Chalk talk
A short story

BY NATE FERGUSON

The following is a work of fiction, which originally appeared in Anomaly Literary Journal.

Foghorns blasted my eyes open. At first, I thought I was adrift at sea, but the homeless assured me that I was solidly on the North Coast. They were rattling along outside, pushing their grocery carts full of glass bottles through the morning murkiness. Each clank sounded like a celebration of survival, which was enough motivation to get me out of bed. The faded purple Victorian house I lived in was only three blocks from the recycling center. I was right on the bohemian thoroughfare and saw glints of thanks in sunken eyes each month when I gave away my latest stash of empty bottles.

The home had been subdivided into apartments and everyone had their own entrance. But Moe was the one who held it all together. The landlord described him as a kind of “mother hen” who, somewhere in his fifties, watched over the house and took care of landscaping and the courtyard, a walled garden with a gated entrance to the side yard. Trap doors led down to his basement apartment. When he wasn’t sitting in his outdoor teepee and smoking weed, he was tending plants or playing with his cats. His garden was ready to rise with tomato, pea and zucchini plants along with year-round salad greens. He’d donate most of it to the community. I occasionally saw him riding around in a convertible Cadillac, driven by a neighbor up the street. She was a young woman with reddish dreadlocks. I figured they were related somehow.

After a year, I still hadn’t had a bona fide interaction with Moe, other than a wave or a hello. Yet his life, at least the above-ground portion of it, was in full view from the bay window in my bedroom. Moe preferred to communicate by leaving chalk messages on the sidewalk. Last night he’d written his latest dispatch in big white letters:

NO BUTTS!

My brain couldn’t quite figure it out after pulling long duty at the library as a graduate research slave. I was studying marine biology and Moe’s words were still dancing in my mind among kelp forests, but now it made sense. The lesbian couple had been throwing cigarette butts out the bedroom window and onto the sidewalk. Moe had this thing about neatness, which went above and beyond California law. And that’s why he probably preferred the temporariness of chalk. The rain, before retreating into mist, would conveniently wash it away.

I’d never actually seen him scrawl a message, so he must have adopted his own stealthy, catlike abilities. He’d make his point, usually in three words or less, then go back to playing mother hen. For a moment there, I was trying to slay the grogginess and determine what day it was. It didn’t help that the guy downstairs, who lived with the lesbians, was addicted to amphetamines and was playing his tambourine most of the night. The homeless, meanwhile, had to keep rolling no matter what day it was. The hefty Jamaican woman upstairs was now dropping pans in her always-smoldering kitchen. In any case, it was time to wake up. I needed caffeine almost as much as I wanted to see the blissful girl at the café down the block.

*

When I entered the café, Sage was chatting up customers as usual. By now, she didn’t need a name tag.

“Hey Casey,” she said. “Late night?”

I nodded.

Sage’s flowing hair was as dark as black tea, and she always had it done up in some new way. Today she had it in a simple ponytail that swung from the back of a canvas baseball cap as she blended and frothed.

At least she didn’t seem so pissed off at me anymore. She’d stomped off in a huff after I made some crack about new age beliefs and shamans and whatnot. Sometimes she was short with me while at other times she hovered by my table and asked personal questions. Her tendency to linger wasn’t necessarily proportional to her workload, juggling everything with the ease of a short order cook. She was taking a semester or two off after her sophomore year in college to “find her real path.” Besides being a barista, Sage was a yoga instructor but didn’t refer to it as her second job (as I mistakenly did). Rather, she was merely “sharing her practice.”

Her breezy disposition and exotic phraseology seemed like a vacation from the data-driven people at school, and school seemed like a vacation from my previous life. I had returned to the campus and physical sciences after eight years of spinning aimlessly in the primordial soup, also known as the corporate world.

I’d gotten to the point of asking her out many times, but was always getting sabotaged by the clientele or paying the price for saying the wrong thing. I wanted to be more than a customer, more than a contributor to her hand-blown, circus-colored tip jar. As it turned out, she had to leave early to pick up her sister at the airport for a three-day visit. I was relieved on one level. I could fine-tune my proposal, as if it hadn’t been fine-tuned enough. As I sipped the chai latte, I savored every spice those little hands had sprinkled together; she didn’t cheat by using pre-made concentrate. As Sage was pushing her way out onto the sidewalk with a bending yoga mat and sliding backpack, she looked back.

“Hey,” I said. “Where can I score some chalk?”

“Chalk?”

“The kind you use on a chalkboard? I was wondering if there’s a gift shop nearby.” Chalk had become extinct in our department at the university.

She laughed and glided back my way. “I have many colors to choose from.” She opened her backpack and handed me a box. “I normally work in pastels,” she said, “but I’m volunteering for a street art project. You know, for kids.”

“Street art in this rainy climate?” I asked.

“It’s actually on chalkboards indoors at the community center.”

“That’s terrific,” I said. “I imagine it’s a whole different way of expressing yourself.”

She was beaming now, more so than usual. “Maybe I’ll show you sometime.”

For once, I’d said the right thing. Thanks to Moe, Sage and I had a new connection and it was over calcium carbonate, no less.

*

That afternoon I careened into a cleaning frenzy in my apartment, realizing that it was only a matter of time before Sage would see it. The wood floor cleaner brought out a shine not seen since I’d moved in. The kitchen was going to present the biggest challenge. To give myself a boost, I turned up the stereo and let reggae’s rhythmic heartbeat rattle windows. I figured Moe might like a taste of Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Lee “Scratch” Perry down in his subterranean other world. The bathroom came next and then there was a big pile of dirty clothes to deal with, which I decided to put off until tomorrow. As it turned out, I was running out of time. I was supposed to go sea kayaking at night with some other marine biology geeks and it was time to head for Humboldt Bay. On the way out, I saw a new missive from Moe in his trademark white lettering:

TURN DOWN MUSIC

I ran back upstairs and grabbed a green piece from Sage’s chalk stash and wrote diagonally:

SORRY

When I returned that evening with a tired back and cold hands from paddling hard for several hours, both chalk messages were gone, washed away by a squall. I fell asleep hard and fast, only to awaken in the middle of the night. I was drawn to the bay window by what I thought was the scratching of chalk on concrete. I went back to sleep after I saw that it was only the speckling of coastal rain.

The sun, of all things, stirred me from bed Monday morning. I was too cheap to put up curtains, and that yellow-orange ball didn’t show up often enough to justify them anyway. I marveled over the blue sky. I figured I’d take a walk on the beach while I was waiting for my clothes at the laundry. When I returned home, there was a new message from Moe.

PACKAGE UNDER KAYAK

I looked around but the wrought-iron gates to the courtyard were closed and I didn’t see marijuana smoke billowing from Moe’s teepee. I reached under my boat and found a cardboard mailer. Thank God, it was my undergraduate diploma. Actually, my second after the first one disappeared in the cross-country move and required a bigger paperwork process than getting accepted to college in the first place. I made a note to pick up a simple black picture frame while I was out and about. It deserved to go up on the wall. I put a green checkmark next to Moe’s message.

*

I had to go into work early on Tuesday when the weather was heading more toward its natural state of dampness and diffused light. As I was eating a bowl of granola and yogurt, I caught Moe out in the courtyard sitting on a tree stump. He had a length of fishing line attached to a stick. At the other end was a feathery stuffed animal that kept a brown cat entertained with flicks of Moe’s wrist.

I had to sit in on a night class and by the time I returned home, there was a new message, but Moe took extra strokes to make it bold this time.

SEEN BLACK KITTEN?

My eyes shot upward toward the trees and traced the intricate roofline. No wonder birds loved it here, and so did the cats. There was a natural balance of things like the ocean. Judging by the way Moe pampered the cats, though, I doubted one would want to run off. I went out to the street to make sure the kitten hadn’t been hit by a car. Then I walked around to the front of the house, which didn’t leave too many places to hide. There were rusted hooks where a porch swing once hung. Paint was falling away in strips from the ceiling. Two lawn chairs sat empty around a glass table with a coffee can brimming with cigarette butts. When I was signing the lease, the landlord had told me that the house was once owned by a lumber baron who hosted lavish parties in the main room. Big bands and flapper dresses had given way to termites and short-term renters. We were the custodians of its demise with only Moe standing in the way of utter collapse.

I replied to Moe in my now-signature green color.

AM LOOKING

Next morning I saw Moe back on his tree stump wearing a fatherly smile. A black kitten was contorting itself in his lap. I was glad for that.

*

Sage was back at the café and sounding bubbly as ever. Somewhere between my first and second latte, I asked her if she wanted to see a French movie at the independent theater. She broke into a smattering of the language and I took it as a yes.

I picked her up Friday evening from the café. She smelled of a potpourri of those high-quality organic products. We enjoyed the film, although it had the usual bizarre philosophical dialogue, or maybe it was the translations. She said it was a mixture of both. She didn’t flinch at nudity in unexpected places. I asked her if she wanted to have tea and croissants at my place.

“It’s about time I served you,” I said.

She smiled at my corny, premeditated line.

“So, this is your casa,” she said as we pulled up. “I’ve ridden my bike by it who knows how many times. It’s funky and stately at the same time.”

“That’s a good way to describe it.”

When we entered the side yard, there was a new message from Moe.

1ST FLOOR VACANT

Interesting. How could those tenants have left so quickly? I remembered hearing the tambourine just the other night. The curtains to the downstairs were open and all that remained was an ashtray on the windowsill in the lesbians’ old bedroom.

“Looks like we’ll be having a quiet evening,” I said.

She reached for her purse. “I want to communicate with Moe.”

Sage knew all about him by now. She pulled out a chalk box and reached for a pink piece. With a few strokes, she had the makings of a cartoonish cat. She gave it a red tongue and a blue collar.

“I love it. I think Moe will, too,” I said.

But her expression went from delight to fright when I opened the exterior door and showed her the creaky staircase, which now seemed oddly steep. I hadn’t thought about it since I’d moved in last year and wrestled with a futon for the better part of an afternoon. Where was Moe or the guy with the tambourine when I needed them? At the top of the steps were doors to two apartments, mine and my neighbor’s. He was an undergraduate student, kept odd hours, and rode a rusty cruiser bike. He had disappeared, either temporarily or permanently, on a two-month backpacking trip to New Zealand.

“Is this house haunted?” she asked.

“The rent would only go up if it were,” I said. “The landlord would make us pay for extra entertainment.”

She didn’t laugh. Her eyes were darting around. “Where are you taking me?”

“Just upstairs. Sorry I forgot to replace the light bulb.” And that was true. I was too busy cleaning and studying. “Be careful. The carpet is kind of thick.”

Before we stepped out from under the last remaining shard of porch light, I reached out and took her freshly moisturized hand. It was the first time that we’d touched, other than a graze or two as she handed me mugs at the café. She looked back at her chalk cat, as if to say goodbye, then up into the blackness. If I could just get her up the stairs, I knew she’d be OK. As we trudged skyward, her grip tightened.

When I opened the front door, I was actually surprised at just how clean it looked. As I was sucking in the so-called eco-friendly chemicals, Sage must have been exhaling and her mood snapped back to the waveless calm I was used to.

“Wow, this is the coolest apartment. It looks like a private reading room at a library.”

“That’s the look I was going for,” I said.

She walked into my bedroom with newfound confidence, bent over, and looked down into the courtyard. It was an unusually dark night, but there was a little light coming from the streetlight. I admired her slender thighs and hips that expanded into an open heart.

“So that’s Moe’s teepee.”

“He’s usually in it during the day,” I said. “Especially when it’s raining.”

“I hope I get to meet him.”

“We’ll see. He a mysterious one.”

She rose and the heart closed. “What’s his story?”

“It’s a tragic one. The landlord told me that he used to be a crab fisherman. His boat collided with a ship in the fog. Moe was the lone survivor of the four.”

“Oh, that’s terrible.”

“I saw him from afar on the beach a few weeks ago. I always take my binoculars.”

“I’m sure you do. What’d you see?”

“He hangs out a memorial on top of a point overlooking the accident scene. He built it out of driftwood. It looks like a scaled-down, old-fashioned church with a cross on the roof. I watched him sit beside it and play his guitar.”

“He’s a sensitive soul.”

“I guess. Makes you think differently about seafood, huh?”

“How so?”

“It’s a dangerous business,” I said. “I think he’s got a bad shoulder. I see him working it in circles like a baseball pitcher. He apparently got a decent insurance settlement, but still lives in the basement.”

“Poor guy.”

I filled the kettle on the stove and had the boxes of tea arranged in advance. I put a plate of croissants in the microwave, ready to get zapped for a few seconds once the kettle started screaming. The Jamaican kitchen was quiet. All I heard was a few creaks in the pipes.

Sage had found a spot on the sofa by the time I came out with the tray. She was flipping through an architecture book.

“I’m kind of fascinated by the Victorian style,” I said.

“The character is missing today,” she said. She looked up from the page for a moment. Her skin was taut and, like her hands, well hydrated. “I’ve been admiring your collection of candles.”

I took the cue and went for the matches in the kitchen. I lit a green and a white one on the bookcase.

“That’s nice,” she said. She smirked as she glanced back down at the book. She probably knew the candles had never been lit.

We talked about the North Coast: redwoods, giant ferns, ocean air. And what we didn’t like about it: the lack of sun. She was an Arizona girl, after all. I was from Maryland, and even that seemed like a sunny place compared to this.

I popped on the TV and there was a documentary about early hominids in Africa. I’d been fascinated with evolution ever since I was a kid. I’d seen the show before but pretended like I hadn’t. Two minutes into it, she started glancing, or rather, glaring at me. I sensed a storm building.

“They did a good job with the special effects,” I said. “What do you think?”

“I think we’re done talking.”

“We can talk.”

“This is kind of nerdy.”

“I thought you were into culture.”

“What culture? It’s just a tribe running around the plains.”

“Be patient,” I said. “They’ll be doing yoga together in another hundred thousand years.”

“This is what you do on Friday nights?”

“No, I usually go to the supermarket.”

“That’s ridiculous. You can do that any day of the week.”

“Yeah, but it’s empty. Efficient.”

“That’s a boring thing to do,” she said.

“You should appreciate it more. Look how far we had to evolve in order to organize life in acomplex manner. You can learn everything you need to know there.”

“At a Shop & Go? You’re being silly.”

“I’ll put it another way. We’ve got islands made of plastic in the ocean. Where do you think it comes from? I like to go where the sinners are.”

“It’s not my kind of Friday entertainment.”

“Are you religious?”

“No, not really. Why do you ask?”

“I thought you might have something against science.”

“This is just dry.”

“I find it relaxing.”

“I’m sure you do.”

My ex-wife used to say the same thing. Sage didn’t know that I was previously married and, at that point, I wasn’t about to give her more ammunition.

After some silence, I said, “I just don’t understand people who turn their noses up at learning.” I was actually aiming my comment at undergraduate students and their horrendous papers.

“Learning? I learn every day.”

“And what do you study?”

“I study people. It’s an art, not a science.”

“It certainly is,” I said.

She laughed, but not in a reassuring way. “You’re not a people person. I knew that when I first met you. All huddled in the corner, not saying much, surrounded by fat, boring books.”

“Boring? I’m studying things that could change the world.”

“Then maybe you need to start caring about people in the next booth.”

She had a point there. My rational brain had to admit that. My ex couldn’t have said it better.

I turned off the TV and the sound of rain replaced an uninspiring, and perhaps ominous, commercial about erectile dysfunction. She looked at the clock, then at the windows behind us.

“More tea?”

She nodded.

The rain was soon overflowing the gutters. We sat quietly and she pulled her legs up into a cross-legged pose. She looked beyond the TV and straight into the bay window, probably wishing she was anywhere but here. Just when her silence was becoming unbearable for me, she said, “I don’t want to go out in that tempest.”

“You don’t have to.”

After she returned from the bathroom, she said, “Looks like my drawing is gone. That’s too bad.”

“You can draw another one.”

 “Not today.”

At least she didn’t say never. “You’re mad.”

“I don’t get mad. I get anxious.”

“Why are you anxious?”

“I’m trapped in a haunted house with strangers.”

“I’m not a stranger.”

She maneuvered like a dolphin on the couch, put her head on a pillow and faked comfort. I pulled a blanket over her and she closed her eyes without saying thanks. I sat pressed up against her feet, unsure what to do next. Was I supposed to cuddle up with her? Stay put? Or eat rat poison? I chose to stay put and let my head nod back.

I snapped forward when she said, “You’re doing great things for the planet.”

“You think so?”

“But you need to work on your soft skills. Get out of your head from time to time.”

Yes, my ex would agree. “Get me a job at the café.”

“You’re not ready for the big time just yet.” She laughed and closed her eyes.

At what must have been two in the morning, we heard a pounding on the double front doors of the downstairs apartment. It echoed through the vacantness and up to my abode, which had always seemed sealed off by being in the back of the house.

“That’s one angry knock,” she said.

We unfurled ourselves and I went for the bay window as Sage looked out the kitchen. Neither of us could see the front of the house. The rain had turned into a steady mist and I didn’t see anything moving in the courtyard. I was about to dismiss the knocking when Sage screeched.

“Oh, God. There’s a man standing under the streetlamp. He looks like death.”

By the time I made it over to her, he was gone.

“What does death look like?”

“He was really tall and had a shiny black trench coat and this big floppy hat and motorcycle boots.” “Maybe he’s homeless and was looking for a place to crash. Word gets around when buildings go vacant in this neighborhood.”

“I don’t know. He was looking for something. He seemed determined.”

At first, I thought it was the tambourine/speed freak guy. Maybe he forgot something on his way out.

But he didn’t look like death. He was short, fat and wore sandals. “I definitely don’t want to go out there,” she said.

“You don’t have to. Just stay here.”

She leaned into me as we both looked at the streetlight.

I went to the bathroom and pulled out an extra toothbrush. “You can thank my dentist for this.”

Smelling of the same cinnamon toothpaste, we returned to the couch and she did her dolphin thing again, but this time finding a nice cove between my arm and shoulder.

We dozed off and were awakened by what sounded like a baseball bat destroying aluminum trashcans.

“What the hell?” I asked.

“Cats?”

I looked out the bay window and saw a pair of legs attached to work boots outside the courtyard. The rest of him was hidden beneath a cut of roofline. I started putting on my shoes.

“You’re going out there?”

“It’s Moe.”

“Oh, God,” she said when she saw me grab my spare kayak paddle from the corner. “If I wave this at you, call the police.”

I went down the staircase, now cursing myself for forgetting to replace the light bulb. But then I realized that my stupid oversight had protected my night vision, which I was going to need. Not that it alone was good enough to keep me from tripping over a fold in the carpet. I felt myself falling through space. I instinctively reached out with the paddle and wedged it underneath the crack in the exterior door. With a grab of the railing and some sophisticated orbital mechanics, I kept from falling, but the paddle made a weird slap and crunch. Sage stuck her head out the apartment door, and before she could say anything, I reassured her that I was OK. When I heard her shut the door and twist the lock, I was off again.

There wasn’t time for fear, it was overshadowed by a desire to protect Moe. I opened the door and mist crept in. I looked both ways and saw a vacant city street and a shadowy courtyard. With my paddle raised over my shoulder, I walked toward the front yard and, stupidly, into a puddle. The street was quiet. I returned to the side yard and saw Moe. He was on his back with the black kitten sitting by his head. When I approached, the cat scattered and I saw blood coming out of Moe’s mouth and nose. I walked out to where Sage could see me and gave her the signal.

She came down and immediately went up to Moe to feel his neck for a pulse.

“He’s alive and breathing. Probably just out cold,” she said. “That’s about all I know from my first- aid training.”

I’d never seen Moe up close before. His face was more angular than I expected. His beard was well kept. It reminded me, for some reason, of the first time I saw a dead squirrel when I was a child.

We heard sirens followed by car doors slamming and radio chatter out front. Two police officers approached the courtyard with open holsters and hands on their guns. I put my arm around Sage and she pressed up against my ribs. While one cop walked toward Moe’s apartment doors, the other stuck the barrel of his revolver through the teepee door and a fat gray cat dispersed. The police officers looked at each other without humor, then one got on the radio and told the ambulance that the scene had been secured. Two EMTs rushed in with a stretcher, backboard and first-aid kits. They lifted Moe’s eyelids and shined a flashlight into his pupils. When Moe came to, he turned to spit out a minor amount of blood. He stared at Sage and I but didn’t say anything. Soon they had him on the stretcher. The side of his head was swollen.

I looked into Moe’s pulsating eyes. “Don’t worry, I’ll watch the place,” I said.

He reached out with a fist and I bumped mine against his. Lacerations from years of fishing had healed into baby snakes on the back of his hand.

The next thing Sage and I knew we were filling out statements on the hood of a cop car.

Sage was too shaken up to go home and the house must have looked a lot less haunted in daylight. She had to be at the café in a couple of hours anyway. While she was freshening up in the bathroom, the police officer called. He said Moe was being examined for a concussion but was otherwise doing fine.

“Your ex-neighbors helped themselves to other people’s heroin when they skipped town,” the cop said. “Moe put up a helluva fight defending the place when the dealers were rummaging around.”

“There was more than one?”

“Two that he can remember.”

“Does he have any family there at the hospital?” I asked.

“There’s a woman with dreadlocks. She’s his cousin.”

So they were related. Before I got off the phone, the officer said the usual cop stuff, to call police if I saw the trench coat man again or anyone else who looked suspicious. That was a little delicate, of course. My whole neighborhood looked suspicious.

I called the nurse’s desk at the hospital and told them to let Moe know that I’d be happy to give him a ride home when he was ready, although he obviously had that covered.

*

I stopped by Sage’s café to tell her what I’d learned.

“Wow, we’d better put together a care package,” she said.

Sage found a wicker basket behind the counter and filled it with exotic tea, coffee, chocolate and pastries. She pulled a gift card from her purse and we both signed it. Sage gave me a peck on the cheek and I was off.

I pushed open the wrought-iron gate and entered the courtyard. I placed the basket by Moe’s trap doors. I ran upstairs and grabbed the chalk. I made huge white letters and shadowed them with green. From my bay window, it looked as if my message was rising from the sidewalk in three dimensions.

WELCOME HOME

This is a work of fiction, which originally appeared in Anamoly Literary Journal