The Raggedy Man
Sarah picked at the breast with her fork. She loved chicken Marsala. She didn’t care for it tonight even though she’d spent a good portion of the afternoon putting dinner together. Most of the work involved preparation. It was usually worth it.
“She just walked past this kid, while he was crying,” Lawrence said, shoveling food into his mouth. “Gave him that look. That look I told you about. She gave him it.”
Shaking her head Sarah stabbed the asparagus. ‘Only a hundred times,’ she thought. Picking up the greens she set them back on the plate.
Lawrence chugged down his water, “I’m close. I know it. A few more days. Sooner or later. Ya know?”
He spoke with his mouth full. Sarah's stomach turned at the little bits of food flying out his mouth. Instead of correcting him she sipped her wine. The perfect selection, keenly accompanying the meal, lost on Lawrence. He swallowed boatfuls between gasps.
“I went into work today,” he muttered. She perked up, hoping. “To get some paper,” he continued after swallowing. Sarah sighed. Reaching into her pocket she pulled out a cigarette, started smoking, and waited for Larry to notice.
He paused, contemplating as he chewed. His eyes locked on a memory, “I’ve almost got her figured.”
“Sounds like it,” Sarah said sarcastically.
“Thanks.” He sounded genuinely grateful.
“Larry,” she said sternly.
His head shot to attention, “Yeah?”
“How was work?” Sarah asked, fearing the answer.
Lawrence scratched the plate with his fork. She finished her cigarette in the silence that passed.
He said, “This is important.”
“Your boss called.”
“We have bills.”
“They can wait.” He darted from the table. For once, she wouldn’t let the matter drop.
“You’re out of leave.”
He was trying to duck the subject. She knew well enough to counter, “Vacation too. You used all your vacation days.”
Sarah followed him to the living room. He was by the bookshelves, counting the books as if the number might change. She asked, “When is this going to end?”
There. It was finally out in the open. She waited for him to answer, thinking, ‘Just say something. Something other than...’
“You didn’t see her face.”
“Fucking hell,” Sarah loaded another nail. Chugging on the smoke, she wished back to when she didn’t understand the filthy, ragged clothes in the trunk of their car. Lawrence's idea of street camouflage for whenever he followed the little girl. “No one notices the homeless,” he once remarked to Sarah when his talks about the girl didn’t seem so obsessive.
“You’re smoking,” He said.
Eyebrows arched, she grumbled, “Thanks for noticing.”
Looking embarrassed Larry asked, “How long now?”
“Since I started again?”
“It doesn’t matter.” He waved dismissively, heading to the front door.
“Where are you going?” She asked knowing too well.
“She has a...”
Grabbing her hair, Sarah felt a sharp sting. Looking down, she saw clumps of hair in her hands. Staring at it, she stabbed him with the question, “You want to fuck her?”
Larry looked like he might vomit, “You don’t understand.” Pulling his coat off the rack he said, “You never will.”
“What? What is there to know?” Sarah shouted, holding him at the front door.
“I have to know if I did the right thing. I don’t know what I saved.”
“If you walk out that door...” Sarah let the ultimatum hang in the air.
Stepping across the threshold Lawrence said, “I can’t stop till I’m certain.”
How can you hope to know? The question came to her long after the door closed, though by then she didn’t care anymore, not even enough to cry.
This could only end one way.
Patricia parted the curtain. She sipped at her coffee mug. The street seemed vacant. She stuck her head out the front door to be more certain. Satisfied, she gestured for Abigail.
Her daughter dutifully gave her mother a hug before descending to the bottom steps. There she waited under maternal surveillance until a black BMW pulled up to the curb. Abigail sighed, waved, and joined her carpool to school.
Patricia steeled herself for when the car went out of sight. One arc around a corner, and Abigail was no longer under mother’s wing. Shutting the door, Patricia headed back to the kitchen.
“He wasn’t there today,” she said to the back of William’s head.
He asked who while drinking his coffee.
Putting her empty mug in the sink Patricia grumbled, “That man. The homeless man.”
William tried to stifle a disapproving grunt. Fortunately, it came off as a burp.
Running water in the sink for no apparent reason Patricia remarked, “Do you think he’s gone?”
William chewed on his tongue. He thought they were done with these conversations. Sick of the topic, he settled on saying, “You know how I feel.”
Snapping the faucet off mother bear growled, “I’m not imagining things. I’ve seen him.”
“Honey,” William sighed, preparing to run through the same script for the thousandth time, “We live in the city. You’re bound to see a homeless man now and again.”
Patricia spun to face him, eyes steely and arms across her chest, “I know that god damn it. Don’t treat me like a child.”
William held up his hands, “All I’m saying is that you might be mistaken. I don’t think I could tell more than one or two a part. Plus, for all you know, he lives in this area. This is his zone or whatever they call it. Turf?”
“It’s more than that,” Patricia said firmly, fueled on by William’s patronizing tone.
“I don’t doubt he’s stuck in your head. Just try to consider you might be seeing things. One homeless becomes all of them. You catch a few features, fill in the blanks, and bammo. He’s there. Everywhere you go.”
“Not everywhere I go, everywhere Abbey goes.”
“How can you even know that?” William scored the clock out of the corner of his eye. He could only spend another few minutes without having to be late for the office. He and Ted Jensen planned to go through their fantasy baseball league before the Wednesday meeting.
“Every time I see him I’m with her.”
“That is not conclusive,” William said sternly, cutting the conversation off before his own concerns could surface, preferring his impression of his family to any sense of reality. Rising from his chair, he pointed at the breakfast dishes, “Do me a favor and get that before they get crusty.”
“William.” Patricia went to him, “I want you to take this seriously.”
“I would if there was anything to sweat.” He kissed her on the forehead, “Maybe you just need a new hobby.”
Patricia cast her eyes to the side. Patting the top of her head, he left her to the kitchen.
The day Martin Taylor died his family felt relieved. For months he seemed steadily less like the man they all loved. However, they were still surprised by his suicide.
His last words would not be openly discussed at the funeral, but off in far corners, the bereaved would be left to wonder, what did Martin mean when he said, “She haunts me,” before unloading a shotgun in his mouth?
When asked about that day, his wife could only reply, “He was drunk when he got into the car. I begged him not to go, but he said, ‘I have to take care of her.’ I don’t know. What am I supposed to say? He hit that man and then...”
An Act of Compassion
Lawrence didn’t believe in miracles. So when he saw the car, weaving sloppily, the driver apparently incapable of holding a lane, Lawrence knew the girl was in danger. He dove into the road, shoulder tackled her out of the way, and for a moment felt good. He knew she would be all right.
Someone on the street shouted, “Look out!”
Lawrence caught the briefest glimpse of the girl as she rolled over to see who had knocked her across the street. Seven or nine in a blue dress looking like Dorothy from Kansas, she stared at him with an odd expression. There wasn’t time to understand her face. By then he was being scooped up onto the hood of the car.
He woke up after what seemed a blink. There were sensations shouting across a chasm for attention, but he found it easy to ignore them all. It took him a moment to remember what to call this kind of room. The beeping monitors provided the best clue. Another breath passed before he recollected what had brought him here.
Reaching for the call button, he found his hand encased in plaster. The other remained free though it moved stiffly, as if the tendons were now too tight. A nurse in green scrubs popped into his room shortly after the summons.
She flipped on the lights and smiled from the door, “Glad to see you’re awake. How are you feeling?”
“All right, I guess,” Lawrence replied.
The nurse came over to the bed, “Good. You’ve been out for a couple of hours. Are you thirsty?”
Her question made him feel so. She excused herself to get him some water. Her hand patted him motherly on the leg. By the time she got back, he’d taken a full account of his new situation. One hand and most of the corresponding forearm in a cast, railroad tracks stitched across the other, his knee tightly bound, and deep aches demanding attention all over his body. Fragments of the impact came to mind. When the nurse returned he asked, “What about the girl?”
“She’s fine.” It felt good to hear.
The next day Sarah made all the necessary phone calls. People needed to be informed lest they think he dropped off the face of the earth. It’s been known to happen. His mother cried which made Sarah cry, the teary two making him uncomfortable. The office manager wanted to know when he might be back, though she asked tactfully. Sarah only told a few friends, figuring the word would spread.
When a man and woman walked into his room, a little past noon, Lawrence suspected they‘d made a mistake. They looked like a commercial for tooth whitening and khaki pants. The man spoke softly, mistaking the hospital for a library, “Lawrence?”
“Yes,” he said, wishing Sarah hadn't just left to find something for lunch.
The man ushered the woman forward with a hand on the small of her back, “I’m William Houghton. This is my wife, Patricia.”
She stretched out a small hand. Lawrence reached up to shake it. She flinched at the sight. He withdrew the offer pretending it hurt too much to move.
“We’re Abigail’s parents,” she said to cover the previous moment.
The name meant nothing to him.
William said, “We just wanted to stop by and say thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Lawrence said, hoping he didn’t seem confused.
Picking up on it Patricia politely elaborated, “She’s the girl you saved.”
“She’s your daughter,” Lawrence nodded, offering up his own understanding.
“Yes,” William beamed. He wrapped an arm around his wife.
“How’s she doing?” Lawrence asked.
“Fine. Just fine,” Patricia answered promptly.
William added, as a matter of fact, “Some scrapes and bruises, but it might have been worse.”
“A lot worse,” Patricia chimed in, gesturing at Lawrence, though not meaning to use him as an example.
“I’m glad,” Lawrence said, uncertain what these people wanted him to say. They all stared at one another in silence. Patricia started playing with the bed sheet. She made a meaningless comment about its softness.
“Anyhow,” William offered, “We just wanted to say thank you face to face.”
Patricia broke in, “So does Abigail.”
“So does Abigail,” William echoed. His eyes hollowed for a moment. He kept it hid behind a well practiced grin. Mustn't let anyone suspect buried fears. Lawrence, counting the seconds till they left, never noticed.
“All right,” Lawrence said slowly. William mentioned she waited just outside. The parents had come in first to make sure it would be okay with him. Patricia‘s eyes, so skillfully avoiding Larry's injuries, suggested another reason. William excused himself. His wife reiterated the sheet’s softness. Lawrence smiled and nodded.
The little girl in blue glided in ahead of her father. She passed her mother, heading straight to the side of the bed. William returned to his post, arm around his wife.
“Say hello, Abigail,” Patricia instructed.
“Hello,” her voice resonated with a musicality that belonged in dreams, “Are you hurting?”
“Abbey,” her mother hissed, trying to look pleasant as she did so.
Lawrence respected the girl’s frankness, “Not really. I ache more than anything else.”
She eyed him blankly, her cold expression purely empirical. He was a detail to be absorbed, catalogued, and filed away for later use. He started to wish the family would leave, especially the girl.
Feigning a need for sleep, he asked the family if they wouldn’t mind departing.
“Of course not,” Patricia sounded relieved.
“We understand,” William said.
The parents said their farewells as they exited. Lawrence waved, breathing a sigh of relief as they left. He understood why they had come but knowing didn’t make the situation any more amiable.
Abigail lingered. Her parents figured she wanted to thank Lawrence privately. Once they left the room, she yanked the IV out of his arm. Hollering, Lawrence tried to clamp a hand over the spurting blood. His encased hand did little to stop the leak. Red stained the plaster cast.
Abigail thrust the needle towards his face, “It hurt when you knocked me down.” Throwing it on the bed, she skipped out of the room.