Aurora’s beautiful day
She had it all—her tiny Social Security check, Asian leftovers, some comfy stretch pants and a friend in need
Flashing lights. Sirens. EMT workers rushing to the scene. A crowd gathering around the figure of a woman—in her 40s, wispy graying hair, brown eyes, shapeless tan coat—face up on the pavement.
Traffic backing up on Fourth and Center, where a super-sized Chevy is parked in the middle of the intersection, facing the wrong direction. Folks walking out of the Bowling Stadium to see what’s going on.
You push your way inside the circle and observe the woman before the EMT workers begin life-saving efforts. She’s smiling and blinking at the sky. A trickle of blood runs down the front of her face from the corner of her eye. Her arm is bent toward you at an unnatural angle. Less than an inch from her hand is an object that’s fallen on the ground—a bracelet maybe, with red and green ribbon, silver dime-store jingle bells and plastic beads with letters.
You’re wondering what drove you to the front of this morbid circle of witnesses. Like this death of a bag lady won’t wreck your New Year’s Eve party, or mar your psyche for the better part of 2003.
The woman’s face—which had been ruddy with pigment from spending so much time outside—turns pale. Her eyes begin to go blank. She struggles to speak.
“Shh, ma’am, just hang in there,” an emergency medical technician says, as she carefully examines the woman’s head. Another police car drives up and parks nearby.
“My God,” the woman next to you says. “Our tax dollars at work.”
“One bum down,” a man replies smugly. “About 9,999 to go.”
“Shit,” the EMT says, feeling the woman’s neck for a pulse. “Damn. I think we’re losing her.”
Your spouse stands nearby. You are staring at the above words on your computer screen.
“What are you writing?”
“What’s it about?”
“Don’t know. I have some
characters, but they’re still in my head.”
“What are they going to do?”
“Intersect and change. That’s what characters do in a story. I just don’t know how.”
“Maybe you need some music.”
You pull up the MP3 player on your computer and click on whatever the kids were listening to last. In this case, it happens to be the Gorillaz: I ain’t happy, I’m feeling glad. Got sunshine in a bag. I’m useless but not for long. The future is coming on.
You let your kids listen to this trash?
Maybe you don’t know her name, but you’ve seen Aurora Elpis around town. She wears her flyaway, formerly brown hair pulled into a ponytail held back with those bright red and orange elastic cloth things. Her legs are narrow and sticklike, but she thickens at the waist and chest like a lollipop, an upside down pear or maybe—yes, that’s even better—a chubby, cheery robin. Her favorite food, besides the 99-cent breakfast at the Cal-Neva, is macaroni and cheese. She wears stretchy pants because they’re easy to get in and out of. No zippers or fussy buttons to manage. Aurora feels comfortable in these pants, big T-shirts and a largish pair of grubby white tennis shoes that she never has to untie.
One brisk December morning, not long after a vicious windstorm had blown Reno’s motto off the downtown arch, Aurora rode the elevator up to the roof of a downtown parking garage. She walked to the edge and leaned over, scanning the roads and intersections of downtown Reno. Cars moved up and down the streets in complex patterns, like soldiers marching smoothly in time. On the sidewalks below, people scurried from casino to liquor store to casino. At the lot formerly known as the Mapes, ice skaters whirled in circles, flying across the ice, narrowly avoiding collisions. In the distance, snow-capped mountains formed a crust between land and sky.
Aurora took a deep, satisfied breath. She loved the roof of parking garages. That’s where she liked to have long talks with her father.
“I’m having a good day today, Dad. I went to the library and I went to the park and I ate french fries for breakfast.”
“So it’s colder outside now. And I hope that wind doesn’t blow so bad again. I like the snow though, don’t you?”
Aurora didn’t know where her dad was. In fact, she hadn’t ever met her dad, though she had seen a picture of a man with dark hair and sideburns who could have been her dad. Now, when she imagined her father, he looked a lot like Elvis.
“I met a new friend when I was picking up stuff that blew into the river.”
She waited in silence for a while, as if listening.
“He likes to fish, my friend. Today I’m going to bring him some noodles.”
Bad things can’t happen randomly to good people. That’s not good fiction. Your protagonist needs a tragic flaw.
You think about Aurora’s life, a mishmash of luck and misfortune, blessings and cursings. She’s not bright or beautiful. Not talented or wealthy. You don’t know where she lives or how she survives on her monthly $494 Social Security check. But somehow she does. She delights in life’s small gifts, keeps her treasures in assorted bags that she carries with her everywhere and lives with a degree of awareness that you envy. She stays optimistic.
Ah, that’s it. Perhaps her tragic flaw is her very simplicity, her faith, her hope.
Can hope be a flaw? In holiday fiction? That’s not exactly Chicken Soup for the Reno Soul. You’re not very good at this, are you?
He couldn’t get a library card without an address, so the Fisherman stole books, just cheap paperbacks, from thrift stores. Or he’d borrow from the read-and-return shelf at a library in Sparks. Right now, he was re-reading Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities.
The book started with a line he liked to consider while sitting quietly at the river’s edge with his bait in the water: “For what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and yet lose his soul?”
The Fisherman’s life is a far cry from what he’d imagined as a young college student or as an associate professor on track to receive tenure. Wouldn’t his former students be surprised to see their business administration instructor living under a bridge on the outskirts of town?
Things fall apart. The center did not hold for the Fisherman. Now he couldn’t even get a job at the Dairy Queen. He knew this because he’d applied there, listing his many accomplishments and degrees on the job application, hoping only to be allowed to make chocolate fudge sundaes for $5 an hour. When he’d stopped back to talk to the manager, he was met only with a cold look and a wave of the hand, an open-faced hand as if to push him far away.
It seemed likely that someday he’d have to get help. Go to a mission where they’d pry open his jaws and insert Jesus under his tongue as a trade for a warm bed. What does it profit a man if he gain regular meals and a warm bed and yet lose what’s left of his will, he wondered.
But maybe things were going to turn around. Soon. The air smelled like change. And the wind had brought him a friend.
Around mid-morning, he cleaned up as best he could and started the long walk into Reno. He followed the River Walk along the Truckee much of the time, avoiding the places he was likely to be hassled by police.
Every day for the past week or so, the Fisherman had traveled to his mecca, the Bowling Stadium, where he would meet Aurora. If you asked the Fisherman what he liked about Aurora, he might not be able to put it into words. She was warm and seemed to care about people in a non-judgmental way. She’d read few books in her life, yet made the kind of simple, profound observations that great novelists sometimes miss.
The Fisherman might have just said, “She makes me see the world differently, with light and possibility.”
Best of all, she didn’t know the Fisherman well enough to despise him—like most everyone else.
A small, dark bird landed on the top of the cement wall. The light on its wings made the feathers glisten with deep purples and blues. Aurora loved all birds, admiring their freedom, their grace in flight. She held perfectly still, listening and watching. Then she slowly opened a pouch around her waist. She slid her hand in and gently pulled out a plastic bag with bird seed. She let a bit of seed fall from the tips of her fingers onto the cement. Then she slowly backed away, hoping that she wouldn’t scare the bird, hoping that it would accept her offering.
About then, a largish gull swooped down for the seed. The smaller bird flew off to the west, unfed.
“Hey, man, I’ve been trying to call my girl, and I need 50 cents for the phone,” the man said. He’d wandered out from behind a tree just seconds before the Fisherman walked by.
“Fifty cents. Can you help me out?”
“Sorry, man. Tapped out. Spent my check.” He hoped the guy would take the hint. He didn’t recognize this new guy and didn’t want to encourage him to stick around Reno. There was only so much good will floating around, and it was already spread thin. The Fisherman pulled his hat down over his ears.
“Hey, man, what about grub? Got any food? I haven’t eaten …”
The man hopped up to walk alongside the Fisherman, who could smell his rank, boozy breath.
“Sorry, can’t help you. Gotta be moving along.”
He walked faster until the man dropped back and disappeared.
The girl was sitting in the park, her back to the cement. From a distance, you could see her mouth moving, constantly chattering to no one in particular. Aurora knew Cindy. She’d been in town only a week or two, a month at the most. Cindy looked cold most of the time. Her pale blue eyes were distant and shiny like ice, like she knew about the kind of sunshine in a bag that keeps its users from ever getting truly warm. Aurora walked over to Cindy slowly, as if the girl were a bird who might scare and fly away.
“I have something for you.” Aurora reached in her pouch for the present. She pulled out two gloves or, actually, one navy blue glove and a big fluffy red mitten.
Cindy took the glove and mitten and put them on.
“Fuckin’ cops,” Cindy said, still staring at the ground. “Fuckin’ pigs. They’re watching. They’re over there. All in silver. Across the river. Watching.”
“I don’t see any police,” Aurora said.
“Who the fuck are you?” Cindy asked. She pulled the red mitten off and took a bracelet from her wrist. “I’m not going to your shelter. Not going.”
She handed the bracelet to Aurora.
“I don’t have a shelter, but I know where one is, I think,” Aurora said as she twisted the bracelet’s ribbons and jingled the silver bells. She put the bracelet on her wrist. “This is beautiful, thank you.”
“Could you just leave me alone?” Cindy said, rocking her head in her hands. “Just leave me. Everybody leave me. I need to be alone.”
“Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow,” Aurora said, touching her arm. Cindy stopped rocking and looked into Aurora’s eyes.
“Thank you,” Cindy said.
The wind had blown the Fisherman smack dab into Aurora’s path. That morning had started out warm—warm before the storm—and the Fisherman shaved and headed out with a cardboard sign that read: “Stranded. Need $ for bus. Anything helps. God bless.” He was after some cash, and people were almost always in a giving mood this time of year. Especially when they saw the less-fortunate Fisherman, with his clean-shaven face and humble, averted eyes.
Aurora was walking around town on her early afternoon rounds. Each day, after the lunch rush, Aurora would stop by the back door of a Chinese food place not far from downtown. Her friend Manny would hand her cartons of leftover rice, egg rolls and chicken chow mein, which she liked almost as much as macaroni and cheese. She would take the food to friends or people she knew, people who were hungry, who didn’t know about or want to go to the soup kitchen, who didn’t have friends like Manny.
On this day, the wind had caught the door and flipped it wide open as Manny passed Aurora two smaller cartons of food.
“Not so much today,” he told her, wrestling with the door. “We do lot of business. Saturday. Holiday time.”
“That’s OK,” Aurora said, taking the boxes. “This is so good. Thank you, Manny.”
A plastic bag wafted by, puffed up like a balloon. As Manny pulled the door shut, a gust whistled down the alley accompanied by paper cups, pieces of newspaper, dead weeds. She turned toward the bus station on Center Street, the skin on her face blown taut by the pushing mass of air.
Meanwhile, the Fisherman wasn’t having much luck panhandling. In three hours, he’d received only two quarters, 27 pennies and a drink toke for a nearby casino. Drivers rushed past him without looking. Sand and dirt flew in his face. Then he heard a loud creaking noise and turned just in time to see a huge pine tree go down, landing with a resonant whack in the middle of the road. He decided it was time to find some shelter and started walking. He swam forward with the wind at his back, his coat and hair blowing wildly forward. The gusts wafted him effortlessly down the street for a while, but when a flying rectangle of plywood whizzed over his head and landed on the pavement right in front of him, he decided to duck into the nearest doorway and wait out the maelstrom.
Aurora watched from the doorway, her many bags clustered at her feet, as the sheet of wood almost hit a tall, fine-looking man with a red face and longish dark hair. The man ducked in next to her and said nothing. He looked a little thin, but his eyes seemed to sparkle. She thought they were beautiful. They looked just like her dad’s eyes. She wondered if he was hungry.
“Hi,” she said. “Want an egg roll?”
[Explanation deleted]: When you first started this story, you thought you could make this tale meaningful and relevant to these troubled times. You explained that Aurora’s last name, Elpis, is the Greek word for hope—hope in the idea that a benevolent creative force exists who cares about humankind. You waxed philosophic, quoting the prophet Bono and Kierkegaard and Kahlil Gibran and the book of Hebrews. But your words felt a bit like a thick glaze over the top of a paradox. The story might be better off, you decided, with its scenes and images in free play rather than corralled into something immediately recognizable. You highlighted the whole messy business and hit delete. Let her who has ears to hear wake up and smell the mixed metaphors.]
The Fisherman had dreamed about Aurora almost every night in the two weeks they’d known each other. These visions usually included the two of them together in some fashion, as partners, her goodness offsetting the dull gray of his existence. The thought of seeing her kept him walking the 10 miles or so into town. When he arrived at the Bowling Stadium, he sat quietly by a potted tree and pulled his book out. The Fisherman didn’t like hanging this close to downtown. The cops were always thicker here. And while, yeah, it was warmer to spend a night or two in the Washoe County Jail, he couldn’t handle being locked in that tiny confined cell—or getting his hair cut and being dumped into the larger jail population.
He began reading and waiting. He could feel a gaze or two directed his way, but he didn’t look up. He was deeply hungry. He had spent his last coin change on a cup of coffee that morning, but he hadn’t actually eaten. He felt empty and flat.
Aurora had hit the jackpot with Manny. She had two bags of food, and he’d even thrown in a few fortune cookies.
“Lessee, you got some sweet-sour pork, some stir fry beef, steamed rice, wonton soup,” Manny said, grinning. “Have a happy New Year.”
She thanked him and turned her face to the sunny, clear sky. As she walked, a cool breeze gently lifted a wisp of hair that had escaped her ponytail.
It’s a beautiful day, she sang in her head as she walked a few blocks. When the stoplight turned green, Aurora stepped out into Center Street. Across the road, she could see the Fisherman, his face buried in his book. She admired the way his long hair spilled down into the pages. She wished she could touch his hair. She smiled brightly.
She saw the truck a thousandth of a second before it struck her as it turned the wrong way down Center Street. She had time to think, “Dad!” Then she lifted her eyebrows and was pulled down under gargantuan wheels of a big new Chevy.
“Shh, ma’am, just hang in there,” an emergency medical technician says, as she carefully examines the woman’s head. A police car arrives.
“My God,” a woman says. “Our tax dollars at work.”
“One bum down,” a man replies. “About 9,999 to go.”
“Shit,” the EMT says, feeling the neck for a pulse. “Damn it, I think we’re losing her.”
Aurora’s slowing heartbeat throbs in your head. You look down at your feet, where a carton of rice is spilled on the pavement.
Only one man notices you as you pick the woman’s bracelet off the ground, turn it over in your hands, touching the ribbons and bells, reciting aloud the letters on the plastic beads.
The Fisherman looks at you, looks directly into your eyes, then down at his fallen friend.
You blink and find yourself back in front of these words, faced with a creative decision. Another sentence to write. A character to restore or to let go on. Your call.
Flashing lights. Sirens.
I’m useless, but not for long. The future is coming on.