by HANNAH R. GREEN
have a story to tell you.
One that’s lurked on the wall of my mind like a dank but familiar water stain. Another stagnant patch of vague discolored recollections. But since I’ve seen the bag lady again, I’ve started to remember. I’ve begun to peel back those loose layers of wallpaper and chip away at the spackling to find memories tucked away in the dark.
Things were tough back in college. I was a loner with little money and fewer friends, nothing special on the spectrum of art students. I was always feeling sorry for myself, worrying about grades and money and originality. Seemed like I always had a headache – migraines, hangovers, clusters, you name it, I’d have it. I wanted to be an artist back then. I thought I’d churn out works of genius and spend my evenings fingering wine glasses in galleries. Didn’t seem to matter what kind of art, I thought I could do it all. Painting, sculpting, photography. I knew I could do it, but nothing felt right. I couldn’t find a medium that I could really sink my teeth into.
I’d pace across campus night and day, looking for something or someone to inspire me. I looked in the basement level of the library. I broke into the clock tower and looked down on campus. I went to lectures in classes I wasn’t registered for, I spied through windows in offices, dorms and locker rooms. I couldn’t find it.
I was in the library when I first met her, trying to study without motivation. The term was nearly over and exams loomed like a guillotine blade. My mind kept drifting away from my textbooks and towards thoughts of what my next project could be. I’d been rolling a ball of sticky tack between my fingers, relishing and hating its malleability.
As I pondered the feasibility of building a sculpture from the pliable substance, a burst of moist breath yanked me out of my daydream as it rolled down the back of my neck. I turned to see a ragged, corrupt face, inches from my own. I flinched and my fright turned to distaste as I recognized her.
I don’t remember the first time I saw her, she just started being there. One of those homeless people who float in the background like an extra on a film set, drifting in and out of the general consciousness of humanity as it goes about its business. When she planted herself on the chair next to mine, she looked like she did every other day. Clothes worn and tattered, smelling like sun baked trash and sweat stained gym shorts. Sympathy tried to struggle through the surface of my aversion but it’s always easier to sympathize from a distance.
“Hello.” Her voice scraped out of a throat dusted with disuse and disease. I ignored her. Bag ladies: there today, gone tomorrow, so why bother?
“I said hello, boy.”
“Hi.” I glanced at her and then went back to my book. I was in no mood to talk. She pulled out the chair next to mine and sat down. She looked at me, wringing her hands and humming. She wore scraps of fingerless gloves, a meaningless pattern of luminous wool, with colors that were fashionable with up and coming artists and eccentric aunts.
“You look busy.”
I wanted her to go away. Blood pulsed and swirled in my head, the all too familiar symptom of another headache coming on. I kept thinking about salt, craving Ritz crackers, knowing that within the next two hours I’d have a raging migraine. The bag lady hopped her chair closer to mine, an absurdly childish gesture.
It occurred to me then that I’d never really thought about her. She was just another drop in the cauldron of diversity, noteworthy for her unappealing looks. Her usual assortment of plastic sacks tied to a shopping cart should’ve been left outside, but I could hear the rustling sacks beneath her coat as she shuffled in her seat. She stuck her face up close to mine and I jerked back. I could feel the dirt and germs crawling across the two inches between us and mounting an attack on my clean clothes.
“I said you look busy.”
“I am. What d’you want?”
“Oh, nothing.” She rolled the syllables off her tongue.
I tried to ignore her again. I didn’t want to talk to this wretch. She wasn’t right in the head and mine hurt. Who would choose to live that way? A drunk. A drug addict. It would be better if someone put her out of her misery.
“Don’t try to ignore me. I won’t go away.” Her voice was suddenly stern and reprimanding, like my mother’s.
“Okay then, what do you want?”
“I want to give you a present.” She produced a crumpled sack from the depths of her overcoat and pulled out a small box. It was the white kind you get from a baker.
“Oh.” I replied, thinking for a moment that she wanted to feed me. “Ah, no I’m good, thanks.”
“I’m not offering it, I’m giving it. Take it.”
I actually wanted to take the box, but I tried to let my better judgment prevail, so I ignored her. I didn’t have time for a crazy woman’s rambling.
“Giving it back.” She grinned at me like a gaunt Cheshire cat. “To you. You forgot to take it with you last night.”
I looked at her, trying to read from her expression what she thought she knew.
“You can’t ignore me, Harvey.”
“Yes. I can.” I got up to leave, feeling unnerved, wondering how she knew my name.
“I said you can’t ignore me.” It came out like a harsh wind, all the words linked together, almost breathless. “And you can’t ignore this…” She flicked the box with her fingers and it skittered towards me.
“What’s that supposed to be?” I was starting to feel angry now, cautious, unnerved.
“Something you forgot.”
“What d’you want lady?”
She smiled a crooked, decaying smile but said nothing.
“Seriously, what do you want, huh?”
“I told you what I want, Harvey, I want to give you your present.”
“I don’t want anything from you. You don’t have anything of mine.”
“Oh, but I think you’ll want this…” She nudged the box again. A deliberate push that made it hiss on the polished wood. “I know where you were last night.”
“I saw what you did.”
“What’d I do?”
“I know, Harvey. I know.” My skin prickled. I took a look at that woman's eyes and a saw a glimmer of life in them that I did not like at all. “But I’m here to help.”
I took the box.
I looked inside.
“Dropped it, didn’t you?” Her cackles, muted, knotted my stomach and clogged my throat. I closed the lid and she was gone.
After a few minutes, I left the library because, even though something wasn’t right, something wasn’t all that wrong either.
I didn't understand how or why that happened and I didn't see that decrepit old bag lady again. Until now. Seven years later and she’s back. It’s the same as before: one day my mind registers seeing her, but then I realize that I’ve been seeing her for a while now. My headaches make me lose track of time, and it’s hard to keep up with all the faces I see every day.
But I’m glad to see her.
I’m waiting now. Waiting for that stench to plug my nose. Waiting for the rustle of plastic like whispers of the dead. I know that I dropped something while I was out last night, but I can’t think what it was. It all seems to be here, but maybe I missed something. It’s so hard to think when your head hurts that way. Last night is just another soiled blot on the darkening wall of my mind.
Maybe it was meant to be. Did I tell you I’m an artist now? It’s because of her that I’ve really grown, but it’s more of a hobby than a career, with all my works stored in the basement.
I think I’ll dedicate something to her, a new piece.
There’s a pretty young woman over there that would work well in my collection. When I see the bag lady again, I think I might find the same thing in the box that I saw five years ago. The same something that she’d wanted to return.
A woman’s hand.
A thing that I left behind.
Hannah R. Green is a writer from South Africa currently working towards her MA at Eastern Illinois University. She writes fiction and poetry and thinks that anything weird, macabre, or subversive is worth writing about.
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