I broke a plastic spoon this morning when I visited the mustard grass field, brushing my fingertips against the yellow flowers that bent the waving stalks. On accident I stepped on it; I didn’t see it under the grass or remember where I was, I guess. The sun hadn’t come up yet, but you could have seen your breath. My barefoot meanderings still lead me there, beyond my backyard fence, and I go alone. I keep thinking about Arthur and the homeless man, that day last Fall. We don’t have too many homeless people here in Campbell, not like up in Berkeley. It was a strange day.
I was on my way to the post office downtown, to mail a scarf to my Grandma. It’s just a mile or so from my house, through the mustard grass field, just past the Pruneyard Plaza. After walking awhile with the Indian summer heat too much and too heavy beneath my ponytail, I decided to stop by the Safeway on Budd Avenue to grab a cold Vitamin Water. The parking lot echoed the wallet chain clank of a stomping Mohawked loner. Approaching the doors, I glanced into the slanted shade of the concrete column, and regarded a heavily clothed body with a beard and a cat-in-the-hat-hat sitting wilted.
Over the summer I worked at a day camp and would walk home, tired, through the pavement’s rising heat, my strong legs sore and my feet aching. It hadn’t rained in weeks to wash away shoe grime and ashes and bike tracks. I wondered if he’d walked long in this week’s heat wave, if he’d slumped down onto the evaporated spit to wait for a kind passerby who might offer a meal. There he was, in his sneakers, jeans, and a thick black coat, smudges of the past blurred here and there, rubbed toward disappearance in vain. I decided to pick up some food for him.
I walked inside, past bouquets of fading flowers and a diverse selection of fruit dips. The canned food and the heavily preservative-laden seemed the best options for a man without a refrigerator, and there was some yogurt on sale, so I figured I’d grab one of those too. He probably hadn’t had one in a while.
An employee stocking cream cheese glanced over, paused, and approached, not relaxed. Eyebrows furrowed, he finally released: “Miss, I have to ask you to leave until you put on some shoes. It’s policy.”
“Oh. Right,” I gave him, and stared until he walked away. The floor is always so cold on those refrigerator aisles. I turned back to the yogurt. Apricot mango: delicious.
I walked to the checkout line, listening to the soft slap of my toes on the smooth, sandy tile. I checked out the cut features of the muscular cashier; tattooed and tapping the receipt printer. He needed a break. Twisting my hips, swishing my skirt, I grabbed a pack of Winterfresh gum while I waited to move forward. I stacked my package, the canned peaches, my beverage, the yogurt, and the chewing gum, into a lovely balanced tower on the gray conveyor belt. Behind me, a man in a black suit and Tasmanian Devil tie separated our items with a bar advertising a dentist office. He was buying fish sticks. Ahead of me, the frazzled soccer mom with toe rings handed over seventy-four dollars and, under her breath, incorrectly calculated what I think she called her “super savings.” She looked to her left and right, and missed the handles of the bags several times as she tried to grab them. She tripped as she walked away.
My turn came, and my tower of sustenance fell. The manager from the dairy aisle walked up, rigid, and told the cashier to refuse me the items, on account of my disrespecting their policy on footwear. My face felt hot. I understand that bare feet are inappropriate in a grocery store, but.
I’d planned to use my Visa card because I didn’t have cash. If I had had cash, I would’ve slammed it down and bagged my own items anyway. As was the case, I grumbled “Fine…” and left with just the yogurt and a jaded sneer. I had a humanitarian goal and little patience for this.
I’d planned to toss it to the too-clothed man, but…he wasn’t there. Amid the yells of “Miss! Miss!” I hoped the management would see I was representing a good cause and maybe write off the “incident” as a noble donation.
I looked around, but the man wasn’t anywhere.
Out stumbled the awkward and fumbling manager, his long legs and apron flapping, barking at me to come back. My loyalty lay with the man outside
I turned and ran up Winchester Boulevard.
“I’ll call the police!” chased me half a block more before returning, dejected, to his cream cheese and politics.
I was a criminal, barefoot, holding a yogurt with no spoon. I'd left Grandma's package, too.
I walked up Campbell Avenue, past Heroes, the comic book store, that one frozen yogurt place with the penguin in the window, Gothic Body Piercing, and Stacks, the pancake house. I turned on First Street, by the new train station and the abandoned canning factory. At the swings underneath the water tower I found that Mohawked high school punk, ditching Algebra II, probably, to smoke cigarettes and scuff his feet in the tanbark. He watched his shadow as he swung. He wore tight straight leg jeans, torn, patched, and pinned. His black combat boots had anarchy symbols in white-out, and his crooked red Cramps shirt was wrinkled under his denim vest, which was patched and pinned like his jeans. His face was attractive but boyish, and his eyes dark with a pissed-off sorrow.
I sat on the swing next to his and he swung, holding his scowl. Tanbark smells like second grade. I swung. He swung. I swung more and stopped, juggling the yogurt between my fingertips. He swung higher.
“Hey, did you see a homeless man walk by within the last few minutes?” I asked him, drowning the swing’s groaning squeaks.
“You ever mind your own business?" He swung backward toward and past me. I wondered if he’d misheard my question. I asked him again if he’d seen the man from the grocery store, in a grungy black coat and that ridiculous hat.
He stopped swinging and turned to me. “Look, babe, if you want a cigarette, just bum a cigarette. If you wanna act the detective, why don’t you talk to someone more irrelevant, or call the cops on me already?” Maybe he was high, but maybe, still, he could help.
“Actually I’m just looking for someone.” I looked down at the yogurt, and saw it would expire in two weeks. “Why would the cops want you? ”
“Well, I stabbed a guy once. He laid out my buddy at a party then started talkin’ shit. You don’t beat a guy when he’s down, especially when you’re throwin’ the first punch. I learned that playin’ football. Anyway he kept talkin’ shit and my buddy was taking it. Well of course he was, he was drunk and bleeding on the carpet. Anyway, I stabbed the motherfucker.”
“Oh.” I looked up at the water tower. “You play football?”
“No, I’m a fucking train conductor. I saw your guy walkin’ toward the Pruneyard a few minutes ago.”
I rose in surprise. “Oh, awesome. Thanks.”
He hopped from the swing and walked alongside me, keeping a half-pace ahead, his wallet chain clanking each step. His smarminess had seemed slimy, but then I kind of fell for it.
My mouth was too parched. We would walk through the park soon. I could see the drinking fountain.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“I’m Arthur.”—a cough—“How old are you?”
“Nineteen.” I started counting cigarette butts. I counted three.
“Who’re we lookin’ for, anyway?”
“Um…well I don’t really know—I think he’s homeless, and it’s so hot--and—so ... well, if I were homeless I probably wouldn’t get enough calcium, and—”
I took a deep breath and summarized my mission. “At least this way I’ll have some peace of mind.”
“Your conscience is that gnarly, huh?”
“I guess.” Eight cigarette butts. A siren in the distance. “Did you really stab a guy?”
“No. But I saw my friend get hit by a train … and I probably could’ve pulled him off the tracks. I just … didn’t ... I dunno.”
We were quiet as we passed the playground, then the picnic area, toward the Creek Trail. In the distant corner of the park, by the bushes, on the lawn, leaning against a tree, hatted head tilted to the side, greasy hair in his face, there he was: the man I aimed to feed.
Was I shocked? I don’t remember. I knew he couldn’t have gone too far. Just like the shade of the concrete column outside the grocery store, so was the shade of the tree trunk beginning to elude him.
We approached. Still, there was no spoon. We could spare time to hit Togo’s across the street and grab a plastic one; he was just sitting there.
I mentioned this to Arthur, and he agreed: we’d be right back.
When we returned with the black utensil, a police SUV sat parked on the curb. We stopped at the picnic area. The officers on the lawn moved back and forth among each other: one with paperwork, one with a walkie-talkie, one more adjusting the white sheet that covered the body under the tree. No matter how he manipulated the cloth, a limp limb stuck out.
Then, the ambulance.
I was sweating, still thirsty. We didn’t speak.
When they left, we ate the yogurt.
I buried the container in the mustard grass field and tombstoned its grave with the spoon.