Shall We Run
|The weather has been
foul. It is probably no ones fault.
Still people are looking to pin it on someone.
There are warnings and watches and advisories as to what might happen next. On television they explain the differences between the warnings and watches and advisories. In real life people are frightened into stockpiling provisions. There has been a run on batteries and bottled water.
There are people on television and people in real life. Like on television Jesus has blond hair and blue eyes and in real life he was god knows what.
In real life people are getting ready.
The woman next door is one of the real-life people getting ready. If this were television she would be played by an old time character actress whose face youd recognize but whose name you wouldnt know. In real life she is either an Edith or an Esther or a Clara. She looks unwell. A stream of people come by to check on her.
The stream of people look like apostles. The women walk like nuns and the men like priests and they all of them have leathery skin, pious features, and virgin hands. Perhaps this stream of holy people keep her unwell deliberately. Perhaps they have nothing else to do.
On television they have reporters interviewing cashiers, store managers, and the man on the street. The man on the street says things like: I dont know whats going to happen. Im just doing what they tell me to do. My family comes first. The clerks echo what the store managers say: Weve had a run on bottled water and batteries. We cant keep canned goods on the shelves. People are scared.
The people taking care of Clara have been doing it for some time. The foul weather has not prevented any of them from checking on her. In this manner they are like postal workers. I have seen them hopscotch over puddles and tunnel through snow. They are devout. It is unlikely they are keeping her unwell deliberately.
They bring her food, flowers, medicine, prayer cards. One would think she is bed-ridden or an invalid.
The woman next door is old and will likely die soon.
This is one reason she is getting ready.
She looks out the window or else the front door, which she keeps open even in this rash of foul weather. Around the neighborhood, people are boarding up windows and barring doors. Lines at the lumberyard are a street long. The conversations there resemble those between Lot and his wife.
When the time comes dont look back.
Or else what?
The interstate is awash with flee-ers breaking north. On television they are running hourly tests of the emergency broadcast system. In the likelihood of an actual emergency Meanwhile Esther is hither and thither with great big cow eyes seeing everything. She is like a watchdog this way. I havent seen a leash, but she could be strapped into something, a chair or tree.
Anyone walks by her house and she will be at her window or door to watch them do it. That way she is like god.
On television warring factions argue the barometric whys and wherefores. They talk about trade winds, clippers, niños. Only here and there someone mentions the old lady next door.
Shes called the horsemen to their mounts and into the starting gate, is what I think.
Im certain Edith does not pray for me. She was at her window when I moved in. I waved once and smiled twice while carrying boxes of books and lampshades. There was no reaction to any of the gestures, just a caulifowered blankness. I think she objected to my appearance, which most old people are uncomfortable with.
I look like I belong on television.
Otherwise she doesnt like anyone who doesnt come around to feed or bathe her or whatever goes on over there. As a rule I dont like oldsters. People pity them because they will likely die soon. Im afraid of them because they will likely die soon.
In this way people and me are almost kindred.
The people who come by to check on Esther glance at me sideways. Ive done nothing to warrant these looks, I dont think. Most of these people are younger, who I take to be children or maybe nieces and nephews. There are several attractive women and three men who wear different styles of clothing. The older people I take to be siblings. None of them are actual clergy. They only resemble clergymen and women. There is a certain resemblance, a grave countenance shared by all.
I tried speaking with one that visits on Thursday afternoons. He looked to be about forty and wore an ill-fitted three piece suit. He is one of those thats owned the same one suit for years and only brings it out for funerals, weddings, and court appearances. He looked like an Andrew. Maybe his mother called him Andy, but she was the only one. I remarked on how much rain there had been and made a reference to Mount Ararat. He rearranged his face and grunted something inaudible.
Then I made the mistake of begging pardon.
This is when he started the monologue
Start with a strict definition of never and work your way down, he said. Glance leftward, then rightward, then left again to make sure. This is the point where things break down. But not here, my friend, not here. I didnt get to the store today is what she means to say. I know this without having to be told. All of us do. She hasnt been to the store in years. Even still, never, is too absolute a statement to make regarding the store. We break this to her in no uncertain terms but are prepared to strangle her with kid gloves. But then we think, no. She is an old lady and will likely die soon. So, we explain the importance of the words did not and on occasion and the difference between them. Lets leave it at that. Never means never. Always. People need to know this.
Most often I speak only when there is no alternative. If I had to guess Id say Andrew was the same way. His whole life hed wanted to recite this confession. Which isnt the reason I approached him, I dont think.
My life isnt worthy of a monologue. I go to a job and motion myself through time and space with two friends who are certain of how things go. They believe this rash of foul weather will end. They believe the omnipresent woman next door has a real name and will outlive every one of us by a mile.
When the waters break the levee well see whats what and whos who.
I said this to the monologist I said, Ride the dead horse and dont beat yourself up over it.
That aside there is a woman who permits me to her innards when it isnt raining. What motivates her to allow these transactions I dont know. There is nothing about me you couldnt find twelve of down the block and for a better price. We regard each other as sexual laxative, though none such has been verbalized. For my part, I was conceived, incubated, born, and reared without incident or fanfare. Since, I have pantomimed a life out of imposition and deductive reasoning. This woman, she knows all of this. I havent seen her for weeks. Its the kind of life you rarely see depicted on television.
The woman who keeps me regular has been to my new place only once. She asked about the old woman in the window before she even said hello. I said her name was Harriet and that she was blind, having lost her eyesight under mysterious circumstances years ago. I also said she was a television star from the fifties and played the lead female character in Gunsmoke. I had never seen Gunsmoke and didnt know if there was a lead female character but it sounded about right. Then I amended part of the story, positing that shed lost her sight on the set that one of the blanks wasnt actually a blank, that maybe it was sabotage with flash burns. By the time I was blanking and sabotaging, the woman was halfway naked and wed both lost the story. I was sorry she didnt ask more questions. I was going to mention the three children she had by separate fathers, the rumored affair with James Arness. The bastard son, a renowned monologist who shunned the priesthood for secularity, the team of nuns and priests, all of it. Instead, we peopled together in the kitchen while two of Ednas daughters brought her flashlights, fruits, vegetables, magazines, diapers - all the necessaries for the coming flood. One of them could see my head through the small kitchen window. She couldnt know what I was subjecting the rest of my body to. She regarded me for a second, motioned with her hand as if absolving me, and then turned her head to pray.
Afterwards the woman and I decided we should seek alternatives, a different source of fiber. The discussion resembled the talk one has with a cashier.
Listen, Id like to return this.
Do you have a receipt?
Ive lost it.
Is store credit okay?
It looks like rain again.
Shall we run for our lives?
Ive never run for my life, I dont think.
Theres a difference between never and not yet. And heres your change.
I watched her trot back to the car, picking up the pace as she went along because it had started again. She slipped and fell when looking over her shoulder to see if blind old Harriet was still out the window.
On television there is a reason for everything. In real life people sometimes have to put a stop to things.
I walked out in a bathrobe to help the cashier to her feet. I escorted her to the car and kissed her like a man on his way off the plank. Afterwards I turned to face Edith head on. This is the moment Id been born for, Id decided. I stood there in the driveway, undid my robe, and stared her up and down. I studied every nuance of her face the way her florets were swollen shut, how her stalk fought a losing war with gravity, the chapped broccoli leaves that threatened to bleed out. I kept my robe open and let her take it in.
The watchdog god did not blink.
That afternoon Edna received three visitors bearing gifts. All three noticed the wet bathrobe Id left in the driveway. Each stepped gingerly over it and glared at the bathrobe like it was a leper begging alms. When the one I took for a daughter or niece left Claras house she picked the bathrobe up with a stick and carefully walked it down the driveway. She was holding an umbrella in one hand and the robe was dangling from a stick in the other. The wind and rain were tossing her around and she had to fight to maintain balance. A tornado was dancing its way down the street, hurling cars and trees - everything not tied down or boarded up. Hailstones the size of cabbages peppered the ground. Ediths daughter dodged first a German shepherd and then a front porch swing and then a tire iron. From where I was it looked like she was questioning her way of life. It looked like she was about to leave Edna for good, drop the stick and bathrobe and fly to the lumberyard to build herself a boat.
I stood naked and watched the world end from my kitchen window.
In this way, it was better than television.
|© Robert Lopez
This story may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.
Robert Lopez has had fiction in
many journals, including, BOMB, The Chattahoochee Review, American Letters &
Commentary, Post Road, Confrontation, New Orleans Review, New England Review, Hobart,
Willow Springs, and online at Failbetter, Taint, elimae, 5_Trope, and Identity Theory. He
teaches an experimental fiction workshop at The New School in New York City.
issue 50: October - December 2005
Donald Hays: Why He Did It