The thick blanket of fog drifted over the water, over the sand, over the street, and up Mike Lawrence’s hill under cover of darkness, then rested around his apartment and shrouded it in a blanket of cold haze. When Mike awoke, he slipped out of bed and tried not to wake his girlfriend, then slipped over to the window and pulled the curtain back ever so slightly to see what his City had in store for him.
“Crap,” he whispered.
Susan rolled over to face him – her head raised slightly off the pillow and eyes half open. “Foggy?”
“Yeah.” Mike sighed.
Susan’s head fell back into the pillow with a thud.
Showers, clothing, a small walk and coffee later, Mike and Susan parted ways and climbed onto different busses to head to different parts of the City. Susan made her way towards the Mission District and Mike towards downtown. The ritual was now commonplace among many San Francisco residents.
Mike stood in the aisle of the Muni bus and gripped the handrail as he thought about his life. He smiled as he thought of Susan and the sleepy conversations over coffee that they enjoyed every morning. Mike loved the consistency of the acts, but also enjoyed slipping in a little variety from time to time. Susan always seemed up for some variety. Mike snickered to himself and braced himself as the bus slowed to a stop.
Mike moved off the bus with the other morning regulars and pressed forward and off to the side of the sidewalk to avoid being run down. He glanced at his cell phone – the only way he had of telling time. His mouth slipped over to one side in a wincing gesture as he scanned the sidewalk and bushes. His hand slipped into his pocket and his fingers found the cardboard edge of the small package within it.
“Of course he’s not here today. Classic.” Mike grumbled softly, but not soft enough.
“Pardon me?” The man next to him looked agitated as if wondering what right Mike had to ask him anything.
“Sorry…no…nothing.” Mike smiled and the man looked away and down the street for his bus.
“Hey there, Mikey. What’s the plan of action for today?”
The smell hit Mike Lawrence’s nose before the words sank in. Pungent body odor with a touch of sour beer. Mike made note that some sort of deodorant might help this situation as well. Mike turned to face the jolly voice.
“Hey, Carl. Staying out of trouble?” Mike said with a grin.
“Oh sure…sure.” The older, “dwelling-challenged” man smiled back and looked like a slightly dirty and worn out version of Santa Claus. Mike had talked him into washing up at the rest rooms on Larkin and it seemed to pay off. Carl looked cleaner and that in turn made him seem a little less…out there. Homeless. Carl even said more people gave him money now that he looked more presentable.
Carl pursed his lips. “Good or bad day today?”
“Seems good?” Mike shrugged. “So far at least. How are you?”
“Oh dandy.” The man smiled and the sorry state of his teeth was revealed to Mike. Dentistry he couldn’t afford. This pet project would have to do without nice teeth. “Um…” Carl stopped and glanced to his right as if listening then nodded and sighed to the air and turned back to face Mike. “Right. You’re right.”
Mike was used to this by now. He waited patiently for the conversation to slip back over to him. He cleared his throat and took a moment to clear his nostrils of Carl’s scent as well.
“Mr. Lawrence, don’t take this the wrong way and all, but…you know…but, you able to afford all this stuff every mornin’?” Carl’s eyes narrowed slightly. “I mean, Stevie here has a point. You got a wife ta take care of and a life ta lead. You don’t need to take on keepin’ a hard case like me out of the ditch.” Carl laughed and Mike took another step back.
“I’m not married yet.” Mike winked.
“Matter of time.” Carl waved Mike’s statement way like a pesky insect. “Way you go on about her and all. Bah.” Carl giggled. “Love her like crazy. You take good care of her when we’re off and gone from here, you here?”
Mike nodded and giggled with the old man. His little pet project. The guy was probably a lot smarter than him, for sure. Mike wasn’t going to be able to keep this up if – he thought – when he and Susan got married and had a child. All his gifts would have to stop. Mike had a moment of sadness pass over him like the fog past over the City. Was it fair to provide things for this man, then rip it all away and just stop showing up?
Carl leaned to the side, listened to the air to his right, then nodded and straightened up again. “Stevie says you were lucky he was around ‘few months ago with that whole Susan bike thing, ya know.“
Mike snapped from his drifting thoughts. “Sorry? What was that?”
Carl looked to his right again, then back to Mike. “The other month or so. The BIKE accident.” Carl patted Mike’s arm, then jerked a thumb to his right. “Stevie said if he weren’t there she might have broken that flipper of hers. Lucky he was watchin’ out for her.”
Mike glanced reflexively to the right of Carl, then back. Sometimes, Carl almost had him believing someone was there. “Well, tell him thanks.” Mike smiled, and then thought this was the perfect time for the gift.
He reached into his pocket and slipped the blister packed item from his pocket. “Speaking of Stevie, I got you this thing so that you’re talking to him wouldn’t make people so…concerned. You know, when you walk by talking to Stevie.” He handed the pack to Carl and waited for the reaction.
“What’s this thing?” Carl opened the pack and a wire dangled from a small, ear bud headset.
“It’s one of those cell phone ear things. I figure you could wear it, then slip the cord into your pocket.” Mike smiled. “Brilliant, huh? Make it look like you’re talking on a cell phone, “ Mike slipped closer, “but, really you’re talking to Stevie. See?”
Carl eyed the device, then looked back to his right again. He nodded and mumbled, “That’s right – cell phone.” He shrugged and slipped the earpiece into place. His old fingers worked the small wire that kept the cord wound and tossed it to the sidewalk. He re-thought the act and reached down to pick it up again before slowly standing up again and sliding the cord into the pocket of his overcoat.
“How’s that?” Carl held his hands out.
Mike smiled wide and thought his plan was brilliant. “Cell phone. Yup.” He chuckled. “Works like a charm.” Mike nodded – quite pleased with himself. “Coffee and bagel morning or you want to try fruit again?”
Carl stared at Mike for a moment, then sighed. “Coffee I guess.” He looked somewhat sad and Mike hoped he didn’t offend him by trying to make him change and fit in.
“Mikey, why do you try and help me anyway?” Carl’s eyes met Mike’s.
“Well, you watch my bike when I ride down here, right? Gotta pay ya something for that service, right?” Mike hunched his shoulders.
“You don’t think Stevie exists, yet you buy me little do-dads to make it easier ‘ta talk to him? You think I’m a loon.” He chuckled dryly, then coughed a raspy angry cough of an old man who’s been outside far too long.
Mike looked at his shoes, then back to Carl. “Just trying to help, you know? I like you, Carl. That’s all.” Again, the corner of Mike’s mouth pulled to the side in a little smirky smile.
Carl thought he looked like a big kid with that silly smirk. A good kid.
“Well, thanks. You’re a good guy, Mikey. Good man.” He nodded for emphasis. “Tell ya what. I’ll let ya buy me a coffee and banana today, but after that – fair’s fair – I get the goods when I watch the bike. You take that cash and by that lady of yours somethin’ nice.” Carl smiled. “You hear me?”
Mike grinned, then whispered, “Fair enough, Carl. Sounds good. Come on – you’re gonna get me fired if I stay out here much longer. I have to get up there to work.” Mike jerked his thumb at the building before him, then turned and moved towards the coffee stand in front of it and ordered two large coffee’s and two bananas.
Carl kept his usual distance and waited patiently for Mike to return.
Steven Cole, dead a good four years now, stood to the right of his long time friend and walking partner Carl Morgan and watched Mike do his good deed with a smile plastered on his pale, translucent face. He patted Carl’s arm and Carl glanced over. “That’s a good kid there. Good soul.” Steve glimmered to the right of Carl. He always walked on Carl’s right when he was alive. He saw no reason to stop now.