All The things That Wouldn't Fit on a Piece of Cardboard
Look at that man in the window, the one glaring at you with his darkened, leathery face, this emaciated creature under mismatched layers of grimy rags. He runs his hand through that greasy, disheveled hair. Good god, what’s in that hair? His movement stirs a stench that momentarily steals your breath. Something moves behind you, across the street, and when you turn around, you see a bum.
In the shade of the old Washington Mutual, the bum sits, legs bent, his knees nearly to his chin. Beside him rests a beaten, old guitar. On the other side sits a mutt, exhausted, it seems, from malnutrition, and it watches you pass. The bum pays you no mind. He knows you have nothing to offer. A tattered piece of cardboard leans against his shins with a message written in black marker that reads: On my way home to Carson City, backpack stolen, out of luck. Need Money or Food. God Bless. All of his hopes rest in a few words, in a plea. You’ve read this sort of thing before. Every bum has a story, and just like the movies, there are only so many plots.
You don’t know who to pity more, the bum or his dog. The dog. Of course, the dog. Isn’t it obvious? Like with the fella who walks his puppy in the park to attract women—she pets the cute, little pooch while the man whimpers at the other end of his leash.
You think maybe this bum should find a more productive pursuit. Surely, this isn’t his first plan. Like with their stories, some bums have plans, so they say, ideas for how to get out of their current rut—always current, like this is temporary—or they have strategies, at least, on how to survive. One might wander, looking for work. A hobo, perhaps. Another might spend his day dragging a discarded mattress across town to his fortress beneath the freeway. This bum at the old Washington Mutual probably hopes to make it as a musician. But for now he nails it as a starving artist. You, on the other hand, have it all together. You live under a lifeguard tower on Santa Monica beach and spend your days compiling notes for a book on how to live on the streets, aptly titled, How to be a Bum in L.A.: A Guide to Better Living. One day it’ll be a bestseller, maybe even inspire a movie of the week, get you on The Today Show. That’s your plan, anyway. Best damn plan you’ve had so far. And boy will it make her jealous. She’ll tell you that she’s sorry. She shouldn’t have kicked you out. She’ll be the one begging then.
For a few blocks down Pico Boulevard, the man and his mutt stay on your mind. And just as you begin to feel it yourself—the way it creeps down your spine when you think someone’s watching you, judging your mistakes—you notice a denim wallet there on the sidewalk. As if you had dropped it yourself, you pick it up and continue down the street.
When nobody’s around, you take a moment to appraise this treasure. Turning it over in your fingers, it looks like the kind of wallet found in some teen fashion boutique. It probably came with a denim handbag donning an embroidered logo of a boy band or popular cartoon like Hello Kitty. Only this one has faint brown streaks running the length of its seams, either from the dusty street or your hands.
You take a deep breath and unsnap the button to find four dollars in the billfold and maybe fifty scents or so sliding around in the change pocket. It’s not much but more than you have in your pocket. The other sleeves hold the usual: a library card for Kimberly Michaels, her grocery store discount card, her student I.D. for Santa Monica College, and her driver’s license— everything a wallet should hold, as if required by law.
Before taking the money and tossing away the wallet, you notice something tucked behind the license—a speeding ticket. You unfold the yellow paper to find the officer's scribbled words. May 23rd, Officer Nightingale caught Kimberly going 48 mph in a 35 mph zone. She is to appear in West Los Angeles Court on July 10th at 1pm. You laugh at first, as if taunting her. Where’s the fire, Kimberly? Take it easy, girl. You say this to the picture on her license but there’s no trace of mischief in her eyes. Just a strange excitement you haven’t seen in a long time.
Kimberly Anne Michaels, 5 feet, 4 inches with hazel eyes. She will soon celebrate her twentieth birthday. Her dirty blonde hair is parted down the center and curls up and out at the ends on one side like it’s a pain to keep straight. Her skin looks soft and warm. The expression on her face is unusual, but between her smile and the squint in her eyes, she has a natural effervescence, as though her boyfriend might be the one taking the picture.
You look through the wallet for more clues about her—pictures, gift cards, maybe a receipt. Instead, you find a scratch-off lottery ticket, from which she can claim a dollar. A fortune from a fortune cookie is nestled deep in the change compartment; the writing has bled into a red smear, faint and illegible.
Before you close the wallet, you look at her photograph one last time. Her teeth are straight and white. Her expression seems candid, like she didn’t realize she was at a DMV. You suddenly wish you had been the photographer.
For the rest of the afternoon you sit at your usual bench, wondering what to do with the wallet. Your fingers probe along the edges of the denim, follow the seams and circle over the cold metal button. You wonder if Kimberly will ever know what hands held her wallet. Seeing the grime beneath your fingernails, she might not want it back. You sometimes wonder what fingers will page through your book. Will they be weathered or manicured? You imagine your reader to have clean, beautiful hands, the scent of lime from making her favorite drink. She’ll be reading it beside the window that overlooks the schoolyard across the way. You can still hear those children playing at recess.
You tell yourself that returning the wallet is the right thing to do. Take it to Kimberly’s house. Send it by mail. You know those four dollars could mean the only meal you have this week but would you look at her picture while you ate that burger? Could you stand having those eyes gaze back at you like that? This isn’t your wallet, you think. It’s Kimberly’s unfinished life. She still needs to graduate, to cash in that lottery ticket, to pay that fine. Go ahead and unsnap that button. Look at her picture again. Ask her what she thinks or where she was going in such a hurry or if she was polite to the officer. Ask if she cried.
Take a moment and close your eyes. Let everything around you fade—everything but her face. She's there, smiling like she does when you two are getting along. You’re in a diner just across the way where you always used to go, back before you took a wrong turn, did stupid things that she wouldn’t forgive.
But you shake her from your mind, because it’s not her sitting across from you now. It’s Kimberly and all her newness. The two of you talk. She buys you a coffee with the money in the wallet. Yeah, that’s how it will go.
Your fingers grip tighter around the wallet.
In that diner, across from Kimberly, you're just an average guy with the kindness to return a wallet. She's a girl who happened to get a speeding ticket. You don’t have to hide your past—the booze, those other girls, the nights out late with no excuse. The two of you tell your stories from the beginning. You're charming and romantic. She's understanding and compassionate. She asks you about your life—not the mistakes, just the desires—all the things that wouldn't fit on a piece of cardboard. She smiles, nods. You look her in the eyes. Afterward, the two of you take a walk. And, of course, she stops to pet the dog, while you leave some change with the man on his way home to Carson City.
Greg Shemkovitz teaches writing and literature in North Carolina. His fiction has appeared here and there, and he’s the author of Lot Boy (sunnyoutside press).