The Free Zone

by Joyce Yarrow

"Spaghetti hair in need of sweet tomato sauce," says Julian when I open the door. "Bathrobe Madonna," he adds. My towel is slung around my neck, fresh from the shower. "Sorry, I'm leaving for work in a few minutes," I tell him. "See you later?" I try to shut the door, but his foot is faster. "Brought you something," he says.

"I haven't finished the last one yet," I lie, taking the cards from his hand.

"Cantankerous kleptomaniac," he calls over his shoulder, heading down the hall, mission accomplished.

Julian's remarks are on the money more often than not and this one hits home because it indicates his awareness that I've stolen an image or two from his voluminous vocabulary to use in my own work. It's a habit I'm not proud of and one I'm not sure I can break.

A neighbor who knows how to keep his elbows to himself, I remember thinking the first time I saw him walking down the stairs, eyes averted, books clutched to his chest. A month or so later someone new came out of Julian's apartment. There was a spring to his step as he came towards me with the clear intent of starting a conversation.

"Isn't it funny that you have to wear orange in prison?"

I looked at him closely, but all I saw were shades of brown.

"Can I see your apartment?"

"It's a mess."

"So?"

I asked him in. Maybe because his gray eyes weren't as restless as the rest of him. That afternoon we sat at my formica kitchen table and shared the first of many pitchers of iced lemon water. We also had the first of our confusing and inexplicably illuminating talks.

"I saw an alien abduction at the park yesterday."

"What park?"

He didn't smile. "You're supposed to ask what the alien looked like."

"Okay, so what did it look like?"

"A great blue heron carrying a fish."

Julian's remarks often caused me to grab my pencil but he didn't seem to mind.

The phone rang and I got up to answer it.

"Hells bells in molded plastic makes you jump just like a spastic," he said.

He had a point. I sat back down.

When Julian takes his meds his skin shines like greasy french fries and his blonde hair sticks to his forehead in weird geometric patterns. He also tends to keep his distance, confining himself to a polite "hi" in the hallway but never a "how are you?" I think Julian's comfortable with me because I don't ask too many questions. I'm pretty self centered, but then again so is he.

This morning he's made me late for work. I scurry three blocks to the bus stop, passing two coffee houses, an art gallery and a vintage clothing store, all newly opened in spruced up brick buildings that used to be funky and affordable. The invasion of the money snatchers has forced most of the low income folks to move. I'm still hanging on by my fingernails.

One of the great things about living downtown is that you get to ride the bus inside the Free Zone, no fare required. It takes all sorts to populate a planet and things tend to get lively on the number 14. One time this crazy old geezer took a swipe at me. "Hit 'em back!" somebody yelled and I almost did.

I usually catch the 8:37 because I like the driver, Hal. He's patient and hardly ever radios for help. This morning, as I grab the seat behind him, I notice a string tie with a turquoise clip adorning his khaki shirt.

"What's with the cowboy getup, Hal,?" He shrugs. "Another present from a passenger." Hal gets lots of gifts from folks he's helped out during his shift but I can never pry the details out of him because he knows I'm a writer. As he puts it, "Don't wanna be one of those human interest morsels that people chew on over morning coffee."

Truth is I'd take the bus even if I could afford a car. It's more than a fascination with street life observed while moving. It's sudden encounters with body odors and loud radios and confessional outbursts like today's "I jus' got out, lady, wanna know what I was in for?"

I take my time thinking of a reply and then, ready to hop off the bottom step, I pause, look this proud ex-con in the eye and say, "I'm sure you look great in orange." Chalk up another one to Julian.

I can see from across the street that someone has left a baseball hat between the bars of the security gate in front of the bookstore. There's an empty bottle of Chivis to go with it, sitting on the stairs next door. What a party town.

I set up the cash register and move the bargain books to their place outside, and all the while I'm thinking about last night. About how these young poets know how to use visceral language to make the audience squirm happily in its chairs. Images come to mind like flowers tangled in my hair that must have gotten there when I wasn't looking. Knees bent inwards, chins tucked below furrowed brows, inviting arms waving like dancing swans or held stiffly at the sides in ecstasies of introspection.

My day at the bookstore is just busy enough to keep me from writing but too slow to give boredom a kick in the ass. On the way home I pick up two special burritos from Taco del Mar and sure enough Julian shows up for dinner. After we eat I invite him to go to the Slam and he declines. "Splendid sequence of blood clots thinned out by applause," he says.

"So you've been there before?"

"Nope."

Later that night, at the Wet 'n Dry, I get my clothes going in the laundromat next door and then watch the fun from my usual hangout near the bar. One by one the poets throw down the gauntlet and move into attack mode. I shout encouragement to my favorite gladiators, urging them on in their quest to make each word cut to the core of their personal truth. I brave the choking cigarette smoke long enough to see the winner by two tenths of a point brandishing her $25 cash money prize over her head as if it were a million. And I swallow my weekly dose of despair that I'll never muster the courage to get up there myself.

On Saturday afternoon I'm still staring at a blank page in my notebook when there's a knock at the door. The woman I see through the peephole is rearranging her hair and her nervous manner seems vaguely familiar. She's got that tailored look that gives your eyes paper cuts and when I open the door she gets right to the point.

"I'm Julian's mother, Bridget. He told me all about you. I wanted to stop by and thank you for your kindness."

"Come in," I say, against my better judgment.

"That's alright, I don't want to intrude." She's peering around me as if my apartment were a foreign country to which she'd never dream of applying for a visa. From her Gucci bag she pulls out a business card. "It would mean a lot to know that you'll call me if anything happens."

"Such as?"

"My son isn't well. I'm sure you know that."

"Maybe he just needs a little...interpretation, some appreciation of his unique way of looking at the world."

"A mental illness is more than a misunderstanding."

"If you want to talk about this I think you'd better come in."

She steps gingerly across the threshold, turning towards the living room but then backing away from the giant towers of books and papers and allowing me to steer her toward the kitchen and into a chair. I wash two glasses and fill them with iced water and lemon. "Your son's a gifted poet. He sees connections that other people don't."

"His father died in a car crash a month before Julian was born. For a long time I refused to believe there was anything wrong with my baby--he was such a bright child and when things he imagined terrified him I was sure it was something he'd grow out of. He didn't." I pick up my glass and hold it under the lamp on the table. "Julian told me yesterday that this vessel is made from sand not fully convinced it is no longer permeable to water."

She fidgets with her cameo necklace, the only soft thing about her. "The thing is he's only creative when he goes without his medication."

I pop into the living room and come back with a small metal box I use to store Julian's poems. When I start to read them aloud Bridget puts her hands over her ears and motions for me to stop. "It's not worth it," she whispers, almost a hiss.

"But it's so extreme, the way pills make him lose everything. It's like using an earthquake to knock down the whole bar when all you want to do is shake a cocktail."

"Don't you think I know how primitive it is?"

Her eyes soften but her face is still hard. We sit there for a while in silence like two ends of a see-saw in perfect antagonistic balance. After she leaves I stay up late that night reading through all of Julian's poems. Then on Monday, my day off, he comes around and I spring my idea. I'm not surprised when he says, "I could never do that." For some reason I decide to insist. "The first time might be hard, but you'll get used to it."

"I don't do well with strangers."

"They'll appreciate you, Julian, and I'll be there. We can leave anytime you want."

"Alright. If it'll make you happy."

I don't stop to think about what this implies.

On Tuesday night I come home early and cook us a nice dinner, chicken cacciatore, baked not fried. If his appetite's any indication, Julian's not nervous. Outside we wait for my friend Gloria, who works part-time at the bookstore. Her vintage beetle, its bumpers miraculously held together with duct tape, careens around the corner promptly at 7:00. We tuck Julian into the back seat and he pokes his head out of the sun roof and yells, "Blasphemy is in the ear of the beheader!"

"Save it for the audience," barks Gloria, and he quiets down.

At the Wet 'n Dry we pay the $3 cover and I walk Julian over to the sign-up table. "It's an open mike. You're on third," I inform him. "Go relax and have a beer."

Half an hour and several gut wrenching poems later I nudge Julian onto the stage. He looks even paler than usual, squinting into the light. "It's just as well I can't see you," he remarks, and gets some sympathetic laughter. "Poem number one," he says, opening the box of cards and throwing them one by one out into the crowd. This gets him some nervous applause and me some knowing looks from my literary colleagues.

"Poem number two," Julian announces.

"It was in the womb that I realized something was wrong because the more I kicked the tighter the rope pulled around my neck and still does on triangulated nights when the pipes knock in three-four time interrupting the steamy breath of synthetic pythons that will melt into poisonous fumes unless we purify and sanctify, you know what I mean? Sleek are the disinheritors and no solid surface of shifting atoms can hold back the torrent of lies we call reality thank you very much."

The appreciative silence is followed by loud applause. We stay and listen and he seems to enjoy himself but on the way home his mood begins to swing like a traffic light in the breeze.

"Did you have a good time?" I ask. I can see he's really upset.

"That wasn't a real poem. Just me talking."

"Poetry has many faces. Yours is just as real as anyone's."

"I shouldn't have shown mine."

"Why not?"

"I have to go now. Please, at this corner, let me out."

I try to reason with him but his agitation grows until it fills the tiny car. I don't want to, but in the end he's so insistent that we drop him at the corner. We make him promise to come home soon. He doesn't.

Three days and still no Julian. I call Bridget and tell her everything. "Thanks," she says, her voice carrying the strain of the unsaid. Another week and then somehow I know that Julian's back. I walk over and ring his bell. When he opens the door he refuses to look at me. He's slipped back inside himself. He's calm. And he's wearing orange.

2002 by Joyce Yarrow. All rights reserved.

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