Become an O:JA&L Member through Patreon.

Karen Schauber


Street Corner by Wassily Kandinsky

The man, bare-chested and burly, stands before a sliver of mirror affixed to the lamppost drawing a razor down his throat, the buildup of foam lather plopping off onto the sidewalk with each stroke. He nods as I walk by; customary. Zeus in tow pulls at the leash. I maintain my pace, but the dog is insistent, hanging back. Wafts of delicate Mediterranean herbs and spices: garlic, tarragon, anise, sage, coriander, smoked paprika, and sprigs of thyme, flow in and out on the man’s breath. I detect a hint of Baba Ghanoush, with sumac – 5 stars.

He is clothed in brown oversized trousers, suggesting he has lost some weight, and three-quarter dove-grey dress socks in well-travelled Birkenstocks.  Deep purple and black chevron tattoos cover his arms. A crisp clean white shirt hangs drying on the coat rack.

He insists he is not homeless. Although the sidewalk and this intersection cannot be considered residential. His accent is thick. Eastern European maybe. Mixed with flecks of French, Flemish, Farsi?

I resume walking, but Zeus is rooted, paws stuck like flypaper.

The razor continues up his cheek and now he’s chatting with the dog, saying he appreciates his stopping by to socialize. He pats Zeus on the head with his free hand and the dog sits politely. I haven’t seen this behaviour from Zeus before. It’s like they share a bond, fought in the same regiment, or competed on the same rugby team. I’m the third wheel.

The intersection is now on my morning walk before work. I come upon the man again in his morning routine, shaving. I don’t interrupt but wait for him to bend down to pat Zeus. I spot something new on the card table. A linen tablecloth. It’s clean, camembert-white. Just a few droplets of Turkish coffee in front of the demi-tasse someone has left, on their way to work or on their dog walk perhaps. A good Samaritan has knitted an Afghan blanket. It is casually draped over the green velour couch. It matches.

I’m now compelled to take the same route in the afternoons. When I pass by, the man is playing chess. His partner, a guest, is older, weathered, a poor vagrant and fellow wanderer. They are concentrating. It’s a close game. The board is lovely. Hand-carved, hand-painted pieces, mythical beasts and birds. A gift? When he looks up to acknowledge my presence, residue of oily mackerel and hot spicy piquant garlic olives, swirl on his breath. Crumbs of the hard dry crusty bread he tore up to soak up the infusion of mouth-watering flavours, frame his bottom lip, and sprinkle across the tablecloth.

In the morning there is a small gathering. Someone has brought croissants, elderberry jam, Turkish coffee on a silver tray, extra demi-tasses. The coffee is kept warm in a cezve perched on a mound of hot sand. I meet my neighbours for the first time. They become familiar. Someone is lending a book. Offering concert tickets they cannot use. Zeus makes friends with the shy Saluki, Pascal the Giant Schnauzer, Lola the Bouvier des Flandres. Much has changed in the neighbourhood since the arrival of the man.

On a whim I pass by on my final dog walk of the evening. I overhear animated conversation, laughter, and clinking of cutlery before I round the corner. There is a group of passersby around the card table finishing a late-night indulgence. Bottles of wine, ouzo, schnapps, drippy candles standing in the empty bottles, the linen tablecloth stained with Rorschach-blots. Remnants of liver and onions, potato vareniki and sour cream on plates pushed to the side.  The candles cast no shadows, there are no walls.

I linger for a while. The conversation, about living life to the fullest. Setting down roots, and wings. And traveling, always travelling. The neighbourhood is a buzz. The flavour European. There is a camaraderie, a cohesion, not experienced before. Priorities have changed.

I meet Gaston. We walk together. His saluki, my vizsla. We pass the boulangerie over on Avenue de l’ Esplanade, stop at Parthenon Deli on de Maisonneuve; pick up humous, pita, dolmades. Without discussion we retrace our steps and circle back to the intersection, pull up a chair, and settle in. The man joins us. He eats well. His pants fit better.

I am away for a week in the Azores, the first vacation I’ve had in two years. A dream eco-tourist trip to watch the annual migration of sperm whales, common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins. Gaston takes care of Zeus. I am eager to get back, to see them both. I round the corner. It’s oddly quiet.  Gaston, the saluki, and Zeus are waiting for me. My heart is alive with desire. There are red tulips in a cellophane sleeve, yellow gerbera and pink carnations tied in craft paper lying on the card table. More bouquets on the sidewalk leaning against the lamppost. Neighbours standing around chatting at low decibel. They exchange stories about their time with the man. Afternoons of double-espresso, croissant, potato vareniki, and schnapps, late evenings engrossed in chess. There was an accident. A drunk driver. Car ploughed right up over the sidewalk. Zeus sniffs and hops up on the couch.

My mind’s eye keeps showing me the man’s hand, the rhythmic tic-ticking of worry beads slipping through his forefinger and thumb; his favourite refrain quoting Kierkegaard, Do it or do not do it, you will regret both; the pile of French and Farsi newspapers left unread on the table, his preferred discourse with those who would sit a while with him. I feel numb.

Afterward, when I turn the corner onto the intersection, the sidewalk is empty. The following few days I encounter no one. I see how inept we are, how limited and isolated we have once again become. Our social footprint, tiny. Left on our own, it’s all we can manage. A pale, seldom-seen blue moon lingers. The scent of olive oil in the air.


About the writer:
Karen Schauber‘s flash fiction appears in ninety international literary magazines, journals, and anthologies, with a Pushcart and four Best Microfiction nominations. She is editor of the award-winning flash fiction anthology The Group of Seven Reimagined: Contemporary Stories Inspired by Historic Canadian Paintings (Heritage House, 2019). Schauber curates Vancouver Flash Fiction, an online resource hub, and Miramichi Flash, a monthly literary column. In her spare time she is a seasoned family therapist.

Image: Street Corner by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). No medium specified. No size specified. 1901. Public domain.

OJAL Art Incorporated, publishing since 2017 as OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) and its imprint Buttonhook Press, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation supporting writers and artists worldwide.

Become an O:JA&L Member through Patreon.