Sometimes I went during my lunch break into a big nursery across the street, a glass building full of plants and wet earth and feeling of cool dead sex. During this hour the same woman always watered the dark beds with a hose. Once I talked with her, mostly about myself and about, stupidly, my problems. I asked her for her number. She said she had no phone, and I got the feeling she was purposefully hiding her left hand, maybe because she wore a wedding ring. She wanted me to come by and see her again sometime. But I left knowing I wouldn’t go back. She seemed much too grown-up for me.
And sometimes a dust storm would stand off in the desert, towering so high it was like another city—a terrifying new era approaching, blurring our dreams.
I was a whimpering dog inside, nothing more than that. I looked for work because people seemed to believe I should look for work, and when I found a job, I believed I was happy about it because these same people—counselors and Narcotics Anonymous members and such—seemed to think a job was a happy thing.
Maybe, when you hear the name “Beverly,” you think of Beverly Hills—people wandering the streets with their heads shot off by money.
As for me, I don’t remember ever knowing anybody named Beverly. But it’s a beautiful, a sonorous name. I worked in an O-shaped, turquoise blue hospital for the aged bearing it.
Not all the people living at Beverly Home were old and helpless. Some were young but paralyzed. Some weren’t past middle age but were already demented. Others were fine, except that they couldn’t be allowed out on the street with their impossible deformities. They made God look like a senseless maniac. One man had a congenital bone ailment that had turned him into a seven-foot-tall monster. His name was Robert. Each day Robert dressed himself in a fine suit, or a blazer-and-trousers combination. His hands were eighteen inches long. His head was like a fifty-pound Brazil nut with a face. You and I don’t know about these diseases until we get them, in which case we also will be put out of sight.
This was part-time work. I was responsible for the facility’s newsletter, just a few mimeographed pages issued twice a month. Also it was part of my job to touch people. The patients had nothing to do but stumble or wheel themselves through the wide halls in a herd. Traffic flowed in one direction only, those were the rules. I walked against the tide, according to my instructions, greeting everybody and grasping their hands or squeezing their shoulders, because they needed to be touched, and they didn’t get much of that. I always said hello to a gray-haired man in his early forties, vigorous and muscular, but completely senile. He’d take me by the shirt front and say things like, “There’s a price to be paid for dreaming.” I covered his fingers with my own. Nearby was a woman nearly falling out of her wheelchair and hollering, “Lord? Lord?” Her feet pointed left, her head looked to the right, and her arms twisted around her like ribbons around a maypole. I put my hands in her hair. Meanwhile around us ambled all these people whose eyes made me think of clouds and whose bodies made me think of pillows. And there were others out of whom all the meat appeared to have been sucked by the strange machines they kept in the closets around here—hygienic things. Most of these people were far enough gone that they couldn’t bathe themselves. They had to be given their baths by professionals using shiny hoses with sophisticated nozzles.
There was a guy with multiple sclerosis or something like that. A perpetual spasm forced him to perch sideways on his wheelchair and peer down along his nose at his knotted fingers. This condition had descended on him suddenly. He got no visitors. His wife was divorcing him. He was only thirty-three, I believe he said, but it was hard to guess what he told about himself because he really couldn’t talk anymore, beyond clamping his lips repeatedly around his protruding tongue while groaning.
No more pretending for him! He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other.
I always looked in on a man named Frank, amputated above both knees, who greeted me with a magisterial sadness and a nod at his empty pajama pants legs. All day long he watched television from his bed. It wasn’t his physical condition that kept him here, but his sadness.
The home lay in a cul-de-sac in east Phoenix, with a view into the desert surrounding the city. This was in the spring of that year, the season when some varieties of cactus produced tiny blossoms out of their thorns. To catch the bus home each day I walked through a vacant lot, and sometimes I’d run right up on one—one small orange flower that looked like it had fallen down here from Andromeda, surrounded by a part of the world cast mainly in eleven hundred shades of brown, under a sky whose blueness seemed to get lost in its own distances. Dizzy, enchanted—I’d have felt the same if I’d been walking along and run into an elf out here sitting in a little chair. The desert days were already burning, but nothing could stifle these flowers.
One day, too, when I’d passed through the lot and was walking along behind a row of townhouses on the way to the bus stop, I heard the sound of a woman singing in her shower. I thought of mermaids: the blurry music of falling water, the soft song from the wet chamber. The dusk was down, and the heat came off the hovering buildings. It was rush hour, but the desert sky has a way of absorbing the sounds of traffic and making them seem idle and small. Her voice was the clearest thing coming to my ears.
She sang with the unconsciousness, the obliviousness, of a castaway. She must not have understood that somebody might be able to hear her. It sounded like an Irish hymn.
I thought I might be tall enough to peek inside her window, and it didn’t look like anybody would catch me at it.
These townhouses went in for that desert landscaping—gravel and cactus instead of a lawn. I had to walk softly so as not to crunch—not that anybody would have heard my steps. But I didn’t want to hear them myself.
Under the window I was camouflaged by a trellis and a vine of morning glories. The traffic went by as always; nobody noticed me. It was one of those small, high bathroom windows. I had to stand on tiptoe and grip the windowsill to keep my chin above it. She’d already stepped from the shower, a woman as soft and young as her voice, but not a girl. Her physique was on the chunky side. She had light hair falling straight and wet almost to the small of her back. She faced away. Mist covered her mirror, and also the window, just a bit; otherwise she might have seen my eyes reflected there from behind her. I felt weightless. I had no trouble clinging to the windowsill. I knew that if I let go I wouldn’t have the gall to raise my face back up again—by then she might have turned toward the window, might give a yell.
She towelled off quickly, briskly, never touching her self in any indulgent or particularly sensual way. That was disappointing. But it was virginal and exciting, too. I had thoughts of breaking through the glass and raping her. But I would have been ashamed to have her see me. I thought I might be able to do something like that if I were wearing a mask.
My bus went by. Bus twenty-four, it didn’t even slow down. Just a glimpse, but I could see how tired everybody inside it must have been, simply by the way they held themselves, pitching to and fro. Many of them I vaguely recognized. Usually we all rode together back and forth, work and home, home and work, but not tonight.
It wasn’t all that dark yet. The cars, however, were fewer now; most of the commuters were already in their living rooms watching TV. But not her husband. He drove up while I was there by his bathroom window trying to peek at his wife. I had a feeling, a terrible touch against my neck, and ducked beside a cactus just before his car turned into the drive, at which point his eyes would have swept the wall where I was standing. The car turned into the driveway, out of sight around the building’s other side, and I heard the engine die and its last sounds echo out over the evening.
His wife had finished her bath. The door was just shutting behind her. There seemed to be nothing left in that bathroom then but the flatness of that door.
Now that she’d left the bathroom she was lost to me. I wouldn’t be able to peek at her because the other windows lay around the building’s corner and were visible, full on, from the street.
I got out of there and waited forty-five minutes for the next bus, the last one on the schedule. By then it was pretty well dark. On the bus I sat in the strange, artificial light with my notebook in my lap, working on my newsletter. “We’ve got a new crafts hour, too—” I wrote in a bumpy scrawl, “Mondays at 2:00 P.M. Our last project was making animals out of dough. Grace Wright made a dandy Snoopy dog and Clarence Lovell made a gun boat. Others made miniature ponds, turtles, frogs, lady bugs and more.” The first woman I actually dated during this era was somebody I met at a “Sober Dance,” a social event for recovering drunkards and dope addicts, people like me. She didn’t have such problems herself, but her husband had, and he’d run off somewhere long ago. Now she put in time here and there as a volunteer for charity, though she worked a fulltime job and was raising a little daughter. We started dating regularly, every Saturday night, and we slept together, too, at her apartment, though I never stayed all the way through to breakfast.
This woman was quite short, well under five feet, closer, in fact, to four and a half feet tall. Her arms weren’t proportional to her body, or at least not to her torso, although they matched her legs, which were also exceptionally abbreviated. Medically speaking, she was a dwarf. But that wasn’t the first thing you noticed about her. She had large, Mediterranean eyes, full of a certain amount of smoke and mystery and bad luck. She’d learned how to dress so you didn’t observe right away that she was a dwarf. When we made love, we were the same size, because her torso was ordinary. It was only her arms and legs that had come out too short. We made love on the floor in her TV room after she got her little daughter down for the night. Between our jobs and her routines with the little girl, we were kept to a kind of schedule. The same shows were always playing when we made love. They were stupid shows, Saturday-night shows. But I was afraid to make love to her without the conversations and laughter from that false universe playing in our ears, because I didn’t want to get to know her very well and didn’t want to be bridging any silences with our eyes.
Usually before that we’d have gone to dinner at one of the Mexican places—the posh ones, with the adobe walls and the velvet paintings that would have been cheap in anybody’s home—and we’d have filled each other in on the week’s happenings. I told her all about my job at Beverly Home. I was taking a new approach to life. I was trying to fit in at work. I wasn’t stealing. I was trying to see each task through to the end. That kind of thing. She, for her part, worked at an airline ticket counter and I suppose she stood on a box to accomplish her transactions. She had an understanding soul. I had no trouble presenting myself to her pretty much as I actually was, except when it came to one thing.