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Clarity

Today they close early, I have to keep that in mind. Here at the library, I can easily fall asleep. Everything is so peaceful, so quiet. Every now and then though, a bum gets in from the cold and throws a fit. The janitor kicks him out and there’s a lot of screaming. Then things go back to normal and you can sleep or read a book or just look at photographs. A beautiful book I often look at is by some Brazilian guy. Book’s called “Genesis.” Lots of pictures of birds, oceans, and mountains… And people, once in a while, but not many. Mostly nature. 

Recently, I met this chick who used to live in the city but was evicted three years ago. Tall, blond, unassuming, probably mid-thirties; her name’s Ingrid. Used to teach kindergarten. Has no family. Always reads Danielle Steele. She prefers early Danielle Steele, she says. Her and I often talk about kids these days, their Internet, their telephones. Sleeps in a tent in the park behind the building. Good girl. 

I check to see if they’ve brought in any new copies of “Clarity” by Sidney Stark. Fucking Sidney Stark! Hate the man! Hate his style, primarily! He should be banned or immobilized. I bet nobody prints him in Canada. Fun fact: Jack London used to read in here as a kid. Grew up in the Bay Area, mostly Oakland. When Oakland was a different place. There’s a new copy of “Clarity.” One too many. I take it and hide it in the inside pocket after I rip off and toss the cover. This way, the alarm won’t go off. The book is about dysfunctional families in the suburbs, in a nutshell. That storyline just won’t do, I’m not putting up with that shit! Computer says two other copies floating around, luckily not checked out yet. One at Lake Merritt and the other at Rockridge. They’re both walkable distances, but I have to leave early and not mess around in order to get home before lockdown. 

By the time I exit the library, it’s warmer outside and the fog is lifting. The sun starts to come out and there’s a lot of activity by the lake. There’s biking and jogging and children selling treats. Some people do tai chi, others just meditate. Life is happening all around. I choose a respectable spot and try to sell the other two volumes I picked up along with “Clarity.” One is a Laotian cookbook and the other a photographic travelogue of the American Southwest. I sell the cookbook fast, in the first ten minutes, for five bucks. 

“You like Laotian?” the woman asks as she hands me the money.

“Not my favorite,” I say, “but their soups are pretty good.”

“There’s a wonderful place in Temescal,” she says, ”The Lowland Elephant. You should check it out!”

I promise to do that.

About a half hour later, a biker purchases the photo album. I get another ten dollars. The Lake Merritt branch features Sidney Stark’s bestseller in the New Books section. I give the cover the same treatment and walk away unafraid. There’s a white pavilion by the top of the lake. I sit for a while and think of Jack London. I remember the prospector’s passage through the tundra from ”Love of Life” in “The Klondike Tales” and the first encounter between Avis and Ernest Everhard in “The Iron Heel,” when she doubts him. Then I walk over and chuck the two copies of “Clarity” in the water. As I watch them sink, calm overtakes me. 

The trip to Rockridge is gruesome. It is getting dark. As I go up and down the hills, the growing pain in my gut reminds me I’ve had nothing to eat since the piece of toast this morning. I stop at a Wendy’s and get a spicy chicken sandwich and a chocolate frosty. Good stuff, has yet to let me down. By five thirty I’m at the Rockridge branch and searching hard for the book because it is misplaced. Someone had put it in the kids section. I identify it, stuff it in my pocket and start walking back toward the lake. Many people out on the streets, mostly young, apparently happy. Hard to know, they all look and speak the same. As I get back to the lake and search for the best depository location, I look across the bay and see the fog wall over the city. The top of Sutro Tower is the only thing that sticks out, like a lonely candle. The rest is many fading lights and I can’t tell if they’re the bridge or the city. I drop “Clarity” in the water and remember that today they close early. I have to head back.

It’s Saturday. By eight everything shuts down at our storage facility. As I cross the lobby and pass the front desk, I greet the receptionist. She’s a young girl with a friendly demeanor who always seems to be studying for a college course. She nods and attempts a polite smile. As if she weren’t familiar with me. As if I’m a new tenant and customer service matters. But I think she’s clued in and all she wants is to get home. Someone has rented the space across from me, a father and son who cram a lot of fishing equipment in there. Then you’ve got the silent guy farther down the hall. He’s here every night, taking large garbage bags packed with stuff in and out. Intriguing person. Don’t think he’s a fellow resident just yet. 

I pretend to rearrange my belongings: two wooden chairs, the books, the table lamp. I wait for everyone to clear out. They leave. The lights go out and the alarm signals that the building is now in lockdown. I turn on the flashlight. A four by five cell for $150 a month. No windows and no oxygen surplus either, to be honest. Warmer nights find us gasping for air and it’s not at all uncommon to pass out. But I always bounce back somehow. Either way, I’d rather say good-bye in here than leave the unit and become easy prey in the hallways. 

Now I’m thirsty and have to walk down to the lobby and get some water from the bathroom. I make my way there avoiding all cameras. All this I know by heart. The bathroom door is locked, someone’s in there. Hoping it’s a friend, someone I know. Luckily it’s Dusty, who lives on the same floor. He moved in this summer, used to rent a studio in Hayward. 

Dusty grabs my shoulders and shakes me.

“Think he’s here tonight?”

“Doubt it,” I say, “weather’s too nice.”

“Take me in, man.”

“Tonight’s tough Dusty, gotta get some sleep, I’m drained.”

It kills me but I can’t get him used to that. We climb the stairs back together. He goes to his space, I go to mine. We say good-night. Several hours pass. Then the screaming begins. First someone I can’t recognize, on the floor below us. Then it’s Dusty. He calls my name. A few units away, I can hear Dusty being shoved around. The intruder smashes his body against the walls and into the door. The screaming, now muffled, goes on. I cover my ears, put on my headphones and try to listen to Chick Corea. I can still hear them.

“You sonofabitch, stand down or I’ll kill you, you fucking sonofabitch!” the stranger yells. The fight goes on for another ten minutes. Then everything is silent. 

A man rumored to have a gun visits us from time to time. He beats people up and steals from every storage space he can get in. He knows exactly where to go. Maybe we see him during the day, maybe he works here. Maybe he is just like us. 

Found a way to weld two pretty big metal rings to the inside of my door. Put a padlock on them every night, shoplifted from Ace Hardware. This is how I survive. Toward dawn, a familiar voice calls softly through the door, from the hallway. I open and see Dusty crawling on the floor, one of his arms covered in blood. I take him in. He’s crying. I wrap his hand in a t-shirt and let him stretch on the mattress. I sit on one of the wooden chairs nearby. Then I pick up the guitar and just hold it. 

After a while, he opens his eyes and I can see their shine clearly in the darkness:

“Can you play any Neil Young songs?”

“Not now, Dusty… maybe later,” I say.

The lockdown ends at seven. Dusty is asleep and I leave him there. I walk down to the lobby and prepare to face another morning. On the way out, some young guy stops me on the stairs. A student, by the looks of things.

“Excuse me,” he says, “want a free bookshelf? It’s still in great shape.”

“If I take it, I got nowhere left to sleep,” I say. 

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