Red oak leaves circled the edge of the parking lot just to the left of Ben’s head. He watched them swirl in mid-air like cardinals, zigzagging from hedge to fence to light post; all three seemed to be looking anywhere but at him. A few leaves finally gave in and fell face-up around him, but they didn’t say a word. The charity bins sat in silence nearby. Eventually he watched the whirling mass clamor over the hedge and scatter into the yards of the neighborhood beyond. The corner of the church across the pavement stood erect like a spine. Its broad, gray shoulders blocked his view of the busy city street. Only the wind acknowledged Ben, nudging his left side.
Through the bushes, Ben saw what looked like a long, thin earring swinging on a tree branch. The name of the thing escaped him. He also couldn’t think of any reason a tree would need jewelry, but there she was: her hair piled high like green meringue, her solemn face questioning his presence. A parking lot is a byway, not a point of destination, she said. Are you a hooligan? Only hooligans waste time in parking lots and only homeless people sleep in them. An alarm rose above the breeze…cicadas, that was the word. Maybe those cicadas had been sounding all along, he couldn’t remember. Panic shot up his spine: his thoughts were so slow. The cicadas’ drone rattled in his hips, his ribs, his head. The sun peeked out from behind a cloud, flashing light on the car keys about halfway between him and the church. A leaf landed on the key ring…no, that was a CVS card attached to the key chain. Those were his keys, but how did they get out of his pocket?
Hummingbird feeders, that was the name for the tree earrings.
He was aware of the car beside him and then of a sound, the smack of liquid hitting pavement. The hatchback door was raised, an iris dilated in surprise. In the back of the car, Ben knew, sat a box of donations: a few old blankets, a frisbee from Tybee Island, ice skates, some old leather belts. Up front on a clipboard in the passenger’s seat, his work ID waited for him. He could imagine his smile in the photograph on the plastic card, a relic of his days before the break-up. At the bottom, his name loomed in all-caps, his last name just barely fitting within the margins. Ben remembered flashing the card to the church office assistant before stepping into the class he taught.
He needed to call someone. In the space between the radio console and the stick shift lie his cell phone. Behind the cracked display and the over-designed icons— the stylized F in the blue square, the white envelope edged in red, the black mask on a yellow field— were pathways to his friends, his mother, and Philip, the guy he’d met a few weeks ago. His friends would ask questions, his mother would cry, but Philip was also a social worker. He would not be afraid of seeing people at their lowest, which means he would enter that church parking lot, observe the open trunk and the wandering keys and the blood on Ben’s shirt, and he would take over. No explanation needed.
But, no, they would have taken his phone. And his wallet. The muggers. His headache stomped and he retched again. Black loafers skimmed into Ben’s periphery. He looked up.
“Sir? You ok? Can you tell me what happened?”
Yes…no, something was in the way.
She reconstructed a smile, the kind flight attendants reserved for saying goodbye to passengers. “That’s ok. Can you nod for me so I know you understand?”
The woman was backlit, but Ben was still struck by the contour of her neck sliding past the collar of her uniform. Maybe he had misunderstood her smile. He tried to reach for her sleeve but his arms refused.
“Someone’s messed you up pretty bad,” she said, “and I think maybe you have a concussion, so I’m going to let you rest there. But I won’t leave until the ambulance comes, ok?”