I was on my way home from the liquor store, smacking the bottom of a fresh pack of cigarettes, when I looked up to see a woman standing in the middle of the road, cursing at the bulky camera in her hands. Her long black dress blew loosely in the storm-scented wind that sent tiny tornadoes of dead leaves swirling across the street around her. When I neared her, she looked up and asked with a British accent, “Do you know about these things?”
“A little,” I said, fishing a cigarette from the pack.
“I can’t get the flash to work.” She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear with a flustered frown. “They used to be so simple.”
“What’re you taking a picture of?” I asked, both of us now standing in the quiet road. The lighter was useless in this wind.
“This tree,” said the woman, pointing to an arrowhead-shaped redwood with a YARD SALE sign stapled to its thick trunk. The moon was hidden behind its branches, giving the tree an eerie aura, and I saw nothing special about it at all.
She handed me the camera.
“Why?” I asked.
She removed a metal tin from the leather purse draped over her shoulder and revealed a stack of black and white photographs. She shuffled through them until she came to a photograph of a tree on a street corner. “My grandfather took this one,” she explained, holding up the image to show that the featured tree was the same one blocking our moonlight. “It’s the last one he ever took, for some reason.”
I noticed how none of the modern houses around the tree existed in the photograph. There weren’t even any sidewalks. The tree used to have a lot more breathing room with the nearest structure, a barn, at least a hundred yards in the background.
“Things have changed,” I said. “When was this taken?”
“There are others?” I asked, pointing at the metal tin with my unlit cigarette.
“From all over the world. He was a journalist and he never went anywhere without his cameras. We found these photos under his bed when we cleaned out the house.” She handed me the other photos. The Eiffel Tower, some exotic waterfall, an ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, a canyon, a Middle-Eastern mosque... “I’ve been able to recreate all of them. I saved this one for last.”
“You went to all these places?”
“I didn’t know my grandfather very well. I thought this would help me get to know him. Follow in his steps. Stand where he stood.”
“How long did that take?”
“A year. He left me a chunk of money and I couldn’t figure out why, until I found the photos. It seemed like a fitting way to spend it.”
“That’s really impressive.”
Turning my attention to the camera, I tried to figure out how to turn on the flash, but was overwhelmed by all the buttons and dials. “This looks expensive.”
“It was. The clerk was persuasive.”
“This thing looks like it could run NASA mission control.”
She laughed. “The other photos are on there, if you’d like to see them.”
Together, still standing in the middle of the road, we perused the thirty color images that showed how much the world had changed between now and 1955. The Eiffel Tower looked crowded. San Francisco had sprouted a few more buildings in the background. Even the nature settings looked jaded by visitors and time, with more cars and people in the foreground. It was rather remarkable how accurately she was able to recapture the scene from precisely the same angle.
“So did it help?” I asked.
“Help you learn about your grandfather?”
She let out a long sigh. “Yes and no.”
“There have been so many changes. The world is not the same today as it was when he was travelling. Whenever I got to the spot where he’d been, I wished that I could wave a wand and erase all the new things. I guess I wanted to experience it the way that he did. But that’s impossible.”
I’d never left the country, so the thought of going to all these places was mystifying. It had only taken her one year to do this? How had she known how to find the exact locations? I looked again at the redwood tree and realized that I was standing where her grandfather had been standing fifty years ago. The neighborhood had grown tremendously since then, but the tree was mostly the same, perhaps a little taller. A chill of latent energy flowed through me as if her grandfather had put his hands on my shoulders.
“I shouldn’t be so harsh,” she said, returning the photos to her purse. “I am lucky I had this chance.”
“What do you want to do with the photos?”
“I’d like to print them. Maybe in a book. I want to give them to my mother.”
“Do you know why he took a picture of this tree?”
She smiled. “It’s where he proposed to my grandmother.”
“No kidding. It changed everything.”
I asked, “How did they end up in California?”
“She was American. He came here to write about the opening of Disneyland and they met in line for the Jungle Cruise, says my mother, and two months later they were moving in together.” A sudden sadness reversed her smile and she looked again at the tree. “He stopped travelling after that. He never took another picture. I’ll never understand that part about him.”
“People change, too,” I said, glancing at my cigarette.
“But he was so good at it.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but we’re humans. We’re designed to change.”
“Even if things are good how they were?” she asked.
“Maybe we get bored.”
Unconvinced, she shook her head and asked, “Have you changed?”
“Are you kidding?” I laughed. “I don’t have enough fingers or toes to tell you how much I’ve changed in the last year alone.”
She shrugged. “I guess the same is true for me.”
“Even that tree has changed. We grow. We learn. We experience things. Even if we don’t want to change,” I said, “it’ll happen.”
“So we have to adapt.”
I held up the camera. “If we want to keep up with the changes.”
“Teach me how to turn on the flash?” she asked.
Together we navigated the myriad of menus until finally the flash feature revealed itself, and we laughed as we accidentally took a bright photograph of our shoes on the lane divider. She took the camera and positioned herself in front of the redwood tree, lined up the shot, and snapped the image. I let her stand there alone for a while as it seemed like she was deep in thought. She turned and said, “I guess that’s the end of that.”
“Your collection is complete.”
“Yes, I suppose it is.”
I brought the cigarette to my lips and sheltered the lighter.
Then she said, “I think it’s good to remember who you were before you changed, for better or for worse. Otherwise, how can you learn?”
The cigarette tasted unusually bitter. Here was one change in my life that I wasn’t especially proud of. Was this a habit I was meant to learn? With newfound willpower I plucked the cigarette from my lips and flicked it down the road. If change was inevitable, it felt better if the change was mine to make.
“Thank you for your help,” she said.
“I hope your adaptation goes well.”
“Same to you.”
She smiled and walked away and of course I wanted to follow her, find out her name, get to know her better, marry her, have kids, grow old, and all that... But a part of me was pleased with the little change she’d planted and I walked home and let it grow, curious what it would teach me.
“Heartbreak is the closest we come to sympathizing with the ice cube,” said the tattooed bartender, pouring a jack and coke. I lifted my head from my folded arms and wiped a bit of drool from the corner of my frown. “Don’t mean to interrupt your moping, but you’re scaring away my customers.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean no one likes to spend their Friday night ordering drinks around the sad sack at the bar. You’re depressing.” He served the jack and coke to a guy who glanced my way then hurried off to his friends. They shared a joke at my expense. It was easy to ignore them. Anything outside of my head was like a foreign television show in a language I didn’t recognize. Just noise. Static, mosquito-buzzing noise.
“I mean what do you mean about the ice cube?”
I noticed a half-empty beer in my hand, and finished it.
Someone ordered a tall pink drink with a cucumber garnish. Looked like something Martha Stewart threw up. The bartender said, “Think about it. What is an ice cube? It’s just another form of water. What are we?”
He served the pink drink to a pretty girl who ignored me. She didn’t leave a tip and the bartender let me know this.
“Sorry,” I said, sitting up.
“That’s better.” He served me another beer. “On the house.”
“I still don’t get it. The ice cube thing.”
“We’re mostly water, right? Day to day, overall, we’re just water. So then let’s say that when we’re in love—real love, like life-altering love—we become the ice cube. Still made of water, but solid. When you’re in love, things come together. Make sense. All that good jazz. Excuse me.” He took a lengthy order of drinks from a drunk man who used too many likes. The bartender continued, “Ice is water in love.”
“Okay...” I’d heard plenty of heartbreak advice from friends and family over the past week, but this one was on track to win the award for most bizarre. Someone changed the music to classic rock and everyone started singing along like it was amateur karaoke hour. I cringed.
“So then heartbreak,” said the bartender, shaking a martini shaker, “is ice returning to water. Metaphor aside, that’s not a big deal. Ice can’t last forever. The natural state is water. We can keep an ice cube in the freezer for a million years, but give it two minutes in the sun and it’s gone.”
“You’re saying we’re not supposed to be in love?”
“I’m saying this exactly.”
I shook my head. “I think a lot of people disagree with that.”
I laughed. “I think you know my answer right now.”
“Love is fun and all,” said the bartender, plopping ice into a glass, “but it’s not our natural state. Yeah, okay, sure, we love our mothers and all that, but loving a person we’re not related to, just some stranger we got to know really well, it’s a bit psychotic in my opinion.”
I laughed again.
“Ice is psychotic,” he said. “It’s not natural.”
“What about the ice caps? Or snow?”
“It’s a metaphor, man. Don’t look too deep into it.”
He added some green mixture to the glass that smelled like birthday cake, and to this he added a little paper umbrella, and this he passed to a woman in a yellow dress. I sipped my beer, not thirsty, not anything. I pictured my relationship as an ice cube left out in the sun. A puddle, now.
“What’s your advice?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Don’t cry over melted ice cubes.”
“It hurts though,” I said, and these words plucked my vocal chords with the edge of a sharp knife. It seemed ridiculous, but I asked, “Does ice feel pain?”
“How can it?” he asked. “It’s frozen numb.”
“We freeze up when we’re in love. We feel all invincible and crap.” He gave some guy his credit card receipt and they shook hands like old friends. I was halfway done with my second beer and looked around at the crowd behind me. Laughing, smiling, liquid people, flowing together, wanting to be ice, if not forever than at least for a one-night-stand. I felt like less than water. I felt like vapor in this crowd. All I wanted was to feel like tangible matter.
“You’re better off,” said the bartender. “Trust me.”
“I know that every day it gets a little easier.”
“Water’s good like that. It fits into its environment no matter where it is.”
“And the pain?”
“That’s not pain. It’s the awareness of change.”
“That’s not hurt. That’s rejection of change.”
“Who are you?” I asked, marveled by his quick, therapeutic responses.
“The name is Jason,” he said, pouring three shots of whiskey for three girls in birthday hats. They bought him a shot, too, which he took without flinching. I wondered if he’d ever been in ice before. I mean, in love. Whatever.
“Thanks,” I said, finishing my beer.
“Look,” he said, “love happens. We live in a culture where we get to be selective, where we can wait until we find that one person that gets us or whatever. We’re convinced that this is love. I mean, we feel it, so it must be something. I’m not telling you to never pursue love, I’m just telling you that it’s insanity to expect ice to stay frozen forever. This hurt you feel, it’s more cultural than anything, because we’re trained to think that water is boring.” He took my empty beer and I put down a few dollars for a tip, which he acknowledged with a nod. “If there’s one piece of advice I want you to remember tomorrow, it’s this: never feel bad about being water, no matter what phase you’re leaving from. Hell, even the ice caps are melting. In the end, we’re all just here to feed the planet.”
We parted on that thought with a handshake.
I’d forgotten it was raining, which had annoyed me earlier in a self-pitying, cliché kind of way, but seemed more relevant now as I walked home and pictured all the loves of the past melting back to water, mine included, leaving the clouds to rejoin the liquid state, washing away the pain of change, the hurt of rejection, down the gutter and out to the sea, and this felt good.
It was the summer out of a snowman’s nightmare. Record highs, even at night. I came home from work a sweaty, flustered mess, fresh from an office that didn’t believe in air conditioning, and dragged myself to the kitchen for a glass of cold tap water. Staring through the window at my wilted garden around the roots of an ancient oak tree in the backyard, I noticed a pair of tattered shoes among the hydrangeas. Curious, I went out to see where the sneakers had come from.
“Hello there,” said the old man in my tree.
“Hello back,” I said, stepping into the shade of the wide branch on which my guest was straddled.
He wore farmer’s overalls. Bare feet dangled at the bottom of two hairy, honey-colored legs. His arms were folded behind his bald head, his curved back resting against the trunk. I’d never seen anyone look more comfortable.
“I won’t be long,” he told me, speaking in a wise, slow-burn drawl like someone looking at the sky and predicting a turn in the weather. “I can’t imagine it’ll take more than a day or two for Chester to find this tree.”
“Who’s Chester?” I asked.
The old man bit the inside of his cheek and gave a solemn nod. “It’s my fault he got out. You should never turn your back on a bird and an open window, my friend.”
“You lost your bird?”
The old man shrugged. “Well, we’re not really in the position to lose things, are we? What ever made us think these things were ours to begin with? No, no.” He laughed, and his laughter made me feel young. “I’m afraid the only thing we’re actually in the position to lose is our minds.”
I looked at his shoes. “How long have you been here?”
“A coupla hours. No more. It’s been nice, spending time with your tree. I get the feeling not many folks spend time with ‘er anymore.” He patted the branch like the arm of a close friend sharing a moment. It made me jealous. I lived by this tree for two years and felt a pang of betrayal. He saw a change on my face. “I mean, I like what you did with the garden,” he said.
We both studied the dying hydrangeas, the wilted seedlings of azaleas, and the paled buttercups. My first and probably last garden.
The old man said, “You don’t trim enough. Your yard is smothering itself.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Nature has a quiet way of speaking to us.” The old man looked at his hands. “A little trimming. Some guidance. Water. You could have a healthy garden here.”
I asked, “What’s your name?”
“You said something about a bird,” I reminded him.
“You think he’s gonna come to my tree?”
Erik said, “My grandson found him here.”
Erik sat sidesaddle on the branch and rested his chin on his hands, elbows on his knees. He looked ten years old, for a moment, swinging his lanky legs. “This used to be the Porters’ lawn, before you. Luke mowed it every Saturday. One time, Chester must’ve fallen out of his nest. Bad fall, too. He broke his wing. Luke—my grandson, Luke—brought him to my house. I live two blocks down from here. We set him back to health and I taped up his wing, fed him, gave him water, and my grandson—he left for college before Chester was healthy, so I kept him.”
I reached out and touched the tree trunk, tempted to climb it. Quickly, I glanced at my watch. Dinner plans with friends were looming and I still hadn’t taken a shower. What was I supposed to do about the man in my backyard?
“How do you know he’ll come here?” I asked.
“If you could go anywhere, but you knew nothing of the world, where would you want to go?” Erik replied, reclining once again against the trunk, one leg on either side of the branch. “We never forget our first home. I think no matter how far you go from where you’re from, it always has you. Like a flower or a tree. We may spread seeds once we’ve grown, but our roots remain the same.”
“What if he doesn’t come back?”
The old man nodded with his eyes closed. “That kind of thinking won’t get you far, my friend. Thinking in negatives is like planting a garden in cement. You’ve already doomed yourself if you frame a thought in a setting it won’t grow.” He looked down at me with a smile. “No, no. Positivity is the only sustainable frame of mind. Positivity begets positivity, whereas negativity begets nothing.”
I said, “It’s not always easy to be positive.”
He said, “It’s easier than you think.”
The wind blew. We listened as the leaves translated.
“I have to meet my friends for dinner,” I told him apologetically.
He didn’t respond, but instead yawned and cozied up against the tree. He didn’t seem to grasp the idea that he was trespassing. I couldn’t bring myself to ask him to leave, which was almost as surprising as how much I wanted to stay and chat with him. My friends would never believe this.
“Do you need anything to eat? Or drink?” I asked.
“Not yet. I can take care of myself, my friend. Thank you for asking.”
“Go ahead. I won’t bother anything while you’re gone.”
“If you’re still here when I get back,” I said, “maybe I’ll join ya.”
The old man nodded.
On my way back into the house he said, “The finest advice anyone ever gave me for growing a garden...” He waited until I’d turned to listen. “Be there. As the saying goes: the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.”
When I came back that night from the bar, a little drunk, I wanted to hang out with my new tree-dwelling friend, but the branches were bare. Erik was gone. I stumbled my way into the garage and found an old ladder and wobbled my way up into the tree, to where my guest had sat, and in the bark I saw two names carved, one human, one bird, with the old man’s advice added underneath.
The bus was packed for a Tuesday afternoon so the woman had nowhere to sit but in the back with me. She smiled and I nodded politely, then slid closer to the window as she plumped down.
“You look like a young Mel Blanc,” she said, stuffing an overstuffed canvas bag full of rolled-up blueprints between her sunburned knees. “But I bet you’re too young to even know who Mel Blanc is. I met him once. He helped me change a flat tire. How young are you? Don’t tell me. Twenty-two. That’s my son’s age. Do you know Mel Blanc? Was I right about your age?”
Her freckles made her look like a chameleon stuck between color shifts. I stared back at her, dumbfounded by this avalanche of dialogue, stunned by the intensity of her wide, bulging eyes that were too big for her round face. Nothing about her fit a pattern; the chameleon trying to blend in with a swirling Van Gogh wheat field. She had sunglasses holding back her curly red hair, though a few strands had noodled free to dangle over her forehead, partially covering the rainbows with pots of gold hanging under her elfish ears.
“I’m twenty-five,” I said. “Mel Blanc... Did he do Young Frankenstein?”
Her laugh was boldly beautiful, like an aggressively blooming flower, and she was oblivious to the stares from other passengers who wanted to be part of the joke.
“No, no,” she said, catching her breath. “Blanc not Brooks. My Mel was the one who voiced Bugs Bunny and that old gang. You’re thinking of the actor/director, who, as a matter of fact, was not a Brooks at all, but a Kaminsky.”
“Oh.” The humor of the mistake was beyond me, but I could tell that this woman found humor in many things that most people overlooked.
“Why do people do that?” she asked, not looking at me but looking at the entire universe out the window. “Change their name like that. My name is Beatrice Quinn. Do I go around telling people my name is Beatrice Lollipop?”
She was really asking me. I said, “No?”
“Never!” Beatrice grinned. She had perfect teeth, sharply contrasting with her erratic fashion. A tattered pale-blue t-shirt was patched with what looked like newspaper clippings. Her belt was red caution tape. Her jean shorts were faded to ghost-white, borderline transparent in spots where chemicals had dripped. She noticed that I was studying her and said, “I bet you’re wondering why I smell like a bubblegum factory.”
Before I could respond, she said, “Did you know that gum was originally created from tapping into an evergreen tree called the Manilkara chicle? Nowadays they can make gum in a factory. It’s little more than synthetic rubber. Weird, isn’t it? The small degrees of separation between a stick of wintergreen and the tires on this bus. I mean, even you and I are basically the same 99 percent on the genome level as the common ape. We’re bubblegum and they’re rubber boots.”
“Why do you smell like bubblegum?”
Beatrice shrugged. “I was trying to make my own.”
“Is it hard to do?”
“Harder than making moonshine, easier than cooking meth.”
Some of the seedier commuters glanced our way.
“I’m at this point of my life when I don’t want people to do things for me. I want to make my own gum. I want to grow my own food. I want to evolve on my own path, not the one that’s been presented to us. I wasn’t put on this planet to do what everyone else is doing. I’m here to ask questions.”
“That’s good,” I said. “We should all think that way.”
She grinned and looked down at the yellow smiley faces painted on each of her fingernails. She had tan-lines where rings used to be. Faded remnants of notes she’d penned on the back of her hand.
During a lull in conversation, I glanced at the faces around us. The bus was still nearly full. We had our usual riders: the wheelchair drivers, the nearly-blind elderly, the students weighed down with backpacks, the homeless on their way to the food kitchen, the poor, the environmentally conscious, the folks with cars in the shop, the working class, the dealers, and the users. I found it easy to define others by their appearance while Beatrice resisted all definitions.
“Are you going to school?” asked Beatrice. “I dropped out twice, but I still finished. It’s good to finish things you start. Most people, they’re all ideas and first drafts, but they never follow through. I think that’s why marriages only work half the time. People lack vision. People are too near-sighted.”
“I’m going to Sacramento State,” I told her.
“Did you go there?”
“No. I’m not from here. I think all colleges are beautiful, intellectually. I’m passing through town trying to find a construction company that will help me build these houses.” She motioned to the bundle of blueprints between her legs. “There’s nothing like designing a home. We shouldn’t live like hermit crabs. We shouldn’t scour the planet for a shell that suits us; we should make the shell that suits us. A home is an extension of us, inside and out. Why settle for a shoddy prefabricated cut-and-paste condo when you can draw up plans for any dream or vision you actually want?”
“Sounds like a good idea.”
“Did you ever read The Fountainhead?”
“No. It sounds familiar.”
“Can I see one?” I asked.
She unrolled a blueprint over our laps without hesitation. I couldn’t make sense of the lines and angles, but it looked impressive. The precision of the drawing looked like something printed by computer, but I doubted that Beatrice would let a computer take credit for her creation. She slid her hand over the ruffled paper like a soothsayer reading palms. “I named this one Epsilon.”
“That’s Greek, isn’t it?”
She smiled. “Very good.”
“We learned the Greek alphabet in high school. For English class. I only remember the first ten letters.”
“I’m impressed.” She winked. “Epsilon is meant for a coastal location. See the big windows? The porch? I can imagine standing there watching the waves, preferably on the west coast because I prefer sunsets over sunrises. Skylights. A big kitchen. Lots of open space and casual curves.”
“I’ve drawn plans for every climate, terrain, and mood.” She rolled up Epsilon and unrolled another, which she called Gamma. “This one is for the desert philosopher who wants privacy and inner-peace. See the vaulted ceilings? Good ideas collect there like fish in a net and all you have to do is reach up and grab them. With flat ceilings, our ideas just roll right out the window.”
“Never thought of that.”
Usually spending these rides in contemplative silence, it was nice to have someone to talk to during the ride. When Beatrice looked away as though she were bored with our dialogue, I felt compelled to keep our interaction alive, as though she were a life-preserver in a vast and empty ocean and I might drown without her.
“Have you had any luck? With contractors, I mean?”
She rolled up Gamma, smiling at my interest in her plans. “Not yet. I’m more of a tortoise in this race, like Howard Roark.”
I shrugged at the reference.
“Anyway,” she said, holding her knobby knees, “I expected as much. They always tell you to think outside of the box, but that’s the biggest scam of them all. There is no box. Our box is our fear. Our fear is an illusion. People don’t take enough risks these days. Those we do take are calculated. Formulaic.”
“No one is original anymore,” I offered.
“Everyone is original. They just don’t know it yet.”
“Especially you,” she said with a smile.
Stunned by the compliment, I bowed my head, and I realized that Beatrice was barefoot. She had a tattoo of a simple wooden chair above her left ankle. Catching my downward glance, before I could say something nice in return, she said, “I got that to remind myself to sit down and rest every once in a while. A mind like mine doesn’t rest easily. Not nearly enough.”
“It’s healthy to take time to sit and think.”
“Exactly. That’s what I love about the bus.”
“It gives you time to think?”
“No,” she said. “It gives us a chance to meet like-minded people. Out there, the people in their cars, the people walking with their heads down, you never meet any honest strangers. You miss out on so many connections. You might get where you’re going a few minutes quicker, but at what cost?”
I wanted to say something smart like, “At the cost of truly living,” but she reached over my head suddenly and tugged on the yellow wire to signal a stop request.
“This is my stop,” she said, gathering her things. Her movements had a pianist’s precision, careful and specific. It was less like watching someone get up from their seat and more like watching a symphony. “Forget about the box. Do what makes you happy. Make your own bubblegum,” she said, and then she was gone.