(c) by the author
Caitlin is such a well-behaved child. I take all the credit for that. Jason left us when Caitlin was two, and even before that he never paid much attention to her. Now that he’s remarried, he hardly has time for her at all. He has her on Saturdays, and last time he brought her back within two hours.
He claims Caitlin started freaking out when she saw his new wife. Of course, I’ve trained Caitlin to be wary of strangers. One has to these days. Parents have to arm their children against predators. But Caitlin never behaves that way around me. Jason just doesn’t know how to control a child.
His parents are the same. They have grandparents’ visitation rights one day every two months. Last time they tried to take Caitlin with them, she started screaming and hid in her bedroom. She was so frightened. In the end they gave up and went away.
Caitlin’s pre-school teacher called me in to talk about Caitlin’s shyness around strangers. She recommended a child psychologist. Caitlin will be the first one in her play group to see a psychologist. She’s such a sensitive child. She gets that from me.
“Look at these. ‘Lost dog.’ ‘Motorcycle for sale.’ ‘Room for rent.’ Dozens of them.” Stephen angrily brandished the ads and notices that he had torn from the lamp post on our block in my face.
“Every day I take them down. It’s hopeless. I used to try to keep the stretch from Midvale Road to River Street clear, but every week there are more and more of them. Now I just concentrate on this block. I go out every morning and take them down. I might as well do nothing. Within a couple of hours there are more of them.
“Why do people do this? I don’t understand. I’ve written to the council but they’re useless. Come election time, their campaign posters are the worst. And it’s not just outsiders. It’s people who live in this neighbourhood. You’d think they’d want to keep it clean. But no, they have to foul their own nest. What is wrong with people?”
Just then he spotted a man taping a piece of bright red paper to a lamp post down the street. He ran towards him screaming, “What do you think you’re doing? You can’t do that.”
He’d been sick that morning and didn’t make it to his usual spot until mid-afternoon. The lunchtime crowds who gathered around the pushcarts in River Park had already left. Many people gave him their change after buying lunch. They felt guilty eating while he sat there patiently with his sign “Help a veteran of the Gulf War.” He hadn’t been in the war, but they didn’t need their change and he did.
It was raining, and the cart operators were packing up and leaving. All that remained were the smell and some leftovers in the waste bins. He found a half-eaten bag of sodden crisps, but they fell apart when he tried to eat them.
The few people out in the rain weren’t generous. He didn’t make enough for both food and drink. He had almost enough for a hamburger, almost enough for a bottle of cheap wine.
Sweet wine would have sugar in it. Energy for his body. Just as good as a hamburger. And the liquor stores were closer. Sometimes they had wine on sale in the bargain bin. He might have enough for a bottle. If the first store didn’t, he would try another.
Red pill? Blue pill? He’d already taken two red pills. Should he risk another? The edge was beginning to come off. He wasn’t flying quite as high as he had been. Flying. Floating. I’m a high-flyer, he thought and then giggled.
Flying so high. So close to the sun. Might get burned. Was it still daytime? He could raise his head and look out the window. But he didn’t want to move, didn’t want to open his highs. My highs, he thought, my eyes. Open my eyes and sink down to reality. Don’t want that. Want to fly.
Maybe it was night and he was flying close to the moon. Look through your telescopes and see the marvellous flying man. Floating in the sky. Look at my diamonds. My pretty diamonds. Where had that thought come from? Don’t want diamonds. Just another pill.
He kept his eyes shut and felt along the coffee table for the next pill. He had arranged an assortment of them in a neat row a few hours earlier. It didn’t matter what he picked up, he decided. Any pill would do. White balloon. Green balloon. Brown balloon. All of them floating in the sky.
The Apple of Discord
Yesterday Hank and me were having lunch, and his three sisters come over. Hank says to me, “Ferris, my friend, which of these three lovely women is the prettiest?” Instantly all three of them turn to me. You can see that each of them wants me to say her name. Now I’m not stupid. There’s no way I’m going to answer that question. So I smile and say, “I’m so blinded with your pulchritude that it’s impossible to choose just one of you. So I choose all three.” Mr Diplomacy, that’s me. Mr Diplomacy who got a vocabulary-builder calendar last Christmas. But that’s not good enough for any of them. They all start shouting that I have to say which one is the prettiest.
Talk about a predicament. The oldest one is married to the boss. The middle one could lead troops into battle, she’s so fierce. And the youngest one is dating this big ironworker.
There’s no way I can come out of this a winner. So I say all kind of nonchalant like, “You know who I think is pretty. That Helen who works in shipping.” Talk about your wrong answers. I think I’ve started a war.
Orpheus and Eurydice
“Mrs Dice’s mind is gone. Poor dear. But she’s no trouble to anyone. The doctors say she has Alzheimer’s. Usually she just sits by herself in the lounge. Sometimes she watches the other patients walking about, but mostly she just babbles to herself.
“Mr Dice comes to visit once a week. You can tell it bothers him to see her like this. He tries to talk with her, and she just smiles and asks him who he is. He told me they’ve been married over sixty years. Imagine that—sixty years and she doesn’t even know who he is.
“The only thing that attracts her attention is music. There’s a piano in the lounge, and Mr Dice plays it sometimes. Mostly old songs, dance music, that sort of thing. She always perks up when she hears him playing. She tries to sing along, but she forgets the words. But it makes her happy. You can see what she used to be like—when she still had her mind, I mean.
“She told him once that her husband plays the piano. ‘My Arthur plays,’ she said. ‘He’s ever so talented.’ You could see how that hurt him.”
“She comes into the shop two or three nights a week. She waits until it’s dark out. I don’t think she wants to be seen. She usually wears a big hat and arranges her hair so that it covers a lot of her face. I think she was in an accident—something happened that left her face like that. Maybe a fire—part of her face looks all melted.
“The other night, when it was raining so hard, the wind must have blown her hat off and sprung her umbrella, because her hair was all wet and tangled from the rain. It hung in strands, like snakes around her head. And her face was visible. I’m used to her, so I can act normal around her. But the other customers, you could tell they were startled by her. When they saw her, they would look shocked and then they would get this frozen look on their face, like a mask, because they didn’t want her to see what they were thinking.
“I wonder if she was pretty before the accident. I’d like to think she has those memories. But maybe that makes it worse.”
“All I said was that he was getting a bit old to play the enfant terrible and that people would soon stop laughing with him and start laughing at him. The snide remarks he makes sound clever when you’re eighteen but when you’re pushing forty, people start thinking it’s mean-spirited to say things like that and begin to wonder what such remarks say about you and your insecurities.
“Five minutes with him and you realise how bitter he is. Things didn’t work out as he planned and now he’s jealous of anyone who’s more successful than him. Since that’s practically everybody, an evening with him means listening to him run down everyone you know, including yourself. Oh, he’s funny, I’ll give you that and he can see others clearly. But he can’t see himself and he doesn’t understand that it’s apparent to everyone else that the things he makes fun of are the things he wants.
“Of course, he didn’t believe me. In fact, he got mad at me. Well, that’s the last time I offer him friendly advice. People never want to hear the truth. I'll keep my mouth shut from now on.”