You know those graffiti messages... - Editor
by James L. Grant
The words had been written on concrete in black marker. Shelley frowned at them.
She’d found the underpass purely by accident one day. Doctor Gonzales had recommended exercise to get her blood pressure down. This had prompted a litany of reasons why Shelley had no time for such an endeavor. After hearing about how she worked from seven to seven, Monday through Friday, and there were no gyms anywhere near either her house or the mortgage office, and all the other reasons, the doctor had held up his hand patiently.
“You have a lunch break?” he’d asked.
So that had been that. Just to prove him wrong, Shelley had taken his suggestion and turned her regular lunches at the desk into strolling mealtimes. At first she’d merely circled the block for an hour, counting off a mile and a half via a cheap electronic pedometer. It had been boring, so she’d changed up her route. Sometimes over a few blocks and back, passing the medical buildings and a coffee shop. Other times walking in the park, swatting away flies that tried to suckle at runners of perspiration on her neck.
And in eighteen months, her blood pressure had dropped like a rock. She’d also lost ten pounds in the first nine weeks. Shelley wasn’t exactly large, but she’d been poking at the weight she’d gained over the last few years and wishing it would go away. Like her father had always said, wishes had failed where action succeeded. She’d even traded up her regular noonday sandwiches with energy bars.
White paint went up, and the taggers came back. It was like something off a nature show. Like yaks to a watering hole, the taggers always returned.
This one was new. Not paint, no – definitely some kind of black ink marker, written at knee level under the freeway. The letters were each about an inch tall. Most tags were much larger, as the hand that created them screamed “LOOK AT ME” to an anonymous audience. She’d found three of these new sentences in the past week. The first one had only caught her eye by merest chance, as she’d stooped to tie a sneaker lace that had come undone:
YOU GOT ROLEX SWIFT
10 CARS + A TRUCK BUT WALKING
Pure nonsense. And still... Shelley got the feeling that it meant something. She’d stared at it for half a minute, sweat leaching into the fabric of her t-shirt, and tried to figure out what it meant. Enlightenment had never arrived, so she’d shrugged it off. The sentences had stayed with her throughout the remainder of her lunch break, however, and only when she’d used the women’s room to change back into her office duds had she finally dismissed the words outright. Just the scrawling of a homeless crackhead.
Two days later, she’d found another message by the same hand. This time it had been written on the curb of a parking lot she sometimes crossed to get to the hiking trail:
WHEN MAY 6 EDUCATION
IF THE SHOE FITS WEAR IT
The emphasis in the last line had struck her as funny. Wear it. As opposed to… what exactly? If the shoe fits, wear a banana? She’d chuckled every time it popped to the fore of her brain. And who were these messages for? Obviously not her, but someone out there might know what this mad, marker-wielding messenger meant with it all.
But there was nothing funny about this newest sentence. She read it again while chewing on a fingernail:
HE DOESNT LOVE YOU
Nothing else. The words were written across one of the concrete support struts beneath the freeway, at least three feet above her head. Whoever the tagger was, they’d either brought a ladder or were very tall. It was definitely the same handwriting as the prior messages.
The words hadn’t been there the day before. She was damned sure of it.
A car honked overhead, and she continued her walk.
That night Robert came home half an hour late. The look on his face said it all: he was looking for a fight. Shelley asked how the day had gone, and then waited patiently as a torrent of complaints flowed by. He bitched and railed about clients who refused to pay on time, about how his partner was a jackass, and why he wanted to get out of the Bail Bond business altogether. Nothing new under the sun there. He’d been unhappy with his job for the last three years.
Shelley withstood it like a log caught in a murky river during a cloudburst. She’d learned a while back to just let him go. A few “oh, no” and “that sucks” statements went a long way toward releasing the pressure that seemed to build up in her husband every day. The truth of the matter was that she really didn’t listen anymore. There was no reason to. Every time, the litany was the same.
Robert finally lapsed into a sulk, grabbed his beer and took over the recliner in the den. Cigarette smoke and the sound of sports channels washed into the kitchen as Shelley put slices of lasagna on plates. She poured herself a glass of Pinot Noir, grabbed Robert a fresh bottle, and they ate in silence off of TV trays as newscasters gave digested versions of what to expect in the coming football season.
They didn’t talk at all.
The next morning, on her way to work, Shelley stopped at the drugstore and gnawed a fingernail. The stationary aisle had a meager selection, but she eventually chose a laundry marker. Its package proclaimed that the ink was INDELIBLE! and would last through 10,000 WASHES!
It cost less than two dollars. She stuffed it into her purse, but didn’t forget about it.
City men had come through by noon. Some of the white paint on the sidewalk and underpass was still tacky to the touch. The sentence overhead, however, had missed their attention.
Shelley frowned at the words again, uncapped the marker, and looked around. There was nothing to stand on. After some contemplation, she chose a cement support post that intersected with the beam containing the original message.
After several furtive glances around, she wrote:
and added an arrow pointing in the direction of the first sentence. She did it quickly, making sure her letters weren’t too large. It would all be for naught if the city workers made another pass and immediately destroyed her argument.
When she was finished, she pulled out her cellular phone and took two pictures. Then she walked back to the office, feeling both pleased and guilty over her initiation into the world of tagging.
Later that afternoon, during a conference call with the home office, she flipped through the two photos and smiled. The argument had truly begun. HE DOESNT LOVE YOU. SAYS WHO?
There was little chance that the initial tagger would see her words, she knew. It simply felt good to know she’d riposted. When she thought about it a little harder, she couldn’t figure out why it felt good, but that didn’t matter.
That night Robert was in a better mood. Not great, no, he was never in a great mood anymore, but tolerable. They ordered out for Chinese and watched a movie on the DVD player. He even made love to her before they slept, although the nights where he did so considerately or passionately had long since departed their marriage.
As he snored in the dark, Shelley’s last thoughts of the day were SAYS WHO? And she drifted off with a thin smile on her lips.
She threw on her sweatshorts and t-shirt quickly the next day and was already out of the building by three minutes after twelve. Summer sun beat down on her like a hammer, but she still had to resist the urge to jog to the underpass half a mile away.
There was a response. Once again, black marker – this time directly beneath her argument on the concrete post. Shelley read it four times, eyes wide, and her legs turned into spaghetti. There was a terrible swooping sensation as her ass hit the sidewalk, a hard flash as her head connected with the ground, and her mind dissolved into convoluted denial. She slammed her eyes shut, panting through her teeth, but the newest message blazed behind her eyelids:
CHECK THE SUPER 8
ASK FOR MALCOLM
DO NOT WEAR IT
HE MIGHT TRY TO MAKE YOU
“Hey, hey lady!”
Her lids popped open. A sweaty, older man with a handlebar moustache and a bicycling helmet was bent over her, his steely eyes wide with fear.
“I’m okay,” she snapped as he helped her to her feet.
“Here, drink some of this.” The guy handed her a plastic bottle from the frame of his ten-speed.
“Ma’am, you fainted. Drink some.” So she accepted the bottle and squirted lukewarm sports drink into her mouth, just enough to get the old dude to back off. He pulled out a phone and started to dial.
“No, really, I’m okay. Just the heat.”
“Where’s your car?”
“I work three blocks from here.”
So the older guy insisted on walking her the whole way back. His name was Leroy, and he was a retired investment banker. His daughter was about Shelley’s age. Every time he paused and made sure Shelley was okay, she had to stop thinking about the message and do her best to reassure him that it wasn’t heatstroke.
When he insisted on coming into the building and escorting her back to the office, Shelley finally snapped. Profanity was used, and she called to the front lobby security guard by name before Leroy took the hint and vamoosed.
Any other day, she would have been appalled by her reaction to a stranger just trying to help. This was not any other day. Shelley got back into her office clothes and told her boss that she had an emergency. After one look at her face, he believed it and gave her the rest of the day off.
CHECK THE SUPER 8
Five years prior, they’d been living in an apartment. Although touted as “luxury suites,” the place had been lacking in the area of maintenance. One night a sewage pipe in the unit above theirs had broken. Disgusting filth had poured down into their living room, right through the ceiling. Robert had screamed at the apartment managers over the phone until they’d agreed to remedy the situation immediately. The smell had been awful, and he’d taken both of them across the street to the Super 8 Motel for the night.
In the time since, they’d purchased a house in the suburbs. Shelley hadn’t thought about the motel since then. It wasn’t the only Super 8 in town, and it wasn’t anywhere near their home. Furthermore, the idea that some stranger had left her a revelation beneath the freeway… well, that was just nuts.
Nevertheless, Shelley drove right over.
“I’m Malcolm,” said the stranger behind the front desk. “How can I help you?”
“A friend of mine is staying here.” She flipped open her day planner and shoved a picture across the counter. “This man. Do you recognize him?”
“We’re not at liberty to divulge that, uh, information ma’am.” But a flicker passed through Malcolm’s eyes that left Shelley cold. A quick glance down at her wedding ring. Lips pinched, she dug a twenty out of her purse and slapped it down on the desk.
“Is he here?”
“Well, you ain’t heard it from me, but you might find him in room two-oh-nine.” And the twenty was in Malcolm’s pocket before Shelley even made it out of the lobby.
Robert opened the door dressed only in boxer shorts. His eyes and mouth went wide, the look of a man caught dead to rights.
“Is that the deli already?” came a female voice inside the room. The voice of a woman maybe twenty years old.
Shelley spit in his face and fled. He didn’t call out as she left. The only thing she heard was the motel room door as it closed.
The words were gone by the time she returned to the underpass. Someone had covered them with white paint in the last two hours, the entire conversation.
Shelley slumped against the cement wall, slid to the ground and cried some more. Nobody saw her or passed by.
She wiped away the last of the tears with the heel of her palm. The bitterness receded as fast as a wave that had broken over the beach. Not gone, no, but it sluiced out and left her feeling… blank. Not angry, not murderous, just hollow. She was an abandoned wasp’s nest, like the one she’d found behind their shed earlier that year.
The white paint was a cover. She knew what was under it, and that was the crux of the matter. Someone had given her a message, the kind that could send someone into a fit of paranoia they never swam out of.
“To hell with that,” she said, and checked around again. Nobody watched her. Nobody saw her pull the marker out again. And nobody witnessed her as she turned, and wrote on the wall she’d been leaning against.
who are you?
Robert didn’t come home that night. He didn’t call. He didn’t send her a text message or an email.
It was probably for the best.
The next day she called in and lied to her boss. Stated that there had been a death in the family. The emptiness in her voice must have seemed believable, because she got another day off.
This time she chose a tank top and some running shorts that she’d never packed for work. Her hair went into a ponytail and under a baseball cap. When you played hooky, it was best not to be seen by those who would talk. True, she had never seen any of her co-workers on the hiking trail, but it was best to stay incognito. Just in case.
Her mystery friend had responded. She’d known that he would.
HE WILL WEAR IT
I AM ME
This time she nearly got caught by a passing rollerblade enthusiast. He whisked past, fast enough for the breeze in his wake to flip at Shelley’s hair. She waited until he was long gone before she finished the sentence.
I want to meet you. Where?
After that, she went home and slowly killed two bottles of wine all by herself. Robert phoned several times – she ignored the first attempt and turned her handset off during the second.
He came by just after sundown, looking like he hadn’t slept. She laughed in his face when he tried to make excuses. Wine percolated in her veins as he pleaded halfheartedly, and she didn’t even get off the couch. After half an hour of childish rationalization, he realized that she really wasn’t game for it. Robert stormed to the bedroom, packed a suitcase and left without another word.
Shelley killed a third bottle of wine and passed out on the floor until the police woke her.
The next morning was Saturday. She usually slept in, gaining what little rest she could, to make up for a lack of it during the week. Robert normally went golfing with his partner, or at least had pretended to. Now she wasn’t sure.
This time she was up just after daybreak. Up and in comfortable clothes, at the underpass. Her head throbbed from too much alcohol, and her stomach felt like a gang of ponies were having a slam-dancing competition in there.
But she was calm.
Robert had blown through a red light three blocks from the house. It was something he’d done before – she’d warned him about driving angry, and his inability to obey traffic signals when his ire was up. Usually he’d dismissed her words with “Don’t worry about it,” and pointed out that nobody had gotten hurt.
This time, he’d met an unfortunate delivery truck as it came through the intersection. The truck had only been doing twenty miles per hour. The cops believed Robert had been cruising along at a much higher speed when the two vehicles met. Dead on impact. Robert’s Chevy had rolled one and a half times, mangled and broken like a rat after a terrier had shaken it. Robert had looked even worse. Seatbelts had never been required in his world.
None of that seemed to matter. It was all something that Shelley would have to deal with, yes, and she had plenty of paperwork to go through and people trying to offer support already, nine hours after the accident. Her cell phone had been blowing up, so she’d turned it off. The act of doing so was a nothing. It was like picking lint off her sleeve. It was shutting a cupboard door that was open a crack. All that mattered was the response, written in black marker under her words from the prior day.
HE WORE IT
I GIVE CLUES TO MANY
YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL
WE SHOULD NOT MEET
Of all the happenings of the prior forty-eight hours, these words alone dredged up cold rage. Someone was watching. Someone had been following her. Someone had torn her life to pieces, and now they wanted to back out. Now they wanted to just let it be, and leave her with a mystery forever.
“No way,” she said, and wrote:
WHERE CAN WE MEET?
in letters six inches high. Then she capped the marker. A passing jogger glared at her, having obviously seen her write on the wall. Shelley stared back, smirking, until the jogger was gone.
She went back to the car and drove to a pancake house. Over six cups of coffee and four hours, she completed the newspaper crossword puzzle. As she left, Shelley turned her phone on and listened to her voice mail. After the seventeenth message from well-meaning friends and family, she just deleted what was left and powered the phone off.
A cop sat in front of her house in a squad car. She drove past nonchalantly, and the policeman did not follow. He was probably just checking in on her, per the advice of a worried friend. Fine. But Shelley had another problem to attend to.
So she drove. Drove to the mall, wandered around, bought nothing. Drove downtown and stopped at a shop for more coffee. Nibbled at a biscotti before throwing it out the window as she drove down the freeway. She did not turn on the radio or her phone.
At seven that evening, she went back to the hiking trail. The sun was almost down. She grabbed the marker, just in case, and went to see if her mystery tagger had returned.
But someone had painted over their newest conversation. The paint was tacky. They’d painted a rectangle all the way across, including a six-inch section of concrete below where she’d last written.
After a few gnaws on her fingernail, she went back to her car. Sure enough, there was still a half-full container of antifreeze in the trunk. The radiator had sprung a leak five months prior.
She took the container and a spare t-shirt back to the wall. The sun was almost down, and it bathed her painted rectangle with dying light. She soaked a corner of the shirt in coolant, smelled the chemical-sweet fumes, and was pleasantly surprised to find her earlier guess was correct – the white paint came right off the wall, exposing black letters that blurred and ran, but were legible.
YOU WILL NOW WEAR IT
Hunkered down, damp shirt in hand, Shelley stared at the letters and wondered.
Then a gigantic hand landed on the back of her neck.