Bill is up before the sun. Mug in hand, he sips coffee on the open tailgate of his truck, one leg swinging like a metronome. He waits for the sunrise and for the old woman across the street. At any moment, she’ll come outside to pick up the day’s newspaper. He can see it resting beneath the blooming crape myrtle, its plastic wrapper glistening with dew.
The paperboy sits in the back seat. He rolls, bags, and tosses the dailies as his father drives slowly through the neighborhood. As they round the corner by the community fountain, he takes aim at the old woman’s tree and throws. The paper hits the slender trunk with a thwack.
The old woman lies in bed, restless, tossing uncomfortably, waiting for the sound of the newspaper. Upon hearing it, she falls asleep.
The old woman rises, dons a robe and peers through the blinds. She can see Bill’s cigarette tip glowing red in the dark. She waits for him to leave. When she loses patience, she walks out to the crape myrtle and picks up The Post. Turning to go inside, she sneaks a look back at Bill. He waves, slides off the tailgate, empties the cold remains of his coffee cup onto the grass, and goes inside to start his workday with a shower.
Category Archives: Fred Osuna
It had been two months since he carried her to the hospital and asked for relief for them both: no more seizures or blindness for her; no more heartache and worry for him. After the deed, the doctor’s assistant put her arm around him and leaned into him but he just stood there, mouth half open, gasping silently. Within him, the pain created a tension that coiled in his chest like a bungee cord stretched to its limit. That loss stayed there for weeks, stretched and taut.
Yesterday, he saw a peace plant in a store. It sat drying in dust on the 75% rack, next to three broken bags of peat moss. He paid the cashier $5.49 and took it home. He manicured its errant stems, the brown, withered ones, its torn leaves. He wiped it with a damp cloth. He set it in a glazed clay pot next to the sofa and admired its scrawny handsomeness.
Then he slept.
Just before dawn, he awoke and listened. He expected something, but there were no feet padding down the hallway at the sound of his rustling. There was no early morning litter-box smell, no pukey gift in the hallway, no hairball-hacking yack yack from under the bed. He walked into the living room, settled into the easy chair, and stared at the peace plant. It stared back, living but lifeless, bracts raised as in a shrug: Now what do I do?
Spathiphyllum, he thought, you are no Felis catus.
“Oh,” she responded. She used the most nonchalant and casual tone she could muster, not looking up at him, nearly swallowing the syllable.
He’d commented that she was going to miss his birthday, after she had told him that her family was leaving town for a drive up to Raleigh on the coming weekend. He’d wanted her to know when it was. He noticed her slight reply. He wondered if she was pretending not to hear him now, in preparation for not acknowledging the anniversary of his birth later. He thought to mention it again, to make sure she’d heard him – maybe make a little eye contact – but decided against it.
They parted soon after that moment. She went in her house; he walked across the lawns to his place next door. They each closed their front doors. The sun dropped reliably. Eventually, all the windows on the street went dark, each small house cloaking its occupants in a world unto itself, soundproofed and emotionally remote.
The following weekend, they met in the yard again. He asked how the trip to Raleigh had been. She described their roadside breakdown in terse detail, how they’d been stranded for nearly two hours before someone stopped to give them a lift into the nearest town. When the tale ended, she paused, waiting for a consolation from him.
He heard the purposeful break. He knew that the neighborly standard demanded a statement of sympathy, but he could generate none.
“Oh,” he said. “Hm.”
We leave at dusk in a borrowed car, two of us, driving from Boston to the border, our only stop a package store in New Hampshire for liquid provisions. At night, on these New England roads, there is no light, no pink sodium-vapor glow, no guideposts. Just dense, thick darkness, all shades of black marshaled together, pushing back against the paltry spark of our headlights.
Once we cross into Québec, there is nothing.
Our instructions: drive two miles due north and bear left at the crossing. In the murk, we see no crossing, no markings, no turnoff. We are unaware that miles in this country are not a standard unit of measurement.
We soldier on into the alien midnight.
We ascend on a narrow, rutted, winding road, iced and bumpy, moving at 10 mph or less.
The heater fails.
Another hour passes. I can see my breath. Gene pisses in his water bottle and passes it to me, a hand-warmer to help loosen my Ivy League death grip on the wheel.
Around 4 a.m., the road winds downward. I feel we’re heading south. As the sun begins its soft glow, I see a sign to our destination. 1.5 km from us, it sits, glowing at the base of a network of runs, all converging like a natural pointer saying, HERE IT IS!
In the distance, Gene spies the border arcade – the one we apparently missed – while I imagine the comfort of walking on hot coals, a shower, French toast.
I reach the corner, stop, push the button, shove my hands into the pockets of my hoodie, stamp my feet to force some warmth into them. It is seventeen degrees on the street, but warmer than in that room with its plastic window pane, its curled and yellowing linoleum floor. The sun is shining here, though, even if the ice isn’t melting.
Once, I asked my father why Rex turned around three times before settling down for a nap. He told me it was because one good turn deserves another, then he laughed. Rex looked uncomfortable. Dad had no idea, I think now.
The light turns green, and I cross and double-back on the opposite side of the street. They’re watching me from that Chick-fil-A, through the window, that man and his two kids. One of the kids is pointing, his mitten dangling from the wrist of his orange parka. He’s pointing at me.
Sometimes there’s a Help Wanted sign on one of the shop windows, but not today. I could use some work, just to feel some food in my belly. I’d do anything that needs doing, even if it’s just taking out the garbage. I loop back around the block once more. Twice, just to be sure. Still no signs.
People see me. I want them to know that I’m serious. They must wonder why I keep circling the block. Do they? Do they wonder?
I’m like a dog, and they just don’t speak my language.
There are cat whiskers grazing my face. I can’t open my eyes. I slide my hand under the sheets. It’s cool there. An impression. This is where she would be.
The phone vibrates beneath my pillow. I pick it up. I look down.
Y R U sad, it reads.
I sit alone in my bedroom.The ceiling fan whrrs overhead.The curtains billow and rest.
The phone rings. Hello. No one replies.
I move to the sofa. The lights are off. The cat nestles into a pillow beside me. The sun comes up. I hear garbage cans being thrown, empty, into driveways. The truck passes and turns the corner.
The door opens. She looks past me, doesn’t move, doesn’t blink. I sigh. I close my eyes.
Now she is sitting on the floor, cross-legged, head bowed. She looks up. Where are you going?
The sofa floats past her, my legs dangling. The cat stirs, returns to sleep. She rises from the floor, comes to rest beside me. A feather.
We breathe deeply, lean into one another, glide through the window into the drifting night mist. A cicada chorus envelops us: now as one, now not at all.
I read the last line and close the book with a smack. “That ends that section,” I tell him. “Coming up is the chapter titled ‘The Ancient History of the Sewers of Paris.’ We’ll read that tomorrow.”
He doesn’t reply. I know he’s not asleep. I set the book under the nightstand where I’ll find it in the morning. I grab the remote and turn the television on. I find “Jeopardy” and turn up the volume. He stares straight ahead at the screen.
I make a few phone calls from the chair beside his bed. It’s hard to hear – Alex is talking loudly – so I compete. The old man doesn’t seem to notice. I change the channel. It’s an old Bogart flick. He watches it, no flinching, no emotion.
When the movie ends, I rifle through the CDs. There’s a Mahler 2nd, the cover a beautiful art deco mosaic. I slip it in the boombox on the bureau, turn it up high so I can hear the soft parts clearly. Is he listening?
The back door opens – it’s Marti, back from grocery shopping. I shout a Hello, go help her unload the bags. We chat over the music, which is booming down the hallway from the bedroom.
Finished, I go to his room. I tell him I’m going. “See you at noon,” I yell in his ear, so he’ll hear me. He stares forward. I leave.
The old man closes his eyes and thinks of smiling. In silence.
There was that time he decided to avoid the whole situation by getting off the bus early. He was now twenty miles from school at 7:30 in the morning, and he hitched rides far enough along the route so that he could walk the rest of the way. When he slipped into the classroom forty minutes late, he felt like a badass, not at all the sophomore who was bullied daily by the bandana’d cholo from Chula Vista, nor the awkward virgin who had to hide the obvious erection in his crotch with a Pee Chee.
The next day, he was emboldened, and addressed the cholo as he climbed onto the bus. “Que pasa, Juanito?” No one called that guy such things. He was feared. But by the time the cholo had grasped the new order, the driver was pulling into the school parking lot.
It went like this for another month, a standoff, with no confrontations beyond an exchange of glares. Then the sophomore got his license, inherited a used Chevy, and started driving himself to school.
Today, the Nova broke down on the freeway, smoke rising from under the hood. As he waited for the mechanic to arrive, the bus passed him. One terrified white face peered from the window, a frightened, trapped boy in a cardigan. Behind him was the glowering shade of the cholo, still raging, mouth nearly frothing, grabbing at the kid’s lunch bag, ripping his school papers.
He didn’t miss it at all.
Her voice mail announced: “I’m coming for three days and I’ll need you to pick me up Tuesday at 11:15. I have two large bags, so empty the car. Make sure the dog hair’s cleaned up, I have allergies.”
His sister could be pleasant under her terms. But his life was never enough of an open book for her; after he’d rearrange his apartment to her satisfaction, she’d excavate the place while he was at work. The visit would invariably end in a melodrama punctuated by revelations she’d acquired in her scavenger hunt. He was old enough now, jaded enough, to anticipate this routine.
He dug deep in his writing desk and found a complimentary postcard from an Indiana Holiday Inn. He addressed it to himself and invented a message from a fictitious woman that mentioned drunkenness, a car accident, a gay dalliance, wanton credit card use and cocaine. When it arrived in the mail, he ripped it in two, dividing the litany of secrets proportionately. He slipped one half under his mattress, the other beneath a Tupperware tower in the pantry. And he waited.
On the day of her departure, she was uncharacteristically quiet. He didn’t push her.
When he got home, he flipped the mattress and found a brochure from a rehab center. In the kitchen was a pamphlet for Journey into Manhood, tucked inside a paperback copy of Financial Peace. Within each was a hundred dollar bill. It was an even swap.
His academic nightmare is set in an examination hall, where the student takes a seat at a folding table in the center of the room. Before him are three No. 2 pencils and a blue book. The moderator writes one essay question – sixty percent of the grade – on the chalkboard. Then she starts the clock.
The room becomes a vacuum in which he hears only the drumming of his own heart. The rest of the room recedes. There is only the blank page, the sweaty palms, and the realization that he has no idea what ethnomathematics is. After five minutes of quiet panic, he turns to the back of the book and scribbles page after page of free association on his own topic: despair.
He hands the instant journal disguised as a blank book to the moderator, avoiding her eyes. Next day, when he visits the graduate lounge to pick up his grade, all of the teaching assistants stop talking and turn toward him.
Are you alright? asks the woman in the modified burka. We were concerned about you.
Yes, he answers, I’m fine.
He sees his instructor coming forward from the back of the room. He approaches the student. Should we call someone for you? I was worried we might not ever see you again.
The student smiles, assures him all is well.
The instructor sighs with relief. He extends his hand to the student. It holds a blue book, marked with a violent red F.
She’s new, with the enthusiasm of a new person. And everyone wants the new girl, at least they do at first.
It takes thirteen even sweeps to clear all the hair from beneath her chair. She’s averaged it. It’s sometimes as few as six. She has a lot of time to figure that out now, but most days there’s very little hair. That hippie dude she gave a buzz cut to? His hair was everywhere. That was a good 27 sweeps.
The hippie dude came back in this week. He asked for Madeleine. The new girl stood alone at her station watching them, and she knew they were talking about her. I mean, at one point they both turned in her direction and the former hippie dude said her name. “The new girl,” he said. She smiled at them and they turned away and kept talking.
She’s gonna get a new job. She’ll be the best at it. She’ll be the only one at the drive-thru that says “please,” “thank you” and “ma’am.” She’ll get promoted to assistant manager, you just wait and see.
Entering that darkroom’s like slipping through the barrel of a rifle. I step into the chamber, pull the black galvanized door behind me and lean into the revolving door. The caster rollers rattle, the rubber around the door releases with a whoosh, and I pass into the safe darkness. It’s quiet as a tomb, comfortable as a womb. I’ve fallen out of the gun barrel into my own silent midnight.
There’s a long line in the ER and the techs are talking loudly about it. During the late shift, the odd cases show up: bullet wounds, knifings, oddly-placed hematomas. Tonight we’ll see the city’s underbelly, tomorrow they will go back into hiding.
The technicians slide me their film cartridges and I get working. I move Zen-like in the dark. I’m Gollum under the mountain, a mole; I’m fast, efficient, in control. When they’re busiest, I slide out and clip their films to the light boxes. Then I return, to my quiet dark room.
When the shift ends, I keep the lights off. I lean against the counter, sipping coffee. Outside, the sun begins to rise. Outside my door, the techs discuss the woman with insect eggs in her sinus cavity, the man irretractably coupled with a vacuum cleaner. I’ve released the lock on the barrel and a fine border of white fluorescence falls across the toes of my boots. I leave last, taking the back roads to avoid the crawling columns of cars on the highway.
She was forward, even though they’d met anonymously via the website’s algorithm. Perhaps she just felt safe behind the monitor. She’d chatter like a nervous schoolgirl, not the sixty-year-old woman that she was. He’d win a game, then she would; he’d clear his tray and score two Bingos one round, she’d produce oddities like squeg, zoftig and exosmic the next. It was fun, until he started winning every time.
Then, she’d disappear for months. During each hiatus, she played friends and new strangers. Once she regained confidence, she’d send a message. Meg has invited you to a game, the pop-up would read. He’d always reply Yes. He enjoyed playing her, and expected he’d learn some arcane words.
She became increasingly fragile with each loss. She’d title their games “I’m Feeling Brave Tonight” or “I Must Be Crazy.” He thought she was just being funny.
The Saturday night in question, he led by 143 points. He rose and mixed himself a cocktail. When he returned, she’d canceled the game.
Why’d you quit? he wrote.
I can’t handle this massacre.
He criticized her form. You don’t invite someone to a game and quit because you’re not winning, he wrote.
She exploded. You might quit, too, if you were waiting to find out that your mother could die at any moment.
He extended his sympathies toward her mother’s condition. Then he matter-of-factly unfriended her.
The next morning, she drove to the cemetery to clip the grass around her mother’s gravestone.