There is a jasmine vine on the corner of 9th Ave. and 5th St. It weaves across a fence around a 1938 house that holds the vault of a former bank robber. You will find its combination scratched into the garage wall. The bathroom vault was locked, but empty. This is not that story.
The house used to be plain white, nothing to stop for, with big sliding windows and a narrow curving yard. Inside is a woman who as a child lay on her driveway waiting, believing or mostly hoping that there was other life in the skies, and wishing that whatever form enclosed it would claim her and take her where she might be remembered. The jasmine flowers are also white and some sensitive type or some fool lover born all over again will pick them while walking by. When overgrown the vine’s tentacles thwart pedestrians and skateboarders on the sidewalk; through the windows you can see the slack arches bouncing in the breeze, or in response to being slapped away. The woman says it is time…that people will soon go missing.
In the bottom of my closet is a tee shirt with stains like raised blisters. This is the vine shirt, used strictly for tackling its winding, recalcitrant growth. The vine’s sticky milk seized the blade of the electric cutter, so I switched to a hand clipper. No amount of washing can unstain the shirt, but no stain can stop you from wearing one. When I’m out there grabbing and pulling, snipping and sweating, I see the Mexican guys in the house across the avenue. They fix cars in their front yard and play what sounds like Tejano music; and odd nights on their porch there’s a good time you can hear, if your windows are open. They look over at the sight of me cutting–or maybe really at me–and from time to time a couple younger ones will ride by on a single bike, circle near my car as I’m uprooting a monster weed and return grinning to their house. They’d grin some more if they knew what was lazing in my freezer: my garden day Margarita or a Tequila spiked Tequiza. No one cuts a jasmine vine just to cut it.
You know the smell of jasmine when you smell it. It is feeble to call it fragrant. It is feeble to call it sweet. The prattling finches who inhabit the vine, whose song is syrup seeping into the ears, solicit a man from his running car to pace forth and back before the vine and back and forth some more. I go out to him in that melting asphalt heat and his spectacles’ rims, they outshine his squint, and what he wants to know is if we are rearing finches. I say, dropping him from wherever their song has hoisted him, that they simply live in the vine. He says nothing, walks away, puts his body back into his car.
A guy we call The Professor lives on the 5th St. side. He is droll and awkward, sort of contorted and plenty retiring. Whenever I see him, he is with a book and coffee cup, in a dark shirt and khaki pants that fail to fit proportionately. I do not know what he does because, being an unpublished writer, it is my habit to never ask, “So…what do you do?” Instead, we smile-hey or wave or trade a half gesture for a facial whatever. The Professor shares the seniours’ apartment complex with among others, The Swinger– who is no seniour—who pilfers the parking space alongside our house despite having two of her own, only to shut her car door and start her key ring swinging, round and round, like she’s showing that she’s packing in some old Western. That said, she did rescue a ravaged squirrel that still lives with her, so I figured her soul might scrape by. That was until the afternoon she hollered out, “Peek up your sheet or I will call the police.” The dog and I both startled, I managed a “Sorry???” before being set straight: “The dog sheet. I will call the police.” A rare time I am delinquent about the baggie and…right…okay, she is going to call in a pile. And it all adds up later when I see her jeep’s Venezuela bumper sticker. I am from Trinidad and…Venezuela and Trinidad are oil and water, and in close proximity to each other. We both have oil and we both have water– water we fight over, as in: you’re fishing in my water so my Coast Guard is going to arrest your culo and throw it in jail. Now the Venezuelan jails have more Trini culos than the Trini jails have Venezuelan, but this is not a conversation The Swinger and I will ever have. I reckon this territorial jostling is a cosmic thing—nothing to do with either of us, really, all the way over here in over-Grouper-fishing Florida.
Late one Sunday morning a more than heavy woman is rocking like a dry anchor, this way, then that, out with a right step, out with a left, stop and heave…and heave; brown skinned in a bronze sequined mini dress, with bleached hair and a cane, and a kind of tolerance–but no complaint–in her smile. She, too, passes the vine. As do two men who have lived much life in the next corner house, who like so many can no longer afford their mortgage; both technically men, but only one living according to the diagrams our binary species is diminished to—as if anatomy could pass for identity. The first, a handyman who wrecked the woman’s double doors, who has a parrot at his ear that I would name Avocado; the other ailing and moving more slowly, thin in her shorts and blouse, but quick to call the cops for those sketchy types sketchy landlords rent to…Those cramped houses where the party does not end, or the types who visit vacant houses, or too often glance over their shoulders on their bicycles, or who board the bus in a rush that exhales,” I was never here.”
Still, it isn’t nearly as dangerous as it used to be. When the woman first moved in the panorama those wide windows presented did not go unheeded by the cops. They requested her house as a lookout to gauge the drug activity. In those days many a march passed up and down the streets; determined neighbours drawing strength from each other, and from whatever well of alcohol was in that night’s sippy cups, the woman in her leopard print coat, the crew of them stamping and chanting, “I don’t know but I’ve heard rumours, all drug dealers wear pink bloomers.”
The woman painted the white house in colours you could not name—unless you were an artist with a vast spread of tubes or an employee at the paint company or an inbred descendent of Aldous Huxley. Chimerical colours someone must have reverted to invent, for they could not have been contrived; or inscrutable shades found so nearby they cast one back into a stumble. A taffy-dew green; the coral of candy corns—not that my names capture the colours. But before the colours that cannot be truly named, and before she could wash the white house in them, the woman would drive there after work to sit on the doorstep and eat dinner from a bag or a box, resolute that this was her house. Call it a vigil that would continue until the shifting had shifted and the click clicked, and the held key turning quite unlike the clock, hinted, “I am here.”
Some people call pigeons the rats of the sky. Not I. I am the pigeon junkie who throws seeds to the garden floor, spirals them on the glass-top table, lets ’em drizzle in the frog feeder by the gate with the tricky hinge beneath the arbour. I see their shadows strutting across the vine, dark forms unlike themselves, because the vine is ropey instead of flat and the sunlight scatters in the weave. I look up and they are on the roof and I know they are waiting, some still, some bobbing, but each one with a pigeon’s iridescence– blue, pink, purple, green—tinges of makeup, of metal, of Moonstone; and their descent is soft slapping sound and skin-brushing breeze; and if I am lucky, in the midst of all that gray glitter the all-white one will surprise me, who is surely a lady; and her name is Bella.
Found in the vine: one man’s leather wallet. Turns out he is the pastry chef at the Italian market who was pick-pocketed downtown the night before. The woman returns his wallet and then returns with a tray of desserts. Karma…for us children of the microwave. The dog lives to crouch behind the vine and then launch like a barking rocket at this old biddy who is as crabby and who looks remarkably like the one on those greeting cards. She wears a visor and you can tell that she is angry at the sidewalk and the weeds and the walking stick she jabs accusingly with. Then the dog gets to pranking and out comes this screak, like something from the floorboards or one of Hitchcock’s doors, her head fighting its way up, a smoker exhaling, part phlegm, part flight: “Shhhhhhuuuuuuuuuutttt up.” As for the finches…I see them spraying out the vine, entrails of a piñata struck by a kid too big for his age. And underneath? The culprit’s vigorous hips, his hooking tail, and a proud pair that survives there for he is not yet heartworm free. But sometimes the finches flurry because the hawk is here hunting. Today I see it atop the light post tearing at a fish under its foot. I am grateful it isn’t one of my pigeons. You see I throw things at the hawk’s branch when it rests in our tree; but it merely looks at me with a composure, a self possession in its eyes and in their version, that reduces as it reasons, “Collect yourself. I am a hawk.”
The dog stares over the vine, past the paper box and down the avenue. You will see his head tracing U shapes in the window as he studies both sides of the road. But the dog will lose all equilibrium if the bearded man bound to be a ‘Nam Veteran comes whizzing down in his wheelchair, whose flag whip-wags at the wind. On the fourth of July and from a corner in the yard, we watch the fireworks vanish and climax in the distance above the water. We also watch Neigbourhood Man and his friends directly over the avenue. They are setting some off outside his house. Neighbourhood Man is always involved and always informed, and his way of standing suggests that he is donning The Emperor’s New Cape.
But it was in that same corner of the yard where the vine had never reached that I found myself pushed. This was after the woman had heard the dog and caught sight of a possum. Foolishly, I let her push me like some battle ram while she huddled behind professing, and professing, to be gathering stones so she could throw them. The plan was to grab the dog’s collar, and thank God for vodka, because the dog was almost touching the cornered possum–picture a dinosaur’s very open jaw–it was all very Jurassic, and I was not the one curious about dinosaurs as a child; just long rows of long teeth, I could see nothing else, and there is her hand still pushing, and hearing a few faint thuds (the stones?) I get my hand under the collar and we three hustle back to the house.
When I begin to live in the house the body count is four. The woman has an old Tuxedo cat that likes and despises me, is irritated and drawn by me. And while I concede it could be confusing to be formally attired for no real reason, the cat’s opinion vacillates like a laser toy would if a cat got hold of it. This dithering is also directed at the dog; hence, we both fall prey to his hook and nip, a technique he dispenses with the speed of the ninja…so inseparable from the grace. Well, one good morning comes around and Feel Good’s (my name for him) purring is ignored. Time runs and I will myself out of bed. I mean to let the light in the front door when something swooshes past my leg that is black but splashed by white. “The cat isn’t allowed in the yard. Don’t let the cat out that door.” Not to worry, the cat is hungry. He was hungry an hour ago; he’s even hungrier now. So I take the Lactaid carton out the fridge and start summoning the cat through the open door. Nothing. So I take the carton to the doorway and see Feel Good sunning beside the vine, posturing, requiring, like the cat that he is. I beckon some more, getting really animated with my carton shaking, waving the thing like a golden calf; but the cat only glances then arcs his neck, which with his head form a parenthesis, and I see that I am out of range…and out of luck.
It is deep evening when a figure blurs that bend from street to avenue and rouses me from black leather, away from the red-dropping wall. I curve with the sidewalk, which curves with the vine, to find a large dog, mostly white and wandering, then standing there while its nose considers the avenue. I am unsure that this is happening as I do what you do not do–place my hands and hold its hindquarters—and its eyes back-slant but it makes no sound as it turns from the avenue and takes a side street. I follow. It continues, wide-aware and wary of my presence; and some kids come bustling our way, looking to score something, to feel something; and I believe their facades and I believe their bodies, and on the left is a low house whose windows wish Happy Birthday Mom or Happy Mother’s Day with red paint; and the kids pass that house, or maybe they go in; and I wonder if they know who forced our paper box on its back, and if it was for what either held or either lacked; and the dog loses me. I lose the dog.
I am wearing the tee shirt with the welts. It is time. The woman does not need to say it. The milk spurts because I am cutting what is still living; and I cannot say where the vine starts or that it ends, or how many plants first took root when this was just a fence. If I try to pursue a dogged line it so mingles with the others that I forget where I started…which is to say, I forget myself. The woman calls through the window, “Don’t cut what’s flowering.” But the vine dares: however you cut me, you cut me here. And I defer, because when I say that is how I want you to touch me, I mean there. “And don’t scalp it like the last time.” (Something better be in the freezer.) And there goes old Gandhi, in skin that rolls along his chest heaping lightly, like a wave thinning out on the shore. He walks 9th Ave. with his shirt in his hand, on flat-soled shoes, too steady to hurry…sometimes with a bag from the grocery; today, with no bag at all.
Kathryn Martins studied writing at the University of Tampa and, after a ten-year absence, has returned to her homeland of Trinidad. She lives in a valley where she sits with and stares at the hills. Not much happens, but there are hummingbirds and the weather and the neighbour’s feral children. You can read more at http://kathrynmartins1.wordpress.com/