The old man kept a jeweled caterpillar in his shirt pocket, and only took it out for frail girls with haunted eyes and thrift-store sweaters. My mother saw it when she waitressed at the little Hungarian restaurant on 44th street in the City. She said it hummed like a cicada in her ears, first left and then right. The old man finished his coffee, and she followed him as he shuffled out. He turned towards her with the larva in his hand, and the little creature rose on its many hind legs. The wet streets lit with its kaleidoscopic colors, and each illuminated raindrop whispered a dream that every child must forget. Red light, trapeze. Blue light, marionette. Green light, curtained stage. Violet light, top hat man. Silver light, a checker-board floor. Magenta light, the mechanical brain encased in flesh. Golden light, the emptiness of form on your fingertips.
She froze, fixated on the caterpillar, and was still motionless long after he disappeared around the corner. When she came to hours later, she had written “Junkett Hauser” on her order pad, right under “French fries with brown gravy, Coke.” She never knew if that was the man’s name, the place he came from, what the caterpillar liked for breakfast, or what. Then she was fired for walking out of her job.
“And that was ok, honey,” she said years later, “because then I got that job as a go-go dancer –god, I was so embarrassed but I needed the rent money and it was a really swanky club!– and I met your father there. Now here you are, playing in my old go-go boots, so wasn’t that a good thing to have happened?”
When the old man sat beside me on the park bench twenty years later, I understood something right away. They had a symbiotic relationship of sleep and wakefulness. The warmth of his chest lulled the caterpillar to sleep, and the glow of its lights awakened the old man back into youth. And as I shivered in the fog, pondering this, I watched the sun set and rise on Golden Gate Park. One day had passed, a day of my youth that he deftly plucked and nestled next to Mother’s in the magenta jewel on the caterpillar’s back.
Musical Inspiration: Maelcum’s Righteous Dub by the Changelings. To my disappointment, this song is not available on mp3 and is out of print. You can hear it on YouTube and buy the CD used. (Update! I’m told it’s now available on the band’s website.)
I wish I were a better artist so I could paint the caterpillar I see in my head. I plan to take drawing lessons in the future, but my Lessons Fund is currently devoted to my new piano teacher. My long-neglected piano skills are not as pathetic as I imagined and I can hold my own with most seven-year-olds. Do you hear that, kiddos? Do not challenge me to a piano duel. I can play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” with the best of them.
For now, I will use this photo of a Tiffany dragonfly lamp, misnamed as “Caterpillar” but I’m good with that for obvious reasons! Photo by Terry Johnston.