by Lori M. Myers
This Minnesota town was a cacophony of silence and smells. The sky was getting darker all the time and a deep dark drizzle chilled George from head to toe. The town was not what it once was when he was a boy. Back then, smells had delighted his nostrils – steaming mashed potatoes from Kuppy’s Diner where he’d spend many a Saturday afternoon twirling on a stool; hydrangeas in spring; chlorine from the neighbor’s pool. Vivid, delicious smells. Now it was different. So gloomy, ominous. He was on his way to a new job in Chicago, but he’d come here to see for himself what a friend had reported – that their hometown was dying a slow death.
The diner was boarded up now, the stench of trash filled the air, and bits of crumbled brick from some buildings littered the sidewalk. A homeless man pushing a cart filled with old clothes and broken dreams shuffled past him. A girl with a nose ring and arms full of tattoos stopped him and bummed a cigarette.
“Who are you?” he asked, trying to make a friend.
“Nobody knows,” she said without a thank you.
George turned away then bumped into a fat woman who reeked of cheap liquor, pulling a small child by the wrist. The woman stood, still as stone, and he sensed her fear as he passed by. Odd to see so few people. This part of town had always been such a bustling place.
The wind picked up and George half-expected tumbleweeds to come spinning past him. Carl’s barbershop, where George’s dad used to get a trim, was gone now. The “For Sale” sign left to fade on the dance studio’s door. The pizza shop where he had hoped to get some dinner must have decided to pack up and leave too; the neon sign was turned off and there was no life or movement inside, only several empty booths, a handwritten menu over the counter and nothing much else.
“Whatsa matter, George? Won’t they let ‘cha in?”
George knew that voice; one he had hoped he’d never have to hear again. He took a step back as Ty Meade’s reflection loomed like some dreaded shadow, his broad chest amplified grotesquely by the wavy glass, his black hair – at least what was left of it – lacquered down by too much gel.
George turned around to face his former partner-in-crime, and he thought his heart would burst from his chest. He took a deep breath to stay calm; he didn’t want Ty to smell his fear. “You still alive, Meade?”
Ty’s lips formed a familiar smirk as he took a step forward. “I’m a survivor, George. You know that. Besides, I’m the one who should be surprised you’re still walking around in one piece.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Georgie-Porgie, you know what I’m talking about.”
Sure he knew, although he hadn’t thought about it for years. The two had formed a temporary bond after high school, but George had quickly begun to see the path the pair was heading down. Petty theft, stealing Mrs. Larson’s social security check from her mailbox, selling drugs. The crimes went from adrenaline rush to dangerous all too quickly. Ty’s schemes escalated, and he got more reckless. The final straw was when Ty tried to talk George into stealing a parked Chevy with a kid in the backseat. The kid’s big brown eyes convinced George that enough was enough. He stayed away, got a job he hated, and tried to steer clear of easy money. Ty did his best to bait George and lure him back, promising more cash and swearing he’d be more careful. He must have known how George could be so easily persuaded. George caved and quit his job.
They had shoplifted crap they didn’t need, dabbled again in selling street drugs. For a while, Ty kept his promise of scoping out a place ahead of time, being careful, not taking chances. Then a cop cornered them in an alley after they had snatched a purse off a woman’s shoulder. Their backs against a wall, hands up, Ty reached down and took a gun from his jacket pocket. He shot the cop in the arm and the pop sounded as innocent as fireworks on the 4th of July. Ty dropped the gun and the two men ran off, George sweating, half-screaming, half-crying at Ty. “What the hell, man?” Several days later the gun was traced to Ty, and George was promised probation for his testimony against Ty as the one who pulled the trigger. Ty got a twenty-year prison sentence with the promise of chopping three years off for good behavior. It was no surprise that he ended up serving the full twenty.
As the two stood there face-to-face in front of the now-closed pizza shop, George saw Ty’s stare suddenly soften and his fists, clenched and white-knuckled only a minute ago, relax. He placed a hand on George’s shoulder.
“Hey, man. One thing being in the hopper taught me is that holding anger inside doesn’t get anybody anything.”
“What do you want, Ty?” George’s belly rumbled. He wanted some food and some peace.
“What makes you think I want anything, man? Prison’s been good to me. Taught me things. Gave me what they call techniques I can use to calm the anger beast.”
And then Ty laughed, the same deep guttural laugh he flung into the faces of their frightened victims. George shuddered at the memories.
“I was pissed at you at first,” Ty said. “I got through the first year in the slammer vowing I’d kill you once I got out. But I’m over that. Heck, you probably did me a favor. I realized the mistakes I’ve made and straightened out my life. I got a job and I’m making something of myself.”
George wanted to believe him but past history told him otherwise. “That’s great, Ty. It was good to see you again.”
George tried to step away, out of sight, out of mind, but Ty dug his fingers into George’s shoulder. “Hey, buddy, I’m on my way to dinner myself. Why don’t you join me? I found this great new restaurant off of Fulton. Little Chinese place. Would you believe it? Chinese food has finally come to this dinky town.”
Fulton was about two long blocks down and George remembered it as where the two of them had sold drugs within dark corners and beneath flickering streetlights – little baggies of pot and coke – and making little money. Not even prostitutes would stroll Fulton because of the danger. Why would a Chinese restaurant open up in a neighborhood like that? But George thought he saw sincerity in Ty’s eyes, and besides, the hunger pangs reminded him he wanted food.
The two talked as they walked down Main and, as the minutes passed, the tone of their conversation went from stories about the former tension between them to hope for the future. A bird flew above them, the aroma of flowers reminded George of a more carefree time, and a gentle breeze rustled the sparse leaves. The sky brightened despite nightfall only two hours away and the drizzle disappeared. They began to chuckle about some innocent prank they’d pulled and the tightness in George’s chest eased. This was a Ty that George had never known; an optimistic Ty who had learned his lesson and walked the straight and narrow.
It seemed to George as if they were reversing direction, circling around and heading back to the same place where they had started. But as they rounded the corner they strolled past a copse of trees and onto a wide and spacious brick-lined plaza. The sign said “Fulton Street,” but it was far from the bleak and dingy neighborhood of his youth. Several restaurants – one serving sushi, another vegetarian, and one offering upscale Chinese food that George guessed was their destination – stood sentry on one side. Across the way were a men’s clothier, a toy shop, a woman’s boutique, and Dante’s, a furniture store whose cream-colored brick and stainless steel facade shone in the setting sun. A magnetic poster in front of the store caught George’s attention: “Ursula and Ted are honeymooning in our store window for 30 days. If they survive, they’ll win free furniture. Day 24.”
Ty must have noticed George’s eyes widen as he read and re-read the sign. “What do ya think, Georgie? It’s kind of crazy what people will do for free junk, huh?”
“Crazy is right,” George said. It’s more than crazy, he thought. It’s disgusting. Like some roadside zoo where tourists stop to gawk and point and toss peanuts into cages. This was worse. The humiliation of desperate humans. Perhaps this was the Fulton Street of old now hiding behind some phony facade.
“C’mon, Georgie. Let’s see what all the fuss is about.”
Ty led the way toward Dante’s where a small crowd made up of well-suited businessmen and a woman dressed in cashmere holding a fancy poodle had gathered. The town’s Ladies Auxiliary had set up a splendid display of elegant pies and cakes to benefit a scholarship fund and a chamber trio played Mozart. The smells of Pad Thai and vegetarian lasagna wafted and swirled from across the street in George’s direction forcing a deep grumble from his empty belly.
Just then a gasp sounded from the crowd who pointed toward the store.
Ty elbowed him to attention. “Georgie, check it out, over here, at the furniture place.”
Ted and Ursula, the honeymoon couple, emerged from a door inside the window. George’s disgust turned to wonder. Inside Dante’s Furniture’s store window, decorated with bedroom furnishings, a small television set and several matching chairs, the newlyweds scanned the crowd and smiled. The crowd smiled back. This is what the onlookers had waited for and the couple didn’t disappoint. Ursula sat on the edge of the bed, her long shapely legs extending from beneath her mini skirt. Sparkly barrettes held back her blonde hair and spit curls adorned each temple. Her blue eyes were like stars against the pale, smooth skin of her high cheekbones. She was slim, shapely, a goddess.
Ted, her new husband, rested on an adjoining chair, elbows on knees, giving his attention to his new wife in a casual what-do-we-do-next pose. A cigarette dangled from his mouth. He had rebel looks and muscular biceps. His lips moved gently, speaking words of love, George supposed. These were human beings with beating hearts, souls and fears, but they were on display as live mannequins. And she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
Voices around him now turned to gibberish. The grumbling void of hunger disappeared. George could only stare at the store window – through the store window – and watch Ursula’s every move, every whisper radiating from her lips, how her eyes darted from the crowd to Ted and back again. Her smile, teeth sparkling as a new snow, and, yes, one dimple at her chin.
Ty’s insistence that they grab a bite at the Chinese place roused George from his trance.
“Go ahead without me, Ty. I’ll be fine. I’ll join you later,” George said without taking his eyes away from Dante’s window. He feared Ursula would disappear if he averted his gaze for even a second. The urgency to drink her in like a cool wine made his body ache. Hours passed. Ted moved to the middle of the window as if it were center stage and worked the crowd like a funnyman on comedy night, contorting his body into what appeared to be pigs and birds and mice.
George never noticed the full moon that seemed so close one could touch it. He didn’t notice the changing crowds, the businessmen who left for home to eat their dinners, and the school kids in high-priced Nikes and real leather jackets who came by and stood alongside him to watch. One-by-one they departed and George was alone.
Ted lit a small lamp inside the makeshift bedroom behind the glass. Ursula appeared from the bathroom in knee-length lingerie so sheer that the light shone between her thighs and around her waist. The couple nestled into bed and Ursula’s gown floated out and onto the floor The thin sheet moved sideways and back like an ocean’s wave, legs and arms thrust in the air forcing the covers to retreat downward, revealing intertwined naked limbs and torsos. The lamplight danced around them as they shifted in pleasure, and their bodies’ smoothness and curves defied claims to male or female.
Ted moved aside, kissing Ursula’s neck, stroking her silky breast. Her neck and back arched in delight at his touch, her mouth partially open, her tongue moistening her lips. Moans slapped against the glass then fell to earth.
George coughed and suddenly Ted bolted up like a corpse suddenly coming to life. He looked through the window and stared right at George. Ted’s steely gray eyes hurled daggers. Though naked, he marched forward as Ursula tried to pull him back. He shook her off with such ferocity that she had to grab the corner of the bed to keep from falling. George stood there, unable to move from his spot as Ted banged on the glass, his mouth wide, lips curled, face red as blood. George could barely hear his rage, but he felt it in his bones. Ursula got up, clasped both her hands around Ted’s bicep and tried yanking him away again from the glass. He jerked his body and tossed her aside like a ragdoll, then grabbed her by the throat, slapped her, and threw her onto the bed.
George’s chest tightened; he wanted to shatter the glass and free Ursula. How could she exist in such isolation for so long?
Ted paced, his hands gesturing wildly as tears streamed down Ursula’s cheeks. She rushed into the adjoining bathroom and shut the door. Ted’s hands formed fists in her direction, his mouth opened wide as if shouting. He jiggled the knob, then banged on the door with such force that it looked as if it would split into pieces. He ran over to the chair and began rifling through a black bag resting on the floor. He must have found what he was looking for because his entire body and demeanor calmed. Slowly, he removed his hand from the bag. He was holding a gun.
George ran to the window and pounded on the glass. “No, don’t do this!” he pleaded.
Ted glared back and narrowed his eyes just as the bathroom’s doorknob turned. He grinned and pointed the gun in the direction of the door.
“No!” George yelled again, pummeling the glass until it shook. He rushed to the store’s front door and tried to open it. It was sealed tight, so he ran to the rear of the building, tripping over garbage containers and empty beer cans and stepping on the tail of an alley cat whose shriek tore through the fading darkness. The back door was rickety, barely on its hinges and, after several tries, George was able to force it open. Once inside, he followed a trail of light to another door, strangely ajar. And then he heard three pops, like the firecrackers on the Fourth of July. For one second, he remembered the saying, “You can’t go home again.” Now he realized what it meant.
George rushed in the door, stood by the bed and squinted in the sun, which was just beginning to peek out above the Chinese restaurant across the street and into the storefront glass, now smudged from oily fingertips and hands. George felt as if he were onstage but had no idea where he was or what his lines should be. He was like a statue, planted in concrete with nowhere to go. The bed was only inches away and the chair within arms’ length. If he reached out his hands, he swore he could touch the inside of Dante’s window; the room appeared so much larger from the outside. George could barely turn in the space. Then he felt something warm soaking his socks. He looked down and there was Ursula’s body wrapped around his feet. Fresh blood streamed from her head and throat.
The sounds of a lock and key clinked in the stillness and the outer door slammed shut, the same one George had entered from the alley. He saw the gun laying on the floor next to Ursula, bent down and picked it up with the thought that if he kept it out of reach of anyone, put it in his pocket, made it disappear, she would spring back to life and be the Ursula he’d fallen in love with when only a pane of glass separated them. Instead, he stood there cradling the gun in his hands.
George adjusted his eyes to the sun now starting to shine into the small space. Workers in flannel shirts and grease-stained khakis strolled by, then pointed towards him with panicked looks. The girl with the nose ring and tattoos stood there smoking a cigarette. Nearby, a vendor hawked hot dogs and soda in red paper cups. Ursula’s blood, thick and warm, gathered in rivulets around George’s shoes while the homeless man on the other side of the glass cried. There were no businessmen, no women in cashmere, no nicely dressed school students, no upscale shops, no brick plaza. But the Chinese restaurant was there. Yes. Still there. He was home. Sirens sounded; red and blue flashing lights illuminated the dawn like lightning. Sometimes the more things change, the more things stay the same.
George saw two men standing side-by-side amid the growing crowd outside Dante’s window. One man wore a three-piece suit and a felt hat partially pulled over his forehead, while a black bag dangled from his shoulder. No doubt that this was Ted, as his broad grin and steely gray eyes penetrated the glass. Standing next to him was Ty eating something from a sauce-stained container with Chinese lettering on it. Hidden in Ty’s fist was a wad of cash that he passed on to Ted. The two men shook hands, then Ted waved toward George, turned around and disappeared behind one of the many decaying buildings on Fulton Street. Ty pulled up the collar of his jacket as dark clouds began rolling in. Then he went back to eating.
Lori M. Myers is an award-winning writer and Pushcart Prize nominee of creative nonfiction, fiction, essays, and plays. Her work has been published in more than 45 national and regional publications where she’s written on topics ranging from the arts and home decor to business and health issues. For more information, visit www.lorimmyers.com.