Prior to writing the Charlotte Anthony Mysteries I self published a small book of flash fiction stories. The book was published on Amazon in 2012 but suffered the same fate as just about all flash fiction published there – it didn’t sell many copies. I have a soft spot for this collection so have decided to publish it here, on my web site, rather than let it languish in the Amazon backwaters.
Anyway, here is the collection in its entirety. I hope that you enjoy it and please don’t hesitate to let me know what you think. The whole collection is only about seven thousand words long.
At the Crossroads
Lease on Life
About the Author
These seven short-short stories, or flash fiction, vary in narrator, but are unified in theme, exploring the relationship between life, death, and the genius loci, the spirit of place.
The genius loci was a local protective spirit and guardian of crossroads in classical Roman culture, a sort of deity to which appeals and sacrifices would be made. These days it generally refers to the atmosphere of a place, and also to the qualities that contribute to that atmosphere, the flora, fauna, climate, topography, and local culture. Nonetheless, I think the modern definition could plausibly have as much impact as the ancient one. Where we are born and raised and where we choose to live and work makes a great deal of difference in how we realize our lives—and in what path we take toward death, or away from it. Even if we are not consciously aware of it, the perception of the genius loci contributes to one’s concept of home, and is often the first experience of this sensibility that we have, of “our” places, “our” sacred spots. Our relationship to a place can allow us to bloom where we’re planted, or it can turn us against ourselves, to follow a path of self-destruction.
Do I know you?
I asked it of someone I sensed being there, but knew wasn’t there in the ordinary sense. It wasn’t a person, but there seemed to be a personality. It wasn’t a ghost, in the way I think of ghosts, no fear or apparitions. There was nothing, unless I counted my own heightened perceptions of a personality in the vicinity—the smells, the sounds, the feel of the air, the way the pattern of the trees and light and shadow and rocks made my eyes move about the place in the same way that I’d take in a room with a person in it who is talking to me about something very important.
I mean, say you walk into a room, and there is your sister, and she is talking to you about something, there is something that she wants to tell you that she wants you to know, and it is important, and you notice everything about the moment that she is talking to you, the way she sits in the chair, the light coming in through the window or from the lamp, the shadows on the walls, the colors in the room, the texture of the rugs against the wood floors, the drape of the curtains and the contrast between the drape and the panes of the window, echoed in the shapes of the mirrors or frames of the paintings, which in themselves have complexities of composition but they are more than your mind can handle and you go back to her words, the inflection, the tone, the expression on her face or lack of it, or the tears welling up in her eyes, the makeup spoiled, or the shadows under them, the way she folds her hands in her lap or grips the arms of the chair, you take everything in, or at least enough of it so that years later you remember exactly where it was when she told you and how it went?
That is the sort of thing that sometimes happens in a place, knowing that there is someone/thing there telling you something and you are taking it all in and you will remember because it is as significant as anything your sister could be telling you that has an impact on your whole life. But it’s not your sister, it’s not your mother or your friend—it is no one. It is the place itself that is speaking to you in a composition of trees and sky, land and light, soil and natives of its earth. This spirit of the place, this genius loci, guardian of the intersections of our lives, roots itself into the dramas we find ourselves in, orchestrates us to acquiesce, fight, or flee, as indigenous as a murder of crows or the stones in the bottom of the river.
So then, as a stranger in its strange land (more than any sense that it is a stranger in mine), I ask: Did I know you? It is a face in the crowd that I did not see at the time, but realized, sometimes too late, that it was there, like looking at a photo from years ago where it is standing just behind me and grinning at the camera, and the whole meaning of that time and place suddenly changes: I chose, or was led to choose, this particular path. The tang of woodland sumac would have led to a different outcome than the round pull of salt sea air.
All of life is a path toward death and back again, but the paths vary in length and kind. My dear genius loci, which way could I go?
I decided that this was one of those times that death was not a bad thing, like squashing a bug, so I slid off my green inflatable dinosaur and half-waded, half-swam across the shallow pool and tried to drown Cathy Robinson. Actually, all I did was go up to her, look her right in her cold hazel eyes, put my hands on her shoulders, and push her down under the water. She didn’t do anything. Nothing. She didn’t resist, she didn’t say anything, act surprised, she didn’t even blink. Her long red hair bloomed under the water, some of it waving over those impassive, unblinking eyes. An iridescent green beetle floated by on the surface between my face and hers, right over her mouth, and then got caught in her hair, and it was gross so I let her go.
I think I let her go because there was nothing to kill. I was distracted, too, by the sudden reflection on the water of a big black crow flying over us. The crow was more real to me than Cathy Robinson and I let her go.
She kept dipping and swimming as if nothing happened. The beetle was stuck in her hair. Some threat I was. But it was my pool and I had enough of her company, so I got out, wrapped myself in my towel, and sat in the sun on the concrete pad that used to be the base for a grain silo that Dad didn’t need anymore. The pool was a large round galvanized livestock water tank that sat on another empty pad. The third concrete pad still had a grain bin on it. The concrete was hot, the wind was cool, the water in the tank was warm and needed changing, the iron from the hard water settling like mud on the bottom. It was the closest thing to a swimming pool for miles around.
I heard the crow in one of the pine trees in the windrow between the grain bin and the fields. A couple more beetles landed on the weeds that grew up in the cracks of the concrete, explored the stems and leaves, then flew up and into the pool. Over by the shed Dad was helping our neighbor Willie fix his Jeep, pouring some stuff into the radiator. Willie looked tall and strong in his green camo. He slammed down the hood and shook hands and shoulder-slapped my dad, and waved at me before he drove off. He was going back to Viet Nam.
I could see what happened over there every day during the evening news, and sometimes killing was all part of how life could be tough. Willie said Communism was dangerous and we needed to protect ourselves and the world from its spread. Dad shot groundhogs to defend our soybeans. I needed to defend my whole world. I don’t have to surrender. But there was nothing to kill.
Cathy Robinson said the things I thought were dumb and not true and not real. Everybody that Cathy Robinson knew would know what she thought, and that was everybody I knew, too. Cathy Robinson was backed up by a lot of brothers and sisters and cousins, and I had nobody at all except some cousins who were too old to talk to. I just had a cat. I loved that cat to death and his world was my world, the world of green grass, fields, birds, mice, bugs, rabbits, trees, barns, and can openers.
Cathy Robinson’s father drove his station wagon into the yard, stirring up dust on the gravel driveway, and picked her up and drove away, making even more dust. I shut my eyes and held my breath until it passed. My cat came out of the field, jumped up on the concrete pad, and rolled on his back in the sun. Back in the pool, I tossed out the green bugs floating on the water, blew more air into my brontosaurus with its gas-station logo, and hopped back on, watching the crow fly from tree to tree, and another crow join him. When I heard twenty-five years later that Cathy Robinson drank antifreeze and successfully died, I pictured death as a green beetle toying with two eight year old girls.
I looked at the drawing again, then began to pick out the strongest lines in ink, and erasing the unneeded penciled ones. I had a partial spiral working its way across the back yard, stretching the sense of garden from edge to edge. Here would be the path, there a sitting area, and over here a wilder patch of perennials and naturalized lilies. I ran down to the garden and quickly replanted some things in the area that would be the wilder patch, and temporarily digging in some of the lilies, to keep their roots covered in soil. In so doing, I inadvertently dug up the skeleton of a cat.
There was something like a dirt-encrusted rope around its neck, but as I brushed off some of the dirt it turned out to be a rhinestone-studded collar with an engraved heart-shaped tag that said “Macy.” Dear old Macy was clearly the pet cat of a previous owner. The air was totally still and cold. I carefully removed the spade to let the skeleton sink back into the soil the way it was, covered it back up, and marked the spot with a small pile of river rock. Later on I drew its location on the plan, too.
On a breezy day, the newly-fallen leaves would get caught up in a whirlwind, then drop and scatter, an amusing, spontaneous uplift. After it happened six or seven times, I realized that there were not enough elements in the garden to draw the eye upwards. I drew trees with upward-directed branches along the back of the garden, like a line of chalices or of cheering football fans waving “Touchdown!” When those trees were planted, the garden lost some of its sadness.
“What made you sad?” I asked the garden one warm afternoon.
“House unhappy. Children come out here to cry, sometimes sleep.”
“Whose cat was Macy?”
“A child who cried.”
When some ancient bridal wreath shrubs against the house were cut back and pulled out, they also pulled off a bit of the lattice that covered the posts supporting the back porch. I hadn’t seen behind it before and took a look with a flashlight, spotting an old doll with a chewed-up arm, some little toy cars and blocks, and a concrete garden ornament half buried in dead leaves. I got a rake out of the shed and used it to pull the toys toward me, and then the concrete ornament, which turned out to be a stylized Siamese cat. It had stains from the composting leaves and moss, which made it look a hundred years old. It was probably meant to represent Macy. I gathered up the toys and buried them next to Macy’s grave, then set the concrete cat in place as a marker, bringing the two souls back together, no matter what had happened to them in life.
Perhaps thinking about and doing this triggered strange dreams, but strange dreams I did have, and for several nights running. I was working with a treelike Counter-Reaper name Pete, a maker of Edens where the dead and living could both lie in untroubled peace. We would go from room to room in this house, and in every house I’d ever known, an endless series of rooms and gardens and front yards, looking for a cat, and always just missing it in the next room over. My companion kept opening windows and doors that I wanted closed, and we discussed whose funeral we could hear in the unseen rooms and how to grow so many gardens with so few plants. I said the yews needed peat and Pete said I was a genius.
The work went easier after a time. I no longer bothered with mapping the garden, but evolved it on faith in a collective memory, the way the dirt felt in my fingers, the way I could know if something would grow in it or not, the way I could know that a rock would be better in a place than a plant. Restoring the garden was the composition of a sacred space.
I brought out a little hibachi grill and cooked some peppers and onions on it, and made a sandwich out of them with a chunk of baguette I’d split in two. Brought out two beers, too, both opened. I knew I’d drink them both, but Pete got the idea and sent a wasp around that startled me, causing me to knock over the second beer. I picked it up quickly and salvaged most of it. The spot where the beer spilled dried almost instantly, though. I hope he enjoyed it. The breeze kicked up, and I heard a tiny tinkling noise from the bell on the rhinestone cat collar that I’d bought and put on the statue of Macy.
At the Crossroads
The grain truck hurtled down the narrow two-lane road, and I hung on the best I could to my seat on the passenger side, gripping the vinyl of the cushion or the handle on the door. We were going too fast for me to be carsick. It was the middle of October and Dad wanted to get the soybeans over and done with and get on with the corn harvest. I was excited about my first Halloween party at school. The air smelled of ripe corn, the truck smelled of grease, gas, coffee, and soybeans. My jacket smelled like a ripe apple, which I had in my jacket pocket. I was thinking of being a witch for trick-or-treat.
He slammed on the brakes and I almost hit the windshield, but he didn’t stop, just swore and swerved around a dead deer in our lane, and then prepared to take a sharp curve just up ahead. As fast as he was going, a whole bunch of crows went faster, a black blur past the truck window. They landed on a cluster of corn shocks in an island formed by three roads. They didn’t fly away as we went blasting by, but my eyes locked on the scene and I leaned on the door to keep looking at it out the big side view mirror as we barreled on. What did it mean? There were seven crows, three of the largest pumpkins I had ever seen, and three huge corn shocks.
I recited the poem in my book at home, too quiet to be heard over the radio:
One for sorrow,
Two for joy.
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy.
Five for silver,
Six for gold.
Seven for a secret
Never to be told.
We went back to the farm the same way, and I counted three more pumpkins. There were no houses nearby, just cornfields and woods. How did they get there? The crows only jumped aside a little bit from the deer carcass. We went by three more times that day; the last time, going back to the farm, it was almost dark, the S-curves in the road full of scary shadows, and the headlights from the truck caught a face looking out from one of the corn shocks, a face with a large sharp nose that I hadn’t noticed before. A scarecrow. The deer carcass was gone—but no—I saw—
I saw a movement in the arc of the headlights in time to brace myself as Dad slammed on the brakes again and we heard and felt the thud of the truck hitting something.
His hands were shaking as he put the truck in park, and he yelled, “STAY IN HERE!” at me and he hopped out of the truck to see what we’d hit. I was so scared. Was it another deer? A person? A car hit my dog last year and it was the worst thing I had ever seen, and my hands were so cold and sweaty, like I was going to get caught doing something I’d promised not to do.
I watched in the mirror again and saw Dad moving around behind the truck like he was kicking something out of the way and he came up to me holding a head, and I screamed, and he burst out laughing, and I was so scared I cried and pressed up against the door in horror.
“Take it easy, kid. It’s a scarecrow. Some idiot must have put it too goddam close to the road and it tipped over in front of the truck.” He held it up and it was the same face I saw in the corn shocks when we just passed them.
I calmed down enough to risk asking Dad a question. “Who put it there? And all those pumpkins and corn shocks?”
He shrugged, looking puzzled, and then like he was searching his memory. “I, yeah, I don’t know. Nobody livin’ around here for years, not since I was a kid.” He tossed the head over to the side of the road and got back in the truck.
He smiled for a moment, then was soon thinking his own thoughts again, or maybe listening to the radio, the weather report that came on everyhouronthehour. I liked to talk into old toilet paper tubes and pretend to be a radio announcer: everyhouronthehour, everyhouronthehour, andnowforawordfromoursponsor.
The trees formed an arc over a fallen log, where I would sit and read in the mystic light. The cat had followed me there, and he hopped up on the log and purred and stretched and sat in a fluffed-out ball beside me. There was no spot on the farm more magical than this, so old and young and decaying and growing all at once. I imagined myself living in this little copse of trees in the tiniest of cabins, even in the winter, with my cat, my books, and maybe some paper and paints. I was often afraid when I was all alone in the outdoors, but not here. This was a good place, I could feel it—this was a place of hope, where spirits could come alive, benevolent spirits, where I could talk to the trees and the cat, and it was just as plausible as talking to another person. Only it was better. Here, I was with friendly souls, and not alone, in a place where I could think and grow and simply breathe.
There were two ways I could get here, depending on the time of year and the weather. The long way was a quarter of a mile down the road and then into an access lane for trucks and tractors. But when the ground was dry and the crops were small, or harvested, or not yet planted, I could walk as straight as the crow flies from the house, over the culvert in the small ditch, and diagonally across the field. Then it was up a big sandy hill full of blackberry brambles and piles of timber from old barns and silos that my father had torn down. The blackberries didn’t mind—every summer they produced the biggest, most intensely flavored berries, so good I loved them even more than strawberries. My mother and I came out here every year and picked buckets and buckets of berries, heavier than I could pick up, and she made pies and jelly and sometimes we just had to give a lot of them away, there would be so much.
The little woods began on the northeast side of the blackberry patch, and there was a path to it through the brambles that was made by the little tractor and wagon we used to haul the buckets of blackberries back to the house. The trees were skinny things in the front, and a few saplings grew up in the weeds and foxtail between the brambles and the woods. But the big, full-grown mix of oaks, maples, and quaking aspens loomed right behind, leaves glimmering in the full sun.
Sometimes I’d startle a doe or a fox, but more often rabbits and squirrels. Once, a snake startled me. There were all kinds of birds, jays, cardinals, robins, orioles, sparrows, nuthatches, finches, woodpeckers, crows, and even a big Long-Eared owl (I looked it up). Sometimes Monarchs and Swallowtail butterflies would pass by, coming in from the wildflowers that grew up in and around the blackberries, and the cat would leap to catch them, my goofy acrobat. It wasn’t a dark woods at all, being too small and not much undergrowth apart from some clumps of poison sumac, which I’d learned to avoid. There was always a soft matting of old leaves on the ground that made no noise in the spring, and which was never entirely silent in the fall.
The most magical spot in this magic spot was the place where two tall oak trees had leaned together at the top, forming an arch just before the end of the woods at the edge of a deep pipeline ditch. Their trunks had grown with their main branches folded together to make them look like two old friends with their arms around each other’s shoulders. In the mornings the arch would be backlit by the sun when looking east, in the afternoons it would be backlit again, but softer, more dappled, by the setting sun. And near this arch there was a large fallen maple tree, right next to one of the oaks, making a perfect place to sit and lean back, to daydream, to read, to write stories—
And then one summer my father and mother said they didn’t want me going back there anymore, not by myself, there were a lot of reports of motorcycle gangs in the area. I did sneak over there a couple more times, but only stayed long enough to say hello, like seeing a friend I couldn’t be friends with anymore because our parents didn’t get along.
Then one early winter day after school I got off the bus and saw the bulldozers, and the trees were all gone. I wasn’t even told it was going to happen. I watched the bulldozers from the back porch, grading down the hill to make it as flat as the surrounding fields. Tree trunks with chains around them were dragged to the road where they were lifted onto a huge truck. I don’t know what they did with the branches. After a while, you could not tell there was ever a hill, a blackberry patch, a small woods, and an arc of trees over a fallen log where I would sit with my cat and read in the spirited light. It was like it never happened, not even the taste of blackberries in the summer. There was just a cold, flat featureless field with another two or three acres of crop rows under a flat gray winter sky.
He said, my father, it made the farm a lot more valuable.
I walked slowly and carefully from the apartment to the pier and only got as far as I did because there was a rail to hold onto. The sun feels good on my back; it’s early and it’s still too cool in the shade of the palm trees, so I stand in the sun and I don’t remember walking out here, I can tell you how I probably got out here, but I can’t picture it. It’s been two weeks since the surgery. I’m holding on to a plastic bread bag with some slices that have gone stale. I like to feed the gulls. I’m not even supposed to be alive, but I am here, I feel awful and I am somehow here.
The gulls are slow in coming, but the pelican is sitting on the piling. He was here before all this happened. Maybe it’s not the same pelican, but it could be. He always sits facing the same way to keep one eye on the pier. He looks as impersonal as I feel, he is here for food, he goes through the motions for food, and he is ugly. I toss a hunk of bread at him, gently, from the wrist and not moving my body, and he snaps it into his beak without moving his body, too. I do not know why I am alive, except to feed this brown pelican a dry heel of bread. We are the only two sentient beings. They said that I’d lost a lot of blood. I feel like I’d lost a lot of blood.
I hear them arguing back in the apartment, my daughter and her father, or rather he is yelling at her, but I can feel her seething resentment clear out here. He just won’t let anything be, and now she’s grown up and has a mind of her own, and just as stubborn as his. I just want it to go away, all this conflict, I’m tired of explaining each one to the other. I’ve ruined our vacation. It’s so pretty here but it isn’t home and if we go home she will go back to her dorm and maybe I can get some peace and quiet if he will only shut up.
The rough texture of the wood railing is almost painful, and I know I’m getting dangerously tired, but I can’t face going back. Can’t face going back, can’t risk fainting out here, and I ask the pelican what I should do. For him there is only bread; pier, water, and bread.
The water starts to glimmer as the sun rises above the palm trees, sharp and glaring like sun on the ice and snow back home. One gull arrives in a flash of white, then there is a blizzard of gulls. I want to go home and I do not want to go home. I see no point in my life, except to feed this pelican, streaked brown and gray like the dirty snow back home, who looks at me with one beady eye and I don’t have to explain what he means.
We watched him lope down the sidewalk, a big scarecrow of a man with straw-colored hair and a large beaky nose, got up in a well-worn tweed sport coat and his ridiculous tam o’ Shanter. I glance at her, probably my best friend, and know that she still isn’t free of him, and she doesn’t fool me when she suddenly wants to take a walk in the park next to his office building.
By the time we made it down three flights of stairs and out of the dorm and across the parking lot, I couldn’t see him, and thought maybe the coast was clear, but she kept walking hard, as if she was trying not to run, and I didn’t know if it was time to say anything or not, not just yet.
Sometimes I feel the muscles in my face forming into my best friend’s smile, what we used to laugh and call her “Mona Lisa’s Other Smile,” the one she would have when she was truly quietly amused and not on the verge of total boredom. It is thirty-five years since she died and I can still hear her laugh, smell the expensive shampoo in her frizzy dark brown hair, and see the texture of the fabric of her favorite dress, the midcalf blue shift with smocking and pearl buttons on the bodice, a band collar and the long sleeves she’d always wear rolled up. How can I still feel her smile after all these years? Is it because death is coming nearer for me, as well?
I embrace this manifestation of those things about her that I loved and wanted to be part of my own makeup, absorbed in the short time I knew her and hung on to all the more fiercely when she died. She was a life, and a life now gone for as long as it was alive. And yet still alive, in my memory, so vivid, so real, that my smile takes on hers and my eyes take on the sadness of her eyes, a sadness I could not understand then but have seen too much of now.
Every best friend is a guardian spirit of the space and time you share.
She stared at the paper she’d gotten back, with the big A in a circle at the top, and looked as angry as I’d ever seen her.
“This isn’t an “A” paper. It’s not a bad paper, but it isn’t my best work, not by a long shot, and I know his standards.”
“You’re insulted, then.” She nods. Her pent-up fury sent a tear down on the paper, running the ink. “Let me see.”
She hands it over, wipes her cheek, and stares out the window in the direction of his office, a needle pointing to its peculiar magnetic north.
I knew the general idea of the paper, as we’d talked about it a couple of times over coffee and midnight pool games in the basement, but I wanted to check his marginalia, for which he was famous. There was at least a dozen, plus an entire paragraph at the end of the paper, in his tiny, slightly weird script. One line stood out: “The casualness of style belies the seriousness of intent.” That was her, alright, but what was his intent?
We met up at my sister’s summerhouse just outside of Milwaukee, a halfway point for each of us, and a chance to catch up for the first time in several years. I thought she’d be famous by now, with such a cornucopia of talent and promise, and here she was, looking tired and a little thin, her great bushy hair pulled back taut and plain, but I was so glad to see her. She brought her guitar, which was reassuring, but also a heavy bookbag, which was odd.
We started out with mimosas and made ourselves omelets and ate in the kitchen, watching the birds and squirrels in their springtime frenzy, and debating whether the black and white critter that we’d glimpsed behind a shrub that had not yet fully leafed was a badger or a skunk.
I had to ask. “What’s in the bag?”
She reached over to drag it to her chair, turned it upside down, and pulled up on the bottom of the bag to empty it out on the floor.
It was all nineteen of his books, plus every book assigned for his classes, and every paper she ever wrote for him, and, as she explained, every book he’d given her, every memento she’d saved from places they’d been together or pictures in which they’d appeared together.
So. I couldn’t keep my eyebrows down. “Obsessed, much?”
“I want him dead. He takes up too much space in my head. It’s so pointless, and it’s all wrong. You’re the only one who really knows.”
Books and death made me think of bonfires, for the second time that day. “Guess what day it is?”
She shrugged and smiled. “I haven’t forgotten your birthday, have I?” She knew darn well when it was.
“Nope. It’s Walpurgisnacht.”
I loved watching her face gradually come to its former life, her eyes regaining brightness as she realized the possibilities of this day, remembering the times we’d celebrated it at school with the Humanities majors. She nods slowly, affirmatively. “A bonfire.”
“Yep. We can make it a Wal- purges -nacht.”
We drank the champagne straight until we finished the bottle, while spewing out everything we knew of the man, his appearance, his manner, his arrogance, his fame, his presumptiousness, his stupid, stupid, stupid hat, and every anecdote and bits of gossip we could remember, especially all the other female students and professors he was connected with.
She had taken the band off her hair and it now nearly covered her cheeks as she leaned forward and tapped decisively on the table. “We need a hat like that, we really need to burn a hat like that.”
“Antique store? Golf shop? Golf shop! And we can get some more champagne while we’re out.”
“Great!” Then she leaned back in her chair and her eyes wandered around the room, across the ceiling, out the window, far away. “I want to burn him in effigy. Do you think we can make him in effigy?” She turned back to look at me with an expression I couldn’t quite decipher. “Just like a scarecrow?”
Out on the beach that night, the bonfire lit quickly and Lake Michigan was shiny black obsidian. We had the place to ourselves, bundled in blankets and sharing a bottle of champagne as my best friend threw book after book and paper after paper into the fire, and the flames rose up to envelope the effigy atop the pile. A dried flower fell out of a copy of Return of the Native. She gathered the petals from where they had scattered on the sand and walked like a goddess into the water, setting them adrift to wherever her true genius waited.
Lease on Life
I shove his wheelchair up the incline so we could get a place close to the ampitheater and maybe a little more out of the wind. He was in pretty good humor today, so maybe we would be able to stay for the whole thing, listen to a little blues like we used to do years ago. It was nice enough weather, some sunshine, and I put a sweater on him and didn’t unpack our windbreakers. This was more work than I planned on having to do when I got into my seventies, but crosses to bear, and here we are.
The band hasn’t started yet, and most of the crowd is out on the grass, so we could take our time getting comfortable and not bother anyone. He likes sunshine, so I didn’t worry too much about it shining in his eyes, just handed him a baseball cap and he managed to put it on straight. He wanted cheese curls but I gave him a packet of baked chips so I wouldn’t have to worry about his getting yellow crap all over everything he touched. Sometimes I catch a look in his eye that tells me he knows damned well what he’s doing, that he’s not half as lost inside himself as he seems.
We’re off to one side, so we can do some people-watching for a bit. Lots of small children are playing in the grass and I wonder how my little ones are doing, if it is as nice there as it is here, and then I think of course it is because they live in southern California and we’re here in Indiana. It’s always nice there, and I know that we should take up our daughter’s invitation to move in with them but I want to live in my own house for as long as I can. Maybe when he has to go to a nursing home. That might be next week, that might be years from now, it is hard to tell.
He is looking over the crowd of people, and slowly eating the chips one by one. A little girl runs by, chasing a ball. I’ve not seen so many children about for years, and thought maybe they’d all disappeared into a world of video games, but these are very small children, about the same age as my daughter’s kids, and I feel the pang of missing them and missing out on their growing up, because it doesn’t last long, their being little like that. The tiny girl runs back and I watch her scurry up the grass and around her parents and past others in the crowd, some vaguely familiar faces, people we used to know years ago, probably, when he was still teaching. Everybody looks older now and I suppose we do, too. I know he does.
He’s not looking around at the crowd anymore, just staring in one direction, saying nothing, and he’s stopped eating. I hand him a napkin and he fingers it absent-mindedly. The band members are on stage, and they’re doing a quick check, and now the lead is talking and welcoming, and they start playing. We haven’t come to this park before, and I’m surprised by how nice it is, and that the concert is free, something I haven’t seen around here in maybe twenty or thirty years. Brings back memories.
He’s actually responding to the music, something he hasn’t done for a while, and he’s watching the band and looking alert. Well! I guess this was a good idea, then, fresh air and music. It’s a good band, and there’s such a nice mix of ages in the crowd. Some people are actually dancing, barefoot in the grass, lots of young moms with their little ones, some young dads, too. I never danced with my kids, I don’t like to dance, and neither does he, it’s hard to be out there like that and I always felt clumsy.
He’s staring out at the crowd again. The sun hits his face in such a way that for a moment, in the sharp mix of sun and shadow from the cap, he looks half his age and it makes me feel twice as old. His lips aren’t sagging, but taut in what used to pass for a smile in his prime, you had to know him well to know he was smiling. What on earth is he looking at? Of course. It’s the young moms in their sundresses and bare feet, dancing with their children, with butterflies and birds and late daffodils bobbing in the breeze. I should have known. He’s still a letch deep down inside.Disgusting. But he’s not doing anything too noticeable so I say nothing. The little girl with the ball keeps running back to her grandma, who is sitting in a lawn chair. She looks familiar, but her sunglasses keep me from recognizing her, and then she lets the little one pull her up and over to the group of moms and children who are dancing, and pushes the glasses up on her head. I know this woman.
He is staring at her, and that is what he’s been staring at all this time. It is her. The music catches her up and she dances with the children, as freely as she did thirty-five years ago. She hasn’t changed much at all and I feel still older. Does she not see us? Recognize us? What is she doing here? He’s actually sitting up straight, at least for him. He recognizes her, she has meaning for him, still, the one who obsessed him when I was still changing our youngest’s diapers.
The music drums in my ears and doesn’t make sense anymore. For better or for worse. She wasn’t the only one, I knew. And he is here, he never left. Unless, of course, he is looking at her. The world could fall away and he would be locked on her. Some clouds build up and we are in for a spring rain. The breeze grows to a light wind, and it gets cool. I start to get out his windbreaker to put on him, but he abruptly signals no with his hands. He doesn’t take his eyes off of her. I sit back and stare at the ground, at the pattern of the pavers on the walkways, and an hour passes without my really hearing the music, not even the applause.
It is starting to drizzle as the band wraps up and people are packing up quickly, throwing on sweaters and jackets and hurrying to cars or walking back home. She is nowhere to be seen. I put on my own jacket and pull up the hood, then fold up my chair, and balance it across the back of the wheelchair. I start to push, and his head falls forward. I crouch down to look at him; his eyes are open, the mouth still in that secret smile. He’s dead. He smells. I get to deal with this in the middle of a public park in a chilly spring rain. A pair of crows land on a sandwich wrapper a few feet away. They look so sharp and proud against the pale narcissus in the flowerbeds at the edge of the park.
I see the ad for a real estate agent on the bus stop bench near the street corner and I call them. A bicycle cop in a shiny rain poncho approaches, and I wave him down as I next call my daughter to tell her what is going on. The water is beading on her father’s neck, and I start to cry in the miserable cold rain.