“Can I sit here?” He said sullenly.
“Of course,” I said, clearing away some of my papers that were slowly taking over the table.
My team and I talked more about our game plan for the afternoon; go to Home Depot, buy supplies (wood, primer, whatever Oops paint was available and that we liked), go to Office Depot to make copies, and go home.
“You should let it sit. For two minutes at least,” I gestured at his cup of generic cup ramen when he tried to peel back the lid. “What does your tattoo say?”
“My name. Paul.”
“It says Paul, my name.” He turned his forearm both ways to show me the four calligraphic letters that circled his arm, spaced like directions of a compass. I finally understood what he was trying to say when I could see the words.
“It’s really nice, Paul. I’m David.” I shook his hand, which was wrapped in a black cloth cut and sewn into a fingerless glove, bound at the wrist by a shiny toy handcuff bracelet. Or maybe they were real handcuffs.
“I need floss,” I commented idly to my team who wasn’t listening. Paul was listening to what I realized was Lady Gaga, coming weakly and static-y from his battery-powered radio.
“Teeth is real important,” he said. He touched his front teeth. “They knocked me once, tried to knock me against the floor, you know. But I turned my face away, like this,” He grabbed his head with his arms and turned to the side, “so they couldn’t hurt my teeth.” I nodded, affirming his action. “My brother though, he got kicked right here, right in the, the mouth, and it was hanging off, you know. He went to the dentist and they saved it, though.”
“Who was trying to hit you?” I tried to ask sensitively.
“The guards, you know. But even if you want to do anything to them, you know, they got all the power. So everyone else just stands by and doesn’t help. So it’s usually like, three, or four of them. I think I coulda taken two, but three, or four, it’s too many. You just can’t do anything.”
“So, it was in jail?”
“How long ago was this?”
“I just got out a few days ago. Weeks?”
“So, what are you doing now?”
“Just trying to get my life back together, you know. Trying to provide for my family.”
“Who’s in your family?”
“My brother, and his wife. You know, we just gotta treat each other right, cuz we’re all children of God, you know. And we gotta think about what kind of world we’re gonna hand down to our children, and their children. Because the sun, you know, is gonna get real big, and it’s gonna swallow up the Earth. The earth is closest to the sun, so we’re gonna go first. But we gotta find a way to get to, Pluto, and Mars, because they the farthest from the Sun, so we have more time.”
“But that’s not gonna happen for a long time, right? Like we’re not gonna be alive when that happens.” John Knox chimed in.
“Yeah, but it’s for our children. And their children.”
We had been quietly putting away our Tupperware lunch containers and folders, and were ready to put away the tables and leave.
“It was nice talking to you, Paul. I’ll see you around.”
“God bless you,” John Knox said.
“I stopped in the middle of the empty intersection, and turned to head down the street on my right when Erin caught up. “Let’s go down this way,” I said. “Do you know why I decided to go this way? The answer is, I have absolutely no reason.”
I was very, very lost in the San Antonio district of Oakland, in the hilly bits above Regeneration. Each intersection had numbered streets that meant little to me as they would randomly end or have a forced turn or barricade that I would ignore by walking our bikes over the curbs. The sun was quickly setting, or probably already gone, and I had gone higher and higher at every turn to try to catch a view of the sunset.
We went down two serene, tree-lined blocks. Erin said it reminded her of Oklahoma. We went straight, and slowed down to turn left following the barricade.
“Whoa, what the heck?” I slowed and stopped, and waddled over to a bush of interesting, big orange flowers. “I really want to take one,” I said to Erin. I started digging around my bag for my pocket knife.
“I wouldn’t,” Erin said. I took out my knife.
“Get away from my flowers!” A black man yelled. He had just left his apartment and started walking toward us with his cane. “I planted those flowers myself.”
“Oh, they’re very nice. I was just wondering what the name was,” I lied innocently.
“Their name is, is, is pink and yellow flowers.”
“What kind of name is that?” I laughed, putting my knife away.
“They’re Brazilian flowers,” The other black man offered.
“I planted those flowers. They’re my flowers. Don’t mess with my flowers,” The man with the cane said.
“I’m really sorry,” I said.
“I’m just kidding, son,” he chuckled at last, breaking his poker face. “Go ahead take a flower. They’re the city’s, so don’t let them catch you.”
“They’ll never come up here, don’t worry,” I said, and finally cut a flower.
“What are you taking? You ain’t gonna just take one, are you? Take more.”
“I can’t, I’m biking home. I only wanted one, anyway.”
“Give me your knife.” I didn’t argue. He cut two more and gave them to me. I tried to figure out how to hold them, all the while with a big smile on my face. “I love putting it in water, on my table. They’re real pretty when they open up. Here, give one to your better half or something.”
“Thank you, sir.”
-Yi David Yang