I knew a man once who made carrots into jewelry. He bent them way beyond their natural elasticity, into bright orange bracelets, gnarly anklets, pendants with sharp triangular points I used to want to eat. The summer before eighth grade I found out he charged most people five dollars for the necklaces, which he sold on the corner of Copley Square, next to a parked ice cream truck and church boys in red t-shirts selling hot dogs that smelled like boiled water. I tried to give him granola bars from my lunch box and some ducks I’d made with origami, but the man said all he wanted was a smile and gave them to me for free.
“You should be freaked,” my friends said, but there he was, on my way to softball practice, the calluses on my hands hard and my arm already aching, his waist-length beard twisted in a braid, calling “Julie! Julie!” even though my name is Diane.
“Don’t tell him what it really is,” my friends said.
I had a reputation for being naïve. Once I was in Chinatown, my mother was filling plastic bags with ginger, squid, natural healing herbs, and a man told me if I followed him down an alley he’d give me a kitten for a dollar. My mother came running, horrified, slapping my face. “You trust too much,” she said, and then she died, cancer, and here this man was, nameless, offering me carrots swinging off of earring backs, parsley twisted into bracelets, flowers flaking—dried too late. And then I was eighteen, and in college, and I carried my books in a side satchel instead of knapsack, and my nails were painted red, and softball was boring, and sometimes I passed the man on the way to campus, and once I saw two boys spit on him, and once I saw him puking into a pool between an aluminum turtle and an aluminum hare. I always walked on the opposite side of the street.
I guess I changed. I lived with my father, who drank beer for breakfast because it had wheat in it. I was studying Egyptology. I stayed at the library till late, staring at sketches of men carrying babies, women carrying basins the size of their bodies, wondering what they would be like if they lived today, if their internal lives would fit the twenty-first century, this clicking, whirling world and everything is made for you. I thought of the man with the borderline edible earrings and imagined him in Egypt, his internal self shattered like glass and no doctor would be able to put him back together.
Now I am twenty-two. My father has turned the basement of our house in Cambridge into an apartment. I work in the Museum of Fine Art, forcing people away from paintings. I leave smelling of the air conditioning. Sometimes I rub my hands together and can feel old calluses. I walk home through the steam of summer, temperatures swelling past 100, and hear the crackle of bats in Fenway Park, all that awful energy, and decide to keep walking over the Charles Bridge, back toward Harvard Square where students younger than me are just starting their nights, thinking life is something different. I sort of envy them.
There is the smell of hot dogs in the air. There is the sound of the Grateful Dead singing Uncle John’s Band, which was my mother’s favorite song. There are old men in too-thick flannel shirts sitting outside the 7/11, lawn chairs creaking beneath them, wrinkled paper bags in their hands, and there is a man with short bruised legs leaning under a car, his back on the curb, drool collecting on the hot black asphalt. If it weren’t for the beard, the braid frizzed like broken wire, I’d never have recognized him.
“What’s wrong with him?” I ask, that perpetual gasp of mine. I hate it. “He’s fine,” one old man says, and I stand there, watch his legs shake, think of all the carrots and celery going bad in the stay fresh compartment of my fridge. People sip slurpees, light cigarettes, pass us by.
It is the first time my cell has ever dialed 911. By the time the ambulance comes a crowd has gathered. The paramedics are meandering. They touch his leg, his swollen chest, turn his chin back and forth. They grab his underarms and drag him to a stretcher and he clicks into consciousness, fights them, twisting and kicking and cursing and then he seems to stare at me. His eyes are violet and his teeth are sort of brown. I never noticed that about him. I think that if grab his hand he’ll calm down, but he doesn’t. He gets even angrier, dog-like. He asks what the hell am I doing, his words like an exhaust pipe, his hands smacking mine, flicking dirt and static electricity.
I say: “My name is Diane.” He doesn’t appear to hear this. A plastic mask is clapped over his mouth and his eyes are shut, and I say it again, louder, maybe for myself. Then the stretcher is lifted, and the paramedics slide him in, close the doors with a click, and I realize that I don’t know his name and probably never will. A skinny kid slurping a Big Gulp steps out of the 7/11 and says, “I thought he was, just, you know, drunk,” and another says, “do you want rabies?” and another says, “I’ll hold your hand if you want me to,” and just like that the ambulance is gone. And so I stand there, waiting to understand it, but I don’t just yet, and it is just me, and the disappearing crowd, and the 7/11, lights blinking off, and then there is the moon.