The water on the street glistens under the moonlight. When the cars go sweeping by their headlights sheen swift and rippling off the puddles. The night is dark and in the darkness the people move. The doorways are dark and in the doorways stand the bums with their old clothes. When they walk out onto the sidewalk they are lost in a crowd of bums, whose clothes are faded and old, whose chins prickle with unshaved hair. I had never been here before. The houses were two storied and old, the boards cracked. No one looked at me. Some of them looked pretty rough. Down one street I saw sitting in a doorway a gypsy girl, still young and pretty for a gypsy. Her legs were neatly placed in front of her on the sidewalk. Her hair was mussed up. She wore lipstick but she didnt wear it well. Her clothes too were old and I looked at her feet and saw her shoes and thought, You can tell how well off a person is by his shoes. She wore old shoes that had not been shined for a long time. As I walked by I said, almost without thinking, Hello, and her eyes swept up at me and I thought, I have never seen eyes so afraid and unhappy. I went on by. She hadnt said anything in reply.
The lamps hung on the corners floated in the puddles.
Instead of sleeping in the night outside when it would be cold, I crawled off into the big park during the day and slept then. People would walk all around me and sometimes I would peer through the shrubs and watch them in the mottled shadows. They talked of things I knew nothing. They had a life of daytime of which I knew nothing. I could hear the birds cry out. At night I came to life and started to look for food. During the chill I walked. I saw people then I understood but they did not understand me. I felt that no one understood me and maybe I was right. I looked for women too, but I had no money, and I watched them being picked up by men wearing overcoats. I watched their dresses and the way they moved. When drunk, they swayed, and their hair swished back and forth over their shoulders. I saw their legs beneath their dresses, their ankles, their small shoes with high heels, and I walked on alone through all the back streets I could find.
What are you doing here? a cop asked me once.
Going home, I said quickly.
Where do you live?
Down the street.
Gimme the address, kid.
I kicked him in the shins and darted away. I had lied to him about going home and about living anywhere; I had no home to go to and I lived nowhere, no time. I heard him cursing and pounding after me. I felt I could handle him if he caught me, but I didnt want to try. A woman saw me and stared. Help me, I thought. She watched me run. She watched the cop run. She had small hips and I thought, What is she doing out so late? When I lost the cop I came back and walked down the sidewalk she had stood on, but she was gone, although I thought I could smell for a moment the faint trail of the perfume of her body. I crouched in a doorway. If this had been her house perhaps I would be inside and drinking coffee, and drinking of her.
Getting food was hard. I was too big and young for handouts. Work, they said. I went into the country to get a job.
The season, after the last rain, was hot. The orchard was dusty. I had a ladder and a pail the farmer had given me and I stuck the ladder under the apricot tree and put my back against the bole and watched the other kid work. He was younger than me and small but he worked fast. The dust filled the air and I could smell the fruit that had fallen to the ground and rotted. What are you working so hard for? I asked. Got to make money, he said. I tried the picking and I even worked hard and fast, for a long time. I dumped the yellow fruit into the boxes. To go faster I picked green apricots for the bottom layer and put ripe ones on top. All the while the dust rose and plugged up my nose. I walked ankle deep through the dust. The other kid worked hurriedly, jerking his ladder, pulling the fruit into his pail. The sweat swarmed down his face. His eyes bulged. His hair hung before him and he looked both wild and half dead, like a maniac. At noon the farmer came by and looked. I was sitting down when he came and the kid was jerking picking dumping. Yeah, he said. Get a move on punk. Sure, I said and after a while he left.
Why dontcha slow down?
Hell with you. I gotta get some money
I let him work until it got dark. Then I pulled the ladder from under him and when he tried to get up from the hot dust I kicked him. I hit him on the side of the head with the pail. Then I ran him to the road and the last I saw he was hightailing it into the distance. When I came back to the orchard the farmer was there. His face was pale with the work he had done all day. The harvest was going full blast
Where's the other kid?
He took off.
The hell you say.
Before he did he gave me all he had picked.
The farmer looked at me and said, The hell you say.
Pay me, I said.
I'll give you a quarter a box.
Dont give me that shit, I said.
Look, he said. Dont get wise. That crap about the kid running off is no good. I give you a quarter a box, dont argue.
He gave me ten dollars and told me to get the hell out. I left walking by the cannery and saw a bunch of Mexican girls and fell in behind them. I watched their long black hair, their dark legs, and listened to their fast screeching talk. They went in at their camp, a dozen tents and a couple dozen families living together, their bright faces peering at me as I walked past. The girls split up. The young men looked at me hostile. The old women in dull thin dresses hardly looked at me at all. Boxes were stacked alongside the tents. Some of the men had bright shiny new cars and I looked in amazement, greasy hair, dark faces, bright teeth the cook stoves flickering, the smell coming to me of food, tortillas, beans; the muted sounds of the families together; and the night settling down all around as I walked by, by myself.
That night I sat in the grass by a tree and watched the camp. It was not cold here. The young men and women got in the cars and drove off. The old men and women went to bed. My eyes hurt. My chest hurt too. Why am I alone? Sitting in the grass, my butt in the grass, my head in the air, alone like a fool. Goddamn I am a fool.
I went back to the city. I got a ride with a guy so short he looked at the road through the spokes of the steering wheel. He didnt know how to drive and he almost wrecked us a couple times.
That night I went into a bar but they wouldnt let me stay. It didnt look like much anyway.
The Mexican camp stayed in my mind. I remembered a small child staring at me with wide black eyes. It was a night for remembering. I wandered through the worst part of the city, and I remembered my mother for the first time. I remembered too what I had heard about the border towns to the south. I decided I would go there but before I could get started I got drunk on a bottle of whisky. Everything kept running and swaying before my eyes. I was sitting at a dark corner, hiding the bottle in my shirt, so no one would take it away from me, and I saw beautiful people walking by; they had long legs and long strides; and the women had long flanks, and long arms that reached almost to the ground. The most beautiful of them all stopped and put her long fingers on my arm. I retreated into my shadow. I huddled the bottle to my breast. She murmured into my ear, but I could not understand her. She sat beside me and forced me to move over, her leg warm against mine. When she nibbled at my ear I thought she was talking and kept saying What? What? But she wouldnt answer me. She found my bottle and took a drink. While she was sitting there the cold night did not touch me. When she stood, with a rush the darkness came and grappled at me. I screamed at her, and she put out a long arm and patted my head. She pulled me to my feet and the city swayed around me. I could feel the night all around, waiting for her to leave me. She sweetly nuzzled my throat. There were no more beautiful people on the street. An ugly man grimaced at me. I stepped slowly. She led me to a mountain into which were carved steps. The wind blew from the mountain top and there was the promise of a plateau and green grass and the smell of trees. I heard the rush and roar of water. She had an earring on her ear. I cried, but she held me. She held the bottle, and I started up the stairs, and with each step a tear fell and tinkled apart at my feet. Come with me, she said, come with me, come with me, so I came with her. I smelled suddenly old wood. She put her lips on mine. I was lying down and the ceiling twisted apart into cold sky. She took off my clothes and when I looked again, I was white, and she was white too lying beside me and doing something to me softly. I could not move. Then she was doing something to herself and I heard her breathing heavily and heaving on the bed beside me, and then, when I remembered to look again, she was lying still. In the morning when I looked at her she was an old and ugly woman. She screeched at me as I fled. Her fingernails left raw red marks on my arm. She was cursing and screaming, and she followed me onto the street although she had put no clothes on her ugly naked body. I lost her in the crowd but all day I heard her voice.
I wandered around looking in all the corners and doorways, but I couldnt find anything. I didnt even know what I was looking for. After several years I gave up. Whatever it was, I would never find it.
NOTES: When I graduated from high school, at 17, I bought a Ford pickup and built a kind of camper on the back. I announced to my parents I was going to drive to Tierra del Fuego. Quite reasonably they refused to sign for my passport, so instead I drove up to San Francisco, where the pickup was stolen. I got it back a week later (and continued north), but during that week I walked and walked through the city and the wonderful Golden Gate Park. After I drove home, I began imagining what my life would be like if I stayed on the road. This story resulted from that imagining...a kind of worst case scenario...