Stranger Stories

Nadia told herself the stories of strangers. When she walked to the grocery store in the afternoons, she passed people going the other way, not meeting her eyes, people going about their business and thinking about their own lives. The man with sand-colored skin and dark eyes leaning against the wall watched her walk by, his fingers pressed together in front of him. She told herself that he was the sort of person to watch the world happening around him, to take it in, to be overwhelmed by it. He once went on a grade school field trip and sat in a canoe on a vast lake with his second-best friend. He put the oars inside the boat and leaned back, just as he is now against the wall, but instead of the crag of brick in his back there was a flat splintery board and water beneath it going down an endless way. He was, Nadia thought, just the sort to float and feel the way the waves against the sides of his boat tugged and shoved it back and forth but couldn’t touch him, could only lap at his feet in the puddle sloshing around inside the canoe while he closed his eyes against everything.

Nadia walked past the man who may once have sat in a canoe. In the grocery store she stepped around an old woman who was hobbling down the bread aisle behind her shopping cart. The woman’s mouth opened and clamped shut, but if she muttered something it made no sound that Nadia could hear. That, she thought, was probably something this woman was used to. She had a husband who lost his temper sometimes and told her off in a stern voice as if she were a child, and she learned that when he left the sink running or the clothes on the floor it was better to complain inside her head, to keep the words clogging her throat. The woman’s brother called once a week like a dutiful sibling to check up on her, but he was hard of hearing. He yelled into the telephone, “Speak up, I can’t hear you,” and she whispered back “I’m sorry.”

Nadia felt that it was a serious task to tell the stories of the people she saw, even though she only told them to herself. Of course they were false, only figments, half-waking dreams that didn’t mean very much. Who would ever correct her? The sand-colored man didn’t know that she thought he had once sat atop a lake, and he couldn’t tell her otherwise. Nadia liked to tell stories. She wasn’t going to see most of these strangers ever again, but she could mostly remember their faces to illustrate the stories she made up for them. The versions of them that she told to herself lived in her head, occupying places she invented for them. But then, where else could they live?

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In the Rain

It was raining the kind of rain that slicked the pavement so that the road was a glistening black mirror stretched out before her. The stoplights and the signs screamed out in brilliant reflections down the highway, and everything in the night was a bright mass of light against darkness. She drove on.

It wasn’t that much farther to get home. The problem was just that everybody was paralyzed in the downpour. They crawled along at ten miles per hour under the speed limit, except for the madmen who raced by in the left land and hurled water from their tires onto everyone’s windshield. It was a highway without a barrier between lanes, and Jill was terrified that she was going to keep driving without really being able to see where she was going until she was just casually barreling down the wrong side of the road in the rain.

There was a stoplight coming up, so she eased her foot down on the brake. Somewhere in the middle of slowing down she sped through a puddle. Her tires slipped and crunched on the road, and she was seized with the horrible feeling of half-floating while the car spun away from her. Then the puddle was past and her panic was over. The cars lined up at the stoplight and its flare against the black sky had a deadly kind of beauty.

Jill looked around, her eyes drinking in the slippery lovely sight of it all even though her brain was shrieking. There was a car to her left, and a man peering at her from behind its steering wheel. He was probably her age, but she could mostly see his dark eyes looking at her through the streaking rain on the windows. She smiled at him, her practiced hello-stranger smile, and then the light turned green. The man in his car turned left, and she went on straight. It wasn’t until she was past two more stoplights that she realized.

The man at whom she had smiled a polite smile, he was familiar. What was his name? Alex, maybe? Jill couldn’t remember where she knew him from, but the set of his jaw was familiar. She definitely recognized his scruff of hair. His eyes, though, were unmistakable. Through the blur of rain and time she remembered that stare.

God, it must have been high school when she’d last seen him. She squinted at the sprawling mess of rain and traffic in front of her, trying to remember. She couldn’t tell if he had recognized her as well. She couldn’t believe that she hadn’t recognized him at once. She’d thought she was so in love with him, in high school. Her teenaged self had sighed and gazed about him. He’d been her first love, her first sex dream, her first almost-boyfriend, her first almost-sex. He’d broken her heart, of course. The rain seemed to let up now, finally, but she was almost home. Her car pulled off the highway and she was on her street in minutes. Because of the rain, probably, there was no parking. She circled the block twice until she wedged herself between two others, and then covered her head with her jacket and ran inside.

Jill sat in the kitchen for a while after she got in, her forehead against the chill of the window and her eyes unfocused. Outside, the rain calmed to a dull drizzle, but everything still gleamed. Absentmindedly, she ate scrambled eggs. There was nothing else to do, so she went to bed. The sheets were cold, so she put socks on. The world outside seemed to quiet a bit once she was under the covers again, until it was a subdued buzz hovering outside. She thought about Alex as she fell asleep, how she’d smiled tightly at his dark eyes and would probably never see him again. Oh well, she thought, as the rain beat a steady patter on the roof and dripped down the fire escape. Too bad. He’d driven off in a different direction, and that was it.

When she woke up, she was confused. There was a bad taste in her mouth, a muddle in her head, and a knocking at the door. She shuffled out of bed, getting caught in her blanket, and stumbled all the way until she could pull the door open. It stuck and protested until she yanked, and then she looked up at Alex.

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.

The Stranger’s Tale (part two)

“In any case, nobody agrees on who that stranger may happen to be. If some say it is a fragment of a shattered past, some too think that the stranger is a messenger from the future. A ghost of what is not yet living rather than a ghost of the dead. A whole different kind of eerie. Some think that it’s nothing of the sort and rather a person born of dream and chaos. I think I’ve said that one already. The stranger appears, and tells her story, and disappears again. It’s as simple as that. A stranger in a wood, after all, can be almost anyone at all, and too a storyteller is both anyone at all and everyone at once.” The woman gave Ella a wink and a smile.

Chatyr-Dag Night Forest

“Of course, the story comes in many different shapes. In many -” the strange woman leaned toward Ella across the clearing, as though telling a secret, and her voice dropped to a tone that was soft and low, “the story is a truth, a terrible and beautiful truth that can never be untold, and is only given to those who seek it. It’s a warning, an omen, or a fact, I suppose. A telling of what is more true than any other, what’s true about people and the universe, what’s real in the dreams.” There was a moment of utter silence, and Ella’s heart burned and twisted in her. The black of the night seemed to advance, shadows curling like cats in their laps.

“Of course -” and now the woman’s voice resumed its conversational cadence, “that’s utter nonsense according to others. Then again, those others are often the ones who think that the story is something horrid, twisted and fearful.” Ella thought she heard voices around them. She looked from the corners of her eyes, trying to listen to the cries and groans that were almost too faint to hear. The strange woman continued talking as Ella’s ears strained for the voices in pain that swirled and spun in the darkness, but they faded away and she couldn’t hear anything. The voices may not have been there at all. Perhaps she was imagining it. She was simply getting spooked by the story, that was it.

The woman was saying, “and there are some people who think that the story is naught but a dream misremembered, nothing but a bad night’s sleep with only bits of anxiousness and terror grumbling in your stomach. It could be that, I suppose. No more than the hidden misgivings that appear and speak to you in the gloom. It could also be the wish of the past or the fleeting sight of the future. Nobody knows, do you see?”

The moonlight flickered on the strange woman’s face, and the two of them sat cloaked in quiet. Around them the forest was still. Nothing moved except a shiver crawling up Ella’s spine. When her shoulders trembled the stranger began to speak again. “My dear, it’s but a story, or rather bits of a story that don’t quite make sense. Nobody knows what it means, a story from a strange person in the night. It doesn’t have to mean anything if you don’t want it to. If you don’t think it does. If you get a chance, though, sweetheart – do try to tell it again. It’s a story that’s meant to be told, for all that it’s made of wishes and fancies, hollow ones at that. Anyway, Ella, think on it some. Dream about it a little. Don’t forget.”

Ella looked at the woman, sitting serenely and looking straight at her. She watched the shifting glimmer in the woman’s dark eyes, and wondered at herself for being so calm, for accepting this bizarre thing that was happening to her. She didn’t want to forget, and against the words ringing in her head and the woman sitting against a tree whose story was finished, she closed her eyes. She told herself the words she had just heard, the ragged patched-together story made of dreams and retellings. The words pirouetted and dipped in her head, dancing fast to the beat of her heart.

She told herself the story against the dark behind her eyes until the words blurred and ran in her mind. When she opened her eyes again, she was alone in the forest under a lightening sky. She hauled herself to her feet and looked for the sun, and the shadows that would point her way home.

The Stranger’s Tale (part one)

Everything began when Ella got lost in the woods. She’d been hiking, watching the sun stream in languorous ribbons down the trees and crumble through the leaves. She got distracted. It was easy to do when the light sliced through the forest the way it was doing. But then the shadows grew, and stretched. The light faded and the blue darkness pooled on the ground until the trees and the sky were steeped in it. The shadows spread and Ella was alone in the forest in the dark under a violet dimming sky.

Ella tried to figure out which way was north, or which way she’d come. The moon was no help at all. It just glimmered at her, indifferently, offering a sliver’s worth of silver light. She’d worn shorts and a sleeveless top, which was sensible in the sun. In the deepening dusk the mosquitoes swarmed and before too long she was covered in bites, slapping at her arms and brushing bugs from her neck. Finally Ella sat, her back to the prickly bark of a tree, and closed her eyes to wait for the sun.

A chirp sounded. She sighed. Crickets. Another chirp, and another rang out. Soon the air was clamoring with crickets, and probably the odd frog. The noise continued for a while, and then in a moment the forest was silent. Ella opened her eyes.

There was a woman there, sitting against a tree facing Ella. She was wearing long pants – Ella’s bug bites itched in envy – and a t-shirt. She smiled when Ella looked up at her, and said, “Hello there, sweet one. You seem a bit lost.”

Ella scrambled to her feet, bracing herself against the tree when her legs buckled. Her whole body seemed to be asleep. The strange woman rose too, somewhat more gracefully. “Yes,” said Ella, her voice loud against her own ears. “Could you tell me the way back to Angram Street? It’s just against the woods, it’s where I came from -”

The woman was shaking her head. “No, dear. I’m sorry, I simple don’t know the geography of this place. With me, though, you have nothing to fear, and I can tell you a story to pass the hours until day breaks. If you like, that is.”

Ella’s brow crinkled. What a strange suggestion. “Okay,” she said, knowing that she sounded as bewildered as she felt. “Sure, I’ll hear a story.”

“Oh, how wonderful!” the woman clapped her hands together. “But first, what is your name?”

“Ella.”

“Ah.” The woman let out a long sigh. “Ella. That was my name once.” Ella just looked at her, blank.

“Right then, on with the story. It’s a tale long and seldom told, a tale you can find once and never again. A tale that is spun lost in the wood by the light of the almost-moon. It’s about a story, in a manner of speaking. A tale within a tale. Though what is a story, of course? That is the question. A dream, a ghost, a wish? I wouldn’t know, of course. I only tell the tale. You know, when the tale is told by a good storyteller, all else ceases to exist? But I’m rambling now, and I will tell you.”

Ella was thoroughly perplexed at this point, but the strange woman continued.

“This is a story cobbled together from the half-remembered and nearly-known. It’s about a ghost more than a wish, I suppose, because it’s about itself. You see, when a person -” she nodded to Ella, “when a person such as yourself, my dear, finds herself wandering a strange place where the moon is barely gleaming on the trees, she may meet with a ghost. Or a dream, or whatever else it may be. Nobody quite knows who the stranger is, who the dream is. There have been arguments on this point, naturally. Some say that the dream is nothing more than that, the fancy woven of fear and moonlight. Some say that it is a shadow of the past. Those ones have a story all embroidered and blood-spattered. It’s the ghost of a woman who fled to freedom, who escaped a vengeful lover, who – oh, I don’t know. Who can say. Those ones think it’s the heroine of some story who’s run from it, only to find herself in another. It’s a very dramatic view of things.”

Ella coughed and the strange woman looked up, as though she’d forgotten her listener was there. Neither spoke for a minute, and then the woman went on with her tale.

Mornings

I see a girl on the bus every day, on my way to work. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying this to introduce some romantic fantasy. It’s not some wild pretense that I know her, know deep into her soul. That’s ridiculous, I don’t know anything about her beyond what I can see from a few seats away on the bus. What I can see is this: She sits, always, in the same seat. It’s the third seat back from the front, on the right side. She sits with her spine straight but her neck bent over, head looking down at whatever’s in her hands. It’s almost always some simple object, and she turns it and turns it in her hands, looking at it so intently. Her hands are small, and the nails are barely chewed – nibbled, really – and there’s a round scar on her right wrist, at the top bone where her watch sits. Her eyes are wide when she watches what she’s holding, and they are very round, and blue. They are not so round when she is not staring in fascination, I think, at a penknife or whatnot. They go up a bit on the outside tip, and the blue is grayish but in the brightness, when the bus passes someplace bright and the sun washes over her through the window, her eyes are light and clear. Her hair is brown, and in that light it has hints of red, but otherwise it’s dark and plain, and barely curls at the ends brushing her shoulders. She has a short straight nose and full lips, and her face is round like her eyes. She never wears anything fancy; just sweatshirts, jeans. Sneakers, usually. Sometimes she pulls her feet up onto the seat, her knees touching her chin or pushed to the side. Once in a while she brings a book and reads instead of playing with some trinket, and sometimes she forgets what’s in her hands to stare out the window, face reflecting the play of light as the city rushes by. She has a habit of pulling up one hand, absentmindedly, and rubbing her nose, pulling her index finger over the top of the tip of her nose as if there were a fly sitting on it that she was trying to banish. She does this at least once every time she’s on the bus, and I see her with her hand moving, scrunching up her face, eyes distant. I take the bus almost every day. I’ve memorized the way this girl looks, even though I don’t know her at all. I just see her nearly every day, from 8:13 to 8:29 every morning. I’m often tired, because I’ve had a long day before and not enough sleep, despite everything, and some mornings I have to drag myself to the bus stop even without coffee. I do, though, I wait at that bus stop every morning even when the cold drizzle is stinging my face. Not because I’m responsible and have to go to work – obviously, that too. But each morning, it is oddly and quietly comforting to see that girl, the stranger, rub her nose like she always does.

A Kid on the Plane

Tom liked airplanes. He liked the dry taste of the air and the faint ding as the lights went on or the seatbelt sign blinked away. Most of all he liked the television fixed in the seat back in front of him, and the channels waiting for him to scroll through them. “Friends” was on, and he smiled faintly when the laughter scrolled over the characters’ voices.

After several minutes, he tapped on the seat in front of him. “Mom,” he said, “can I use your iPad?” The tablet was duly handed back and he set about playing on it, clicking buttons until cartoon characters shifted and moved. There was a grown-up lady in the seat next to him, and he showed her his cartoon. She smiled, clearly not all that interested, so he showed her another one.

The flight all the way to New York was a long one. Tom watched six more episodes of “Friends” and then two of a sitcom he didn’t know. Then he played with the iPad again. The lady next to him asked if he’d ever read a book called – oh, he’d forgotten the title. He told her he didn’t read much.

When the plane landed and everyone got off, Tom shuffled down the aisle and out along with his mother. She hefted his backpack onto her shoulder and they walked toward the baggage claim. The lady who sat next to him was going in the other direction. She waved at him, but he didn’t see her.