REPORT A PROBLEM
At last. I thought this day would never come. Sometimes, I was sure it wouldn’t. I would have bet big money that it wouldn’t. No, this kind of happiness and fulfillment, this sense of accomplishment would never be mine. I was so sure of it, I didn’t prepare myself for it. I’m just not prepared at all. It catches me off guard, out of sorts, off balance, if you know what I mean. I mean, I’m not a naysayer, or doom mongerer, or just plain negative person, it’s just so uncommon for this sort of thing to happen to me.
The drive was almost too much, unbearably tedious. Mile after mile of dry grassland hills with wheat fields in between. Wire fencing and dusty roads, the gritty feeling invading every pore. Cottonwoods passing for greenery in the low wet places, not a sign of anything alive except the occasional hawk on a wire pole high above the roadway. One gets a real sense of distance out here between the mountains on the west and the mountains to the east. It's hard to believe the Rockies are within a days drive of here. A shower sounds like heaven on earth tonight.
"Grandma is that a true story?"
"What story honey?"
"That story about Jesus...is that a true story?"
"Well it's true that there was a Jesus. Which part do you mean?"
"The God part, Grandma. Is that true that there's a God?"
"Well, yes, honey I think there is a God."
"But why can't I see him?"
"Well we can see what God makes, God's creation, the world around us...but we can't actually see God."
"But how do you know it's true?"
"Well, it's like this. We can see the world so we know there is a God."
My first gray hair came when my kid was 12. She wasn’t a bad kid, but the principal said "You know how you worry about your kid running with a bad crowd? Well, your kid IS the bad crowd." But I wanted to believe in her. So one day I was getting some cash from the ATM and she gave me this unexpected squeeze, put her arm around my shoulder, you know? I was thinking how nice to see her show some real emotion. What I found out later was she was looking over my shoulder to see my PIN.
“Old George Burns joke.”
“Yeah…so here it is. It’s great to live to a hundred, because so few people die after that.”
(laughs) “Oh, that’s a good one.”
“So what’s goin’ on with you?”
“Everything’s new to you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, lemme tell you a joke. Old George Burns joke.”
“Oh okay, great. Tell me.”
“Old geezer turns 100, says it’s great to live to be a hundred, because so few people die after that age.”
(Laughs) “Oh, that’s a good one.”
“See what I mean?”
Talk about exposure. Might as well get naked. A lead role in a serious theatrical production scares the hell out of me. Go, make a fool of yourself in front of a lot of strangers, who have paid to see you do it. The challenge will be simple. Stay in character, suspend your own disbelief long enough to really do it, despite all the chattering inside your head telling you that you are being idiotic. Pretending to be Emily saying her last farewell to life in "Our Town." Now that has got to be good for a couple of laughs.
I leaned back to listen. The rumble of the approaching train shook the entire house. A sound like walls falling down, like the world coming to an end. I looked around in alarm. My eyes took in the room around me. A picture on the wall trembled and dipped sideways. The sound collapsed in on itself, like an explosion in reverse, kept getting louder until it blocked out all other sounds. There was an eerie silence in its center, where I hung suspended like a puppet on a string. I closed my mouth and tasted track soot on my tongue.
I swallowed hard. The train began to turn. The squeal and screech of metal on metal rode high and sharp over the deep bellowing rumble underneath. My hands went reflexively to my ears. Lights bounced in syncopation over walls, across the back of the couch, in time with the clacking. I smelled the electricity arcing, saw the flash of sparks reflected on the window glass. The rattling jarred my teeth and shook my joints. And then it began to fade and finally passed into an echo, and then it was gone. I dropped my hands, cocked my ear and listened.
The worst part about being sick is boredom. There is just nothing interesting about laying in bed, though you get to read, if you feel well enough to sit or prop yourself up. There is always daytime TV, synonymous with tortore and early Alzheimer’s because you have to forget it quickly to keep from losing your mind. But maybe even worse is just feeling sick itself. There is little worse than abdominal cramps and nausea, even laying down. In fact, laying down is not the position you find yourself in most often when the stomach flu gets hold of you.
"God my wrist is killing me now."
"I guess you overdid it, huh?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
"Well, you were warned."
"But you never listen, do you?"
"I never listen?"
"No. You never do."
"Why you gotta be that way?"
"Well I did tell you so."
"So you should know, that's all."
"Well I did."
"Does it hurt bad?"
"Yeah. It hurts bad."
"That's too bad."
"It's just your attitude."
"Your goddamned attitude I am sick of."
"Is that right?"
When I left the party, it was pitch black outside and raining. All I had was a thin short jacket, so I turned the collar up and tucked my purse as far under my arm as I could, and I headed straight for the subway station a couple of blocks away. The lights from business signs and streetlights glared on the wet pavement, and every step I took caused a splash of water to waft up around my feet. Soon enough my shoes were soaking through. I could feel the water spreading from the seams to encircle both my feet.
Soon enough my shoes were soaking through. Even my ankles were getting wet from splashing water. There didn’t seem to be anywhere to walk around what appeared to be a continuous puddle that covered the entire sidewalk. The only variation was depth. What a change, I thought, from the recent heat wave we’d been having. I walked as quickly as I could while trying to avoid the splashing, but pretty soon there was no point. The water was soaking through my jacket and through my shirt, so that my upper back felt chilled and wet through. My hair was dripping.
I was wondering if I should have stayed at the party. But I had come too far to go back. I was committed. I didn’t see him until it was too late, and he was tapping me on the shoulder. “Excuse me. Can you tell me how to get to the subway station?” he said. I jumped back and it took me a second to get hold of myself. He had caught me totally off guard. His blue eyes were clear and kind, his smile disarming. “Oh, yes, I ‘m going there myself.” “Oh, so can I just follow you?”
“Would that be okay?” he asked.
“I guess so.”
“I’m not from around these parts, and I got disoriented. I was at this party on Riverside.”
“On Riverside? I was at a party on Riverside.”
“I was at Ellie’s birthday party. Were you there?”
“I was there. I can’t believe I didn’t see you. Let’s walk.”
“Okay, yes. It’s wet out here.” He chuckled and his face softened. “Nice weather we’re having.”
“Well,” I said, “it’s not the best. It’s this way.” I led the way down Broadway. “It’s just a few blocks.”
“So, are you a friend of Ellie’s?”
“Yes, we went to high school together.”
“Oh really? I know her from work.”
“Oh you guys work together?” I asked.
“Yes, at Childville.”
“Childville? I never heard of that. What is that?”
“Childville is a foster care facility for special children. I’m a counselor there. So is Ellie. She plays with the children. She’s very special.”
“Oh. So special children, what does that mean?”
“These children are autistic. They’re very special in their own ways.”
“Oh wow. That sounds interesting. Oh here we are.” We had arrived at the subway station, and we stopped together on the top step.
The light from the tunnel made the pavement shine where we stood. We started down the stairs and out of the downpour.
“I’ll have to figure this out,” he said. “I don’t think this is the way I came. Can you tell me which way the train goes from here?” he asked.
“Well, basically it goes uptown or downtown, and you can connect from there.”
“Well I guess I need to go downtown. I’m headed for Brooklyn.”
“Oh really? Me too. Where in Brooklyn do you live?”
“I live in Park Slope. Where do you live, if I may ask?”
“I live in Carroll Gardens, on President Street and yes, you may ask,” I said. There was something very charming about this Childville counselor with the bright blue eyes and the winning smile. I was glad we were going to be riding together part of the way.
“Do you mind if I ride with you on the subway?”
“Not at all. In fact, I’m glad we’re going the same way,” I said.
We deposited our tokens in the turnstile and walked through onto the deserted platform. The northbound train roared into the station on the opposite side of the tracks.
After a moment, it disappeared into the tunnel headed uptown to the Bronx. A handful of people walked to the exit and disappeared, leaving the platform empty. The station was silent, a hollow sound with just a hint of a rumble fading into the distance. As we stood together on the platform, I was at a loss for words, but acutely aware of how attractive I was finding this man. A realization was dawning in my mind, something unprecedented, something unique. I shook the water from my hair and brushed beads of water from my shoulders. My new friend chuckled.
It occurred to me there is just so much water you can absorb, and I thought maybe I was approaching that limit. My shoes felt soggy, and even in the heat of the subway I felt a chill. The southbound train finally rumbled into the station, screeching its way around a curve in the tunnel. The doors clanked open and we got on. The train was nearly empty so we had our choice of seats. We sat down side by side. I noticed he carried a spiral bound notebook under his arm. Now he took it out and opened it.
He started to make notes on the page. I couldn’t help wondering what he was writing, but I tried to be discreet and mind my own business. He seemed lost in private thoughts.
After a few minutes, he looked up at me and smiled. “I was just making a few notes,” he said, “about the party, the rain, meeting you.”
“Are you a writer?” I asked.
“Really, that is really cool,” I said. I was dying to hear something he’d written, but didn’t know how to ask.
“Yesterday when it was summertime out, I wrote a little poem. Would you like to hear it?” he asked.
“Yes, by all means. I’d love to,” I said.
He turned a few pages in his book, and then he read,
“I took a walk and ate the sun.
The peach man sold a ripe one.
God it was hot.”
“Wow, that’s great,” I said. “I really do like that.”
“Okay, I will dedicate it to you. What’s your name?” he asked.
“Renee,” I said.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Renee,” he said. Then he wrote “For Renee” on the page.
He tore it out of his book, folded it and handed it to me. “You know,” he said, “I left the party early because I wasn’t having much fun there. I felt out of place. But now I have to admit something good came from that party after all. I guess I’m trying to say I’m glad to have met you.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I feel the same way. At first when you walked up to me, I was a little scared. But now I’m glad I left when I did.”
“Maybe, dare I say it’s fate?” he said.
He laughed a little nervously.
“Maybe,” I said.
“When do you get off?” he asked. “I think you’re first. Am I right?”
“I get off at Carroll Street, before you get to Park Slope.”
“May I walk you home?” he asked.
I agreed immediately, and I was wondering at how glad I was that he had offered to prolong our time together. We walked out of the subway together. It was still raining outside. I could feel myself bracing against the chill night air. I was still soaking wet. He put his arm around my shoulder, and it felt good.
A drunk came out of the darkness swaying heavily from side to side and stumbling toward us. His jacket was torn and dirty and his hat was smashed on his head like it was an outgrowth of his matted hair. His pants were stained and torn at the bottoms. His shoes were laceless workboots, hanging open at the tops. As soon as he saw us, he started to reach into his pocket for something. We both instinctively backed away, but he lurched into us as if propelled from behind. I saw the knife in his hand flash in the streetlight.
An instant later I saw it disappear into my new friend’s stomach. For some reason, the first thought that flashed into my mind was that I didn’t know his name. How could I have forgotten to ask his name? The drunk pushed. He fell back onto his knees beside me. Then the drunk reached out and grabbed my purse. I let go of it, trying to give it to him so I could get away from him. I could smell his rancid breath on my face and his shoulder leaned against me as he pulled the purse off my shoulder.
As soon as he had the purse, he stumbled away and disappeared. I got to my knees. “I won’t leave you,” I said. He looked up at me and I could see the color had gone out of his face. He tried to speak but no words came out. He looked down at his hands, and we both saw the blood pooling there on his shirt. “The guy got my cell phone,” I said. “We have to call 911.” He nodded in the direction of his own jacket pocket and I reached into his pocket and found his cell phone.
While we waited for the paramedics, I helped him get down into a seated position against the subway entrance. The rain just kept coming down and we sat together in a puddle. He leaned against me, and I tried to hold him up as best I could. “What’s your name?” I asked. He didn’t answer, but one of his hands reached out to find mine and he held on. It took an eternity before the medics arrived. As they laid him on a stretcher, he leaned over in my direction. “Rand,” he said. I reached over and touched his shoulder.
I climbed into the front seat of the ambulance and told the driver my story on the way to the hospital. “He’s going to be okay I think,” he told me. “He’s lost some blood and he’s in shock, but it looks like a shallow wound. Pretty worried for somebody you just met, huh?” “Yeah,” I said. I felt a growing awareness that something had changed in my life, a corner had been turned and there was a new chapter starting. This stranger in the back of the ambulance was more important to me than anyone else in my life.
At the hospital, I had to stand in the hallway while he was in emergency, so I made a report of the robbery to a police officer who was on duty there. Apparently, they get a lot of crime reports in the emergency room. He seemed to take it all in stride. I’d been there about an hour when the officer found me again. They had found a purse and wallet lying in a trashcan just a block away from the subway station where we were attacked. The officer presented me with a plastic sack full of soaking wet things.
My wallet and all my cards were still there, as was my checkbook. Only the cash was gone. I confirmed it was my stuff, and the officer told me it was typical for this type of crime. “He should have just asked me for some money,” I said. “Would you have given it to him?” the officer asked. “Yes,” I said. “I would have. Not all of my money, but I would have given him some cash.” “Guess he didn’t know that,” the officer said. I thought about that and about all the times I had walked those streets alone.
The doctor came out to talk to me. “Are you related to Mr. Roberts?” “I’m a friend,” I said. “Well he’s lucky you were there with him. He lost a lot of blood. But he’ll make a full recovery. He just needs to rest. We’ll keep him here at least overnight. You can see him now.” “Thank you” was all I could think of to say. He nodded and walked away. I went into the room where Rand was laying quietly, tubes extending from his arm. His color was a lot better than the last time I had seen him.
The Tip Jar