Darrel walks slowly home while he pulls the splinters out from under his worn yellow nails. He saunters slowly enjoying the day while he passes what seems to be a row of never ending dingy brick. This town is small, and this is its bad side. In a town like this it only means that the houses don’t have plastic siding and the sprinklers don’t come on every night at 11 to water the sidewalks. He takes a deep breath to feel the fall, almost winter. He kicks the leaves on the sidewalk. They seem to match the buildings in their deep reds, oranges, and browns. The air sits in him and leaves with warmth. It’s the kind of day you are aware of each breath. To his right there is a wooden sign in hand painted lettering saying “fresh tomato’s and corn.” He stops and looks into the small grocery.
“Frank, are you in there?” Darrel said while still standing in front of the doorway between stands of vegetables. From the alley way beside him a man pops out while collapsing a box in his hands.
“Hello,” he wipes his hands on his green apron and comes around. “Any plans for dinner?”
“None,” Darrel said.
“I told you when you gave me those boards for half price I wouldn’t forget it. Here, the misses fixed this for you when I told her.” A teenage boy stepped out from the alley way also, his white apron much dirtier than his fathers.
“We fixed the stands. Do you see? They don’t wobble anymore. It’s been a long time since they’ve looked so good. We even used some of the old wood to make a sign. Did you see it? So now everyone knows our vegetables are fresh.”
“Very nice,” Darrel smiled at the boy’s energy as he showed off obviously his own handiwork. He turned back to Frank, “I should really be on my way. You seem in a rush to get things all closed up.”
“It’s been a long day, and it looks like rain. We want to get home before the rain starts.” Darrel started to walk away. As he walked he opened the bag to see what dinner would be tonight. From the smell he guesses it is stuffed shells or lasagna. Whichever it is he knows the tomatoes will be fresh, and the pasta will be homemade. Frank leans into his son and speaks while watching Darrel walk away, “We need more people like him nowadays. They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” The boy just shakes his head in agreement and starts back into the alley.
Darrel crosses the road and turns to face the grocery. Neither Frank nor his son is outside. He walks into the park across the road. Its fading green grass is covered with brown dead crinkling leaves. The pigeons are still walking around seemingly not noticing the change in seasons. He reaches into his bag and finds some bread wrapped in tin foil. He unwraps the bread and breaks it into little pieces and throws it around. With amusement he watches the birds scatter for it. Smiling he crumples the foil and places it back into the bag. He crosses the street again, and starts up a desecrated flight of stairs. They are old wood, painted green. The second step is rotted through completely and the hand rail is nothing more than bathroom piping. Carefully he climbs up the rickety stairs and opens the unlocked door. Taking a deep breath he begins his three story drudge up to his apartment.
Once in his apartment he walks over to an old record player. Not old enough to require winding, but old enough it has nothing digital. Looking through a small shelf of worn records he decides on Carmen. Then he carefully places the needle onto the “Bizet Habanera.” He quietly hums along as he goes into his closet sized kitchen. From the dish drainer he took out a black speckled whistling pot. Looking inside at the calcium build up, wrinkling his nose, he heads with the pot in hand to the bathroom. He turns the bathtub on, because he has no sink. With a wash cloth and some concentrated joy he scrubs the pot till all traces of white have disappeared. Placing the pot back under the faucet he fills it half way and shuts off the water. Then he heads back into the kitchen to boil his water.
After his water is on the stove he heads into his living room, or the dining room, depending on which side you are sitting on. Covering the walls there are paintings of birds with their feathers all green, purple, and silver. As he passes through the room dodging piles of books and magazines the birds seem to stare down at him. On top of an old broken TV rests a violet plant and a day old news paper from the weekend. He picks up the news paper and sits in the room’s one cushioned chair. The pillow that makes the worn chair bearable falls when he sits. Shifting uncomfortably he pulls it from beneath him and fluffs and positions it comfortably behind him. He unfolds the paper and looks at the front page. There is a giant picture of a Boy Scout troop holding candles in NYC in memory of the firemen that had died.
He remembers when he was in boy scouts. He and his best friend Jarred had been inseparable. Once they took a hike, the path was called the acorn trail. No one else wanted to go because they were all tired from the day, but he and Jarred hadn’t had enough yet. They promised they would stick together and the troop leader let them go out into the woods alone. They were supposed to hurry back once they reached the end of the trail but instead they laid on their backs and waited for the stars to come out. Sharing one small baggie of trail mix they confided in one and other. “When I get older I want to be in the army.” said Jarred.
“Why?” asked a much young Darrel. He already knew the answer. He and Jarred had had this conversation many times.
“My dad was in the army, during WWII. My mom said he was a brave man. That he killed all the baddies. I want to kill all the baddies. I want to be just like my dad.” Darrel nodded.
“I want to be a fireman. I want to save people. I went to the field days with my parents, the fire truck was there, and there were even a few firemen outside in uniform, they even had a spotted dog. I’m going to be a hero someday.”
“So you’ll save people here, and I’ll save them from the outside world. Together we’ll save the entire country.” Jarred smiled and turned towards Darrel. He smiled back. Both boys laughed, and started pointing out constellations. That’s how it went for years. Jarred and Darrel were best friends all through school. Darrel even refused to play on the varsity football team one year because Jarred was still on JV. The next year they moved up to varsity together. When Vietnam started Jarred signed up right away. He was also one of the first to die.
Darrel is startled by the kettle whistling loudly from the kitchen. Jumping up he drops the paper into the chair to go tend to his water. Carefully he pours the water into an old chipped mug. Rooting through the cabinet and finds a Darjeeling tea tin and then through the drawer for a tea egg. He puts the tea into the egg, clasps it shut, and drops it into the mug. Leaving the steeping tea on the counter he returns to his chair and paper.
He opened the paper into the first page. On the left there are cartoons of an apelike drawing of W., an elephant with a donkey’s rear, and on the right page editorials. His wife used to always read the editorials and highlight the hypocrisies. Just skimming through some of these he knows his wife, ex-wife would have yellowed the paper. The crack in the TV screen attests and reminds him how passionate Solita was.
“Do you care about anything?” he remembers her shouting. He only painted, he didn’t turn or respond. “How can you just sit there contently indifferent to the world around you? Doesn’t anything make you react, make you do something!?” He remembers mixing his colors on his pallet, trying to ignore her temper burning behind him. “Do you have feelings? Does anything matter to you?” Solita was now close enough to him, her face pressed between his face and the easel, that he couldn’t paint or turn from her. Remembering her cheeks and how they were red with frustration and anger while she stared down at him. He seemingly placidly and aloofly met her eyes but with no emotion. She stood silent seemingly waiting for some response. The look of anger melted from her face into a look of defeat. “Nothing, absolutely nothing.” She stormed out of the room into the bed room crying and shouting. She came back out into the main room twenty minutes later with a suitcase and her jacket on. Darrel turned in his chair to see her, then turned back to his canvas and went back to painting the wing he had been working on. A shriek came from Solita as she threw the pewter doves he had bought her for their anniversary at the TV. The screen shattered and she stormed out. He finished his painting, cleaned up the glass and put the doves back onto the shelf. That night he cried.
Standing up he stretches his back and goes to the kitchen for his tea. He adds milk and sugar and sips it to a lower level so he can carry it without spilling. He places the mug onto the television set and drops the first section of the paper onto the floor, and starts to flip through the community and living section. “Ann Landers” is about some silly family china quall, and the funnies just aren’t the same without “Calvin and Hobbes.” Turning the page he is faced with the obituaries.
He stands up and picks up the section he left on the floor and drops it into the garbage. Sitting in his chair he sips his tea looking into the coat closet to the left of the main doorway. Putting the tea back down he rummages through the top shelf of the closet. Under the scarves, extra blankets, and umbrellas he pulls out a flowered shoe box, size five. Placing the box down he sits at his desk. He doesn’t touch the box at first. Like a sacred idol handling it the wrong way would be damning. Holding the sides only he carefully takes the top off the box. Inside there is a stack of pictures, some paperwork, and a hospital bracelet. As if he were playing some sort of solitaire he places all the photographs into three piles. They are carefully overlapped, so they all stay exposed. One row was black and white. The pictures are of him and his mother when he was young, from when he was just a new born to his 15th birthday party. In the second row the pictures were grainy but color, his high school graduation, his wedding, but every picture was of Darrel and his mother. Scanning up and down the two first rows he smiled. With some even taking the time to pull them out individually and linger in their memory a moment. Row three had the clearest photographs. His mother was old and frail. The last picture he lingers on is with no smile. It’s of his mother sitting in his chair, holding herself up for the picture. An IV rack stands in the background, and her arm is covered by an afghan to conceal the actual IV. Her other hand was held in Darrel’s while he kneels on the floor beside her. The pink health of his skin contrasted strongly to her pale sickly skin in perfect glossy color. Neatly he places the pictures back into the box in the order he took them from and puts them back into the closet under the extra blankets, scarves, and umbrellas.
He stands in the center of his small room his head lowered. Breathing deeply and with every breath he is filled with thoughts, regrets, and memories. A moment later he gently whispers, “I miss you.” Disappearing into the bedroom he emerges with a phone book. Placing it on the desk he sits and begins searching the white pages till he finds the listing he’s looking for. He underlines it and then pulls a phone directly in front of him. For a moment he stares at the old black rotary phone. Then in an inspired wind dials the number quickly with the eraser of his pencil. A man answers after only two rings.
“Hi, is Solita there?”
“Yes she is, May I ask who’s calling?” the man seemed hesitant.
“Sure, one minute.” Darrel listened intently trying to hear the soft argument going on at the opposite side of the receiver. The only thing he could make out for sure was Solita saying she didn’t know why he was calling and to calm down.
“Hi,” her tone was questioning and guarded.
“Hi, how are you?” he tried desperately to sound calm and confident.
“Don’t make small talk. Why are you calling me? It’s been seven years.”
“I don’t know. I just had to.”
“Why?” Her tone softened with confusion.
“I miss you, I guess… I guess I’m just lonely. I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately. I just can’t help it. I still love you, and…”
“Darrel stop. Telling me this now doesn’t matter. I couldn’t love you when your faith faded into quiet appreciation. I can’t love you anymore. I have a new life, a better life. I know I’m wanted here, and I don’t have to wait seven years to know it.”
“But I’m telling you now.”
“I’m sorry, please don’t call again. Goodbye.” The silence turned into dial tone. He listened to it for a minute letting it sink in that she wasn’t on the other end.
He pushes the phone back into the corner of the desk with the phone book underneath it. Blankley he stares at nothing with his palms face down on the desk. Turning his head he glances out the window. It still hasn’t rained. He turns his head forward again. Then, he slowly slides his hands into the center drawer of the desk. His hands search without the aid of his eyes. His hands emerge successful and he swivels the chair around so he is facing the window. He lifts his hands to his eyes along with the prize of his search. Through the binoculars he can see the park. The pigeons are still picking through the leaves and on his palette the colors are waiting to be mixed.