A woman walks 5 dogs on leashes down the middle of the street. She walks at a gait almost right for someone so old and skinny. Every few feet she says, “There’s cars coming; get out of the street!”
A woman kneels and stares into the face of a 6 year old boy. She curses at him and wipes his nose with a kerchief. His Spiderman jacket is new. Her clothes are not. Her denim jacket is falling apart.
A woman without teeth coughs and clutches an unlit cigar in her mouth.
A man leans against a bank and waits. He grimaces to himself, looks up, and makes a sort of smiling face to nobody in particular, then grimaces again when he imagines what the sort of smiling face looks like to the women around him (but the women haven’t looked at his face; they stopped at his arms, maybe the bottom of his beard), but so then he considers the grimace and tries to smile again, anyway. He doesn’t look away from the woman without teeth. Her coughing is the kind that can only come from the toothless. Sounds uninhibited by teeth hold more water, even when they’re small. They travel differently, carving the notes of a final noise. He does not imagine the woman’s name. He only looks at her mouth, the absence marked by bare gums. He names her mouth: uninviting gape, clumsy hole, gum tunnel, was-a-mouth, finished bitch. He grimaces at the vaginal names and the last one. Still, more names come up: dead fish, gnawing cave, frog socket, yogurt funnel. And the names give way to direct memories. Years before when a man walked up to him, yelled “nigger!”, and punched him in the face, and his front teeth fell into his hand. He stood there sputtering blood, too fucked surprised to know what to do. At the hospital they put the teeth back in without anything to cut the pain, and it was so bad he couldn’t do anything but pretend that it wasn’t happening, that it wasn’t him. And he didn’t sleep for 24 hours. And for months even the smallest vibration sent cuts of pain through his skull, so driving to work brought tears and thoughts of jumping off buildings and some silent promise to just keep going because maybe it didn’t happen to me afterall and this will all get cleared up and the teeth never left my head. (Teeth are incredibly long, you’ll notice, if yours ever fall out into your hand.) And for years, at first hourly and then less often but never really ending, there are flashbacks to the punch, just the punch, and the look on the face of the man punching and the sharp shock of surprise and sudden loss. There is a particular grimace for a flashback: the head moves to the side, the eyes close, in the worst ones the hands go up, as if to parry the blow. The primary trigger, initially, was kissing or anything else that meant something coming close to his mouth. He hadn’t decided if the fewer flashbacks meant recovery or repression. He’d considered therapy but never got around to it. He pushes off from the bank and moves toward the edge of the sidewalk, looking up the street, stretching, and pulling at his beard with his left hand.
A man tracks mud through the bank lobby and smiles so hard and honest at the clerk that when he (=the man) hands over his check and deposit slip the clerk forgets to say hello and just smiles back.
A girl watches her brother and wonders if the woman wiping his nose will wipe her nose too and “where is my mom” and “I don’t think we’re allowed to say those words” and something about boots before her mom’s car turns the corner and she is pulled along and into the backseat and a seatbelt is fastened, and when she starts to tell her mom everything her eyes get wide because her mom doesn’t look or smell right and the her-mom-voice coming from this woman driving the car who is almost-her-mom-but-not-quite-right says, “Close your goddamn mouth” in that way that closes a goddamn mouth without anything else but then this almost-her-mom-but-something-changed turns around and slaps her hard on the leg, too.
A man asks 13 strangers for change to ride the bus. If he doesn’t drink in the next hour he will rip out all of his hair or step in front of traffic. Of the 13 people he asks for change, 5 acknowledge him, and only 2 give him anything. The last person he asks gives him a bus token and some religion.
A woman prays under her breath the prayer she meant to pray that morning over breakfast. While she prays she worries about whatever could have made her forget to pray. She remembers the last three years of her husband’s life, when he forgot not only praying but nearly everything before he sat down and decided to die.
A boy fastens a pin to the edge of his sweatshirt.
A man bends down to pick up a cigarette butt off the ground.
A girl screams and fastens herself to her father’s leg.
A man leans onto his cane and says, “And I was tall, huh?” The man to his right says, “…”, and he laughs. After each laugh he coughs. He holds his cane perfectly still, even when coughing.
The sun is not radiant. It is not raining. The depth of clouds is impossible to judge from the ground. Car exhaust washes over the men, women, girl, and boy. There’s a glimmer of something in the backseat of a gray sedan that drives by, and for a moment they all stare at it together.