Just give me a minute . . . I never forget a fantasy
by L. J. Holman
Mac lived in his own world, a world he had built from the detritus he found along the streets. His life was enclosed within a small bubble just encompassing his thin body and his belongings, carefully piled in the old shopping cart he pushed everywhere he went.
In his cart were things useful to his life: string, carefully rolled into a ball the size of a classroom globe, wire of various thicknesses and lengths, pieces of cloth in many colors, sizes and textures, bottles, cans, odd-sized pieces of cardboard, slices of wood, and any piece of metal he could find. He’d found a fairly big sheet of plastic over by the furniture warehouse—he figured it had covered a king-sized mattress—and used it to wrap his possessions, which he guarded with the zealous mindlessness of a wolf protecting his kill. Nowhere in his possessions, or in his mind, was the idea or representation of beauty, there were no extraneous esthetics, nothing which wasn’t to be used or which could someday become of practical use—-all else was just trash for him. He didn’t see beauty and had no time or energy for the contemplation of objects not directly connected to his survival.
He lived a mean, contingent life. He was not unhappy, for that would have required him to contemplate his situation, but he had no time for that; he only had time and thought for living until the next day. No, he was not unhappy, merely lonely. His bubble would occasionally drift into another’s, a brief blending of outer membranes, for an exchange of whiskey or insults, or—-if there had been some previous whiskey, some previous contretemps over a warm piece of sidewalk or a half-eaten sandwich in the dumpster—-an exchange of insults or blows, then a separation and the two drifted apart.
At night, if it was the right time of the year, there were plenty of good places to sleep—-safe places, warm places, places apart from the crazies and the killers. If it was the wrong time of the year, if the weather was vicious and possessive of men’s souls, then the fierce, primal need for warmth and survival became so acute that men sometimes killed for a protected nook out of the whirling snow.
He would sometimes push his cart down to the estuary, parking it against him as he sat on a bench to watch the loaded barges filled with the city’s trash go by. He didn’t mind the smell, not really noticing it, nor the hordes of birds swooping around him. He just sat, staring at nothing much. The sight of the barge oozing across the water soothed him somehow, calmed him a little, swept a few, easy minutes off the daily clock. Finally, he would rise as if in a trance, and steer his cart away, toward an unknown, unthought-of next stop.
His loneliness and isolation would have killed him, as it did many others, sooner rather than later, if it hadn’t been for Tulpa.
During the previous winter, he’d slipped on some ice, twisted his knee, and smashed his nose. He’d limped to his spot, but he was late getting there and it was already taken. He had been in no shape to fight for it, so he struggled down the freezing streets, dizzy, limping, leaning hard on the handle of his cart. He found a small chink in the brick wall of an alley, and he dug into his cart, finding a small, mostly oblong, piece of wood. He dropped the wood onto the pavement and pushed it into the tiny alcove with his foot, then grunted down onto it and tried as best he could to wedge himself further into the small opening, out of the razor-wind.
“I need some help,” he admitted. “An’ I got none.”
He wasn’t feeling sorry for himself, just stating the fact of his life. He pulled his thin coat tighter and crossed his arms and tried to make himself as small a target for the vicious, snowy wind as possible. He woke several times with his knee on fire, shivering, feeling himself sliding away from consciousness. He didn’t struggle against it. He’d done the best he could for himself. The last thing he remembered before he passed out was thinking he needed a real good friend. His thought was so fierce, it was very close to praying, something he hadn’t done since he was thirteen.
“The doorway behind the old bakery is empty,” a soft voice said. “Sad Mike got arrested an’ his place is empty. Get up.”
He came just to the edge of consciousness, not sure of what he hear. He felt a warm hand in his, pulling him. He growled against the pain in his knee, fighting to get erect, and in his blurry half-consciousness, he saw a woman’s face, her body hidden by a ragged coat, her hair piled on her head in a rough bun.
“Hurry,” she urged, “that doorway won’t stay empty long.”
He gripped his cart like a walker and together they went slowly through the freezing night. Not once did he consider he was hallucinating. Not once did he consider whether he was going crazy. He just followed her, and when they got to the doorway behind the abandoned bakery, out of the wind and snow, he huddled into it.
“There’s room fer two,” he told her.
She crawled in next to him, and he could smell her skin, her hair, which smelled, not of the streets, but of places he’d only seen in magazines.
“Here.” She offered him a cup and he took it with shaking hands.
“Holy Christ! It’s coffee! Hot coffee!”
He sucked at it greedily while she put her hand over his to steady it. The warmth and sweetness of the coffee spread like a warm blanket over him and he went to sleep with a small smile on his face.
After that, they were never apart. He knew no one could see Tulpa but him, but she was real, nevertheless. Some of the street people had ragged him about talking to an imaginary friend, told him he was getting old and senile; one of the nastier men told him that seeing ghosts and talking to no one was a sure sign that he must be getting ready to die and when he did, he would take Mac’s cart.
He ignored all of them. He only cared that he had someone to be with, someone warm and friendly, someone like Tulpa. He hugged her, held her hand, laughed with her, and never for a moment thought about what it all meant or where she came from. He came up with the name Tulpa in a dream, so he asked her if she was OK with it and she smiled and said it was up to him.
“OK, I guess it’ll be alright, since you ain’t real.”
“Oh, I’m real,” she said with a smile.
“But…I made you up,” he told her. “That’s why they can’t see you.”
“I made you up,” she laughed. “That’s why they can see you.”
Those close times were real enough for him.
Before Tulpa, he had talked to dirty, empty air. He had laughed to himself, and thought his own small thoughts with no one to share them with. Then month-by-month, she began to gather into a more substantial form, not the shadowy figure who had saved him from freezing to death, but a living and breathing person.
“I didn’t used to see you so good,” he said to her one night. “You was, like, a see-through person.”
“Yeah, I know. I felt kinda see-through, myself. But the more you called, the more you needed me and wanted me, the more I became.”
That night she was a heavy-set redhead, with warm clothes, heavy boots and thick gloves. He was very tired and needed some warmth.
“I hope bein’ a redhead is OK with you”, he said. “I always liked redheads since I first seen one in the second grade.”
She smoothed his hair and smiled. “Whatever—-it’s always me.”
They never had sex. He never tried to, never asked for it, and she never brought it up. It was as if sex was too real, too fleshly, and he was convinced that if they’d had sex, she would disappear and he would be alone again.
One really good day, he found a sack of burgers and fries in a dumpster—-enough food for them to eat twice that day, then a few hours later, he snagged an almost-full cup of coffee, still warm, from a park bench. They sat in the sun and smiled and ate. She was a buxom blonde that day, with long red nails, lots of make-up, fishnets, and stiletto heels. They kissed frequently and he was very happy.
He got very sick late in the winter and had a fever, followed by the chills. Tulpa was a wraith then, with stringy iron-gray hair hanging across her sallow, hollow face, her hands feeling like ice on his burning skin. He somehow managed to survive, keeping a hacking, flem-filled cough for several weeks thereafter, lying in a fetal position covered with several layers of newspapers, spitting up fluid, alone, without Tulpa—-who had disappeared somewhere, leaving him alone and scared.
In the spring, he began to regain his health, sitting up, finally getting to his feet to walk shakily along the street, trying to beg a few coins from passers-by. Tulpa came back that night, after he had sat for hours trying to remember what she looked like, shivering with dread that he’d never see her again. She was very thin, very pale, hardly saying anything to him, walking up to him while he sat by the estuary, sitting at the far end of the bench, her head down. They spent the next week in near silence, with her walking behind him, sleeping apart from him. He could hardly talk, and his mind was so foggy, he would forget to stop and rest, stumbling along, coughing, hanging desperately to his cart, until he was so tired he just sagged down where he was, exhausted. He would sleep wherever that happened, alone and unprotected.
As he gained his strength, as his mind got clearer and he began to pay attention to something else besides himself, Tulpa began to reform. She got bigger and tanner, her breasts filled out, she walked with him and conned more than a few businessmen out of enough folding money to keep them eating well.
“You want to go away from here, I can tell,” she said to him one day.
He nodded. “Yeah, the winter almost killed me. Don’t wanna go through another one . . . might not make it.”
“Florida, maybe,” she said. “Or maybe out to Cali.”
“I don’t give a shit where, ‘long as it’s warm, where there’s a beach, so I can get a tan like you got.”
Her hair was now so blonde, it was almost white, and her blue eyes glowed with life.
“Yeah,” she giggled, “I can feel that hot sun beatin’ down on my ass now.”
She ran a strong brown hand across his shoulders in a friendly massage, and then slapped him on the butt, laughing. He smiled, too. She leaned her face into his, kissing him warmly on the mouth. He could feel her fullness, her heat, and he was aroused—-but more than that: happy. As happy as he could imagine anyone could ever be.
They panhandled furiously for almost a month, then they collected his few belongings.
“What about the string?” he asked her.
“No,” she said firmly. “No string.”
“But . . . you can never tell when . . .”
She put her warm hand over his lips. “You’ll never need any more balls of string. I promise.”
“All you’ll need is the jacket and the gloves.”
So he left the string and the colored cloth and everything that wouldn’t fit into two bedrolls. Tulpa picked up both of them and easily slung them over her shoulder, much to his amazement.
“I got muscles now . . . you rest.”
He could hardly remember a time without Tulpa. Right before the old truck stopped, he remembered when she was just a dream, someone he made up. Now she was very real, so real others could see her, so real she could pick up things like coffee cups, so real, his life was filled with her.
They hitched all the way down the coast and he could see other men looking at her. He didn’t mind. She was now full and alive and beautiful, and he felt more like a father to her than a lover.
One very warm night, with a fire lighting their faces, she snuggled up close to him and kissed him.
“You’re leaving’,” he said softly.
She nodded. “No hard feelin’s . . . after all . . .”
He kissed her. “Naw . . . I’m proud of you. But I will miss the hell outta you.”
“But . . . will you stay real? Without me, I mean.”
She took his hand and put it under her top. “Feel how real I am,” she breathed into his mouth.
The next morning he woke up alone. He made some coffee, waiting for the heaviness, the sharp pain of loneliness, to begin its shredding of his mind and heart, but to his surprise and relief, all he could feel was the pleasant flow of good memories, of a good and warm friend who was around when he needed a friend, who helped and encouraged him. He finished the last of the coffee and packed up.
He made the beach in three days, walking and hitching. A college student in a SUV bought him a big dinner. An old black man in a pickup gave him half a pack of smokes. His last ride gave him five dollars and a handful of pamphlets about how to get to heaven.
He spent three dollars on a fine big breakfast, then lit a smoke and blew it out expansively as he strolled along in the warm sun, feeling the fresh ocean breeze on his face. He crossed from the walk to the sand and went down a little way before he found a spot he liked. He squatted in the sand, took off his shoes and ratty socks, digging his toes into the fine white grains. For the first time in almost a week of traveling, he thought of Tulpa. He missed her taste, her laugh, her warmth, but most of all he missed the communion, the connection with another being, someone who shared his days, the good and the evil ones, who smiled and cried along with him.
“Yeah,” he said aloud. “That’s what made the days good.”
He rolled his coat up and put it down behind him, then laid back and shifted his neck until he got comfortable. He sucked on his smoke and frowned slightly. Being alone again was going to be an adjustment, he knew. He was going to be miserable and he would feel, sometimes, like someone was punching him in the chest. He decided he didn’t want to go through that again. No, he needed—-desperately wanted—-a good friend, a soul mate like Tulpa had been.
Behind him, a dog barked. He rose up on one elbow, turned and saw a nondescript, raggedy-looking mutt sitting two feet away, wagging a dirty tail. The dog was looking intently at him. Waiting.
Sentimental drivel? Or a sympathetic view of the human condition? I lean toward the latter, but I’ve always been a sucker for a sob story. I like the way the tale’s told—one way or the other. How about you? Comments to our BBS, please.