1st place winner - 2007 short-story contest
Please, Leave a Message
Published: February 29, 2008
| Same bench nearly every day, facing west and shaded by a flowering cherry tree. Angela has noticed him, the gray-haired man, from her third-story window.|
"In the afternoon," she tells Karl, "that's when he's usually there." She explains how he sits on the bench without a book in his hand or food for the birds, and then, after a half hour or so, takes out his phone and makes a call. "Every day," she says, "same thing."
Karl is busy lubing the chain of his upturned bike. "Don't you have anything more pressing to do?" he says. "Like work?"
She chews at the corner of her mouth. "There's a reason why he sits there day after day, talking on the phone."
"Maybe he's doing business."
"He looks retired."
"How's he dressed?"
She has to think. A white shirt, usually. Yes. But no tie. And some kind of jacket, but not for an office. The shoes? She hasn't noticed. "Like he was going boating," she says. "Or golfing. Or just out for a walk. You know, casual, unhurried."
But that isn't quite right, either, because there's something more to the man's day, something that occupies him until the moment he places the call.
The following day, Angela watches more intently. A warm breeze ruffles the cherry blossoms as the man arrives around three, wearing chinos, the same white shirt, and tan-colored shoes. His jacket, a navy-blue windbreaker, is tied by the arms around his waist. This, she figures, is how he carries his phone. When it's eighty he'll still have a jacket because the jacket has a zippered pocket. (He's not the kind of man who wears a phone clip on his belt.)
She knows she should be working but finds it easy to ignore her boss's e-mails and stare out the window. Especially on sunny afternoons. Her mother would have been folding laundry at this time of day, perhaps gazing into the backyard from the daylight basement, into the belief that her life was normal and complete.
The man sits in the warmth of the sun, lifting his chin, eyes closed. And then, as expected, he pulls his phone out of his jacket. He carefully pushes the buttons and holds the phone to his ear. He sits there listening to something on the other end. After a short while, Angela sees him talk, uninterrupted, for five minutes. He's leaving a message. He always leaves a message.
Over the weekend, they go mountain biking on the grounds of a former seminary. She was athletic as a student-volleyball in high school, intramurals in college-so Karl's enthusiasm for mountain biking was a natural attractor. They first met on the paved section of the rail-bed trail. She was attempting to rollerblade but fell and tweaked a knee. He stopped and lifted her up-so helpful, so quick to know what to do. And clearly so fit. After a first date in which she learned about his practice (sports medicine) and his interest in similar movies and music (if not books), Angela believed he might be the one. They've been together now for more than a year.
Karl likes to speed ahead on the seminary trails. She watches his calves bulge like yams as his legs pump forward. He accelerates up hills and returns in an act divided by encouragement and frustration. Yet even though Karl grows impatient whenever she falls behind, Angela still admires his determination to get her up the hill. Sometimes he reminds her of her old volleyball coach.
They stop for lunch on the vast lawn, where they can see the abandoned seminary buildings. One developer has offered to buy the property and turn it into a hotel. Karl recently operated on the man's brother, who tore his ACL playing hoops.
"How's your friend?" Karl says.
"The guy out the window."
"Oh." And she tells him about the messages.
Karl bites his ham sandwich vigorously. For a man so interested in health, he has an odd addiction to gummy white bread, mayonnaise, and squares of unnaturally pliable cheese. She teasingly called him on this incongruity once, but he shrugged it off. "Reminds me of fishing trips with my dad," he said. "Sometimes you gotta indulge."
Now he takes a swig from his water bottle and leans back to stretch his quads. "Maybe he's a dealer, you know, setting up transactions."
"He does not look like a dealer, I'm telling you. He looks very sweet and fatherly."
"Dealers come in all sizes and shapes, believe me. I've heard of a few doctors who aren't too shy about over-prescribing."
"I don't know."
"Well, maybe they're messages for a deadbeat son who never calls."
They bike for another hour until her legs give out.
He's late on Monday but finally shows up around five. She's been checking, worrying for at least an hour, then feels tremendous relief when he appears as if from nowhere. One second she's e-mailing a status report to her boss; the next second, there sits the old man on the bench.
Angela watches him go through his ritual, but this time she notices something else-a glint of light coming off his left hand. After he places the phone back in his pocket, he touches that hand as if to massage a finger.
A ring, she decides. He's playing with his wedding ring.
"You think he's having an affair?"
"It's a possibility."
Karl narrows his eyes. "Why don't you just go and ask him?"
"Are you kidding? That would be intrusive."
"No more than spying on him."
She adjusts her pillow to avoid glimpsing the keen, pre-operative slant of Karl's chin. "I feel like I know him."
"Well, you don't know him. You're just a peeping Tom."
"Peeping Tom's look into windows, not out of them. Besides, it's a public park. That's fair game."
As Karl laughs, Angela switches off the lamp.
She observes the man for several more days, deciphering the look on his face whenever he hears the message-a kind of comfort mixed with sadness-and then the change in expression whenever he begins to speak, the waxy set of his eyes and mouth, as if he's willing himself to believe in a situation that isn't true. She's seen this look on her mother before. It's called self-delusion.
Friday night, the small Thai restaurant on the corner: Angela doesn't mention the old man, and Karl doesn't ask. Instead, he brings up her job. Maybe he doesn't understand why someone would be interested in an old man, she thinks, but at least he's inquiring about my work.
"It feels like I'm in the doldrums," she says.
Karl's mouth, full of stellar orthodontia, skews with concern. "It's a good company," he says. "The benefits are very reasonable. I mean, look at the flextime, the chance to work from home. You've just gotta stick it out."
Angela wades through the Swimming Rama as he dives into the Phad Thai.
A few nights later, she has a revelation. She can't tell whether it's dream-induced or whether she has actually been awake while solving the nature of the man's calls, but she knows that she must wake Karl.
He's slow to consciousness. Like his eating, Karl's slumber is decidedly unabashed. His breathing often makes her envious-so absolutely rhythmic, like a hog or some other large mammal. But, with a hand to the shoulder, with a few solid nudges, she finally rouses him.
"I've figured it out," she says.
"Figured what out?"
"The calls. The old man. The messages."
Karl groans only slightly, so Angela proceeds to describe the changes in the old man's face.
"And?" Karl says.
"Don't you see?"
"That he's calling home. He's a widower and he's calling home." She explains how the wife's voice must still be on the answering machine, how he must be calling to hear her talk, how he's pretending she's still alive by telling her about his day. "He probably even tells her when he's coming home," she says.
Karl sits up and glances at the clock. "You got all that from looking out the window?"
"Don't you believe it?"
He rubs his face and falls back into his pillow. "Seems a little farfetched."
"But don't you think it's possible?"
"Anything is possible. But in medical school, the first thing they teach you is, when you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras."
A once-admired attribute now greatly annoys her. The cocky athlete. The self-assured surgeon. "You don't believe me," Angela says.
"It's not a matter of belief. It's a matter of facts. You just don't have all of them in front of you."
"And what about the hoofbeats? You're basing a diagnosis on one piece of information, on something you hear?"
Karl grumbles about the late hour, about a southpaw pitcher with a wickedly torqued rotator cuff, and begs her to get some sleep, but all she can think about are zebras and donkeys, maybe even unicorns if she really wants to push the matter.
The man frequents the bench for another week or so, and then he stops. One day Angela looks out her window and realizes that it's half past six and he still hasn't arrived. He doesn't show the next day or the day after that. Before long, she quits expecting him, though she still finds herself drawn to the park. There it is, across the street, and she's hardly set foot in it. She and Karl never take walks there, never sit on one of those benches. During the week, he gets up early and comes home late. And on weekends, whenever they go outside it's to exercise, to sweat, to ride up hills, attacking them like antibodies bent on conquering the flu.
Late in the afternoon, Angela leaves the apartment and descends to the sidewalk. She crosses the street and reaches the bench. Sitting down, she draws her fingers across the grain of the wood, imagining where the old man might have gone. Perhaps he's moved. Or maybe his act of mourning is now complete, the voice of his wife finally erased. Or-it could be he has simply died.
Each of these events is possible, or none of them is. Karl could be right about not having enough facts.
And yet, she wonders: Would Karl ever sit on a bench like this and place phone calls to my disembodied voice? She'd be dead, of course, long gone. But, still, isn't that the point? A man who can mourn you, that's what she's chosen to see out her window. A man who will leave messages, even when you're dead.
Angela glances up toward the building she moved into three months ago. The sun flanks it and will soon pass beyond the five-story structure and be eclipsed by the top floor. She raises a hand over her eyes and peers through the brightening corona, attempting to locate her window.
For the life of her, though, she can't find it.