Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Contemporary Literature

ISSN 1931-3888

Volume 13, Number 2
(Fall 2018)

Copyright © 2018
by Leah Browning, Editor.

All future rights to
material published
in the
Apple Valley
are retained by
the individual authors
and artists.
Fiction by John Garcia

      She holds a yellow feather.
      —Do you know anything about birds? she asks.
      He shakes his head, no, and moves over to make room for her
on a bench in the bus shelter at the corner of 10 A Avenida and 24
Calle.  Fog rolls in and weights this lethargic morning in Guatemala
City.  He closes his jacket against the lingering mist and waits.
      The woman brushes a lank strand of gray hair from her face and
cups the feather in her hand.  She wants to talk, he thinks.  Why else
would she have asked him about a feather?  He hopes the bus arrives
soon.  The silence and his conviction she wants to speak make him
uneasy.  He’s used to his own company.  Well, what do you think we
should do this afternoon? he’ll ask himself.  The sound of his voice
breaks the solitude of his apartment and the ears of his dog perk up
and then relax.  Like an undertow, the silence that follows the
unanswered question pulls everything with it until all that is left is his
hope that something in the ether––spirits, energy, he has heard various
notions––was listening.
      —Well, the woman says.  
      He stares at his feet.  Out of the corner of his left eye, he can see
her looking straight ahead but she might as well be looking at him
because of the way he feels her next to him and her desire to talk.  He
does not mean to be rude but he doesn’t know how to respond.  He has
grown so used to living alone that what social skills he had have all but
disappeared.  His wife, Martina, was the chatty one.
      He doesn’t know what to think.  A woman alone sitting in a bus
shelter a little after seven on a Saturday morning?  Well, he just doesn’t
know.  He’s going downtown to Sophos, a bookstore.  He started three
books recently but none of them held his interest.  This morning, he
decided to buy another one.  Sophos won’t open until nine.  He’ll stop
for a cup of coffee nearby.  He couldn’t sleep.  Lying in bed and staring
at the ceiling seemed less appealing than just getting up and doing
      He’s heard that reading helps keep the mind active and wards off
senility.  That and exercise, so he makes a point to read each day and
take his dog out.  His neighbors dub him
el paseador de perros because
they see him three or four times a day with his dog in Zone 10, strolling
near the National Equestrian Association of Guatemala.  The moniker
makes him feel terribly self-conscious.  His neighbors must think he has
nothing better to do.  He’s retired, yes, but the idea that people presume
he has time on his hands bothers him deeply.  He doesn’t think of
himself as retired any more than he does a widower.  How would he
describe himself?  He can’t say.  He gets up in the morning.  He sees the
day through.  He occupies his time until he sleeps.  Is that not what we
all do in one fashion or another? he wonders.  He wishes people would
leave him alone and mind their own lives without jumping to conclusions
about his.
      —Well, the woman says again.  
      He had almost forgotten her.  He forces a smile to be polite.  She
lives in a small apartment, he presumes, possibly on 13 Calle, near a
shopping mall.  Maybe she has a roommate or lives with a friend.  She’s
not wearing a ring so he supposes she’s not married, although who
knows these days, right?  She probably made tea this morning and ate
fried plantains, cream, and tortillas.  He had fruit.  He doesn’t drink tea,
never has, but he wakes up early, unable to break years of routine when
from this very corner he caught the eight o’clock bus to his office at
Azteca Bank.  Sometimes, he walks his dog past the bank and peers
through the windows but he recognizes no one there now.  However, his
dog is old, has arthritis, and more often than not he takes it for much
shorter walks than would be required to reach the bank.  He gives the
dog all sorts of pills to loosen his joints and ease the pain, about as many
pills as he now takes for blood pressure, cholesterol, and God knows
what else.  The dog was already old when he picked him up at a shelter
in Antigua after Martina died.  He’d wanted a puppy.  A woman behind
the front desk told him to complete a questionnaire.  Among other
things, it asked his age.  He wrote his birthdate and the woman looked
at it and frowned.  She explained that dogs can live up to fifteen years.  
Judging by your birthdate, you’ll be eighty in fifteen years, she said.  
Was he intending to make plans if––she became flustered at this point––
something should happen?  Who would take the dog then?  
      —You think I might die? he asked.
      Her faced turned red.  She opened her mouth but sounded like
someone choking.  She didn’t know what to say and he enjoyed her
discomfort.  He didn’t think of his age as a sign of impending doom any
more than he did his retirement.  He gave the woman the name of his
niece.  She’ll take the dog, he said, and then added, if I die before it
does, just to see her squirm, but she didn’t.  She had resigned herself to
the candor such a discussion required and looked at him without flinching
so that faced with his own mortality in the blunt, steadiness of her gaze,
he turned away and wondered, what if I do die?  
      —Perhaps an older dog would be preferable, he said sheepishly.
      The woman suggested a seven-year-old black lab.
      Martina would have handled the situation differently.  She would
have said,
Here is the name of my niece.  You can confirm with her
that she will take the dog if I pass away before it does.
 Pass away.  
Such a ridiculous expression, he thinks.  People don’t just float off
somewhere like dissembling strands of smoke.  They die.  Yet, when
Martina died, he could not say that she’d died.  He could not fathom
applying that word to her.  If he mentioned her death at all, he said she
was gone.  Like, she’d gone shopping and would be back in an hour.  
He avoided friends, the sorrowful, commiserating looks they gave him,
and he stopped answering the phone and eventually they stopped calling
and dropping by.  He found the solitary, empty quiet of his now-still
apartment comforting in that its silence became a kind of companion that
also left him alone.  He rationalized the absence of people in his life as a
long-sought effort to have some time to himself.  
      After he brought the dog home, he gave it a bed of blankets and a
water bowl.  He sat across from it in his living room and waited to see
what would happen, anticipating how this addition to his life would
change things.  He watched the dog as it stared back at him until he grew
bored.  After an hour he took it out.  Then he resumed his position in the
living room and waited until the next time the dog needed to relieve itself.  
He didn’t name it to maintain an appropriate, almost formal, distance
between them.  The dog would always be dependent on him but he did
not want to be dependent on it.  Now,
Sin Nombre, as he has come to
think of the dog, is fifteen and still here.  So is he.  
      —Do you know the bike trail through Plaza Mayor de la
Constitucion? the woman asks.
      He doesn’t.  He hears himself answer, No, his voice sounding
hoarse and far away.  He has not spoken to anyone this morning.  With
Sin Nombre, he does not need to speak.  He just shows the dog its
leash and it responds.  After their walk, he washed some clothes.  
Martina always complained that he didn’t separate whites from colors.  
She never stayed angry with him for long.  They’d always laugh at the
absurdity of something he’d ruined in the wash.  He still throws
everything together.  This morning, his right hand shook when he
poured the soap.  He doesn’t know what to think of that.  
      —It was so wet out when I started walking this morning to the
park, the woman says.
      She goes on about how fog had settled just above the coconut
trees and how water hung off the leaves and splashed her face.  Turning
a corner, she saw a young man kneeling in the grass.  He asked her if she
had seen any hooded grosbeaks.  She hadn’t.  She knew they were some
kind of bird but not much more than that.  He said he collected their
yellow feathers.  He took off his glasses and breathed on the lenses,
rubbing them against the sleeve of his jacket.  Putting them back on he
said, “There,” as if he had accomplished something significant.  He
rubbed his nose and smiled and at that moment she fell in love with him.
      —That’s just ridiculous, isn’t it? the woman said.
      She started walking again, going no more than a few feet when she
saw a yellow feather in a puddle.  She picked it up.  Water ran down
her hand and into her sleeve.  She smelled orchids, avocado, and pine
and she turned around but the man she had just seen searching for
feathers had moved on and she saw only the spot where he had knelt in
the grass.
      —You really don’t know anything about birds? she asks, showing
him the feather again.   
      He shakes his head.  
      She drops the feather.  It spins in a circle, landing on the wet,
sticky pavement just as a bus turns a corner.  The woman stands.  He
stands too.  It’s not his bus, but it feels good to get up.  He stretches
and feels joints crack between his shoulders.  He should have something
to do this morning, he thinks, some task that needs to be completed
other than buying a book.
      The bus stops and its doors open.  The woman steps in and he
thinks of following her and sitting beside her but then a tired feeling he
gets when he considers making an effort that would expose the
vacancies in his life overwhelms him and he decides no, just buy a book.  
Even if he joined her, what then?  Follow her off the bus to wherever
she was going?  Then what?  Spend the day with her?  But the day
would end and he’d never see her again just as he won’t see her again
now by staying put.  Or would he?  Would he ask for her phone
number?  Would she ask for his?  He watches her walk down the aisle
and take a seat.  The bus pulls away.  She looks out the window at him
or through him, he can’t decide, and maybe, just maybe, she looks
disappointed.  Maybe not.  Maybe he sees disappointment in the
reflection of his own face in the window of her seat.  He waves his
hands, chasing away these thoughts as if they were flies.  He must not
have slept well last night.
      —Going to buy a book today, right? he tells himself.
      He watches the bus leave.  He notices a group of young people
across the street reading a map and waiting for the light to change.  
They talk excitedly.  One of them points to the bus shelter and back at
the map and they all nod in agreement.  The light turns green and they
step off the curb and walk toward him.  Sliding to a corner of the bench,
he waits for them to approach, appreciating the few seconds he has left
to himself.

John M. Garcia worked in social services in San Francisco.  He
now lives in San Diego, California, where he works as a freelance
writer.  His fiction has been previously published in
Ascent Magazine.    

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