The Quiet Woman
by Chris Sharp
There was mostly just shivering at his bus stop. Plus he had one big knee on his chin and his massive foot on his bench. The other people walking along Burbank's meandering Olive Street dwindled like battle casualties against the winds. Once more, he dialed in his cell phone the woman he had met at his church.
"Hi, me again. Can you possibly take me in for the night?" he said.
"Is it possible I could just sleep on your sofa for one night, see how it goes? I'll pay you to be my motel for the night."
"Try it for just one night."
"Give me a couple of hours to get a handle on things, please."
"That's fine. Thank you. Look. Don't worry about you being ready for this."
"But I'm not ready for this, really not. Really not."
"No. But just for a couple of hours? I need somewhere to stay tonight to get some sleep."
When Anthony turned off his phone, he bunched it into one pocket and turned out his wallet in another pocket.
Nearly all of this money was in twenty dollar bills, and luckily for him it was the same amount it had been before his restaurant dinner that night.
He figured he would need about half that amount of money to rent a car to take him to the high school where he taught world history.
Surely other homeless professional people teachers were making a lot of use of cell phones and post office boxes and the showers at their health clubs.
These days not even Anthony's car was there for him. He used to park in the lot of his 24-hour gym, where he had his membership card opened any bathroom in the middle of any night.
Freshly showered and shaved, in the mornings he was dressed for the chase in clean clothes that had been carefully folded into his fragranced gym bag. He would show off these clothes to the high-school students who were smoking cigarettes like firing-squad targets.
At last he felt he was joining some other vast system of grounded populations when Pep Boys said the only solution for making his car reliable again was by installing a new car engine.
"But the car is only worth two thousand," he told the Pep Boy mechanic, who stored the sad stories he heard into unblinking black eyes.
"The good news," the mechanic told him, "the car is today worth twice as much." If Anthony had anything close to $4,000, this would have been great.
He told Pep Boys he would come back with money at some point and then he took some essential toiletries for the upcoming day and night. Then -- walking to no place in particular -- he thought about the most obvious homeless person he remembered.
His senior cohort practically lived with his shopping cart full of neatly-packed belongings at the Barnes and Noble store in Burbank on San Fernando Road. Inside the store, the man -- who was short and hollow-eyed -- hid himself in the books he was furiously and seriously looking into.
Anthony walked right up to him as he sat in his traveling folding chair at the book store entrance, his shopping cart at his side, fully displaying himself to the traffic of book-store goers.
"Hello, sir," Anthony said.
It was the first time he said anything to the man, even though he had seen him many times.
The man had such a hard making any response to Anthony that he finally resorted to taking out an album from his shopping cart as a form of a language chart between foreigners.
He still kept trying to talk with Anthony. But a harsh nervous laugh broke up every sentence he tried to say. In the short man's album were many pictures of the man when he was much younger, nattily dressed Air Force sergeant, who had received many medals.
"You need to see a lawyer," Anthony told him.
The man looked at him and laughed.
"A lawyer," he said again. "Tell him what happened to you. Tell him, look what's happened to me."
The short man threw his head back and laughed like this was the funniest thing said into his ears that outdoor day.
At a hamburger place, where Anthony decided to have lunch, a woman and a man with several stuffed garbage bags around their seats appeared to him like victims in a vision. It was like they hadn't been there when he had arrived, but that his pressing thoughts had conjured them.
Anthony purposely refilled a Coke just in order to inspect them closer, and found they had done pretty well in detailing themselves. The smallest details such as a line of grime on their fingernails told him that they had been sleeping on the streets.
The woman wore her hair short, and her eyes went from place to place without apparent movement, truly a seasoned bird that looks for food. The man looked older. He wore his gray hair longer than his companion, and he had allowed more problems to take on his face.
"Are you stranded today?" asked Anthony.
The woman suddenly looked at him without moving her eyes. He was getting more and more the feeling that he had invented her. "No," she said. "We're doing our crossword puzzle together."
There was a crossword in front of them Anthony had not seen before. Things had a way of flipping up in front of him on this day, but it was more likely that this couple had a way of camouflaging things that were not his business.
He went back to the table shaking his big Coke in hand.
A few minutes later a cherubic-faced Mexican-American woman with straight black hair and the stride and bearing of a manager strode toward the poor couple and handed a key to the woman.
There was a brief exchange, and then the manager strode away with the same gumption she had used getting there.
Anthony could hardly restrain himself from hop-scotching as he went back to the couple.
"You have a place to stay now," he said. "That's good."
"You are homeless yourself?" shot back the woman, in rapid fire.
He looked sideways at her.
"Where are your bags?" she asked.
"You know a bus won't stop for you with bags."
Anthony left and took the bus without bags and saw wild horses wandering around the streets of Burbank. At first it seemed that he had reached enough conflicting education in life to qualify for a psychic episode, announced by a great rupture of realism. But as he looked more closely at the horses, he saw that they had human faces on them, and that they were simply centaurs, less powerful than regular human beings by virtue of them becoming homeless. Still, they had a lot of power, especially in their numbers on the streets.
But today most of these centaurs had their wits about them. Many of them were trying the best they could to look human, the women wearing forceful perms and facials, even if they were forced to live a life that was half animal.
Anthony made one bus transfer before he was in front of Leona, and she looked at him without smiling as she stood before him, her hand gripping the door of her little apartment.
Anthony had enough money left over after paying a week's rent to sleep on Leona's couch to then rent a car. Now he could make his teaching assignments for a month, and if he could just get out of Leona's way but make it profitable for her to have him only while she slept, he could start his own cycle of self-maintenance again even without his own car.
To reduce any possibility of burdening Leona, he left her place at dawn and came home after eleven at night. Only on rare nights she was awake when he came in from a day of teaching and sitting in restaurants and park benches. On those nights, she sat on the old sofa where he slept, staring rigidly at the TV or her sewing.
He discovered that she sewed incessantly, even as she seemed to be absorbed in a TV show.
It turned out that Leona spend most of her daylight hours putting her sewing talent to work. She would sew small purses, bookmarks and eyeglass holders with a variety of messages of faith on them. Anthony had discovered that soon after she had paid for her sewing kit, she would sell her finished product to a referred retailer.
Anthony had been in Los Angeles long enough to have heard of the sweat shops in the L.A. apparel and accessory markets. But he kept his thoughts on this subject to himself.
He said nothing to Leona but "hello" and sometimes he said "goodbye."
On their first practically silent Sunday together, Leona and Anthony went to church in the chapel that sat across their street.
They sat in the bench seats that were farthest from the front.
They didn't say anything during the service.
Anthony sensed that the bishop presiding over the meeting was looking at him, which gave him some sense that his situation mattered for something.
The other people in the chapel reacted by looking away from him, as if his familiar presence sitting right next to her familiar presence represented the exact can of worms that no one could approach with a can opener.
At the end of the service, Leona went across the street and Anthony walked to the Ralph's Supermarket to eat potato salad at a convenience table.
The next time Anthony came home to anything new it was Leona sitting on his sofa laughing with her head back and her molars and fillings showing.
On the TV once again it was Lucy and Ricky Ricardo trying to make sense of a youthful Los Angeles with its party life and flurry of Spanish-speaking angels.
"Be quiet, Anthony, would you?"
"I'm not saying anything."
"Yes you are." She threw back her head again and laughed like she was getting tickled. Meanwhile, Anthony dropped his school lunch bag with food left in it straight to the floor, the cheapest possible path between his fingers and the ground. "Anthony, would you please?"
"Would you please stop and wait, wait, wait, wait."
She pointed to the screen and practically screamed a laugh when Fred said something to Ricky and Ricky spilled out his Cuban bah-bah-loo.
"I'll stop breathing, Leona, so you won't hear it."
She kept laughing, now at something Lucy said.
"Unlike Lucy and Ricky and Fred and Ethel, I'm a living person, Leona, so I make these sudden noises. I'm sorry."
She shook her head as she looked at him for a moment, and then she went back to the TV.
"Can you please go to the store and bring me a pound of chocolate ice cream?" Her hand held out a five dollar bill while she kept her face at the TV.
He took the bill from her fingers and went to get the ice cream.
She laughed again as he closed the door behind him.
One time when Anthony came home a little early because he was tired of hiding from Leona, she was on the phone in an intense position. She was neither sitting nor standing, but looped her back in a question mark over the phone, with everything in a hunched focus into the ears of a friend she had known for over fifteen years.
He had picked up the phone to this friend a few times in the past couple of weeks. Her name was Villette. Villette lived alone in a studio apartment in a generally neglected area of Los Angeles. Leona had just the other day explained that Villette was supported two ways, with her basic housing and feeding needs taken care of by her retired parents and everything else coming from finding anything she could in trash cans. Villette was in her early fifties, like Leona herself. People in their fifties in Los Angeles County were well into laying low together, and Leona was in that total live-saving partnership with Villette.
Leona was fully a coach for Villette over the phone, putting all of her long back and shoulder into her friend's distant ears.
He stood and listened while Leona continued to coach Villette with her most nervous and circulated systems fully invested.
Then he began to understand. The areas that Villette had been prospecting for recyclable garbage had been discovered by a new population of homeless people who got there first, leaving Villette with nothing but several newspaper pages of a sports section to recycle.
Today Villette was unable to buy a pair of shoes with her recyclable money she had been accumulating for months, while her current slacks were giving out like the Old Ironsides ship Anthony had told his high school students about just that afternoon.
"But what's her husband doing about this?" Anthony said while Leona was still on the phone. Leona hung the phone up and just looked at Anthony.
"Villette doesn't have a husband. She never had a husband."
"I'm sorry. I assume so much when nobody tells me anything. You've had a husband, though, I bet."
"Two of them," Leona said.
She held up two fingers and looked at Anthony as if his head was magnifying something on the chapel across the street.
One day when Anthony didn't receive a teaching assignment to teach he decided just to stay on the bed and sleep through the day to save money. When he explained what he was doing, Leona nodded to him seriously. "But you've got to let me see my old pals on TV. I'm going to sit here and watch TV as loud as always, maybe even louder."
"I'll sleep," said Anthony, and to make sure he made his point, he added: "Old TV shows make me sleep."
After a few hours of watching Lucy and some game shows that must have been decades old -- featuring a few ghostly hosts whose deaths did not keep them from smiling once again -- there was a knock on the door. "What is that?" whispered Anthony. No one had knocked on the door before, during all the time he had been in the apartment.
"Just sit here," said Leona in a lowered voice, grabbing him before he could hide in the bathroom. "My food has come."
"Sit here and sleep."
Leona opened the door in a way that blocked Anthony out of the picture as she faced a friendly-sounding woman. There were also bags being picked up and down. Anthony heard all of them making their little mark as paper bags.
In a couple of minutes, nothing more was said. Leona came back into the living room carrying a bag of vegetables and a smile that smaller than a mouse.
"The church brought me a little food this month. Can you help me?"
Anthony noticed that when he brought in two bags, Leona brought in two as well.
"How come your friend didn't come in?" he asked her.
"Because nobody comes here," Leona said. "Are you kidding?" She set down her bags with a deep breath that had commentary in it.
After a month of living at Leona's, Anthony got the idea of taking his landlady out for dinner to celebrate that they were at least able to survive better together by sharing expenses with their tiny incomes. He called from his school when he had a chance. But Leona never answered the phone, in the morning or in the afternoon.
By the time his classes were over, he finally got through to her.
"I was talking to my friends," she told him.
"All day today?"
"There were four of them."
She would only talk with her friends on the phone. Anthony had never seen any of them. But she told him a lot about each friend, as if passing on the exact details of each person had to do with composing that individual's full existence.
All the friends were women in their fifties, close to Leona in her age and background. They had known Leona when they were all much younger. Only one of the women was currently married, and this wife only talked on the phone when her husband was out of the picture.
Three of the friends had never married. Even by simply listening to
Leona talk with them, Anthony understood that they were sharing something together from the past that brought them all some rejuvenation brought by their synergy.
"Can I take you out to dinner tonight?" he asked Leona now.
"Wait, wait, wait. I got another phone call, Anthony."
Anthony could see that nearly every chance he watched Leona eat, there was some assortment of chicken and salad on her plate. There was no way of knowing if chicken or salad could translate into either Chinese or Italian cuisine, when he was most comfortable in either of those worlds. Before he drove back to Burbank, he decided to call Leona to make sense of it.
"Anthony, I couldn't reach you," Leona said, as soon as he spoke.
"What did you want?
"Would you please come see me?"
"Please just be here."
"Thank you for responding" she said, emphatically.
When he arrived home, she was sitting on her sofa where he slept.
"Sit down," she said.
She was in the middle of sewing a new message of faith on her latest bookmark.
"I was watching ‘Lucy.' I know every word before anyone moves a lip. I must have watched this show for over twenty years."
"Yes?" Anthony spoke quietly.
"I was watching the episode where Lucy and Ethel get on the observatory of the Empire State Building. They're dressed up like creatures from outer space and they're talking to the tourists. You know that show, don't you?"
"I vaguely remember it."
"Then in the show today Fred climbed up over the railing dressed like a mixed-up creature with a lion's mane and a striped tail. Do you remember that?"
"That's because Fred's not supposed to be up on that roof."
"So Ethel said, ‘Fred, where on earth did you come in from?' And Fred does this dance with white soft shoes from side to side and he sings, ‘Heaven, I'm in Heaven.' He was Heaven."
"He's not supposed to be anywhere near that scene, or saying' Heaven.'"
"Are you sure this isn't a second episode about the Empire State Building?"
"No," she said, until her voice reached a snarling pitch. "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no."
She sewed intently.
Anthony turned to the TV to see Ricky blasting Lucy big time. "Is everything else going okay?"
"What do you mean by everything else? Everyone's dead in ‘I Love Lucy.' Everyone. I can see that. What's so okay about that?"
"What could have happened, Leona, is that Fred communicated something special for you. He thought you were so alone that you'd be safe, because you wouldn't tell anyone. Because you're always so alone, it seems.
"Yes," she said.
Her fingers slowed a lot, but she continued to sew. "But I know ghosts like Fred, if that's what you're getting at," she said. "Because I'm a ghost."
"Why do you feel that way?" Anthony said.
"The younger Leona is a ghost. The eighteen-year-old Leona," she went on.
"Because you miss your younger self?"
"No, because she keeps appearing in the dreams of a boy I used to know. He calls me sometimes and thanks me for letting the eighteen-year-old ghost of Leona stopping in to see him at night."
"So do you feel weakened, because you've sent him your young ghost?"
"A little. But he can't call me up very much. He's serving a life sentence, with no parole, no chance of ever being a free person."
"Is it okay that I take you out to dinner tonight, Leona?"
She stopped sewing for a moment.
He sat on the sofa, and Leona started sewing again. "I ordered pizza for us," she said. "So we can discuss it."
It was the first time since Anthony had moved into the place that he'd sat next to Leona. He watched her more closely as her long and splendid fingers now picked through pages of the Bible.
"What is it, Anthony?"
"I'm watching you."
"You see. You see what I'm doing." Her red-letter stitching told him what he wanted to hear -- that "God loves you" -- even though he was learning that Leona's messages on her bookmarks were really not for him. They were for any person or prisoner living through the cold night. She ended picking through the Bible, stopping at a point in the Book of Genesis that was subtitled, "Isaac Marries Rebekah."
"And she said unto him, I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Milcah, which she bare unto Nahor.
"She said, We have straw and provender enough, and room to lodge in."'
"We have straw and provender enough," Leona repeated in a raised voice. "But I'm just a ghost to him, Anthony."
"Who? The prison guy?"
"Does that drag energy out of you?"
"Trying to be a ghost to everyone, trying to be someone who lived all that time ago. So they could feel young with you again."
"That's right. I'm a ghost to everyone."
"Not to everyone. You have all your friends."
"They're all friends who knew me back when. I knew them in Galeport Beach, over forty years ago. We went to high school together."
"All those people on the phone."
"You're not a ghost to me."
He said it to his shoes. "You're not a ghost to me." He felt those few little words eating up more space between them than everything he had said to her over the past five months. For a while he kept his eyes on his shoes, feeling more confident there. When he looked up again, Leona was gone.
He had only looked away about thirty seconds.
He knocked on her closed bedroom door, because it was the only other closed room in the house. The door opened at his touch. He found Leona already lying on her bed. The light was out, but there was enough from outside to settle on the white nightgown she had changed into so quickly, and spread a sheet over herself, and spread out her hair. She was turned away from him.
The light was helpful enough so that when she turned around he could see what looked like liquid eggs sliding down her cheeks. She was left with two deep black sockets over her nose where he eggs had been, where they had performed as blue eyes. Now the blue of these decorative eyes set into a yellow, like the eggs he had always bought for her, as they had rejected her grey bones, and were evenly breaking out of her skin as he watched.
"You see, I'm a ghost."
"Can I help you, Leona?"
"Yes. Oh please, please, please. But please don't make a big deal of it."
© 2010 Chris Sharp
Bio: Chris Sharp graduated from Fresno State University in 1997. In 2003, he won the West 35th Street Award for best new fiction by Crimestalkers.com. Between stories, he is a public school teacher at the Menifee School District in Riverside County, CA. Chris's most recent appearance in Aphelion was Juliet and the Cowboys in the April 2010 issue.
E-mail: Chris Sharp
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