In another, more perfect universe, Charles doesn’t live in an army surplus tent by the Los Angeles River. In that reality, he’s an engineer who designs bridges for his boss Mr. Crawley, whose daughter Ginny is a friend. Their kids go on playdates, and they sit on the edge of playgrounds with apple slices in coolers. In that place, the river is allowed to flow mostly underground, and when they see it, they wonder why it would be called a river at all, not understanding how much water pulses under the sand, just out of sight.
In a second universe, Charles is allowed to live there in his tent. In our universe, however, Charles has schizophrenia, which he has treated with a cocktail of illegal drugs because they worked for a while until they stopped working, and he could not get any other treatment. In this world, he is drinking handfuls of water from the river when he’s rousted and moved downtown to skidrow and a world that terrifies him. Things make sense along the relative quiet banks. He likes to watch the great blue herons. They’re his favorite. He likes the ducks. He likes the raccoons.
The river flows inside him now. He is a part of the watershed that makes up this great valley as he is in all three universes. In all three, he feels uncomfortable in the city and takes a bus or car into the foothills to find himself. In each of these universes, he urinates into a bush, and the water that was in the river, the water that has passed through plants and creatures since the earth cooled, passes out of him once more, through the ground, and eventually into a treatment plant and then into the other parts of the watershed.
Perhaps this water passes into Ginny or Mr. Crawley. Perhaps it doesn’t. In this arid California where water must be used and reused, chances are it works its way through three other people before it reaches the ocean, gathering with it their collected wisdom and fears.
In the most perfect universe, Charles hikes for a couple of days and then tells Ginny about the sunset and the city lights. He talks about hearing the coyotes calling to each other at night. He tells her about sipping tea in his camp as he watched the city.
In this universe, however, something has happened inside of Charles, and as Ginny is coming out of a convenience store, he grabs her arm and screams at her in words that are a part of his private vocabulary. Though she is badly frightened, he moves off, and in a half an hour, she worries about him, hopes he’s safe. She talks to her father about this man, and they both speak abstractly about what they could do to help people like him.
The next day, as she drives on the 5th Street Bridge over the river, she thinks about her children and prays that they never have to face the horror that this man’s life has clearly become. She wonders where he will go. She imagines him wandering the desert. She thinks about him walking the foothills.
John Brantingham is Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks’ first poet laureate. His work has been featured in hundreds of magazines, Writers Almanac and The Best Small Fictions 2016. He has ten books of poetry and fiction including The L.A. Fiction Anthology (Red Hen Press), Crossing the High Sierra (Cholla Needles Press) and California Continuum: Migrations and Amalgamations (Pelekinesis Press) co-written with Grant Hier. He teaches at Mt. San Antonio College.
Approx. 550 words7