His hat is all bunched up between his pants leg and the stone, his top arm akimbo. There is barely more than a ten-inch space between the two rock walls at the short end of the crack, or crevasse, or whatever one would call this god awful place Baba Peng has wedged himself into.
When I’d come through the door with the buns and the lemonade, I’d half expected him to be sitting there in his dandruff-dusted chair like I’d known him to be all these years, smiling or frowning at the floor or the TV he’d forgotten how to operate a few Christmases ago. His thoughts, even back then, would catch his face off guard, and I seemed always to walk in at his most expressive moments. His grimace or grin would break and his eyes would float to me and we’d begin our song and dance of pleasantries that is now so routine it’s become almost like breathing. He didn’t used to love me coming over so often, but he never told me not to come, and he participated in the rigmarole fervently—my clue. I never had much to do after my shift at the corner store, and he was always gracious, pulling himself from whatever he was doing in his head to eat some of whatever I’d brought.
But not today. Today the corduroy house shoes he always wears sit neatly on the bare floor, as unfilled as his armchair.
His apartment is small. The bathroom door is open, revealing another vacancy. We live in the mountains, but the overnight storm has brought up some wet coastal air. The ocean ions dissolve in my lungs as I check the back alley for Baba Peng. Where would he have gone without his house shoes? They are the kind with the traction on the bottom, for house and for promenades to get the paper, which he always has gotten, even thought he can’t read well. He likes the pictures, he’s told me.
After the TV broke we started actually reading the news. We’d scoff at the horrors of the day and smile at the random goodness. His eyebrows would rise up if I didn’t give the blurb enough inflection, and sometimes he’d drift away to where he could create his own stories around the more boring ones: an exploded gas line, a terrorist cell in Buffalo, an old man stuck in a crevasse.
Happily, I have always done whatever Baba Peng has asked, which usually isn’t much, just things like getting his coat from whatever strange home it may have made on top of the toaster, or putting a straw in his juice, rinsing out the straw for him afterward. Maybe pulling up a slouching sock.
I don’t see his coat anywhere, and I know that his house shoes are the only shoes he wears, so why are they here without him?
When I was little, I liked to be a backpack. My own personal Baba, not this other unwitting Baba I’ve co-opted into kinship, used to wear me around like a backpack, and we’d go hunting in the creek for newts. My bare feet would climb his hips all the way up to the top where the view was better and it was safe. I’d hang from his neck with my orangutan arms.
I’m sure I was gangly and cloying even then, but my personal Baba didn’t mind, and this one hasn’t much seemed to either. Only when he is really thinking. But even then he’ll just think away. I’ll wipe his countertops or roll his non-slip socks into oversized balls while he mines the deepest parts of himself. If I run out of helpfulness before he’s finished thinking, I’ll excuse myself home.
Baba Peng and I met right after my parents died and my boyfriend disintegrated and my cat marched off into the wilderness to go pass away in privacy maybe to spare me, ineffectually, a third trauma. I had gotten a job at the corner store, the same job I have now, selling loose cigarettes and packaged liquor and microwave burritos to the same people. Baba Peng had seen me all the way from the sidewalk. He’d had just a cane then, not the walker he uses now. The walker that is unattended in the bathroom, where he is not.
I don’t know why, but when he looked at me through the window, I waved at him. A big wave like he was someone I knew well and was glad to see. Maybe I waved like that because he had been looking at me as if he recognized me, too. He’d motioned in a way that said he was excited to tell me something, this stranger in house shoes on the sidewalk. He’d pivoted from his trajectory and come rushing toward the store with a haste that took him straight through the plate glass window. The window had shattered into millions of safety glass squares, which showered down all around Baba Peng and then shimmered angelically on his feet and shoulders. He just stood there, looking at me and the two customers like we’d never seen someone walk through a plate glass window before. People came running to help, but Baba Peng insisted that he was fine. He tried to hand me a hundred dollar bill, for the window, but I told him the owner was on the way, and that I was sure there was insurance for this kind of thing. I was embarrassed. Kids stood around with ice cream dripping down their chins gawking at the man who still had pieces of glass atop his shoulders. He waved them on. The owner came and asked me to walk Baba Peng home.
That’s how we met in this life. In the other ones I can’t be sure. Baba Peng said it involved corn in one and an ocean in another. Maybe we had been sailors together or brothers on a farm. Maybe he’d been my mom.
Before my mom died she’d been sent to a facility in Lakewood. It had shared bathrooms and creepily enthusiastic counselors who seemed to want nothing more than to help people with their cheer. I did everything I could to not seem creepily enthusiastic when I showed up on Baba Peng’s doormat the day after he walked through the window. And I can’t say I’ve ever brought anything resembling cheer in all the days and years since, and I’ve treasured not having to.
Why is his walker in the bathroom?
I know he uses his pointer finger, gnarled around the joints, like a shoehorn to slip his beloved house shoes on and off. He corrects me every time I call them slippers, because they have traction on the bottom so that makes them more regal. It is one of our song-and-dances.
Baba Peng has a daughter named Christine. I call the number next to her name on the yellowed piece of paper taped by the phone and tell her he’s missing. She seems more concerned with who I am and why I am in his house than where her father is, but I guess that’s to be expected. I am surprised he’s never mentioned me, but then again, I am not. She says if she doesn’t hear back from me in an hour she will call the police. It is only after I hang up that I realize she meant she’d call them on me.
Since his own mother didn’t have a particularly fruitful experience at either Rosamonde or Coral Ridge, my personal Baba distrusted those kinds of facilities, intrinsically. It was like he couldn’t even see them as options, so stupid he thought they were. He refused to visit his wife, my mother, the whole time she was at Lakewood. I remember her eating the bits of black olives out of the cup of cold pasta salad, then telling the nurse she was so full she couldn’t possibly take another bite. When the nurse left, my mother would wink at me in gratitude for the fifth I’d snuck in.
I was fifteen when she’d gotten out, and by the time I was seventeen they were both dead. Before then, she’d figured out what offenses she could get away with from my father, but when she’d gotten me arrested for driving her without a permit and the police found a comatose and shirtless drifter in the backseat who I had no knowledge of, and my mother swore up and down that she did not either, that was the final straw. My Baba had tolerated quite a lot from this part-time stranger he’d married—mysterious bed sand, mood swings, memory loss. But the shirtless drifter and the arrested daughter had been too much. This was my last memory of them together on the side of the road. My father talking the police into setting me free from their cruiser, my mother dreamily tottering on his arm. The shirtless hitchhiker drifted off into the woods, although I think I imagined this exit. I don’t really know how he escaped the awkward scene in real life.
Soon enough I moved from the beach to the mountains. A tranquil town where I had nothing to offer myself or anyone else but blame that bounced around the valleys until I got so sick of its echo that I stopped yodeling out my pain. Mine was the kind of pain that pisses you off it hurts so badly, and all you want to do is find the person responsible and beat them to a bloody pulp. In my case the person had been me—a kind of rock and a hard place situation too.
Baba Peng has nubby, tiny, feet and square toes. They needed lotion a few months ago so I borrowed a Nivea tin from work and just started doing it for him, moisturizing. I don’t know why. He didn’t ask me to. It seemed a little Jesusy to me, but it had to be done. His heels were cracking deeply and his house wasn’t exactly clean. I didn’t ask where Christine was, but in all the years I knew him, she never once walked through his door.
My feet are not nubby, but my mother’s were. She had Mexican feet, Aztec feet with Spanish arches, square and brown. Conquistador sailors had married the stubby-toed natives, or at least in body did, traded guns and blankets and tea and sugar for them, blew their other husbands to bits so they could genetically infuse their toes and cheekbones with the future. Feet walked these women right out of their towns and temples. Feet walked the woman who didn’t submit right off the plank. I imagine her feet didn’t even kick in the waves, so certain was she that she’d return to get her revenge in some other way, later. Mexican feet. Chicana feet. Me.
Feet walk you to the mailbox, down the aisle, to work, to the bathroom, toward or away from the wrong people. If you’re lucky or unlucky, maybe they walk you to your death, or to your soulmate, or to the lab where you get the results, to the video store where you meet the lady who gives you the cat that becomes your best friend until its feet walk it off into the woods to die without witness. Feet do every single part of living and get very little acknowledgment.
Baba Peng’s feet deserved lotion. And wherever they have walked him to, they deserve to be warmed in these old house shoes, or at least his non-slip socks. I shove a sock ball into my pocket and take off down the street toward the monstrous bougainvillea, which we read about in the paper yesterday. It bloomed unnaturally in the winter and is quite a sight, apparently.
Baba Peng’s feet had walked him straight out of a guerrilla war and hauntings of a baby brother who had floated away down a river with a name I can’t pronounce well. He had pictures of a wife, but there were no more taken or displayed on the shelf in his bedroom after she looked about my age. He rarely mentioned Christine. I sometimes wondered what he’d done to make her flee him, but I never asked. I didn’t think I’d care what it was, but also didn’t need to know.
Feet take us from weird places to even weirder places, and if they ever left any prints from where we came they’ve been long paved over. There are no footprints like crumbs in the forest to show us the way back. So we tell our stories about those places to try to make sense of the history and the people whose lives we’ve walked out of. Baba Peng and I have a shared heritage, a birthright to the same place. A place that is long gone.
I am holding the paper bag of buns in one hand and his house shoes in the other. They are the same corduroy slippers that he ferried shards of glass back home on long ago, the same ones I’d banged out over the railing, praying that I wasn’t sprinkling baby birds with safety glass before I said goodbye. I had felt on that day that I was invited back, so I’ve returned every day since. This is maybe the two-thousandth time I’ve returned, and the first time he’s ever not been here.
Under the bougainvillea bush two children are standing on their tiptoes trying to catch a small bird that is hopping back and forth between the branches. The bird is humoring them, dipping from perch to perch, delighting them with the possibility of being just within their reach, knowing it could never be caught. This was love, it had to be.
I’d half hoped Baba Peng would be there, inspecting the papery blossoms. Down past the park is the creek, and to the side of the creek a drainage area where a big stone wall had been fortified with cinderblocks and rough cement. I don’t know why my feet brought me here, but I assume it’s because his bare nubs left psychic prints for me to follow in the sand. He is stuck deep in the darkness of the crack between the walls, wedged in tight on the far end. I can see his eyes in the dark, familiar as they had been through the window. Put your arms around my neck, I say, like a backpack.