“Do you know how to talk?”
I asked this question because I had just asked him another one twice, different wording, same meaning, and he hadn’t said a single word.
“What are you doing in my driveway?” That was number one. Silence.
So then, “Look, buddy. Just what is it that you want?”
And thirdly, my voice rising, “Do you know how to talk?”
But he stayed silent, this presumably homeless man who had abandoned his shopping cart on the sidewalk and shuffled halfway down my driveway, eyes fixed on the bottles in my recycles bin. Or so I presumed at first. In fact, I couldn’t quite see his eyes because of the voluminous hoodie draped over most of his face. So perhaps he contemplated bigger game. If he noticed a bike or a skateboard—my son often forgets to take his vehicles with him before returning to his mom’s—would he not take that? A grimy blanket covered the heap of crap stowed in his cart. Whatever lay beneath it made areas of the blanket stick out at odd angles. It would be mostly crap, but there might be some valuable crap he’d picked up somewhere.
But I was here, out of my house, outside with him. Whatever he’d thought he might take, he couldn’t now, so what that might have been hardly mattered. But it annoyed me greatly that he insisted on standing there before me, neither speaking nor leaving. What did he want me to say? What was he waiting to hear? I took a step back.
He was something to look at, this guy, dwarfed by his clothes. Everything was baggy. His brown pants, perhaps an ancient pair of Dockers, had yellow stains around the fly, and had ballooned around him as he’d shuffled down my drive. Now he was still. Under the hoodie I could see some dark skin, along with a wide nose and a narrow-lipped mouth, but he could have been anything. Though he was a little guy, it made me nervous that he hadn’t backed off. Spotting him from my study window, I’d rumbled heavily down the steps, purposely making an intimidating clatter. Then I got up close to him on the same motive, to cow him, whereupon he’d stopped shuffling. But he didn’t seem cowed.
I felt a strange impulse to apologize for asking him if he could talk. Instead, I said, “Look. Please leave.” For a moment I despised myself. Why had I said “please”?
He bowed slightly from the waist. Then he inclined his head. His posture was that of a suppliant. Was he being serious, or was he mocking me? I couldn’t decide. Now I was sorry I’d said anything to him. I should have stayed in my house.
“All right, take some stuff,” I said. “There you go, up there.”
I pointed at the blue plastic recycles bin. I noticed then that he wasn’t carrying a bag or box to put things in for transport to the shopping cart. What then had he intended? To break into the house and steal small valuables, such as my iPad? Or did he want to lie down on the grass in my backyard and take his ease? Drink from my hose? Pee on my flowers? I was sure I still had some back there. Now I thought it odd that he’d marched up my driveway so slowly and obviously, as if asking to be seen. Usually when these people come up here, that must be the last thing they want. Down in the flats, the panhandlers plant themselves before your face so that you’ll give them money to go away. But the bottle and can snatchers, the mini-burglars, drift through these Berkeley hills like smoke. Not him. Had he wanted me to catch him? But he wouldn’t talk to me.
I pointed at the bin again. Finally he moved in its direction, taking little mincing steps. When he got there, he picked out three empty bottles, two Chardonnays, one sugarless tea. Holding them against his chest with one arm, he returned to the cart; gently folding back the blanket, he thrust the bottles in one by one, bending his head down to see exactly where he was placing them. He reminded me of a library page carefully shelving books. He stood up behind the cart, put up his hands to push it.
“Don’t come back.” I told him. “Okay?” Damn! Why had I said “okay”? That was sort of asking his permission, hardly called for regardless of how much liberal guilt I was feeling, if that’s what I was feeling. The bulky jacket he wore, a green, army-looking thing, had its snaps snapped incorrectly. I almost told him about it, but that might have kept him there unsnapping and resnapping, and what was I supposed to say then? I could think of nothing.
Pushing the cart, he began his slow progress down my hill. I watched him roll away from me. Neither of us spoke. He had never spoken, only me. I kept my eyes on him, curious to see if he would invade the driveway of one of my neighbors. He didn’t. I went back into my house, where there was nothing to do. Work was pointless. I knew I couldn’t write anything worth keeping. I hadn’t in weeks.
My son was with his mother. I was alone. I walked around inside my house.
The following morning, out for the paper, I found the three bottles he’d taken arranged in a neat line at t he foot of my driveway. I looked around, hoping and not hoping that I would see him. Had I insulted him? Had he insulted me? What was the message encoded in the three bottles? He didn’t want my charity; that was obvious, but there was more to it than that. He wasn’t there to ask about it. I returned the bottles to the bin. Back in the house, I pretended to work.
From my study I could see the street, and for a few days I looked out the window more than I wrote. It was all just typing anyway, dead words. I listened. If there was a noise outside that might be made by a heavily laden supermarket cart, then I was sure to look. It was surprising how many of these vessels rolled past, but few ever stopped, not even on pick-up morning, when the recycles were all set out on the curb. The carts simply sailed on by, their commanders paying us landlubbers no heed. I wonder what drives them, these homeless ones, why they keep traveling, even if only in little circles within my neatly parceled neighborhood.
Then he came. I don’t know how I could have distinguished the rumble of his wheels from anyone else’s. But I must have, or I sensed him in a manner even more mysterious. Whatever the case, when he reached my house I was standing on the sidewalk. Though I wasn’t exactly blocking his path, it must have been apparent that I wanted to talk to him. The problem I foresaw was that he would think I intended to berate him for being there, in front of my house, since I’d told him not to come back. Now I regretted saying that.
Looking past me, he pushed his cart slightly ahead of him and halted when its prow touched me gently at my waist. Sensing no aggression in that, I said, “Do you want a job?” That was the question I’d prepared. He could bag up leaves for me or use my hose to wash off my windows. We could do it together. That would lead to talk or some other form of communication.
But it was again the wrong question. I might have been a rock for all the attention he paid to me. He fixed his eyes on the cargo of rubbish in his cart. When I didn’t move, he backed up a few steps, then steered the cart around me. Midway he stopped, and I found myself staring into his right ear, at a small clump of gray hair. I said nothing. I wanted to, but nothing came to me. The ear swung away. As he wheeled off, he looked back, over his shoulder. He looked at me, into my face. I felt his eyes, and knew I’d missed my chance.
This time I didn’t look after him as he rattled down the pavement, down our hill. I went back into my house and sat at my desk. I knew I should write, I really should. It’s what I do. He got to go where he liked and when he liked, but I was stuck and it wasn’t only my sedentary occupation. Even though I disliked my present life and place, especially the snotty folks who live up here, I wasn’t about to leave. I couldn’t. It was just too much to think about. Had I been able to follow him, maybe we would have eventually . . . what’s the word? Clicked. Nice, crisp word. Maybe we could have clicked. I’d hoped we were alike, both being alone and despised by everyone, but we were really different, weren’t we? We couldn’t talk. No clicking for us.
Maybe he wanted that, or why else stroll down my driveway that sunny day? If so, he picked an unlikely guy, since I hadn’t been clicking with anyone. Though I grasped the dictionary meanings of the words people spoke, I kept missing things, the point of things. I could only guess what others meant, and what I said back usually seemed to hit them wrong. Before my wife gave up on me and left, she kept complaining that I didn’t listen. But I did listen. I just didn’t get it, the point of whatever she was saying. It frustrated her no end.
I sort of enjoyed that, but it was the same way with everyone, which was like being in solitary confinement. I tried with the cart captain, I had hopes for him; but he chose to want no part of me. He never came back.
But some six weeks after his departure, another wayfarer dropped by, and this one pounded on my door. Maybe I should have been afraid, since it was almost midnight, and I was alone. Instead, I felt a kind of pleasurable excitement. I could guess who it was, a guy who appears in our neighborhood every few months—he lives in west or south Berkeley, not up here—and does this, knocks on people’s doors at night and asks for money. I was sure he was harmless. I went downstairs and opened the door. It was him.
This guy’s schtick rarely changes, and everyone knows about him. We beheld each other. For him I had no questions, as a normal person would have, so he had a hard time getting the shtick started. I was willing to stand there all night. I had a feeling. But, after what must have been just a minute or two, he launched into his usual routine.
“Real sorry to disturb you sir, but it’s an emergency cause my sister is sick and my car is broke down and I need money for taxi fare to the hospital. “
“I don’t see any taxi,” I said, pretending to look around. I was just playing with him. I got it. I got his point and purpose. His bad grammar, an obvious put-on, didn’t faze me. I knew what I was going to do, and he knew I did. He persisted, played the game. An artist in his way, he was willing to risk letting me see that he was playing, that it was, indeed, a game.
He sighed and said, “I ain’t called the taxi yet, naturally, not having the fare. She’s real sick. Back at the house. Headache and everything. I mean like maybe a brain thing.”
“Who’s it this time, your sister or your mom?” Sometimes he said sister, sometimes mother. Oh, I knew all about him. He was written up in our neighborhood association newsletter, which brags about how liberal we all are up here while urging ethnic cleansing against any intruder not exactly like us. You were supposed to never give him money, but I was going to.
He chuckled. He had me figured out, just as I had him, and each of us understood the other.
“Didn’t I say sister?” he asked. “You know, I really don’t have time to talk, what with the sick relative and all.” That was good, relative. So I chuckled. Later I found out that our neighbors heard us chuckling there, in the middle of the night.
It was all bullshit, everything he said. Lies, but I enjoyed his lies. They fit and comforted me like one of those expensive mattresses they plug on television, the ones that adjust to your shape and weight. And since he didn’t expect me to believe him, what made them really lies?
I went for my wallet and returned with a twenty-dollar bill in my hand. “Here you go,” I said.
He stuffed it into his shirt pocket and strode rapidly away, heading for the car he’d stashed someplace out of sight. I bet I could do his act as well as he does. I bet he could do mine.
In the morning, the neighbors came over, interrupting my work to ask if I’d given him any money.
“You didn’t, did you?”
I told them I had and how much, and they became upset. It was wrong to encourage him, they said, and they went on for a while with their newsletter stuff about keeping our little hillside paradise secure against evil forces from without. That was their schtick and it was just as much bullshit as the sick sister routine, only worse since they expected me to believe it. The cart captain was different, but I struck out on him. I got rid of the neighbors by making up an imaginary task that needed doing, also bullshit. I understood them perfectly. I could handle them.
I’d clicked. I could do it now. Fortunate me.
About the author: Jake Fuchs was born in New York City but grew up in Beverly Hills in a family headed by his father, the novelist and screenwriter Daniel Fuchs. He now lives in Berkeley with Freya, his wife of fifty years. They have three children and a delightful little grandson. From 1971 to 2005 Jake taught English at CSU East Bay, specializing in 18th-century British literature. He began writing fiction in the late ’90s and has been fascinated and tortured by the craft ever since. His short fiction has appeared in journals, and he has three published novels. Death of a Dad and Death of a Prof are both satyric mysteries. The third book is the more or less autobiographical fiction, Conrad in Beverly Hills. A fourth novel, the academic satire Posterior Trumpets is presently in the final throes of revision
Artwork: Michael J. Caligaris