Catherine Keefe is a California poet, essayist and former journalist. She's the founding editor of dirtcakes journal, dedicated to themes suggested by the UN Millennium Goals to end extreme poverty. Catherine’s work has appeared in ArtPrize Anthology, Minerva Rising, Tupelo Press 30/30 Project, Los Angeles Times Magazine and hundreds of US and Canadian newspapers. Her short story “Delivery Day” won the John Fowles Center Award. Catherine teaches creative nonfiction and rhetoric courses at Chapman University where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English Literature. She's also taught guided meditation classes at women's shelters and private drum circle workshops
Last night I growl at the moon through the open bedroom window. I grind my molars and stretch my face skin wide, bare my incisors and howl a moan, the moon a sole witness as my skin crawls. There's an itch under my right armpit, then in the small of my back, above my left hip, my right anklebone twitches. The top of my scalp sizzles an electronic disturbance.
It must be the moon.
What else but the full moon pouring nightlight into my window, seeping onto brown carpet tufts, pulling me away from the counterfeit deadness of slumber?
The moon begs me to rise like Lazarus. Rise up. Rise away from the path of the dead.
"Before getting into bed, as if she were snuffing out a candle, she blew out that day's tiny flame."
I murmur the last line from Clarice Lispector's short story, "Love" and then the line I fight so bitterly, the line I know by heart to prove it has nothing to do with me: "She had skillfully pacified life; she had taken so much care to avoid upheavals."
Returning to bed, the sheets entomb. My restlessness, a mad dog and again the moon lures my limbs into fits. My husband grunts soft animal sounds at my ear. I scratch my belly and that spot under my left rib sparks, right in the pit of things. Naked flesh disconnected from any strength of will, though I direct and muster, plead and demand.
Go to sleep!
I can't. I must. I return once again to what happened last week in San Francisco.
The risen Lord is coming again!
A street prophet shouts from his tattered black, leather-bound Bible, spewing spittle into the rain dripping under the awning and plopping onto pavement just past Post and Powell until the Sir Francis Drake Beefeater gives a nod and the prophet scuttles out of the hotel shelter back into the rain.
Can you help out a poor man in the rain?
His open hand, even in all the rain, is creased deeply with dirt.
Lord have mercy.
The man shaking the shredded Starbucks cup yells over the clanging cable cars on the corner of Powell and Bush. He spits into the gutter with the rain, wipes his mouth on his sleeve, tuning the saliva strings of his plea. A siren wails the real siren song. A shaking, trembling cardboard cup: one dollar pulled from my hip pocket loaded with single bills.
Here a buck, there a buck, everywhere a buck for Chuck.
"What are you doing?" my husband asks. "You can't save everyone with a dollar."
You can't save anyone.
I sigh, grip my umbrella and walk on in the rain, the rain, the rain.
We're not here to save anyone. We're here because thirty years ago we loved this city the way we loved each other, like newlyweds, not the way it is now, not the way that makes me wonder how it might still be love at all if we don't care about the world the same way. If only I didn't need to promenade through the city with a roll of bills stuffed into my pocket to prove I'm a kinder human than he.
I buy a Street Sheet for a buck from the man with the stack of newspapers bearing all the homeless news. The street vendor is bundled in three flannel shirts, all red plaid, in increasing sizes. Rain runs from his wiry eyebrows. His black knit gloves shove the bill into a bucket collecting as much water as money.
Thank you indeedy, my little sweety.
"What are you going to do with that in all this rain?" my husband asks.
What am I going to do with any of this?
My husband steers my right elbow. We cross Bush to the Chinatown Gate. Wordless again, in fog and grey. Wind lashes. My raincoat whips, opens. We are in a world of clouds, and wind, and rain, and rant from the sky. My jeans, my True Religions, turn first cold, then wet, then dripping, then gripping. My knees knock above my black pleather boots.
It’s all up hill. Blown-open umbrellas – blacks and greens, browns and pink polka dots – litter the gutter, the corners, the sidewalks. And the sirens sing and the Green Street Mortuary band blows and drums and clashes cymbals into the howl. The boom, and clang ring out even in all the rain.
Back in my bed, I sigh. Roll onto my side. My big right toe itches, my left forearm twitches, my forehead pounds. I rise again. Press my cheek to cold glass, peer into darkness, bathed now in milk light. I see it all, clear as dawn. Ancient oaks. Whispering aspens. The moon lights on my face.
Here honey, be careful.
Close your eyes.
I see what I've done.
We trudge on toward Little Italy, craving roasted garlic on sourdough, cross Columbus, cross to the side where plywood scaffolding, now covered in graffiti, shields humans from possible falling detritus of the hammering construction site above. Below the scaffold, this sidewalk side is free from the bluster of storm turning umbrellas inside out. Free from beggars, free from rain and wind and puddles and questions about what to do next and then there's a pile of rags in our way and a small push on my back and I step over, too late I see hair and a face and feet and just like that I step over a motionless woman with brown matted hair lying on her side on Columbus Avenue in broad daylight on a Friday afternoon.
I step over a motionless woman with brown matted hair lying on her side —
I step over — I am not lying —
Here honey, be careful.
Close your eyes.
She is lying across the sidewalk there is no way around her - it if dead, as in a corpse, her if alive - as in the woman I step over. I do not break stride. There is no other way around the body sprawled in front of me.
First the left foot, then the right
foot ...the...boot...the black boot..the Enzo Angiolini black synthetic leather upper model Alene 3...the boot with a name.
The is the word without any ownership.
The only way it’s not my foot.
For one brief flicker I think I have made my husband proud by not stopping, not stooping, not laying a hand upon her chest or her cheek as if I might be able to soothe her, or bless her body if her spirit has flown.
See, I say in my cold damp heart. See, I don't have to save anyone but us. See?
The woman I don’t stop to help has brown hair, deep, long and tangled, beginning in dreadlocks near her scalp like twines of brownies uncurling into rivulets of chocolate syrup with a fine sprinkle of lint.
I don’t even slow, don’t look back.
I lick my lips when I’m nervous. My husband and I don’t speak. Not of her. Not of the act. Not even of lunch or dinner or impotent dollar bills crumpled in my pocket as an act of defiance. His hand in the small of my back steers me away from fallen debris and I let him take care of me the way he wants to.
The San Francisco Public Health Department lists Places of Death for the city's homeless:
7th and Market
corner of Taylor & Turk
under bridge @Beale & Ho
public parking lot
Porta-Potty IFO 2031 S
She might be dead, there on Columbus while we walk on, so happy to be briefly out of the storm that's been whipping us all winter.
You don't care about anyone but yourself.
You care about everyone but me.
For one eternal moment we act as one, ignoring the sirens, ignoring the drums, ignoring the rain and wind and all the voices, just two tourists in a pedestrian pageant choosing the sidewalk with scaffolding, ignoring my woman lying motionless, resuming the personal pronoun only after crossing the gulf.
You can't save anyone.
I want to stop fighting. Stop remembering. I want to tell my husband something I've never told him.
I've never told anyone about my grandfather.
My mother's father died, sick and broken, outside a homeless shelter because he wouldn't stop, couldn't stop, drinking. He died alone, broken and broke with my grandmother's phone number crumpled in his pocket. My grandmother loved him and forgave him and the storms of drink kept raining down until they both drowned in one way or another. I only found out about my grandfather decades after he died, only knew him through my grandmother's stories of love and survival and the shadows in my mother's eyes.
Why do I keep this secret now? Isn't marriage about confidences and sharing stories, even the ones that crush you?
"Did you know?" I begin in a whisper.
"What?" he shouts against the whipping wind. A bus whooshes past, exploding a waterfall onto our boots. The rain pounds on, but not nearly as hard as my heart.
His eyes rest on mine. Clear. Blue. Open.
"Nothing," I say.
We walk past City Lights, past The Stinking Rose, past the rise of hills toward the infinity of a deep, cold whitecap-whipped bay and one kind of eternal knowing.
I cannot turn back.
I am frozen forever, my feet stepping over a woman's exposed right shoulder and not even pausing to see if she breathes, forever and ever, I step over. She wears no shoes, is in black socks with green stitching, in a midnight blue fleece pullover, jeans rolled into a tidy cuff above her bare ankle bones, the same way I used to turn up the cuff on my own daughter’s jeans.
We do not speak. Of her. Of it. Of the leftover damp dollar bills that stay crumpled in my pocket until we leave the city.
Lord have mercy!
The glass of my bedroom window is so cold on my face. My bare feet are ice. I retreat from the window and see in its midnight mirror reflection the face of someone who will step over a motionless woman lying crumpled and fetal and matted in the rain.
The night sky speaks no judgment.
The stars are silent.
I hear the insistent rhythm of one heart.
Go back to sleep. Go back to sleep. Go back to sleep.