It is her favorite part of the day, except for the pain. The bed is high and getting into it is hard on her knees. Tonight her son stays with her. He stays too long.

“Are you comfortable?” he says.

“Very comfortable, thank you.”

“We had a good day.”

“It was a lovely day.”

“I think we all enjoyed the movie. Kirsten laughed all the way through it.”

“Was it a funny movie?” she says, and knows she has made a mistake.

“You laughed too, Ma.”

She doesn’t remember. She has something like a memory of the three of them in the warm room with the fireplace and the enormous television. Was she laughing? All she can bring to mind is the news, nothing to laugh at there, just angry people. People waving signs, people shouting from the windows of cars, people who paint messages on sheets they hang from buildings. Perfectly good linen ruined. What she does remember is the television set in her parlor, her mother’s parlor, a much smaller set of course but there was always something worth a laugh. That Danny Thomas.

“Tomorrow you have an appointment with Doctor Giles,” he says.

“Another appointment?” she says, glad he dropped the other embarrassing business.

“You haven’t had your feet looked at in a couple of months.”

“I thought —”

She thought the one called Giles was an eye doctor. Someone is. She sees doctors for her bladder, knees, heart, eyes, and of course the other condition. A mental condition. They have a name for it that she can’t recall. No matter. In her day people didn’t talk about such things.

Her son is on the bed now, sitting on the edge the way her mother used to before tucking her in and turning out the light. As she herself did for her son when he was a small boy. She is not nostalgic, and has no wish to be treated like a child. If he would just leave she could enjoy this, the best part of the day. She could stop working so hard. It is hard work pretending to understand what everyone is constantly saying to her. Mostly it is the wife. She is nice enough but can’t seem to let a grown woman live her own life.

Finally he bends to kiss her cheek. The door is closed, the room is dark. Her knees no longer hurt. She usually suffers from several lesser pains and at the moment can find none of them. It feels as if she has just put down a heavy shopping bag she’s been carrying around all day. The bed is soft and fragrant, and in it the present slips away. Good riddance. She can live again. She can be the office manager in Mr. Falcone’s drapery firm. She can be a wife making the avocado and cheese dip, always a success. She can be a young mother, dress for the PTA, drive her boy to baseball practice. She can be the schoolgirl and put on the plaid skirt and walk the five blocks to Blessed Sacrament Academy. She can —

Some time passes. The house is very quiet. She does not have to use the toilet but she will, just in case. Another accident would be humiliating. When she opens the door to the bathroom and turns on the light, she is surprised to see it full of clothing. It is her clothing and she wonders who put it in the bathroom, arranged so neatly on hangers and shelves. And here is her favorite robe! She slips it on over her pajamas. She knots the belt and steps into the slippers with the soft fleece. She feels ready to take on the world, as she used to. The world is not in here, so she opens first the bedroom door and then the front door. It is good that she sleeps on the first floor. She won’t disturb anyone.

They live at the corner of Jackson and Myrtle. This information is on the lamppost and she tries to memorize it. By the time she reaches the corner of Jackson and Elm she has forgotten. No matter. She is warm enough in her robe. Her knees are hurting but not too much, and she isn’t worried about a fall. Between the moon and the streetlights she can see every crack and bump. She can see the houses, not quite as handsome on this block although the flower beds all have the same sign. It is a blue sign on a stick in the dirt. Tolerance, it says.

From an open window comes music, or whatever they call music these days. It is one of those singers who doesn’t actually sing, just recites fast rhymes. The singer is one of them. She is not prejudiced, she never has been. They had that President and he seemed like a nice man. His picture is also in front of some of the houses. She thinks her son may have this sign or the other sign or both. She has always been tolerant. She used to put Nat King Cole on the phonograph, they had a Silvertone with the radio built in, she watched her father fix it once with a hot iron and solder. Such a clever man. Suddenly songs were pouring out of the cabinet again but nothing like this new music. The words that she can make out through the window are shameful, and she walks past as quickly as she can.

She nearly walks into a man. A large dark man, not young, standing in the middle of the sidewalk.

“You okay, lady?” he says.

“I am out for a walk, sir, and you are in my path.”

“I ain’t in nobody’s path.”

“Are you planning to hurt me?”

“Now why would you be asking me that? Oh yeah, I know why. But just for the record, I don’t hurt nobody. I’m just tryin’ to be polite to somebody who looks like she might be lost.”

“I am not lost.”

“It’s one o’clock in the morning and you’re out walkin’ around in a bathrobe and slippers. I got an old mama who goes wanderin’ off.”

“It is not your business, sir, what I choose to wear or where I choose to walk.”

She feels clearer than she has in months. A walk is just the thing. So is a little assertiveness. She used to be a force to be reckoned with, back in Mr. Falcone’s office. But there is a time and a place, and she has been too hard on this man. He has been kind, and she is not prejudiced. She stands straighter, despite the worsening pain. She draws the sash of her robe tighter, a little embarrassed she did not have the time to dress properly for an outing. She makes sure to speak with the formal precision of her class.

“I am grateful for your concern, sir, but my health requires that I walk a certain amount every day. Day or night. Night or day. In my time I was something of an athlete. I had an opportunity to go to Bryn Mawr. My son is an accountant. I am telling you this because I myself planned to study accounting —”

One part of her hears herself rambling as the other part rambles. The first part wants to stop the second part, but it cannot. To avoid further embarrassment she walks on. The man does not prevent her. She hears him call after her.

“You be careful, now, lady. I hope you’re not plannin’ to go the other side. They be trouble on the other side.”

She pays no attention. Or she does but cannot understand his meaning, and she’s lived in this city all her life. Unless he means the highway, that ugly thing on rusting trestles. When she was in high school she watched the highway being built. There were shops in the way that they knocked down. At least the school is still there. Here it is beside her, wide steps and columns and Latin words above the entrance. It must be for younger children now, the windows are decorated with glitter. Each window contains a huge silver letter that together spell out the single word Tolerance.

With difficulty she walks along the quiet main street. She is hungry and Bachmann’s Deli always has the best pastrami. And here it is, right where it’s supposed to be, she could find any of these places blindfolded, nothing wrong with her sense of direction. Except it isn’t a deli, it’s a yoga studio. Next to it is the shop where her parents bought the Silvertone. The first time she ever saw a television it was right here, behind this window. The small flickering picture made her late for supper on more than one occasion. The window is still here but the display contains a machine that looks like a big copper drum. The contraption gleams. Beside it are a few open burlap sacks full of coffee beans. In a dimly lit case in back are pastries that make her mouth water. Paper signs are tacked to a cork board in the entrance alcove. Mindful Meditation, says one. Stop Killing the Planet, says another. There is an invitation to become a member of the Gay/Lesbian/Trans Alliance. Precisely what this is she cannot say, but she knows enough. She wasn’t born yesterday.

The highway is as busy at this late hour as at any hour. Beneath the overpass a man with filthy gray hair and beard is asleep sitting up with a liquor bottle in his hand. Her father drank in the evenings. By the time she went to college, not Bryn Mawr but the Mildred Webb Secretarial School, he drank also in the mornings. They had a television set themselves by then. It had broken and stayed broken in the corner of their living room. This was in the house on Muncie Street. She is sure it is somewhere near here, on this side. When they built the highway they split the town in two. Over here there is a different sound and a different smell. Neither is pleasant.

The shops too are different. Iron mesh has been rolled down over the doors of the closed establishments. Through the caged fronts she sees a store that sells parts for cars, a liquor store, a locksmith, a gun shop. In every window is a sign. It says Freedom. A brick wall is painted to show men with helmets and rifles in camouflage uniforms. The picture’s caption, in huge red, white, and blue letters, is also this one word, Freedom. And hovering above the soldiers is the face of the other man who was President, the one with orange hair. The picture frightens her. It’s as if the entire building is angry, the way the television in her son’s house is always angry. The television in her girlhood home had never been angry, when it worked. Ozzie and Harriet were more than enough for people. There was no noisy highway dividing the town, no violent pictures on buildings, no strange Alliances.

She walks away from the brick mural the way she walked away from the drunk beneath the trestles, quickly and painfully. She is trying to decide which is worse, the pain, the fear, or the hunger. She can not decide because all of a sudden, from out of nowhere, a young man is running at her. He wears camouflage like the men in the wall painting. He is hardly more than a boy. He has no gun but he has a stubby black club. She sees the stitching on it as the boy runs past. She is recovering from the shock when another boy, this one wearing dungarees and a leather jacket, appears from the same hidden place. It is an alley behind the painted wall.

This boy stops when he sees her. He stands at a respectful distance and looks her up and down in a puzzled way. Then he looks over his shoulder, at the alley.

“It isn’t safe out here, Ma’am.”

“I have no intention of remaining out here.”

“I can walk you home if you want.”

“That will not be necessary,” she says. Old pride makes her say it. Again she has the feeling of two parts of herself refusing to cooperate.

“You live on this side?” he asks.

“I live — I live — not far.” She strains to recall a street name. A tree of some kind, or a President. But what comes to mind is a place, and she says, “I live on Muncie Avenue.”

“That’s just a couple of blocks. Let me walk with you. There’s Reds everywhere tonight.”

She allows him to take her arm. He is tall and strong, and still breathing hard from running. And he is very young, younger than she thought. A good boy. When she stumbles on the crumbling concrete he supports her, as a gentleman would.

“When I was a girl this was a nice, family neighborhood,” she says.

“Like, no Reds at all?”

“Are you referring, young man, to communists?”

“I wouldn’t know. I mean people like them.”

Speaking softly, he points to a cottage beside them, with unfinished timbers holding up the roof and cinder blocks for steps. It is dark and silent.

“I see no people,” she says.

“You can always tell from the signs,” says the boy.

In the flower bed by the cinder blocks, where no flowers grow, or plants of any kind for that matter, is indeed a sign. It sits crookedly on a stick, the same size and in the same spot as the signs on the other side of the highway. Except this one says Freedom.

“You know,” he says, “the Reds and the Blues. I’m a Blue. We protest and we argue, and sometimes we fight. Tonight one of them biffed me. That’s why I was chasing him. Why I got this.”

He takes from his pocket a gun.

“Someone your age has no business with one of these things,” she says.

“Everyone my age has one, just about. Younger kids, even. It’s totally legal now. Hey, where are you going, Muncie is this way.”

But it is this way, she is certain of it, and with her remaining strength she leads him. They are soon walking towards a block of houses slightly larger and slightly better kept.

“So you’re not on Muncie?” he says.

“I certainly am,” she says. “Number forty-four Muncie Avenue. My father is the building inspector. I have a brother in the service. He is in the Pacific. He sent a letter with the hair from a Japanese soldier. I have been making cookies, ginger bread. Also mincemeat pies. I sell them at the school bazaar. When my brother gets back —”

She has stopped before a house, bigger than a cottage and with brick steps. The clear part of her manages this time to stop the rambling.

“This is Cincinnati Street, not Muncie Avenue,” the boy says. “But if this is your house, I’ll help you up the stairs. Then I better get going.”

“Yeah, you better get going,” says a different male voice. It comes from the darkness behind the screen door.

She sees the boy tense, his hand slip into his pocket.

“How about you step away from her,” says the voice from the interior.

The boy does not move. He says, very quietly, “Bastard Red.”

The screen door opens and a young man comes out. He is in pajamas. His features are pleasant, almost as pleasant as her son’s. Or they would be if they weren’t so menacing. She can tell faces. He is a stranger to her, but beneath the glowering there is something comforting about him. He is walking slowly down the few steps. Next to the steps is the Freedom sign.

The boy beside her pulls his hand quickly from his pocket. She does not remember many things but she remembers there is a gun in there. The boy draws out only his empty hand and makes a fist. He shakes the fist and runs off, back the way they came.

She is alone with the young man. For some reason she is not afraid.

“You better come in,” he says.

She lets him lead her up the steps and into the house.

“Honey, come down!” he calls.

“I’m down already,” says a woman’s voice.

The woman appears. She has black hair that falls around the neck of her nightgown. Gently she takes the visitor’s hand and leads her into the small front room. She seats her in an armchair. It is an embroidered chair. Her mother had a chair like this, and as a child she used to study the pattern on the arms.

“You must be exhausted,” the black-haired woman — the wife — says.

“I am very thirsty,” the visitor says. She is too polite to say she is hungry.

“I’ll get something for you.”

The wife goes into the back of the house. Sounds from the kitchen come through the archway. The young man is looking closely at her. He shakes his head sadly. The wife comes back with a glass of juice on a tray. Also on the tray are several crackers. The visitor was hoping for just such hospitality, and she eats delicately. She sips the juice. This is obviously a home of some refinement.

“I suppose I should call him,” the young man says. “I don’t want to, but under the circumstances I have to.”

“You don’t have to because I already did,” says the wife.

“What did he say?”

“What do you think he said? That he’ll be right over, and that this is the first time she — she went off by herself.”

They sit in silence for a time, like a family. There is even, balanced on a table, a family television. It is large and flat, so different from the tiny round screen she used to watch through the shop window, or the screen they had at home. She liked to watch from a chair very much like this one. The silence in this room is uncomfortable and she wishes they would turn the television on. Then she thinks better of it.

“Can I get you anything else?” the wife asks her.

“Some aspirin, if it’s no trouble.”

“We don’t have any aspirin but we have something. What hurts?”

“Everything,” she says, and laughs.

The wife laughs with her. Then she goes again into the back of the house. The young man does not laugh. He looks very sad. Through the screen door she hears a car pull up. The door of the car opens and closes but the motor is still running. The young man rises but does not otherwise move. The wife has returned with two pink pills and a glass of water, and gives them to her. She is accustomed to taking pills, many pills, without question. She takes these. The young woman puts a hand on her husband’s shoulder, by way of encouragement, and he goes to the door. Then she does the same thing for her guest, helping her up and across the room. They stand together on the porch, but not for long. The wife helps her down the steps. Beside the waiting car stands her son.

The older man speaks to the younger man across the distance of the lawn.

“It’s been a while,” the young man says.

“Too long,” says her son.

“She’s gotten a lot worse.”

“Worse than we realized. We’ll have to do something. This won’t happen again, I promise.”

“Don’t worry about it. But how did she find the place?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. Instinct, maybe. Or accident. She grew up not far from here. As you know,” her son says.

She knows they are talking about someone, someone they both know and care about. But she doesn’t know who. No matter. Her exhaustion is confusing but also freeing. She doesn’t want to know. In the moonlight the neighborhood looks peaceful. There are flowers growing in the garden beds in front of every house.

“You used to come here together,” says the young man. “All of you.”

“We did.”

She sees now the resemblance between the men. It gives her a nice feeling.

“That was what?” the young man says. “Seven, eight years ago?”

“At least.”

“Well, goodnight, Dad.”


“Say hi to Mom.”

“I will, son.”

As they drive off she has never felt so tired. They pass through streets that aren’t very nice and then the street with the shops. She sees ghostly figures appear and chase each other around corners and into alleys. Far off is a popping sound, like balloons. They pass beneath an overpass where a disheveled man lies crumpled on the ground, a bottle in his hand. She sees the houses getting more stately. In every garden there is a Tolerance sign. It is good to be tolerant. Soon she will be in the soft bed, and she will be free. It is good also to be free. Free to think, free to remember. She will begin by remembering the embroidered chair, the one in the parlor of that nice young man and his wife. It really was just like the chair she used to sit in doing her homework, the Lone Ranger and Lucy, her mother’s cookies and her father with his newspaper. That was before the television broke down for good and her brother failed to come home from the Pacific and her father started drinking all the time. The stitching on the arms was exactly the same.



Image: by Kent Rebman on Unsplash, licensed under CC.2.0

Joshua Shapiro
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