Stanley sat on the park bench, seething. Anger over his brother’s remark, which had stung like a hard, unexpected slap in the face, was still boiling inside him. And now, on top of being made a cuckold and humiliated in his own home, he had to deal with being accosted by bums on the street – the last thing on earth he would have expected.
His home, a relatively modest two-story, was in a quiet, upper-middle class neighborhood of charming tree-lined, meandering streets. What was a hobo doing here? Why wasn’t he sleeping under a bridge somewhere, where he belonged?
Shortly after he left his house and headed for the park, three blocks away, the pale, thin, mangy little derelict, walking on the other side of the street, had crossed over, and in a meek, almost fearful voice, like a child asking a stern parent for a candy bar, asked Stanley if he could “spare a dollar.”
Stanley, caught off guard for a moment, stopped. Then, resolutely locked his eyes straight ahead and quickened his pace, leaving the wretched apparition behind.
Stanley leaned back on the bench and, forgetting he was in public, raised his hands to the sky, like a supplicant in church.
“Where did I go wrong?” he said aloud. “What did I ever do to deserve all of this misery?”
When the few dull and indifferent stars gave no response, he lowered his hands, suddenly remembering where he was, and glanced all around to see if someone may have been close enough to hear him. Thankfully, there was no one nearby.
He studied the park and inhaled deeply, trying to let the reassuringly neat and symmetrical appearance of the place and the mingled fragrance of the flowers, planted throughout, flow into him and calm him down. From the circular central fountain, four evenly spaced walkways led out to the concrete sidewalk, which, like a border on a sheet of paper, marked the perimeter of the rectangular park. Two gazebos, surrounded by colorful, boxed-in flowerbeds of begonias and snap-dragons and periwinkles, sat on opposite corners, providing a charming and romantic southern touch. Maples, magnolias, and oaks, surrounded by beds of red and white impatiens, sat, like lovely islands, in a sea of turf grass, and gave the whole park an immaculate and well-maintained look. Turn-of-the-century style wrought iron street lamps, spaced maybe seventy-five feet apart, along the perimeter and on the internal walkways, bathed the grounds in a soft light. It was a soothing spot, in the middle of the neighborhood, to come and walk, and think, and wind your day down to a pleasant close.
It was later than he usually came, which accounted for the surprisingly few visitors. On the opposite sidewalk, a tall young girl, looking comfortable in black, polyester, loose-fitting jogging shorts and a white t-shirt, was walking her little poodle. Even from a distance, Stanley could sense her casual confidence, and he imagined her life being as comfortable and easy as the shorts she was wearing. He could picture her going back to her apartment to luxuriate in a warm bath before phoning her mother or maybe her boyfriend. Then settling into her bed with an easy-reading bestseller as she slowly dropped off into untroubled sleep.
He shifted his gaze to a young couple, sitting inside the gazebo on the corner. They were out of earshot, but close enough to see clearly. They appeared to be, perhaps, in their early thirties. The man was listening intently to the girl, who was very animated while talking passionately, gesticulating constantly with her hands.
She reminded him of himself. Once he got started, he was a hand-talker, too. And twenty-nine years ago, when he was an English major and she was in public relations, he and Patrice would sit, just like the couple in the gazebo, in the park across from the school, talking enthusiastically for hours about everything from books and movies to plans for their own life together. They saw themselves as two streams coming together to form a strong river. They dreamed of joining their talents together and one day starting a new magazine. He would edit and manage; she would handle public relations and advertising. It would be a publication like no other – combining news with literary fiction in a dazzling new arrangement. It would have something for everyone – highbrow enough for the academics, but eclectic enough to appeal to a large portion of the reading, and buying, public.
But in the summer between their junior and senior years, Patrice became pregnant with Jonathan, and everything changed. Neither wanted an abortion, nor did they want the child to be illegitimate. So they were hastily married before a justice-of-the-peace, and announced the marriage and the pregnancy to their families as a fait accompli. They both dropped out of school,”temporarily,” planning to finish up at night after the baby was born, and the dust had settled. Stanley took an entry level position with a large bookstore, and, by working all the overtime he could, managed to bring in just enough money to keep them afloat in their tiny apartment. But neither had ever returned to college. He stayed with the bookstore and, over the years, gradually rose to the position of assistant general manager – the lack of a degree preventing him from rising any further.
After Jonathan started school, Patrice, with the help of Stanley’s brother, who was a successful developer in the northern part of the state, got her license and started selling real estate. Her income steadily climbed until it easily surpassed Stanley’s. Their two incomes combined enabled them to buy the comfortable, three-bedroom, two-bath house in this quiet upper middle class neighborhood. And with their first grandchild coming, they should have been in a position to kick back and enjoy their life together.
But over time, their paths had definitely diverged. Stanley had settled into his slow-paced job, while Patrice had become more and more ambitious. Stanley longed for the good old days -for the long walks and the intimate talks. He often tried to get her to “go out on a date,” but more often than not, he found himself alone, with a book in his lap, while Patrice raced out of the house to close another deal. She had taken to the commercial world like a fish to water, and couldn’t, or so it seemed, live without the hustle and bustle of its everyday mechanics.
Stanley watched as the man in the gazebo grabbed both of the girl’s hands and held them in her lap. Instantly, she quit talking, as though, without the use of her hands, she no longer had the ability to speak. Then, slowly, the man leaned over and kissed her softly on the lips. It was tender, a kiss that said “I love you; I understand.” It was one of those moments that required the cooperation of both of them for its very existence. He could have walked away from her. She could have pulled her hands free. The girl looked like she was tearing up, and Stanley, feeling like he was invading their privacy, looked away.
Turning the corner and walking toward him was a gray-haired couple. They were both neat and well-groomed and very trim, obviously in good shape. Stanley’s hand unconsciously slipped down to his bulging mid section, and rested there as he watched the couple approach. They nodded and muttered “good evening” as they passed.
He sat on the bench, like a vagrant, until evening turned into night and, one by one, the people faded away, leaving him alone in the park. With no people to distract him, the humiliating scene at his house was back up, like a slide show, on the wall of his brain: his wife and his brother, who was in for his yearly visit, sitting at the kitchen table, a half-empty bottle of wine between them. The two of them acting cozy – more like girlfriend and boyfriend than like brother-in-law and sister-in-law – right under his nose, as though he weren’t even there. He saw their knees (he could almost swear) touching at times under the table. He could hear his wife, normally as jocular as an undertaker, laughing like an hyena at his brother’s demeaning ethnic jokes, while, he, good old Stanley, sat on the living room sofa entertaining the troops – his brother’s two grown sons, sarcastic and wry, ensconced in the only two armchairs; his wife’s sister and her husband, standing by the mantel, sipping wine; and in lieu of his only son, thankfully at work, his daughter-in-law, two months pregnant, sitting across from him on the fireplace hearth.
During a lull in the conversation, everyone in the room could hear his brother’s voice, sotto voce, that, thanks to the wine, carried a little too far.
“Stanley always takes the easy way out, no matter how hard it is.” The remark was followed almost immediately by Patrice’s short, barking laugh – stifled ( when she realized she had an audience) a little too late. In the ensuing silence, there was an immediate sense of discomfort in the room. And although no one looked directly at him, Stanley felt like a bug – captured, identified, and put on display. The twisted smiles on the averted faces of sarcastic and wry told him it was an opinion they were not hearing for the first time. His sister-in-law and her husband set down their glasses and started shifting around uneasily, obviously planning their escape. And worst of all, when he caught a glimpse of his daughter-in-law’s eyes, he saw his star descending in a sea of pity. Embarrassed, he got up and waddled self-consciously through the silence, out the back door, and headed for the park.
The slats of the bench were beginning to bite into his back, but he just couldn’t face going home and perhaps finding some of them still there. He got up and started walking around the perimeter of the empty park. As he walked, he gradually erased the outside world, until, before long, he was completely alone with his thoughts. His hands started moving around, at times pointing, at others swooping like a pair of angry birds. From a distance he looked like a madman chastising an invisible and, obviously, very intimidated mute. In reality, he was busy putting his wife squarely in her place.
“I’ve had enough of this bullshit,” he said pointing directly at her. “I promise you, you will never again make a fool of me in my own house.”
After a couple of laps, his animation and his pace slowed noticeably. His hands dropped to his side and, finally, like one of those life-sized lawn figures deflating, he came to rest again on the bench.
The fire still smoldered inside of him, burning a hole in his gut, but, with depressing resignation, he knew, in his heart, that was the only real damage it was ever going to do. In their twenty-five years of marriage, Patrice had slowly, but surely, gotten the upper hand. All of their disagreements over the years followed a distinct pattern, and this one, he knew, would be no different. They would walk around each other for a couple of days, in an emotionally charged silence, until, finally, like a man who can no longer hold his breath underwater, he would be the one to break the silence, hoping for some form of honest communication. But it would never turn out that way. Patrice was an expert at turning things around and putting him on the defensive. As though it had already happened, he could see them sitting at the kitchen table. He could hear her voice, so much huskier than it use to be.
“Stanley, you’re making something out of nothing. I was just being friendly toward your brother. After all, he is your brother. I was entertaining him for your sake, not mine.”
They would sit there, staring at each other like weary combatants.
“And, as far as the remark goes, he was only telling the truth. You don’t like confrontation. And there’s nothing wrong with that,” she would say. And, then, like one accustomed to being misunderstood and falsely accused, she would shake her head, get up, and walk away.
He would think about what she said, and eventually, he would break the impasse by admitting that maybe he had jumped to the wrong conclusion. Maybe, like she said, he was making mountains out of molehills. Eventually, he would apologize and ask for her forgiveness. What else could he do? Live a silent, miserable existence in a tense house? Walk out and start over? He was fifty years old, and about to become a grandfather. What real choice did he have?
He looked at his watch. It had been well over an hour. They would all be gone by now – his brother, no doubt, being the last to leave, giving Patrice a comforting hug before rolling his eyes, and shrugging his shoulders in sympathy. And then heading back to the hotel with sarcastic and wry, like a pair of puppy dogs on an invisible leash, happily in tow. He placed his palms on the bench, and with an effort, pushed himself up and headed home.
The oak-lined street before his was unusually dark. He noticed that the street lamp on the corner was out. He looked up. Cloud cover obscured the thin crescent of a moon, and dulled the few puny stars still visible. As for the quiet neighborhood, its aging inhabitants were buttoned up for the night. Here and there lights were burning, but no one was out. He took his time navigating the sidewalk, which was cracked and partially erupted in spots, from the roots of the live oaks. He was concentrating on his footing when, suddenly, a figure stepped out of the shadows, jolting him to a startled stop.
“What the hell,” he said, stepping back in fright.
“I’m sorry, mister. I didn’t mean to scare you,” the man said, holding up his hands as though to prove that he was unarmed and harmless. Stanley saw that it was the same pathetic, ghostly figure he had met on his way to the park.
“You scared the shit out of me, man. What are you doing here? What do you want?” Even in the near dark, Stanley could see that the man’s tiny face, like a metal sign used for target practice, was severely pockmarked. His thinning hair was disheveled, and sticking up comically in spots.
“I’m lost, sir. I was looking for a friend’s house, and I got turned around and just started wandering.”
“Friend? Friend?” Stanley repeated, as though the man were speaking a foreign language.
“Could you just spare me a dollar, sir. So I could catch a bus and get back to where I belong.”
“No. No,” Stanley repeated, like a man finally coming fully awake and realizing where he was. “No,” he said the third time. The man’s face in the dark, obsequious and submissive, like a servant’s, filled Stanley with a sickening disgust, and he turned away from him.
“Just a dollar. Please, sir,” the man said, grabbing tentatively at Stanley’s hand.
“No,” he yelled, violently pulling his hand away. Emboldened by his own strident voice, he turned, suddenly furious, and punched the pathetic figure just below the breast bone, and watched, astonished, as the creature crumpled to the ground, and lay there, in the fetal position, whimpering. Like a man in the middle of an out-of-body experience, he looked down on the miserable ragamuffin writhing on the ground, unable to believe what had just happened. He had never, in his entire life, struck another human being. He stood there, with his mouth open, staring down at the man, still not able to believe his own eyes.
Then, suddenly, he panicked and looked around to see if anyone had witnessed the event. But the houses were still all sealed up like tombs. The streets and all the porches, for as far as the eye could see, were empty. Apparently no one had heard him scream, or seen the commotion that followed. He quickly fumbled for his wallet, got out a twenty dollar bill, and knelt down beside the man.
“Look, I’m sorry. Okay? I don’t know what came over me. I’m sorry. Here. Take this. Okay? I’m sorry.” He stuffed the bill inside the man’s folded arms and hurried away.
His heart was still racing when he reached the front of his house. Not a single light was on, not even a porch light, to at least acknowledge that he was out and would return. He knew, without trying it, that the front door would be locked, so he scurried through the side yard and ducked into the house through the back door. He closed and locked it, and leaned his back against it, waiting for his breathing to return to normal. After a while, he crept through the dark house and peeked through the front window curtains. The bum was nowhere in sight.
Relieved, he walked back to the kitchen and flipped on the light. As soon as he did a big, ugly cockroach raced across the white ceramic floor and disappeared under the cabinets. He hated the grotesque creatures and he shuddered to think of even one of them living in the house, out of sight, biding his time, waiting to come out in the safety of the dark. He made a mental note to call the exterminator and complain. To keep the kitchen illuminated during the night, he turned on the small light above the stove.
He flipped off the main light in the kitchen, and walked out into the living room. He stood at the foot of the stairs, looking up. His bedroom door was wide open, but Patrice’s was tightly shut. “And probably locked,” he heard himself say aloud. How strange it was, he thought, that they hadn’t slept in the same bed in years. And their mating, once protracted and romantic, proceeded by long periods of foreplay and followed by even longer periods of languorous fondling and cuddling, was now decidedly more like mechanical sex than intimate lovemaking.
Almost as soon as they were finished, she would wrestle herself out of the entanglement of his arms, like someone throwing off an uncomfortable blanket, and jump out of bed, as though her busy life didn’t allow time for such foolishness.
He walked over and sat down in one of the easy chairs, and flipped on the light. The small, gold-plated photo album sitting on the end table caught his eye, and he picked it up and started idly flipping through it. The album was mainly a conversation piece for visitors. It was something he seldom looked at. It was mostly full of pictures of Jonathan at various stages of his life – as a baby, riding his first bike, at about age nine, teeter-tottering on a pair of roller blades, his high school graduation picture, and numerous pictures from his wedding.
He paused at a leaf in the album that he hadn’t seen before. There were two pictures of Patrice, which she must have added lately. They were striking because the pictures were side by side, and showed her at two different ages. In one, she appeared to be, maybe, in her early thirties; the other was recent, apparently snapped while she was at some sort of real estate function. In both of them, her straw-colored hair was pulled back, as always, over her left ear. But in the younger photo, her hair was longer, coming down well below her shoulders, and softer, and more casual, obviously fixed hastily, no doubt by herself. In the picture of the older Patrice, her hair was much shorter, stopping a couple of inches above the shoulder, and it had a stiff, professional, beauty shop look to it. In the first photo, the left earring that was revealed was a dangling, youthful-looking silver hoop, which matched the stainless steel, circle pendant on her neck. In the older one, the earring looked like a dab of red, white, and blue paint put on the lobe with a brush to match the necklace, hugging her throat like a choke chain. In the earlier photo, her lipstick was either nonexistent or very subdued, but in the later one it was unmistakably red.
There were other differences one would expect with aging. Patrice had gained maybe twenty pounds over the years, and, though makeup did a good job of hiding the lines in her face, the wrinkles in her neck, above the choker, were painfully obvious.
But the most striking, while at the same time, most subtle difference was the look on their faces. Both of them were looking directly at the camera. The younger Patrice had a playful, almost pixie-like look on her face, while the older, more professional Patrice, was clearly all business.
He glanced around at the well furnished house. It seemed like a century ago when he and Patrice had dreamed of one day owning a place just like this. He looked down at the picture of the younger Patrice. “What happened?” he said, shaking his head.
He set the album down, turned off the lamp, and started pacing back and forth across the living room. The light from the working street lamp on his corner, filtering in through the curtains, kept the room out of total darkness. He stopped in front of the window, and stood there for a moment before peeking through the curtains. The street was empty, but a slight drizzle had begun to fall. He pulled back the curtains and looked up and down the street. The neighborhood looked like it always did – there was no bum or any other living soul in sight.
“Thank God,” he said, pulling the curtains to. He checked the door to make sure it was locked, and then turned to head upstairs. But he stopped at the foot of the staircase and glanced up at his empty room. It looked about as warm and as inviting as a hotel room, and he knew there was no way he could face it tonight.
He stretched out on the couch, with his head propped up on a throw pillow. He stared out into the empty room, trying to clear his mind of the day’s crazy events. The subdued light, like a companion in the room with him, made the loneliness bearable, and he realized, with a sudden sense of shame at his own immaturity, that, even at age fifty, he was still afraid of the dark. After what seemed like hours of a mindless routine of closing and then re-opening his eyes, half expecting to find the bum standing in the middle of the living room, he finally dozed off into a fitful sleep.
In the middle of the night, he awoke from a dream with the image still clearly in his mind. A young girl, no more than ten, was stranded outside in an ice storm. He watched her through a picture window, from the safety of his living room, as she fell, got up, fell and got up, over and over again, without moving a step forward on the slick, icy street. It was painfully obvious that she was going to freeze to death if no one came to her rescue. Her eyes, pleading for help, met his. But for some reason, he was frozen in place himself and could make no move to save her.
He lay in the eerie semi-darkness trying to put the disturbing image out of his mind. There wasn’t a sound in the house. Too rattled to stay flat on the couch, he sat up. His mouth suddenly felt as dry as cotton. He needed a glass of water.
He got up and headed for the kitchen, hoping the tiny, little light above the stove had been enough to keep the hideous creature at bay.
Barry W. North is retired and on a permanent ineffective diet. He writes poetry and stories and has miraculously won the A. E. Coppard Prize for Fiction for 2010. This has given great encouragement to keep playing the lottery.
© 2010, Barry W. North