Tonight, walking in the pouring rain on the Avenue, I went searching for the answer to a question for which I had no words. Though now that I think on it, it wasn’t so much a question as a gnawing sensation—not only of something gnawing away at me, but also my own inexplicable desire to gnaw at the world, or the surface of the world—to bite a hole clear through it.
So I walked in darkness, and in rain, in search of the question as much as its answer. Not many people were out. A small group of Oaklanders, bundled in hats and coats, clustered around a tall, cylindrical heat lamp in a beer garden, its flame casting their faces in an orange, spectral glow. Further back, in the darker depths of the beer garden, another band of mortals, more loosely assembled, milled beneath a canvas overhang, seeking shelter from the rain—shadows within shadows; shadows all. I thought then of Olivetto’s, the restaurant above Market Hall. I have been to Olivetto’s twice in my life, and with two different men, both who now are dead. One was my father; the other, my godfather. And as I made my way through the rain, it occurred to me: I’d probably never go to Olivetto’s again—not on account of any fault of Olivetto’s, but because it would make me miss both those men too much. Rain fell; it fell in droves. It fell on a diagonal. Up ahead, the freeway loomed, stretching over the Avenue; a vacant escalator ferried nonexistent passengers from the wet pavement to the fluorescent-lit second-story entrance to the BART. From a distance, the station appeared nothing more than an eerie yellow rectangle, abuzz with electricity, floating in the dark. A couple of AC Transit busses idled curbside, spewing clouds of exhaust into the rainy night. I passed a bar, its interior impenetrable to the human eye, neon four-leaf clovers blinking green and gold in its tinted window panes; I passed a Chinese restaurant. I passed a Bistro; I passed an Indian tea room. I passed a Thai place. People were eating, people were drinking; people were picking up take-out. I wished for all of it; I wanted none of it; I hungered for something not for sale. I felt both tired and restless as I passed restaurant after restaurant, bar after bar. November beckoned, today being the day before Halloween—the penultimate day of October. It hit me then: Today was my father’s birthday. More rain fell; then, more still. I looked up at the rainy sky, illuminated by the iridescent halo of a street lamp, and asked my old man for a sign—some small confirmation he was still out there somewhere, at least in spirit, if not in physical form. Not wanting my godfather to feel excluded from the action, I put in a bid for him to show me a sign as well. A bus whizzed by, splattering my legs with puddle water.
Rain fell; I walked on.
When I finally got to the overpass, I was soaked clear to the bone. My car was a good mile behind me now, so I decided to cross the Avenue and return the way I’d come. I stepped into the wide, wet crosswalk, imagining it a bridge, and made my way toward the bright lights of Market Hall, its windows filled-to-bursting with imported biscotti and haute couture-olive oils, designer brand risottos, cellophane bags of fava beans tied off with grosgrain ribbon. Tantalizing tarts and cakes batted their proverbial eyes at passersby like debutantes at a cotillion. When I reached the end of the crosswalk, I stepped up on the curb, and headed past Market Hall. A security guard—black watch cap, black jacket, neon-yellow vest—stood beneath the scalloped green awning of the store, keeping dry. He was midway through an animated exchange with an old geezer in a navy blue windbreaker—both men held paper cups of coffee to-go; both men gestured with gusto. The geezer had hair as frothy-white as the surf beneath Neptune’s trident, and he raised his coffee cup high in the air, as if toasting the security guard’s health, and both men burst into broad, buoyant peals of laughter. I drifted past them like a fish gliding down a river. Across the street, a pre-war building, three stories high, seemed to call out for my attention. It had an old-fashioned iron fire escape traversing its facade, and faux-balconies beneath its second-story windows, and it struck me, this building, as being more like a living, breathing human being than any inanimate structure; its walls practically bristled with secrets and innuendo. All the windows of the building were dark, save one: A single, solitary window on third floor, in which a man and woman sat facing one another at a tiny table—the man with his back to the street, the woman facing out. The woman had dark-rimmed glasses and a black pageboy haircut, her bangs angular and well-defined, like Cleopatra. Two candles burned on the table between them, and the walls of the apartment were painted a blue-ish shade of mauve. The couple appeared to be illuminated by a single source, such as (maybe) a standing lamp just out of frame, turned to a low setting. Something about the scene—perhaps it was the mauve walls, or perhaps the muted lighting, or simply the close proximity of two figures—stopped me in my tracks, and I stood stock-still in the middle of the sidewalk, looking up; I stared. In that moment, I think it’s safe to say: I had no awareness of anything or anyone else around me, or if I did, I didn’t care, so absorbed was I by the spectacle of the man and the woman having dinner in that lone, lighted window. And no sooner had I stopped, there, on the sidewalk, the woman, as if on cue—or as if I’d somehow magically conjured the moment—did something I will never forget: She proceeded to lean forward, in the slowest-of-slow-motion, with deliberate, laser-like intensity, extending her spoon across the tiny table toward the man (her other hand below, so as to catch any drops), and the man—following a brief moment of hesitation, or bewilderment, or some combination of both—craned his neck forward like a baby bird, and devoured the contents of the spoon, whole. The woman then rose to her feet, retracting her spoon with a triumphant flourish, like a flamenca in the final moments of a bulería—or perhaps a matador, triumphant over the bull. There was no mistaking it, the profound, resounding note of pure satisfaction in her gesture. And for a full two seconds she remained like that, basking in the glow of victory, spoon brandished overhead, before finally resuming her seat at the tiny table across from the man. And as I stood there in the pouring rain, witness to the moment, I was suddenly overtaken—consumed!—by a fierce, stabbing desire for the woman to feed the man another bite. So I watched; I waited. I failed to go on my way. Cars slid along the avenue like eels in the darkness, their wipers slashing glassy shapes into watery, membranous windshields, tires hissing, snake-like, against the wet cement. A steady curtain of rain drenched my face, my wool hat, my old gray poncho; I must have looked insane. I closed my eyes, inhaled the damp and the cool, the smell of rain. When I finally opened my eyes again, the man and the woman, like me, had ceased to move; they appeared inanimate, like two mannequins in a department store window.
And then, a voice—
Are you trying to find an apartment?
I turned and came face-to-face with none other than the security guard, himself. He stood just off to my side, expression blank, head tilted at an angle, as if to study me better. Beneath the rolled edge of his black watch cap, his eyes were a vibrant shade of green. So green! They were miracles of coloration, those eyes! Eyes made for the silver screen! My poncho sagged with the weight of the rain; I glanced down, and saw rivulets of rainwater streaming off the knotted tassels of my poncho, then looked back at the window again. Oh, no, I said—here, I paused, gesturing to the third-story window like a tour guide, with one rain-soaked hand. Why I felt so compelled to tell him the truth, I’ll never understand—I was just watching that couple having dinner, up in the window there… At this, the guard’s Technicolor-green eyes grew a hair wider, and the tilt of his head a touch more pronounced. Still, I rattled on, unable to stop myself—She fed him a bite of something to eat, something she cooked, I believe. And she looked so happy, when he ate it—my voice sounded high-pitched and breezy to my ear. It was not my voice at all, I thought, but the voice of someone making small talk at a cocktail party—so I was just standing here, waiting. Hoping she’d do it again. Because it was such a beautiful moment—on the overpass above, a train pulled into the BART station, exuding a long, high-pitched rasp, like a knife being dragged across a sharpening stone. A beautiful, beautiful moment… And no sooner had those final words left my mouth, I knew without a shadow of a doubt I’d made a terrible, terrible mistake—a grave error!—and that the security guard, as a result, had certainly pegged me, as a result, as a disturbed person, a deranged person, a person-of-interest, as they say—which, if you haven’t watched a trillion and one episodes of Law and Order, is police-speak for criminal, or likely criminal, or possible suspect—and it became patently clear to me then, in that fleeting moment, that the security guard was not about to let me remain on the sidewalk outside Market Hall, peering into the window of complete and total strangers, hoping to catch a glimpse of their intimate lives, certainly not mere steps from the establishment he’d been tasked with keeping safe—no, it was clear he wasn’t about to condone that sort of thing at all! And still, much to his credit, I should say, he managed to hold onto his poker face, maintaining an aura of calm even as he dealt with someone who constituted a public threat—which, I think we all can agree, is the mark of good law enforcement. Let it be stated for the record: I admired him for that. Behind him, the old geezer stood sentry at the door of Market Hall, the weight of his scrawny frame rolled onto the balls of his feet, as if poised to tackle me, should the need arise. I noted the geezer wore sunglasses, though we were well into night; who knows, perhaps he was blind. But the security guard turned away from me and fixed his sights on the window; we stood on the sidewalk, shoulder-to-shoulder, looking up. The two of us could’ve passed for a couple of gallery-goers, taking in a painting at a museum. And still, the man and woman in the window budged not an inch. So we watched; we waited. We failed to go on our way, the security guard of the green Technicolor-eyes and I, as the rain pelted us without end. And when the security guard finally spoke, breaking the long caesura, his voice seemed to come from somewhere both near and far away, as if broadcast from a radio on a distant planet. Yes, he said. A little laugh issued forth from under his breath—It was. He folded his arms and sighed, gazing at the window, as if in reverie. A beautiful, beautiful moment. And for some strange reason, this short, simple declaration terrified me more than anything I might have anticipated—more than any accusation of loitering or voyeurism, more than any gruff injunction to Move along now, more than any surly, fractious May I see your ID please?—and what I wanted all of a sudden, more than anything in the world, was this: To disappear. To vanish without a trace. So I ducked without a word into the doors of Market Hall, as if I’d been planning on shopping there all along, and roamed the aisles like a fugitive—heart pounding, breath bated, nerves raw and weirdly stretched to breaking point. I fastened my eyes on all the lovely logos and pretty packaging, pretending to scrutinize ingredients on labels, convinced the security guard was monitoring my every move, having come to the conclusion he was dealing with someone, as they say, not in her right mind. So, to make myself appear a respectable citizen, I went and purchased several items I didn’t need in the least: a pint of strawberry ice cream, for example, and a pack of shortbread cookies. I slapped my money down on the counter—as good as anyone’s!—but in case that still wasn’t enough to qualify me as a legitimate customer, I asked the lady behind the counter for a slice of lemon cheesecake.
Later, walking up Lawton Street to my car, all my treats stashed in my white, paper-handled bag with the elegant, Art Deco Market Hall logo, an ambrosial aroma wafted out from one particular house, a boxy bungalow, and smacked me upside the head. I’ve never had Beef Bourguignon cooked in red wine with shallots and butter, but I imagined the aroma came from a dish with a name like that. The fragrance was complicated, and multi-layered—even delicate, somehow—but balanced; solid. It struck me as a round-flavored smell, if that makes any sense. I thought, then, that maybe I should learn to cook—really cook. Because if you can find a way to make your home smell like that, I’ll bet you, dollars to doughnuts: Trouble will never follow you.
—October 30, 2021, Oakland, California
Kerry Muir‘s prose has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Crazyhorse, Riverteeth, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. Her essays “The Bridge” and “BLUR” were named as notable in Best American Essays 2011 and 2018. Her play “The Night Buster Keaton Dreamed Me,” and a one-act for children, “Befriending Bertha/Conociendo a Bertha,” were published in dual language editions (Spanish-English) by NoPassport Press, in their Dreaming the Americas series.