It hadn’t rained since he had moved to Oakland, at least it seemed like it, and the sudden onslaught of moisture in the last 24 hours had first annoyed Caleb, and then alarmed him in its ability to compel him from his apartment. By the early grey streaks of morning he had burst forth through his door. He was set loose on the throngs of commuters mindlessly walking with their smartphones in hand, weaving down the street drunk and unsteady on Facebook or Instagramming the banalities of their crushing lives.
The sidewalk smelled different, like earthworms, and it bothered Caleb. He preferred the stench of his parched city. While other people clamored for rain, measured the water line at the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, took short showers, and brushed their teeth with only enough water to fill a Dixie cup, Caleb flushed twice and took baths. He watered his lawn for hours and did the dishes twice. The drought was his greatest love of California, and he diligently did his part to ensure its continuation.
He turned off 13th and headed to the subway station. Caleb checked his watch: Yes, it was seven forty-two. He had plenty of time to catch the seven fifty-two. He scanned his ticket at the booth and stepped through the turnstyle.
“Morning Caleb. Paper?” Roger waved The Chronicle in the air at Caleb.
“Not today,” Caleb forced a smile. He had been practicing in the bathroom mirror lately—he had a hard time discerning between a friendly, toothy grin, and a more sinister one. Rehearsals were required if he wanted to blend in. “I don’t have any change, actually.”
“No problem, no problem,” Roger reached his ink-stained hand into the pocket of his Carhartts and pulled out two quarters, “I can spot you, man. Pay me back tomorrow.”
Caleb’s moss-green eyes narrowed. Why Roger felt they had rapport was beyond him. He had bought a paper from him one morning when he had decided to practice friendly banter. Every since then, Roger assumed they were acquaintances, friends even. What was worse was that Roger insisted he buy The Chronicle every day, and Caleb actually hated the newspaper more than he hated Roger.
“Sure. Thanks, Roger.”
“Well, no problem, buddy. Just get me back tomorrow. You read it every day.”
Caleb pulled his lips over his teeth in a reptilian grimace, “You’ve sure got my number.” Friendly. Friendly smile. Not too wide. Roger recoiled slightly. Most people had a warning system built into their primate instincts to alert them to people like Caleb, and Roger’s was firing. Lucky for Caleb humans buried this alarm tried to ignore it, assuming that it did not fit into modern concepts of civilization. God forbid someone thought they were rude. Caleb thought that Roger should listen to his instincts more.
He grabbed the paper from Roger’s filthy hand, and raced down the platform before Roger had the chance to prattle on about football or some other inane topic—real estate maybe. Caleb landed on the platform and looked at his watch. Seven fifty-one. One minute until the train.
He wondered what car she might be in this morning. It was a game. He picked one car, a different car, each day. He could have gotten on the first one and then worked his way through all of them. But he felt like everyone stared at people who did that, who moved from car to car. No, normal people picked a subway car and stuck with it. That way was more meaningful anyway. It meant that if he ever saw her again it was because it was meant to be. It was fate. Kismet. One day she would look up and see him reading his paper. She would recognize him from the café, and he would charm her. Mary. Even her name was irresistible. So innocent.
The picture of her had not faded during these months. Liitle lamb. It had grown sharper, more detailed. Little lamb. He had a photo in his mind that captured the fine upward brushstrokes of the pale flesh that stretched over her refined cheekbones, or the slight curvature of her left eye that he noticed was just a few millimeters higher than then right. Its face was white as snow.
Seven fifty-two. The board above the platform blinked in red letters “SFO Millbrae.” A hot wind blew through the tunnel and preceded the arrival of the train itself. During the height of the drought, this wind had been dry, but the moisture in the air and rain outside had turned it into a sticky fog, heavy with the underground’s stench. The train reached the platform in a loud roar, and its doors slid open, releasing a blast of steam. A bike messenger with a beard and wearing a small cycling hat cut off an old Chinese woman in front of him. “There’s a line,” she hissed, shaming him back from the door. She moved slowly into the car, her gait achingly halting and holding up the queue behind her.
Caleb moved to the railing on the right side and leaned against the bar bolted to the side of the car. Inside it was like a sweat lodge, and it stirred a primal competitiveness and anger up from the massive crowd pressed inside.
The rain had also lured out his people. The forgotten ones. The crazy ones ripe and stained by their own stench. Some you could spot right away—the one sitting on the floor of the subway pulling on his ragged beard and mumbling about motherfuckers, for instance. Others were less obvious, perhaps invisible to the sane eye. Of course Caleb could spot them right away. It was their mouths. Most people believed that you could tell by their eyes. That was bullshit. The smile of a seriously disturbed man or woman was subtle enough though that if you did not know what you were looking for, you might miss it. Caleb missed nothing.
He opened Roger’s newspaper and pretended to read the sports section, a normal section for a man in his late twenties to read, and peeked over the top scanning the crowd for her.
Mary. He caught a glimpse of her in profile at the other end of the car. She pushed a strand of black hair behind her ear and glanced at him, quickly averting her eyes. Did she recognize him? Did she know how long he had looked for her?
Caleb felt his mouth twist delightedly behind the newspaper before he remembered to smile normal, like in the mirror. The man with the beard mumbling on the floor pulled on his pant leg. He recognized the smile. It identified Caleb as a kindred spirit.