As he reaches the top of the hill, he notices that there's something tired in his hips and in the arches of his feet. He grasps the branch of a date palm for steadiness, pinches a blossom, rolls the silky petal between thumb and forefinger. It should not surprise him to find himself worn out. He is an old man. But it does surprise him, still. He remembers himself younger than anyone else can. He walks in character: for the rest of his life he will be playing himself at fifty. He's eighty-five now, but remembers his old self as fondly as he remembers his wife, Susan. He is three surgeries ago. He is before TV dinners of compartmentalized meatloaf, water-based potatoes, and suspicious beans.
A bird screams from somewhere in the canopy above his head. That's how to be in the world, he thinks, how he must remember to be: bright and loud.
It's illegal to feed the parrots and he always does. But today he holds out the back of his hand for a long time. The wet chunks of peach he's packed along just sit there, sticky on his skin. The parrots continue to squawk, but nobody's taking. At least he can always trudge his slow bones up the Coit Tower and have that view of the bay. But he's been making the hike less often this year. The littlest things dissuade him. The crowds of people are too thick and boisterous, or he worries he'll need to use the restroom, or he's already hungry again, anxious for his chicken soup and tuna sandwich.
The drizzle falling down has a little more meat to it than usual. He forgot the hideous mustard windbreaker his youngest daughter, Marie, bought him, and he feels the damp against his neck. Rather than tackling the slick stairs of the tower, he closes his eyes and tries to call up the view. It's been a few weeks now. He can see Treasure Island and Alcatraz out there in the middle of the water, opposite emblems, rocky outposts of solid ground surrounded by blue. The bridges—both the Golden Gate and the Bay—often seem to disintegrate into mist, only the nearest half of each visible. He loves the way all the narrow piers jut out from the waterfront like wooden fingers stretching for something. He wishes he could name what it is they want, to where they are reaching.
But from which side of the observation deck is Grace Cathedral visible? Is the radio tower on the right side of Mount Sutro or the left? He wishes he was still someone who would hike up the stairs just to check that fact. He tries to play that character now, hungry for knowledge, desperate for another look, but he doesn't have it in him.
Instead, he turns himself back towards his apartment at the bottom of the hill, on the other side of Chinatown. On the sidewalk ahead, a short man opened up an umbrella for a woman in a bright green jacket. The woman is taller than the man, and she has to duck down to stay under cover. The man presses her up against the gray stones of the base of the tower, pins her there with his hipbone. He can hear the woman giggle, see the man's tongue slip into her mouth. A chipmunk approaches the couple, but the man scuffs his shoe in the dirt, and it skitters away.
He smiles. It's nice, he thinks, that they do not care who sees this.
He starts down the hill, still hearing that woman's giggle, the way it seemed to hit two notes at once. He has slept with one woman in his lifetime, and she was superb. Together, he and Susan made three children, who have each gone out into the world and made three children of their own. This makes a total of at least twelve people who love him. This makes a total of at least twelve people who should come and see him a little more often than they're able to manage. They're people who are not cold or apathetic but just very busy. There had been that thirteenth person, of course, and he misses the way she used to fall asleep during toothbrushing, or fancy dinner, or lovemaking—right in the middle of absolutely everything—and then playfully try to convince him she'd never even nodded off.
Chinese men sit on their front steps, bare feet planted on straw doormats, chewing toothpicks. He passes handfuls of them each time he makes this trip, and he always nods. They show their age in the skin around their eyes, but they smile like high school boys who don't care what's coming. He used to power past them, barely slowing, happy to feel the air on his face as he descended the hill. He wants to sit down with them today, recline and wiggle his toes, and the desire frustrates him. He doesn't want to want what his body wants.
His route takes him past the front door of The Lusty Lady, where the greeter posted out on the sidewalk winks broadly and asks him to come in and say howdy to a few of the lustiest ones. He winks back and says no thanks; this, too, is part of his daily routine. He's not really as lonely as everyone thinks he is. Not that he doesn't still think about sex sometimes. He's usually handed a glossy flyer, and he won't deny that he holds it a moment, pauses and looks at the girls' profiles. He often reads each of their names, feels a small flicker at the shape of smooth legs, contemplates what's behind the yellow stars they've used to obscure the private places. But then he slips the flyers into the trashcan on the next corner.
He wouldn't get much out of looking at those girls in the flesh. They'd think they could smell desperation on him, and he'd resent it, all the showmanship and the implications. He's not really all that lonely, he thinks. Or, he is, but he finds it rude that everyone assumes it of him.
One block past The Lusty Lady, there's a place that's equal parts vegetable market and pet store. This is where he's always anxious to get to, partly why he doesn't slow to listen to the pitch of the strip club doorman. There, everybody shouts at all times. They argue the price of bok choy in a language he can't understand. He loves the sharp texture of the words. But mostly he loves the turtle tank. The turtles scrabble in shallow water, climb on top of each other and rest that way, in living stacks. He memorizes the pattern of markings on one of the shells and looks for this friend each time, until one day the turtle he knows is gone. He does sometimes think about trying to decipher the price or offering up a few random American bills. He's not sure how he'd get one home safely. Not sure where he'd put it, what he'd feed it. But it might be nice to wake in the mornings to the sound of something else as restless as he is, something moving about.
Marie had a pet turtle when she was a child, he remembers. Or was it Angela? He mixes the girls up. Not just in his memory, but in the present too, finds himself calling one and asking about the other's husband. The turtle had been Angela's, he's sure, and then not sure at all.
Today, as he approaches The Lusty Lady, something looks different. There is no hype man to beckon. Lunch break, he thinks. Everybody's gotta eat. Without the man there, the entrance to the Lady is empty and uninviting. He doesn't want to go in, but he has enjoyed being invited.
Across the street, the sound of meat being chunked by a cleaver. Whole ducks hang by time from the aluminum overhang, split in half and flattened to look like Chinese mandolins. The smell of garlic and star anise overpowers him, even from so far away. He knows these bits of life now from walking through this other world seven times a week for fifteen years. He'd done those things people do when someone leaves them, or dies without them, and they need to make themselves different: shaved off his beard with a straight razor, sold Susan's treadmill, started wearing hats, bought a studio apartment on the outskirts of this unfamiliar neighborhood.
At first, he'd hated having to pass through another country just to get to the parrots. Everything stunk, the sidewalks were cluttered with crates of Buddha statues. Gold and red plastered on all the lanterns, the awnings, the arches. Then again he'd hated everything about every place he went for a year or so.
Today he can see the sugary poultry drippings hitting the sidewalk along with the raindrops. After a few years on his own, he'd begun to need the noises of Chinatown, the clutter of so many lives. The buckets of fish eyes, the bonsai plants, the porcelain saké sets, the silks. Above him, the bulbs of the Lady's marquee flash in his peripheral vision, making him dizzy.
Nobody's there to tell him about his needs today, which must be what's always stopped him before. Nobody knows best, though most people think they do. He's not so old he can't imagine what the girls on the flyers are hiding, but would seeing behind those starbursts make an old man feel better or worse?
On days that it rains, he gets back home too soon. Most days.
The door of the Lady opens as a man in a black sweatsuit hurries in. While the door is cracked, the entryway is visible. A reception counter, like at a Holiday Inn. He will check in, he will peek around, he will check out. He needs to be far away, for a few moments, from the roasting.
Everything in Chinatown smells—smell leaks out of the ducks and the suckling pigs, it wafts heavenward as three generations of women swish about preparing dumplings for Dim Sum. Susan used to cook pot roast with special chili sauce for him. He does remember that. The exact way the spice made the top of his head sweat and his lips go numb for a moment. Susan would kiss him then, while he was fidgeting in discomfort, and he does not ever want to lose that.
After meals, he did the dishes by hand, listening to Gershwin. Sometimes he scrubbed each item while she drank a White Russian at the dinner table and painted her fingernails. Other times she would stop him only a few plates in, take the sponge away, and pull him by his shirttail toward the bedroom. This happened more often the older they got.
The boy at the counter doesn't look old enough to buy cigarettes. He's wearing a purple T-shirt with a deep neckline. It shows off a perfectly smooth and spray-tanned chest. The boy winks and points down the hall, suggests that he should make sure he has plenty of singles on him.
It wasn't always sex, exactly. It didn't need to be exact. Susan would take his pants off and unbutton the fly on his boxer shorts. She'd lift her arms and wait for him to free her of her shirt. He'd struggle with the double clasp on the front of her bra for a few moments before she would swat him aside and unhook it herself. He remembers the motion that always came next. The spilling out. The rushing forth. It was only that way if they kept things harnessed back and hidden other times. That's why she showered alone except on special occasions, chastised him when he tried to watch in the mirror as she put her pantyhose on.
The walls are black, lined with framed glamour shots of Lusty Ladies past and present. The photos are torn and marked up with ballpoint pen and wads of chewed gum.
All booths open onto the same square showroom. He feeds a dollar into the mechanism as if it were a Coke or candy bar machine, and now he's bought himself one minute; he feels he must make use of it. The girl closest to his particular window comes straight for him, attracted by the noise of the machinery unveiling her. She seems to sense he's new to this. He'd thought the glass might be a one-way mirror, but then he realizes she can see him. He is pressed all the way against the right corner, but she locks eyes, and he feels cornered.
She is beautiful only by default, because of her youth. Her beauty is an accident. There's nothing timeless about her. She relies entirely on being small and smooth. He could forget her face in an instant. She offers forth small talk while she paws at her crotch and makes sinuous movements. She asks how he's doing today. It would've been one thing if he'd been prepared to speak with her, but he's never been good on the spot.
On his first phone call to Susan, before they'd even gone a date, he'd written out bullet-pointed ideas for casual conversation on 3x5 index cards. For every awkward pause he had something scrawled on the card to save him—a mutual interest, a bit of town gossip, a reference to current events.
The woman turns away from him, gathering up her blond curls with one hand and then tossing them into the air like a handful of birdseed. The curls settle back onto her shoulders as she bends to the ground. She touches four splayed fingers of each hand to the tile floor, like a runner ready to start a race. She presses the cheeks of her ass to the pane in front of him, and the pressure spreads them so he can see everything, and this makes him frown. He tries to tell her to stop, but he can't find the words. He supposes he knew she'd be naked, but not like this. He'd like her to stand there naked like she'd just taken off her nightie and was coming to bed. Or naked on her way to the shower, a fresh towel trailing out behind her.
He moves one booth to the left.
A dollar a minute. Seems a fair enough price. Not so much more than a long-distance telephone call. This woman is older. She's the only brunette in the showroom. The only one wearing shoes, thick heels made of clear plastic. She's also the only one with pubic hair, a dark thatch that sets her off as a woman. He's surprised to see that her skin is looser on her frame, and she is scarred. A long purple track sits just above the top of that hairline. It's a straight line that curves ever so slightly upwards at each end, like someone trying not to smile.
She doesn't throw her body at him, just leans back against the pole and moves languidly from side to side like she's scratching her back against it. Her face is placid, but she also turns one corner of her mouth up when she looks at him, as if he amuses her. It seems that she's in there for her own reasons, and his arrival has only mildly piqued her interest. She's not there for him. He thinks of the ways he could make small talk and the things he'd like to know. Perhaps they're both curious about each other. He stares at that scar and knows there's at least one person in the world who loves her, or there was once. He meets her eyes and resolves to keep that contact for the whole minute. He tells her howdy.
She says howdy back, in a thick drawl that makes him imagine her into the future—an ancient Southern woman at a town picnic, arranging the bowls of salsa and potato salad.
Now the window is closing, because once the dollar is paid the time doesn't stop for anything. The woman races the metal gate with her face. She follows it down, her head cocked sideways so that he can read her lips through the narrowing gap. She uses that final second to smile at him like a wolf. And even though he'd be able to hear her through the thin glass if she voiced the words, she only mouths them.
I want to fuck you, she over-enunciates with her chapped and un-lipsticked lips, to make sure her meaning is clear.
I'll bet you say that to all the pretty young men, he thinks.
He is alone in a dim booth carpeted with the spent kleenexes of other old men, and of young men, all of whom had believed her. They'd scrambled for another dollar to keep the gate from closing. He understands the business model. She didn't announce what she wanted to do to him at the beginning of their minute. Instead, she let him in on that secret right at the end. Like the old pulp serial stories, or the chapter plays before the feature films, always ending on cliffhangers. Always promising something yet to come. He thinks of her on the other side of the metal.She must be perplexed, he thinks. He'd bet that trick almost always works, but not today. He leaves the booth with a bit of his money unspent.
On the way out, he notices that the flyers are fanned out on the reception counter. He picks one up and looks for the woman. She didn't make the cut.
The young men at his favorite stall are packing up, boxing the vegetables and tying tarps over empty tables. He considers for a moment whether he might buy a turtle, and whether it might speak to some worn away place inside him just to feed it something and keep it content. He considers that it might be that easy to comfort yourself. Surely it couldn't be that people are so simple, so easily tricked.
And yet they must be. He's smiling even though the turtles have already been packed away. He's feeling something, and wants to know what it is, wants to say what it is out loud. See Something, Say Something, the signs at the train station insist. Feel something, say something, he thinks, but it's not that easy. What he's feeling now has something to do with a peep show where someone lied right to his face, told him what Susan used to mean when she placed his hand between her heavy, sweaty breasts before they went to sleep.
He thinks about the way the woman peeked up at him as the metal prepared to separate them from each other forever. He considers what she said. What if she meant it? he thinks, as he fingers the corner of his last crumpled bill. What then?He thinks of the woman's breasts, some of the only breasts he's ever seen in person that did not belong to Susan. He tries to recall which breast Susan's mole was on.
The noise of a jet engine draws his attention and he looks up to see the puffs of white trailing behind the tips of its wings. A young boy in a baby blue kimono tosses kettle corn at his sister, who loses her grip on the strings of two orange balloons. To his right is a store window completely papered over with green fans. It all melts together sometimes, a rotten rainbow. He craves more, but he can't bear for any of it to replace Susan's chili sauce or the smell of her hand soap. He closes his eyes against this rush, scared to lose any more of what he's already seen. Marie was the one with the turtle, it had been a box turtle, he's almost positive, and her husband is a pilot.
The boys with the turtles have disappeared into the grey. That's fine; he'd never have bought one anyway. Most of the other proprietors are braving the steadily-increasing rain. A woman huddles under the awning of a bakery, folding fortunes that she'll later slip into cookies by hand. Tangerines, chrysanthemums wrapped in butcher paper, loose firecrackers sold by the handful. Sweet lotus seed paste mooncakes with ornamental characters etched into golden-brown crust. There's so much to look at in the world, and he will keep looking at absolutely all of it. The mole, the size of a pin head, was at the very top of Susan's left breast.
He strains to recall the shape of the stripper's nipples exactly, but the image just won't come.
Another one, he thinks. Another thing gone.