Robert Caires sat in the dark, watching a muted television and eating hard-boiled eggs from a bowl. When he heard what sounded like teenagers laughing and cursing in the night outside, he placed the bowl on the faded pink fabric of the arm of the chair. He looked from the eggs to the bowl to the chair. His wife had loved this chair and he had always hated it; but she was long gone now and he couldn’t bring himself to get rid of it. Shaking the thought from his heavy head, he stood, his old bones creaking, and walked to the open window, smiling at the slight chill that inched into the room. Across the street the pond was still, the grey and leafless trees were still and the statue, a woman with her arms held wide above the water, was likewise still. It was as if she were indicating the beautiful world before her, a world that Robert imagined everyone else mostly ignored.
Though the moon was hidden behind the clouds, he could see it all by the glow of the streetlamps. That a retired janitor—ahem, custodian—could have such a view filled him with a tingling delight. He scanned the area. Nothing. The voices he’d heard had gone silent, and just as he was going to turn away, three figures stepped out from the trees. Males. Broad shoulders. Loud footfalls. Soon they surrounded the statue and started kicking at its base. A shame, Robert thought, that the geese had already flown south. Even a week ago, they would have outnumbered the boys, pecking and honking, and moved them along.
When two of the boys jumped up and hung from the statues right arm, Robert’s hands clenched at his sides. When the third boy leapt up, Robert realized their intention and told himself it went against his sense of order and community. Taxpayers, especially Nebraskans, should not abide vandalism. Not that anyone else would care. At least he gave a shit, and at least his children gave a shit too. And they’d made good lives for themselves. And he must not have screwed up too badly; they visited whenever they could.
He looked at the other windows of the apartment complex. Very few were lighted and he saw no one. He peered down to the end of the street where the city’s finest had been known to park a car in the parking lot of the Jiffy Lube or the BP station. Both of the lots were dark and empty.
“A good spanking,” he mumbled, and rushed to his room, as fast as his old, boney legs and white-white feet would take him. A moment later he returned to the window with a high powered pellet rifle he’d used solely for rabbit hunting back when he could still stomach the stuff. Well, he conceded, it might have been the way he’d prepared it—wrapped in bacon—and once he’d used the weapon to take a shot at a drunk who’d called his wife a wetback. Knocked a can a Bud Light right out the guy’s hand. She had laughed and asked why so many white men thought they were John Wayne.
He leaned the rifle against the wall and took the screen out of the window and set it against the wall too. If they happened to look up, they might see him in the bluish wash of the television. Not that they’d give a damn, he thought. Not today’s kids. Not with needy parents like these. So afraid of hurting their precious children’s self-esteems. But it was more than that. Nobody thought they had the right to stand. Nobody had the backbone, the gumption. But Robert wasn’t one of them. The world was slipping into oblivion but he believed a man could make a difference. One man.
The boy hanging out over the lake was wearing a hooded jacket and a thick belt that did nothing to keep up his pants. Through the gun-mounted scope, the boy’s ass-crack seemed phosphorescent. The perfect target. The other kid swinging on the same arm wore a similar getup, but Roberts’s eye kept sliding back to the kid on the other arm--Slick Rick. Good-looking, long blond hair, tight black pants, a leather jacket unzipped. He shifted and aimed at the pale ass-crack. He pulled the trigger. Phit.
“Ouch,” shouted Tweedledee and reached back. “Damn, man, something bit me!”
Then his other hand slipped and he splashed into the water. Tweedledum and Slick Rick jumped down onto the lakeside and burst into laughter. Panic seized Robert for just a moment but then the little shithead surfaced, his hood plastered to his head. He sighted on the side of the tight black pants and when Slick Rick stepped toward the water to help out his friend, Robert fired.
But something went wrong. There was a loud thwack, as if the pellet had hit a tree. Slick Rick yelped. His head snapped sideways, as if clouted by an unseen batter. He whirled around, the streetlight glinting in his hair, and landed face-down in the sparse and clumpy grass, one foot slipping into the water.
Robert dropped the riffle but caught it, then leaned it against the window screen. Quickly, he dropped the blinds. He angled his watch toward the television. It was 11:43 pm.
One of the boy’s shouted something Robert couldn’t make out. Water splashed as Tweedledee waded out, he supposed, and then he heard their rubber soles beating the hard earth and then the concrete; and then he heard no sound at all.
He stood there dumbly in the chill. His hands were sweating. His heart pounded so fiercely that Robert thought he should sit down, but he didn’t move toward the chair. He couldn’t. His body simply wouldn’t. In his mind he could faintly see his wife’s face. Had she been around this never would have happened. She would have talked him down.
She smiled sweetly and he could move again. He started toward the open window and then he stopped. He’d wait. He’d wait an hour. If the boy was still there, he would slip on his Rockports and take a walk. Maybe he could say he’d stumbled upon the boy and had decided to get some help. Maybe, though the doubted he’d have any peace keeping such a dark secret. He considered how he’d look in prisoner-orange, and his wife’s eyes widened, her forehead wrinkling, her mouth dropping open. Just why the hell had he pulled the trigger? And what had convinced him to pull it twice?
He sat heavily in the pink chair. The bowl of eggs fell to the floor. He considered scooping up the food but he wasn’t hungry. The yoke would stick in his gullet and he’d want water. No, he’d leave it. He was going to sit and wait. Oh God, why?
Shockingly, his mind answered him. He had always been prone to thought but had never been very good at it. He wondered briefly if his angel-wife had decided to help her idiot husband. Had Rosa supplied the key information? Yes. Necessary. The world didn’t need an old man. At times it seemed nobody did. But the old man still cared about the world, and for that instant, his finger on the trigger, he’d felt important, necessary, needed. He blinked at the simplicity of it. He settled back and closed his eyes, knowing it would be a long hour. His eyelids fluttered but he kept them closed. He sat in his dead wife’s chair and tried to conjure a sharp image of her lovely face. It was no easy task but he held fast. Smelling egg-breath, he startled awake. Oh Lord, he had slept! It was 1:30 am. He shot up and pulled the blinds. His heartbeat thundered in his throat and he hoped he didn’t pass out.
But he couldn’t see a thing. The moon had made its way out and had caste deep shadows that seemed to erase the lovely spot. Maybe. Maybe the boy had fled. He slipped into his leather shoes and grabbed his keys. He almost tripped on the newspaper as he fumbled out the door. He’d forgotten to pick it up this morning. He hadn’t read the thing in years. Just cut the coupons. A golden-aged ex-janitor had to watch his pennies.
He crossed the street, looking back over his shoulder at the glass door closing slowly on its pneumatic arm, as if it might be the last time he’d get to use it. A light breeze cooled the sweat on his forehead and reminded him to zip up his jacket. He stood on the sidewalk and looked down the embankment, vaguely aware of the bright streetlamp overhead. A part of him knew it would be there. That shadow. On the ground near the statue. For the second time that night, he found it impossible to move. He stood and stared, willing that darkness, that thick, inky stain on the ground, to stand up and run away. He forced himself to start tromping down, each half-controlled step grating the bones in his hip-sockets. He hardly registered the pain. He had killed a boy. Killed him. He pictured his wife holding his son, Mark, in the air and smiling. Then a large dark bird descended and plucked up the screaming baby and hastened it away. Kneeling beside the prone body, tears streaming down his face, he stared at the toe of the black shoe with the red sole that was in the water. He grabbed the boy’s warm shoulders and gave them a shake. The warmth meant nothing. He knew better. Oh my God. Killed him.
But when suddenly the boy began to move, Robert gasped and stumbled backwards and peed a little in his pants. Somehow he avoided splashing into the lake. Drawing his foot out the water, the boy managed to sit up.
“You all right?” Robert said.
“Yeah,” the boy said, “but don’t touch me. No one’s allowed to touch me.”
“No problem there,” Robert said, wiping his face with a shaking hand.
He tried to look the kid over but the boy was sitting in his shadow.
“Shit, the side of my face hurts. And what’s that smell? Like burnt popcorn.”
“Do you need me to call someone? I live up there. I can go inside and call someone.”
“No, I’ve got a phone. I’ve got a phone in my jacket pocket. Did you see which way my friends went?”
“No. You sure you’re okay?”
“Shit, I’d better find them. I hope they didn’t go to Thad’s. That guy is death made flesh.”
“Naw, nothing,” the kid said. He got to his feet. He started slowly up the embankment and stopped at the top as if to catch his breath. He turned and looked down on Robert. He shivered and stomped his wet shoe onto the sidewalk several times. Then he rubbed his hands together briskly and then wiped them on his shirt and down the legs of his pants.
“Listen man, thanks. I think if you didn’t come along I might have slept there all night. I could have got rolled, or pissed on. And I fucking hate dirt.”
Then the boy ran off. Big shoes pounded the hard earth as Robert softly, carefully, tread upwards. He would call his children. First Mark and then Mary. First thing in the morning. At street-level again, he turned, eyeing the moonlit statue at the water’s edge. She seemed strange to him. In a way he couldn’t quite explain.
Later, after many glasses of water—pee should not stink of burnt popcorn—and just before he succumbed to sleep, the answer came to him. The woman’s arms were not spread to the beautiful world, a world that could be hard as stone. The sturdy arms were forever open, forever longing for another’s embrace. Wow, he thought. Two good thoughts in one day.
Michael King lives in Nebraska and spends most of his time at home. He claims to be the supreme master of a family of seven, which includes two cats that can see the ghosts he can’t.