Walking was not as easy for George as it used to be. His long limbs put a strain on his muscles; he felt like a man on stilts. Only a few minutes into the stroll and he was breathless and lightheaded. He walked through steam pouring from a manhole cover and it fogged his glasses, making the streetlights leak together.
A car with dark windows slowed. George took off his glasses to look for a hint of passengers, even a face in the back like a tonsil, but he saw nothing.
As he passed by one house, a woman yelled, "You're nuts!" and a man walked out, kicked the door and fumbled with a pack of cigarettes.
When George got home, he saw teenagers sitting on his neighbor's porch, waiting. George waved. One of the kids raised a hand.
In the local paper, the police blotter was always after the obituaries. George wondered if that was meant to take the menace from crime, to remind victims that at least they’d survived. One day the blotter listed an incident on George's street:
When an elderly man at a bus stop refused to hand over his wallet to a group of men, they
stabbed him and dragged him to a pick-up. A security guard intervened, they dropped the
victim and escaped.
George was taken with the anonymity of "victim," an unknown variable, like the x in algebra. He pictured a faceless man, in his seventies, like himself, only more terror-stricken at the way everyday life can tangle and knot itself into violence.
Karen, George's daughter-in-law in California, joined an organization called Citizens for Prevention of Violent Crime. One day she phoned, saying she wanted George to fly up and talk about his wife Mary at one of the meetings.
He asked her, "About her or the murder?"
"Whatever you feel comfortable with, Dad. You could just describe her."
"That's all, Dad. Talk."
"What's the point then, Karen?"
He could hear her sigh. She never mentioned it again.
The newspapers sometimes still referred to Mary's death as "the brutal Wehman murder." As topics went, violence against the elderly was popular. George scanned the paper. These articles seemed to copy each other: the surviving family broken, the senseless murder. At least they were better than the obituaries, where murder was censored as a cause.
George had helped the groups search the fields for Mary. Some of his old high school students helped but George couldn't talk to them. He preferred strangers, the young man heaving a board to look under it, the groups of people kicking trash.
The fifth day of the search, a police car pulled up, letting out a man with a clip-on tie and mirrored sunglasses. People stopped in the fields to watch. The man said, "There's no reason, George." Then he said, "The dental records matched."
George said, "You mean the teeth?"
"Yes, the teeth."
"Well, why didn't you goddam say it?"
"Yes, the teeth."
“Well next time say it.”
George used to teach math and coach football. His teams had a few winning years in the seventies. He hadn't been tough enough on his athletes. In the nineties the other coaches shifted him to baseball, mainly, George knew, to keep him from being fired. Everyone—students, athletes, coaches—called him "Big G," and the football coaches sometimes asked him to give half-time pep talks for important games.
He sometimes ran into his old students. Once downtown, a familiar man in a suit put his arms in the air saying, "Class of '82." Recently a fat man in a passing dump truck yelled down, "Big G! How's it going!" George waved and yelled back, "Pretty good!"
When George read the word "Americans" in the newspaper, he liked to think that this vague term applied to the weave of his old students, whatever they might be—salespersons, doctors, cab-drivers. When he saw a poll that most Americans were against welfare, he wondered if he should have included references to the poor in his classes.
He had never considered himself "American," even in the seventies when Mary was taking him to ERA rallies. Americans liked different music than he did, different movies, books also. For George, the news made it seem like these Americans had gotten together in secret, behind his back, and had decided on issues he was still confused about. So it was only now that George felt any connection to the country. Americans were simply his old students. He'd helped gather them together.
One afternoon, as George walked to Wal-Mart, someone in a passing car threw a small carton of milk, which exploded with a loud cachunk over the back of his shirt and his khakis. He stood there for a few minutes. Milk dribbled down his back and formed a small puddle at his feet. A few cars passed, one very slowly. Finally, he continued in the same direction.
By the time he got to Wal-Mart, the afternoon heat was drawing a dairy sourness from his clothes. He scanned the cars in the lot for anything unusual. Inside, he picked out an extra-large shirt from the men's department and took it to the register.
As the kid at the register rang it up, George told him, "Someone threw a carton of milk at me."
The kid stopped pressing the register and looked up at him. "What?" He was clean-cut and short, familiar like an old student.
"Someone threw a carton of milk at me."
George said, "Yes way," and turned around to show the kid his stain.
"That's that smell," the kid said, then caught himself. "Jerks out there," he added, shaking his head. Then he continued on the register, saying, "So you're here for a replacement."
George half-smiled and said, "Would you believe it? I was coming here for a shirt anyway."
"Yes." George nodded.
George's neighbor across the street, Bob, had tried to set George up with elderly women, friendly widows. George refused. Growing old with his wife was one thing—doing it together seemed to cancel out many signs of age. These new widows were just plain old, as if they'd always been in that state, never young, pretty, busy. George talked to them at church, at the grocery store. They were sturdy, distant, but with soft eyes, possibly waiting for him to make the first move. A few of Mary's old friends sometimes called. They were too patient with his silences, one of the younger ones once telling him, "You're such an introspective man, George."
Everyone thought he was lonely—he knew. To him it seemed the wrong word. George liked being alone. He only watched TV for the news and he spent most of his time in the backyard, pruning trees, taking care of the lawn, repairing a shutter, a rail, a bird feeder. The work and memory of work made the yard seem his. In the spring, the huge oak in the back made the yard deep and shady. Sometimes he took naps in a lawn chair under the waving branches. Sometimes Bob came over and they sat on the back porch, both of them looking into the yard as they talked. Bob was also a widower, but a smaller man, who dipped tobacco and always had a humorous, tricky look. He wore a baseball cap like it belonged there, and told long, funny stories that were a pleasure to George. When Bob started one he’d told before, George would shake his head, "No Bob, I've heard that one." Sometimes Bob told dirty jokes. He seemed to collect them more and more, one time bringing a Playboy to read a particularly well-worded joke. George laughed at some of these.
Bob's wife had died of cancer, and he liked to pretend it didn't bother him. He once said to George, "I hope she's up above. If not, I bet she's giving hell to hell."
George was looking into the yard and could tell Bob had turned to look at him. Bob said, "Yours is probably forming rallies and marches right now."
"In the afterlife?" George said. At that moment, a gust came up and shook the big oak. "How do we get there?"
Sometimes George remembered an old story he could tell. Since he'd retired, though, his stories had gradually seemed to lose their purpose. Recently, he noticed that he was talking in fragments, as if he couldn't muster what it took to finish a plain sentence. The words seemed to wander off when he'd said enough. He'd say, "Did you hear what the President said yesterday about the, uh, cuts—" and Bob would nod in understanding.
One afternoon, George tried to tell an old story about an uncle who, after his mother’s death, started a forest fire. Yet, somehow George lost the ending, the sense of grieving and fiery expression. Bob laughed like the story was a joke and George said, "You know, I remember that story as better than I told it."
Bob smiled. "Ain’t that the point?”
After Bob left, George fixed himself a glass of iced tea. He sat and drank it and watched himself in the hall mirror, a big man at a tiny table.
George woke up one morning to find that his car had been taken from his driveway. There was no broken glass, blood, just a quiet, empty driveway, so peaceful he almost didn't call the police.
As the officer stood in the driveway filling out the report, George told him, "If you find it and it's in bad shape, just—"
The officer blocked the sun from his eyes with his pen hand. "Excuse me?"
"I don't want to see it." After the officer left, George paced the house. His driveway was empty and he tried to think of things to do. Twice he walked out to the street and looked both ways, as if this would encourage someone to bring the car back.
The next day, a different officer pulled up, followed by a wrecker with George’s car. George had to identify it because the license plates had been removed. The back seat was knifed and there were burn holes in the front. It didn't smell like George's car. The back window was smashed—the officer said they had caught the kids in the act of trashing it. One of the teenagers next door. There was a brown stain on the back carpet. George shut the door and told the officer it was his car.
The officer said, "All right." Then he put on his sunglasses and leaned against the car like it was his own. He said, "George, I know about your wife’s case. Does this make you suspect your neighbors?”
George shook his head, “No."
“Have they lived there long enough?”
George remembered offering to help them move in. The father had scowled and the boy, shoulders hunched, had seemed both frightened and angry, but hardly enough to steal a car, much less commit a murder. George said, “Long enough, but no,” with the same distaste as when two years before the investigators had suggested old students. He refused to think it. They were children.
The officer pulled at his bottom lip. "All right,” he said, like he was waiting for George to change his mind.
The next day the blotter read:
5500 Johnson St.: Police followed noise to cul-de-sac where youths were vandalizing
stolen car. The officers gave chase and nabbed two of the culprits.
George was surrounded by voices. He'd find himself talking, repeating phrases or questions like, "You OK?" Once he caught himself and said loudly, "Stop it!" just as the newspaper boy knocked on the screen door. He seemed to be doing this more and more, and caring less. The house had voices too. It seemed to soak up noise from outside, drafty with sound like other houses were with breeze. George once heard a voice in the kitchen say, "I need to return it," and when he walked in, the sound of footsteps outside, a car door. One night he heard faint delicate laughter. He turned on the lights and walked from room to room, but never heard it again. Gradually, he began to accept the house's noises. Sometimes he lay in bed and listened, trying to piece together its personality.
A week after his car was found, he woke up with Mary's voice in the room as if she had just said something. He replayed her, just as he used to when she'd asked if he'd been listening. This morning she had said, "You need help, Sweetie." He lay in his bed for a moment. Then he got up and looked out his window into the sunny yard. Through the screen, it looked blurred and antiseptic. A bush swayed in the breeze. He thought, that's the way she talked.
That morning, he turned on the TV just for the sound.
The first day of summer, a man dressed as a phone repairman came to George's door and said that the phone company was re-wiring some of the old neighborhoods. The man held a big toolbox and had addressed George by his last name.
George said, "I never called for service."
He smiled, "Today is your lucky day. We just bought a round on the house." He was tan and wore an AT&T shirt with sweat rings at the arm pits.
George told him, "Well there’s a rotary in the bedroom."
"Let me at it.” George realized that it would take bluntness to get rid of him now. The man was practically a state employee; George decided to let him in.
George took him to the bedroom, and as the man walked by George could see the top part of a ponytail tucked into the back of his shirt. In the bedroom, George pointed out the rotary phone in the far corner.
The man said thanks and stood in the middle of the room like he was waiting for George to leave. George said, "OK," and walked back into the living room. He sat down. He could hear the tool box open. Something bothered him, and he looked out the front window. There was no phone truck, only an old Toyota parked in front of the neighbor's house. The man couldn't have been carrying the toolbox around the neighborhood. George listened for the sound of tools but the bedroom was silent.
George thought of calling the phone company to check, but the man could listen in. Then there was a loud click from the bedroom and the man called, "George, could you come back here for a second?"
Just then George remembered something in the news about fake repairmen and the elderly. Something about knives.
"George?" the man called out again, his voice odd.
George answered, "Yes, hold on." He walked lightly to the kitchen, which offered another approach to the bedroom. The floor squeaked once. He could see the edge of the bedroom door and he moved closer. The mirror above the dresser became visible. In it he could see the back of the man crouched low next to the door, like he wanted to surprise George walking in. The phone was in its corner on the other side of the room. In the mirror, the man’s ponytail was out of his shirt and long.
For a second, George was amazed that it was actually happening. He'd finally gotten to the front of the line; everything else had been practice. His own piece of violence had arrived.
He looked down and saw his hammer on the kitchen table. He picked it up. It felt odd in his hand, heavy, and he knew he didn't care enough to swing it. He quietly laid it on the table, and looked back through the doorway at the mirror. The man shifted and George saw the edge of the old phone jack as the man pulled it from the wall, colored wires and all. The man called again,
George breathed now and answered, "Yeah?"
"I guess you ran the phone wire under the carpet?"
He backed into the kitchen. "Yes. Years ago. I forgot."
"I'm just going to cut it, if you don't mind, and put a new jack in the wall. OK?"
"Please do." He breathed.
As the man finished up, he said from the bedroom, "You know, this is my last installation."
"This is my last day. I've quit."
George could hear him close his tool box. The man walked into the kitchen and glanced at the cupboards. "Do you mind if I get a glass of water?" He seemed to be looking for a particular glass and then reached for one with painted flowers. Filling it from the sink, he said, "My wife is my supervisor. I had to quit." He drank it all at once, his nose filling the glass. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down. The man finished and added, "It was either that or divorce." He wiped his mouth and smiled: "And we can't do that—we have a kid." He handed the glass back to George. “And a bird.”
They looked into each other’s eyes. The man’s were golden like sand, and wide. They reminded George of a cat’s eyes, only happy. George couldn't say anything. It had been so long since he’d looked this closely at a person. The man said something George didn't hear.
"What?" George said.
“Yes. Sure.”George leaned back against a chair and didn’t look at the man again.
The next day was hot. George was walking up his driveway to get the mail when he saw the boy next door, slouching on the front steps, looking at the street.
George stopped. He said, "What'd they do to you for stealing my car?"
The boy looked frightened and very thin. He said, "Just a little juvy."
"Do you dislike me for some reason?"
He shrugged, "No."
George walked up the short slope of the property to the stoop. He said, "Then why?" Closer, George could see his eyes were bloodshot and sad.
When the boy didn’t answer, George said, "My wife taught me to fox trot but I’m not any good." The boy shook his head, confused, like he wanted to understand.
George said, "I have a problem making eye contact. So, there’s just voices.” He looked away, and could see the boy do the same. George said, “I guess I’m not right.”
The boy said, “Maybe you should look at their mouths,” and he pointed to his, like it was just some object. George looked at the finger, the serious mouth set like a prune, and he knew this was advice Mary wouldn’t have known or needed. He said, “OK,” and when he smiled, the boy did too, and George realized they were looking at each other’s mouths like a couple of old twins, embarrassed.