by Camilla Jean Welsch
April 2001. I could only imagine his diploma came from the Internet. Yet, here he was, “practicing law” from a newspaper stand. “Free Legal Insight,” his sign read. And where the papers would have been, there were black-and-white, hand-drawn sketches lined up. Something like you’d see hanging on a wrought iron fence around a public park, where the artists stand idly by, with a hopeful eye out. Each sketch had a prominent caption you could see from my moderate stance of six feet off: “Only the best bet can settle your debt without negotiation,” read one. “Let the truth appeal to you, and then taste it,” read another. Or, the one that stuck in my mind, because it made me shiver: “In this case, the jury hangs by its nails.”
He was a young man. Soft, brown fleece on his head, pink lips that were also somewhat blue, and skin that told he wasn’t just this or that. As he waited for people to come to him, he was busy all the while with his charcoal in hand and stiff paper on a drawing board. He was perpetually wearing a blue button-down shirt, somewhat relaxed at the neck, with the sleeves rolled up, and a pair of worker’s overalls. If he was busy in the back, and you kind of stood up on your toes and gave a backwards glance as you passed, you could see his feet were bare and a pair of worn sneakers was tumbled in the back corner by the door, which he used for his commute to and from work, I supposed. Or what could be, too: he never went home at night, but just closed shop and turned the light back on in the morning. He’d sprung up in the stand near the downtown subway stairs a few weeks back. And I’d been noticing, on my way to the office on the downtown train, with a quick step as I passed by, his lamb-like head in that soft, yellow overhead light. None of my business, I thought each time. Don’t get involved. And yet, he was a curiosity. I wondered how long he’d last with no income and how that worked. Indeed, I never saw him taking in a cent from the few passersby who’d pause and point to a sketch. As quickly as he’d hand them one, he’d turn around, pause, turn back, and reach out with his well-formed, albeit charcoaled, forearms to refill the empty space with something new.
I suppose he came anticipating good weather, but it was still early April and cold. I wore my long, navy overcoat open over a button-down, a red scarf untied, and on my head a charcoal Kangol (I still felt winter) the morning I stopped into the deli for a coffee. Maybe I went in just to get another take on the curiosity, feeling discomfited that perhaps I alone observed him, and that my thoughts did not resonate with another soul. The man, Rishi, I was glad to see, was standing at the counter, unabashedly craning his neck, presumably to see the young fellow.
“Hi, Rishi,” I said. “One coffee with cream. No sugar.” Rishi’s vague unawareness shifted back to the present and he finally looked at me and smiled. He had heard.
“Good morning, Mr. Sam. Long time no see!
“Hey, Rishi, good to see you,” I said.
“One coffee with cream, coming up,” he said and made an OK sign with his hand.
I quickly cleared my throat as Rishi turned and reached his other hand for a paper cup.
“Gotten any free legal advice lately?” I asked tossing my head in the direction of the young man in the stand. I could see him perfectly through the glass door. The profile of his head looked like it was floating in the yellow glow and his lips looked something like the bud of a rose. The diploma up on the left corner wall was by some miracle perfectly level, I saw from here.
Rishi laughed aloud, but did not spill the coffee as he walked back to the counter and firmly placed a lid over the hot, creamed caffeine.
“You know, that guy, he doesn’t want to talk much.” He swayed slightly. “He just wants to give you one of his pictures.” He gestured now with an open palm, like he was dealing cards.
“No good, are they?” I said, finding myself taking on a British accent. “Thank you,” I said trying then to speak a corrected American, as I placed my two bucks on the counter. “No change.”
Rishi paused, closed his lips together in a tight smile and glanced over to the back corner of the shop where Mike had the back office door open, and then back to me again. He absently slid the money into one hand, with that card dealer flair. Mike dragged out a trash bag and began tying the flaps together.
“Actually, I have one,” Rishi said then with a grin, placed the dollars inside, and shut the register with a small slam. The smile was incredibly white.
“A picture? No kidding,” I said.
“No, not kidding at all. I have it in the back. You, come, take a look. See for yourself,” he said. And then he called, “Mike!” to his brother, and said something I did not understand.
Mike nodded, lifted the trash bag, and carrying it in his arms, began walking to the front of the store. Rishi opened the little door out to the groceries, stepped down to let himself out, and closed the door behind him again, motioning for me to follow, my coffee in hand. For the first time, I saw how small he was.
We passed stale looking dryer sheets, cans of Chef Boyardee, and small boxes of Chips A’Hoy! and Oreos, with their bright orange sticker prices. The coffee was hot, fresh, and good in that unremarkable-roast kind of way.
Rishi stopped at the door and said, “Just one minute,” holding me off with a slight gesture of stay, and disappeared momentarily into the back office. It, too, had that soft yellow lighting that surrounded the young curiosity, I noticed, and I made a mental note that this was not the kind of lighting you’d find in any professional office, like mine. And of course the whole place reeked of that purple Fabuloso. Didn’t everything these days?
“OK, Mr. Sam,” Rishi called. I presumed he called me this owing to my age and stature, but also to the tone of my skin and careful dress. Now I wondered how old he was anyway.
Rishi emerged with a large framed picture, holding the front of it to his chest, and you could see the slack wire and brown paper on the back.
“Pretty big one.” I said. “Framed?” The frame was truly red against Rishi’s bright neon sweatshirt, which advertised some bygone benefit race: 5K, 10K, dotted with corporate logos. Small potatoes, I thought.
“Came with the drawing,” he said. “It wasn’t on display. I think he actually got it out from the back just for me.” He held it out in front of himself and looked at it with some satisfaction, I detected.
“All right, let’s see,” I said, without wanting to betray my eagerness.
As it came around, my eyes went to the large print at the top:
“If the best defense is a good offense, what’s the worst defense?”
“…the worst defense?” I muttered and squinted my eyes up at the dingy back office wall, trying to guess on my own what it would be, before looking to the riddle’s answer. But my logic was stuck somehow. So, I went to look, thinking to myself, this ought to be good, fully intending to know for once and for all the meaning of my curiosity.
Rishi adjusted the heavy frame in his hands. The picture-glass caught the light shining overhead and pure whiteness momentarily blinded my eyes. Turning quickly away, I felt a sudden spinning of my head, nausea in my gut, and dread in my heart.
I sank now, and the sound became muffled as I heard Rishi cry out. Then I felt fast, firm hands coming to support my arms and back as things went dark. And all that remained in the suspension of blackness and unconsciousness was the lingering scent of purple Fabuloso.
When my eyes opened again they looked at a gray tiled ceiling. My head rested in Mike’s hands, I was flat on my back, and Rishi was touching my face with a cool, wet cloth, which made me startle now into alertness.
How long had I been out?
I sat up with a little difficulty owing to the constriction of my wool coat, and slipperiness of its silky lining. I looked around. The picture was facedown on the floor. I saw again the red frame and the brown paper backing and the slightly curved wire.
“Thanks for catching me,” I said, and looked back and forth between Mike and Rishi, unsure who’d actually done the quick catching, and pulled at my coat, still seated on the floor.
“Mr. Sam, you had a strong aversion to that picture,” said Rishi, and he smiled gently. “Do you feel all right? We actually just managed to grab you just in time. I could see you starting to go before you actually fell.”
I twisted my head left, then right, stretching my neck. “Yes, I think so. Thanks, again,” I said. “I suppose nothing’s broken.” I was still seated, and now my face flushed.
“Did you eat anything this morning?” Mike asked without accent. I’d never heard Mike speak before.
I thought a moment. “An apple,” I said. “Ran out of peanut butter,” I mumbled additionally. It occurred to me I’d woken pretty early at 4:20, which seemed now a long time ago.
“That’s it? I’ll get you a sandwich. Egg and cheese, OK?”
“Oh, no need to fuss,” I said. But Mike was already making his way to the counter.
“Thank you,” I said.
Rishi called something to him then, which I didn’t understand.
I retrieved my hat from where it now lay on the linoleum floor, pressed my heavy hand against the wall, and stood up, with little Rishi, somewhat comically (I thought) spotting me.
When I no longer staggered, Rishi said with a smile, “Do you still want to see the picture?” Then he added, in solemn apology, “I’m really sorry, Mr. Sam. I had no idea that would happen.”
“I’m not sure anymore,” I said, leaning back against the wall, and gave a wry smile to cover my true sentiment, of what was it? Fear. “And never mind,” I said trying to be jokey back. “I guess I’m just faint of heart.” I still felt like I might want to throw up.
“Well, I’ll tell you…” Rishi continued now, using his finger like he was going to tell me a lesson. “And then you won’t have to think of it anymore.”
“All right,” I said, and swallowed down the feeling.
“It was a tall man, looking down,” Rishi said, “with a long shadow before him, and his back to a light. A hanging light. A light bulb, in fact.”
“Is that all?” I said, and rolled my eyes and felt a long pause. “I’ll never get that guy, I guess,” I said, pointing with my thumb to the elusive young man in the stand.
What Rishi had told Mike was to give me a juice, too, and no charge, I guessed. I did not take the train, but walked to work that day, some 40 blocks south, good idea or not, while eating my roll and tasting the sweet acid over my tired throat. I didn’t trust myself on the subway stairs, nor did I wish for a stomach-jostling ride in a cab. Anyway, the air was good and my heart was light, though I thought I’d call my doctor as soon as I reached my post.
Crossing an avenue west, I walked with my shadow before me, and the light behind my head, pondering the symbolism of my position. A bad offense? I considered and stopped, and looked into the window of a dark button shop, just to see my own reflection.
First I saw all the buttons of varied colors spread out, hot pink, canary yellow, and icy blue, in the display atop a black cloth. And then I focused on the gray, translucent shape of myself. Are you offensive? I asked my face when I got close enough. The buttons now looked like they were decorating my coat, as if I were some kind of gingerbread man. I stepped back, looking at the reflection of my entirety. Not bad, I thought.
But what was that? I blinked, then looked down at my real, solid self, seeing suddenly the long stain of coffee on my shirtfront.
Yes, it had sunk in. I had forgotten all about that part.