If you’re lonely, you can spot another lonely person a mile off. The lonely can recognize kin.
If you’re sick, chronic or temporary, you recognize the sick as soon as you see them coming towards you: the pallor, the droop, the loss of spark. Likewise, if you’re lonely, you can spot another lonely person a mile off. The lonely can recognize kin, the way a person walks, how they tuck into themselves—shoulders drawn in, arms close to their sides, as if the torso needs to be held carefully, wrapped up tight. You see a person who is lonely like that and immediately think, just like me, that book is closed.
She’s a thin one. Under that fake suede car coat, fake fleece collar, under all the layers donned for protection, to keep away the chill. She’s new here, doesn’t know that in this climate, at the edge of the sea, layers don’t work, layers don’t do the trick. Even with long underwear, a long-sleeved shirt, a sweater, jacket, a scarf, heavy pants, boots, the wet cold still slips in, like when the slimmest stream of cold air slips under a door jam and finds its way inside. You get chilled to the bone. And bony she is. A coat rack under all those clothes.
A white woman “of an age.” Not young, maybe in her late seventies, or older. Her face has some mileage on it, weather-beaten, a face that’s known hard sun, harder wind. A dust bowl face, a Grapes of Wrath face. Dorothea Lange wouldn’t have passed her by. Dorothea would have asked, “Would you mind posing for a photograph?” and this woman would have thought, “Who is this? What’s she want with me?” then acted like she didn’t hear and kept on walking.
She’s out here every morning, faithful to her routine, walking her small excuse for a dog, her little boy-o, her small, furry, surrogate son who she dresses up in tiny fleece jackets, little scarves that match hers. She always keeps her hair tied up under a tight scarf, intent on keeping all her edges tucked in. What will it take to loosen that knot?
Our friendship started with a “hey.” Not the “hey” people toss out these days, the short, clipped “hey,” barely an acknowledgment. Hers is a soft, breezy “hey,” drawled out, lingered over, with as many notes as you can sing out of that slim word.
My wife knows how to “hey” back. She grew up around people who start each conversation that way. Where she’s from, that’s the first word out of the baby’s mouth.
When did I become a closed book; when did I begin separating myself from others?
Every morning, we passed the thin woman walking along the sea promenade as we walked our big dog, Hud, our own boy-o. Slowly, the hey’s multiplied, turned into a hey with a smile, then another word added, “Hey there!” Finally, the small, key leap to, “Well, good morning!” It wasn’t long after that her book opened. On a cold, foggy morning the first page of her story began.
“My name’s Livie, and this here’s Buddy.” Her little dishrag of a dog, in a plaid fleece jacket, wags his itsy tail.
“I think I hear an accent, Livie. Where you from?” my wife asks, then adds, “I’m from Kentucky.” These days her accent only emerges when she slips up. Like when we forgot to put the garbage cans out for pick up and rushed out one early morning in our robes. Seeing the truck lights down the street, headed our way, she cried out, Hurry! Garbage man’sa comin’!
“I’m from Michigan. But first from Arkansas. And what about you?” She asks nodding her head towards me.
“I’m from Washington state,” I reply and can tell by the look on her face, that state doesn’t count.
“Well, nice to make your acquaintance,” she says, formal, polite, as our dog sniffs Buddy’s little butt and they engage in their own getting-to-know-you ritual.
The next time we see her she calls out, “Hey Miss Kentucky. How you doin’?”
“Hey, Miss Michigan. I’m doin’ fine, how ’bout you?”
“It’s cold. Too cold. I don’t like it here.”
In dribs and drabs, in subtitles, she doled out her history to us. She’d grown up in Arkansas, one of eleven children, started out picking cotton in the fields as soon as she was able. I imagined her in a tenement shack like the ones described in James Agee’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men about three hardscrabble white sharecropper families in the South. After the field work dried up she’d migrated north, up to Michigan where she got factory job in the Gerber factory, sewing plastic diaper covers. From the sunburnt fields in the south to a sweatshop in the north. Exchanging hot in one place for hot in another.
“I’m not working now. I’m out here taking care of my son who’s sick,” she says, but won’t say with what.
They say a person closes up if they feel unwelcome. That the only way you can begin to crack open that book is to find out things you have in common. My wife starts by telling Livie she once worked in a fruit factory, picked cherries up north. “Bird peck, wind whip, limb rub. That’s the way you knew which cherries were damaged as they went by on the conveyor belt.” I recite my blue-collar resume, tell her I was once an attic insulator, a farmer’s market hawker, a truck driver, that I delivered blood for a blood bank, installed storm windows, was a swimming pool operator, a janitor. Then, to burnish my credentials, I tell her my mother worked in the tuna canneries, my father was a fisherman. Hard work, physical work, collars as blue as the deep blue sea.
What I don’t tell her: that I’m now a university professor, working in that privileged, rarified air. I don’t want her to think less of me.
Whether it’s the kinship that comes from knowing we’ve all done physical work, or something else, I see her shoulders relax, unknit, and her story starts rolling out. She tells us she likes to square dance, that she still sews, has been working on a beautiful blue dress with a sequined sash. “All sparkly at the middle,” she says and blushes.
“It’s giving me a trial but it’ll be something when it’s done. You’ll have to come see. I live right over there,” and points to a modern beach house three houses up from the sea. I’ve passed it a hundred times, imagined a house full of mid-century furniture. A midnight blue convertible is always parked in the driveway with a license plate that reads LTLOVESCB. Probably young techies in love. It’s the house that unleashed a gigantic Hillary banner during the election.
Today, I’m out early, a quick walk before heading in to teach, when I spot her coming my way. She says hey, but that’s it, nothing else. I can tell she’s upset. Her face is all knotted up as she jerks little Buddy along on his leash.
“How you doin’ this morning, Livie?”
“Well, I’m trying to stay out of trouble, but it’s hard.”
“Don’t worry, if you get in trouble, I’d bail you out.”
Then she spills.
“You know that woman who lives across the street with that little black dog that runs out? Unleashed? I always keep Buddy on a leash, you never know. Well the guys, you know, my son and his man . . . ”
My son and his man? We may have more in common than I thought.
“See, the boys are putting solar on. I don’t know why, given all the fog you all have here. Well, that lady screamed at me about the workman’s noise. All the workers hammering and yelling and carrying on. I’ve never been anything but nice to her. It’s not my house I told her, but that didn’t matter. What is wrong with folks here?”
“Everyone seems to be screaming these days, Livie.”
“Well, you don’t. You’re nice. I think of you as my friend.”
I guess she’d describe my wife and I as “my friend and her woman.”
“Midwesterners don’t scream,” she says.
Is that true? Is screaming only a west coast thing? I have noticed an uptick in volume lately. Just last month, a man driving by in his truck screamed out of his open window, “Go back from wherever the fuck you’re from,” as my Tibetan friend was walking along the promenade.
“Have you ever thought of moving back?”
“Well, I can’t. You know, I have a sister who’s on the verge of death back home but don’t want me to come visit because she knows I don’t do good with such things. She helped me when my husband died, she was the one dealt with the doctors who wanted me to speak up. But I just couldn’t. No, I can’t go back though I want to. I want to go . . . ” and doesn’t finish, lets the thought trail off. She stops, looks over her shoulder as if the sea might hear, then whispers, “I want to go where people are people.”
Warning bell. What does that mean? Where everyone’s white or working-class or square-dances? Where there are no queers?
I look at her, shivering in her layered finery. She’d like to be gone. She’d like to be somewhere she could cut loose, get on the dance floor, whoop it up, but here she’s confined, a prisoner of her son’s “lifestyle,” which sounds like it comes with a line of patio furniture and summer wear; gay Bermuda shorts and gay tank tops and gay flip flops. Maybe she hopes that someday her son will come to his senses and he’ll flip back.
Haven’t I searched for a world outside of my world? Why is it I’m more at home with the misfits?
I’d like to cut loose, too, from an academic job, that privileged position that can keep a person separate, alone, ivory-towered. That isolating tower of power. There are all kinds of prisons. Even ones where they give you the keys to let yourself out.
I check my watch. If I don’t get going, I’ll be late for my first class. I tell Livie I’ve got to run and head for the car.
After back-to-back classes, after a rancorous department meeting with all those lost minutes spent sifting through everyone’s little pile of dirt, I head for my office, unlock the door, quickly shut it behind me. My blessed solitary cell.
Seconds later, there’s a knock.
There he stands, the man I’ve secretly named Napoleon, due to his short stature and super-sized ego. Ever since I received the promotion we were both in competition for, with its promised release from lecturer purgatory, he’s made it a point to show me how good he’s taking it all. And also show how his accomplishments outshine my own. His latest poetics paper, The Poetic Determinacy of Indeterminacy, had them all atwitter in the department. I knew how my fisherman father would re-title that paper: Shit or get off the pot.
He steps into my office, strikes a pose. Standing on the center of my small rectangle of carpet, hands on his hips, he looks like the French men I once saw on the French coast in their itsy graying bikini briefs, thinking deep, existential thoughts as the waves lapped in. All employed a similar stance, hands on hips, Gallic profiles to the sky.
“Hey,” Another step in. Another dramatic pause, as if he’s on the brink of revelation, so I have to stop, wait, and allow the revelation to build. I have to watch it grow. He looks at the walls, the floor, the ceiling, then says, “Yours is bigger than mine.”
Each university office has the exact same dimensions, a five by nine cellblock.
I have my own revelation: I don’t belong here. These aren’t my people. Oh, Livie.
Haven’t I searched for a world outside of my world, where people are people? Why is it I’m more at home with the misfits at the beach, those outsiders, then with these insiders, the theorists, the avant-garde, the paper tigers, the smarter-than-thous?
Every day, driving to the university, I go through the same ritual to gin up my courage to enter that world. I put an old CD in the car. First up Sly’s “Stand.” Next, “Everyday People.”On full blast. Then I start singing,
I am no better and neither are you We are the same whatever we do You love me you hate me you know me and then You can’t figure out the bag I’m in I am everyday people!
I scream by the time I get to the refrain.
Warning bell. How did I end up here? A quote from Agee’s book comes roaring back: How were we caught? How was it we were caught? I’d alter that line: How was it I was caught? When did I become a closed book; when did I begin separating myself from others, keeping my distance, not taking the first step toward my neighbor or someone who looks different or talks different or believes different than me? Which, dammit, if I’m honest, has to include Napoleon, too.
Pride Week. The last week of June. Outside of Livie’s house, a rainbow flag hangs from her son’s outdoor balcony. Huge, billowing. As big as a billboard.
Does she like the colors? Can she make a dress or two out of that rainbow fabric when Pride is over? In her gay enclave, with that huge rainbow flag hanging down from the deck, covering half the house, there’s no doubting who lives there or their affiliations. I bet she thinks “I could make a dozen dresses with all that material.” I can see her on the dance floor in one of those rainbow dresses, crinolines underneath, her long hair up in an up do, twirling, all the colors—red, yellow, green, blue—combining into a great swirling color show, like the Paint and Spin machines at the carnival where you squirt tubes of paint down into the opening of the machine onto a square piece of canvas, as Livie spins faster and faster, all swirl, and isn’t everybody gay, so happy and gay?
People are people. I am people, Livie, and you are people, and that woman sleeping on the bench over there, wrapped up in her sleeping bag stole, is people too. Hey, let me introduce you to the Crab King and Tweeker Mom and Kite Man and the rest of us down here; the silent ones, the screamers. We’re all in it together. Here, with the fog coating us, with our fog coats on. If I take a step, if I go over to someone and say hey, if I shake that person’s hand it may be the first warmth I’ve felt all morning but I know that warmth will last all day long.
Here she comes, walking our way, just as the sun breaks through, with her hair down, as long as Crystal Gale’s. Little Buddy’s in a tie-dyed fleece jacket, all the colors of the rainbow. A little gay blade if there ever was one.
“He’s a little hippie. My son got him that jacket. Do you think people will think I’m strange dressing him up like this?”
“You know what they say, Livie,” says my wife. “All the loose marbles roll to the edge of the continent. We’re all a little weird down here, aren’t we?”
“Well, it’s nice to be included.”
We chit chat for a bit, about the weather, about nothing. Then as we leave I say, “See you tomorrow, Miss Michigan.”
“I’ll be here, Miss Washington,” and with that, every bit of chill falls away.
If you take a step, that first step, toward someone—a stranger—who might, in turn, take a small step toward you, this may be what it takes to leave behind whatever made you feel separate, apart from others. All you need to do is take that first step, like a toddler takes her first step: wobbly, yes, unsteady, yes, but still she places one foot in front of her, steps, finds that the ground will support her. And then she takes another.
Toni Mirosevich's new book of stories, Spell Heaven, is forthcoming from Counterpoint Press in Spring 2022. The linked stories--about an overlooked community in a crumbling coastal town in the Bay Area--have previously appeared in Catapult, North American Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Toni is the author of six books of poetry and prose and lives with her wife in Pacifica, CA. Learn more on her website, tonimirosevich.com