The bulldog kept the woman alive, but the woman didn’t know that. She had other problems on her mind, such as where did she put her keys, and what was her car doing in Florida when she’d parked it in Tennessee?
He kept an eye on her swaying. It came more frequently these days, and when it did, the bulldog froze. If he froze, all the motion inside her head froze, and so what if it made her wince, trip. It was worth that risk. Why do you scare me like that? But after recovering herself she leaned over, palmed the top of his head and smiled. Now they were in their correct corresponding positions to each other and they’d get through one more day.
After loading the dishwasher, she headed to her recliner. First, she tucked in the blanket around her bare feet, then she sipped from her glass of Lipton iced tea mix, and once she settled in, the bulldog commenced his stunning leap and landed in her lap. It never took long before she fell asleep. Even her chosen TV program, with its applause and clacking wheel, made her fall asleep. He waited a second as her head fell back, her chin dropping little by little. Here the bulldog began his work, which was to calm her while she dreamt of lost things: her wallet, her brother, her flattop summerhouse where the lagoon met the marsh. It took great effort to purify her of trouble, to be her emotional liver so to speak, but he never questioned his calling. It gave him the illusion of aliveness even if it made him tremble, and he had to play dumb and weak in order to get the tenderness he craved.
What was the woman thinking when she looked at him as if he were an intruder? Her eyes went wild that day; her hands flew up. But there was a resoluteness in her expression that took away any inclination he had to bark. He didn’t go out to pee as he usually did but let go right there on the rug. And when he tried to leap on the woman’s lap, his aim fell short. When he tried once again, she brushed him off and away. Her old expression of curiosity and concern? It was gone. She might have been made of granite now, which wouldn’t have been so bad if granite hadn’t smiled.
When she could no longer tell the difference between the phone and her curling wand, the woman waited by the front door. She stood there a few minutes more before a stranger guided her by the elbow to a car painted a milky Caribbean green. How fresh she looked to the bulldog. Though walking was hard for her now, she stepped down the sidewalk as if for the very first time, dry eyes adjusting to the sunlight. She didn’t look back as she reached for the passenger door. She pulled with all the deliberateness of a very young child, and that did it: his face went white in an instant, as if someone had taken a match to it.
He never saw the woman again. The apartment grew dusty, he took to whatever was left in the cabinets: raisins, almonds, breadcrumbs, a half-evaporated bottle of vinegar. It might have been years, or it might have been days. And when he grew tired of his extended period of sainthood, he stole out through the open back door, into the trees and beyond, and lived a better life than anyone else would have ever predicted.
The Saint believed in tests once. He believed that if your dog died, and your best friend died, and your childhood house slid off a cliff, you'd get something back, not a prize exactly, but a time of calm within yourself. You'd feel that calm like a dream of a burnt tree, and in that dream the tree would assume a new shape, bent, a little off, and be healthier for having passed through flames.
The Saint suspected it didn't work like that. The Father didn’t believe in simple stories. The Saint probably didn't either, but we all need stories to hold onto.
The Coney Island Cyclone took on its first passengers in 1927. The Saint raised his arms as the car clicked up the track. The view of the ocean, blue, terrifying, and deep, swallowed up the sightline before him. He didn’t need to hold on to the bar. He pressed his feet against the bottom of the car, as the train rounded its first curve. It rocketed down the slope. How hard was he pressing his feet into the floor? Hard enough to feel it knock into his arches. He wasn’t even there for the rest of the ride. It didn’t matter that his neck whipped back. The veering of the car to one side—who cared? There was no thrill to be found here. He needed to get the fuck off this thing, and the Saint didn’t even care that he was thinking in language like that.
Incredibly, he walked off the ride with a relatively straight back. His feet didn’t hurt. He walked all the way to the taco stand, ordered two, one with sour cream, one without, and gave the former to the homeless fellow who hung out by the front gate. The sun was hot on the Saint’s face. Then the Saint dug in and gave thanks, wondering whether everything he’d first suspected about tests was true.
He was in the clearing. It had taken him one lifetime to get here.
He couldn’t walk on that foot two days later. Well, he could drag it across the street, but it hurt, as if a cold vibrating wire had been stretched all the way from his heel to his head. He felt it in the roots of his teeth. He told himself he wouldn’t be a boy about it. So what if he couldn’t walk for a few days? The people could do without him for a bit. The summer was long, and there was plenty of time to feed the men beneath the boardwalk.
Three months later, after X-rays, after doctors told him there was no medical reason for his complaints, he saw the Father walking toward him with a drop of red paint on the tip of his nose. It was the Father in the skin of an idiot. The Saint hated when the Father did things like that, but the Father was coming back from a party, and he couldn’t risk appearing as himself. Or so he said about all visitations to grocery stores, laundromats, churches.
What the hell happened to your foot?
The roller coaster. The bottom of the car banged into my arch.
Didn’t I tell you to stay out of Coney Island?
The Saint closed his eyes for a minute. He said these words to himself, in order not to bop the Father in the head: It is the Father in the skin of an idiot.
Let me take a better look at that.
The Father leaned over, pressed down on the Saint’s foot near his toes. He was careful about it. He lifted up the foot, inspected it. He pressed down with a massaging action but pressed so far that the cracking sound disturbed the bird in the tree nearby. The Father looked up at the Saint with a look of concern. He seemed to want it to hurt. Destruction: that was the way of him. When the Saint felt what had been done to him, and the lower half of his body went molten, he half-opened his mouth as if to say, this is love?
The Saint did not walk for two more years.
In that time, however, the Father showered the Saint with extraordinary gifts. Not one more thing went gone. The Saint spoke new languages, with very little effort. And when it came time to walk again, The Saint began to think he had the most beautiful walk of all, even if he hobbled and had to allot extra time to get to wherever he needed to go.
The woman wanted the house more than she wanted her health. No one could talk her out of that, especially as a water view was a lot less to ask for than working lungs. Her lungs had given out months ago, and all the things she'd lost since then—a father, a sister, a dog, three lovers, a teaching job—Well, those could fill the pages of a book.
The woman had every right to dream about the pelicans in their squadrons, every right to count on the sight of the town dock far below the trees. She didn't give much thought to the fifteen minutes it took to climb the stairway from the road. Every step was felt in her lungs, but when she got to the front door, she breathed better than she’d ever breathed before.
When the woman couldn't get past the tenth step one day, she stopped. She just stopped, not giving thought to the forecast or what it might feel like to sleep in soaked clothes. She wasn't going to cry, as she knew there would be plenty of reasons to cry much later. You had to be careful about what you spent your tears on these days or else you'd have no more left when you really had reason to cry.
The Life Coach found the woman the next morning. Somehow, she’d managed to crawl to the twentieth step despite the roughness in her chest. The woman wanted her house. She needed her view, the clean white planes of her walls, anything better than the soiled houses down below, airless and tight on their jungly lanes.
But the Life Coach had ideas. Illness, war, crime, hunger, addiction: these were the things her work defied, and the sight of the sick woman on the steps behind her house? No. It made her sick every time she thought of her climbing home, and after a few martinis one night, and maybe a toke or two of weed, the Life Coach came up with a plan. The two could switch houses. The woman could live down below, among the fishmongers and the police, while the Life Coach could live up high, far from the conveniences that made her day bearable.
The woman agreed to the proposal, but that didn't mean that she was happy about it. One morning she opened her eyes to an unfamiliar view outside her window. She didn't see the tops of the trees, but leaves dripping with sprinkler water. A stained stucco wall blocked her view of the house out back. She sat up for a minute. What were her books doing in piles on the floor? And that painting of the ocelot--it didn't belong by the window, but over the bed. The woman moved to the sofa. She sat there for some hours until the sky went dark with rain. She walked into the kitchen to cut up pineapple. She couldn't shake a certain thought from her head: as much as she hated her current arrangement, it shouldn't have been so easy to leave the house she’d loved behind. The house she’d left behind was leading another life without her: different furniture, looser clothes in the closets, brighter jewelry in the drawers. The Life Coach was up there, with her macramé, her crispy dried flowers and candles. The house did perfectly fine without her. The woman felt it in her lungs, and she didn't even need to look up out the window to see that this was so.
The woman lived many years in the house on the ground. She took up cigarettes. She painted her toenails black, wore sunglasses at all hours. She tattooed a glyph on her ankle with a ballpoint and a safety pin. She outlived her lungs to the wonder of her doctors, who wrote about her in the medical journals, while the Life Coach withered at the tops of the trees, beset by views of poverty, war, sickness, and addiction, until she walked down the steps one day and took a job behind the counter at the DMV.
Thomas looked for the happy ones. He didn't look for the ones who’d growl at him to find work, but those who sat on the bench beneath the trees, on whom good fortune shone. Inevitably they were smiling, their faces fixed on their phones as news of a raise came in, or a sext, sweet and dirty words that destroyed them, in the way we all want to be destroyed. I'm not homeless, he'd begin, and the stranger in question, destabilized, broken into, would lift his face and laugh as if to say, what makes you think homelessness bothers me? That's when Thomas went in for the kill. Bite me, he'd say, with gusto, watching his words shock that face awake. Don't you think this is embarrassing for me? You think this is fun? Maybe someday you'll have to ask for money. And the stranger's face would be a wonderland of confusion: shame and awe and pity and the ghost of joy from whatever gift he'd been given shrinking to nothing in his psychic rooms. Thomas would feel that face crack through him, into him. He’d feel alive again. He'd walk away cursing, no dollar in his pocket, but richer for having made that stranger think of him for days upon days.