You see me standing by the tree. You ask me the time. I show you my watch, from my pocket. It doesn’t have a band anymore, but it shows the time. I sit on the bench. It’s warm outside. A seagull screams in the sun. The leaves throw little shadows on me. You look like a nice lady, and I like your hat. You can be my friend because you smile.
That’s when I remember how I saw on that channel, on TV, the cheetah. Running, it was, running after the baby zebra, and I could see the fear in the eyes of the baby zebra. It could never outrun the slim, big cat that wanted to eat. But that was not the worst of it, no. The mother zebra, she was running alongside the cheetah, as if she could stop it. The mother was not afraid, she looked brave. That’s why I turned the TV off right then, so she could stay brave forever. Then I started crying. I am crying now, on the bench, because I remember. You sit down with me.
“Are you all right?” you ask me.
“I’m just a little hungry,” I say.
You bend to look at my face. I will not tell you about the zebra. I will let you think I am hungry and I will smile my old smile that I practiced in the mirror.
But that was before. That was how we met. It is different now, Sara. You stay right here, and you won’t be cold. I can bring more blankets. Sit with me while I drive.
Last time my daughter came to my house, the old cat was still alive.
“I will help you clean the house,” my daughter said.
“You come on Saturday, and you help me clean,” I said.
She looked at me the way she looks when she wants to be my mother.
“That’s what you told me last week, and the week before,” she said.
“This Saturday for sure.” She didn’t believe me. I could see it in the way she pursed her lips.
“I can only help you so much. You’ll end up like grandpa,” she said to me, but she didn’t know. I was the one who picked him up every time, and he would piss in my car. I didn’t notice the smell anymore. I made him laugh.
Then she came on Saturday and she had cleaning bottles and rags and she said she had a vacuum in the car.
“I have to go babysit your cousin’s kids,” I said. “You and Patricia grew up together. Remember?”
“You always have somewhere to go.” She looked at me like she was going to pour Clorox all over me. “I’ll start cleaning while you go babysit. It will take me days anyway.” I think she was already yelling.
“I have to be here when you clean,” I said to her. “I don’t want you to throw my things away. Only I can tell you what you can throw away. I have to go through all the piles of newspapers first.”
“But those piles cover the whole living room floor!”
“I have to pick through them. I’ll look Sunday.”
“Let me take those piles of clothes to the cleaner’s, at least.”
“I can’t afford it.”
“I’ll help pay for it.”
“No. You have plenty to spend on, what with the baby coming. I’ll just sort through the piles and take some to the Salvation Army.”
She wanted to take away my things. Everything, if she could. She grew up in this house, and she forgot how she used to play with those toys from the back room. I remember.
“I can’t take this anymore, Mom.” That’s what she said to me. “I love you but I can’t come to your house anymore. You know you can come to my house whenever you want, but I can’t come here anymore if you don’t let me clean. I don’t even have a place to sit.”
My daughter doesn’t need me now. She is married.
Later, they made me take the cat to euthanize her. I tried to save her. She breathed hard and growled for three nights and three days and then I wanted her to die peacefully but I could not see her put to sleep. It was expensive too. This old cat, she used to eat bananas, can you believe that? But then she could not use her teeth and she could not walk anymore. Then she would not stop growling and she couldn’t even move. I could not stop crying. They made me take her to where she could die.
But that was before, that was when I had the house, Sara. They burned it, you see, to build something else. They took it from me because I did not pay my taxes, and they did not fix it. It was an old house and they said I could only take a few things. Everyone was screaming that day, and my daughter was screaming for them to let go of me.
“Mom, it will be ok. Mom, please come into the car, Mom—”
But she did not try to stop them. You would have, Sara. I know you would have.
I don’t stay at her place more than a few nights at a time. I stay at her cousin’s when the children have to be without their parents. I stay with that woman I worked in real estate with. Sometimes I just sleep on the beach. It doesn’t always get too cold. It’s pretty here, with palm trees. I didn’t grow up with palm trees. I was good at selling those houses back then, to the families with kids who go surfing and chasing the girls that come from magazines.
Why, no sir, I could not smell that smell you say. I didn’t know she was in my car.
I know her, yes. Her name is Sara.
I met her on the beach. She was looking in the garbage. Or was it in the park, where the benches are. Sometimes we both slept on the benches. She has family somewhere. Not in California. Somewhere cold. It can get cold here too.
Sir, I did not know she was dead. She’s like a daughter to me.
Yes, she was really thin. I think she didn’t like to eat. She looked in the garbage for cigarettes, mostly. And booze bottles with a little left inside. I didn’t tell my daughter about her, because she would think I wanted to scare the baby. But she is not a bad person.
I think I said all these things to the officer, Sara, and he will not leave. The officer blinks many times, dropping his jaw like a Muppet.
“Carl, come see,” he says to the little black box in his hand. “Ma’am,” he says, “why did you leave your car parked illegally?” – “Ma’am, you cannot deny there’s a smell in your vehicle.” – “Ma’am, you cannot deny there’s a dead person in your vehicle.” – “Ma’am –”
He Ma’ams me a lot, and I don’t like it.
“I was paying for the gas,” I say to him. “I was returning in a minute.”
“Ma’am, are you aware of your surroundings?” he asks me.
“I am aware. This is close to the gas station.”
“This is a fire hydrant and the gas station is on the other side of the road, Ma’am.”
“She was my friend,” I tell him.
“So you do know the dead person in your vehicle. Did you put the blankets on top of her?”
“Did you drive around with a dead woman in the passenger seat?”
He writes things down and I am not happy. I knew this was going to happen. I knew I shouldn’t tell anyone about my friend.
“Ma’am, how could you not smell this? A box of baking soda in your car does not cover the smell.”
“I have an old father. I’m used to smells.”
The other officer comes, and he calls another officer. More of them arrive. I do not like this. I do not like this at all. She was my friend.
“I let her sleep in my car when it got cold at night.”
“And you’re aware she died. What did she die of?”
“She was thin. I tried to save her.”
“Can you tell me how long she has been in your vehicle?”
“A few days.”
“Look at this, Carl. It’s a mummy. It must’ve been months. Have you kept her here for months, Ma’am?”
“Are these your coats on top of her?” “Yes.”
I say yes now. I want them to leave me alone. He takes me to his car, and there are seagulls screaming above. This time of day there will be surfers. I heard of a shark as big as a bus, lives in the water. I saw it on TV. It’s called a megalodon. The surfers aren’t scared, so I don’t need to save them.
“Can I call my daughter now?”