A Short Incident Involving a Boy, a Girl, Pigeons, and an Old Man with Advice
by Sunil Yapa
He woke up alone on the floor. He was wrapped in blankets and an old sleeping bag that was torn and leaking stuffing. Down feathers floated around the room and settled on the sofa, on the broken chair in the corner, on the chest of drawers, on the teetering towers of newspapers and magazines. The windows were open and it was cold. He woke from a dream and looked at the clock. It was 7:15 in the morning.
He pulled the blankets around him and rolled over, curled like a question mark, like a shiny fish hook, a bent paperclip, a broken spring. His breath was a twist of woodsmoke. He curled up with his legs under him like the coast of South America and tried to go back to sleep. But the room was bright and he was wishing for the west coast of Africa to fit to.
So he made one up. She sighed and pulled his arm tighter around her, tucked his hand under her chin, and went back to sleep. But still he couldn't sleep. He just lay there, eyes half-open, her long hair in his face. He pulled some hair from his mouth. Sputtered. She stirred then sighed deeply and he lay there and felt the slow rise and fall of her sleeping beside him and felt glad.
He'd been dreaming before he woke up. He'd been dreaming of smoking cigarettes. Hand-rolled cigarettes from Turkey, the tobacco loose and thin; the smoke was blue. They were drinking at a table, the girl and him, and she was drinking something the color of blood from tall glasses with a plastic straw that she ignored. She was rolling cigarettes. Chainsmoking.
He was drinking beer from a giant mug that was as big as a baby--to drink he lifted it with two hands, tilted his head back with his mouth yawning open, and poured the beer in. He felt very drunk, but the glass was still full, foam spilling over the rim and slipping down the side. God, he felt drunk.
Men kept coming over to their table. The brave ones sat down. Most approached timidly with a nervous glance at him reeling in front of his giant mug, then to her with downcast eyes. God, he wanted to smash something against something. She was beautiful, though, when she looked away from someone talking to her, and hit her cigarette and her eyes met his and she winked at him, and then laughed happily when he said, I love you, and said, I know you do, baby.
But in the dream she went away. She laughed with one of the men who sat down, one of the brave ones, and then they went away. Left him sitting there. He noticed that she had left her cigarette burning on the table. He poured beer on it. There were five more burning in the ashtray. Half-smoked, still smoking. Strange, he thought as he poured beer on them.
Then he poured some beer on himself and that felt good and he stopped crying and so he poured some more and laughed. He put his giant mug back down on the table and it was still full. That made him laugh some more. He was feeling very drunk. So he rolled a cigarette and smoked it. Smoked another. Drank some more. Wondered where she went and why. He looked around for her, but then remembered she was gone. He closed his eyes and went to sleep.
When he woke he was sitting on a stone bench in a plaza filled with pigeons. It was early evening. The pigeons were hunting the ground for crumbs. The plaza was stone--a large stone square with a row of market stalls to one side, a high stone wall stretching away to his left, and a stone church in front of him. A cathedral really. The pigeons were everywhere. He was scared of them. Scared of their cluttering and chuckling. It sounded like they were asking him something. And it looked like they were moving closer. Jesus, it looked like they were slowly circling, encircling, closing in.
There was an old man sitting beside him on the stone bench. The old man's face was dark and brown. Wrinkled like a drywash. He had long, stringy black hair and he was wearing a greasy blanket wrapped around his shoulders.
"Don't worry about it," the old man said.
"She doesn't matter. She hardly exists."
"She doesn't really exist."
"Talk sense, old man."
"You made her up. She's like a picture. Like a story. You told her. You drew her. Like a cup. You filled her up with water, but there really wasn't any water there, just a cup."
"She's a cup?"
"Then what's the water?"
"I don't know." The old man shrugged. "Love, life, longing. I don't really know."
He went on.
"It doesn't matter," he said. His voice was rough like sandpaper, thin as newspaper. "The point is you made her up. You made up the chain. You put the collar around your own neck. Why is not important. It's always the same why. You made up the bar and the boy and the going away. All of it."
"No, I didn't. That really happened. She left me, old man."
He looked around the plaza. Saw the pigeons. Smelled their rotten feathers. Saw the sky darkening behind the church. The shadows so long and thick they were nearly complete. Almost night. The pigeons were almost on top of them now, still coming closer. With every passing minute more landed on the edges of the crowd.
"She left me, old man. That girl came and went. She quit me, viejo. Quit me. She left. She departed. She moved off; decamped; stole off; slipped away."
He stood up on the bench gesturing with his hands. "She abandoned me, old man. Absconded. Absquatulated. Abscramticated. Took off. She evacuated; emigrated; migrated. She fled. She flew. She flitted. She took wing."
He flapped his arms up and down. The pigeons were all around them now. Insisting with their questions. Grey heads bobbing. Squawking through their ugly orange beaks. Circling. Encircling. Closing in.
"Old man, listen, that girl was mad as birds. She retreated; she retired; repaired to a distant location; receded. She set out, old man. She embarked. She weighed anchor, old man. That girl set sail."
The old man grinned and pulled his blanket around him. The last teeth in his mouth were like the ribs of a whale sticking through the sand. He looked at the pigeons. The nearest ones were opening and closing their beaks, bobbing their heads; one looked just about ready to bite the old man's bare foot.
"Perhaps we should retire to a more accommodating location?" the old man said.
There was a roar and a crash and a wave broke on the beach below them and they were sitting in the sand above the high-water line surrounded by ocean litter: strands of seaweed, broken sticks and larger, rounded pieces of driftwood bleached bone-white. The cathedral was gone.
It was dark on the beach and out above the dark water he saw the stars spinning like a pinwheel. The sand felt cool and damp against his bare feet. He scratched a toe back and forth, cutting a dark line through the sand.
The old man looked at him and smiled his whale rib smile. It was comforting.
"Do you understand now?" the old man asked him.
"No, not really," he said.
"Loneliness makes people do weird things. You made her up. Maybe she did leave. Maybe that did happen. But the importance of the leaving, well, you made that up."
He shifted the blanket around his shoulders. Then thought of something and a look flashed across his face and he reached deep into the folds of the blanket and brought out a hat. It was made of leather and was stained and worn, with deep creases like canyons along the base. He settled the hat on his head, adjusted it once, pulling it low over his forehead, and leaned back, satisfied with the result.
"Listen," the old man said. He was staring out from beneath the brim of the hat, though it was unclear whether he was watching the waves breaking down below--the black water swelling and then crashing on the sand in big piles of white foam--or if he was simply watching the stars turn on their wheel.
"Listen," the old man said again. "That girl didn't leave. Quite the opposite. That girl vanished. Disappeared. Ceased to be. Was no more. Left no trace, hah. Thin air."
He waved his hand in a vague way.
"She went poof. Evaporated. Melted... Into... Nothing. Dissolved. Died out. Get it? She was consumed. Exhausted. Extinguished. Used up. You bussed the dishes and brought the check. She was done. She was spent. Finished. Wiped out. Eradicated. Annihilated.
The old man turned to look at him.
"She didn't leave. Poor girl, how could she? She didn't exist. No, quite the opposite. She was destroyed."
They sat in silence for awhile. He scratched his toe in the sand. The old man watched the waves.
After awhile he stopped rubbing his toe in the sand. He turned to the old man.
"Why is it I can still hear her?"
"What?" said the old man.
"I can still hear her breathing. It sounds like she's sleeping. How can I hear her breathing if she's gone?"
"Maybe she's sleeping."
"Maybe you're still sleeping," said the old man. "Maybe she's next to you. Sleeping. Maybe she's in your arms as we sit here on this dark beach dreaming."
"Maybe not," the old man said.
He took off his hat and examined the brim, turning it around in his hands. He hawked and spat in the sand.
"But it's a good lie. Sometimes we need those, too. There are days when I wish for someone to tell me lies I could believe."
"I don't get it."
"You don't have to. Go back to sleep. It's all made up. Go back to sleep. Wake up. Go back to your woman."
The old man turned and smiled at him.
"Go on. Go back to her. She's waiting for you. She's still sleeping. Get out of here already."
"Go on. Crawl into bed with her. She's dreaming of you. Go on."
About the author:
Sunil Yapa is a 28 year-old writer who spends half his year in Santiago, Chile, reading and writing, a quarter of his year in the western U.S. working as a traveling salesman, and the rest of the year in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, where he grew up. This is his first published story.