I am a caring person. Mostly. A decent enough guy, if you will. I mean I was never a Boy Scout, and I’m not going to win an Aurora Prize any time soon, but neither am I likely to walk away from a person flailing in a swollen creek nor cut off a driver trying to crowd me out of the left-hand turn lane.
I have done two really mean things in my life about which I won’t go into detail: just know neither had anything to do with any animal or a child on the autism spectrum. One such event, hastened by over-consumption of three-point-two Coors and fisticuffs, enabled me to experience the sensation of iron bars clanging shut on me. This was in my youth, and I have matured and moved on from that phase in my life. The other episode helped pave the way for my deployment to Fallujah.
So, to be clear: I send a modest gift every other month to a well-known children’s hospital and to ASPCA, I donated my old Honda Accord to the local public radio affiliate, and once a week I take an aluminum trash bin and my homemade pike on a pole to stab litter from both sides of the street in quarter-mile swaths in front of our home. On the fridge, firmly attached with my nine-year old’s lady bug magnet, hangs the Good Deeds checklist.
Tip the paper carrier and trash man: Check.
Place the disabled veteran neighbor’s mail on the porch: Check.
Roll up the hose the divorcee always leaves loose on the sidewalk so she and nobody else will trip on it and break her neck: Ditto.
Just the other day at Lowe’s, I said, “No, you go ahead,” to the cute girl holding a single hanging basket fern approximately six feet behind me in the garden department waiting line while I pushed a shopping cart spilling over with Russian sage, azaleas, and genista racemosa sweet broom.
Are we clear? You can tell I am, by nature and upbringing, a thoughtful human being already, but these perilous times slingshot me to an entirely new level of benevolence. Pandemic brings out the veritable sweetheart in me, and this two-point-oh version of myself is how I got mixed up with the tangerine woman.
She fixes me with those eyes.
Mother’s Day morning. I drive home from Starbucks with Sera’s tall dark roast and bacon gouda, and I almost don’t see her the way she blends with the wireless service truck of approximately the same hue parked behind her. It is as if she is in one of those hidden object puzzles where you’re supposed to find the unicorn or extra-terrestrial planted somewhere in the kaleidoscope of colored images. I probably wouldn’t have seen her at all but for the movement of those eyes, and as her form becomes clear, I notice she sits and lies simultaneously on a public bench with one arm draped across the back in what, for an apparently aimless person, seems far too nonchalant and cool.
I tap the brake a bit harder than I mean and receive a horn blast from behind for my trouble when my Bronco fishtails slightly out of lane. I start to yell over my shoulder at the brassy motorist, but since my window happens to be open to the early morning spring air, I merely fling out my arm and flip her off.
I complete an efficient u-turn and ease my car into the midget-sized parking lot parallel to the bench. I roll down the passenger window.
“Can I take you somewhere?” I offer. “I’m afraid it is going to rain.”
“You scared?” the orangy-faced lady says. “You think you gonna melt?”
“An idiom. You wanna ride?”
“I’ll get my shit.”
Her shit consists of two hefty red Target bags stuffed to overflowing with what looks like old, yellowed New Gazettes. She plops herself in the backseat and places a tote on either side of her.
She says, “I insist on staying abreast of events.”
I brace virtually for the stench, but she doesn’t smell funky at all. The fragrance emanating from behind is more like lilac and ashes, sweetish and sere.
“You picked me up.”
“Well, there’s the Jesus House.”
“I’m Roger. You?”
“Marilyn. Ya’know, as in MON-roe?”
“Pleased to meet you, Marilyn. How about John 3:16?”
“Just trying to help.”
“Then take me to your house.”
“Home with you.”
“We’ll go right by the Salvation Army.”
“Home will be just fine.”
“Don’t think I won’t.”
“That’s the ticket.”
“I smell fried pig.”
A red light idles me. I glance at the mirror. I reach in the sack beside me and fork over the extra bacon gouda. The one meant for me.
I figure she’s going to devour it like a dog that’s been starved. Wrong again. She removes the wrapper and studies the breakfast sandwich like it’s an essay question. It’s practically erotic the way her eyes glaze over. She strips the bread away and stuffs the pieces in one of the bags—as for later—leaving her with melted cheese balled up between her knuckles in pale little welts. She takes small bites—nibbles really, like a squirrel on a mushy acorn—and chews methodically.
“Got something to wash it down?”
I carefully deliver my iced black tea and a straw. She discards the straw, rips off the lid and gulps it like it’s the last good thing she’s ever going to get.
“You got kids?” she asks, swallowing.
“They’ll get a civics lesson.”
“Could be. First I’ll need to talk with my wife.”
“You do that.”
We don’t speak the rest of the way home. Several times I glance in the mirror. She looks neither left nor right as if her head is caught in a vise.
I punch the door opener but do not pull into the garage.
“I’ll be right back,” I tell Marilyn.
Sera is awake and in the kitchen stirring pancake batter on her hip.
I kiss her on her mouth. “Happy Mom’s Day,” I say.
She smiles. She says what she always says, “Not your mother, but thanks anyway. She looks past my shoulder. “And, who is this you have with you?”
That’s when I realize Marilyn has not remained in the car. She leans against the pantry, a fat red bag drooping off each shoulder. For the first time I notice she sports faded green Chuck Taylors on her feet. High tops, elastic-band laces the kind that hold up Sera’s panties.
“Marilyn, that’s who,” she says to Sera. “Ya’know, as in MON-roe.”
Sera maneuvers around me and reaches for the totes. “Let me take your things, Marilyn.”
“No, thank you,” says Marilyn. “They stay with me.”
Sera smiles the smile she sometimes uses on me. “Sure. Would you like pancakes? I make the best in all the land according to my kiddos.”
Marilyn shakes her head. “Gluten.”
Sera shifts to me. “Roger, get her a chair.”
I eye Sera. “Okay?”
“Pour her a cup of coffee, too. I’ll make eggs.”
“Don’t go to any trouble,” says Marilyn.
I scootch a chair toward her and hand over a cup. “Don’t go to any trouble?”
Those eyes again.
She sits and places a bag at each heel.
Her eyes accuse me.
I speak to the back of Sera’s neck, “I talk to you a sec?”
“Not this very instant, Hon. I’m making scrambled eggs. You want some while I’m at it.”
“No. I don’t want eggs.”
“Well sit down, then, and visit with our guest.”
Marilyn spreads one of the newspapers as she nurses her coffee.
I move another chair to the table and nod at the window. “It’s raining.”
Marilyn peers over the top of the page. “Looks like you got me inside just in time then, didn’t you? Nice work.”
“Are you from around here?”
“Please. I’m trying to concentrate.”
“Oh.” I stand and leave the table. I wish Sera would turn around. She beats the hell out of those eggs.
Emmaline comes to the table in Spongebob PJ bottoms and a Drew Brees, number 9 jersey. If she notices our guest, she doesn’t let on.
Without a word, Marilyn peels off the sports page and hands it to her.
“Gaw! The Thunder are back in town?” says Emmalign. “Wow!”
“That was last week,” Marilyn says. “They’re taking it slow.”
“You a fan?” our daughter asks our guest.
“Nah. I favor baseball.”
“How you s’posed to social distance playing hoops, I wonder?”
“They have themselves high propinquity quotients, I suspect.”
Marilyn and Emmaline eat eggs.
“The guest bath is open if you care to freshen up,” Sera says, looking at Marilyn.
“I’m good,” says Marilyn.
“Would you like more eggs?”
“Tired, though. Think I might lie on the sofa.”
“Sera?” I say.
“Roger?” she says.
We stare after Marilyn clomping into the living room, her red bags bumping her hips.
Sera says, “I guess get her a pillow.”
Marilyn stabs the remote, and the Mega Church service pops up on the screen. Few of the faithful are masked, but most are sitting at least two large-lady bottoms apart in the pews. The pastor’s face covering dangles from his ears and protects his Adam’s apple.
“I was gonna watch Golf Channel,” I say to Sera.
“Perhaps you still may, dear. Who knows, maybe she likes golf?”
“Well, you don’t know.”
Emmaline plops on the sofa at Marilyn’s feet.
“Oops, my manners,” says Marilyn. She sits up, giving Emm more room.
“We don’t go to church,” offers Emm.
“I used to.”
“Why did you stop?”
“Didn’t seem to represent my primary group. I couldn’t keep track.”
“We tried church. That is Lance and I tried. My parents sent us off Sunday mornings for a while. They said we should have a code of ethics to live by, whatever that means. My brother explained they were actually just getting us us out of the house for a while. For a bit of peace and quiet, ya’know?”
“Do you think they meant well?”
“Sure. Let’s go with that.”
Marilyn chuckles. “Didn’t any of it take?”
“A little bit. I can go with the ‘treat others’ part. Not much else. Mom and Dad quit sending us after Lance complained it was all bull dookie. He didn’t actually say ‘dookie.’ He used the other word, but I’m not bilingual like him.”
They sit like that, Emmaline consulting her phone, Marilyn nodding off then jerking back awake all afternoon, I guess, while I weed the flower bed in the light mist the rain has become and trim the sidewalks, and as Sera takes Lance and Horatio on an extra-long walk: Lance side by side Horatio on his new leash Emmaline bought Sera for Mother’s Day with the money I gave her.
I walk into the living room, sweat and vapor trickling down the back of my neck and pooling up at my collar. Marilyn jolts alive; her shoulders spasm. She fixes me with those eyes.
It’s five-thirty, and I’ve missed the end of the golf tournament and a new kid on the tour winning his first-ever PGA title while breaking the course record in a sudden death playoff with two former major winners.
Abruptly, harshly in the same manner I remembered Joe Cocker had a hit singing “With a Little Help From My Friends,” but it was Lennon and McCartney who penned it; I know this person. Her. Marilyn. I know this aimless woman in our living room. I can’t believe it. It was a long time ago, when the world was young. When she was a girl. When I was a boy, believing I was a man.
Without a doubt. It is her.
She had plopped down next to me one day in the amphitheater-style, hundred-thirty-student sociology classroom in college.
I walk closer. Yup, it’s her.
Fade the facial tint to light tan, hack back the lifeless gray bangs out of her enormous bloodshot eyes and tie the rest of her mop up in a short pony tail, put the tiny freckles back on the cheeks, improve her posture; and it is her: a nice looking co-ed. A pretty girl, hot even.
How do I remember this person when I was close to her only the one other time in my life? Piece of cake. Because she took me down a notch, a sizable rung, me being a semi-big-shot jock and full of himself.
From the swivel chair practically touching mine, her large bag had fallen open, and I spied inside a six-pack of sweaty Miller Lite tallboys. To break the ice, so-to-speak, I asked her to share.
Her cow-sized brown eyes stunned me. Her reply, and how could I ever forget it, was, “Guy like you. I’ll bet you get your sway with the ladies, eh?”
This kinda rocked me back momentarily, but when I regained my equilibrium I maybe (probably) grinned, shifted my shoulders slightly but didn’t say anything, letting my body language do the smart-ass talking, I’m pretty sure.
Then she said, “Well, Bud, you won’t be getting your sway with mine.
And go find your own damn beer.”
She popped the top off a can, and even in the crowded classroom of undergrads whose collective din smothered the lecture, you could hear it explode like a blown tire. Heads swiveled in a three-row radius to gawk at her as she took a massive swig and tipped the can to acknowledge her admirers.
The professor frowned but didn’t skip a beat in his un-hearable bluster.
It’s her. No question. Definitely her.
Trade in her long, greasy dress with its hem wet and grimy from walking in the gutter for a crop-top tee-shirt, no bra, and cutoff Levi short-shorts rising ever so gently up the crack of her near-perfect ass; and it is undoubtedly my erstwhile co-ed skeptic from that long-ago afternoon.
Any chance she remembers me? Those eyes. Of course not, no way. I’m not exactly my own younger, put-together self either. No way she remembers. A good-looking chick like her would have been hit on by a hundred guys. More than one boy asking for a beer.
But geez, look at her. What the hell happened? I strain to explain. One of those guys out of a hundred had his sway with her? Possibly to that man, she had relented, and he got his sway. She graduated maybe. Maybe not. She never sat beside me again in class, and I never saw her out on campus. Not once.
Say the one man knocked her up? They married, and she went on to work at a desk in an insurance firm; she had a miscarriage, no, that’s too awful; she had the baby, and he was perfect; she and the guy simply had a shitty marriage; he drank, of course, she drank; she drank too much one night and drove; she got pulled over; he took her to court. When they split, he got the kid?
Could be. That would certainly do it. I’m just trying to put things together.
The roast I put in the crock pot at noon to keep Sera from having to cook on her special day, is now burnt and stinking up the kitchen.
Sera laughs and shakes her head like she knew I would screw it all up. She says, “That’s okay. You tried. Emm and I will go out for a bucket of chicken.”
“Huh, uh,” I say. “My bad, so my treat,” and I grab the keys off the hook.
“I’m coming, too,” says Marilyn. “I have enjoyed all of this I can stand.”
“Close it, whore,” Sera snaps.
“Hey, Mom!” pipes Emmaline.
“Excuse my language,” Sera says. She has shocked herself, but she remains calm. “It has been a challenge, Marilyn.”
“No harm, no foul,” Marilyn says, nodding.
“Go ahead,” Sera says. She attempts a smile at Marilyn, but it doesn’t take. “Yes, you should go with Roger. Emm, come help me with some things.”
“Are you going to be nasty again, Mommy?” Emmaline asks, smiling.
Sera is already back in the kitchen. She flings open a cabinet door and begins removing cups and glasses which she places in the dishwasher. “Nope,” she says over her shoulder to Emmaline. “All done being nasty.”
“That went well,” Marilyn says from the back seat once we head to town. “Did it?” I say.
“Sure. Looks like you turned out. Tight lil family and all.”
I ignore this. “Look, somewhere I can take you?”
“We’ve done this before.”
“Somewhere safe? There are motels out on the interstate.”
“This is my town, too.”
“I can give you money.”
“Don’t think I won’t take it.”
“Aw. Look at you.”
“You don’t have to be coy.”
“Listen to you.”
Earlier, in the master bath, I’d folded a wad of bills. When I hand it over to Marilyn, rain begins to fall again, but not like earlier. Now it crashes violently on concrete surfaces, blasting baked-in red dirt out of sidewalk expansion joints into rivulets. Dozens of tiny auburn tributaries fill ditches and propel plastic cups, paper Sonic trays and discarded parking tickets herky-jerky downstream.
“I can’t let you off in all this,” I say.
“Because you are afraid?” she says.
“Yes. I am afraid. Where do you sleep?”
“You would like to know.”
“C’mon. Not like that.”
Lightning spears a transformer, and streaks of white illumination dart through the dark half of sky. Its other portion is bird’s egg blue. Marilyn moans.
“We were at the university together, you and I,” I say. This surprises me. I had not intended on giving her hints.
“I don’t think so,” she says.
“I’m sorry, but yeah, we were.”
“Why be sorry? I didn’t attend college. Not seriously anyway. I barely made it out of high school.”
“I remember you.”
“Look. Why are you doing this? I remember you. I know you. We took the same sociology class.”
“Sounds like to me you are having you some kind of psychic incident, Bud. A nightmare of sorts. You probably ought to let me out.”
“It’s a storm out there.”
“Maybe you should calm down.”
“I am just fine.”
“You might consider addressing your points of stress and conflict.”
“I told you I am good.”
“Stop here, and I will get out.”
“You sat beside me in class one day. You were pretty. I sort of hit on you. Asked you for a beer.”
“Pretty. You certainly have a vibrant imagination. Later.”
“Don’t!” I yell.
Too late. She’s got the door half open and one long leg stabs the breach, with her hem hanging up, snagged on the metal lining. I speed up, figuring it will change her mind. It doesn’t, and one of her red bags flies out the opening, scattering yellowed newsprint to the blowing rain. Entire sections shred and go splat against trees and buildings, adorning them with wave-less wet flags.
The cloth grip of the other tote catches on the door handle, and she is running to keep up, the door full open now. She trips, her bottom hits pavement first, and she rolls. The Bronco drags her a good thirty feet before I get it shut down.
I bolt out the door and run to her. She bleeds from her hands and elbows. Her chin is split, and I see the white of the bone. A throng appears out of air and sidewalks and alleys and parked cars, like it seems to do when something goes wrong in a city street.
A woman steps in front of me, blocking. “Lout,” she whispers in my face.
A very small man, half her size and wearing a business suit on a Sunday, has Marilyn in his arms and tries to lift her. He does but then falls down hard with her in his lap. Her other tote falls, scattering its papery contents. They soar in the wind like winged creatures until rain soaks them enough they drop to form little gray hills on the sidewalk.
Marilyn’s face blood splotches the front of the small man’s white shirt and on his cucumber tie.
“It’s Marilyn,” someone from the crowd says.
“What has she done?” asks another person.
“It’s a hit and run. The guy’s drunk.”
“No. I saw it. She ran out in front of him. He couldn’t stop.”
A few blocks over, a siren wails, nears.
“Someone call 911.”
“Don’t let him go.”
“He’s not going anywhere.”
“He’s trying to help.”
“He doesn’t care.”
Two men lift Marilyn from the small man’s lap.
“She’s with me,” I say as they let go of her to see if she can stand on her own. She cannot. She looks in my eyes as she crumbles, and that’s the thing comes to mind first when I rouse on what looks to be a cot-like bed.
“The guy slugged you pretty good,” says the uniformed person handing me a paper cup of water when I sit up. “Sucker punched you, they say. You must not seen it coming.”
“A lot I didn’t see coming,” I groan. “Where is this?”
“Municipal detention center.”
“We don’t call it that anymore. But, yeah. Jail.”
It’s when he steps back, I notice the bars, metallic and perpendicular. I smell Clorox and the little pink cakes you see sometimes in urinals.
“How’d I get here?”
“The guys brought you in. Said you were out of it. You tried to get in the ambulance with the lady you hit.”
“I never hit her.”
“She’s hurt pretty bad, I think.”
“It was her. She did it to herself.”
“Okay, I’m not really here for that. I’m just supposed to check on you.”
“I’m fine. So I’ll go.”
“Be somebody here shortly to talk to you about that.”
“Like I said, there’ll be someone in here directly.”
“I was only trying to help. It is all in the world I meant.”
Stanley Beesley is an educator, coach, athlete, and Okie. He is the author of VIETNAM: The Heartland Remembers; Sweetwater, Oklahoma, and The Last Man to Hit .400: A Love Story. A combat veteran (75th Rangers), Stanley served in Vietnam and Cambodia.