A middle aged Korean woman said “Does that feel good?”
She was wearing running shorts and had her hair tied back in a bun behind that odd wide brimmed sun visor the Korean ladies seemed to favor when exercising. He had been walking barefoot through hot sand going the other way. He’d stopped and smiled and tried to say something witty, but actually her remark had unnerved him. It had aroused his chilled nature with erotic longings, invoked from ludicrous memories of the war 60 years ago, when desperate young Korean women on stained bare mattresses in shadowed tarpaper shacks outside his Army base in Taegu had crouched over him with their empty breasts dangling and hands feverishly busy and asked him “Feel good? Okay? Feel good you, okay?” That had been the war, he had been a young man from a farm town in Iowa, but he left those rooms much changed.
Does it feel good? His old veined feet, barefoot clapped over loose piles of sand along the running track. For a moment he turned to say something, thinking of beaches, then stopped still and watched the woman’s rolling rear as she power walked away step-heeling. No one walks barefoot anymore, he thought. That’s why she asked. Because it’s such a weird thing to do these days.
He looked down at his ugly old man feet and put one in front of the other. It sank in the soft grit of the sand and the sand sighed back with a sound of waves and radios and running children and sandcastles and the carousel of ice cream sellers with push carts. He stepped again and listened to the sand again and again. People didn’t do this, all sanitation, and fear of whatever nameless parasites CNN and health magazines warned parents against – no no, don’t let your children walk barefoot in the malevolent mud. Don’t let them drink from a garden hose. Beware of allergies. Beware of brain disease. Use sun block. The crush of the times. Rebellious against his personal safety he put each foot, as defiant and naked as a stone on the sand letting the noisy grit meet his hot singing skin. Yes, ma’am. Oh yes, that feels so very good.
He thought of the desperate women and the dark rooms smelling of male exertions and stale fish and lamp oil. What had become of them and their swaddled babies bundled out of sight behind curtains? Did the babies grow up ever knowing the price their mothers had paid to keep them alive? What woman does, he thought, to save what she loves. He walked to his house thinking of it.
Upstairs on a book case in his little library was that thing which had shared the war with him in place of a rifle. He lifted it from the shelf and held it in his hands. The twin lenses were like a pair of mismatched glass eyes. The flip up top, the myriad buttons, the ground glass composing screen and numbered dials, the geometry of precisely made glass. Here, he thought, is a time machine. The only time machine man has ever invented. On the body near the focusing knob was a dent where the paint had been knocked off. That would be where an air attack from friendlies near Pyongyang had rocked the earth and dumped him on his ass inside a bomb crater with bleeding ears and two fractured ribs. And these other scratches, these were all his biography painted large in reverse. He pushed the shutter and listened to the smart snap of the camera.
Everything wants to be what it was meant to be, he thought. A fine camera wants to be pointed at the world. A typewriter wants to type. A fountain pen wants to write. Bare feet want to feel the summer grass under them. Its not fair that they’re useless. Its not fair that things that are fine and beautiful are left behind. They don’t sell ink anymore. They don’t sell ribbons anymore, and the bare ground is finally a forbidden land. I don’t belong in this world anymore. Somehow it left me behind too.
He pushed the shutter button and the click sang of battle fields, beaches and girlfriends long lost posing in two piece bikinis. Transistor radios and ocean waves, and the carousel at the Santa Monica pier.
He would resurrect the camera, put it back to work. And maybe the ghost women trapped inside would come back to him again and tell him how things had turned out. Or not.
“Dude, what is that?” The young man at the camera shop in the Mall flinched back as if disgusted.
“This?” said the old man. “This is a Zeiss Ikon twin lens reflex with Carl Zeiss lenses. Made in Germany by those fine people who brought you the Messerschmitt.”
“Ah – wah?” He touched it with a finger. “We don’t buy any old stuff. Sorry.”
“No! I want film for this . . . old stuff. Medium format, two and a quarter. Kodachrome if you have it. If not, Kodak Portra will do fine.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry man. We don’t do that. I mean, I don’t know what that is. Have you tried eBay?”
He looked down at the glass case under the register and there were a few new cameras there. Sorry little blocks of aluminum with their single eye and one button. Fool proof, they were. Time machines for morons. He turned around and left.
In the mall young people were sitting in air conditioning with wires dangling from their ears, nodding their heads. The young women, desperate in hair only, hunched over tiny keypads moving thumbs. He tried to imagine them crouching over him and whispering in that urgently unctuous way “You like, mister, okay?” and could not. They wouldn’t know how. They wouldn’t even know why, these little mermaids who had never been hungry a day in their life. They would never be women. They were born sexless.
It isn’t that I didn’t imagine I’d be old, he thought, but the surprise is how the world moves on without you.
He stopped in front of a sporting goods store that had no sporting goods inside. Only T shirts and shoes. He went inside and wandered around, but the shoes were all bright colored plastics and corporate logos and symbols. He stopped and tried on a somber pair of black and white Converse basketball shoes, the only thing that seemed familiar and checked his look in the mirror. I look like an old man, he thought. Like the kind they make fun of on TV, the kind of old man who is supposed to be cute and foolish standing in his basketball shoes, proposing cute, foolish things. These shoes should be grabbing me by the ankles, making me a farm boy again, running, jumping, leading, taking me through the sounds of summer, but themselves silent as a wolf, chasing me off baying for adventure. I look exactly like an old man in basketball shoes.
He took them off and left the store. Outside it was getting dark and grilled shutters were rolling down over the shop windows. This isn’t summer, he thought, feeling strange in his own skin. There should be heat and sweat and noise and smells. The people should be out in it, with bugs chewing on them and especially the kids, they should be on bikes with playing cards fastened to the spokes, and bigger kids cruising in gas eating cars with huge go-to-Hell engines and bench seats where you can scoot right over to a girl in the dark and hug her close while you promise her the world. It’s all so new, he thought. Where has the danger gone? It’s all so safe. But it’s not better.
He stood in the courtyard of the mall watching the people leave and felt on odd vacancy in his hands where there shouldn’t be.
He ran back to the glass doors but they were locked against him. He pulled on them, pounded with his fist, but on the other side it was already dark.
A girl walked past, with a drink in a big paper cup, breasts swaying under her T shirt. Her T shirt had a Japanese painting, which at one sway was a man dreaming of a butterfly and another sway was a butterfly dreaming of the man.
He wandered across the street into the park, thinking of his camera, trying to let go of it. The night seemed to have come very quickly, and walking in the dark he suddenly felt very tired and heavy. A tight band squeezed his chest and it was hard to breathe so that he had to lie down in the grass. All around in the dark, in the hot damp air a chorus of Buddhist tree frogs began chanting. A mosquito whined in his ear and something ran across his hand, but he couldn’t move his hand to shake it off. The stars were filled with moving colors which he realized were fire flies. Fire flies. He hadn’t seen fireflies since he was a kid. He had thought they were all gone with the bicycles and camera film and the unsafe cars with big seats front and back like rolling bedrooms and all the old unsanitary grubby goodness he’d loved.
Suddenly a falling star crossed the sky and vanished. He felt the tightness leave him with its passing.
“Does it feel good?” A woman’s accented voice in his ear.
He jumped up at the sound and the Korean woman in the eye shades and running shorts was power walking away, laughing to him over her shoulder. He began to run to her waving and realized his feet were bare and could feel the wet grass. Suddenly he was running in a creek and the water was deliciously icy and ran loudly like laughter over slippery moss covered rocks. He stood stunned with little fishes pecking his feet in the running stream and watched the woman heel stepping briskly away.
This body, this body standing here in the cold loud water, this body was young and tight and the thought of the woman’s beauty a whisper of fresh feeling lustfulness stirred his completely and perfectly male loins. Behind, there was something back in the grass. Something inert and big and inappropriately old, cooling down. If he went over to look, the spell would be broken and the summer cicadas which had begun to trill for him would stop, and the passing car radio playing an old Beach Boys tune would fall silent.
“Yes!” he called to woman, with a voice was suddenly a young farm boy’s voice. “It feels good again. Wait!”
(For Ray Bradbury)