The seventh installment in the story of Heather. Scroll down to (7) if you want to pick up where you left off.
The lines in his face looked like furrows in the dirt, deep and irregular, grey and dusty, as if someone had made a half-hearted attempt to start a garden in a barren corner of the earth, and then just given up. He wore a tattered shirt, open at the collar, and long, white hairs sprouted out like ghostly tumbleweed. His ears had grown large with age and the pores on his swollen nose looked like tiny craters. His hair hadn’t been cut in years, maybe, and wispy strands floated lightly away from his dark and mottled head.
He stared at her intently, unblinking.
The jagged red lines of his eyes, half hidden by his sagging eyelids, looked tired as his eyebrows grew long in every direction.
And yet there was something in the way he looked at her.
He knew something. Maybe not anything about her specifically. How could he? But he knew.
He knew because he had earned the lines on his face, the pock marks, the thinning, brittle hair. He had lived. He had loved. He had fought and lost. He had fought and won. And he knew.
He wasn’t smiling, not quite, but she knew that it would only take a word or a smile of her own to bring him from the shadows into the warm light of day where he had lived most of his life.
So she smiled. Not that she expected the photograph to come to life. But this man, this stranger who had probably long-since passed, had been that kind of person. The one who stood out in the crowd, not because of his good looks or special station in life, but because he was born with the gift of presence. She was certain that even in his old age, this man had been special and much-loved by those around him.
Of course she didn’t know that, but she believed it. She had to.
Two steps to her right.
A football, its leather worn from years of passes and kicks and fumbles and tackles, ground into the earth so many times that all was left was a downy soft covering that looked like dingy cotton. The strong morning sun highlighted every little tuft. Or maybe it was the evening sun. She had no way of knowing.
Skinny, grubby fingers gripped the ball, dirt under the nails, a fresh scrape across the hand. Eyes – mischievous green eyes – peered over the leather. A burst of vivid red hair on top. Like her own from thirty years ago.
In the background was a small building. A shed, she thought. Then she saw another figure. A woman in a chair. Arms crossed. Though out of focus, she could tell by the way she sat, her right hand holding her left arm, pensive and uncertain, that it was the boy’s mother.
Because she had boys, too.
He looked happy, or at least delighted in the moment. Maybe it was the football. Or maybe he was enjoying the attention of the photographer. She couldn’t see the grin on his face but she knew it was there.
Between the boy and his mother she saw the horizontal line that marked the edge of the asphalt pavement, then a little patch of dirt that was the front yard. A bicycle lay on the ground in front of two car tires. A piece of cardboard leaned against the tires. The words were fuzzy but clear enough to read. For Sale.
He was too young to know he was poor. Maybe he would grow up to be one of those people who didn’t care.
“Here you go, Heather.”
She took the cup, and as she did her hand trembled. Coffee splashed over the sides of the cup, over her fingers, and onto the floor. She took the cup in her other hand, the good hand, the one that had yet to experience the tremors.
Phillip was already on one knee mopping the floor with the towel that he always had over his shoulder.
“My fault. I should have put a lid on it.”
Heather took a napkin from the counter and wiped her hands and then pressed a plastic lid down on the cup. She turned back to the array of prints on the wall.
“Who’s the photographer?”
Phillip looked back at the art deco clock behind the coffee bar. Three thirty. The hospital was one block away. It wasn’t unusual for people to stop by after an appointment. Heather’s visits had become more frequent. But for now, she was the only customer.
“Friend of mine from Columbia. The school, not the country.”
“I know Columbia.”
“Avery. Sounds Ivy League.”
“We were both political science majors.”
“Of course you were.”
“Neither one of us finished. Avery went to a photography school in North Carolina.”
“He’s really good. So much depth to his work.”
“I’m having a reception for him tonight. You should come by.”
“What about you?”
“After Columbia. The school, not the country.”
He laughed. “A little of this, a little of that.”
“How did you end up here?”
“My ex-wife is from here.”
Heather nodded. “That happens.”
The front door opened and three kids from the Catholic school across the street came in. He started toward the coffee bar.
He looked back as he walked.
“You mean Avery. Seven. Wouldn’t hurt to be a little early.”
Two more students in uniform brushed by as she was leaving.
* * *
She’d never been there after dark. She had long ago lost the habit of going out at night.
Not counting, of course, driving to get tacos for the boys on the days she had worked late. Or the late-night trip to the dollar store to get poster paper for the social studies project Robbie had forgotten to do. Or picking up Micah from his after-school job at the bookstore. Their lives, not hers. Except their lives were hers.
Micah had graduated, married, and moved to Ohio. Robbie was halfway through his first semester at college. At home, not much had really changed. The three had been a quiet family. Micah reading, always reading. Robbie picking out a song on his guitar. She would wash the dishes, maybe spend some time with a word puzzle. There were only a few television shows they would watch together. Even when they got older and started to go out, they were still there even when they weren’t.
The night before, she had baked a pan of lasagna that she would never be able to finish, and read a few pages of the novel she had been trudging through. She had even stayed up and watched the news, then the first late-night talk show. Because she couldn’t sleep. One of the side effects of her new medication.
So why not go out? Why not go to a coffee shop in the city where she would know no one and probably feel out of place as she sat at table alone? Where the kids whose time is now, spoke easily to one another about their jobs and their coffee and their apartments. Where they would lament their hardships of poor pay and Saturdays lost to rain and a meal at the new bistro that wasn’t quite up to their standards.
So why not?
It was a cool evening and from the sidewalk, the yellow glow from the storefront window was warm. As expected, the shop was brimming with youth. She saw a young girl, not Phillip, behind the coffee bar taking an order.
She stepped slowly as she approached. If nothing else, a coffee to go. As she pulled open the door, she heard the music first, then the chatter and clatter of a place alive. At the other end of the room a man stood alone looking completely out of place, yet very much at home. Though she didn’t know him, she knew it was Avery.
It was the young girl behind the counter. Smiling a pretty, young-girl smile, her hair too black to be natural, heavy eyeliner, and piercings through her flawless skin. “What can I get you?”
She hadn’t realized she had stopped just in front of the counter, as if ready to order.
The smile never left the young girl’s face. Had it been anyone else behind the counter, even Phillip, she might have declined, but the innocent allure of this gothic cherub was disarming, even comforting, as she stood, hands folded and resting on the counter, projecting both confidence and empathy that came across as a familiar warmth, as someone you might have known for a lifetime.
When Heather returned the smile, the young girl’s face relaxed ever so slightly, as if the greeting of an old friend was about to be replaced by earnest conversation; the girl asking about the boys, or her health, or if she was seeing anyone. Heather would inquire about her classes, her mother, and then ask about the intricate tattoo following the contours of her shoulder.
But none of that happened.
“Just a small coffee.”
“Sure.” One precise, smiling nod. “Dark roast?”
“No. Make it a latte.”
There were no empty tables. No familiar faces. Even Avery had disappeared.
She made her way through the chairs and tables and elbows and legs, holding the latte in her good hand, moving closer to the wall where the pictures – no, not pictures, photographs – were hung in a precise line, a fact she hadn’t appreciated earlier that day but was now evident in contrast to the current chaos and disorder of the coffee shop.
The old man in the first frame stared at her as he had earlier. She almost laughed. To her right the boy with the red hair was still smiling behind the football.
She was surprised by the image to its right. A man in a tuxedo standing military straight, his arms crossed, a thin conductor’s baton in his right hand, peaking out from underneath his left arm. He was outside. Downtown, somewhere. To his left, a dog curled up at his feet, oblivious to everything going on around it. But the image was clearly about the conductor’s face, unshaven, a stain of tobacco coloring his greying beard. His hair was brushed back in an attempt to feign a look of distinction, but the smirk on the conductor’s face let the viewer in on the ruse.
She turned to see Avery standing by her side. Taller than she thought when she had first seen him. Thinner, too. The sport coat had given him a few extra pounds from a distance but now she could see the slenderness of his frame, the lean lines of his neck., the smooth olive skin of his face roughened by a salt and pepper stubble.
He didn’t give her a chance to respond.
“His street name. His real name is Charlie or Joe or something like that, but everybody calls him Beethoven. Always playing classical music. He studied at a conservatory up north somewhere. He says he plays the violin and piano, but he went to school to learn composition. He had dreams of conducting his own music.”
“Drinking. Drugs. Back to drinking.”
“This photo. How? Why?”
“You see this guy on the street. Or someone like him. He’s not a person, just a body. But he is a person. See this kid behind the football?” He points to his left. “Charlie was like him once. We all were.”
“How do you know him?”
“When I was shooting this series, I sought out people like Charlie. Life in the Shadows.”
“Was that his tux?”
Avery laughed. “I rented it for the shoot.
“Did he see the picture?”
“Yeah. He loved it.”
She studied the image, taking in all the details. The cigarette butt on the sidewalk. A frayed collar on the dog tied to a rope leash under Charlie Beethoven’s foot. The storefront behind him, and through the glass, in dark shadow, a silhouette of someone watching. The store owner, probably.
She turned to ask Avery, but he was no longer by her side. She heard his voice behind her speaking with a young woman about focal lengths and depth of field. She listened, not to the words or the meanings they carried, but to the easy cadence with which he spoke. She wondered if that was a professional affectation, or if Avery Graham’s voice was always so soothing.
At first she didn’t notice the buzzing and when she did, she tried to count the number of rings that had registered in her subconscious. It had to be one of the boys and she didn’t want to miss the call. She answered without looking at the number.
It was neither Micah nor Robbie. The connection was poor and she walked to the corner of room and put her hand over her ear as she listened. Her side of the conversation consisted of one word sentences. What? Why? When?
A long pause as she listened again.
Ok. No, I understand. We’ll figure it out.
Another pause. She stared down at the floor.
Yeah, I’m still here. I’ll call you tomorrow.
She ended the call, her eyes still cast downward. She didn’t see Avery approach.
She looked up and forced a smile. “I’m not sure. That was my brother. My father’s been paroled.”
What to do with that.
“Excuse me.” She set her cup on a table, a table with two other cups where two young men sat and as she walked away, she didn’t see their annoyed look. She didn’t see Avery pick up her cup and apologize. She didn’t know that he watched her as she turned the corner toward the restroom alcove.
She continued down the hallway and through the door that led to the rear parking lot. A hospital helicopter roared overhead as the door closed slowly behind her and she watched as it flew over the city, its blinking red and blue lights getting smaller, the sound of the engine giving way to the familiar thump-thump-thump of the whirling blades, until it finally disappeared behind the mountains to the north. The silence it left in its wake was stark, but gradually gave way to the sounds that had been there all along. Cars whining on the pavement of the interstate a few blocks away. The chattering diesel engine of a pickup truck. A horn in the distance.
There was a bench beside the door and an ash urn, so she sat. She had never been a smoker. Her father was. At least he used to be. Who knows, now. Her brother probably still smoked. Her mother, no. Of course not. And it had been an easy thing to steer Micah and Robbie away from cigarettes. She was never able to trust anyone who smoked. An unfair generalization, she knew, but there were connections. Maybe not cause and effect but at the very least, strong correlations. Cigarette butts littered the ground around the urn, evidence of the dereliction of smokers.
The air was still and seemed to have warmed a little. Winter was coming for sure, but there was no portend, no biting north wind, no chill to the bone. It was a good evening to sit on a bench and work things out. But it was too soon for that. She wasn’t even sure what there was to work out.
The door opened and Avery looked first to his left, then his right. He stepped forward and let the door close behind him.
“Are you all right?”
He stood with his back to the parking lot and the lights cast him in shadow. She couldn’t see his face, couldn’t read his expression. It was a simple enough question that, given the circumstances, warranted no deeper evaluation.
“Do you smoke?”
There was a pause following her question when all she heard were the cars on the interstate.
“No.” She shook her head. “It’s ok. I just needed some air.”
“Thanks. For checking on me.”
“See you a minute?”
She nodded, though she had no intention of going back inside.
Avery pulled open the door and hesitated, as if he were going to speak, probably to extend an offer to talk, but for some reason, thought better of it. It was then she realized that her face was bathed in the white of the street lights, and where his expressions were hidden in the shadows, hers were brightly illuminated so that every facial tick and every nervous twitch of her lips was there for him to see.
When he had gone back inside, she smiled. She had seen the evidence of his good heart in his photographs, at least the empathy he had for people, empathy in the general sense that enables one to care for people as in the whole of humanity, and the occasional Pakistani man living in a hut, or the dirt-poor boy with a football, or a homeless musical genius. But empathy is a cold and clinical word; easy to talk about, but harder to put into practice. He might have been able to sit beside her on the bench, ask about her father, offer some words of encouragement, which would have made her feel less lonely and would have made him feel generous with his own good will, but he had seen her in the light. She understood.
copyright 2016, joseph e bird