Compassion

[StoryADay May prompt: “The Power of Three“, but really I brought together anecdotal and some autobiographical material and mixed them together in unsettled fiction that left me a little unsatisfied, because I’m not exactly sure what I’m trying to say.]

What else to do but leave it alone, the lizard in my bathroom. It stared up at me, I imagine, because it was mortified by such awkward heights. Not lofty, only frightening, like a looming predatory bird backlit by the sun, either hungry or falling, and either way, too huge to mean safety.

But safety did I mean. There are certain critters I don’t want in my bathroom, most of them insects. A solitary little lizard? It could have at it. I prefer not to be scared by sudden appearances, but if it kept to its corners and I kept to mine, then I thought we would be just fine.

Only that is not what the lizard needed. What the lizard needed for me to do is to accept its fright, lift it carefully, and carry it outside where it belongs. In the morning I found it in the same spot between the bathtub and the toilet. I peed. It did not move. I was compelled to watch it move. It did not. I rolled out a length of toilet paper, tore it off, and approached slowly, hoping to scare it back into a corner. It did not move.

Possibilities played in my head. A heart attack. I had given it a heart attack at last night’s meeting. It’s wee heart had seized right then and there. Except I remembered it had moved away when I stepped too near. Then I must have crushed it in the night. Waking up to pee one of several times I must have stepped in the dark and crushed it beneath my foot. Even so little, though, I was certain no matter how groggy I was I would have felt that on the sole of my foot. Starvation, then. Unable to find its way out of the clean room bathroom environment I keep, it must have starved. What exactly was there to eat in a clean bathroom? I normally carried critters out, if I saw them. Hadn’t spotted any in days, not until the lizard. Maybe it lacked an easy source of water and died of thirst. In a room of water, the drops were contained in bowls and sinks, behind faucets, and mopped up with a towel as soon as I spilled any. Thirsty and starving, the lizard had made it back to the spot where I had spotted it, to let me know that this was my fauilt.

I had left it here to die.

I picked up the lizard with the tissue, half expecting it to move. It was solidly limp. I dropped it in the trash. Perhaps it would have been better to drop it outside, for another creature to snack on it.

I have no idea about such things. I have no idea how to take care of all the possible creatures that might enter my home.


The man is following me too closely.

It was a good day, just me and my friend. We met in Scottsdale, Arizona, a two-hour drive for me, a three-hour flight for him. In Scottsdale I could show him how the other half lives, since I don’t live there, will never have the means to, and still there are places I’ve been to there he hasn’t ever been. That makes me the two-hour drive resident expert.

The clothing-optional “resort” for men is not in Scottsdale. It’s in the dry heart of Phoenix on one of the major roads leading east, eventually, to Scottsdale. When we arrived, we rang at the gate, were allowed in, and were passionately flirted with by the owner. The resort cannot possibly be a sex club, though men usually only come for an hour or two and not to stay four nights and five days.

At the pool I kept my swim trunks on. No one was there the first day except the blinds that moved in the window of a room on the second floor above the pool.Checked to see that I had not yet removed my trunks. Or that my friend hadn’t removed his. He didn’t either. Who cares.

And then two older guys flopped out for a swim and after saying hello we kept rotating around each other in the pool like the other pair was a reflection. I thought about how their dicks were in the water and how mine was, too, but hidden, and all of us being rinsed, and, well, I got out of the pool and tried to tan, but it was too hot and I was too flustered and it was a lot cooler in my room…

Day two, and we went to Scottsdale. First stop: a fashion mall and neither of us with money or a reason to buy anything. I did get stopped by a beautiful young woman who told me I was a handsome man and she had products that would keep wrinkles at bay and rejuvenate my skin. I sat through her entire demo, including her hands on my hands, the gritty application, the revelation about how much dirt was in my pores, and the smooth and clean skin she left behind. There was not enough product to wash away the rage on her face when I thanked her and said no thank you.

“I mean, I don’t usually do things like that, but I’m on vacation, and I was curious, but I wasn’t going to buy anything.”

My friend laughed at me.

We had enough high fashion and I was hungry, so we headed to the Dos Gringos. Maybe the other half comes here. I don’t know. I just know I liked their patio, seafood tacos, and margaritas. It’s also the only restaurant I’d ever been to in Scottsdale, back when I used to live in Phoenix with a different friend, a married straight friend, and I was following wherever he wanted me to go like a puppy interested in more than just the best fish tacos in Scottsdale, but eating them over unrequited hopes anyway. Anyway, I was the Scottsdale expert, I remembered how to get there, and so I found a place to park and when me and my friend were seated under palm trees, I liked the old memories for a change.

Maybe the other half doesn’t bar hop. Maybe all the parts of Scottsdale it is easy to reach are all the places where my half come to pretend we had any idea at all about the rich and their activities. Maybe there is a wall somewhere. I’ve never been in Scottsdale long enough to find it, to try to cross it, to be rebuked. Come play in Scottsdale; don’t stay.

Gay bars, straight bars, every bar, streets of them easy to walk and that’s how we spent our second night.

And there’s a man following me too closely.

He’s down on his luck. We saw him a few bars back, asking someone for change. Imagine that: a man who seems drunk, among hundreds of drunk men and women, and the only difference is, he doesn’t seem to be having any fun.

And he’s dirty and his clothes are ragged and never were fashionable. Somehow he ended up behind me when I walked out of a bar. We keep walking. My friend nudges me. I point across the street. Say something loud like “Oh, I don’t think we’ve checked the bars on the other side of the street.” He’s right behind me. We dive through the door of the first bar we reach. Turns out it’s a restaurant. That’s fine. I’m hungry again. That’s fine. He doesn’t follow us in. He stops by the outside tables and chairs packed with outside patrons. Leans against the short stucco wall separating them from the sidewalk.

We talk about what we should do. I look around for another exit. Unless we find a way out the back, we’ll have to hope he eventually gets bored and moves on. He doesn’t seem to be looking for us. He looks lost, but I realize he might be following currents, and I just happened to be a current he got caught up in.

I think we tell each other about how we shouldn’t give money. Read that somewhere. Don’t give them money, because you don’t know how they will spend it. I also read that you should buy them something to eat. While we’re debating whether or not we should do that, we order food for ourselves. While we’re eating he’s still out there.

The waitress walks up to him and I’m certain she is telling him he needs to move on, find another place to stay. She puts a hand on his shoulder. I find that touching. A nice gesture. Now move along. But he doesn’t move, and she comes back into the restaurant and corresponds with a bartender. Asking for help, I think. The bartender pulls out a mug from beneath the counter, fills it was coffee, sets it down on a round tray, rummages below the counter again, and brings out a small container of dairy half and half, which he also places on the tray. The waitress picks it up, carries it outside, and I think she is taking it to a customer, but instead she walks up to the homeless man and offers the mug to him.

He nods. He says words I cannot hear through the window. He reaches for the half and half, attempts to pour some into the mug on the tray she is holding, but his hands shake and the half and half splatters. He looks frustrated. She nods her head, balances the tray on the stucco wall, and helps him pour, her hands on his hands, guiding him.

He drinks, still shaking, but carefully. A table opens up a few feet away and she guides him to it, encourages him to sit down while she starts gathering the empty glasses and dishes to clear a spot for his mug of coffee.

The waitress acts with compassion I would never have considered. I don’t know where that leaves me, but it leaves me in a dangerous, precarious place that finds me sober and quiet and driving us back to the resort where there are plenty of men now and the raw nudity of it all leaves me exhausted and quick to bed while my friend engages with them like the extrovert he is. Hours later he asks what happened to me. What happened to me was there’s a waitress in Scottsdale who did more in a few minutes than I will ever do in my entire life.


She’s shy, but so are all of us. It’s the first day of writing workshop.

We introduce ourselves. She says her name and how her kids paid for her registration as a gift. She’s never been to a workshop, she says, and she’s never written poetry before, and she hopes she doesn’t embarrass herself.

She sits in her seat at the table where we have gathered as if she’s embarrassed by what she’s wearing, by her weight, by her age. I guess she’s in her fifties. She mentions the children are grown. She doesn’t talk very long at all, but it was long enough to apologize for imposing on the rest of us her inexperience.

The teacher says soothing things. I smile at the woman, but she doesn’t look up much. What I think as the rest of the group introduces themselves is that too many of them are saying uncaring things about themselves. Isn’t this, I want to ask out loud, the place you go to begin? How can this be a beginning when you are so certain you have already failed? When it is my turn, I mention that I’m looking forward to everyone’s feedback to help my own work, and I’m looking forward to help in anyway I can. It sounds like I’m bragging, so I keep it really short.

Even though it is our first day, the teacher wanted us to bring in a page of our writing to share with everyone else. Someone will read our page outloud, and then we will jump into critiques. We pass out our pages, resulting in a stack of eleven, and the teacher randomly picks the first one to read.

The woman looks mortified. The teacher asks her what the experience was like writing her page, what she felt good about and what she didn’t, and what kind of feedback she was looking for from the rest of us. She cannot tell us any of these things, however. Instead, she bemoans her amateur status. “I really shouldn’t be here.”

It’s a cry for help and I don’t find it irritating. I say unprompted “We all have to start somewhere,” I look at the teacher, “and this is a safe place for us, right?”

The teacher agrees wholeheartedly. She lectures about it for awhile, about why the workshop is open to everyone of any writing ability, or none at all, and when we offer our critiques we should keep that in mind. She tells us what she wants to hear from our critiques: not personal attacks, not likes or dislikes, but elements of the writing that are working, and suggestions for how to make the writing even better. And because this is the first meeting, she will jump in frequently to gently nudge critiques toward helpful statements.

What I like about the woman’s poetry is the way it is grounded in what may or may not be objects in her own life. No, I think to myself, I don’t find her poems particularly well written, but what I do find, if she’s telling the truth about never having dabbled in poetry before, is how many bad elements of bad poetry she is avoiding. So when it is my turn to offer her my thoughts about her poetry, I focus on just that: how as a reader I feel like I am in the narrator’s space, how I can reach out and touch the objects the narrator mentions, and how it would be great to see even more of these objects, and how they interact with the scene, the narrator, each other.

“Really lovely work,” I finish. We all chime in with similar thoughts. It’s all very supportive. I think I am going to love this workshop. I wish my undergraduate workshops had been so helpful and team-oriented.

Our teacher seems struck by the way we critique each others poetry that first session. At the end of workshop, she praises us. The best and most supportive first day of workshop she has ever taught. We got it. Keep it up!

The woman new to poetry seems, in my opinion, to be much more relaxed by the end of workshop. Just before I leave, I say to her that I’m looking forward to reading more of her poetry.

The woman never comes back again. We finish the ten-week session and someone brings up her name as we are parting. The teacher mentions she never heard from her. No refund request. No apology. Someone dares to speculate that something might have happened to her.

I don’t mention how I saw her yesterday. At the grocery store. How I started to walk toward her, but instead went down a different aisle.

Poetry is in the mystery of it all. The moments of mystery especially. How we hold onto the hope that we might still glean something: an image, an idea, a fleeting sensation. I wanted to ask her if she was fine, if she was still writing, if she thought she might try a later session. Some mysteries, though, are better left unresolved.

By people as uncaring as me.

StoryADay May 2016 Day 30

Published by

Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet living in Tucson, Arizona. His poetry has been published in Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey and Fairy Tale Review’s “Fairy-Tale Files“.