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Palo Alto

Story by Paul Lisicky July 26, 2010

art by Genine Lentine

Maybe it was the smell of cough drop on the air. Or the trees: eucalyptus, birch, palm, redwood, side by side in one space. It might have been the thinking inside the houses I passed, minds at work over desks, fingers tapping keys, tapping foreheads. Maybe it was the nearness of the sea. Or the mountain between the highway and the sea, levels inside landscape, inside moments: wholeness the lie we always suspected it was, and we could finally get down to this business of motion, of making ourselves up again. I ran faster than I’d ever run before. My feet flew over this pavement and that. I went all the way past the stable. And when I took that shortcut past the schoolyard—the children inside with their tom toms—I thought of what they’d be when they were running past these windows.

Fifty minutes passed. Or years? A live oak sagged through a kitchen ceiling. A parachute hung out to dry, in pieces. And when I asked the men in the sportcoats where the town was, I knew they knew as much as I did. Wasn’t that where they dump the ashes? one said. The toys, said his friend. The ashes and the toys, said the first. Their shoes hovered just above the ground, and when the wind picked up, they knocked into each other, gently, like paper lanterns with hooks on top.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the ghosts. Oh, they weren’t ghosts, not exactly, but two girls, twelve or so, who leapt out behind the parked car. “Hello!” they cried out in glee. “Hello! Hello!” They of course didn’t know I’d been at this for a while. No wallet, no phone, no driver’s license, no G.P.S. Not even a permanent house to return to, just one more set of rooms, chairs so durable and featureless you’d never known they’d been holding you up. I nodded and walked on. But the little girls? You stopped to play tag when you were picked on, even if you couldn’t walk, even if the fear in you smelled of mushrooms. “Hello,” they said again, this time with an ache in it. “Hello! Hello! Hello!” The trees ahead of me shook their crowns. They started coming nearer, smiles as bright as toxins. Was that happiness seeping through my shoes—or just another trap? Into the garden I went. A man knelt beside a pond, forearm thrust all the way to the bottom, hand working through the gold and the slop as if life itself depended on it. A jar, a pot, a bottle, another pot. So many lost things, tangled with grasses, rinsed clean by the action of the clear, cold air. “Could I help?” I said, but they were already upon us. I turned around to greet them: I am not your enemy. And when he pulled me up from the muck, the light in me gushed forth.

About the Author

Paul Lisicky is the author of Lawnboy and Famous Builder (both published by Graywolf Press). He has published his short prose work in recent issues of Story Quarterly, Subtropics, Prairie Schooner, Five Points, Gulf Coast, Brevity, and Seattle Review. He teaches in the MFA Programs at Rutgers-Newark and Fairfield University.

About the Artist

Genine Lentine is the author of “Mr. Worthington’s Beautiful Experiments on Splashes” just out from Diagram/New Michigan Press. Ongoing projects include Listening Booth, Spacewalks and The Heinous Task Table. She is the Artist-in-Residence at the San Francisco Zen Center for 2009-10.

This story appeared in Issue Twenty-Eight of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Twenty-Eight
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