by Sean Taylor
He feared growing up to be the kind of man that would invent the back scratcher, to be that kind of alone.
It seemed as if the rain came down all day in fifteen-minute increments every thirty minutes. Josh stood at the window of his third-floor apartment on Haight street with an old stopwatch his grandfather left him, and he watched. He watched dark and light clouds come in from the west, and the rain they carried with them. He watched and he waited for the umbrellas of the passer-bys to bloom. When the umbrellas opened he started the stopwatch, and when they closed he stopped it. He pressed his weight into the glass of the window with his left shoulder and forehead, not at all concerned that should the glass break, his fall would be fatal.
At two o’clock, after two hours of these timed measurements of precipitation, he gave up and went out. He estimated that his journey west, into the storm, into Golden Gate Park, would take roughly half an hour walking, or ten minutes on his bike. These estimates were made with a thread of string against an old map- it matched the length of the legend’s measured mile. The string was yanked from an old sock, abandoned due to the liability of its holes, one on the heel, the other small and thinning on the corner of the smallest toe. He used the once-sock-string to measure the distance between his apartment and the Japanese Tea Garden. It was slightly over one mile away.
Sure enough once outside his door the umbrellas of fellow commuters shot up and out in a burst of resistance. Josh, with less than the budget of an umbrella owner, simply threw his hood over his crestfallen head and pushed forward. The pedestrian traffic seemed minimal as he walked up Haight Street, and he wondered how many other onlookers spied dry spells from bay windows for optimal travel times. How many others would give up and go out in the end, succumbing to such inconveniences?
His coat was large, brown, and in the style of a longshoreman or a military dock hand. It ended just above his knees and collected a number of cargo pockets which he left mostly empty. He enjoyed the anonymity and warmth of it, its blanketed fashion not in the least aesthetically pleasing. Once into the park he placed his headphones into his ears and set his Music player to shuffle the entirety of his music catalog.
On his walk he listened to Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence twice back-to-back merely by chance. The first instance of the song was supplied by their Greatest Hits album, the second coming from the soundtrack to one of his favorite films, The Graduate. He originally took this as some sort of an omen- as random chance is often mistakenly taken. The fact that out of some three thousand songs on his music player the only repeat possible should strike him here, now, on a rainy day like today, left him questioning more than it should have. He did listen to the encore in its entirely, and then silently thanked his player for the beautiful coincidence by sliding his thumb across the screen, ensuring it stayed dry.
To his surprise, after paying the entrance fee, Josh found the Tea Garden nearly free of tourists. He approached the still scene with a hesitancy, peering around the tall deep green manicured topiary, assuming behind something, anything, hoards of loud obnoxious sightseers would be perched. Yet again, and again, they were not. Throughout his five years in San Francisco he never knew the Japanese Tea garden to be serene, or peaceful, or meditative, as he always dreamed it would be.
The tea garden was in theory his heaven from everyone. He fully embraced the koi ponds’ quiet harmony, or the delicate lines combed into the sand gardens. He always wanted to rake that sand until it was his, his millions upon millions of tiny rocks, his galaxy aligned.
He took a seat facing the small creek after ordering a pot of green tea and some almond cookies from the cafe. He placed his standing order number outside of his view, raised his head to the sky, and closed his eyes. Last night in his sleep he found a dream of this place. He decided after waking, regardless of weather, he would follow that dream. He would recreate it to the best of his ability, as a day hobby. In the dream he found himself alone somewhere he only knew people to be, and it was quiet, except for the rain. The rain fell to find gutters, ledges and rooftops in the off timing to the percussion track of every storm. Josh closed his eyes and waited for it all to steady in peace, as it did in his dream.
“What’s your name?” She asked him first. Her question came flooding in from his dry shower. His eyes opened to a small girl, with straight black hair and small black eyes. She looked to him no older than nine or ten. She was dressed in a long thick white coat that came down past her knees to her ankles, where large white boots shot back up her legs. She was kept covered, nearly completely, save her tiny hands and her face.
“Josh, my name is Josh. What’s yours?”
“My name is Emily… What are you doing?”
“I’m listening to the rain, shh, can you hear that?” he said, hoping to either bore or occupy her. Both would keep her subdued, either would do just fine. “Close your eyes and look up. Breathe in the rain. Smell it and just listen.”
She did do as he asked, mostly, kind of, she only peeked at him a little from the corner of her eye. After two long breaths she exclaimed, “I don’t like to close my eyes, it’s too dark. I don’t like to sleep, either.”
What he said next he did not think to say.
“Well, you know you should get used to it. After this life is over that’s all there is, just closed eyes and the sound of rain.”
He caught himself off guard after saying that. She was a child, regardless of his poor mood, Simon and Garfunkel, or the weather. He put his hand over his mouth and touched his lips as if expecting pain from making such a crude statement. Nonetheless she responded cool as ever.
“How do you know?” she asked.
“I don’t, I just figure.”
“Well I thought after life you go to Heaven. My mom says in Heaven your shoes never get untied. My shoes are always getting untied, that’s why I have to wear boots; I just slip them on.”
“Well, what if I just like the sound of rain with my eyes closed? Can that be my Heaven?”
The tea arrived, and after the waitress disappeared Josh added about two ounces of cheap brandy from an aluminum flask he pulled out of the very large breast pocket of his coat.
Emily watched him add the brandy without flinching. She seemed to think less than anything of it however, as if he were merely adding sugar or cream to his coffee.
“I guess so,” she continued, “I mean, if you liked the sound of rain so much with your eyes closed, wouldn’t you never get anything else done? Why not just go to Heaven now then?”
Josh soon became concerned, he felt trifled with even. With no idea where this girl’s parents were he felt chosen to babysit the obligation of staying alive, as it is now embodied in a small girl named Emily.
He took a large pull at his tea, then broke one of the almond cookies in half, and presented it to her. Glancing down he noticed it was nearly the size of her entire hand. She accepted the cookie. She ate it much like the squirrels across the path did, with both hands close to her mouth, nibbling around the almond in the center. Josh saw this as an opportunity to tell Emily exactly what was going to happen if you go to Heaven of your own accord.
“You see, if you go to Heaven on purpose…” He started and stopped, endlessly careful with each word. He listened to them as if they were being told to him by a wiser, older Josh. “You don’t get to go to Heaven. It’s like the eleventh commandment or something. You go to a place that’s the opposite of Heaven, where your shoes are always untied.”
He swallowed the vacuum these words leaving left, the great absence they created asking him suddenly to breathe. Emily, unfaltering, just kept on.
“My mom also says that in Heaven your hair stays the perfect length and you never have to cut it, it is always perfect.”
“Well, in opposite Heaven every time you make scrambled eggs the shells break into a million pieces, then you spend eternity picking them out of the yolk.”
Josh gave up. He was on a one-way train to his truth. I’m sorry Emily, he thought, but you started this. He coughed slightly, and then took two more strong pulls at his brandy tea.
“I bet in Heaven when you trim your fingernails they always tear just right across, they never bleed.”
“Well, in opposite heaven your socks are always inside-out, no matter what, and forever wet around the collar.”
“In heaven you never get a runny nose because everything smells so good. It smells like flowers, not like stupid rain.”
Emily was becoming fussy, Josh could sense it. Josh was already fussy, and Emily knew it.
“Oh yeah. In opposite Heaven when you put on a belt it never fits right, one hole is too tight, and the next hole is way too loose.”
“Nobody wears belts in real Heaven, ‘cause they don’t wear pants.”
“They don’t wear pants?” Josh asked.
“No, they wear robes. Haven’t you seen the pictures?”
Emily was right, she knew she was right. Josh knew she was right too.
“Emily, get over here, your brother is sick, we have to go home,” a woman’s voice called from behind them both. Emily spun lightly at the sound of her mother’s voice, and in doing so dropped what was left of the cookie. Josh raised his head to the reprieve of this woman’s voice, no longer looking down on Emily.
“I have to go now. Goodbye.” Emily said quickly. She would have said, “Have a nice day,” had it yet been introduced into her vocabulary, but it wasn’t, so she didn’t.
Sean Taylor has work forthcoming in Pantheon Magazine, he has published fiction in Instant City, Evergreen Review, 16th and Mission Review and was nominated for The 2012 Pushcart Prize by Sparkle and Blink. He is currently working on his second collection. San Francisco is his home.