*I mentioned the other day that I am finally having vivid dreams again now that my medication is allowing me to get restful sleep. Below you will find one of my dreams from last week that was just so delicious I had to share it.
I often wondered how my grandfather, a man with little foresight, had the inspiration to buy a parking spot down by the wharf back when they were still in our family’s price range. Now it would sell for at least a hundred thousand. Enough to put my kid through school, if he would sell it. But he won’t.
The man never parks there. He doesn’t drive anymore. Can’t see. Doesn’t own a car. He doesn’t rent it out, either. It would bring in enough a month to cover his groceries and let him hire a maid once a week to air out the stench of elderly decay in his studio apartment.
I suggested he rent it out once. I even offered to handle all the details. I’d put out an ad, find and vet a renter. He doesn’t like computers. I didn’t even want any of the money. I just wanted that damned parking spot to do something instead of sitting empty, making everyone who works downtown burn with jealousy.
He wouldn’t hear of it, though. Just mumbled something about it not being a parking spot. At the time I thought he was already senile. Sure, it might not have been a parking spot when he bought that little patch of land on the bay, but it is now. No sense in denying what is for what was. For me, there wasn’t even sense in asking what it had been.
But everything changed when I saw that picture last week. It was tucked up in an book with dust on the cover. I pulled it idly off the shelf, not really seeing it or intending to read it. I just needed something to occupy my hands while the old man puttered around the kitchen, making tea I didn’t want and wouldn’t drink.
The book fell open in my hand, the black and white photo sticking up like the cowlick in a baby’s hair. I plucked it from the spine of the book. It was wedged in firmly, and it came out with a satisfying pop, like a slightly under-ripe piece of fruit picked from the branch.
The man in the photo was my grandfather. The resemblance was unmistakable. But it was him as a young man, with supple skin, no shirt to cover it, a strong back, standing straight. His eyes twinkled with such vibrant light they could be called mischievous. But he wasn’t smiling. He looked directly at the camera, lips set in a thin line.
The boy-man was standing in front of a large metal cage. It wasn’t chain link, but something thick and durable, the equivalent of the time. Next to him was a little girl not even half his height. Her hair was matted in tangles. Her dress with small polka dots was tattered along the edges and two sizes too small for her. She was looking away from the camera. Shy, almost scared.
“Grandpa, who was this?” I asked as he set the mug of tea down with a shaky hand. Brown liquid spilled over the edge, staining the white doily, and the room immediately filled with the scent of anise.
He wrinkled up his cheeks, revealing ill-fitted dentures, and squinted his cloudy eyes. “That’s me. Now, drink your tea.”
“No, grandpa,” I insisted. “The little girl. Did you have a sister?”
The little girl didn’t look like him, but there was a certain wildness they shared. Plus, the protective posture he took, standing half a step in front of the girl, let me know he cared about her.
“Did I have a sister?” he snorted at me. “You never listen to anything, do you? Of course I had a sister. I had a pack of sisters. Kids were born in litters back then. Raised like a pack of dogs. Did I have a sister?”
“But this little girl. Here. Was she your sister?”
A twinkle came into his eye that looked similar to his boyhood sparkle. “Ah, no. That, there, is Anna Beth.”
“Who was Anna Beth?” I didn’t ask who she is now. The sickly look in the picture promised she didn’t make it to adulthood.
“Anna Beth ain’t someone I can tell about,” he mumbled, a faraway look in his eyes. “Anna Beth is more a person who needs to be seen. Experienced.”
“You mean she’s still alive?”
He shook his tired head. “Drink your tea. Then we’ll pay a visit to Anna Beth. It’s been far too long.”
I wanted to ask more, but it was clear he wasn’t about to give me a straight answer. I lifted the hot mug of spicy liquid to my lips and tried to choke it down in as few gulps as possible. Out of the corner of my eye I stared at the strange picture, trying to figure out who Anna Beth might be. Then I noticed the familiar slant of a tiled roof poking out behind the cage.
“This is your parking spot?”
“It’s not a parking spot,” he insisted, as he always does. But this time I heard something deeper in his claim and didn’t argue.
We drove down to the wharf. He made me park in a garage three blocks from his empty space. Nine dollars an hour. Then I had to wait while he hobbled with his tired, weak legs and plain wooden cane back to the wharf.
Tourists meandered along the wharf, shopping bags tucked under their arms. Buzzing through the slow stream of tourists, businessmen on their lunch breaks tried to take in some fresh air and get back to the office on time. My grandfather didn’t notice the tourists or the businessmen. Even the wharf workers, who he should have known, seemed invisible to him. Head looking straight forward, eyes steady, my grandfather saw nothing but his not-a-parking-space.
He stood in the middle of the space, hunched over, and motioned for me to join him. I didn’t want to. I saw how the tourists looked at him in his over-sized cardigan. I didn’t want them to think I was senile, too.
“Well, come on,” he called gruffly, a pinch of impatience tinting his voice.
“I thought we were going to see Anna Beth.”
This time his eyes definitely twinkled. I’d never seen my grandfathers’ eyes twinkle, not like that. So I stepped off the curb, into his not-a-parking-space.
He held out his hands to me, his cane leaning against his thigh, and I thought it was all really too much. But damn that twinkle was enticing. I sighed, rolled my eyes dramatically so passersby would know I was only humoring this crazy man’s whims, and took his hands in mine. They were big, meaty, heavy, and yet soft like tissue paper.
My grandfather gripped hard and yanked me towards his barrel of a chest. The smell was all peppermint and anise, and I was lost in that twinkle of his eye.
The world turned cloudy, then clear blue, a blue that was more time than color, and it lasted forever. Yet I was moving through it. No, not just moving. I was rushing through that blue. I wanted to stop, to stay, to be still, but something was yanking me along.
When the stillness finally came, the blue was gone. So was my grandfather, his not-a-parking-space, and the wharf. I was in a drab room, all grays and muted creams. A single window looked out to the city. Through a maze of gray buildings was a gray sky. Smog, not mist, I knew instinctively.
My body felt strong and natural, but in the corner of my soul I knew it wasn’t mine. I wasn’t wearing a shirt or shoes, just brown pants, matted with oils from too few washings. My skin was young and supple and somehow familiar. It was skin I had worn every day of my life covering muscles that knew how to move it. But it was skin I had seen just today, in a photograph, skin that shouldn’t be mine.
I was alone in the room, but in the next room I heard movement. Dishes clinking, chairs scraping the ground, voices chattering. The movement felt constant, familiar, and altogether irritating. I wanted to stay in my small room, alone, and yet I had to get away from that movement. It was the kind of movement that is too easy to get swept along in. But if I wanted out and away, I had to go through that room.
I steeled myself. Head down but shoulders back. Don’t make eye contact. Barely breathe. Then I entered the room which was a confusing, swirling, mass of femininity. Slim waists, large hips and chests. Moving, murmuring, always revolving around a single figure sitting at a table. He was the only stillness in the room, like the anchor at the center of a whirlpool, his waves of women bringing anything that got too close directly to him.
I didn’t get too close. I stayed on the edge of the room, moving slowly and steadily towards the next door. No one noticed me. No one cared. They were all humming and movement and too busy for a bare chested boy-man.
Outside I exhaled and let myself move again. I wanted the air to feel free, but it was just as suffocating as the apartment. It was hot, heavy with humidity and thick with particles from nearby factories.
I breathed deeply anyway. Even if the air in the city wasn’t free, I was free in it.
I wandered. I poked around in some trashcans, looking for food. There was enough food back in that swirling apartment, but I could never sit still to eat it. The trashcans were empty, of course. If I was really hungry I would have to go to a different part of town, where people were plump enough to throw away scraps.
My stomach ached with a familiar emptiness, but it didn’t rumble, demanding food, so I stayed in the poor, gray section of town. Just blocks away was color. Flowers. Painted houses. Rosy cheeks on cheeky children. But I didn’t belong there. I lived in the gray world.
I was wandering in my mind as much as through the shadows of the buildings. So when I heard a whimper, I wasn’t quite sure it was real. The sound was more like a quiet sort of sigh than a whine.
The sound came again, clearly, from behind a box in an alley. It really was just a breath, but I heard it like it was coming from my own lungs, passing through my own lips, creating a vibrating hum there that made my whole head buzz.
Drawn to the sound (No, not the sound, but the creature making the sound) I ducked into the alley. The box came away quickly, and there was Anna Beth.
I knew she was Anna Beth from the picture, even though her body was smaller- that of a three or four year old. But the man-boy body I was in, which had never seen her before, knew she was Anna Beth simply because she couldn’t be anything else.
She lay on the grimy concrete, shivering. The whimper was the sound of air being forced through her lips by the rapid chattering of her teeth. My body didn’t understand how she could be cold when it was so hot. It didn’t know about things like shock. But it knew she needed to be warmed with a calming embrace.
I lay down behind her, my naked chest pressed against her back, her dirty feet slithering to find the warmth between my thighs. I wrapped my arms around her and whispered in a voice too deep to be my own, “Hush now. Be still.”
It wasn’t immediate. It took some time. But eventually Anna Beth stopped shaking and was still except for a deep, steady breath.
I sat up, my back against the concrete wall, my legs over her naked body to keep her warm while she slept, and stared at her.
Anna Beth was beautiful. She was all sorts of colors. Greens and blues and purples at first. But the more I looked, the more I saw reds and oranges, too. Just hints of the hot colors, at the tips of her hair, under her fingernails. I’ve never seen anyone so colorful. I didn’t believe a human could look like that, but my body did. It more than believed. It recognized Anna Beth.
An overwhelming urge to protect her welled up in me. She wasn’t waking up. I couldn’t leave this magical little girl in this alley, but my stomach was telling me it was time to find some food. So I scooped Anna Beth up in my arms, she weighed nothing, and I carried her into my world.
There seemed to be people everywhere, staring at me while I carried the sleeping Anna Beth. There were never this many people around at once, and so many of them I didn’t recognize. My usually empty, quiet area was nearly bustling. But wherever we walked, the people fell silent and stared.
They looked at Anna Beth with thirst in their eyes. Hunger. they wanted to devour her vibrancy, she was the most beautiful thing any of these gray, flat people had seen.
As I carried her, color started to seep into me. Reds and browns, like rust, and a bit of yellow where she laid her head high up on my chest, just over my beating heart.
Oh! How that color warmed me, hotter than the thick summer air.
I carried her proudly. I found her. She was mine. Everyone else wanted her, but I would protect her.
Where would I take her, though? At first I thought of home. She could fold right into my dozen sisters, become part of their perpetual whirlpool. I liked the idea of her color streaking around the kitchen, making swirls and curls and…. no that would never work. They would notice her, too. They would strip out her color and spin it onto dresses or ribbons for their hair. And my father…. no, that would never work.
But I had to have a place to take her. A safe place. I thought of the animal kennel down by the wharf, where rich people pay to board their hunting dogs while they’re in the city. I don’t know why I thought of it. The image of it popped in my mind, fully formed, the exact cage from the picture.
I carried Anna Beth down by the water to these cages, all filled with fierce, snapping dogs. A man came out, a limp with one leg and his back hunched, his forearm scarred where dogs had bitten him.
He looked at me, and he looked at the sleeping Anna Beth, and he looked at me again.
“What d’ya want?” he growled, just like one of his dogs.
“I need a cage,” I said. “The largest one you have.”
He looked behind me, up and down me, and narrowed his eyes. “What for? You ain’t got no dog.”
“It’s for her,” I said, holding Anna Beth up.
“Uh-uh. Nope. This is a kennel, not no orphanage. You take her to the orphanage up on Holt Street. They’ll cage her up good for you there.”
I thought of the orphanage, crowded, dirty, every child sickly in some way. Anna Beth didn’t belong there among them. Some of the kids eventually get adopted, but they grow up like slaves or worse. And surely every “parent” would want Anna Beth. No. I could not take her there.
“Please, sir,” I pleaded, “just until I figure something else out for her. Let her stay here.”
He smiled when I called him sir. He wasn’t a sir in anyone’s eyes, and he knew it, but the flattery softened him.
“Its two cents to rent a cage per week, ten dollars to buy one.”
He knew I didn’t have ten dollars. I’d not even seen ten dollars in my entire life. But I had a dime. That would buy us a month and a half. I could figure out what to do with her in a month and a half.
I reached into my pocket for the dime, but my fingers couldn’t find the hard coin. They felt a feathery paper, but no dime. I rummaged more, but it just wasn’t there. I pulled out the paper. It was green, but old and wilted with the same grayish overtones as the neighborhood. Ten dollars.
I held the paper in my hand. I didn’t believe it. The man didn’t believe it either, but he was quick to snatch it out of my hands and put it in his own pocket. He jerked his head at me and led me to a large, open cage. The one in my grandfather’s picture.
“She don’t get no special treatment. The dogs get wet food, meat and scraps in the morning, dry food or scraps at night. Fresh water once a day.”
“That’s fine,” I agreed, and he left me alone with Anna Beth and our cage.
I sat there with her all day, waiting for her to wake up and explain who or what she was. But she just slept and slept. Her face looked peaceful. She no longer shivered. No whimpering.
At nightfall, I left her there. I locked her cage, took the key with me, and headed home.
That night, while the dozen girls in our apartment slept, I tiptoed over their bodies, swirling even in their sleep, to my youngest sister’s drawer. I took out the dress from the picture. It wasn’t tattered yet. It was crisp and clean, mint green with white polka dots.
In the morning she wailed like a banshee over her missing dress, but never suspected it was tucked in my leather backpack along with a hunk of bread and some cheese. I left while she was still accusing my other sisters of stealing her favorite dress.
Anna Beth was awake, sitting in the center of her cage, waiting for me. She didn’t say anything though. I motioned her to me and slipped the dress over her head. I expected it to cover her color, but her color shined through the dress, imbuing it with a shimmer I hadn’t noticed before. It was two sizes too big for her, but she didn’t care. She sat down and ate the bread and cheese, studying me carefully.
“You’ll do,” she finally said, in a voice too old, steady, deep, confident for her tiny body.
I wanted to ask for what I’d do, but my lips were stuck together whenever I tried. All I managed to say was, “sorry about the cage.”
She shrugged. “It’s fine.”
The man who took care of the dogs never seemed to notice her for what she was. He dropped food and water off at her cage twice a day, which she picked through for anything edible. But other than that, she was invisible to him. In fact, even though her cage was on the corner, facing the street and the wharf, no one ever seemed to notice the beautiful little girl in it.
Every time I tried to ask who she was or where she was from, the questions would stick in my throat. But we talked plenty. I told her about me and my work in a factory, boxing up metal parts I didn’t really understand. I told her about my sisters, each one trying to find a husband beyond the gray area, but constantly drawn into the spinning that would never release them from our apartment.
She told me about color. Not that it existed, but what powers it held. She loved to talk about purple, the way it protected people, embraced them, healed them. But every color had at least one story.
“James,” she said one day, calling me by my grandfather’s name, “will you bring me color?”
I didn’t know what she meant. How could I bring her color? But I assured her I would.
The next day I didn’t go to work in the factory. Instead, I left our neighborhood early and wandered into a large park nearby. There, I found the dark green grass dotted with yellow flowers, tiny but screaming with color. I picked a flower and brought it back to Anna Beth.
She took the flower, held it in her hands, up to her face, and inhaled deeply. The color lifted from the flower and moments later it skittered down her arm, resting in the crook of her elbow.
I started bringing her more scraps of color. A blue ribbon that fell from a little girl’s hair, a red balloon blowing down the street. I ventured further to find more interesting, vibrant colors, and watched fascinated, while she absorbed each one until she was altogether bursting with color.
The first color she gave to me was the faded copper from an old coin I found in the next town over. She inhaled the color as usual, then reached out and grabbed my arm, yanking me down to her level so she could blow in my face. The color zipped through me, stinging my blood, and settling on a lock of hair. Anna Beth smiled a pinkish sort of smile, pleased with the results.
I couldn’t stop stroking my copper streak. It was softer, smoother than the rest of my hair. It made me even more dedicated to Anna Beth’s quest for color. I quit my job at the factory entirely and spent my days wandering, looking for colors worthy of this magical creature. I wanted to find colors that would make her smile, that would inspire her, that she would give to me.
Sometimes I wandered for days. I went deep into the desert for a collection of tans and pale greens. I went to sea for frothy grays and pale pinks. I went to every nearby city to find what color they could offer.
She was a greedy thing, and most of the colors she kept for herself. But occasionally she found one that fit me more than her, and she blew it up into me. I became known as the color man, not just because I collected colors, but because I was a patchwork of colors that rivaled my young ward.
People began to expect me. They brought out their colors to show me and started sharing their stories. The golden brown spice her grandmother cooked with. The red of her lips when he married her. The teal of cotton candy the first time a child rode a roller coaster. It was a type of confession and communion all in one, with a tithing of color for a child goddess none of them could imagine. I had become their prophet.
I no longer worried about food or a place to stay. These things were given readily by the followers of color. But I worked hard for them, exchanging stories, spreading a sense of hope and connection.
Years passed. Anna Beth, still in her cage, was bursting with color, as was I. It had even leaked out into my gray, drab neighborhood, which was now alive with more than the monochrome of industry.
Then one day, when Anna Beth was too tall for her tattered green dress, she told me it was time for her to go.
“Go?” I asked. She had never set foot out of her cage. “Where?”
She shrugged. “To the next dream I happen to find.”
I didn’t understand.
“Come with me,” she offered. She held out her hands, still tiny compared to mine. I put my hands in hers, and she yanked me close, the way my grandfather had done to me.
I wasn’t sure if my eyes had closed, but Anna Beth’s cage changed. It was a cocoon of swirling, pulsing color, vibrating with the need to move, to be on it’s way.
She released my hands and the cage returned to normal.
“What was that?” I asked.
“My magic carpet,” she explained, asking me again to come with her.
I couldn’t, though. Something tethered me to this reality, demanding I stay.
I ran to get a friend who was working as a photographer and begged him to take a photo of us. He worked in black and white and didn’t understand things like color, so his picture showed only a too- proud boy-man and a shy, feral girl.
Then Anna Beth left. A simple goodbye and she was gone, cage and all.
I stood where her cage once one, trying to feel her, and suddenly I was face to face with my old, tired grandfather. A few tourists had stopped to stare.
“Why didn’t you go with her?” I asked.
This time his eyes definitely twinkled. “You felt that tug, demanding I stay? I didn’t know what it was at the time, but I recognized it the first time I saw your grandma Louise, a copper flower in her hair.”
I looked at my grandfather’s hair, plain white. “Where did your color go?”
“Color can fade over time. But the stories are still here.” He tapped the side of his head.
“Where did Anna Beth go, though?”
“I don’t know, but I suspect I’ll find out someday soon.”
Together we stepped back up the curb and walked away from my grandfather’s not-a-parking-space.
Photo by OiMax