Don’t Try to Be the Forest

I met my spiritual guru while I was a cashier at Quick Mart. She darted into the store out of a rainstorm one day. I recognized her as one of the homeless ladies who frequented the store–one my coworkers called “Bridge Lady”–but that day, as she settled onto the dingy tile floor, legs akimbo, I asked her real name. She introduced herself as Pam, and my shift never passed so quickly. She told me eloquent vignettes about the people she had known and loved in her old life, before encamping under the bridge, people she would never see or speak to again. She fascinated me with her conspiracy theories and fears of thought insertion. I was not the first person to offer charity to her, but she said I reminded her of her daughter, so when I suggested that she spend the night at my place rather than under the bridge, she agreed.

I ran a bubble bath for her and threw her clothes in the wash. She submerged herself up to the chin in the suds, her rinsed gray hair down her back, and I sat on the toilet seat across from her. I cracked open two bottles of beer. We exchanged our philosophies on life, our fears, our hopes. When I told her I was a writer, she looked perplexed.

“What are you doing working for the Quick Mart, if you’re a writer?” Pam asked. “You should be penning exposés about the corporate rule over education, or something.”

I told her that I wanted to write fiction and poetry. She told me I should read more Marx. We chatted amiably, sipping our beers, until she was shriveled like a raisin and the water was cold. I handed her a towel and some fresh clothes to wear to bed.

“Where is your daughter?” I asked. “Maybe you could arrange to have her come visit you here.”

She bounced on the mattress in my spare bedroom, gave me a wily grin as she lit a joint and passed it to me. “Darling, that’s sweet of you, but my little girl only got to breathe eight years of this Earth’s air before she was taken from me.”

“I’m so sorry,” I told her. “I can’t imagine.”

“Try,” she said.

We sobbed and held each other.

That was ten years ago. My friends have gotten used to Pam over the years that she has inhabited my house with me. Some guys I brought over thought my caring for Pam was noble. Other’s didn’t understand my love for her, felt threatened by it, or repulsed. I don’t feel that having Pam’s companionship and guidance in my life have been romantic blockades, though she has never liked a single date I’ve introduced to her.

Some days I will get up early to go to work, and there will be Pam–still awake–sitting at the kitchen table in her flimsy nightgown with a forgotten cup of licorice tea, smoking a roach with my eyebrow tweezers. Though she is twenty-two years my senior, I love her like a sister, even as I pick her wriggly gray hairs out of my shower drain and wash her dirty dinner dishes.

I keep her abreast of my submissions to literary journals, read her all my new pieces. When I get back a stream of rejections, she listens to my whining and offers her suggestions for improving my craft. I follow her advice–always. Through the years, Pam has coaxed me out of many a writing block, only to be my muse for a great new story. Her stores of enthusiasm for my work are inexhaustible. In return, I buy her groceries and new clothes and shoes and pay for a smartphone that she refuses to carry due to her suspicions that it’s downloading her thoughts.

I take a break from my novel, but write a sestina for my watering can on my iPhone while I smoke on the balcony. I sit with Pam at the table until the pot wears off, chain smoking her Winchester little cigars and browsing literary journals. The windows are open to the August night’s heat. The cat-clawed sheers billow in the breeze.

“Maybe I should concentrate on writing flash,” I murmur through the haze of smoke.

“Don’t try to be the forest,” she warns. “You can make gods on cold, delicate cycle, but only with demons in the dryer.” Pam chuckles heartily, her round belly punching at the blue paisley of her gown, screeches her chair away from the table. She takes a glass of buttermilk with her to the bedroom and forces the swollen door shut.