The Umbrella
by Joel Caris

"Frames" is a new column by FTTW author Joel Caris. His column "Imbibe" will be going on hiatus for a bit and instead, Joel will entertain us every other week with short fiction.

umbrella.JPGThe sun lit the sidewalk as Megan drew the outline of an umbrella on it, using a jagged piece of blue chalk. First came the top: an upside down 'U' with a spiked bottom. Then the big 'J' of the handle. A classic drawing, which satisfied her. It needed to be simple and recognizable, of course. She set down the blue chalk and picked up a yellow piece. Inside the umbrella's top, she wrote, "I feel unnecessary."

Someone walked by, red Converse shoes and high blue socks. She resisted the urge to look up into the person's face, to see if he or she stared at her simple drawing, or at her, or only looked forward without concern as to why she was crouched on the sidewalk, drawing with chalk.

Cars passed, car after car, loud and rumbling and oppressive. But she was used to that. Parked cars lined the street and she tossed both pieces of chalk underneath a dirty red Toyota Camry. They settled in the muck left over from winter--half-decomposed leaves and dirt and oil, tiny flower petals, who knew what else. She would have liked to take a sample and have it analyzed. No doubt the full report would be fascinating and sickening. It would probably raise all kinds of questions about urban life, some of which she would not want answered.

The chalk only added to the problem, of course.

She stood and stretched her arms toward the sky, in love with the sun and the warmth, the sudden Spring that had overtaken Portland in the last week.


"Oh," she said, turning, bringing her arms down. In her haste to retract herself, she almost hit the boy in the face. He flinched at the last second then unleashed a flurry of blinks behind his square, black-rimmed glasses. Megan thought he must have been sixteen, seventeen at most. Black jeans and a blue button-down shirt, messy brown hair. She wondered how hot his legs were, so thick-clad and absorbing the sun. "Hi," she said, and for a moment the world shivered.

His eyes flicked toward the sidewalk, then up her body. Though he took her in quick, she felt like his mind lingered, possibly imagining her in less-clothed states, in poses, with him in certain ways. Yet nothing in his expression suggested it.

"Do you feel unnecessary, or does the umbrella?" the boy asked as an overweight woman appeared and pushed past them, turning and exhaling loud, pointedly. Megan shifted for her but the boy acted as though she did not exist, keeping his stare heavy on Megan. "Which one?" he demanded. The woman sighed loud, grumbled, and stomped past the boy.

"Jesus, give me a second," she said.

"You just did that," the boy said. Now he pointed at the umbrella. The accusatory finger shook and she considered letting his question linger awhile longer, just to find out the source of the trembling. Was he angry, excited, suffering from low blood sugar? They all seemed possible. "You have to have some kind of answer. You can't go around drawing random objects and phrases on public property if you don't even know why you're doing it."

"Are you the keeper of the fucking sidewalk?"

He blinked, again, again, six times in total. "It's everyone's sidewalk," he said, his voice no longer indignant but just quiet, almost defeated. "I just want to know why you put that on it."

The urge to turn and leave, without a word, swept over her but dissipated just as quick. The boy might follow her or, worse yet, become devastated. He seemed on the verge of a breakdown and she figured provoking it could only end in two ways: either with her as his victim or him as her victim. Neither option appealed to her, so she moved away from the edge of the sidewalk, where the umbrella resided, and into the courtyard of the apartment complex which bordered the sidewalk. The boy hesitated, then followed her.

"What's your name?" she asked.


"Really?" He blinked eight times, paused, then blinked again. "Okay," she said. "Stan. Hi. I'm Megan."


"Great, that's some broken ice right there." A slight breeze slipped through the courtyard, cooling her skin, dropping cherry blossoms out of one of the courtyard's trees. A tiny white petal settled on her arm. For a few moments, she stared at it, then reluctantly turned her attention back to Stan. "It's been a long couple days, Stan, and I've felt like shit. And it's been cold and rainy up until the last few days. There's sun, wind, it's nice, I can take off my coat, I'm wearing shorts." She lifted her smooth right leg, ran a hand down it. "See that? You checked it out a couple minutes ago. Whatever, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I drew the umbrella because it seemed a good thing to do. It's the day, it's me, it's my mood, I don't know. It's not a big deal, it's just a chalk drawing on the sidewalk. It'll probably go back to raining tomorrow and it'll be gone and you'll never have to think about my sad artistic expression again, okay?"

He started to nod even before she finished, then reached up, took off his square black glasses, folded them and put them in his right front jeans pocket. It was a tight fit and Megan imagined the rough denim scratching the lenses, or the frame bending. She closed her eyes and considered running, or yelling, or possibly spending a month studying the strange boy. The petal remained on her arm, caught in her fine hair.

"If it rains," Stan said, his voice suddenly high, almost trembling as his finger had earlier, "then the umbrella will go away. It would be necessary. That's very clever, Megan."

"Oh," she said, after a moment. "I didn't think of that."

"Very clever," he repeated, quiet.

The cherry blossom slipped off her arm and floated to the ground. It settled on the concrete with hundreds more, waiting for the wind to rise again and rearrange them.

Stan took his glasses out of his pocket, unfolded them, placed them back on his face and gently adjusted them three times. He stared past her while he did this. Then there were more blinks--she didn't count how many--and he turned and walked out of the courtyard, turned, disappeared. Megan stared toward the sidewalk, waiting for him to reappear, but he stayed gone.

"Fucking weird," she muttered. Then she went to get her chalk out from under the dirty red Toyota Camry.


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