(Photo credit: German artist Ruprecht von Kaufmann‘s piece, Zuschauer 2014, Oil on Linoleum on Panel, 19,6 x 30 cm. http://rvonkaufmann.com/home/)
The night sky was a pale black—reflecting incandescence and the moon—but the stars had fallen long before, leaving only a satiny texture in the sky. Or maybe she just could not see them anymore. Caroline walked with the collar of her coat embracing her neck in the back, on both sides and around to just under her bottom lip, which unconsciously quivered in the cold. It was the kind of cold that pushes people through doorways and forces them to tumble down long stairways onto subway platforms below. It was the kind of cold that twists itself into cords and whips innocent pedestrians like slaves who dream of running away. Caroline could barely feel it though, her mind hovered above her head and so her senses moved on instinct, like animals tiptoeing around and through her brain.
Caroline’s hands were clenched into fists deep inside the pockets of her new black coat. Only her thumbs were free and she moved them back and forth over the surface of her tightened fingers. Thumbs with nowhere to go so they paced like a mother waiting at the window for her child who was expected home hours ago. She could feel her fingernails—painted black—digging into the center of her palms and she thought, “I should keep my finger nails shorter.” It was an unnecessary thought, the kind we all think when we want to find something normal to focus on: anything other than what is necessary.
The pavement under her boots—black and shining with polished leather—felt harder than it had the last time she walked along this city street. She noticed cracks between slabs of concrete and also running diagonal from the corners. “A heavily trafficked path,” she thought. She felt small as she imagined the others who walked there everyday because she was just a stranger there. She was a stranger whose friends had gone long before.
Caroline had come here years ago, when the wrinkles around her lips were not as deep, when her eyes were a little bit brighter as they reflected the stars that used to shine above and inside of her. She remembered the last time she was here for a moment—the memory floated like a yellow leaf falling from an Autumn tree—and she watched it as she walked. She smiled softly and shook her head from side to side, so gently that the movement was almost imperceptible to the leaf that was looking back at her. For a moment Caroline loosened the fist in her right hand and she imagined what it was like to feel another’s skin next to hers. Soon, however, the leaf had fallen all the way down—the memory that is—and Caroline was once again alone.
Except for a man sitting against a bumpy brick wall covered in trash bags and regret. “Do you have anything to give to me? Some food or some spare change?” he asked.
Caroline kept walking, looking down at the cracks in the pavement and feeling the weight of the man’s stare. Just as she was about to pass him, the Trash Bag Man rustled inside his plastic and he said one more time, “Do you have anything to give to me?” Caroline was surprised by the man’s insistence—some kind boldness mixed with desperation, which was a mixture of emotions she also recognized inside of herself—so she answered him, “I wish I had something to give.”
“Are you saying you have nothing?” he asked.
“Nothing I can give,” she answered.
“Nothing you will give,” he challenged.
Caroline thought for a moment about her new black coat. She felt her boots gently huddling around her feet, and about the heavy wool sweater, which clung to the sides of her small waist in an almost violent gesture of not letting go. She thought about the gloves lying lifeless inside her red traveling purse.
“Okay. Yes. That is right. Nothing I will give.” She could feel anger rise from her sense of guilt and the frustration she held with her own selfishness. Instead of directing it inward she said to the Trash Bag Man, “Do you have anything you will give to me?” The moment the words marched out of her mouth, like tiny soldiers carrying sharpened spears gleaming under a flickering streetlight, she regretted them.
The man was not shocked by her challenge and he answered her—almost too quickly—as though he already knew what she was going to say, “I will give you my time.”
Caroline pushed air through her lips, like a horse that is discontent, and she watched as the cold night air turned her breath into smoke. She braced herself as she felt the tiny soldiers mount their next attack from behind her lips, “I don’t want your time. I do not want anything you would give to me.” Caroline watched her words fall into the plastic covering the man’s legs and she squinted as the spears they were carrying tore little holes in the bag. “I won,” she thought. But she said, “Good luck.”
Caroline continued to walk down the street and she tried not to hear the Trash Bag Man pulling his plastic tighter against his legs. She noted to herself, “He could have offered me his trash bags.” But it did not make her feel better.
–copyright Jill Szoo Wilson