He Had To Laugh At Something

Contributor: Chris Sharp

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“But you’ll have to leave in three days. Here, I have a legal notice for you. Three days or quit, it says. That’s all there is to mention. If you come up with the rent in the three days, you get another month. Then I want you out of my house in any case.”

His landlady left him before he could answer. She had taped the “three days or quit” notice on the wall, above his chair where his cat sat. It didn’t look that much like a legal notice. It looked more like something she bought at Office Depot. But his cat had total faith in him and paid no attention to the flimsy paper note hanging over her.

He stepped out of the house and took his 23-year-old good health with him. For a moment he wished for a car so he could escape somewhere. But he had sold the car three months ago to release some money for rent. He had wished also he hadn’t had a fight over a year ago with his mother, that they had at least spoken some sentences together – even just a “hi mom, lo son.”

Finally he wanted some other kind of family member around – like a father or someone. Outside his window was a man with a belt wrapped around him and the crown of a neighborhood ponderosa pine. The guy probably made a decent income. But this man was no father. He was no brother.

He thought for a few minutes about what options he had left, with no money and no place to move. His mother wouldn’t take him in, based on how she talked. There were no other car dealerships for him to work. The one dealership to hire him promised that a person with no talent, no training and no aptitude for any skill had a real chance to sell cars. But then they released him before he had a chance to sell even one.

Regardless of how hopeless everything looked, his cat continued to have confidence in him. She rubbed against him as he sat on his bed, thinking about everything. “Do you realize,” he said, “if I go homeless, so will you?”

Since he always at least had a roof over his head, he stepped out into the town to prospect for the new homeless culture. It would just take a day. One day you would just stop and sit down in the back of some store. That was how you started being called a bum by everyone until you atrophied into the elements. It would be a little like being removed from your comfortable bed and moving that night into the Dachau concentration camp.

He saw two other homeless men sitting in the back wall of a bank. At one time they were probably lively, maybe even happy kids in school. Now they looked like they were outdoors collecting all the soot in the neighborhood.

It was all too easy to lose heart in this kind of prospecting. After a few minutes he turned into the Surf City public library, where he had been spending several hours of each blank day.

To get through the day, he had been watching the earliest movies ever made on the library computers. The movies reminded him of a supernatural experience as everyone in these flickering, gray and white films had died so many decades ago. These were computers where ghosts lingered.

At first when he came to the Thomas Edison movie “What Happened on West Twenty-Third Street, New York City (1901),” he thought it was so pedestrian that he almost turned it off for something sounding more exciting. A few people in the film from the Gibson Girl era walked on a scarce West 23rd street ---- on a sidewalk that looked overly optimistic in its width – while some horse driven carriages dominated what looked like a clay street.

An air vent on the sidewalk near the camera was carefully avoided by all the pedestrians. But a young man in a straw hat and a young woman in a floor- length Gibson Girl gown came walking right at the air vent from far back in the street.

The air picked up the gown so it sprayed above the girl’s knees. She wore black stockings that caught the curved muscles moving out from her ankles and then segueing in toward her knees. Her legs erupted from among all the 1901 fabric like gold breaking out from dust around Sutter’s Mill.

The second time he saw the movie, he noticed something new. The young woman was laughing after she had wrapped her gown into control and stepped forward off the vent. The young man was laughing, too.

Walking up his stairs, he realized how comforting it was to walk into his own home. Just having a home, and something to eat, made the day good.

The next day at the library, in front of the same computer, he had a more personal experience in 1901 on New York City’s West 23rd Street. He found himself greeting under his breath some of the people walking the streets. When the Gibson Girl came back, he gave his greeting all of his breath.

His room had been abandoned by him and his cat when the landlady checked on him. His clothes had been left there. In a couple of weeks, the landlady threw the clothes into bags and put up a sign.

After six months, his mother concluded he had abandoned her, too.

But more than two years later, the logo of “What Happened on West Twenty-Third Street, New York City (1901)” had been left on a computer at the public library. Two high school girls waiting for computers thought they might as well play the movie while they waited. They laughed as they watched. They especially enjoyed the laughing man to the right of the Gibson Girl for walking alongside his two giggling friends with the cat in his arms.

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I wrote this story after I voluntarily went shelter-less on the streets in Los Angeles County to understand a little how LA’s 50,000 homeless population got there. I have other stories in Linguistic Erosion, Yesteryear Fiction and Weirdyear.
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