- Sidewalks by Marta Palos  




by Marta Palos

* * * * * * * *

He spotted the woman coming his way for the second time that week. Shoulders hunched, nose thrust forward, she scurried along the sidewalk, now and then casting a glance about her as if on guard against some invisible danger. The Mouse Woman, he called her. To avoid another confrontation, he stepped into the entryway of the bakery shop, his favorite shelter against wind and rain. He could also fool his stomach there, by swallowing mouthfuls of the aroma of freshly baked pastries and bread.

The Mouse Woman only a few yards away, he turned his back to the street to fend her off. The November wind ran through his threadbare coat and sent a chill down his spine, but he decided not to budge till she was gone.

The day she stopped him on the street he refused to take the money from her outstretched hand. "Come on, it's cold out here," she urged. He glared at her in silence, taking note of the anticipatory smile around her thin mouth, of the colorless eyes demanding grateful appreciation. He felt the urge to hit her, but checked his anger and limped away. The woman gone at last, he leaned against the wall of the entryway and took stock of the pastries in the display window: cream puffs under a glass cover he felt melting on his tongue sweet and light, buttery croissants, rows of nut-filled brownies on a tray. Brownies. Brown...Old English brun, German braun, akin to the Lithuanian...he tried to find the word in Lithuanian, but his memory refused to cooperate.

In the interior of the bakery a woman in a white apron was moving with a tray in hand, plump and blond like his Aunt Caroline whose words came back to him transcending twenty years. "Say thanks, Bernard. Can't you show a little gratitude when someone is trying to be good to you?"

He forced his gaze away from the brownies and stepped out of the shelter, only to discover the Mouse Woman in front of the beauty salon next door, her hand resting on the doorknob, staring at him. The wind bore into her sparse red hair, exposing patches of pink scalp and gray roots.

Apparently she lived somewhere around here. He hugged his coat tight and started down the street the opposite direction. To get rid of the woman, he could always move on. But this was a neighborhood teeming with a rich mixture of ethnic groups, and to catch fragments of the diverse speech patterns still gave him a degree of pleasure. Besides, he'd just lucked on a better place than the abandoned warehouse near the old railway station, no small feat with winter on the threshold. Two days ago he happened on a man straining under a large bundle of leather sheets. He gave him a hand, and in exchange of cleaning up before opening time, the man offered him a cot in the back room of his shoe-repair shop. But he warned him in broken English not to show up before seven at night. "You look too bad for customers," he said, his breath smelling of garlic.

He tried to guess the man's native language, but his faculties were fading.

It seemed ages ago when his degree in comparative linguistics used to earn him a living, when he was still good at deciphering accents by simply listening to the resonance of vowels and consonants and the distinctive patterns of intonation.

The wind was getting stronger, but it was much too early to return to the shoe-repair shop. Once he tried the public library for shelter, but he would never go back there. "This is not a flophouse, my friend," the man in charge whispered into his ear. It was not the "flophouse" that got to him but the man's mockery of the word "friend."

He felt the badly healed bone in his right ankle acting up again. The pain brought Sweeney to his mind, the French expert at the Language Department he had a fight with about a year ago. Sweeney invited him to his house for Thanksgiving but he declined, explaining that Thanksgiving was not exactly his favorite holiday.

Instead of letting it go at that, Sweeney launched into a lecture on the virtues of thankfulness and the importance of faith, and when Bernard didn't react one way or another, Sweeney's face turned red. "I've always suspected that you were a sonofabitch, Voitier," he said. "You haven't got an ounce of decent feeling inside you." Insults aside, Sweeney's pronunciation of his last name was as faultless as a French expert's should be. He tried to placate him, but Sweeney went on and on, his voice rising to a shout in front of the Language Department building. Heads turned, the crows on the lawn flew off in fright. He should have simply walked away but yelled back instead, and when Sweeney gave him a push he took a swing at the man, missed, toppled on the sidewalk and crushed his ankle under his own weight. Weight. Old English wiht, German Gewicht. Related to the Latin vehere. In Old Norse...he strained his mind for the word in Old Norse but it refused to come to him.

When he lost his job at the College, budget cuts were given for a reason, but he suspected that his dismissal was an orchestrated effort between the French expert and the dean of the Language Department. Before his fight with Sweeney, the dean had recommended him for a raise, but Bernard neglected to thank him, seeing no sense in being thankful for a raise well earned.

The rows of brownies in the bakery window appeared over the sidewalk like a mirage. He should go back and ask the woman in the white apron to let him sample a brownie or a cream puff--not an unheard-of practice among her customers. Perhaps she was friendly. Perhaps she would offer him a piece of pastry the way she would offer a cup of tea to a guest in her home.

Had he put up a fight for his position at the College, now he could have as many brownies as he wanted. Even buy a house, lead the life of a professional, take women to dinner like the one who just passed by, her elegance matching that of Esther in the Philosophy Department. The way his affair with Esther had ended still haunted him. The philosophy teacher with the mass of dark hair and slim body seemed to be refreshingly different in a world where anything given demanded something in return. "Gratitude is a double-edged virtue that could easily turn into dangerous resentment," she once said, earning his admiration. At her invitation he gave up his furnished apartment, packed his duffel bag and moved in with her. During spring break she proposed a trip to France, but still paying off his college grant, he had no money for France.

"Don't worry about money," Esther said. "The trip is on me. Once I spent a whole month in Paris, I can show you around. You'll see what a great city Paris is."

"There's no hurry to go, is there?"

"Frankly, you strike me a bit provincial," Esther arched her brows. "You need to open your horizons, Bernard. And once you've seen the world, you can thank me for showing you the way."

While Esther was out the next day, he packed his duffel bag and walked away without leaving a note. There was nothing to explain or argue about. The woman was a fake. She betrayed him by betraying her own principles.

He'd found a cheap, one-room apartment in a seedy neighborhood of Denver. When a week later he learned of his dismissal, he was confident he'd find a job he was qualified for. But the College didn't offer him letters of recommendation, and out of hurt pride, he didn't ask.

He tried another college, then a number of high schools. He finally accepted an accounting job but he was found incompetent, and the day came when he could no longer pay the rent. It was then he began to lose the drive to lift himself from the pit he fell into.

He spent his first homeless night on a bench in the park of the Museum of Natural Sciences, using his duffel bag for a pillow. It was early summer, the weather mild, sleeping outdoors wasn't too bad. But before he dozed off, he did ask the star-studded sky why this was happening to him. His personality may not be the most obliging in the world, but what had that to do with his qualifications as a scholar? By the time dawn came, his former life retreated into a shapeless past that maybe never was, an improbable realm where he was once called a teacher. It occurred to him he could mow someone's lawn despite his bad ankle, or become a garbage man, but he still believed he was worthy of something better than cleaning up after people.

He portioned out his meager money supply and lived from day to day. The bench in the park became his home. Nobody bothered him there, but when his last dollar was gone and hunger became a daily torment, his empty stomach turned his helplessness into smoldering anger. Was it anger that clouded his mind, or the lack of nourishment? He was afraid he would finally sink low enough to ask a handout from a stranger.

Gratia, a favor. Gratus, thankful. Or was it "pleasing"?

The word "gratus" weighed on his tongue like the piece of bagel he found on a park bench the other day, the hard chunk making his gums bleed as he bit into it. The idea of softening the bagel at the drinking fountain seemed exceptionally brilliant until he found the water already turned off for the winter.

Winter, water, wet, they all had a common base. But what was it?

The decline of his skills frightened him. He shouldn't have sold his last suit, ties and all, to another bearded bum for five lousy bucks. Now he would put aside his contempt for homeless shelters, take a shower there, dress up, then go back to the College to tell the president that his mind was going, that they had to take him back before everything he treasured would be gone from his memory. Maybe it was already too late, and whatever he could still recall was the stuff college freshmen already had at their fingertips. He had an urgent need to urinate. He was now on busy Colfax Avenue, the breeding ground for prostitutes and teens selling dope. People hurried past him, shoulders braced against the wind. The growing pressure in his bladder brought the word pissoire to his mind. Esther mentioned once that in Paris they had free pissoires all over the city, always there like a welcoming friend.

A sensation of wet warmth spread between his thighs. He spotted an alley to his right and as fast as his sore foot let him he turned the corner and let it all go beside a pile of cardboard boxes. His stream met the wind and the wind broke its arch and showered part of the urine down his pants. "Swine," he heard a female voice close by. From behind the pile of boxes an old bag lady was grinning at him, the black cave of her toothless mouth wide open.

He limped on. He took notice of the bad shape of his shoes, the sole of the left about to separate from the top part. The shoemaker might find a pair of discarded shoes for him, but he wouldn't ask. Shoes were one thing, his stomach, growling from hunger since yesterday, was another. The garbage cans he was still unable to touch. Once or twice he'd tried to steal a can of beans from the supermarket, but getting caught at stealing remained a constant threat to his sense of dignity. Weak from hunger, to ask the bakery woman for a piece of pastry or bread was no longer just a fantasy. The thought of her reminded him again of Aunt Caroline, frowning at him as he reached for his plate filled with food. "Say thanks first, Bernard. It seems to me, your unfortunate parents forgot to teach you how to behave." Uncle Louis often dismissed him from the dining room table with a mere gesture of his hand, the ring on his finger striking Bernard's eyes with a piercing flash of light. He wanted to go back home, except there was no home to go back to. Victims of a train derailment, his parents were dead. That they didn't teach him how to behave was a lie, but he refused to please people he hated.

In time he learned to thank his aunt and uncle not only for every morsel of food, but also for taking him in. After high school he left them and worked his way through college on his own.

The wind eased up some. The sun was already close to the horizon, bathing the Denver highrises in amber light. Sometimes he could catch a glimpse of the Capitol's imposing golden dome, and for a few minutes he had the illusion of being a sightseeing tourist with a well-stuffed billfold in his pocket.

If change was possible, it had to come from somewhere within, that much he knew, but he found the spot where will should reside empty. An abnormal thing at thirty-two, he admitted. Perhaps if he borrowed a pair of shoes and a clean shirt from the man with the indecipherable accent, cut his hair and shaved off his beard, he could try another high school.

Without realizing where he was heading, he found himself back at the bakery. He stopped for a moment to think. Should he smile at the woman while addressing her, or should he keep his face dignified, the way he used to address his audience in the classroom?

He decided to play it by ear. He ran his fingers through his tousled hair and started for the door when the sole of his left shoe suddenly gave way and doubling up on itself, almost tripped him up. He squatted down to tie the shoe together with the shoelace, and on straightening up he caught sight of the Mouse Woman coming out of the beauty salon. She looked different now, her hair tighter, he curls a deeper red in the setting sun.

"Oh, there you are," she called out, coming toward him.

He froze. The woman took some change from her purse.

"Here," she said. "It's yours." He did not move.

"What's the matter with you?" she frowned at him. "Can't you just say thanks and take it?"

The coins on her palm caught the sun, a piercing flash of light struck his eyes. He raised a hand for a shield but it tightened into a fist on its own accord, swung forward and struck the woman's head with a violence he didn't know he was capable of. His mind numb, he looked on as she fell, his ears caught the dull thump of the cranium against the concrete. Then she just lay there, her eyes closed, her mouth slightly open. On the pavement a small pool of blood began to gather between the red curls and a wad of chewed gum. He felt a hand grab his arm. "You bastard," the owner of the hand said. "Why did you do this? She was just trying to help." Bernard took notice of the man's southern accent, but he was hardly conscious of the gathering crowd around him until he heard a woman scream.

"Jesus, it's Mrs. Mott. Is she det?"

The flat vowel and the soft "t" in the mispronounced word caught his attention. He looked up. It was the plump, blond woman from behind the bakery counter. German, it came to him. Daughter of the Rhine.

He listened to the crowd talking, questioning, someone running toward the bakery door. His mind registered the voice of another man kneeling at the head of the Mouse Woman.

"She just fainted," he said, his accent unmistakably Italian. "She has a cut and a bump on her head but she'll be all right. Bring a blanket. Was she mugged by that bum over there?"

"No, she wasn't," the southerner said. He jerked his head in the direction of the scattered coins on the sidewalk. "I saw her handing him some money. And then he just hit her." The man was a Texan, Bernard noted. A low murmur rose from the crowd, indignant, condemning.

"I know Mrs. Mott," the bakery woman said. "Gute woman. Gutes heart."

The sun was gone, the wind had died down. It'll be a calm night, Bernard thought, as calm and clear as his mind felt now. His memory was suddenly flooded with synonyms for "calm" in Latin, words he thought he had long forgotten.

"There's pax, there's quiescere," he said out loud.

"Come again?" the Texan stared at him.

His legs trembled, his muscles seemed no longer willing to support him. "Would you let me sit down?" he turned to his guard. The man let go of him. He limped over to the bakery shop, eased himself down on the sidewalk and leaned against the wall with his knees drawn up. A strong smell of urine rose from his pants. He turned his head to the side and listened to the sound of approaching sirens. There was a new commotion around him now, car doors slamming, a stretcher moving toward the Mouse Woman. With the Italian beside her, she sat on the sidewalk, holding a piece of tissue to the back of her head.

A man in police uniform came into focus next, walking toward him, the black shoes picking up the lights someone had just turned on in the bakery shop. As he watched the shiny shoes coming closer, the origin of the shoemaker suddenly came to him--the man with a taste for garlic but a kind disposition was Romanian.

The shoes, the pavement, the whole street disappeared in an instant and he was back at the College, giving a lecture on the tongue of ancient Latium. He noticed the Mouse Woman among the students, wearing a hostile expression on her rodent-like face. It didn't matter. It was quite clear that the majority of the audience was on his side, on science's side, attention rightly focused on the history of human communication.

He sketched the family tree of languages on the blackboard and spoke of the Italic branch of the Indo-European linguistic stock. After a brief sidetrip to Oscan, Umbrian and Faliscan, he came to Latin and its many forms of survival through the various Romance languages. He pointed out that the differences between those forms were the result of phonetic and dialectal changes, mere ornaments that could never touch the basic structure of the building they adorned. In closing, he gave his audience a rousing compendium on Romanian, as one of the most intriguing examples of linguistic transcendence. The applause in the classroom was disrupted by the voice of the policeman, ordering him to get up. Bernard gave him a nod and flexed his legs to see if they were strong enough to support him. The officer reached under his arm and helped him to his feet.

"Man, you stink," he muttered.

Bernard extended a hand for a shake. "My name is Voitier. Bernard Voitier."

Taken by surprise, the officer shook his hand. "Whoa...what? Okay, spread your legs and arms."

Bernard spread his limbs and turned to face the policeman. "My name is not Woitier," he explained patiently, as if speaking to a child. "It's Voitier, with a 'V'. As in victim. Or victory."

"Well, whatever. Can you make it to the car? Here, let me give you a hand."

"Thank you, officer, but I'm all right now. I'm sure I can make it."

Marta Palos writes short stories, novels, translates fiction, and works as associate editor at the online magazine Carve. Her work appeared in Nuvein, Wild Violet, Colorado Review, and in the TriQuarterly; her latest story will be published in an upcoming issue of The Iconoclast. She lives in Colorado on an acre where squirrels and raccoons run wild, and the trees and weeds can grow as they please.

Contact Marta: gmpalos@wmconnect.com

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