Richard Thinks About Everybody

Did you ever think about what it would be like if you were a thirty-seven-year-old man named Richard who lived in Queens and who spent most of his time with his aging terrier? Probably not. Nobody thinks about Richard. Richard thinks about you, though. Richard thinks about everybody.

He likes to sit at his window, the chair pulled right up to the wall so that his legs are caught right beneath the sill, with the cold threatening at his knees. He stares out of the window at the rows of houses and the street leading around a corner until he can’t see it any longer. The odd passerby bustles or ambles or teeters down the block, and Richard watches them go. He can’t stop thinking about people. He looks at the old woman walking her shopping cart down the sidewalk, one deliberate concrete square at a time. He knows that her name is Maria and she is going to pick up some eggplant at the store, because it was Joseph’s favorite meal and so she still makes it every year on his birthday and for one solid moment she can close her eyes and pretend he’s taking a bite too. She can almost hear him curse when the cheese burns his tongue, like it always does, because he is too eager and eats before it cools. The moment when she has to open her eyes and realize that she is alone in her house with too much food for one person crushes her every time. It’s almost worth it for the long minute when she can pretend, once a year.

Richard doesn’t just think about the people he sees on the street. He thinks about everyone. He thinks about the young woman, Anna, who kisses her lover before she gets on the train out of Chicago, and she doesn’t let herself cry for a long time because he doesn’t know she isn’t coming back. Richard thinks about the man who picks up fast food burgers for his kids on the way home and watches them eat, their tiny ferocity, and feels a dull ache that he knows must be love. Richard thinks about the sisters who live on opposite sides of the country and waver, every week during their scheduled catch-up phone call, between the bitter biting slips they let their tongues make for them, and the wistful sound that slides along their words when they talk about their father. Richard thinks about everyone, you see. He just likes to sit at the window, because then he can focus on the people in front of him instead of all the ones far away.

Sometimes there is a group of children on the street. They walk solemnly and hold hands with an adult, who always looks harried. More often, though, they are free of grown-ups and they waft down the street, wandering and scudding with the wind. Their voices wind up to Richard where he sits watching on the second floor, and he breathes in the relief of children. They are so much easier to imagine. The tall one, Richard watches him, his name is Daniel. His curly hair is always flopping in his eyes but he has trouble sitting still for long enough to let his mother trim it. He wants to be the leader of the group, but he knows that Frankie isn’t about to start being quiet, so his voice won’t get heard. He’s resigned to that. He’s still better than Frankie at soccer and hockey too, so when they play in the streets he’s king for a brief beautiful time.

Richard doesn’t really mind that he has to think about everyone. There are some stories he likes among all the mess that is everyone. It is a little calmer to stare out his window at the people scurrying about under the steel sky and listen to their lives, the sound of it muted past the glass. When he puts dinner in the microwave or makes his morning cup of coffee, he is overwhelmed.

There are too many people to think about. He thinks about the baby being born in Switzerland and the twin brothers, in some tropical country he’s never heard of, who race to the tops of trees. He thinks about Lila and Peter and José and Tim and Nicole, Rebecca and Greta and Roger, Max and Hope and Josh and Francisco and all the others whose names and faces and lives and voices build in his head until there’s just a cacophony of people scrambling for his attention and then he takes his dog for a walk and concentrates with all his might on the people he sees going past him. They’re late for work or finally going home, wrapped up in their day and sparing him barely a glance.

Insides

Doesn’t it ever amaze you the you have bones building the shape of your body and muscles layered onto those bound on with tendons and sinews and there is fat pillowed around those and veins laced and woven and then skin stretched and sagging over the whole damn thing and when you glance over and see that teetering miracle of unlikely fortune, all you see is a person? Someone you like or someone you want to get out of your way, really, but isn’t it just so strange that you can only see the very outside of all a person is? It amazes me. It certainly does. It is so strange that people stop being amazed by it. When there are little babies and they’re all wide-eyed at everything because the world is so brand-new beautiful, that’s what that is. They are amazed at the folded twisted wrapped-up gift of guts and grime that is a human being.

There was this little kid I used to see at the playground when I went sometimes after work. I would just sit on the swings with a cigarette. It’s okay because there usually wasn’t anybody there that late, not when it was getting so dark I couldn’t see the black of the smoke that swept into the air and sank into my skin. This kid though, she would show up like a ghost, walking down the sidewalk and appearing of a sudden like something come to haunt me. She would come and sit next to me on the swings at eight at night, just casual, sitting with a stranger like it was no big deal.

I don’t know what kind of parents this kid had, but it must have been something strange that they let her wander around and talk to strangers like that. They must’ve been holding onto her so loosely that they nearly let her drop and fall and hit the ground. It was lucky that all she met was me, because I never did a thing, I’m not like that, but there are some real creeps out there. I told her stories sometimes but it didn’t help, she just listened all solemnly to me telling her that the pervs and murderers might be just around the corner. She didn’t even care. I’m pretty sure there was something really screwed up with her family I guess, there had to have been.

Anyway she liked to come and sit next to me like some weird friend or something, this little girl who must have been nine years old or something like that, about half my height so that she had to hoist herself up when she wanted to sit on a swing by gripping the cold bumps of the chains and pulling until her entire little body was suspended in the air, and then she would thump into the swing.

I told her mostly other kinds of stories, I mean I didn’t just tell her the ones about the crazy people who wanted to hurt her. I didn’t want to scare her or anything. Mostly I told her about me. I don’t talk that much in general, there aren’t so many people who want to listen to me ramble. It was a nice thing to be able to tell this little kid stories of who I was and watch her face all still and calm, listening to me go on. She had some kind of gift for listening, that kid, I swear she could hold herself on that swing and be so statue-still until the only thing that moved were her eyelashes when she blinked. She just listened like nobody else ever did.

Sometimes I also asked her about her life, of course I didn’t just tell her stories about me and never want to know anything about her. She didn’t like to talk about herself though, so that’s where my best stories came from. Anyway I would ask her how her day was, how things were going, and when she wouldn’t tell me or didn’t say much I would make something up. I would tell her that the reason she was so quiet was probably because she was tired from spending the whole day climbing the very tallest mountain in the world and then climbing down again. When she was at the bottom she realized that she left her fuzzy hat at the top of the mountain and had to go all the way up again. Plus then after that she had to get on a plane and fly around the world to get back to our neighborhood so she could come sit on the playground with me and my cigarette and listen to me. She laughed at that. Sometimes I think that there is nothing in the world as delicious and strange as the laugh of a little kid like that. It just curls through a person until it nudges a smile out.

The one thing she sometimes said to me, without me asking her and bugging her to tell me things, was that she was thinking about how people were made. She would say that there was so much stuff inside a person, so much blood bottled up under skin and bones pushing their way around in there. We can only see the faintness of veins wandering the paths of our body, and there’s so much of it. From that little kid I learned to look for the depths of people. I know now to look at the tangles and woven strands of a person, even the ones I can’t see at all.

I don’t see her anymore because she stopped coming to the playground. I don’t know what happened, maybe she just got too old to hang around on the swings with a stranger. Maybe she moved away. I hope that’s what happened, anyway. I don’t know. Sometimes I still go to the playground and smoke a cigarette, hoping that I’ll blink the stinging smoke out of my eyes and turn my head and she’ll be there, appearing on the sidewalk in the dark like a ghost. I don’t think she will, though. You will probably never meet that little kid, so I’m telling you to look. Pay attention to people, because all you see is their outsides, the way they talk and move and the curl of their neck as they pull in their head because they don’t want to say what they mean. That tells you something but it doesn’t tell them enough. The next time you look at a person, try really hard to see all of it, the blood moving under the skin and the softness inside and the bones holding the whole person up because otherwise she’d fall and be nothing but a pile of pulpy muck on the ground and not a person at all.

Journeying

It was already six when Evan showed up at the house. They’d meant to leave at five, but Sarah’s phone needed charging and Evan’s keys were at the bottom of his laundry basket. He got inside, hugged her in a perfunctory kind of way, and sat at the kitchen table while she flitted from room to room, taking a bag from bedroom to kitchen and then hurrying it back in to add something else. It was seven by the time they left, throwing the bags in the trunk and scooping up an armful of snacks on their last swing out the door.

They played music for the first hour of the drive, humming or singing along. Some of the time they just sat in companionable quiet and listened to the voices buzzing from the car’s speakers. Sarah drove. She promised Evan that when she got tired they’d pull over and switch. He was glad, because he didn’t like driving much anyway. It was dark out, and their headlights hollowed a patch of night before them as they went. He was easily spooked and more easily anxious, so he watched comfortably as Sarah navigated the twists in the roads and the stoplights blinking to yellow as they approached. They were on the highway within half an hour, and from there the way was smooth and plain. There were no more turns and no more interesting buildings at the side of the road.

Highway at night

When the radio played the song they both loved, they threw their voices into it. Their singing filled the car, thin and wavering as it was in their imperfect voices. On the flat straight highway the notes bounced and rocked. They wailed the last soaring word and fell silent as the next song began to sprinkle pinging notes into place, and their song faded out. Sarah, without looking, turned down the volume and said, “I love that song.”

“Yeah,” said Evan. “I know. Me too.”

“The ones I love best, the songs I mean, they’re the ones that I feel like really say something. You know what I mean? Like the songs that have lyrics that make sense to me, or that I relate to. That sounds dumb, but you know, the words that I feel like I could’ve written. If I were any good at writing songs.”

“Exactly.” Evan smiled. “I know exactly what you mean. Things mean more to you when they have to do with some experience, or feeling or whatever, something that you’ve lived. Some kind of common perspective, kind of.”

“Right,” said Sarah. “That’s what makes something really meaningful, right? Something that people have in common. Right. But like, not that you have to have the same interest or situation in common. You can feel the same way about a situation, though.”

Evan said, “You know, I always wanted to write songs or something like that. It’s like poetry, I don’t know. Because you said, I mean what you’re saying is exactly what I always really loved about songs or movies or whatever. Movies, actually. I would love to write movies, the kind of movie that you watch and then it ends and you just feel understood. You ever watch a movie to make you feel like that?”

“Just last week, when we watched that one online, that gave me that feeling at the end. I totally know what you mean. When you see something, and you hear it saying something you already know. Except in a new way, maybe. Or like you have the same problem in the movie and in the movie they find the solution and watching it makes everything make a little more sense for a while.”

“Right!” Evan’s voice rose. “You so know what I’m saying. You should help me write a movie. We could do that, you know. Make something that helps people understand their lives a little better.” He settled back, quieted a bit. “I mean, okay, I know that sounds crazy. But we could, I think.”

Sarah smiled at the dark highway ahead, and signaled right. “Yeah. Okay, anyway, I’m going to go to that gas station at the next exit, I want to switch for a little. Or maybe I just need to stretch my legs.”

Evan nodded, though she couldn’t see. She pulled into the gas station, filled up the car, and leaned over to his window. She said, “Actually, you know, I think I’m fine. Just needed to get out of the car for a minute.”

She went around to the driver’s seat again and started up the car. She sat, staring out the windshield, for a long moment until Evan’s voice pulled her out of her reverie. He said, “Right then, let’s go. We still have a long while to go.”

Becoming God

Luke was a follower of his very own school of religious thought. It was somewhere in between Method acting and, perhaps, that vague soppy brand of spirituality that tells you to believe in something, anything, so hard you nearly strain your faith muscle. So rather like a lot of religion, actually. Luke was just the first to really put it into practice in this way, and he knew this. Knowing it, he reckoned himself just about a god. So he thought of the Judeo-Christian god that had scowled down on him from the stormy heavens all his life, and he imagined himself that god.

He closed his eyes, and he focused really hard, and he did this on the linoleum floor of his ratty apartment. Luke stayed there, too, for two days. He drank a bit of flat soda that was in the cup he’d cleverly reminded himself to put there, and he got very hungry but eventually stopped noticing. Then, all at once, it clicked and shifted into place and sunk into him and then he was God.

He could peer down on all the world and zoom in to see what people were doing and twist toward people’s thoughts and examine their ideas and somehow he could do all of this at once. It was fascinating and confusing and beautiful and bewildering and very very ugly at times. He swapped views from a woman reading poetry to a child holding its sick mother’s hand to a bird lazily circling the top of a mountain where two hikers were slowly running out of food. He looked at lovers fighting and children squabbling and criminals shooting at each other in desperate spurts. He saw babies crying and people kissing and the long sad sigh of a man who had almost thought that today he wouldn’t be alone again. He saw all of this and more, spinning from one head to another and reading one person’s “fuck that, I don’t like him anyway” and another’s “my God, though, what will I do?” He descended into the gritty details of people’s lives, and the mind-numbing boredom of sitting in the waiting room or standing uncomfortably in line or typing for another long afternoon in the confines of a cubicle. He sat in on courtrooms and classrooms and bedrooms. He watched people until he became them, winding himself into bones and sinews until he saw through their eyes. All of their eyes, every godforsaken orb among them.

Somewhere, distant, Luke was aware that he couldn’t feel his own body anymore. He was too entwined in everyone else’s, and his muscles weren’t aching with the strain of it. His soul was tired. His mind was sore. He concentrated again, pushed away the people and stamped on the pain. With a shove and a wrench he was free of the burden of the world and he opened his own eyes in his own familiar ratty apartment. He lay on the floor for a long while, blinking slowly, and then he got up.

Empath

In the future world, everything is quiet and clean. In the town where you used to live, there are empty roads that stretch back and forth, from one house to the next. People sometimes walk across them, busy steps and down-tilted eyes. They have things to do. Often they are going to visit Brian, because they need his advice. He’s an empath. Those are rare these days, and the town is lucky to have one.

Katie, for instance. She needs Brian’s advice. Her husband is upset and she wants to know why. It’s difficult for her when he shouts and sulks. Once she knows what to do, everything will be simpler. Life will settle into regularity once more.

Brian smiles to see her, and with a touch of hesitation she echoes the smile. It feels thick and foreign on her face, and she wonders if she has to smile every time. Happiness is usually something that curls inside her. There’s no reason to express it, not if she can just hold it to herself.

She tells Brian what’s been going on – “He said a lot of things in a very loud voice. I don’t like it, it hurts my ears. Then he walked really fast out of the room and slammed the door. I don’t understand why he’s so loud sometimes, I don’t like noise.”

Brian nods as she speaks, and explains. “He’s angry. If you tell him that in the future you won’t make the same mistake again, he’ll stop being loud.” It is hard for him, to put his vision of the world into terms that the people can understand. He could tell Katie that her husband is angry, that he feels betrayed. That if she says she’s sorry, he will forgive her. But if he told her that she wouldn’t understand and it wouldn’t be true. That husband might be betrayed and angry, but Katie can’t understand it to feel sorry. If she could her husband wouldn’t be able to imagine her remorse, and it would be a useless apology.

There are often little disputes like this, and people come hurrying to Brian so he can tell them how to fix things. It gives him something to do. The story of a bewildered fight unfolds before him again and again, the shrill ring of their voices and the burn of anger spread before him. It falls to him to see these things, to feel the anger.

The main reason for Brian to help is with the problems the town faces as a whole. There are empaths in the government, writing and rewriting the laws. Some of them judge the cases that can’t be decided locally, and some of them run the prison system. When the town has to deal with a crime, or maybe a big decision, they call on Brian.

He always finds it difficult to understand the problem so clearly and be helpless before it. It’s impossible to explain to them why things are happening, and he can’t judge their problems through his understanding. He can try to make the most people happy, which isn’t anything they normally think of. When people need to make a collective decision they often don’t even know where to start.

Brian likes his job. It’s satisfying, and fulfilling. It gives him a sense of having made lives better, of having solved the obstacles to happiness that trip everybody up. It makes him pleased with himself, and very sad. It’s hard to understand why his job is important and know that nobody else does. It’s painful to deal with people’s lives and know that they can’t imagine his own. It’s lonely to be the only person, in a small town of a few thousand people, who feels that much. To feel that deeply. To hurt, and know that nobody else can know possibly that.

Annoyance

“Hey, though, do you know about the new episode next week?” His voice was loud and heavy. Amid the delicate calm of their conversation, it felt like it was smashing down on them. Charlotte bit her lip so that she wouldn’t say anything. He kept talking, telling the others about whatever it was that was so important it had to come in the middle of her sentence.

Right in the center of her chest, the irritation was pressing hot and thick on her. She took a breath, trying to exhale the edge of anger. If he weren’t there for the fourth time when none of them wanted him there, if he would just even say something relevant to their conversation – but that wasn’t helping. He probably couldn’t figure out what they might have wanted them to say, nor realize that somebody else talking was a good enough reason for him to hold his tongue. She told herself that, and concentrated on the spot of pain that her teeth were pressing into her lip instead.

It didn’t work. Charlotte still felt the knot in her chest, so she told herself again that he didn’t mean it. More than that, he probably wasn’t aware at all of how he was affecting anybody else. With her eyes closed, she could imagine that he felt that. It was almost easier to feel it.

His voice was still braying across the table, so she imagined that it was coming from her lips. She saw the group, mostly clustered across from him with their gaze fallen to the crumpled napkins instead of his face. This was important right now, and it had to be said. Even something so small as that, but after all it was interesting and maybe the others would want to hear it. Maybe they would be glad that he’d said it. They could have a whole conversation and he could tell them what he thought. She said this to herself, and she saw his hands clenched under the table as if they were resting on her knees instead. The words were dropping from him, and it was a relief to be talking to somebody, as though his mouth had been filled and now it could move. She saw herself, across the table. She was sitting curled over her lap, her eyes closed and her lips fighting a frown. He just wanted to say something, that was all.

She drew in another breath and felt the knot in her chest loosen. He was still talking, and his voice still grated. Still, Charlotte straightened. Maybe she could see all of those things in his face as he talked. They might just be imagined. Even so, with a flare of effort she pushed a smile onto her face and told herself to be patient as he talked.

 

Street Musician

Leo looked and saw himself.

A woman was walking down the street, her handbag swinging and her phone buzzing. She was digging into that cavern of notes and Kleenex and old pens, trying to search out the vibration before it stopped. It might be work, and that was important. Worse, it might be her husband, poor man. If she didn’t answer him, he’d definitely be angry. The buzzing was harder to hear over the warbling of a trumpet, wailing up to high notes and swooping down again. It was pretty music, probably, but it was distracting. She had too many things to do today, and her phone was vibrating somewhere in her bag, and trying to find it she’d walk into somebody. The sidewalk was busy at lunch hour, but she stopped dead anyway. Let everybody else shove around her, she was scrabbling for her phone, for a call that might mean more work – either way, more work at the office or more work at home. She had too many things to do and somehow was trying to add to that list. She must be crazy. This was just ridiculous. She’d stopped right in front of the trumpet without noticing. The song was shiny and bright, and when she glanced over she saw the musician looking right at her. He was a young man, in shambling clothes and big brown eyes, and he looked at her imploringly. The last thing she could find now was spare change, couldn’t he see that? She shook her head once, brisk and irritated, and finally her fingers closed around the phone. She snatched it out of her bag and dove into the bustle of the sidewalk again, starting to say hello and to apologize. She was gone in the crowd in seconds, without a glance back.

A man bumped into that woman on her phone, and muttered a “sorry” that she didn’t even hear. He was just strolling, hands in his pockets, looking around him. The city was lively in the middle of the day, and he had another twenty minutes before he had to get back to work. People were interesting, he thought, especially when they didn’t know anyone was noticing. Most of the time they were right, and nobody did notice, but he liked to catch those moments. There was a young woman rushing past with her fingers moving rapid-fire over a touch screen. Her lips were moving as she stared and scurried. A woman going in the opposite direction was striding along with her eyes fixed, as if she were about to get somewhere. There was a strand of hair curling down from the bun coiled on her head. A man was leaning against the side of a building, playing a trumpet. There was a smudged sign at his feet – “please help” or something like that – and the trumpet was letting out actually quite a pretty sound. An old man was dragging himself along with his cane, and he stared up through draped skin at everyone who passed. Everyone was busy, it seemed. It was lucky, the man thought, that he had so much time just to walk around and notice.

A boy was pushing through the grown-ups, coats whipping and legs shuffling past him. His father was somewhere, not too far ahead of him, and he’d be really mad when he realized he was walking all alone. It had only been a second, seriously. He just had paused for a second to look at the guy playing a trumpet, before he realized it was some homeless person and Mom had said not to talk to them. He wasn’t going to talk, anyway. The tune was nice, was all. Maybe he recognized it. It was hard to tell. There are always those songs you just can’t remember, the ones you hear and you know you know it but it’s something, maybe, from that TV show. You can never figure it out and then it bugs you all day. His dad was wearing the blue coat, he thought. It was ahead, he could see it, and he squeezed through a couple people and saw him for sure. That was definitely him, and he wasn’t even walking anymore. He was standing, waiting, and he was going to be so mad.

Leo wondered, when he played, what people saw when they looked at him. He imagined, to pass the time. He wondered if anyone else tried to look at themselves and got distracted by looking instead at all the people in the way.