Short story by George Wynn
[dropcap]H[/dropcap]e walks down Mission Street to his Sixth Street room. It has a bleak look, with the New England Transcendentalist literature of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson scattered everywhere. Then there are the National Geographics and San Francisco Chronicles and duffel bags piled up on the dusty floor.
On the window where he likes to read and ruminate on his reading, are some wheat crumbs by his rickety armchair. He goes up on the roof and is met by wet dresses and skimpy underwear. It’s an unusually quiet Sunday. The derelicts must be asleep. Even the pigeons now flying away from the parapet have forgotten to make a mess.
He pops open a bottle of Heineken and rests his back against the graffiti-tagged chimney and daydreams of walking with his imaginary friend Thoreau along the paths of Mountain Lake Park near Presidio Boulevard. He’s grateful for the tranquility Thoreau’s book Walden has given him. He lifts his beer bottle and toasts the cool evening air: “Thank you, Henry David.”
He wakes up at 6 a.m and stays in the hall shower for a quarter of an hour. After gulping down a big bowl of raisin bran cereal he laces up his hiking boots. While buttoning up his Pendleton shirt, he shakes his head at the sight of belly fat. He puts on his black-and-orange Giants cap but not before staring at the red baseball cap with the capital C on a closet hook.
He opens his door and sees Sheila, the Irish lady who lives directly across the hal,l with a book of Psalms in her large, red, blistered hands. “A pleasant morning to you Gus,” she says.
“A pleasant morning to you, Sheila.”
“Where are you going, Gus?”
“Taking in the morning Mass.”
“I see you’re going to the church more often now.”
“I’m not a religious man. I just enjoy the quiet.”
“Oh Gus, that’s just what the Good Lord wants us to do. Be silent.”
She looks him square in the eye. “You see, Gus, Jesus entered my little bitty bones when I was five.” Sheila taps her book. “Oh yes, Gus, the spirit and passion of the Lord is still in these old bones.”
He turns and gives a slight wave and she makes the sign of the cross.
Gus walks up Howard Street past the Yerba Buena Gardens. He sits in the wooden pew of St. Patrick’s, a copy of Walden across his lap and the Bible in his right hand. He is entranced by the vibrant, stained-glass colors: the brightness of the reds, blues and yellows illuminate his soul and he lets out a long, deep breath and says to himself, “It’s good to be alive.”
As always, the image of Christ pierced on the side irks him. In his days on the streets, he saw too many stabbings on the left and right side. Images of suffering hit him viscerally. Real life is saturated with it. On the streets, you’re an unperson, an easy scapegoat for the ills of the big city and the powers that be: crucifiers of the unpeople. Today he’s worked up more than usual and marches down to the Powell Street Station and gets on the N Judah and gets off at 9th Avenue.
Gus passes the Botanical Gardens, then hooks a right and finds a bench behind the Academy of Sciences, facing the Big Rec baseball field. He watches teens taking turns hitting fly balls to the outfield. He remembers being rail thin and playing American Legion ball for his hometown, Merced. He had a great fastball and lousy curve, which got him as far as Visalia Class C: a minor league club in the Cincinnati Reds organization.
The disappointment led to his enlisting in the Coast Guard and tours of Greenland and Iceland — where he learned to appreciate solitude.
A lovely, blue-eyed blonde with medium-length hair and a heart-shaped face and narrow hips encased in tight jeans sits down on the other end of the bench. She’s barefoot, a few inches below six feet, and wiggles her toes before hugging her blue, high-heeled pumps to her white sweater and letting out deep, long sighs. “Whew … whew … whew!”
Gus turns her way. “Brand new shoes,” he exclaims.
She nods. “They’re killing my feet.”
“Men’s shoes are more comfortable.”
“Of course,” she smiles, “but I prefer women’s shoes.”
Gus gives a slight grin. “Put your feet in a basin of Epsom salt tonight. Might help.”
“Good idea,” she says, then opens a tin of cashews from her pack. “Would you like some?”
“No thanks,” Gus cordially declines.
“You sure?” she asks with an animated smile. Gus moves closer and cups his hands. She pours. “Tell me when to stop.”
His hands begin to overflow with nuts until four or five hit the ground. “Oh shit!” he grits his teeth.
She laughs, picks up the fallen nuts, wraps them in a napkin and places them aside, and then turns to Gus. “I’m Willa,” she says, offering her long-fingered hand.
He lightly squeezes her soft hand, “Gus.”
After a moment of silence, out of the blue, she asks, “How old are you?”
“I’m two years short of being an octogenarian.”
“I’m a year short of being 40,” she says. “You could be my grandpa.”
“Oh, that’s great for my self-esteem,” says Gus, shaking his head.
She looks directly into his eyes and asks, “Why did you accept my cashews after first refusing them?”
“How could I say no to a beautiful woman?” he replies.
She stares at her blue toenails for a moment and then, with remarkable calm, says, “If I told you I had a double mastectomy, would you still think I’m beautiful?”
“I wouldn’t believe you.”
Gus bows his head and slowly looks up. “Please accept my apology. I spoke foolishly.”
“I accept your apology,” she says. “So what’s the answer?”
He gulps then rises.
“No, no, please don’t leave.”
He takes a couple of steps.
“Please, I know the answer,” she says squinting her eyes. “It wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference to you.”
“No, it wouldn’t,” he says firmly.
“Thank you,” she says, taking a thermos and two plastic cups from her pack. “Now let’s both relax and have some green tea.”
“You do come prepared,” says Gus.
After several cups of tea and small talk and dark clouds setting in, Willa says, “I want you to tell me just one more thing. Will you be my friend?”
Gus is silent and remote. He’s become so accustomed to just being with himself and his shadow and his imaginary friend Thoreau that the word connoting a real person seems as alien as the pretentious, self-centered people he despises. But he surrenders himself unexpectedly to the feeling of warmth in his chest at the thought of a friend and simply says, “Yes.” At that precise moment, he once again feels a member of the human family.
In the coming days, Gus and Willa meet around noon on the same bench. One day, she removes her diary from her purse, but doesn’t open it. She says, “I tried to keep a diary but it was too painful to read and write. I’d tremble when I put pen to paper, especially when the chill beyond chills permeated me that my surgery could not be reversed. I’d race to the mirror and tear my clothes off. Drop and roll on the floor, naked in my parquet living room, pounding my fists on the floor crying, ‘Why, why, why, why?’”
Willa squeezes her long fingers against her temples, her knuckles turning bone-white at the memory. “I felt cheated by life, sabotaged by my body. I pleaded with God: ‘Please, please God, give me back my breasts. God, God, God, I want my breasts back.’”
Gus places his hands on his kneecaps firmly, as if to brace himself. “Too much Gus?” she asks with a heavy sigh.
“It’s fine,” he tells her.
She bites her lip, then is silent for a good five minutes while Gus stares straight ahead at the baseball field as if trying to absorb everything that’s been said. Finally, Willa speaks in a low voice. “Slowly I became resigned that there was nothing I could do but live with my deplorable situation. If only I was as strong as Angelina Jolie, but I’m weak, Gus.”
“In my 78 years on this beautiful but violent planet,” Gus says, “I’ve learned doing the best one can is all that counts.”
She nods. “You’re right Gus. After some serious reflection, I saw I couldn’t think of my surgery as deplorable. I had to put aside my self-doubt that I’d ever recover mentally and physically.” She gives a slight grin. “So I began to jog and swim a lot to build up my body image.”
“That’s great, Willa. Exercise is real healthy and a strong distraction.”
“Yes it is, Gus.” She makes a fist. “I began to depend on myself much more.” She undoubles her fist. “You know, usually when I talk to women about my surgery, the cool look in their eyes tells me they’re looking for an excuse to say goodbye.” She squeezes his shoulder. “But with you, I feel comfortable getting troubling thoughts out in the open. You sit quietly and bear witness with your big, brown eyes … and I know you care.”
She releases the pressure on his shoulder. “If it weren’t for you, I’d blow up more often.” She clasps both her hands. “Thank you Gus.”
“Glad to be of help.”
“Let me take you to a Japanese restaurant up on 9th Avenue.”
“Sounds real good, Willa.”
They sit on wooden benches opposite each other, both taking sips of seafood udon from their soup bowls on a wooden bench table and nibbling on their California sushi rolls.
“You’re the first Willa I ever met,” says Gus. “Only Willa I ever heard of before was Willa Cather.”
“My mother named me after her,” exclaims Willa. “Mom’s favorite book was Death Comes for the Archbishop. Have you heard of it?”
“Yes I have,” smiles Gus. “I worked as a clean-up man at the La Fonda in Santa Fe after I got out of the service. It was a popular book with hotel guests.”
“I bet,” grins Willa. “Mom was a ranch girl from a small town between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. She could ride and rope as well as any cowboy.”
“You inherited some of that spunky cowgirl spirit.”
“You really think so Gus?”
“Yes siree,” Gus nods. “I sure do.”
“I like your Isaac Asimov sideburns.”
Gus rubs his right sideburn and frowns. “Getting too gray.”
“Gray’s a good color,” says Willa.
“Wait till you’re 78,” says Gus. “You’ll change your mind.”
“Only time will tell,” she says.
“Asimov’s got a great imagination,” says Gus. “Sure like his books.”
“You read a lot, don’t you Gus?”
“Yeah, picked up the habit in Iceland and Greenland in the Coast Guard.”
“How was it there?”
“Peaceful with the blissful ice fjords and you can drive forever there on the open roads, like in the desert Southwest.” Gus bows his head. “My trouble started when I came back home and my wife had found another man. After the initial shock, it was all downhill for a year or two after that.”
Gus looks Willa in the eye. “It took me almost five years to get off the booze and the streets, but with constant attendance at A.A. meetings and immersion in good literature, especially Thoreau and Emerson and their ideas on self-reliance and the search for the truth, I found the will to get back on my mental feet.”
“Will power is so important,” says Willa, putting her index finger on her chin. “I’m starting to have more confidence. I’m planning to go out on some job interviews soon, Gus.”
“Great idea,” smiles Gus. “That’s the cowgirl spirit from Mom talking. If you fall off a horse you get right back on.”
Willa nods. “Absolutely right, Gus.”
That evening Gus can’t sleep. He sits calm and contemplative in Denny’s on Mission, a 24-hour diner with a senior discount. There’s few customers at midnight in this large space reminiscent of simple San Francisco cafeterias of the ‘50s and ‘60s. He drinks a large hot chocolate with extra whipped cream very slowly, sipping it with a long spoon.
Nibbling on apple pie, he’s engrossed in Walden and the memorable quote from Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Before discovering Thoreau, he would wander the streets restlessly. Now it’s so enjoyable to have a companion like Willa and be able to support her and help her face the serious issues in her life.
While on the streets, he always encouraged his friends not to give up — no matter how many curveballs the authorities threw their way and made their tortured lives even worse.
Gus doesn’t see Willa over the weekend. On Monday morning, he’s sitting on the end of the bench around 11:00 when he feels soft hands covering his eyes from behind. The hands are released and Willa stands in front of him wearing a black pantsuit over black patent heels, a black slingback purse, a white scarf draped around her neck and a white beret.
“You look really sharp,” says Gus, breathless for a moment.
Willa nods and smiles. “I start work at 1:00 in an office on the Embarcadero. Just some filing and reception work.”
“It’s a good beginning, Willa,” says Gus. “Congratulations.”
“I’m really grateful to you.”
“I know,” says Gus. “And I’m happy to have met you too.”
Willa takes an envelope out of her purse and hands it to him. Gus stares at it, not knowing what to think.
“Open it, Gus. Inside there’s a round trip train ticket to Boston. From there, you can catch a local train at South Station to Walden Pond.”
Gus is stunned and she sees his amazement and shyness and gives him a huge bear hug and kiss on both cheeks.
“Wow,” says Gus. “Wow.” He blinks his eyes. “What a day,” he says, giving her a light hug. “I couldn’t have asked for a better gift. I haven’t been anywhere for so long. This’ll be great. Can’t wait to pack.”
“I have to hurry, Gus,” says Willa. “I’ll see you when I get back.” She takes the envelope out of his hands and writes down her address. “Send me a postcard from Walden Pond.”
“Several,” smiles Gus.
Willa waves good-bye and walks off quickly.
Gus watches her walk off, then gets up and looks out at the baseball field. He goes into a pitching stance and swings his leg in a high kick and pretends to fire a blazing fastball. He says, “It’s great to be alive.”