A battered old tin film canister, one of those with a yellow screw-on top, filled with tiny black sharks’ teeth that they had collected on California beaches fifty years before. Why in the world had she saved that? It is not so much what is saved as what has not been discarded. Maybe a dozen moves since, three marriages, four kids. Big Sur, Monterey, Mendocino, the cold surf foam. It had been a contest. Who could find the most? They were searching for something then. They had found each other, but there had to be more.
This would be the last move. The place was full of cardboard boxes from the liquor store. She had labeled all the filled ones, but she wasn’t sure where they were going. Once they were filled, she wasn’t strong enough to move them. So, boxes were scattered all over the place like an obstacle course. Her life as an obstacle course. She stopped for a smoke. The hash pipe on the kitchen counter was still half-full.
She really disliked this place. She had resisted admitting that until the eviction notice arrived. This room had never known the sun. The shower stall was too small. She had always had a poor working relationship with electric stoves. And the one-floor walk-up had become a challenge. Downward and outward. With every move there was less to move. That was progress. She had started out with nothing but a suitcase.
She unscrewed the top of the canister and spilled its contents onto the counter. They were still as sharp as when the young sharks had lost them. Sharper than memory. It could be cold on those beaches, even in summer. That beach near Point Bonita where they nude sunbathed behind the sand berm, out of the wind, while tourists hiked by in down jackets and the park ranger, Scott’s friend, ignored them, the gulls above them stalled as stationary as feather-twitching sculptures in the on-shore wind.
Seeing as she did not text, she never heard from her children. Of course, they never heard from her either. That was the way she raised them. Once they found a mate, they were on their own. There was no one else she expected to hear from, so she never answered her cell phone on the rare occasions when it did ring. They were all robocalls anyway. There was the matter of her mail. She had no forward-to address to change it to, so, happily, she could just skip that task this time. The post office lines were so long. All those shoppers and flyers and catalogs could just pile up somewhere, become someone else’s trash problem. The Social Security checks went right to her checking account. The post office, that was where she and Scott had met, at the Berkeley P.O. She had been hungry for someone, and there he was, waiting in line in front of her.
She only had two of Scott’s paintings left. She couldn’t remember what had happened to the rest. Art work was funny that way. You tend to forget it is there. It becomes so familiar it is taken for granted. Then one year it is gone—replaced, stolen, damaged, lost, given away—and there is only an imperfect memory, like a lighter oblong on a wall where it once hung. There had been a charcoal portrait of her that her second husband had burned, because he thought the past and Scott could be erased.
It didn’t surprise her that this seemed so easy. She had done a lot more difficult things. This hardly mattered at all, because it involved only her. And if she had learned one thing by now, it was that there was no good reason to rush. If you took your time, you got to occupy it. It was her time, after all, no one else’s. Wasn’t that the greatest freedom, solitude’s secret gift?
There was the question of the prayer rug. It sort of refused to be packed. She didn’t know why it was the only thing she still seemed attached to. It wasn’t even hers. She had never prayed on it. She never prayed. Though, superstitiously, she had always had its temple icon pointed east. If she had a pet, it was the prayer rug. She never tired of its colors, its complexity. There was a story there. She did not need to be able to read the intricate Arabic script in its border or know the ancestry of its designs and images. She could not remember how long she had had it. She imagined the hands that had woven it, women’s hands.
The nice sheriff’s deputy, the one she named Thor because he resembled an Aryan statue, had said they would be there at noon. It was cloudy, so she wasn’t sure how close that was. She found time intriguing, its variable speeds. She had noticed that when she was younger, of course, but hadn’t understood it. Everyone wanted you to believe that time was set at some unalterable cruise control, even though everyone had to know that wasn’t true. Time, like space, was a personal experience. Time, like space, was fluid, subject to the forces of fluid dynamics. You were just a mote in the always changing flow. Thor had understood that when she laid it out for him. “Go with the flow,” he said.
Cops were like referees. You can’t have rules without referees. Or could you? When she was a girl, they had games with made-up rules but with no one there to enforce them. They just followed their own rules, or changed them to suit the game and who was playing. When you lived with someone, you agreed to rules. Not any off-the-shelf set of regulations, but stuff you learned to do or not to do to keep the peace, and maybe even please him. When you lived alone, there were no rules, just the things you did to surf through space and time. Thor wore no wedding ring.
They would remove her and all her belongings from Mrs. Tuckerson’s property. Court order, Thor said. Court, funny word that. A place where people dressed in white played tennis or where gigantic black men battled to get a ball into a hoop. A large unheated palace room where self-important people moved slowly because of all the robes and fancy clothes they had to wear. Or what happened in another sort of room, with its own throne and sort of altar rail, where someone in a severe black robe was addressed as “Your Honor.” It could mean to try to please someone or get their attention, or to do something really risky or stupid. It could mean the displays of a male desiring a sexual partner. She had been courted. She used to play tennis. She had done some stupid, risky things. But none of those had involved court orders.
“Removed from the property” meant piled on that useless strip of sad grass between the sidewalk and the curb, where the trash and recycling went every Tuesday night when she remembered. Thor would bring a crew to move her, he said; though, she was sure he could handle it himself. She took another toke on the pipe and smiled. Should she have Thor carry her there, down the front stairs and out to the curb? So that Mrs. Tuckerson, who would be sure to be there, and all the neighbors could watch, as if the evening news had come to their block. Maybe she’d give Thor a kiss as he put her down, disowned.
She had been dragged away once from an E.R.A. demonstration in Washington. A photo of it had run in the Post—though her face had been partly hidden behind a marshal’s arm and the shot was really of her hiked-up miniskirt. That was back when she had great legs. Scott was long gone by then, but when he saw the photo he dropped her a complimentary line about her legs. No courtship order that. She wondered if Scott still had his collection of sharks’ teeth. She had long ago stopped wondering where he might be.
She packed the film canister with the sharks’ teeth in her toiletries bag along with her hash pipe and stash. There was no way she could any longer manage a backpack. She was now a wheeled-suitcase nomad. She remembered when only flight crews traveled with bags on wheels. But like in the old days, when she would bungee-cord her sleeping bag to her backpack, she had the rolled-up prayer rug looped to the top of her luggage. She was as ready as she was going to be when Thor and his crew arrived, ready to accept the gift of invisibility.
Oh, Willie and Waylon, on the road again, in deed. Or at least on the street. Street people, road people. What was the difference? Street people were homeless, wandering. Road people didn’t need a home; they were headed somewhere. Beachcomber also held some charm of purpose, but she couldn’t see herself dragging her two-wheeled bag of possessions across a beach, into the sunset.
It didn’t take Thor and his two helpers long to get all her stuff down to the curb. She didn’t ask Thor to carry her out. She had to take into account that she wasn’t as svelte as she once had been. He took her suitcase down last. Mrs. Tuckerson was there, standing a ways off, her arms crossed in victory.
“You can’t just leave your stuff here,” Thor said.
“I can’t take it with me,” she said.
“If it’s not removed, I’d have to ticket you for littering.”
“People will come and go through it, take what they want.”
“And make a bigger mess.”
“Then ticket her,” she said, pointing at Mrs. Tuckerson, who did not appreciate being pointed at. “It’s her property. I don’t live here anymore.”
“Listen, wait here,” Thor said. “I’m not supposed to do this, against the regs, but this is all you have, and I can’t just leave it here. I’ll get my truck and be right back.”
She waited, curious. It was a good half hour before Thor returned in a F-150. Mrs. Tuckerson had left, and none of the neighbors had come over to paw through her things, as she was still sitting there in one of her kitchen chairs. It didn’t take long for Thor to load everything into the back of his truck, her suitcase last. She climbed up into the passenger seat.
“Where to?” Thor asked as he started up the truck.
“Well, you can drop me off downtown, but I have no idea what to do with all that stuff.”
“No friends, no family who can store it for you?”
She decided not to answer. Silence for a while.
“Hell, I’ve got room in the back of my garage. It’s not that much. I can stash it there temporarily, till you find a place.”
“I’m sure that’s against your regulations as well,” she said.
“You bet. It could be called theft.”
Thor’s house wasn’t far away, a ranch house in a humble subdivision, but with a big two-car garage to which the house seemed an afterthought. He moved all her things in there while she waited in the truck. The kindness of humans not following the rules. Among the last things he moved were Scott’s two paintings.
“Wait,” she said. “Put those in your house. I want you to have them. You need more art work.” He would have the rest as well, as she had no intention of reclaiming any of it. But if the paintings were in the house—there were always blank walls waiting to be noticed—he might keep them and maybe years from now search his memory on how he came to have them. “They’re by a well-known artist.”
Thor dropped her and her suitcase outside a homeless shelter south of Main. He wrote out his name and address and phone number for her, so she could reclaim her things. She thanked him, gave him a kiss on the cheek. God, he smelled good, like a man. After he drove away, she dragged her suitcase up to Main and caught a cab to the airport. She had a ticket for an evening flight to Panama. Some old hippy friends had relocated to a place called Boquete up in the mountains near the Costa Rica border. Ultimate laidback, they said—no news, no rules, cheap. Check it out. She liked the fact that boquete meant hole in English.
The money she had saved by not paying rent the past eight months would get her there and get her set up, if she liked it as much as they did. After that, she could coast like royalty on her Social Security check.
Young sharks shed their teeth for larger ones as they mature, as they move up the food chain. The food chain, the original set of rules. As everyone knows, if sharks stop moving, they die, they grow no more teeth.