By Malcolm Garcia
She holds a yellow feather.
–Do you know anything about birds? she asks.
He shakes his head, no, and moves over to make room for her on a bench in the bus shelter at the corner of 10 A Avenida and 24 Calle. Fog rolls in and weights this lethargic morning in Guatemala City with a kind of blahness that hinders his motivation. He closes his jacket against the lingering mist and waits.
A quiet settles between him and the woman. She brushes a lank strand of gray hair from her face and cups the feather in her hand. She wants to talk, he thinks,. Why else would she have asked him about a feather? He hopes the bus arrives soon. The silence and his conviction she wants to speak leave him uneasy. He’s used to his own company. Well, what do you think we should do this afternoon? he’ll ask himself. Or, Well, it looks like a nice day for a walk, don’t you think? The sound of his voice breaks the solitude of his apartment and the ears of his dog perk up and then relax, like an undertow the silence that follows the unanswered question pulls everything with it until all that is left is his hope that something in the ether––spirits, energy, he has heard various notions––is listening.
–Well, the woman says.
He stares at his feet. Out of the corner of his left eye, he can see her looking straight ahead but she might as well be looking at him because of the way he feels her next to him and her desire to talk. He does not mean to be rude but he doesn’t know how to respond. He has grown so used to his own company that what social skills he had have all but disappeared. What would he say? Where would the conversation go? His wife, Martina, was the social one. He left this sort of thing to her.
A taxi passes them, the damp pavement hissing beneath its tires. He listens to the noise of its battered muffler until he can’t hear it. He doesn’t know what to think. A woman alone sitting in a bus shelter a little after seven on a Saturday morning? Well, he just doesn’t know. He’s going downtown to Sophos, a bookstore. He started three different books recently but none of them held his interest. This morning, he decided to buy another one. Sophos won’t open until nine. He’ll stop for a cup of coffee nearby. He couldn’t sleep. Laying in bed staring at the ceiling seemed less appealing than just getting up and doing something.
He’s read that reading helps keep the mind active and wards off senility. That and exercise so he makes a point to read each day and take his dog out. His neighbors dub him el paseador de perros because they see him three to four times a day with his dog in Zone 10 strolling near the National Equestrian Association of Guatemala. The moniker makes him feel terribly self conscious. His neighbors must think he has nothing better to do. He is retired, yes, but the idea that people, complete strangers no less, presume he has time on his hands bothers him deeply. He doesn’t think of himself as retired any more than he does a widower. How would he describe himself? He can’t say. He gets up in the morning. He sees the day through. He occupies his time until he sleeps. Is that not what we all do in one fashion or another? he wonders. What difference does it make that what I do now is different from what I did before? Can’t help what other people think, right? He doesn’t want pity. He wishes people would leave him alone and mind their own lives without jumping to conclusions about his.
–Well, the woman says again.
He had almost forgotten about her. He forces a smile to be polite. She lives in a small apartment, he presumes, possibly on 13 Calle, near a shopping mall. Maybe she has a roommate or lives with a friend. She’s not wearing a ring so he supposes she’s not married although who knows these days, right? She probably made coffee this morning and ate fried plantains, cream and tortillas. He had fruit. He doesn’t drink coffee, never has, but he wakes up early unable to break years of routine when from this very corner he caught the eight o’clock bus to his office at Azteca Bank. Sometimes, he walks his dog past the bank and peers through the windows but he recognizes no one there now. However, his dog is old, has arthritis, and more often than not he takes it for much shorter walks than would be required to reach the bank. He gives him all sorts of pills to loosen his joints and ease the pain, about as many pills as he now takes for blood pressure, cholesterol and God knows what else. The dog was already old when he picked him up at United For Animals in Antigua after Martina died. He had wanted a puppy. A woman behind the front desk told him to complete a questionnaire. Among other things, it asked his age. He wrote his birthdate and the woman looked at it and frowned She explained that dogs can live up to fifteen years. Judging by your birthdate, you’ll be eighty in fifteen years, she said. Was he intending to make plans if, you know,––she became flustered at this point–– something should happen to you. Who would take the dog then?
–You think I might die? he asked.
Her faced turned red. She opened her mouth but sounded like someone choking. She didn’t know what to say and he enjoyed her discomfort. He didn’t think of his age as a sign of impending doom any more than he did his retirement. He gave the woman the name of his niece. She’ll take the dog, he said, and then added, if I die before it does, just to see her squirm but she didn’t. She had resigned herself to the candor such a discussion required and looked at him without flinching so that faced with his own mortality in the blunt, steadiness of her gaze, he turned away mumbling that perhaps an older dog would be preferably.
Martina would have handled the situation differently. She would have said, Here is the name of my niece. You can confirm with her that she will take the dog if I pass away before it does. Pass away. Such a ridiculous expression, he thinks. People don’t just float off somewhere like dissembling strands of smoke. They die. Yet, when Martina died, he could not say that she’d died. He could not fathom applying that word to her. If he mentioned her death at all, he said she was gone. Like, she’d gone shopping and would be back in an hour. He avoided friends, the sorrowful, commiserating looks they gave him, and he stopped answering the phone and eventually they stopped calling and dropping by. He found the solitary, empty quiet of his now still apartment comforting in that its silence became a kind of companion that also left him alone. He rationalized the absence of people in his life as a long sought effort to have some time to himself.
After he brought the dog home, he gave it a bed of blankets, a water bowl and sat across from it in his living room waiting to see what would happen, anticipating how this addition to his life would change things. He waited, watching the dog as it stared back at him until he grew bored. After an hour he took it out. Then he resumed his position in the living room and waited until the next time the dog needed to relieve itself. He didn’t name it so as to maintain an appropriate, almost formal, distance between the two of them. The dog would always be dependent on him but he did not want to be dependent on it. Now, Sin Nombre , as he has come to think of the dog, is fifteen and still here. So is he.
–Do you know the bike trail through Plaza Mayor de la Constitucion? the woman asks.
He doesn’t. He hears himself answer, No, his voice sounding hoarse and far away. He has not spoken to anyone this morning. With Sin Nombre, he does not need to speak. He just shows the dog its leash and he responds. After their walk, he washed some clothes. Martina always complained that he didn’t separate whites from colors. She never stayed angry with him for long. They’d always end up laughing at the absurdity of something he’d ruined in the wash. He still throws everything together. This morning, his right hand shook when he poured the soap. He doesn’t know what to think of that.
–It was so wet out when I started walking this morning to the park, the woman says.
She goes on about how fog had settled just above the coconut trees and how water hung off the leaves of the trees and splashed her face. Turning a corner, she saw a young man kneeling in the grass. He asked her if she had seen any Hooded Grosbeaks. She hadn’t. She knew they were some kind of bird but not much more than that. He said he collected their yellow feathers. He took off his glasses and breathed on the lenses, rubbing them against the sleeve of his jacket. Putting them back on he said, “There,” as if he had accomplished something significant. He rubbed his nose and smiled and at that moment, for some reason, she fell in love with him.
–That’s just ridiculous, isn’t? the woman said.
She started walking again going no more than a few feet when she saw a yellow feather in a puddle. She picked it up. Water ran down her hand and into her sleeve. She smelled orchids, avocado and pine and she turned around but the man had moved on and she saw only the spot where he had knelt in the grass.
–You really don’t know anything about birds? she asks showing him the feather again.
He shakes his head.
–I thought maybe it was what he was looking for.
She drops the feather. It spins in a circle landing on the wet, sticky pavement just as a bus turns a corner and comes toward them. The woman stands. He stands too although it’s not his bus but it feels good to get up. He stretches and feels joints crack between his shoulders. He should have something to do, he thinks, some task that needs to be completed other than buying a book.
The bus stop and its doors open. The woman steps in and he thinks of following her and sitting beside her but then a tired feeling he gets when he considers making an effort that would make him aware of vacancies in his life overwhelms him, and he decides, No. Just buy a book. Even if he joined her, what then? Follow her off the bus to wherever she was going? Then what? Spend the day with her? But the day would end and he’d never see her again just as he won’t see her again now by staying put. Or, would he? Would he ask for her phone number? Would she ask for his? He watches her walk down the aisle and take a seat. The bus pulls away. She looks out the window at him or through him, he can’t decide, and maybe, just maybe, she looks disappointed. Maybe not. Maybe he sees disappointment in the reflection of his own face in the window of her seat. He waves his hands chasing away these thoughts as if they were flies. He must not have slept well last night.
–Here we are, right? he tells himself.
He watches the bus leave. He notices a group of young people across the street reading a map and waiting for the light to change. They talk excitedly. One of them points to the bus shelter and back at the map and then at the bus shelter again and they all nod in agreement. The light turns green. Sliding to a corner of the bench, he waits for them to approach appreciating the few seconds he has left to himself.
[ END ]