by Elana Gomel
The man stumbled and collapsed, his matted dreadlocks covering his face. He lay across the pavement, his head sticking out into the gap between two parked cars. I had to step over him to go on.
There was a strange mix of smells in the air. Fog rolling in damp pearly waves off the Bay. Diesel from an empty delivery truck. Urine. But something else too: an orchid-sweet aroma as if rotting flowers were strewn on the pavement. I looked around, trying to locate the source of the smell, and for a moment I was almost beguiled by my own imagination into seeing disheveled bunches of fleshy pink instead of sodden newspapers and flattened plastic bottles. I blinked and they were gone. Weird how the mind is capable of deceiving itself!
It felt as if the fog in the air had somehow made its way into my muzzy brain. Today, of all days, my head had to be clear: so much was riding on my presentation. I decided I needed another cup of coffee but the Starbucks on the corner of Market was closed, its window shuttered, and a star of broken glass blooming in the corner. When had it happened? Urban decay was barreling down on us like a runaway train; I had had my Macchiato in this very coffee-shop as recently as…well, probably sometime last week or so. We had been so busy recently that it was not surprising times and dates were all mixed together.
Another homeless man was huddling against the Art Deco grill at the entrance to the boutique hotel next door. He was wrapped up in a plushy red blanket, his bare feet ridged with black.
Homeless are part of the San Francisco cityscape but today their presence grated on my nerves. Everything did: the dappled sky, its washed-out blue obscured by ragged clouds; the car illegally parked on the sidewalk, its windows blind with dust; the still, pale woman in a doorway, who, I realized with a start, was a mannikin.
Why should I feel so unsettled? I had done presentations like these my entire professional life. Everything was ready: my Mac humming with slides; my talking points memorized. In any case, I only had to focus on the feasibility of the project, not the biotech nitty-gritty. I was the CFO of our plucky little startup and my job was to convince the investors that it could grow into…into..
To my horror, I realized words were slipping out of my brain like water escaping from a holed cup. I felt faint and had to prop myself against a wall. Reality felt slippery and loose. I dug my fingers into a crack in the concrete.
“Focus, Claire!” I told myself in my mother’s voice and immediately felt better. I had resented her obsessive orderliness as a child until I realized that it was her way of battling randomness and chaos that lurked outside our tidy Marin home. She had gone on teaching aphasic kids after retirement, the clarity of language rules holding her together in the aftermath of Dad’s death. I should visit her more often, I told myself. I lived and worked in the city, only an hour drive away. It was a beautiful drive across the Golden Gate, the fog-draped towers of the Financial District looming in the rearview mirror. I had not done it in…well, longer than I cared to remember.
Nerves. Nothing to be nervous about. Our concept was sound. Fertility treatments were the way of the future. Population was dropping across the globe; many cities were becoming wastelands. Just look at where I was: downtown SF; almost lunchtime; and this empty desolate street. Except for the homeless, of course; but who counted them?
I peeled myself off the wall, took a deep breath, tamping down my jitteriness until it sat in the pit of my stomach like a dead fetus. The image threatened to unsettle me once again, but it was just a metaphor, after all. And metaphors are innocuous. A smooth skin on the rough surface of reality.
The orchid-like smell really bothered me. Could it be my perfume? No, of course not. I loved perfume but I knew better than to use any before this meeting. I unobtrusively smelled the back of my hand. I had used a Ph-neutral soap in my shower, and it had killed the meaty aroma of my flesh.
The fog was dispersing; blue peepholes opening in the rifts between the clouds, sunlight turning broken glass into diamonds and scraps of paper into white butterflies. I looked up and a scarlet flash snaked across my retinas, so quickly that I was not sure whether it was a memory of the past or an illusion of the present.
My mother had always insisted on clarity of speech and thinking. Past, present, future. Memory, experience, anticipation. Language is our home; it gives us shelter in the hostile universe. But now words were abandoning me; and time was melting into a puddle of unrelated images that I could not arrange into any sequence. How long had I been standing here? Where had I been last night. What was real and what my hysterical imagination?
Mark, Li, Nassrin. I could not let them down, could I? The faces of my co-workers floated before me, anxious and drawn, the fate of our startup resting in my hands. The fate of our startup. Our fate.
No need to be so dramatic. I had lost bids for funding before. Before…what?
Mark, Li, Nassrin. And me. The four of us.
Only four? Hadn’t there been somebody else?
I hurried on, my mind churning, the orchid smell making me nauseous.
My stiletto heel snagged on something and I lost my balance, windmilling to stay upright. My phone cluttered down and a grubby hand reached up and offered it back.
I had stepped into a homeless person’s encampment, littered with fags, plastic bags and unidentifiable rubbish. I snatched up my phone and was about to escape this kingdom of broken needles when the man spoke:
“It’s useless anyway.”
I committed an urbanite’s ultimate faux pas: I looked at him.
He was what I expected: thin, grubby, his body swathed in shapeless layers of reeking rags. His hair was filthy. But his eyes were unexpectedly bright, and they bored into mine with creepy intensity.
“It’s the latest model,” I said defensively and felt like an idiot. What was I doing, boasting of my electronic toys to a homeless?
“The networks are down. It’s only good for kids’ games. If there were any kids left.”
“Nonsense!” I retorted and put my sleek pink phone back into my pocket, glancing at the dark screen to make sure it was not broken. It was not; but when I swiped it, it remained stubbornly opaque. Had I forgotten to charge my phone?
“I know you,” he said suddenly.
“I doubt it.”
“Claire…something? Right? Claire?”
I remained silent but he must have seen it in my face. He grinned broadly and I saw with a shudder of revulsion that his front teeth were broken, blackened stubs.
“We met at that reception at Berkeley. Academics and finance industry. Networking.”
An elusive memory stirred in my mind; I tried to hold onto it, but it dissipated.
“You were in finance?” I tried to put as much doubt into my voice as I could, hoping it would somehow reestablish the proper distance between us: me, a busy professional woman on her way to an important meeting; him, a homeless bum, a junkie, human garbage.
“No. In the academy. Professor Joseph Stern. Incidentally, I would try to look more asleep if I were you. They don’t like it when people are awake.”
“Professor of what?” I asked stupidly, unsure how to extricate myself from this hallucinatory conversation. I should just walk away. But his name did sound vaguely familiar and yes, there had been that meeting in Berkeley, so long ago…
Or maybe not so long. I did remember his name, didn’t I?
“Cognitive science. Ironic, don’t you think so?”
He certainly did not sound drugged or schizophrenic, like most homeless. Or like what I imagined most homeless sounded like.
There was something peculiar about his eyes. I realized he was trying not to blink, which gave him a bug-eyed glassy stare.
“I was in the lab when it happened. Sending low-frequency pulses into mice’s optic nerves. Trying to rewire their memories. Memory is very easy to manipulate,” he continued in a well-modulated voice, distorted by the lisp of his missing teeth. “Especially if you have a proper technology. They do. But it’s not perfect; nothing is. So, there are…gaps. Holes. More and more of us remember. But the rest won’t listen. So here we are, in the streets.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know, don’t you? I can see it in your face. You are remembering. Waking up.”
“I’m not asleep!”
“You are. All of you are. The ones who are left. They are taking us away all the time. Thinning the herd. But they need more.”He is crazy, I told myself. He is homeless.
•••• •••• •••• •••• ••••