When the sun sets on San Pablo avenue and the sky melts into a series of fluorescent and baby-blanket pinks, Mr. Wonderful, the most famous street hustler in all of Oakland, comes out to play. Mr. Wonderful is one of those men who’d been handsome once, and is, truth told, handsome now–even in his dirty clothes, smudged with oil or food or maybe something worse. With those narrow eyes that slant up and the smile tucking his dimples deep into his cheeks, you know at once that he’s teasing you, that he finds both life and his circumstances in it to be something of a miracle.
Mr. Wonderful crumples up the newspaper he’d been reading, glances over his shoulder, and sees a woman, an awkward redhead, walk towards him. She has crisscrossed from the Bank of America to the local bakery and back again. She looks as though she’s tumbled down the rabbit hole and has absolutely no idea where she’s going. This is a quality Mr. Wonderful finds attractive in a woman.
“Hey Princess! Can I bother you for a dollar?” Mr. Wonderful doesn’t speak until the woman is half a foot away.
The woman turns—clumsily, just as Mr. Wonderful knew she would—and scatters the contents of her half-open purse. Along with a chewed-up tube of lipstick, a fiver and some loose change bounce against the sidewalk; now the woman can’t say she doesn’t have any money. She dumps the contents back in her purse and hands Mr. Wonderful the five.
“Was that so bad?” Mr. Wonderful’s dimples make it seem as though he’s just laughed, but he hasn’t. The unreleased chuckle slurs the edges of his words. “What’s your name? I know you got a name, Princess.”
“I’m in a hurry,” the woman says, yet slows her movements. One of Mr. Wonderful’s three talents is his ability to hypnotize any woman he meets for exactly two and a half minutes. He’s begun to hypnotize this woman.
“You go to school around here?”
“I’m in a hurry,” the woman repeats.
“What you’d say your name was?”
Mr. Wonderful laughs and glances at his watch, the only nice thing he owns, given to him years ago by one of his women, the one he both most dislikes–and most respects–because she’d told him once and for all she wasn’t dealing with any more of his foolishness. According to the watch, he has only forty-five seconds left before his first talent runs out. “Okay, Puddin’. I know you in a rush and you’ve been generous and all with your money and time,” and here Mr. Wonderful pauses, long enough to let a Barry White-esq purr seep into his voice (this is his second talent), “but this may be the only meal I have all day. I’d like to share it with someone real.”
The woman sighs because she knows everything Mr. Wonderful says is bullshit but she’s a nice girl in a semi-good mood who, up until this moment, has walked along flat soft earth–the pliable soil where things are meant to grow–and she sometimes wonders what kind of person she might have been had her years been punctured with some of the hills and rocks she’s certain have roughened Mr. Wonderful’s skin and given texture to his voice.
They walk into the bakery together.
But they take their food to go. The bakery is famous for its rolls and pillow-soft pizza crust, and also for its coffee, its aggressive taste. You take a sip and when that smoky liquid chokes your tongue, you either fall in love or collapse into hate–but no matter your reaction, you know you’ve had an experience, you realize you are alive.
They buy the life-affirming coffee and a half-dozen bagels, cheap because the place is closing, and walk to the park. There, some kids play baseball in the dim evening light, their bodies fluid and happy, like fistfuls of soap bubbles flung into the air.
Mr. Wonderful looks at the kids and knows instantly who has friends and who doesn’t, who still wets the bed, and whose father has left, and whose mother has just had an affair. He sees their pain and identifies the strong ones and those who are victims. This skill is not one of Mr. Wonderful’s unique talents. Anyone could have figured this out just by observing: the strong ones, the ones who have learned to gloss over their pain with multiple friendships and their peers’ respect, have command of their bodies, have learned–even as children–how to control their movements, how to walk and run with grace. The well-liked kids drive into bases, knock balls into outfield, swing their arms and legs as though they are part of some well-controlled yo-yo. Some of the popular kids are in more pain than others and you can see it in their faces, a painful thing to observe in a twelve-year-old. But they share that one attribute, that bodily control, and that one trait separates them from the kids who are or who have been victims, because control over your body means you have some kind of power, even if it is only over yourself. And that bodily control gives them an advantage; no longer concerned with manipulating their bodies, their brains are free to analyze social situations and other power dynamics. The victimized, the bullied kids, they learn these lessons much later in life. All of their energy, the totality of their brain power, is directed at forcing their bodies to behave, to create motions that are at least somewhat coordinated. They move with hesitation, these kids, and all of their dreams, all of their attention and ambition, is directed at eliminating–or at least reducing–their own clumsiness.
Mr. Wonderful shrugs and spreads butter on his bagel. “You kept saying you were in a hurry. So what brought you out here?”
“I had a lesson. I’m learning to tell people off in five different languages.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“I didn’t want to. Ahora vaya a la mierda a tu madre. Or you can xiànzài qù tā mā de nǐ de mǔqīn. Or maybe you should maintenant, allez baiser ta mère. And if that doesn’t work, ora vai cazzo tua madre.”
“That’s only four languages–Spanish, Chinese, French, and could be Italian, I think.”
“I’m still learning.” The woman swallows some of that slap-you-in-the-tongue coffee. “Still working on the German.”
The woman looks back at the children, and Mr. Wonderful thinks she’ll say more but she doesn’t. Her eyes dart towards the ball, which seems to be flying towards them, though it’s hard to see as the sky darkens. And the dark sky, the fast-soaring ball, and even Mr. Wonderful’s warm and easy self-absorption–all this is to the woman’s misfortune. Being one of those people who’s never had much control over her body, who was always unable to make it leap and glide just the way she wanted it to, when the woman jumps up to catch the ball, it lands smack against her face. Mr. Wonderful, though of unnaturally quick and catlike reflexes (this was his third talent), is himself astonished by the last-minute jerkiness of the woman’s body. She thuds to the ground.
Cleanliness invades the inside of the hospital room: the scent of antiseptic cleaners clogs the air and weighs down the sheets. The woman lays on the bed, her hand pressed against her new stitches. The stitches aren’t entirely a bad look; the Frankenstein-like scar gives her forehead, if not the rest of her, the direction she’d always seemed to lack.
Mr. Wonderful, who has used his first talent to hypnotize the hospital administrators into letting him inside the room, pulls up a chair next to her bed.
“You’d get more done,” he says, “if you didn’t try to overachieve.”
She wants to ask what he means but she knows. It’s that need to learn five languages to tell somebody off when you are still struggling to speak fluently in one. And it’s the reason her purse overflows with change but she never has bus fare. It’s the feeling of always having to be “extra” because you never feel you are enough. But the thought embarrasses her, and she turns her face towards the antiseptic pillow, to avoid looking at him.
“Who are you, Mr. Wonderful? What’s your real name? The real you?”
At first he doesn’t answer. But when she turns back to face him, she realizes how he’s looking at her, how he sees her, and she knows, somehow, that he’s thinking she resembles Alice from Alice in Wonderland. But if she looks like Alice, then what do you say about a man who makes his living from women, those strong yet somehow not fully formed women? Was he not fully formed as well, and if so, was he okay with that? With being a strange, scattered man with a large and mysterious smile?
“We’re all a little odd, a little messed up inside,” Mr. Wonderful finally explains, “but we become who we are, get to where we want to be, if we just walk around long enough.”
“So you’re who you want to become? We all are?” And just as she says this, just as the words float from her mouth and into the ether, she discovers Mr. Wonderful’s fourth talent, one even he doesn’t know he has. As she looks at him, still dizzy from her concussion, she sees him vanish slowly, beginning with his feet, his hardened legs and chest, and ending with his grin–his magnificent teeth, and his dimples, those famous dimples, disappearing last.
Artwork: Shira Bezalel