She was late to work that morning, as usual. It was around 9 o’clock, peak traffic time on 880 in laid-back California, though things had changed with the dot-com boom gone bust, and more and more Californians laid flat. Mission Peak was capped with snow. The undulating brown hills of summers past were unabashedly green. The mustard fields rippled with yellow blooms.
She did not see any of this, however. She did not appreciate the nip in the air, nor the chill that jarred her awake when she stepped out of her condominium, half asleep and half awake. Her fingers drummed impatiently, though she was careful to avoid the horn. Just a few days before, while hiding out in the technician’s break room, she had read an article in the San Jose Mercuryabout a guy who had simply lost it in rush hour traffic and rammed repeatedly into the car in front of him and behind him, till restrained by the policemen who arrived on the scene. His neighbors had been too frightened to step out and stop him, though perhaps they would have secretly liked to join him on his rampage. Better be late than risk road rage, she thought as she peered suspiciously into her rear-view mirror. The guy behind her had a Mercedes Benz with dealer plates, so she was okay, probably.
She looked at the queue of shiny cars in front of her and calculated. “One signal for the first four to get through, then there’s another three, and I might be able to squeeze through on the last few seconds of that green. Oh crap! I should’ve skipped breakfast, that would have saved me a few minutes.” She did on most days, but the thought of facing that day unfortified by toast seemed unbearable. So she had rooted around for the loaf of Sunbeam, and slathered it with orange-yellow Moroccan apricot jam. She was a sucker for weird foods in ordinary places, as if she could somehow offset the drudgery of shopping at Albertson’s by buying food from exotic locales. She had savored two golden, crunchy slices of toast, and here she was late for work yet again, doing stupid sums about traffic lights in her head, paying for it.
The traffic at the 680-880 interchange was always moody, sometimes a free flow of cars sped onto the freeway, and sometimes a sluggish slow stream of them trickled through. Sometimes she watched the people in the car in front of her or beside her. Each person, adrift, drowning out the world with their own mix of songs, NPR, and silence.
She cleared the stoplight, in just two green signals, thankfully. Only to face a long queue of cars on the on-ramp.
“I give up,” she sighed. “I give up!”
She was already in considerable trouble. Her project was not going well. Her manager had taken to sending his print jobs to the printer near her cube, four cubes down and two across from the one in the cube neighboring his. It gave him a chance to surreptitiously glance at her computer screen whenever he passed by. The very first round of layoffs had finished just the week before, and there were rumors of more to come. The communal fridge was no longer well-stocked with extravagances and the communal stock was underwater. Open blinds had been replaced with drawn shades, to shield the buildings from the miasma of bad feeling floating around the Valley, or to save on heating bills.
As she inched forward, she craned to the left to look around the bend, but she couldn’t see the verge just yet.
He was not always there. She wondered where he went on the days he wasn’t on the verge, sitting in his wheelchair, flanked by the Coldwell-Banker picket signs and advertisements for Mama Miranda’s Housekeeping Services. He was unlike any other panhandler she had ever seen. He had an overgrown, peppery black and white beard and unruly, intensely brown curls bursting out of a faded, orange bandanna. Two or three bulging, tattered grocery bags hung off one handle of the wheelchair, and his crutches were slotted onto the other handle. He was always dressed in dusty camouflage trousers, one side of which were too loose, and tight-fitting, brightly colored T-shirts with figures of Asian Gods on them.
He didn’t even have a sign. He wore white-and-brown striped legwarmers on his arms to keep warm and mismatched gloves, one a somber maroon and the other a biker’s black glove, with a reflective white stripe running along the sides. Though the thing that stood out most about him was the quality of his gaze, direct and unapologetic. Undiluted by his being on the verge in a wheelchair. In the middle of morning traffic that was getting places, at a standstill on the on ramp.
His face was calm. His eyes inscrutable. She always wondered what he was thinking about. What was his story and how did he come to be there on the median, in between legions of irate commuters? Each time the impulse came to her to roll down her windows and hand him a fiver or a ten, she stifled it. Somehow it didn’t feel right. Maybe she should dust off her old comforter, the rusty red one that had seen her through her college years, for surely he must get cold, sitting there in the morning.
What did he think about, staring at all those preoccupied faces, all those eyes that looked at him, through him, and straight past him? As if he were a white plastic bag tumbling through the parking lot or leftovers in the trash can or a paper straw wrapper trampled underfoot in the office cafeteria. The chords of her favorite song were striking up on the radio, something about sitting on the bay. “Watching the waves go by today …” she adlibbed softly, as the beginnings of a smile played on her face. She was transformed when she remembered to smile. How little would it take to accidentally miss her exit on 237, to keep driving, to take 101-North to the city and pick a pier? Maybe that was what he did when he was through watching them. Maybe he sat on one of the quiet piers, far from Fisherman’s Wharf, where seagulls wheeled about as he played a bright brassy saxophone glinting in the wintry sunlight. Maybe he would see the Golden Gate, as the fog let up.
“My God!” she thought. “How could he? With the wheelchair?” Maybe he’s a Gulf War veteran. Maybe he was a golden California boy in his youth, went to the war and came back different.
The car inched forward. He was there, on her left. She was nearly at the point where she could choose to look him in the eye. If she rolled down her window, she could talk to him. For an instant there was a break in the traffic behind him, as the cars rearranged themselves. For an instant, he was framed by the hills in the far ground, and a riotous field of yellow flowers in the near ground.
She rolled down her window.
“Would you like some money?” she asked.
“I don’t know, would you?” he countered.
She flushed. She was about to roll her window back up, hastily. Oh no! The traffic was stuck again. He smiled, a mischievous smile, laughter in his eyes.
“Hey lady! No offense!” he said. “I don’t need that kind of dough.”
“Thanks for asking, though.”
She nodded, feeling a little small. Her altruistic act of kindness wasn’t going per plan. She hoped he wasn’t a serial killer and nervously regretted her foolishness. He rummaged through his bags, as she rolled up her window and studiously avoided looking at him. She fervently wished the cars forward. After pulling out an extremely sorry looking muddy sock, and a hand-knitted woolen cap with the letter “A” embroidered on it, he pulled out a small packet wrapped in brown paper with something scribbled on it in strong black letters. She didn’t see him as he leaned against the side of his wheelchair, as he twisted around to grab his crutches, and hopped out of the chair, deftly tucking either crutch under his armpits. She did see him limping towards her, on the median though. One hop, two hops, he was closer. She gulped twice. What was he doing? Oh God. Why did she get herself into these situations?
He knocked on her window. She was two or three cars ahead by now. She jumped in her seat, fear in her eyes. She looked as if she were about to refuse to roll down the window. He placed the packet under her windshield wiper, leaning against the hood for support, with the black lettering facing outward. She didn’t read the inscription till later.
“For the first person who saw me,” it said.
At the time, she had gripped the steering tightly, rigidly, one hand on the wheel, one hand in her purse, on her cell phone, lightly resting on the number 9, which had been one-touch dial programmed to call the police. He hadn’t knocked on the window again, just turned away and limped out of the way onto the grass median again. When he turned away, she breathed a sigh of relief.
She never saw him again, but the photos were beautiful, each in its own way. The ordinary caught in an extraordinary light. A moment, caught as it rushed past in flight.
She framed one and put it in her cube. It was a sinuous line of cars snaking its way onto 237, just past dusk, right after light signed off its shift and darkness punched on, the black road glistened with rain, lit from under and above by the bright red glow of brake lights stretching into the distance. It was the only thing she took, the day she packed the white box and took her pink slip home. She was able to smile all the way to the door, not just a brittle smile pasted onto her face with pride, but a real, deep, heartfelt smile. She was on the verge, too, and the traffic jam could go on without her.
Sri Priya Sriram is a freelance writer based in Houston, Texas.
Katha 2007 Results
The Sacrifice by
RAVIBALA SHENOY, Naperville, Ill.
First Date by SHRUTI SWAMY, Watsonville, Calif.
Abe and Mohan’s Burden by RAJESH C. OZA, Palo Alto, Calif.
On the Verge by
SRI PRIYA SRIRAM, Houston, Texas
Colors of the Sky by
SUMANA KASTURI, Cupertino, Calif.