Fall 2011, Volume 11

Fiction by Margo McCall

First and Broadway

Gabriel is turning into a tree. It didn’t take long for his filthy hair and beard to grow matted as moss, for the dirt encrusting his skin to form rough bark, for his feet to swell to the thickness of an ancient trunk. But this morning while taking a whizz in the planter box, Gabriel realizes the final conversion is taking too long.  He’s been rooted to the corner of First and Broadway three years now, in the shadow of the Hall of Administration and the Criminal Courts Building. But then years are like nanoseconds in a tree’s life, really. He will not move, will just stay here and grow. Still, he worries.

Gabriel wants branches that creak in the wind, leaves that rustle in the breeze, roots that push deep. He would really like it if a child’s rope swing could be hung from his branches and he could hear laughter all day long. That is not likely to happen, so Gabriel has settled on being a flowering magnolia adorned with pink blossoms in the spring. Maybe someone will walk by and smell his sweetness, pick a flower for a lover sometime.

So many days have passed, so many that Gabriel has lost track. Days marked by the movement of suited people and cars—so many of them, going nowhere really—nights remembered by the voices circling overhead. Gabriel waits, rooted to his spot, confused about what’s supposed to happen next, since down here, downtown, there are no other trees to share the secrets of life. Here, there’s nothing but cement and glass, and the buildings tell him little.

The Thinker who sits outside the abandoned Hall of Justice, elbow to knee, comes over from time to time to check Gabriel’s progress, shoot the breeze. “Hey man, you started growin any leaves yet?” he asks, taking a swig from his water bottle.

The Thinker has his own secret project. He converts what he sees into words, writes them down in an important–looking black binder, is always dressed entirely in black. Gabriel wonders what sense The Thinker can make of the swirl of traffic and office workers that clog the endless days. He wishes the binder contained some magic sentences to make him a tree—something like abra kadooby la la.

The Thinker plants himself on the edge of the planter box Gabriel has been peeing in for three years, and sips his water. “I think I got sumpthin for you today,” he says, glancing around conspiratorially. “You ever wonder why all these people walk by us day after day like we’re not even here?”

Gabriel nods. He has wondered about that some. He just figured people didn’t notice him because he was standing still as a tree. Or maybe they didn’t like the smell of magnolias.

“Been thinking bout this one all night—didn’t get me one wink of sleep—and this morning it became clear as daylight.” The Thinker pauses, looks around again. “Parallel cities. I think there a bunch of them stacked atop each other. Only the edges touch. That’s why we see all these people and they don’t see us.”

Gabriel considers it. “So maybe I am a tree?” he asks hopefully.

“Naah, you still a damn human. Maybe you gotta leave to grow leaves.”

“Maybe I gotta try harder,” Gabriel says. He shrugs. The empty sleeves of his brown trench coat flap in the breeze. Staying in the same place for three years, maybe more, is the most important thing he’s ever done. He lives on half–eaten sandwiches he finds in the trashcan beside him. The cops and security guards leave him alone.

“How can you stand staying in the same goddamn place?” The Thinker asks. “Now me, I’m born to wander. Wander and wonder. Up an down. In an out.

Backwood and forwood. But there’s a purpose behind it—I’m writing history.”

“Am I part of it?” Gabriel asks.

“Maybe. Maybe thar’s a little sumpthin ‘bout a crazy guy who thinks he’s a tree. Might become history. Could be we all turning into fucking trees. Could be there’s sumpthin bigger than us humans running things round here. I kin feel sumpthin big. Right in here.”

The Thinker adjusts his black stocking cap, lifts the black sunglasses that hide his eyes. Gabriel looks into the vastness of The Thinker’s black pupils, which remind him of the night sky down here, downtown, after all the office workers have gone home.

“Lemme give you a piece of advice, and I hope you take it,” The Thinker says. “I think it’s high time you cut those roots.”  With that, the Thinker turns on his heel and trucks on down Broadway, toward the tinkling music coming from the stores that sell cheap bridal dresses and bouquets of flowers and the places that advertise both bodas and divorcios. Gabriel watches The Thinker get smaller, get swallowed by the crowds, until he’s as small as a word on a page.


Don’t Walk.


Don’t Walk.

At night, after the office workers leave and it’s just Gabriel and his corner, he sometimes has the urge to lie down. But he can’t give up now. His limbs ache, but maybe that’s how a tree feels, maybe he is a tree.

A long way up there are voices, so far up they sound like wind. Gabriel listens to the buildings converse. He can’t make out every word, but sometimes Gabriel hears them talking about him.

“He hasn’t yet succumbed to gravity, to heaviness,” comes the voice from on top of the Criminal Courts Building, fifteen stories of sleek cement and glass. “Movement is difficult to overcome.”

“Ah yes, I remember movement,” comes a voice from the Hall of Administration, which holds the weight of the county’s records. “Jan. 17, 1994. What the newspapers called the Northridge Earthquake.”

Gabriel hears a great sigh from the Criminal Courts Building, which turns into a brisk breeze that makes the trash on the sidewalk feel like dancing. “That was quite a night. Dancing upon the earth, shaking loose of our foundations.”

“I just wish we could set the record straight,” says the voice from the Hall of Administration. “I read the newspapers left on chairs and there wasn’t a single word about our protest. The Earth got credit for it. Imagine that.”

“Well,” says the Criminal Courts Building. “Our new campaign should get us some notice. Remind those who walk through us every day that we sometimes need a little TLC.”

“Humans are so trusting. We could unleash destruction upon them if we had a mind.”

“Speaking of humans,” the Criminal Courts Building muses. “What of that man, Gabriel, who has been leaning up against my footings for so long?”

“He’s harmless, not like the Man With the Metal Cup who bangs on my foundation all day.”

“If only there was something we could do.”

The Hall of Administration is silent for a moment. Above Gabriel’s head the
whispering winds stop. The words that come from the top of the building next reach Gabriel’s ears as an echo. “Perhaps we could kill two birds with one stone.”

On the ground, Gabriel extends his arms like branches and concentrates on growing. He doesn’t feel it hit him, feel anything anymore. It has happened. On top of him has landed a slab of concrete, a piece of facade that somehow fell from the sky.

It’s a month or longer before the Thinker returns to his roost on the corner. Damn cops, took his binder, asking all kinds of asinine questions, like who gave him his information, how he knows about parallel worlds, one–world government and the like. Still fuming about his interrogation, having to be locked up in the Metropolitan Detention Center, a nasty building if there ever was one, The Thinker becomes aware of an absence.

“Gabriel? Gabriel, man, where ya gone to?”

But there’s no answer. The Thinker scans the ground. A sprout of green pokes up from a crack in the sidewalk. He pulls out his water bottle and pours a little liquid around its roots.



BIO: Margo McCall is a Long Beachian, and a graduate of the M.A. creative writing program at California State University Northridge. Her short stories have been featured in Pacific Review, Heliotrope, In*tense, Mind in Motion, Sidewalks, Rockhurst Review, Sunspinner, Wazee Journal, Toasted Cheese, and other journals. Her nonfiction has appeared in Herizons, Lifeboat: A Journal of Memoir, Pilgrimage and a variety of newspapers and other publications.