‘Thick on the Wet Cement’, Rebecca J. Schwab

Illustrations © 2012 Cécile Matthey

hold it for you now.
looks heavy I would like to
In your hands your face

 [ Walking woman, © 2012 Cécile Matthey ] I write them like that so when she’s walking she can read them in the right order. Her face never leaves the sidewalk directly in front of her, and I use colored chalk to make them stand out from the bleak cement and tossed away gum wrappers. I saw her resting by the library like that two weeks ago, sitting on the narrow concrete retaining wall where the homeless people usually hang out. She didn’t have an expression on her face as she stared at the ground and I hardly ever see her still. She’s usually walking.

At first I mistook her for a man. She wears a baggy, gray ARMY shirt and black swishy track pants, her breasts loose and hanging just over her waistband. When it’s hot she trades the pants for a pair of black spandex shorts. Her stomach protrudes and I wonder if it’s held babies that are grown now. Her cropped dark hair is sprinkled with silver and she is always alone.

A friend of mine, Bryan, said that one day he saw her stomping on a man as he lay on the sidewalk. She didn’t say anything as she drove her sneaker down on his ribs. The man was curled into a ball on his side, whining like a small frightened animal. Bryan didn’t know why she was so angry.

After weeks of seeing her do laps around Morgantown, I decided to say hello. Don’t do it, Bryan told me over the telephone, reminding me of the man on the sidewalk. But I thought someone who is always alone might like to have a conversation with someone. I usually pass her on High Street on my way to Jay’s Daily Grind, the coffee shop I like, and that day, in a non-threatening yellow blouse, I thought to myself, Here I go.

I inhaled as I saw her coming and I smiled. I said Hi. She didn’t look up and I thought maybe she didn’t hear me.

So I said Hi the next day, pausing for a moment in front of her for emphasis, like I really meant it. Not like the people who say hi just because your eyes meet theirs in line at the grocery store.

But I had to jump out of her way, because again, she didn’t look up or seem to notice I was there. I cut my knee on a fire hydrant when I did this, but though it stung and bled, I didn’t say Ouch because I was busy staring at her as she walked away from me. The scab is shaped like a mouth.

will chatter of you.
scar from the fire hydrant it
I hope I get a

I left that the next day right by the fire hydrant. I put it in pink chalk this time like the color my brand new skin will be after the smile-shaped scab falls off. I hope she saw the words and thought of me, the girl who cared enough to get out of her way, to say hello twice without being told anything in reply.

I live in a small efficiency up by the Ramada Inn, at the end of a long dead end road. Nearby, there are nicer apartment complexes, but they’re more expensive and I can’t afford them. The thin man who lives across the parking lot from me likes to sit outside in a folding chair. His name is Gary. I’ve told him lots of times that my name is Lara, but he always calls me Young Lady. I say Good morning to him and he tells me how the weather will be and what the leaves are about to do. He told me two days ago that they’re about to start falling, though I thought that was obvious, and then he described the first chapter of a novel he’s writing about extraterrestrials. He’s working up to a large-scale battle scene in chapter ten, but told me not to worry because the humans win. I watched his hollow chest, how it heaved up and down in thin arcs as he spoke.

Aside from Gary and the mailwoman I wave to, my apartment complex is pretty lonely. It’s full of retired people who stay indoors and people who often leave town for business. It has a motel feel to it, like no one is planning on staying long and no one wants anyone else to really know why they’re there. I get bored a lot. There’s a window in my apartment, but the only thing to look out on is the parking lot, and in nice weather, Gary. I don’t have cable. Sometimes, for something to do, I construct poems out of words I cut from the free Saturday paper. I choose interesting words like October and Vascular and put them in a red plastic colander. I shake them out onto the coffee table and read them how they fall.

A few days a week, after work, I avoid going straight home to my empty apartment. I sit in the front window of Jay’s on a high stool and I count how many times the walking woman passes. One day I sat there for four hours and I counted seven times. At the coffee shop you can’t just sit, so I bought four large cups of cappuccino and a raspberry scone. I left the window a few times to visit the ladies’ room and I hope I didn’t miss one of her laps. My friend Sheila and I used to meet for coffee on Saturdays, but since she got together with her girlfriend Janie I don’t see much of her. Last month, Bryan moved two hours away for a job in marketing. Aside from them, I have a few other friends, but they all have jobs or kids or spouses. They’re busy. They tell me they don’t have a lot of time to hang out, and I try to understand.

The woman I watch doesn’t wear any makeup. Her face is brown from the sun, which makes me think she doesn’t wear sunblock, either. I wonder if she’ll get skin cancer because she’s outside so much. I’m concerned and tell her, because that’s what friends do.

tricky mercury.
slowly like a mad hatter’s
The sun’s damage acts

I write this poem in yellow chalk, the color of Caution, in front of the coffee shop very early on Saturday. I sit in the window so I can see her face as she reads it. At nine-oh-six she walks right over it and her face doesn’t change at all. Her eyebrows don’t raise and her mouth is still a line. I don’t think she likes it. Maybe she doesn’t understand it. As I sip my second cappuccino I imagine smearing a greasy line of white sunblock down the bridge of her sharp nose.

Today she’s wearing a hat. It’s beige with a gold and blue WVU stitched firmly onto its front. Her face is scowling but safe, shaded by the protective brim. I see the shallow crows’ feet around her dark eyes and I know they won’t get any deeper today. Her elfish ears are still left vulnerable, but I take the hat as a sign that she liked the poem after all, that she knows someone cares for her. I leave another one, to let her know how things could be, how we could spend our Sunday afternoons in the spring.

Both of your eyes closed.
I’d like to read you a book
Under a shade tree

This is on Pleasant Street, written in green because I read in a book that green is calming. I imagine what it would be like if we were friends, if she gave me a chance. We’d run into each other on High Street near the dry cleaner’s and I’d casually ask her if I could buy her a gelato. She’d be hot from exercising and say Yes. She might get something in a tropical flavor, like mango or pineapple or pomegranate. I would get vanilla and maybe she’d tease me for being boring. We’d sit on a bench and watch people quietly as they went by. When she left me to go home, I’d say I’ll see you tomorrow and she’d say Yep, just like that, because she’d know I was telling the truth.

I work at a car dealership by the river. We don’t sell many cars, especially because gas prices are so high right now. No one is buying SUVs and half of our lot is full of them, shining in the sun as they decrease in value. I sit behind a small desk that overlooks the avenue and I watch people going by on bikes. I wave to them if they look at me.

My boss doesn’t come in much because business is slow. There’s no one for me to talk to, since I’m the only employee besides Veronica, who files things. She’s forty-three and pregnant, and on bed rest. Her doctor said she was high-risk and she can’t work. My boss said Fine, because that’s one less person to pay, though they’re arguing over whether or not she’ll get paid maternity leave. Even though there’s nothing to file, I miss Veronica. Without her, there’s no one to have coffee with. I can never drink a whole pot by myself, so I pour the leftovers into a large fern in the front window. He seems to like it. His leaves are dark green and stretch toward the sun. I’ve named the fern Folger, and I address him when I say something out loud at work, like Good morning or I couldn’t sleep again last night. I know Folger is only a plant, but it’s better than thinking in silence all day. We don’t have a TV at work and I’m not supposed to make personal phone calls, though sometimes I do sneak a call to Bryan. I haven’t told him about the poems.

I could do the same.
but he listens politely
Folger is quiet

This one was just a practical thought I had at work and I wrote in on Willey Street just in front of the Methodist church. I printed it in white chalk since I knew the poem was stark and unlovely. I also knew the woman wouldn’t know who Folger was, but thought she might get the point anyway.

After I wrote it I wandered down Willey Street and stopped in front of St. John’s Catholic Church. The evenings are getting chilly and I shivered. Since I had nowhere to be I stood still and stared up at the church’s windows. I wondered if I should commit myself to this parish or any parish—I was never baptized, so my choices are wide open. I thought about that—about why I haven’t ever bothered with church, and I looked to my right when I heard approaching footsteps.

It was her. She wore the track pants and a fleece jacket. I shoved my chalky fingers deep into the pockets of my windbreaker and stepped forward to let her pass. I thought I heard her mutter Thank you, but I couldn’t be sure. The wind was picking up and the college students were beginning to swarm the streets. As I looked at her receding figure, I realized that I had expected her to walk in the other direction, that the poem would be upside down to her. I hoped she could figure out the way it was supposed to be. I almost called after her, to tell her to go the other way, but a group of four screeching girls passed in front of me and cut off my view.

I drove home. It was too cold for Gary to be out. I checked for mail but there was none. I called Bryan; he was busy. Same with Sheila. I got out my scrapbook of newspaper poems and read them out loud, but none of them meant anything to me. Lying on my fold-out couch, I looked out the window until the last bit of light was gone and I could see the silhouettes of my neighbors moving behind their window shades.

Today it’s raining. My wool sweater is getting damp and I’m trying to hurry because I have to be at work in an hour and I still need to get breakfast. The blue chalk writes thick on the wet cement and my words show up bold, standing out like they’re on a blackboard in a classroom. I’m trying to write fast, but the rain is coming down harder and it runs into my eyes. I blink it away, wipe my forehead with my soggy sleeve.

it’s chilly today.
cup of coffee or a scone
Let me buy you a

I’m shivering by the time it’s finished and my blue piece of chalk is worn down to a nub. The poem is on the corner of Spruce and Willey. I get up from my crouch and jog in the direction of Jay’s, squinting to keep out the water, trying not to slip in my slick-soled ballet flats. I stop when I reach High Street. Cars are driving by, taking the corner too fast, maybe because of the weather. I punch the crosswalk button and turn around, regretting that I didn’t wear my raincoat.

And that’s when I see her, head down, tee shirt soaked, passing the BB&T. I freeze for a moment when I realize she’s heading into the street just as a pickup is turning onto High from Willey. Frantic, I slosh through a puddle and dash the three yards that separate us. I grab her, yell Wait. She whirls, fierce, looks from me to her blue-smudged shoulder, my fingers still clutching her sleeve. I don’t let go because I don’t want to. She narrows her eyes—brown—for the first time, I’m close enough to see what color they are. I look meaningfully into them, tell her, Hold on, I’m your friend, but she doesn’t hear me, or maybe she doesn’t trust me. She grabs my forearm so hard it hurts, pinches, her fingers like metal tongs, but for just a moment, there on the street corner, we’re holding onto each other. Then she shoves me down to the wet sidewalk. I land on my right hip and it hurts so much I almost cry. I lie there, stunned, rainwater pooling in my left ear. I was trying to save you, I yell after her, but she keeps walking.

 [ Chalk on wet pavement, © 2012 Cécile Matthey ] I’m sitting in Jay’s and I was supposed to be at the dealership twenty minutes ago. I’m on my second cup of hot tea and I’m not shivering as much anymore. The rain is coming down lighter now. It’s warm in here and the girl behind the counter said a batch of cranberry muffins will be ready soon. My sweater is dirty from the puddle and there’s a tear in the elbow I hope I can patch. My forearm aches, and I can still feel where her fingers dug in.

She’s walked by twice now and she must have seen it, the blue invitation on the sidewalk. If it hasn’t washed away. If she hasn’t changed her route. The second time she passed she looked at me through the window and she didn’t seem angry anymore. Her chin tilted up and her damp forehead wrinkled. I’m sitting across from an empty chair and I’m waiting, thinking next time, she’ll stop in. She’s got to be chilly by now, too.

© 2012 Rebecca J. Schwab

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