Jack Garrett has worked in radio in Colorado and New Mexico and performed onstage in New York where he helped found a theatre company with other writers producing their original work. His fiction has appeared in The Literary Review, The New Orleans Review, Fugue, Natural Bridge, The Portland Review, The Santa Monica Review, Quarter After Eight, The Los Angeles Review, Monkey Bicycle and Witness. He is also a voice actor and audiobook narrator.
"What Are You Doing," by Jack Garrett
What Are You Doing?
I was waiting for a bus in this city of cars. The bus stops where two streets curve, meet and merge, leaving between them a small wedge of land, too small and irregular to build on, to serve as anything but a margin: a pie slice of hard-packed earth, about twenty feet long at the sides and base, flush with the sidewalk on each tapered side, out of which rises a shaggy eucalyptus, taller than you’d guess if you weren’t looking up.
I was looking up. I was waiting. The bus was late or I was early, one or the other or both, as always. The sun was high, I had to squint. I’d deliberately forgotten my hat, only partly because I object to wearing it. I just don’t know what to do with it when I take it off.
What I saw were the branches shrugging, the leaves like fingers diddling, the bark like baggy pants hanging, and down around the fat trunk the trash, the crap always found in these orphan patches of noplace. I’m almost always the only one waiting here so can’t blame the bus stop. No, this stuff starts somewhere else and moves. It’s thrown from windows, swept from gutters, blown from waysides into places like this, corners of the landscape to be kicked in.
Once home, I would arrange it on my landing and take inventory, but today, first glance, best guess: six Styrofoam burger shells; a dozen circulars for oil changes, yoga classes, condos; some freebie classifieds; one black banana peel; sheaves of paper napkins, unused; one once white tube sock; several uncrushed Coke cans; seventeen cigarette butts; a spent condom; a few receipts, each under ten dollars; twenty-three plastic grocery bags, two with dog turds; one 4-page storefront church pamphlet, lurid and waterlogged, entitled, If You Do What You Do All Day, and five plastic drink cups with snap-on lids spouting straws.
Squatting there with latexed hands I’d pry up a lid, snap it back, grasp a straw, then another, slowly drawing them out of their holes so they’d wheeze––timbre and loudness varying by the size of the cup, the distress of the lid, the wear of the aperture. One would make a plaintive rasp like an old dog, or an old man mocking a dog, or my uncle dying like one on his neighbor’s lawn. One day he chased his car down the street when he forgot to take it out of neutral. As he ran he bent forward trying to grab the bumper, in a time when cars had bumpers you could grab. The street was sloped enough to give the car a little momentum. My uncle didn’t catch it. It went up over the curb and mounted a fire plug. He sat on the curb panting, said the neighbor, then lay back with his head on the grass which he never would have done had he not had a bad heart and would die that day.
There are times in your life when you are presented with an opportunity to do something, to change something for the better. But unless the doing of it is quickly and easily discharged, you let the opportunity pass. You continue your day. And so do I. I’ll lament a situation, a condition––it might actually make me sick to my stomach, but I’ll do nothing about it. Futility the default justification, if I bother to have one: even if I do something, the terrible thing will stay terrible or will revert to terrible after a few days, and then it’s as if I’ve done nothing. So I do nothing.
On the other hand, I think of myself as a citizen of the universe––though I’m not even a citizen of the city in which this wedge of earth lies but of the adjacent municipality. But here I was. And here was something ugly and disheartening. And the remarkable thing was I was capable of changing it, taking away the ugliness, and making myself feel better. If I were to come back in a week and find it ugly again, that would be another day, a bad day. But this day, the day I chose, I could make better.
If I had a ski pole I wouldn’t have to bend over. Though the point might not be sharp enough to impale. I did have some still packaged Playtex living gloves under the sink. With those in my pocket and two 30-gallon garbage bags I returned to the bus stop. I pulled out the gloves and put them on, and starting at the apex of the wedge, made my way down one side, bending and picking and bagging.
When I reached the base I turned left and continued, the idea to clear the perimeter first, then work my way inward. The sun was high and brown, I sweated. Tied my shirt around my waist: don’t worry, I wear two. Progress was slow but steady––some spots yielded trash upon trash, the bottom layer having fused with the earth in some ancient rain and had to be gouged and peeled out––and in an hour and a half I’d made one complete circuit, leaving a foot-wide swath of clean dirt framing each side.
I thought about dinner. Had some enchiladas in the freezer, but they didn’t entice me. I’d have to stop by the market. Linguini with clam sauce, broccoli rabe, lots of garlic? Sure, but the last time I priced a can of clams it broke my spirit. I figured it out. The cost of clams had quadrupled in my lifetime, my lifetime of buying clams. How could that happen? Had they become so elusive, burrowing deep in the wet sand? Good for them then. I’ll miss them.
Meanwhile they’ll mature, brainstems evolving, listening to us pound down the beach, splash in the surf. Now long-lived and hungry for distraction, they’ll migrate inland, hear our language, learn our ways. And as I bend and pick at the earth their valves ease open and from deep beneath they already echo my ruminations:
Should you put a trash can here?
Would you put a trash can here?
To this piece of earth year after year
How often would you have to come
And dump it? How often you would have to come
And dump it isn’t clear.
dump it? Come and
dump it where?
I listened until things got quieter. I looked up. Cars had stopped for a red light. Third in line at the light, evidently having nothing better to do, a woman regarded me from the driver’s seat of a black sedan––clean, sleek, German, etc.: nobody needs to sell you a car, much less me. But it belonged to her––call her Carla––and if it means anything at all, that’s why.
I used the moment of catching her watching me to widen my stance, arch my aching back, stretch my arms overhead like a big letter X. My labors seemed to sanction my openly gazing at her, once she’d looked away again. Her face in profile pale, her hair reddish-black sprang high, spilling over in staggered parentheticals to an extravagant jaw.
She turned and through bug-eye shades looked at me again: my yellow-gloved hands in the air, bag in the dirt at my feet, my sweaty face to hers. A horn honked. The light had turned green and her head jerked. She flipped the bird in the rearview and burned rubber down Sepulveda. For a moment I wondered where she’d go, where she’d been, on this grim and sunny day. One of the eternal vehicular flow, day into evening, fewer overnight but never none, never for even a minute an empty road. Soon one, then another, then a flood, each with a boring little story of A to B.
I began my second pass, half-hard now. Gratuitous though it seems, my arousal had deep precedent. Man at work. Barely 14, at the end of a day on my first summer job hammering nails, I’d sat in a tub of dirty water, exhausted, and playing with the soap, spilled my seed for the first time. Told God I’d never do it again. That was as hard as it ever got.
I kept picking, bag filling, earth opening, until all that remained was a little island of debris in the middle of the wedge. I stood straight, let the afternoon breeze cool my face. When I got home I’d take a shower, make myself a cocktail, and sit in clean underwear. When I was a little drunk I’d think about Carla, come in a Kleenex, and reheat those enchiladas. That was as good a night as I could have today.
But then––she came back. Going the other way now, my side of the street, closer. She pulled to the curb. The window hummed down. She leaned. Was she lost? I couldn’t quite believe it. Bent double, I turned my head sideways, peering across the sidewalk over the empty passenger side to her place in the shadows. She pulled her shades down her nose, looked right at me, said something. I knew what she said but I said, “Sorry?” to seem unthreatening and buy a little time. She said it again.
“Nothing,” I said.
She smiled. “Lot of shit, huh?”
“Kind of,” I hedged. I tried to fix her in my mind, her head bobbing, her face a shade of apricot, her clothes red and black as her hair, shoulders to lap, legs obscured in the well of her cockpit. I put my hands in my pockets but the gloves jammed halfway.
“Is this, like––” she said, “community service?”
“You get a ticket? Driving Impaired?”
“I did. Driving Impaired. I know, right? My lawyer’s on it but he says I’ll at least get community service. Like a lot. Up to 200 hours he said, and he’s good, he’s done all my tickets. But 200 hours––you know what? I don’t have that many. I mean, right?”
“I don’t know.”
“You and me both. I swear, they follow me around, stake me out. And I’m a good effing driver. In fact I’m even better impaired. That’s what’s ironic, right? What I do is fill the gaps, it’s instinctive, like Dale Earnhardt, Jr. But you think they stop him? No, for me they flash the lights, play the siren. Me they pull out, do the test, bang. I told my lawyer that’s entrapment, right? He said, not exactly. Well what exactly? If the community needs so much service ask for Christ’s sake. But 200 hours? I know there’s a lot of shit out there but do I look like the effing janitor? No offense.”
“Time is precious, right?”
“Life is like really, really short.”
“Right? So don’t waste it. Gotta beat it, like Einstein, go fast. And I like to drive, okay? I know the dance, why shouldn’t I lead? Lane to lane, lurch, swerve, a little squeeze of the toe, fucking go. Wherever the hell. The road never ends, I could lap the fucking globe. If these people’d stay out of my way. They don’t sometimes. That’s about the time I get another ticket.”
She smiled like a pop star, mouth half open, like she was about to say something else but didn’t know what it was yet. She had good teeth. Bleached, but good. Maybe she flossed, even though she was spoiled and impatient and couldn’t be bothered. That’s one place affluent people must draw the line: paying someone to floss them every night. I didn’t want to hate her. “So,” she said, “what? What happened to you? Some–– judgment? Plea deal?”
I looked down at my wedge of earth, wondering what crime would merit this punishment. “Not really.”
“No? So? What?”
“Just doing it.”
She squinted at me. “You part of a thing, a group?”
“Community––thing, project, volunteer whatever?”
She closed her mouth and her lips rolled together like the crease in a peach. “So––how come?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I admit I had trouble talking to her. I had things to say, but didn’t have the breath for long sentences, or the focus. I feared stumbling, losing the train. “I’m here.”
She scrunched her nose. A nice nose, neither thin and bony nor bulbous, but substantial, splayed, nostrils up and open, seeking––animal but not porcine. Probably real. She shouldn’t be in a car but a quiet courtyard, leafy with a stony place to sit. “You’re out here picking up shit because–– you just are?”
Her eyebrows were barely there. I could lick them clean, perched beside her on a Lucite bench by a fountain. “Yes, ma’am,” I said and winced. She was slightly old but younger than me. I’d meant it as respect disguising incipient enchantment.
“Jesus,” she said.
She likely lived in the hills, which are hard to access by bus, unless I took my bike, but those roads are narrow and winding and make me anxious. People up there drive like sociopaths impaired or stone sober. Into and out of the hills. Too fast to stop in time.
She’d have to come to my place. I’d give her directions by landmark so she wouldn’t know where she was going till she got there. A scavenger hunt. Already curious, she’d be intrigued. The pretext, I suppose, to show her how, and where, this goes, the detritus collected in the blank spaces. But that’s the last thing I’d show her.
Here’s what I’d do. Fold the screens against the wall, roll out the rug, light the candles in the afternoon. Make an open space, clean. I’d be clean too and could only infer that she was. If her brow was beaded, her clothes clingy at the seep spots, I’d offer her a shower, but having no change of underwear might give her pause. Of course I could suggest bringing it. You think I’m joking and I half am, but if I was reading her right, chances are she’d be tacitly grateful for my frankness, for preparing her for such a contingency.
“Come here,” she said. She fumbled with something in her lap. I hesitated, she looked up and waved me over. I went over. Her bare arm unfurled across the passenger seat, her hand extended, something between her fingers. I didn’t look, held eye contact. It seemed familiar, peripherally––paper, a number––but also not quite right. But whatever it was, she was giving it to me, so I reached for it.
The Days To Follow
I’d plead with her not to drive, not even turn the ignition. Just put it in neutral, coast all the way down her hill to Sunset, park, catch the number 2 to LaCienega, transfer to the 105, then walk the last mile. $1.75, total. To spare her the walk, I could meet her at the bus stop with my bike, put her behind me on the seat, and pedal home standing. She’s no lightweight but it’s a short ride and the relationship worth it.
She’d come Tuesday and Friday afternoons. All day Sundays, but go home early. Mondays I’d hold for chores, Saturdays rest and reflection. Wednesdays and Thursdays I sit at my table, do my work. Occasionally lift my head and think of her at my door again, gray eyes shimmering. She eats the meals I make, drinks my spirits, looks at my books, plays my music, dances where the rug doesn’t reach, bathes, makes naked dashes across my floor and burrows between my cool sheets. I’ll follow, or not. Glance up from my work to see her curled there, dark wet hair over her eyes as if I don’t know she’s watching. She looks good, though she used to look better, which reassures us both. Something orange trickles down her cheek, the color from her hair or just the sweet stuff her prettiness produces, oozing out at last. I’ll wipe it away, but first let her sleep. She has sanctuary here, room to become a better person. Her life is untenable, her high-walled villa a weak fortress against the world’s provocations, that home in the hills I’ll never see. I live here. Goodbyes aren’t easy for either of us, but then she’s back banging on my door again, just in time to keep me from falling apart. This isn’t love as in a story told.
One Sunday afternoon we’re oil-pack sardined in a tangle of sheets. Between her legs she squeezes a warm washcloth. I’ve put on Thunderstorms and Steady Rain, turned it up, and we listen. Water falling everywhere. We are of the earth, the sky, yet relatively dry. On a big white bag of cotton stuff we float, arms entwined, dangled over the edge, fingers just short of the earth, and we’d gladly dream this dream and never wake, never have hope of finding each other on the other side. Happy the woman, the man, who’ve tasted, who’ve filled full, and had enough.
She pulled away from the curb. Watching her go I smelled rubber. I looked in my hand and found the folded bill. $100. So much. I took off my gloves and sat down on the curb. Then I took out my pen, and in the hazy green sky over Independence Hall started my grocery list. On my way home I’d stop at the butcher and get a nice leg of lamb. I’d eat it every day till it was gone.