninth. I followed. Pizza seemed wise: Forecasts showed a storm, but I was still scheduled for a long landscaping shift.
He stood in the doorway, a tall man, probably six-four but hunched to six-flat, and he kept intense eye contact. I assumed he managed the pizza shop and had been yelling at a no-show employee. I tried to relate. “Kids these days, huh?”
He responded with silent confusion, and a wide Italian man appeared from behind a mountain of pizza boxes. “We don’t open ‘til eleven.”
I left. Tall guy followed me now. “I don’t work there,” like he’d read my mind. “But yeah, I’m stressed out.”
His eyes glowed yellow, and the word, “stressed,” required serious effort. He sank onto a bench in front of the pizza shop’s neighboring laundromat and held out an enormous hand with knuckles like old brass doorknobs. “Abe.”
Looking up at a cumulonimbal colossus, I decided my shift would be canceled, so I leaned against a wall and slipped outside time. “Why so stressed?”
“My girlfriend overdosed on Monday.” He drained a Steel Reserve in a brown paper bag in one quiet gulp.
I have often been accused of pathological optimism. “Is she alright now?”
“The hell are you talking about, is she alright? She’s dead.”
I gave up. “Sorry about that.”
Embarrassed for me, he pulled a tiny book from his pocket. Prayers for Times of Hardship. “People tell me it’ll help, but I can’t get into it.” He flipped through it. The first and last pages were coated in names and phone numbers, and he had highlighted several of the intervening passages. “I want you to answer something for me.” He flipped back and forth, pausing at each yellow section. “Here. The bit with the star.”
Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.
“‘Son of David.’ Nobody’s managed to explain that to me.”
“The original verse, in Hebrew or Greek or something, probably read ‘descendant.’”
He looked at it for a while, nodding occasionally, then looked up as a beat-down Ford Explorer struggled to park parallel to us.
“That’s my niece.”
She smoked a long cigarette and yelled expletives at the cars in front of and behind her. Two kids with mid-length dreads sat in the back seat, calm and silent.
Abe yelled at her, “What are you doing with those two boys?”
She got out of the car. They stayed. She launched into conversation with Abe in an enervated whisper, so I walked to the coffee shop up the road and sat in a wicker chair three sidewalk-slabs away from an ACLU canvasser. In a neuter radio voice, he repeated to each passer-by, “Hi, I’m here defending civil liberties and human rights with the ACLU. Will you help me?” His white mustache ruffled the same way every time like an inched tape. Truly incredible. Rejection after brusque rejection.
After the thirty-seventh a man stopped, green bucket hat aflutter in the antediluvian wind. He looked about ten years older than the canvasser. His stone-blank face could have been a topological map. “Do you oppose the draft?”
“There is no draft.”
“Do you oppose it, though?”
“Well, we’ve recently forced the administration to reunite 2,173 Latin-American–”
“Do you oppose slavery?”
“Of course we’re against slavery.”
“How can you say you’re against slavery if you don’t fight the draft?”
“Sir, there is no–”
“I was drafted.”
“I thank you for your service, sir.”
“For my slavery, you mean? Good day.”
He started to shuffle off, but the canvasser called out to his back, “Are you sure you can’t make a small donation to defend civil liberties?”
“If you don’t oppose slavery I can’t possibly support you. Good day.”
As he made his slow escape, a hoarse panhandler walked by with an unreadable cardboard sign. He fixed the canvasser with a knowing look and stepped close to him. “I hope you get it just like I do.” He walked a few steps then turned back thoughtfully. “Actually, I don’t hope. You will, just like me, I promise.”
Consider the geometry of our Ninth Street Rube Goldberg machine:
On this block we have a line of forty-three rectangular sidewalk slabs, from the gutted skeleton formerly known as Francesca’s to Vintage South, whatever that is. Numbering from Francesca’s, the canvasser stands on slab four and faces the street. O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, weakly, weakly.
My wicker chair sits on seven. In this freeze-frame, the Vietnam vet and his green bucket hat shuffle up the row, one foot in slab ten and the other lagging back on nine, turned slightly to one side. He plants his feet with every step as though the wind might blow him away at any moment. The panhandler has overtaken him. We see him paused, airborne, running, above fourteen, where Abe and his niece now reenter the frame, lumbering toward me. They have already parted to allow the Vietnam vet to shuffle between them. Outfold, infold. Like birth, the marble shoots on down the lines and curves.
The two kids are nowhere. The Rapture, perhaps. If we focus, we see that shimmering translucent strings attach each character to the next, creating a drag on all our movements as storm clouds gather at both ends of the street, walls closing in, pressurizing. We are all Han Solo in the trash chute. The first faint snorts of thunder rattle the strings, and Abe’s eyes darken from highlighter yellow to old book yellow.
Niece plopped down in the wicker chair beside mine as Abe paced toward the street and back toward us. “Church said they had $130,000 in donations this month, but I’m still sleeping in the woods. How’s that?”
Niece recited, “Religion’s bad, but God is good. He sent Jesus to die for your sins, so there’s free will. It’s not religion; it’s something you believe.” She took a long drag from her cigarette and hiccupped and coughed simultaneously.
“I ain’t buying that bullshit. There’s something up there, but hell if I know what it is.”
His shoes had no laces, so the canvasser didn’t join the conversation, and Abe ranted on uninhibited, pacing faster and swinging the book wildly.
“Grandma told us to believe in this man with a beard and all our problems would go away. Where’s he at?”
“You’ve got to change your insides.”
“I ain’t buying that bullshit. God can be good or he can be powerful. Pick one.”
Niece, exasperated and at the end of her cigarette, turned to me for help. I pointed at Abe. “Maybe he’s God.”
She lit another cigarette and walked up the road. By the time Abe realized she’d left, she’d passed the cyclery on slab twenty-eight and fished her car keys from her purse. Abe watched after her for a few seconds then took off his shoes with a sound like someone plucked the string of a homemade bucket-bass. He pointed to his grass-covered socks. “I’ve been sleeping in the woods. And that preacher took out a credit card reader midway through his sermon, had people line up, and told them not to swipe if there was nothing on the card.”
I wondered what Abe’s name was yesterday. I wondered what it would be tomorrow. He stared at his laceless shoes, and the canvasser stopped a hunched woman with a yoga mat, and the first drips of rain inflated the parched grass on God’s socks.
A flashbulb of lightning illuminated the street, but the thunder shuddered several seconds later. Abe put his shoes back on. The tongue of the right shoe was under his foot, but he seemed not to notice. He walked back toward the laundromat, book open, highlighter in hand. Behind him, a new figure emerged from a CBD dispensary and stood next to the canvasser and yelled at a Lexus, “How’re you gonna have a nice car like that and can’t even park it? Disgusting.” He paused for a moment and leaned his head back before screaming so hard he doubled over, “Disgusting!”
Still the canvasser didn’t turn his head but watched the Lexus roll out of his line of sight, his eyes bulging with loss. Abe had walked away and now stood statue-still on slab thirty-one, staring at the parking space his niece had occupied then gazing slowly up the street, down the street, and back at the parking space. He blinked several times, as though something were caught in his eye. He then gazed up the street, down the street, and back again at the parking space. Still unsatisfied, he blinked several more times and shook his head before gazing down the street, then up, then back at the parking space. He slouched back onto the bench in front of the laundromat. His right hand flipped the pages of Prayers for Times of Hardship twenty at a time while his left hand rubbed the bench and his eyes remained fixed on the parking space. Then it started to rain.