Clarence

by Lucy Sydel

I stepped on an old man’s foot today. He had brownish-gold wire rimmed glasses and brown hiking boots lined with mustard yellow laces. I tried to say I was sorry, but he wouldn’t look up. I pictured the toes crunch up inside his boots, saw his hands ball up, saw the wrinkles on his forehead from thinking, saw the wrinkles near his eyes from smiling, saw the shine of his bare scalp. I heard the quick intake of a short breath, I felt the quick intake of guilt, weaseling its way in my ears and behind my eyes and through my fingernails which were rimmed with gray-black dirt and dust.

I think he was a dancer, when he was my age. And for him, walking was dance. And running, and smiling, and worrying, all dancing. Colors danced, lights, slamming doors, toasters with toast, and olive-green olives with toothpicks in them. He saw everything. Just not people. He was so focused on the clacking of the wheels against the train tracks, that he didn’t react to his foot. Or at least, he didn’t outwardly react. But I felt those bony remains of scuffed dancer’s feet tense up in defense.

Maybe he still dances, by himself.

Maybe I had smushed his dancing when I smushed his feet. I didn’t want to have done that.

I switched train cars.

I am walking past a shoe store, but then I stop walking. I see a pair of brown boots. They have yellow laces. They could walk up the appalachian trail or down by a muddy river or across a rickety wooden bridge. Those shoes could run or dance or speed-walk, or just stand still in the middle of a crowded train station and urge a young girl whose name is Mabel Rowe step to on his toes.

I am speed-walking to math class and I am thinking about him. His name is Clarence, now. I am in math class, and I am thinking about Clarence. He has a bird. The parakeet’s name is Willie.

And now I remember more. I do remember a woman, too. She was even older, too. Her hair that color where it could be blond but it could be gray and they have meshed into one and it could go either way and I wonder what color she thinks it is and how often she gets it cut and why is it no longer than her earlobes and if she likes it that way or if she wants to have that kind of hair that is curly but never a mess and down to her shoulders, swinging when she spins around in her swivel chair that she has at her desk in the office.

I think she was a teacher, when she was younger. And for her, teaching wasn’t just history. It was teaching Clarence to make split-pea soup. Teaching him to tie his shoes the other way, to lie on the hardwood floor with hands raised to the ceiling and his eyes closed, listening to Ella Fitzgerald or Bill Withers or Aretha Franklin. It was teaching herself how to listen. It was teaching herself how to dance with him when that was all he wanted to do. It was teaching herself to convince him he needed a cane and then let herself succumb to the kind of walker that had tennis balls on the back two legs. She didn’t even like tennis.

And what if Clarence had finally pulled together enough strength to leave his cane at home, lying at home on his red and yellow leather couch which he only bought because he liked the tongue-twister “red-leather yellow-leather red-leather yellow-leather.”

And what if my toe squashing had reduced all hope of discarding that wooden cane which Cynthia had painted green with small golden dragons. Oh and yes, Cynthia is her name.

And what if they couldn’t waltz together in the kitchen anymore after a particularly good lasagna.

And what if they never got married and they just lived together but they wanted to get married now, but my toe crushing had put the idea that he didn’t have much longer into Clarence’s head and that they won’t have much time.

I have two minutes before the end of the school day. I put my notebook inside my folder and my pen inside my notebook and my folder inside my backpack; I am ready to leave. Easily the most attempts to open the locker lock. Easily the least words spoken in weeks. Easily the biggest steel-cabled cage in my stomach snaring the specks of dread and weaving them into a remorse scarf that I can wear around my neck so everyone will know. Easily the hardest it’s been not to think too much.

I am running to catch the bus uptown, and I see it leave the station and I can see the toddler in the back with his knees on the blue plastic seat and his elbows propping up his face and I see him see me run and I am slowing down but he is speeding up inside the bus away from me. I wonder how Clarence would see the little boy. Clarence would be sad because he never had a little boy. No, he would not sad. He would most definitely be happy to see the unwrinkled face, reminding him of the unwrinkled boy he was. But no, again, because he likes his wrinkles. Because in the creases around his eyes are 89 years of laughter.

And I waited for the bus home for fourteen minutes.

I see a tiny sparrow pick up a large hamburger bun on my way home. I turn back but nobody is there to laugh about it with me.  

There are seven flights of stairs in my apartment building.

It took me twelve steps to walk from my front door to my fridge.

I ate four mini blueberry muffins.

I thought about Clarence seventeen times.

Cynthia only came up four times.

I ask google. I type in Clarence and Cynthia, but all that comes up is this animated television show on cartoon network and how to win a seven day Norwegian Cruise. I try to look in my mother’s phone book but the dust makes me sneeze too much and I know that if she got home and found me in the corner of the living room and sneezing, wearing my ugly reading glasses and looking for some 89 year-old guy who I’ve never spoken to, I might have to explain myself. But my words feel horizontally propped up inside in my throat and I don’t think I could push them up and out because they will just fall down inside my stomach and get digested and nobody will hear them and if they do they won’t listen or they will think they are listening but they aren’t hearing, really.

It is 5:42 PM.

I find myself outside staring up at the orange ginko tree, lit up with the glittery-yellow-gold street lamp. I find myself staring over the metal grating and looking at the leaves mixed with crumbs of pizza and ends of cigarettes and scraps of lined paper.

I am picturing Clarence and Cynthia in blue cloud shaped bubbles. Sometimes they shine when the bubbles collide, sometimes they sizzle and rain upwards into the sky and sometimes they attach when they meet to make an empire of bubbles, or bound over each other or repelling each other. And after exploding and sizzling and raining and attaching and bounding and repelling they want to go home and take a nice warm bath, maybe a bubble bath, and drink bubble tea and listen to an audiobook.

Clarence’s worst fear is becoming senile.

Cynthia needs to retain that lasagna recipe but she’s worried it might be tangled up along with the plum pudding recipe and the grilled artichoke recipe and the broiled salmon with a hint of rosemary recipe.

And I am still outside because it feels like Cynthia’s long maroon nails are tapping on the inside of my skull and behind my eyes and behind where my ears meet my jaw. And if I stay out here underneath the tree and the lamp and the navy blue cotton sky and the metal grating and the pizza crumbs and the hole between my thumb and index finger in my blue and white gloves and my frizzy light brown hair and my puffy purple jacket that was too much money and keeps me too warm so I am sweating and shivering at the same time and the wind is passing in between my woolly gloved fingers and the wind is pooling up inside my eyes and the wind is making the sound of the ocean in my ears, if I open my mouth I taste the wind and it tastes like listerine.

If I stay out here, eventually I will find them. It is 9:49. Mom should come home at 10. I check my phone. No one has texted me. I bend my neck back to stare up into my windows, darkened by the navy-blue above. It is 9:58. I rush upstairs and into my room. I hear the key in the lock, the door swing open, the door close gingerly shut. I am in bed now. I lie awake under my patchwork blanket in my scratchy woollen sweater and my dark blue jeans that are too loose around the knees.

It is the weekend now. I either think too much and it is about Clarence or I can’t think at all, moving in some sort of red strawberry jam that closes in on my brain if I walk too fast or if I breathe too quick or think too much, which is unfortunately what I do.

I decide to take the C train again. I just want to be moving really really fast without having lifting my legs. I figure, Clarence and Cynthia took the train once, so they could very possibly take it again.

They are not in my train car. I see the doors open. I briskly walk to the next train car. The doors close. I see no faces that register with me. The doors open. Next car. No one. Next car. No one. Next car. No one.

It is 168th street. It is 8:00 PM. I have not found them.

It has been a week. There are between 42 and 44 seats in a train car (depending on the model). The colors of a train are silver and black and red. The colors of the seats are yellow and red and orange.

I am tired of the open-close doors, tired of not talking while I watch everyone around me talking, tired of following brown hiking boots in a crowded times-square station up and down flights only to get lost and confused and tired, I am tired of being tired and coming home to find myself sorting my sock laundry, or brushing my tangled hair which will only just frizz up again, I find myself sitting in the shower even when the hot water has run out, opening up the pantry even when I am not appetized by the sad arrangement of pita chips and ritz crackers, I find myself finding myself in annoyingly monotonous situations, I find myself not being able to find out why I don’t feel the need to raise my hand in math class even when I am the only one who knows the right answer, I find myself getting tired and getting angry and shutting myself up especially when I have really important things to say, I find myself riding the train and looking for them and only seeing my pimply chin in the reflection of the dark fingerprinted windows across from my yellow subway seat.

I am walking home from the train station. I have gotten off two stations two late because I was thinking about how itchy my wool turtleneck sweater is.

I am walking home and thinking about sweaters and the mechanical pencil I lost today, and pencil lead and this kid who once ate a pencil eraser in fifth grade because he thought that was how to make friends. I see a pair of brown boots. I am tired, and they are lost in the crowd again. I see a wine-red beret that Clarence would buy if he saw it in a thrift store, but only if it was on sale. I see the long neck of a man who thinks that posture translates into confidence because he read an article about it in the newspaper. I am tired, and my eyes lose focus of the beret and neck and boots.

I look up into the darkened sky and feel a raindrop. My umbrella is at home laughing at me and my leather shoes that aren’t very happy in the rain. I am waiting for the street light to change. I see the boots. I lift my eyes.

What do I say because I need to talk but I haven’t spoken anything of importance in the last week and I keep digesting my words instead of puking them out. I need to say something because this is my only chance. “Hi, excuse me,” could work. Or “Hello I was wondering . . .” Or even “Hey can I ask you a question?” Except I don’t have any questions to ask him except for if he would show me old tapes of him dancing, or his wedding photos, or if he would let me feed his parakeet Willie, and I don’t know if he would be weirded out by those questions but then again he might not be because Clarence is nice and would understand and would feed me corn chowder and put on Bob Marley records, or Chopan records, or even 70’s disco records if he was in the mood.

And all that comes out of my mouth is, “Hello.”

And all that Clarence does is glance in my direction and guess that I wasn’t addressing him.

And then say is “Wait, Clarence, I hope that your foot is feeling okay because I didn’t mean to step on it, but I see that you aren’t using your cane, so I guess that’s a good sign, right? But wait, Clarence don’t go because I know this sounds like really really weird and all and I’m really sorry but I was just wondering if I could like come to your house and see your red and yellow leather couch and maybe Cynthia could tell me all about the day you guys met and I know you might not know me, I’m Mabel, but --  ”

And in a navy blue voice that sounded like the engine of a tractor he cut me off and mumbled something inaudibly and angrily that sounded faintly like Polish or Russian or maybe even Bulgarian or something. And Clarence, who might possibly not be Clarence anymore, he crossed the street. I watched him walk for three blocks until his wine-red beret was clouded with black umbrellas and the back of tall people’s heads.