The Man Without a Story
Abner had been watching the blink of his cursor with a diligent eye all morning. He blinked, it blinked, he went to write something, it blinked: he stopped. It kept on blinking and intimidating, so he took a walk. He shuffled down Dover to Telegraph, taking a right just before he reached Noah’s Bagels. He wrote a review for the bagels once –they were toasted all right, but the cream cheese had been slapped on with an air of carelessness that left it careening over the sides. If he had a thumbtack for every restaurant, café, or bar he had ever reviewed, they would have covered the entire city like a topographical map. Abner took his job seriously and had the belly to prove it. So when the Editor in Chief called to say they needed someone to fill in for the bits of short fiction that came at the end of every issue, Abner was as good a choice as any.
Abner neared the end of Telegraph where he knew Café Chitti would be waiting. Café Chitti –with coffee he wrote up as a cup of nostalgia for lack of imagination and time. Perhaps there was a bit of his frosty Michigan home in the medium roast Sumatra he sipped that day. Today, the coffee picks up bits and pieces of conversation like a package of grounds picking up on tomatoes and last night’s chicken in the fridge. Baristas chat and Abner waits for something good. He takes a sip. A table to his right moves energetically with rapid hands seeking to grasp one another, entangle, glide, and feel.
The lips of this group move as though evolutionarily predisposed, but no sound comes out. One woman grasps her friend’s hand in her own and moves her fingers together, scratching the upper palm of her hand. Abner pauses to push back the thick lenses of his glasses, brushing away hair that has become caught against his forehead. I think it means she’s laughing. Another bangs on the table near her, reenacting a story from another time. Two more people in wheelchairs sit nearby. The table across from the silent one is filled with a loud family that breaks out in laughter from time to time as though for the sake of contrast.
“Could I have a bit of that?” Abner looks up. The homeless man he sat down next to is staring intently at his muffin.
“No, sorry.” The homeless man shrugs as though this was the response he expected all along. He takes out a bag of chewing tobacco and continues to sketch the portrait of a girl a few tables away. Only when the man leans over to spit the tobacco into a cup, does Abner realize he has been reading over his shoulder.
Abner feels embarrassed that he doesn’t have better material for the homeless man to read. When the man asks him to watch his stuff, Abner gets up for a refill, 50 cents off, but keeps his eye on the table.
Here, this man who is probably biding his time between the closed doors of the overnight shelter and the open doors of the church. Here, he comes because a cup of coffee is cheap for three hours of warmth and company, three hours of open doors and a bathroom key all his own. Here, he can be a customer, among the living and wakeful and well-to-do who can afford to leave as soon as the coffee grows cold. He will sit with the cup emptied of all but grounds, spitting bits of chewing tobacco in it from time to time. A man outside has just overturned a crate that he perches on, testing the first few notes of his banjo in the morning air. Only when he returns to the homeless shelter with “lights off at ten” and “no smoking” and “no food upstairs” does he recall that rights must be bought. One-fifty a cup and the doors open.
Abner picks up the same leather satchel he has used for twenty years, puts his computer inside, and heads for the door. Outside, people are moving at the pace of life as he tries to place them in stories.
When he returns from Telegraph Ave. to right on Alcatraz and left on Dover, Abner sits at his desk a while. He leans himself back in the chair Sasha once found him at a garage sale. He tests it to see how far back he can lean before he loses his balance and falls over. Abner had just begun his stint at City Life Magazine when they dated; he liked to look at girls in a way Sasha didn’t appreciate. Sasha left, but the chair stayed.
Her monologue extends itself into a head turn, a hip thrust and a door slam. “Abner, you are such a slob.” Because such grand exits dictate that you must remind someone of all their faults before you can leave. However critical or minor they may be. “Well, at least I know your plants will miss me.”
In short, the day is spent performing a slow inspection of his one-bedroom apartment. Abner paces from bathroom to bedroom to kitchen and back again, pulling at the thin threads of his college T-shirt, worn comfy with time. He fiddles with his hands and pulls on his toes and the sideburns that have begun grazing his cheeks. He pets the prickles above his lip. He puts on socks then takes them off.
The chair creaks when Abner rises in pursuit of last night’s Chinese takeout. He gazes into the light of the microwave, following the rotating wheel until his food starts spitting oil. He returns with the plate of cashew chicken in one hand and brushes aside the curtains so he can lean back in his chair for a view of the bay. The city lights are just beyond like some yellow beacon of light. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. He leans back further, sweeping one arm overhead like a haphazard yoga pose. If only he could take a picture of it: the bay, the lights, and the promise. This story would be done. The chopstick he’d been chewing on breaks in half between his teeth.
When he goes to get his mail the next morning, there’s a notice about a woman stealing packages from the mail area. Please do not let in anyone without a key to the apartments, the sign reads. There’s even a pixilated photo of her, caught by one of the security cameras that was installed the last time this sort of thing happened. He leans closer to see her cloaked figure shouldering a big bag on one side, reaching for something obscured from view. A good story.
The morning street feels crowded with possibilities: a stray coffee lid and the paper-thin stain of squashed gum on the sidewalk. Yes, oh yes. The gum’s monotonous soliloquy is interrupted by a passing girl who looks like someone he dated in college. This girl told him his mustache of the time was like kissing a kiwi.
In history I stared at your mustache, deciding how to kiss you. I tried to describe it to myself by saying it would be like the peel of a kiwi, peels my mom told me to go ahead and eat because it was easier that way. I imagined finding your upper lip under that sleepy, furry, animal of facial hair. I thought I would gently persuade it out. Somewhere around the Gettsyburg address, I realized your chin would feel like a welcome matt in my hand if I ever tried to hold your face. I thought you could read my thoughts when you raised your hand, but you only wanted to know what our homework was. Today’s history class was devoted to circumventing the obstruction of your facial hair. Of course you had no idea as you slumped into the innocence of your chair, legs splayed slightly apart with the tops of your feet tilting outward. That must be what it’s like to be thought of.
This girl was pathetic and surely he he’d never been nearly that cool in college, or ever.
He hadn’t meant to be late, but daylight had been broken for a few hours when he opened one eye, then two, and tumbled himself from the sweaty twists of dream-sleep. It wasn’t the plan, but when he sat down across from Iesha at 10:30, he was late.
“I’m on time, for me.”
“You were. I should really know better by now.” She grinned and glanced towards the barista leveling out foam on Abner’s latte. Iesha was an old friend from an Oakland book club that Abner abandoned when the conversations went long and the wine fell short.
“So you’re writing something?”
“Ya, just this thing. I felt like sharing it with you before I decided it was complete shit. Though you know I already have.” She leaned over to hand him a stack of pages that would take him well into the afternoon.
“Cool, I’ll read it. I’m glad one of us is writing.”
“Food isn’t what it used to be?”
“No, I’m filling in for someone in the creative writing department. Chief said he came down with the flu or syphilis or something.” Abner added syphilis as a possible malady because he was a writer and sometimes it was good to be overdramatic.
She sighed, raised an eyebrow, and pressed the straw of her iced tea between her lips. She sucked hard on the end of it. “You just gotta stick your ass in the chair and write. Someone famous once said that.”
“Sure, I’ll give it a try. Too much damn thinking can kill you.” In his mind, he’s already turning Iesha’s locks of brown hair over when her husband isn’t looking. He likes her stories well enough, though, and it’s nice to have someone who grasps the uniquely painful art of story telling. She once said, it’s like drowning for days and the moment you’re about to do yourself in, you get a breath of air in the shower/middle of the night/traffic/grocery store/Thanksgiving dinner and that air is so sweet you could sink for a lifetime.
When they get up to leave, Abner’s cup is still half-full of cold latte. The thought of the homeless man strikes a gong of guilt somewhere in his subconscious, but Iesha is already halfway to the door. She kisses him goodbye before sauntering down the street, past the local bakery and through the fall leaves. This, he could write about. Abner fiddles with the perfect description for her ass the remainder of the afternoon, his own stuck to the chair. It’s dark when he realizes he’s forgotten to read her story. Her swift curves hurry down her figure smooth as sand, holding my gaze until the last grain has turned the corner.
Her curves boldly follow him to dreams until he wakes to another day of tabula rasa, blank-slated asphyxiation. Although the dishes have not been touched and his fridge is emptied of all but the recluse pear that would take something reckless to touch, Abner approaches the mound of laundry that lies in his doorway, dormant like a sleepy giant too large and scary to approach. As the washing machine negotiates a load far over maximum capacity, Abner turns his affections towards the lone succulent on the windowsill. It seems likely it was a gift from his mom, whose interminable faith in him overrides the recollection of every plant and animal that has died in his care over the past forty years. He tests the girth of the leaves: they do not feel so succulent. He waters the plant until the edges of the plastic green container expand with fullness and he has to find a dishtowel to mop up the water coming out from the bottom. That should be enough for a while. When the thought of writing turns from a nice idea to a crazed monkey clambering for attention with two strategically placed cymbals over his temples, Abner sits down. This time Fern emerges, whoever that is.
Fern is 37. It’s an odd number. It’s prime. It’s uncomfortable. She’s got an ear piercing on either side that she accidentally let grow over by going too long without wearing earrings. When she used to wear earrings they were always that heavy, homemade, droopy type that she had to take off by lunchtime anyway. Fern had a lazy brown crop of hair that reached her shoulders on the days leading up to the barber. When she’s nervous she flicks it behind her ears and tilts the small angle of her nose towards the skies. Only then do I notice the high cheekbones that get mostly forgotten. Fern tours the office in the morning, swaying her hips with what little femininity lonely nights on the couch has left her. Sure, I’d get with the boss lady. She doesn’t have that I’d-never-get-with-you walk; it’s more of an I-don’t-know-what-I’d-do-when-I-got-with-you, kind of motion. I hold my tongue because I’ve had enough of those to know I don’t want any more. Still, I don’t mind it when Fern comes by my cubicle to check up on things. She’s about as young and attractive as boss-ladies get.
By the end of the week, Abner’s apartment looks like that of someone with severe mental health problems. He feels like his alcoholic brother. One drink is too many, and two is not enough. Post-it notes coat the fridge with lists of things he would like to get but hasn’t, and things he must get, but hasn’t. There are bills and threats and probably a few weeks to vacate the premise. There are no rolls of toilet paper or clean dishes or food or signs of any functional human existence. Shreds of stories and sentences are strewn across his apartment like wayward Mardi Gras beads, advertising the highs and lows of his week’s writing career. Not the least of which include some astute observations of his hygienic habits: I make a resolution to aim my spit more carefully into the bottom of the sink. I resolve not to spray the silver faucet, which is always sprayed.
Abner leans back in his chair. The frenzied order of creation. Tonight, he pushes the curtains back far enough to reveal a bay soothed by the blanketing sunset. Below, people pause their scurrying to whip out phones like a quick-draw, shooting the sunset with an effortless finger-tap. Status update to come. Then they begin to scurry again, to pass the homeless man suffering the fate of closed doors, to step on gum, to make it a stain, and to miss an ass more worthy of time than their this-to-do and that-to-be-done.
The phone vibrates because it’s the twenty-first century and phones don’t ring anymore. Chief likes it. Someone still has a something that is a cold or gonorrhea and he needs another story by Friday. So the next day Abner waters his succulent for an hour and then begins: “The Man Without a Story…”