[Image Credit: Eric Lacombe]
Emerson waited alone at a bus stop while the enormous Florida sun sat on his shoulders like some sort of dumb, oppressive beast. Sweat meandered down his spine and his pale skin slowly turned a milky pink. His toes eventually wiggled through a hole in his right shoe. He bought a ticket with coins he’d taken one night from a fountain.
The bus left downtown Miami and grumbled with Emerson’s empty stomach through the suburbs. He gazed out of the window at the endless rows of houses, some of which, with their barred windows and crumbling facades, bore the stamp of shattered dreams. Yet he was envious.
He and his daughter used to live together in a house, before a tree branch fell on his head and put him in a coma for two weeks. A tree branch! Prior to this “freak accident,” as the neurologist put it, Emerson and his daughter kept their home in good condition. They were proud. He had a talent for making chores enjoyable. He’d turn on their favorite songs as they swept floors, wiped countertops, and cleaned windows. They’d sometimes stop and erupt in a silly dance, dizzy with happiness.
Emerson paused in front of the brownstone building where he’d voluntarily placed his daughter in temporary foster care, this building with missing bricks and streaks of black grime. When he entered the visitation room, he was once again struck by its warmth and cleanliness, its contrast to the exterior, although he’d been here before. Inspirational posters hung in frames on light-blue walls, the shade of blue reminiscent of the sky on an easy summer day. Several teenagers were in the room, sitting at tables and talking to adults. There were also a few children, whose voices instantly made Emerson nostalgic. He felt a rush of pleasure upon hearing them, a welcome alternative to the noises to which he’d grown accustomed, noises from cars driving by him, raindrops falling on his shoulders, and the murmurs of strangers with whom he’d slept in abandoned buildings.
Emerson’s daughter was alone at a table with her hands folded in her lap, on top of her yellow dress. She was no longer too thin, but appeared solid and strong. She stood and smiled. Her teeth had never before looked so white. She even had on makeup, cherry-red lip gloss and mascara. She seemed so much more grown up than the last time he’d seen her. He wondered, How long has it been?
Emerson wrapped his arms around her and she hugged him in return. After they let go, she wiped off the dirt he’d accidentally smeared onto her dress.
“Let’s sit,” he said.
They sat across from each other, with their arms extended over the tabletop as they held hands.
“You okay, Dad?”
“I’m doin’ alright. You okay?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick.”
“Still tryin’ to get things on track. It’ll take more time.”
“You don’t look good.”
He smiled. “There’s a nurse at the shelter. I had a check-up last week. She said I’m doin’ better. I’ve had fewer headaches, less confusion.”
“Where are you staying now?”
“In the city.” He recognized that look on her face, that expression of disbelief and fear. It was the same look she had when they lost their home, and again when he set up a tent in the woods near the interstate and told her everything happens for a reason, to have faith.
“You’re so skinny. I can see your bones.” She inhaled slowly and deeply, her shoulders and chest rising.
“I’m good, I’m good. Don’t trouble yourself.”
She looked down.
“Hey,” he said. “We’ll get through this. You believe that, right?”
“What choice do I have?”
“Things will get better for us soon. I can see it.”
She nodded. “I hope so.”
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you, too.” She smiled and wiped her eyes.
They talked for the next half hour, mostly about her. The subjects she was learning about in school, the music she was discovering, her secret crush—it was all so wonderful to Emerson. He didn’t want her to stop talking. He didn’t want to leave. When the time came to go, they walked into the foyer and stood in front of each other, holding hands.
“When will you come back?” She squeezed his hands and stepped closer.
“Soon, baby, as soon as I can.”
Emerson walked several blocks to the nearest bus stop and waited on a bench, sweating and tired, his body sinking towards the concrete. The sun drove its hot, white beams into his skin. After using his last coins for another ticket, he settled into a seat in the back of the bus, where the cool air brought much-needed relief.
Emerson intended to return to the city, but he awoke to the driver standing over him, chewing gum, telling him he’d been asleep for over an hour and it’s time to get off. “Unless you got more money,” the driver said.
Emerson strayed off the bus and sat in the back of a shopping plaza’s parking lot, where he looked around and studied this strange, new environment.
He wandered along sidewalks, through alleys, and across vacant lots covered in grass that had turned brown and brittle in the heat and crumbled beneath his footsteps. His tattered shoes barely clung to his feet.
He eventually stationed himself at the busiest intersection he could find, where he stood under the relentless sun and held a bucket he’d found in a dumpster, a purple bucket with an image of a white unicorn on it. He held it with both hands and outstretched arms at a line of cars in front of him, wanting people to give him money. Time melted away.
“Don’t look at him,” a woman said as she rolled up the windows to her car. She was in the driver’s seat, talking to a girl in the back who resembled Emerson’s daughter. He gazed at the girl, with straight, dark hair resting on her shoulders. His reflection in the window startled him. Yellow teeth. Inflated gums. A wiry brown beard hanging at his collarbones. His face looked haggard and gaunt, more appropriate for purgatory than this world. The woman scowled as she drove away. Emerson mumbled his daughter’s name.
As the sun sank towards the horizon, a semi-truck stopped in front of Emerson and rumbled at the red light. The trailer displayed the name, “Fresh Market,” in large, glorious letters, along with several images: an ear of corn, a piece of bread, and a glass of lemonade with ice cubes. He stared transfixed at these images while his stomach churned. He envisioned having dinner with his daughter.
“More bread, sweetie?”
The light turned green and the truck rolled forward. Emerson’s hunger sharpened and the sun burned his chapped lips. He watched the wheels as they spun and pressed against the asphalt, and imagined the wheels rolling across his chest.
The next morning, Emerson returned to the same intersection because he didn’t know where else to go. He sat with his bucket in front of him as cars and trucks drove by in a parade of silence. His mouth was dry and sticky. The heat enveloped him, coiling and tightening around him like a python. The electronic sign at the nearby gas station marked the temperature at ninety-four degrees.
Many of the people who passed through the intersection avoided eye contact, pretending to be distracted, looking at their phones or changing the radio station. Others just stared.
The sun, rising into the sky, unleashed a deluge of light. Footsteps from the direction of the sun became louder and the silhouette of someone who appeared to be Emerson’s daughter engulfed by the light grew larger. He squinted and peered at the figure in the core of the blaze and reached out with his hand as the image swelled. At several feet away, he said, “Grace.”
He dropped his hand. “I thought you were my daughter,” he said.
He studied the woman. She was petite with short, silver hair and a wrinkled face. Her black pants and white blouse were freshly pressed. When she bent down and put a pack of bottled water and a bag of apples and bananas by his feet, her pearl necklace and pearl earrings flickered in the sunlight.
“Go on,” she said. “Take it.”
He was surprised and almost couldn’t speak.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“You’re welcome. Now please find some shade, won’t you, before you fry like an egg on the sidewalk?” She turned to walk away.
“I’m Emerson.” He sprang up and extended his right arm.
She hesitated, but walked back to him. She looked him up and down, then reached out cautiously. “I’m Kiara.”
As they shook hands, Emerson noticed how sharply his white, sunburnt skin contrasted with her black skin. “Ma’am, I don’t mean to trouble you, but I’m lookin’ for work. Do you know anyone who might take a chance on someone like me?”
“I’m sorry, but—”
“If I don’t get a job and show the judge I can support my daughter, I could lose her forever.”
“You know, there are social workers who can help you. There are programs—”
“I saw a social worker. He had over two-hundred cases, never enough time. Couldn’t even remember my name.”
Kiara wiped the sweat from her forehead.
“How old is your daughter?”
“Where is she?” Kiara looked around. “Hope she’s not out in this heat.”
“A foster home.”
“I see. She doesn’t have any other family?”
“I’m all she’s got.”
Kiara looked down and sighed. “The world is a mess.”
“Ma’am, I’ll do anything I can.”
“Yeah? What can you do?”
“Well…” He scratched the back of his neck. “I used to have a landscaping company, until I had a bad head injury. But I’m sure I can still mow, edge, clear weeds, trim bushes—all that. I’m sure I can still make flowers shine their brightest colors.”
Kiara grinned. “I’m sorry to hear about your injury.” She looked at her watch. “What else can you do? Can you read and write?”
“Yes, ma’am, of course. I’ve got a high school diploma and an AA degree.”
“Really? That’s good. What’s your degree in?”
“Business,” he mumbled.
“I see.” She checked her watch again. “Look, I know a lot of people in this community. I suppose I could make some calls. Maybe I can get you an interview somewhere. I don’t know. Can I ask you a few questions, first?”
“Got any felonies?”
“Any employer will want to know.”
“What about misdemeanors?”
“Do you want my help or not?”
“I wrote some bad checks, that’s all. I couldn’t afford my medical bills, my rent, and everything else. I planned to make it right, but couldn’t.”
She took a deep breath and stared at him. “You know,” she finally said, “it’s easy to do a background check, so I hope you’re telling the truth.”
“It’s the truth.”
“Don’t make me regret anything. I have a reputation to uphold.”
She studied him a bit longer, her hands fixed on her hips. “I’ll talk to some people I know, some small-business owners, and find out if they’d consider you for any open positions. You can stop by tomorrow to check in. That’s where I work.” She pointed to the small, one-story office at the opposite corner of the intersection. Oak trees towered over the office. Hedges and flowers adorned the yard. A sign read, “The Law Firm of Kiara Jones.”
Emerson smiled bigger than he had in a long time.
She reached into her purse and fumbled around, then handed him a ten-dollar bill. “In case you don’t know, there’s a shelter at Kennedy and Elm, about six miles from here. The bus can take you there.”
“Why are you doin’ this?”
She exhaled deeply. “I could see you from my office. I’ve been watching you beg. It’s like watching someone die.”
Emerson looked down at his filthy clothes and withering frame.
“Plus you have a daughter.”
Emerson went to a nearby park and sat on a bench under a pergola, where strands of bright-colored flowers dangled and swayed around him. He drank a bottle of water and ate some of his fruit. He felt rejuvenated as the nutrients coursed through him. Long breezes meandered through the park, cooling him, fragrant with jasmine and magnolias. His eyes followed the clouds while they separated and came back together. He felt hopeful and optimistic, as if he had awakened from a long and solemn dream.
He used to tell Grace that if she wanted something badly enough and pictured it happening, it would come true. And so he imagined meeting Kiara the next morning and learning she had found work for him. He envisioned going to the foster home and surprising Grace with the good news.
He remained in the park for the entire day, resting, imagining a new and better life. As the last streaks of orange and pink sunlight vanished, a sense of excitement and gratitude overcame him. He walked in the darkness, under dull streetlights, across roads, and through shadows of buildings and trees, until he stood in the yard of Kiara’s office.
He labored for hours, first gathering twigs and throwing them in a dumpster near the back parking lot, probably over one hundred twigs that were scattered across the grass. He pruned the hedges along the front of the office using his pocketknife. His fingers cramped and ached as the blade dulled, but he kept going. He shaped the hedges into rectangles with clean and distinct lines.
Next, he removed dozens of withered petals from the flowers to make them appear livelier. When he had worked as a landscaper, he sometimes secretly plucked the most beautiful flower he saw and brought it home. “For you,” he’d tell Grace. The way her face lit up, it was magic. She learned about lilies, periwinkles, daisies, and others, and she learned how to care for them. She kept a purple vase on the nightstand by her bed.
Emerson sat on the front porch under the awning and drank his last bottle of water, tired and sore with a headache, but satisfied with his work. He had not experienced that feeling of satisfaction in a long time.
He planned to go to the shelter on Kennedy and Elm after resting for a few minutes. He lay on his stomach, with his head on his folded arms. Gusts of wind washed over him like gentle waves. Sporadic raindrops made the leaves of the oak trees glisten in the light of a nearby lamppost. His mouth stretched wider with each yawn, and soon he entered the beautiful and terrifying world of dreams.
Emerson stood on a bridge engulfed in clouds. An opening emerged in the clouds and revealed a violent and churning ocean hundreds of feet below. A burst of wind nearly blew him off. A giant white bird swooped by his head, or perhaps it was an angel. He looked around him. Cars and trucks had stopped in both directions and people were standing in the road, yelling at him to jump.
He inched closer to the edge and closed his eyes. He thought about Grace.
He saw her in the foster home in that yellow dress, turning into a woman—her hair and makeup, those sparkling teeth! He saw her in a wedding dress, a brilliant and angelic white, walking down the aisle of a church with sunlight pouring through stained-glass windows, colors rippling across the walls, the organ and trumpet filling the cathedral with sound. There she was, a mother, pacing around a room in the middle of the night as she comforted a baby in her arms, the baby looking up at her, little fingers reaching out. Now she was old and silvered, sitting on a front porch surrounded by grandchildren, watching them play.
Emerson stepped down from the ledge. He walked along the bridge and then ran, ignoring the taunts and shouts of strangers, searching for Grace.
The invasive sun broke through Emerson’s eyelids, urging him to rise. Engines and exhausts, choppy and harsh, drummed in his ears.
“Good morning, neighbor.” Kiara was standing near him. “I would have brought you breakfast in bed, but I’m a lousy cook, and you’re not technically in a bed.”
He rose and cleared his throat, still shaken by his dream. He brushed dirt and grass off his clothes, and ran his fingers through his hair. His heart fluttered.
She turned and looked at the yard. “You did this, right?”
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “How’d you do it?”
“I just… kept going.”
She looked around again. “You have a real talent. Did you use any tools?”
“Just my pocketknife and my hands.”
“I can only imagine what you can do with a lawn mower and a rake.”
A grin lifted his cheeks.
“How’d you like to do this once a week?”
“What? Really? I mean, yes, ma’am, if that’s okay with you. That would be good.”
“I’d pay you, of course, and lend you tools to make it easier.”
He tried to respond.
“Listen,” she said, as she stepped closer. “I spoke with a friend of mine who has a landscaping company. He’s got room on his team and he agreed to meet you. No promises, but it’s a chance. You need to get cleaned up, first. I’d like to help you do that this morning.”
A burst of laughter erupted from Emerson’s lungs. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting this.”
“Don’t apologize.” She handed him the red box she’d been holding. “For you.”
He opened the lid.
“You’ll need these for your new journey,” she said.
He sat and put on the new socks and shoes. The shoes were black with white laces. He stood and bounced a little.
“You look like a size ten. How do they fit?”
“Glad to hear it.”
Emerson became still. “Thank you. I don’t know what else to say.”
“You can thank me by fixing things with your daughter. No girl should have to lose her parents. I know this better than anyone.”
He searched for comforting words.
“Go on,” she said, pointing at his shoes. “Give them a whirl.”
He walked to the center of the yard and stopped next to an oak tree. He looked up at the sky through the branches and turned in circles with his arms outstretched. “My feet never felt so good.”
Kiara was laughing.
When Emerson stopped and looked at her, the world still shifted around him, but he had discovered a newfound sturdiness. With great conviction, he said, “Before these shoes fall apart, I’ll be with Grace again.”
“That’s right,” Kiara said. “I can see it too.”