Again, I find that I’m late in posting my Throwback Thursday story. Ah well. Life happens. Today I have something I wrote about seven years ago in the summer. At the time I was hosting a regular writing group in my dorm on campus and I first posted this story on the blog that our group had.
“Who’s that man?” the girl inquired, pointing. The man, his shoulders drooping scarecrow-like, took the sidewalk in a shuffle. A mass of yellow grocery bags beleaguered his arms. The plastic bulged, eclipsing his body with a kind of grotesqueness that only grocery bags have.
“Who?” came her mother’s voice. She entered the living room, flour-dusted, apron strings swinging rebelliously. “Oh. He lives at the end of the street, I think.” She leaned over, peering at him. The man slowly passed, head downward, a visible mutter emanating from his mouth.
“He seems very unhappy,” the girl remarked. She leaned her chin on her chapped knuckles thoughtfully, eyes fixed on the figure. “I wonder why. I wish we could do something for him. But I don’t know what that would be. He’s a little scary too.”
“Hm.” Her mother made an ambiguous noise, and returned to the sanctum of her flour and mixing bowl.
But the man shuffled till he disappeared from their sight and all but the windows of his own house confronted him with their shiny cold stare. His windows were dark. They were often dark, now that she didn’t brighten them anymore. She hadn’t brightened them for months now, neither with the lamps she turned on at night nor with the smile she bestowed on him each morning. He couldn’t turn anywhere these days with seeing her in the watercolors on the wall or in the extensive racks of bright-spined cookbooks. He dumped the bags on the table, repulsed by their fullness, hands trembling just a little. Half of their contents he would probably eat, when he felt like it. He only bought so much because she would have. His glance barely passed over the list next to the fridge, spidered with handwriting that he couldn’t look at.
The alcove to his bedroom gaped dimly at him as his weary feet drifted toward it. The door was shut, although he didn’t remember shutting it. He was beginning to forget everything these days. Everything, that is, except for the face emblazoned across his eyes. His hands found their way to the knob, which turned, and he went in.
The ants were at it again. They swarmed the peonies in the front garden, so carefully planted by hands now cold (if they were hands at all) as the ice in the man’s glass. He sat on the front porch, book open in his lap, condensation streaming quietly down the side of his lemonade. Bugs had infested the roses too; he could see them between the railing spokes.
“Excuse me, sir?”
The old man started. His glass dribbled onto the corner of the page.
“What!” he choked.
The girl stepped back, twisting her braid around her fingers. “Sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to—“
“What are you doing here?” he demanded. Gripping the chair arm he stood, his grey eyebrows knotting themselves tighter.
“We just—just wanted to invite you to dinner some night. My mom and dad and brothers and me. Just us. And we’d make whatever kind of thing you wanted to eat,” she added desperately. “Oh and we’re the Turners, and I’m Imogene, but everyone calls me Ginny.” The toe of her sneaker found itself a nice hole in the dirt.
The old man stared, a reluctant introduction of himself withering in his mouth. She called to him, but he wanted to leave. He was sick of darkened windows and gaping bedroom doors at night.
“Ah, well, if that’s the case…” he muttered, sitting down. “Franklin Lewis is the name. Never Frank.” At least he could preserve that name from desiccation by anyone else’s speech. “And yes…maybe. We’ll see. How if I call you? You have a number, I suppose…”
“Yes!” said Ginny, and gave him the number.
He walked to the Turners’ on Thursday evening, a tune lingering around the edges of his mouth. It was there when he returned, his ears still sounding pleasantly with laughter, belly satisfied. But sweat dampened his pillow the next morning. She was there again, there in his head and dreams. He couldn’t get away from her.
Ginny came again a week later, riding her bicycle in broad sweeps down the sidewalk. The man’s back bobbed white-shirted in the sunshine, clippers busy in the peony leaves.
“Mr. Lewis!” Her voice piped across the bushes.
He straightened with a jerk. Ginny was looking confused.
“I thought you said you didn’t like flowers.”
“Never said that,” the old man replied, bending over a rose-bush. These were her flowers, all of them. A thorn pricked his thumb. Treacherous things, those roses were, but he had to look after them, for her.
“Yes, you did say that,” Ginny ventured. “That night at dinner. Remember?”
He remembered. It was true. His hands clipped faster with the pair of blades, in and out, trimming away the dried and blackened heads.
“Ah well, suppose I did then. I changed.”
“Oh.” Ginny stood on one leg, surveying the brilliant masses of buds before her. “You know, you’re different, Mr. Lewis, in a sort of a way. I’m not sure how, but you are.”
He froze, hands buried in the rose bush. The bright sunshine couldn’t keep away the shiver that crept down his back. She couldn’t know. She couldn’t find out. He had to keep it from her.
“So what if I am?”
The girl backed away slightly. “Sorry. I just wanted to say hi.” She sped away, hair streaming behind her.
The old man turned, swearing inwardly for what he had just done. The screen door had blown open in a sudden gust of wind. His clippers thudded gently on the ground. He clambered up the steps to the house. Light blazed across its windows.
A hand touched the back of his neck. He had felt it many times before, but could never stop himself from cringing as its ice prickled down his spine. He spun around as a cold draft met his skin.
On the sofa a figure sat, the floral pattern shimmering through what would have been her flesh. Wreathes of smiles threatened themselves at the corner of her mouth.
“There you are, Frank, my love,” she breathed. Drifting upwards, she extended a hand toward her husband.
“Sorry, dear,” bleated the old man. “I was just talking with someone.”
“Why do leave me alone?” whispered his wife. “That night I came to you in the bedroom—you’ve wanted to get away from me.” Her arms enveloped him, and the old man gasped.
“I’ll never leave you, Frank,” she said. At that moment the screen door crashed, and they were alone.