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.