His face pointed slightly upward in amazement at the elaborate structures. They struck him as too clean to be any family’s domicile. The surrounding streets were deserted like a town in some old still of the Wild West. Random wanderers, like him, poked in and out of sight. Two young lovers held hands. The boy one pointed out some monument to the girl. Winter was coming, but it was still not very cold. The air was filled with the faint scent of salt water and decaying sea life.
He sometimes traveled left, other times he maundered right. It didn’t matter which direction or speed of stride. The desire for taste was in the bones and those homes were a flavor not yet savored.
He had grown up well off, in a high-rise plagued urban city, but gave it up to travel the world in search for his own twisted Utopia. He knew this place wasn’t it, but it was a spectacle for his growth, nonetheless.
The homes were arranged in a tight formation with individual magnificence. Manicured landscapes. Delphic statues gave way to Japanese Silver Grass. Alma Mater and Winnie the Pooh flags flapped above porches. Miniature stonewalls encased crafted postal boxes. He felt distanced in this unfriendly scene. Unwanted, therefore, ignored.
He came to a long strip of shops that hugged a small walkway. People gathered there, talking, amusing, and buying (or wanting to buy) trinkets. His mouth was closed and lips were dry. His eyes roamed from left to right at the tables hastily set up outside the shops. A distinct contrast to the rich homes just a block away, he noted.
The shops had old pane glass windows that looked like they were the originals. Paint withered from the wood because of age, weather, and salty air. To him, this was more tasteful than the thin pieces of architectural glory he just emerged from.
He went in an inviting door and rummaged through a pile of knitted beanie caps in a large basket, pulling one free; it was striped red, yellow, and green. It went under his arm to be paid for.
He walked to a metal rod that was bolted into a wall and bending in the middle from the weight of jeans on hangers. A pair was labeled: 33-inch waist, 30-inch length. This rare size was his fit so he folded them across his arm, and walked the four corners of the shop before going to the cash register in the back.
To the right was a foldout card table with socks spread across it. As the cashier counted out his change, he took off his sweat-stained ball cap and placed it on the table. A small mirror on the counter became the focus as he agreed with the beanie’s fit and projected fashion statement.
He turned to retrieve his grungy hat. A scrawny, dirty boy about 7 years old snatched it and ran from the store. Without a malignant tone, he mumbled, “why you, little fucker.”
He did not give chase for an old hat. There was nothing he was going to do with it other than carry it. He put the change in his wallet and left.
At the end of the buyer/seller spectacle, he stopped and lit a cigarette. Eyes were watching him so he turned his head. His Helen of Troy, of a younger age, stood staring. She smiled through him.
She wore high cut jeans and a light blue bikini top that matched her eyes. The exposed part of her chest showed the roundness of her breasts. This was the initial article of his attraction. The waves in her hair created a warm burst inside him. The underside of his balls tingled. She spoke smart and tentative, “Where you from?”
“Cali was born,” he said, regretting his ill-thought response immediately.
“And you’re here, for?”
“Sights. Sounds. Smells. What every tourist is here for, I guess.”
“Guess or know?”
“Know… Wow, you are stunning.”
Her smile widened. He twisted his mouth to the side when he exhaled his smoke to gentlemanly avoid blowing it in her direction. “What’s your name,” he said.
“Chloe? Fits you.”
“Not well thought out?”
“I’m sorry. I’m Dewer.”
“Dewer. My parents were a little off, I think. Do you live here?”
“Yeah. End of Sage.”
“I don’t know where that is. I’d really like to have dinner with you. Just dinner. Nothing committable, or commendable.”
“Maybe no? Boyfriend?”
“I need notice. I’d have to get a sitter.”
“Sitter? You have a kid?”
“Kid? A daughter. She’s two. Don’t like kids?”
“No- not that. You just don’t look like you’d have a kid.”
She stopped smiling and turned. A man her age stood watching a ways off. He held a little girl in his arms; hers were wrapped around his neck, tight.
Chloe went to them. She took the little girl and disappeared behind the corner of a building. The young man approached him while lighting a cigarette. When he was close, he extended his hand. Dewer shook it and introduced himself. He assumed this was the father of Chloe’s child. The youngster presented himself as a sincere and loyal human, not the least bit interested in Chloe.
The two men came to an agreement. Dewer, an outsider, could be trusted. The conversation was half spoken, and half in the eyes. The young man’s concerns were rational, even to a man like Dewer, who had never suffered the responsibility of parenthood.
Chloe returned and hugged the young man. He gave Dewer a final warning in his grin. With a tight handshake, an adieu completed. Dewer wasn’t sure why this other man’s blessing was needed, but accepted it. The conversation had felt creepy to him, like something wasn’t right. He thought of an old horror movie when the monster was introduced in the first scene before its transformation.
John Wayne Gacy, without the clown suit, he mumbled to himself.
He had gotten his dinner date. They had agreed on a time and place to meet before parting ways. He reflected on her beauty and quarried why she agreed so quickly. He thought she might be looking for a father to her child.
“Or maybe she’s going to lure me back to a hotel, strip me naked, rob and rape me,” he said, laughing.
“I could only be so lucky,” he mumbled.
He walked back to the lavish houses to waste time, twisting and turning in wonderment through narrow streets. He came on a chocolate puppy sleeping next to the path. It looked like an over-ripe peach, lifting and dropping slightly with its breaths. He stood and watched.
The air began to chill. Wearing only swim trunks, he took the new jeans from his bag and pulled off the tags, checking them thoroughly for any hidden size labels. He slipped them on over his shorts. The puppy stirred awake and stared at him. Dewer put out his hand for the puppy to smell his intent.
The puppy gave a good sniff and relaxed, convinced he was free from harm. There was a connection between him and this man. Dewer felt a sense of belonging for the first time. Not just in this place and moment but in the world. He was a jewel in the knot of the all-encompassing net of life.
“I am you,” he said to the puppy, while standing up.
He continued on his walk and checked his watch. It was close enough to the arranged hour of meeting to start back.
He made it to the stretch of shops quicker than anticipated, which justified the absence of Chloe, in his mind. She isn’t looking for a father for her girl, he thought. Maybe she’s looking for a father for herself?
He entered the store where he had bought his goods to look around. His old hat had been stolen there, but he knew the place and felt it prudent to maintain the familiarity. Dewer had been at odds with his surroundings all day, but the sudden acceptance from the puppy had revitalized him.
A tall, boney, and unsteady clerk greeted him. His hair was greasy and cheeks high, but defined. The thin, blond facial hair attempted to shroud the acne scars. He didn’t smile, but stood callously, as if he had nothing to smile about.
Dewer pointed at a Zippo lighter with “One Love” written on the side. The clerk pulled it from the display case.
“That it?” he said.
Dewer flipped through the several large bills of Chinese currency. Remnants of his teaching job abroad. He found the USD and handed him a Ben Franklin. The man checked it thoroughly for authenticity, and opened the register. He stood in doltish ponder for a moment.
“I don’t have change. I’ll have to go down the street to break this,” he said. “Tell you what… I’ll make a photocopy of it for you to hold until I get back. Do you blaze?”
He placed the bill on the copier and pressed the button. The boar came to life with cranks and zips. It flashed.
“I haven’t in a long time but, yeah. I guess I do,” Dewer responded a little uncomfortable.
The clerk handed him the photocopy after signing it for extra assurance.
“Come with me, my friends’ll keep you busy,” he explained. He opened a door behind the counter. “Don’t worry. They’ll front you for the weed till I get back.”
Dewer followed the clerk, ignoring his suspicions. They walked down a short hall and opened another door. The room was small and smoky. There was a couch in the middle and beanbags around the walls. Three young men stood in the opposite corner in deep conversation. They stopped, abrupt, and looked over.
The clerk approached the group while Dewer tried not the look in their direction. He stared at a small table with a bong and a pair of surgical scissors on it.
Their meeting was short and when the clerk parted from them, he walked straight to the door without looking up.
“Have a seat,” one of the young men said as he approached Dewer and handed him a pipe.
Dewer sat and took a big pull, holding the sweet smoke in his lungs as long as possible. He coughed and tried to hand the pipe back. Another man shouted from the corner,
“Nah, to the head, man!”
“Thanks,” Dewer said and took another rip. He exhaled, then, hit it again, sucking ash through the hole and into his mouth. He spat. The young man took the pipe and blew through the intake stem, throwing the remaining ash out of the bowl.
“Another of this or the killers?” he said, and pointed at a bag of weed on the small table, just behind the bong.
“I’m ok.” Dewer said and thanked him.
The young man walked back to the others in the corner. The door opened and an overweight, hostile-looking girl wearing a mammoth t-shirt stretching to her knees, walked in. She went to the corner, ignoring him. Dewer sat still and stared at the bong, getting more stoned as the minutes, which felt like hours, progressed.
This is heavy weed, he thought. His eyes dried up creaked to a closed. A female voice behind him said,
“Are you going to get the fuck out?”
His stoned shell looked towards the group as they stared at him. He stood, not sure of where he was or what was going on.
“Yeah, I have to pay you,” he said and approached them.
He produced his wallet and went through the RMB; he held several bills up in his right hand, and pointed them towards one of the young men. The others began to chuckle. The dealer took two from his hand and showed the others.
“What the fuck is this? Am I supposed to go to the bank and exchange your fuckin Euros, man?” he said.
Dewer wasn’t sure how to answer that, nor was he convinced he was supposed to.
The girl told him to leave again. He put his wallet in his back pocket and pushed the bills he held into the front. His head was cocked low in a cloud of inadvertent intrusion as his feet shuffled away.
He emerged into the store. The lights were off and he saw the clerk through the window, smoking a cigarette. Dewer came out of the front door and stood in front of the clerk who didn’t look at him. He looked up, his mind in a self-contained cave, and saw a few people staring at him through the second story apartment windows. He was uncomfortable and vulnerable so his feet moved him away.
He reached the corner and turned left, seeking the barren streets of the rich area. As unwelcoming as it was, he felt less need to protect himself there. It contained the sense of distance that his mind needed.
After walking for some time, he began to feel reality slipping back into place. A shot of remembrance came to him and it sent shrills up his spine.
Oh fuck. I forgot my change, he thought, and reached into his back, right pocket for his wallet. Relieved to find it, he opened it to three dollar bills. His heart began to beat fast and deep.
The extent of what had just happened converged on him. He checked his front pockets, as the heightened senses told him something was there. A folded mass of Chinese Yuan. A few hundreds were missing.
Dewer walked toward the little shop, convinced it would be locked up, and cursed himself. He tried to piece together what had happened, remembering in increments, the conversation with the guy in the back room. He thought of the photocopy from the clerk and reached into his left, back pocket, hoping it wasn’t true.
He felt paper and pulled it out. The photocopy. His mind mumbled,
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”
He walked faster to the trinket street and came to the store. The clerk was still standing outside. Dewer was shocked and thanked his God while approaching him.
“I think I forgot to get my change,” he said in the calmest voice he could muster.
“Yeah, you did,” the clerk said. “I have the money back here. Come on.”
The clerk opened a wooden gate and pointed with his right arm to enter. Dewer did. He took several steps and stopped. The clerk shuffled past him, but didn’t look in his direction. Dewer followed behind through the walkway nestled between tall brick walls.
They came to an open area that resembled a back yard. A scraggly tree in the center. Several beaten couches were randomly strewn about. A faint smell of burning wood was in the moist air. The ground was just dirt and Dewer looked around, forgetting his purpose there.
To his left, a little boy laid on one of the couches. Several teenagers stood next to the tree and punk rock music played from inside the house on the far end. He saw the silhouettes of people through the thin curtains. The clerk walked through the open door of the house, leaving Dewer.
The little boy on the couch called him over. The teenagers stared at him and one made a gesture towards the gate with his cup.
Dewer walked over to the child and said hello. The boy reached out and rubbed the man’s pant leg, mumbling something incoherently.
“I’m sorry,” Dewer said, kneeling down to hear him better. The child mumbled again. One of the teenagers yelled,
“He wants your pants.”
Dewer stood up. He made an anxious chuckle and said, “You can’t have my pants, son. What would I wear?”
The child gripped Dewer’s pant leg. He pulled it and began to squeal.
“He wants your pants,” the teen yelled again.
Dewer looked at the teens. He felt the pressure of the situation rising as several big men walked out of the back door and gathered next to them. Putting his hands in the air, he shouted back, “He wants my pants? Why? What would I wear?”
The teen responded, “Because he fuckin doesn’t have any!”
“Who gives a fuck about you?” one of the older men said. He chugged the liquid in the red Dixie cup and threw it towards him.
Dewer removed his wallet and unbuttoned the pants. He pulled them off, slowly, and hoped someone would have the sense to stop this. Holding his pants toward the kid, he slid his wallet into the waist of his trunks. The child jumped from the couch and snatched the pants, rolling them around his arm.
The child made for the door. His spine was jagged. It pulled to the right, just under his skull, and back to the left, midway down his back. His joints flipped as he swung his legs in flutters to awkwardly gallop like an unconditioned foal.
Several more men came out of the door and stood next to the tree. Dewer froze. The clerk emerged from the door and walked towards him keeping his head focused towards the ground. Dewer stepped in front of the clerk. He stopped and gazed through him.
“Did you get my change?” Dewer asked in a dry, half whimper.
“I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” the clerk said, turning back to the house. He took big steps and disappeared through the door. Dewer’s eyes followed him in horror.
One of the teenage kids approached him. Dewer stiffened more, and prayed one of them would give him finality, in words, the things he already felt. He knew what was coming.
The teen kicked a homemade ashtray at him. The tin hit Dewer in the chest and ash scattered. He closed his eyes and felt the thin, light, particles clasp to his lips, while not daring to breathe.
“You aren’t going to leave here with that money,” another teen said.
“Or your life, fucker,” a deeper voice sneered.
His brain ran through a hundred scenarios. Punch the teen and run for the gate or run straight to the men and just start swinging? Yelling for help seemed safer.
His logic geared in, and he turned towards the gate. He walked slowly, and hoped they would just let him go. It was still halfway open, so that was his focus. He thought to get a little closer, and then, take off in a full run. Ensure his escape without rattling the sickly hornets behind him, prematurely.
Dewer canvassed the path to the gate and found the exact spot he would begin the run. He went through the evolution quickly, precisely, in his mind.
With two more steps to go, he felt a sudden presence from behind. It overtook him like the fog overtakes the shore. He closed his eyes and felt a blunt pain behind the right ear, turning him numb. Fear shot through his body; his mind yelled to run and he opened his eyes.
Only dirt. His muscles relaxed and each repeated hit gave his body another tingle. A grip on the ankle and his left leg went into the air. He slid away from the gate while scratching for sanctuary with slow, weak thrusts. It had been only a few steps away. The world went mute. He watched an overweight girl in tight jeans hustle to the gate and swing it shut.
Ray Blackwood was born in Anaheim, California. He is currently an ESL teacher in Dalian, China at an adult education center while working on his first novel. His work has appeared in Ashe Journal.