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fer de Lance
A crowd had begun to gather outside of Philip fer de Lance’s house.
Some held signs. Some held candles. Some held an imploring look. Some were implacid. Some were crying. Some held babies. Most did not. All looked a little scared. All looked a little confused.
Not many of them talked amongst themselves as they sat on the sidewalk, or in their cars along the street, or paced up and down. None crossed into Philip’s yard, none walked through the small gate that did not quite latch tight in the white picket fence – he had a white picket fence, some thought to themselves when they arrived, how could the house look that innocent?—that surrounded a front yard that was entirely unremarkable. Unremarkable except for the crowd that had begun to gather and not talk amongst themselves.
The ones who had been there for a day, or a week, none longer than two weeks yet, had haltingly compared notes on why they were there. Or, more accurately, how they knew to be there, outside Philip fer de Lance’s house in a small suburb of Lincoln, Nebraska, on a side street that did not even really need to exist, a small offshoot of two other side streets. And none were sure why except they knew somehow they had to be there.
As the crowd had begun to gather they had seen signs of activity in the small Cape-Cod-style house. This morning Philip had shut the drapes in the living room. He did not appear to see the 15 or so people who were on the sidewalk and in cars in front of his house; he did not shut the drapes against them but had appeared to do it because the sun was coming in.
And they had seen the light on in the upstairs window, the one on the left as you faced the house from the street (which they all did, most of the time) last night, until shortly after five o’clock. The light had gone on around 4:30 p.m., as the sun had begun going down. The house faced east, and so the office would get almost no light in the afternoon, and as September passed into October as it was now, the evenings were gloomy. So the light had gone on and they had seen it go on and stay on until just after 5 o’clock, at which time the light had gone off and they had seen the kitchen light shine out of the side of the house onto the small side yard that led into the back of the house. (They could only imagine the backyard. Shrubbery kept them from seeing into it, but they could see the hickory tree that loomed over the house, three of them in fact, the type of trees that are always dropping not just nuts but twigs and branches.)
The light on in the upper window past five o’clock meant that Philip had worked a little late, and those among the crowd who knew that felt, depending on why they were there, either a small shudder, or a yearning to ask a favor.
Upstairs, in that attic office, Philip sat down to his afternoon’s work. He pulled out his yellow legal pad, 8 ½ by 13 inches, with the neatly-ruled lines and a few slivers of paper near the top where he’d torn off previous drafts. He pulled out a few pens and laid them on his desk alongside the yellow paper, and turned on the small radio that sat on the desk.
Philip was 67 years old and had followed this routine nearly every day for 24 years. Up until a few months ago, he had followed this routine at his office a few miles away, and after his retirement he had followed it at home. His desk, an old one he’d had brought home from the office many years ago (with the permission of the editor-in-chief and publisher at the time, of course) was one of the older, massive, wooden desks that used to populate offices, and it dwarfed Philip. His chair was a wheeled, swivel, arm chair, likewise made of wood and without any installed padding. He did not use padding; work was not supposed to be padded. The desk and chair would not have looked out of place in a Superman comic issued in 1947, and were probably made around that time and served as a model for the desks and chairs drawn in the comics at that time (and since.)
In the drawers of the desk were the usual office supplies – including some more modern ones like post-its but nothing too electronic or modern. There were ballpoint pens; Philip was not so old-fashioned as to insist on fountain pens, not when getting one nowadays marked you not just as eccentric but also cost quite a bit, too, and he had not liked fountain pens the first time around and gladly jettisoned them when ballpoints came out. The drawers contained a ruler, and a small office dictionary and thesaurus, and his files of both work-in-progress and completed efforts.
On the desk itself were the radio (he did like to listen to music, quietly, while he worked), a desk lamp, and a pen-and-pencil holder, as well as a desk-calendar/blotter. And, now his legal pad for rough drafts, and his pens. Philip sat at the desk for a moment, sipped the cup of tea he had made for the afternoon, and then bent forward.
At the top of the legal pad, Philip wrote in a neat hand a name: Jane Sylvia Ruthering. He sat back and thought about that for a moment, and then nodded. He underlined it and sat back again, sipping his tea. What had Jane been like he wondered, and closed his eyes, and thought and sipped his tea as the crowd outside watched the blinds for a hint of what was going on.
Inside, Philip opened his eyes and leaned forward. He picked up his pen and wrote again: born 1947 – died 2006. He went on: Jane Sylvia Ruthering passed away on Tuesday after a short illness. Jane Sylvia was known as Jane or Janey to her friends. She was born in East Cambridgeshire, England on September 12, 1947, to her parents Thomas and Edna Ruthering. She lived in East Cambridgeshire until she was 21, when she moved to London and took a job as a receptionist at a recording studio.
Philip dotted the i in studio and put the pen down again, massaging his hand. He sipped at his tea, now just lukewarm, and re-read what he had written. He began thinking again. He put his tea down and began writing. Jane married her husband, Daniel, at 23 after a short engagement. She had two sons, here he thought for a moment, Stephen and David. She is survived by her sons, her husband, and her grandchildren. Flowers may be sent to the East Cambs Funeral Home. Visitation will be from ten to noon Thursday, with the service and burial immediately thereafter.
Philip again put his pen down. His writing was deliberate and slow and the short obituary had taken him the better part of an hour to write. He leaned back a little. He was not as fast as he once was.
After a while, he turned his chair to the left and pulled the typewriter on its little cart over towards him. He inserted a piece of clean white paper into its reel and rolled it down. He put the yellow legal pad up on a prop-stand next to him and put his glasses on, reading it over again.
The final typewritten product took him about forty-five more minutes, neatly typed after several mistakes (and each time he made a mistake he started over, taking out the paper and crumpling it up) in a one-inch column down the left side of the paper, left-justified. At the end, Philip typed -30- and pulled the paper out carefully. He read it through one last time for typos and grammatical errors, pondered for a few minutes whether he should add more detail but decided against it.
He swiveled his chair again and opened the drawer down on his right side. There were a series of hanging folders, each tabbed with a letter of the alphabet. He flipped through until he got to “R” and then pulled that one out. He then put Ruthering, Jane Sylvia into that folder, which contained no other documents yet. He tucked the “R” folder back into the desk drawer, and looked with a muted satisfaction at the neatly-filed papers before closing the door.
…The crowd continued to gather without being aware, really, that they were gathering.
Throughout the afternoon, while Philip watched his gardening show, the people outside the house milled and fretted and wasted time. They did not, yet, think of themselves as a crowd, and none of them, if questioned, would have readily admitted why they were there.
Certainly not Tammy Hudson, previously a mother of two from upstate New York. Tammy sat in her Hyundai Elantra, parked in front of the neighbors’ house and watched Philip’s window flicker, that night, as the television beamed its light to Philip’s eyes. She could see him, through the drapes, sometimes, a small head unsteadily getting up once or twice, in shadow relief against the drapes outlined in the blue-white glow a television emits no matter what show is on. Every morning, Tammy moved her car to the opposite side of the street; this town had an alternate-side parking rule in effect and she didn’t want to get towed.
She didn’t read the paper each day.
She didn’t listen to the radio.
She didn’t eat much. She had some groceries in the back of her car, things she’d bought three days ago just after she’d first pulled up. When she’d pulled up on the street she’d known that she was in the right place, and had gone to get some food and drink that wouldn’t spoil. She hadn’t even pondered how long she might want to stay there, but she’d known she’d want to. She’d come back and parked her car just up the street, where she could sit behind the wheel and watch his house. That whole day she’d sat there and watched his house, seen the telltale signs of movement, the lights going on here or there, the lights going out finally. When the last light had gone out, and when she’d watched another half-hour and was convinced that Philip had gone to sleep that night she’d let herself sleep.
When she’d woken the next day, there had been a few more cars there. And some people who’d walked up the street and slowed in front of Philip’s house and then turned around. They were braver than she was, she knew. She didn’t want Philip to notice her yet.
But she wanted to tell Philip why she was there.
She had in her pocket a crumpled piece of paper, a newsprint-smudgy remnant that she’d clenched in her hand the entire drive from Buffalo to Nebraska. She’d clung to that paper the entire time. She pulled it out each morning and read it.
Thomas Jon Hudson, age 5. Parents Tammy and Steven. Thomas Jon was born in Buffalo, New York on May 20, 200_ and passed away on Tuesday at Niagara Hospital. Thomas Jon was preparing to enter the first grade. He is survived also by his sister Louisa Tamara. No memorial service will be held. The family requests no flowers. Donations may be sent to the Thomas Jon Fund, c/o 1st Bank of Buffalo.
She pulled that out each morning and read it and wondered why it had been written, and how.
She tried not to read the other story that she carried with her. And she sat in her car and waited, each day, watching to see if Philip would come outside and what she would do if he did. And she kept her cellphone on the seat by her, plugged into the cigarette lighter and fully charged at all times. She called nobody.
Now, today, the fourth day she was here, she looked around the street. There were twenty-seven cars on the road, all parked on the same side, as hers was. None of them appeared to belong to anyone who lived on this street, not the least because each of them had a person or people in it, which was quiet and full of big trees and had sidewalks that were cracked and worn and showed the signs of an aging suburb. The houses were post-World War II houses that, although kept up nicely on first glance also showed signs of aging: a number hanging upside down on the door, a mailbox leaning a little, grass not trimmed around the fences. Most of the people on this street were probably quite old, maybe all retired, all living in their houses and trying to keep up and spending time waiting for their children to come and help out by mowing the lawn or fixing the clothes’ dryer so it didn’t take forever.
In addition to those cars, there were two groups of people sitting on the sidewalk outside of Philip’s house. Not groups, maybe. Clusters? One was of four people, and none of them appeared to know the others and they did not talk. The other was of three people and they did seem related, a husband and wife and a mother-in-law, maybe.
One was of three girls, each about college age. They held the signs. The cluster of had the two with candles.
Those people sat there. Others would come up, hang around outside the house for a few minutes, and then go, or sit further up the street. Sometimes the car people would get out and look at the house.
…Inside, unaware that it was Tammy’s fourth day, Philip awoke.
He got up, and got out of bed. He scratched his armpit under his long nightshirt and slipped his feet into brown slippers that were cracked and old. He pulled on a bathrobe and shuffled to the bathroom, where he brushed his teeth and stared at his face in the mirror for a while.
“Another big day, Phil,” he told his reflection. It was what he’d said every day to his reflection for as long as he could remember. He paused for a second before leaving, and tried a smile at himself. It was maybe too early for that.
He went downstairs and into the kitchen, where he pulled the towel off of the birdcage that sat on a pedestal next to the sink. “Good morning, Charlie,” he said, and peered into the cage. “Pretty boy. Pretty boy?” He was supposed to say that to the bird as much as possible. The pet store man had said that was how you taught them to talk. He also said this every morning to Charlie:
“Another big day, Charlie.” The bird chirped and Philip reached inside to pull out the seed cage. He busied himself with feeding Charlie and cleaning the cage, as he did everyday, taking his time over it because he had plenty of time. Then he prepared his own breakfast, and turned on the radio to the talk radio station he listened to. He sat at the table, listening to the morning news while he ate oatmeal and watched Charlie hop around.
He lingered over breakfast but finally had no choice but to admit it was over. “What should we do today, Charlie?” he asked his friend, and got a chirp, to which he responded “Pretty boy.” The pet store guy had said most birds could say that. Philip washed up the bowl and his glass and set them on the towel on the side of the sink to dry.
He spent another hour of the morning showering, and shaving, and getting out his clothes, and getting dressed in a white button-up shirt and black pants, and his socks and shoes, the outfit he always wore to work. Because it was Friday, he wore one of his ‘funny’ ties.
When he’d talked to the retirement counselor at the VA, the counselor had suggested varying his routines. You’re retired now, Phil, he’d said. Philip wished he would not be called “Phil.” You should take advantage of that. Break out of the old routines. Do some gardening. Maybe take a trip. Do you have some family or friends somewhere you could visit?
He didn’t. He hadn’t had family to visit in at least ten years, but he didn’t tell the retirement counselor that. He didn’t listen to the rest of the suggestions, either. Philip fer de Lance had gone to work every day for 50 years, and had spent the last forty of those at the obituary desk. He knew how to do that, and so he did that.
And so he did that today, again, walking up the stairs to his desk in the upstairs office, where he went through the ritual again: legal pad, pens, radio, thinking, writing, listening to the radio, writing more, typing, and filing.
He wrote this:
Anessa Eva Wedford, 200_-200_. Anessa Eva was the daughter of James and Ella Wedford, both of Portland. Anessa was born with a congenital heart defect and passed on after an unsuccessful surgical intervention. Memorial services will be held at the St. Thomas Church Monday afternoon.
It always made Philip sad to write about the babies, and this one took him longer than usual. He dabbed at his eyes with a handkerchief which he carefully folded and tucked into his suitcoat pocket then, and filed the manila folder away.
He began down the stairs and thought he should perhaps get in a little gardening this afternoon. It did not occur to him that it was unusual for him to be writing obituaries for people in Oregon, or England, or New York. He just did his job, and when it was done, as it was now, he changed out of his work clothes and into an older outfit, never shorts and never jeans, jeans were for factory workers, and an older shirt – not a t-shirt and always with a collar—and pulled out his work gloves from the cabinet under the sink.
A slight shudder went through the collected people out front of his house when they heard the door open.
Tammy sat up a little straighter when she heard the murmur. Crowds, or small groups, have their own language: buzzes, murmurs, a tensing, a loosening, they become something organic and organized whenever people gather together for a reason, and just like flexing a muscle in your back causes a reaction in the rest of your body, one member of a crowd doing something causes all the others to react. So Tammy noticed that the side door opened, but there was a lilac bush on the side of the house and she could not see who (what? No, who, she was sure) came out. She looked and saw the door close and watched but whoever came out (Philip fer de Lance had come out, she knew but her mind was not, about this adventure, going to make things simple or accept them at face value, since accepting things at face value meant that she would not even be here, so her mind had to complicate things and think that maybe there was something other than an old man living in a small house in Nebraska who was responsible for all this, because the actual truth made no sense, right?) whoever came out had gone around the side of the house into the backyard.
Tammy got out of her car. She opened the door and stood up and stretched her back and her legs and felt muscles which were used to the carseat position rearrange themselves slowly, flowing like pudding. She shut the car door quietly but not quietly enough for the others around to fail to notice.
The husband-wife-mother in law group was nearest her, and the husband and wife turned towards her. She met their eyes, each in turn, and nobody said anything. Nobody ever said anything to anyone out here. They could not talk, yet about why they were out here.
Tammy remembered Godzilla movies. She was just in between the ages of people who would remember them well, would remember them because they saw the originals (for people older than Tammy) or would remember them because they had made fun of them in newer movies (for people older than Tammy) but she’d watched a Godzilla movie, once, the one that had been in theaters in her lifetime, and had wondered, as she watched it, how people could have reacted in real life to that. Here and there, in crowd scenes, there would be an extra who would see this giant lizard walking through a city, New York she thought, and that person would look around at the others onscreen but would not say anything. That extra would not point, or shout, or scream, or duck, or do anything, but would just stare. Tammy thought that was how you had to react to Godzilla, because Godzilla could not happen, and so if Godzilla did happen, it was best to not let others know that you saw it because you might not be sane. What did they do, in real life, to people who said “There’s a giant lizard terrorizing New York!”, after all? They locked them up, because giant lizards do not terrorize New York in real life.
And in real life people do not gather outside Philip fer de Lance’s small house. And if they do, they do not point, or run, or shout, or duck, or scream. They just stand and stare because nobody wants to be the first to admit that things have gone awry.
So Tammy did not talk to the husband and wife, and mother-in-law, and they did not talk to her, and nobody around intruded on the little tableau as Tammy stood there. Her opening her car door alone was excitement enough. First Philip’s door opened, then Tammy’s. Not that anyone there knew Tammy’s name, but they all knew Philip’s. Or she assumed they did. She knew it, and she was there. They were there, so… they must know it.
She looked away from husband, wife, mother-in-law. She looked towards the side door that had opened and closed. She looked at the lilac bush that had blocked her view, saw that it would have blocked the little trio’s view, also, and looked at the treetops over Philip’s small house. She looked at the neighbor’s house, as the sun began to set. No lights on, and nobody had come home today or left this morning or the day before. Maybe nobody lived there, or maybe they were away.
She looked again at the top of the side door, again at the treetops, as though they could tell her something. In her hands, she held the two newspapers. She had come here for a reason, and now that she was here she did not want to admit that reason.
Nobody home at the neighbor’s, right? So she stepped around her car, and onto the sidewalk, and walked over to sidewalk in front of Philip’s house, paused at the little gate that led through the picket fence. All eyes were on her. As she stood there, all eyes stared at her, wondering what she was going to do.
She paced back along the fence, in front of husband and wife and mother-in-law, and stopped at the edge of the fence, where it served as a border between Philip’s yard and the absent neighbor’s yard. She stood there for a few minutes. There was no wind.
She had come here for a reason even if she did not want to think about that reason. She needed to see a monster. She stepped onto the neighbor’s grass. The crowd tightened up a little bit, the crowd-equivalent of the hair on the back of your neck standing up. She walked slowly across the grass, barefoot, under the tree spreading across the yard, alongside the white fence. Her hand trailed along the fence but did not touch it, floating above it, leveled and fingers extended and slightly spread apart. She leaned slightly forward, peering along the fence and the lilac bushes that began at the edge of the house and overpowered the fence which continued along to Philip’s backyard.
She walked up to the first bush. She was almost even with the neighbor’s house and ordinarily would have shot a glance at the picture window, hoping that nobody was inside to come out and yell at her, but she did not do that right now. Her entire attention was focused on Philip’s backyard, on listening for sounds. She took another few hesitant steps, and was past the front edge of the neighbor’s house, was now in between the two houses and next to the beginning of the lilac bushes. From the road, they were an impenetrable barrier. Up close, they were sparser, with gaps and holes to see through.
Her other hand now, too, was spread-eagled out. The left had pulled back a little, was still reaching out as though to caress the fence. The other, now, stretched to her right, fingers splayed, and she put one foot in front of the other, carefully, standing more upright but knees bent.
To those at the road, watching, rapt, she appeared to be on a tightrope or balance beam.
Tammy took three more steps and heard a small chunking sound. She stopped. She held her breath. Her head bobbed a little as she tried to see through the cracks. She had driven all those miles, had driven across the country, had driven through the Great Plains, too see this, and she held her breath and stood in her tracks.
She saw Philip, kneeling down on an old cloth, wearing a pair of khaki work pants that were somewhat threadbare. He had a white button-up shirt on with the collar undone and the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He had black socks on and a pair of loafers. The “chunking” sound was of a hand-claw, a small garden tool, that Philip thrust into the dirt between two rose bushes, pulling at small tufts of grass and weeds that were growing there.
Tammy did not point, or run, or shout, or duck, or scream. She just stood and stared.
Philip continued working for some time, and then backed up a little. He had a small pail with him and he was putting the weeds into the pail. When he backed up, he stood up creakily. He picked up the pail and walked slowly back to the separate garage behind the house. He emptied the pail into a garbage can and put the tools into it. He went into the garage.
Tammy still stood and stared.
Philip came out of the garage and locked the door behind him. He brushed off his gloves and took them off as he walked towards the side door. Tammy could not move. But Philip walked right by her, never looked her way, and she was not moving or breathing, so he would have heard nothing anyway. He made his way up the stairs, three of them, and opened the screen door. There was a groan from the metal spring that kept it from slamming shut, and Philip went inside as Tammy watched, and Philip stood there as Tammy saw him, piecemeal through the gaps in the bushes, and Philip watched as the door slowly slid closed. Tammy heard him lock it, a slight click!, but did not see that. The inside wooden door was then closed, and she heard a chain slide.
She still stood and stared.
The kitchen window was open. Through the window she heard a low voice, then a chirp, then a low voice, and then, in a chirpy singsong: Another big day.
Tammy finally ran back to her car.
On Saturday, two things happened almost at the same time.
Nobody had come and talked to Tammy when she’d run back to her car and gotten inside and locked the door. They’d stared at her for a while, then had gone back to staring at Philip’s window.
Overnight, the crowd had grown. By the time the sun rose on Philip’s house on Saturday morning, there were 20 new people. About ten of the new ones were sitting on the lawn or were pacing. Two were in a new car on the side of the street. Then there were four each by themselves in their own cars. They had all traveled different distances to be there, judging by the license plates on the cars and in one case the sweatshirt a young man was wearing.
One more would arrive a little later in the day. He would arrive too late for the early morning excitement, excitement being a relative word.
At 9:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, the front door to Philip’s house opened. He came outside dressed in his Saturday clothes.
He’d woken up early today, excited by the prospect of a new development and a weekend. The new development was that Charlie had learned to talk, and that alone had him ready to hop out of bed. He wondered if maybe it was that he did not get many conversations these days, and the voices on the TV were not real voices, they were broadcast voices. That might be, he thought, but he didn’t spend a lot of time pondering it because he wanted to celebrate and that meant getting an early start. Charlie deserved a treat for his first trick, and Philip would have to do that before grocery shopping, he’d have to go to PetCo and get a treat, or a few toys. He could pamper Charlie.
He went downstairs and before beginning preparations for breakfast, stood outside Charlie’s cage a moment, it’s towel hanging over it. Charlie’s day had not begun, did not begin until Philip pulled the towel off, just as it did not end until Philip put the cover back on each night. Philip stood there a second, and slowly crossed his bony fingers. Then with his other hand he pulled the towel off, trying to do it with his usual flourish but too nervous to do that.
Charlie’s head perked up and Philip looked at him. There was a silence. Philip crossed his fingers tighter.
Another big day Charlie chirped, and Philip almost fainted, realized he’d been holding his breath. “Good boy, pretty boy, another big day, another big day,” he kept saying, over and over, unable to stop smiling. He gave Charlie food, fresh water, kept saying over and over “another big day,” and “pretty boy,” and Charlie treated him to the phrase twice more as he ate breakfast: another big day.
“It is, indeed,” he said, and he began to think what type of surprise to get Charlie. He pondered that happy question while bathing and shaving and getting dressed in his weekend outfit, an ensemble that looked like his gardening outfit without the ground-in dirt and grass stains.
Dressed, armed with his list, and having heard Charlie chirp another big day once more, Philip went out the front door of his house and blinked in the sunlight.
A cluster of eyes locked on him and he paused.
There were people just outside his picket fence. There were cars up and down the street. All of the people looking at him.
These people over here, this little group of a man and a woman and an older woman, they stared at him, they actually leaned towards him. They did not say anything.
Philip only used the front door on the weekends. He tried to think back to last week. Had they been there? His memory strained. Maybe someone, but not that little group of three. What did they all want? Nobody was saying anything.
Inside, he heard chirping, and remembered Charlie’s surprise today. He took a few steps forward. He kept a watchful eye on the people as he came off the porch. They all just stood and stared.
Two on the right held candles, shielded from the breezes by plastic cups. They wore clean white polo shirts and khaki pants and while he watched they crossed themselves and their lips began moving. Praying, he realized. Praying at him. Why?
The group of three just sat. As he looked back at them the older woman shrank back a bit and leaned into the younger woman whom she resembled. He looked away from the look in her eyes, which he did not recognize. He looked ahead of him, where a small group of people stood. They were not necessarily together, he realized, although they were a group. They had not come together, maybe, but were here together.
Philip was afraid. He could hear Charlie chirping and if not for the need to get Charlie’s surprise would have turned around to go back inside and call the police. But he could not miss the bus. The bus left in 10 minutes and that was what it took to get him to the end of the street.
He walked forward again and looked down at the ground instead of at the people. Nobody was doing or saying anything. Maybe they weren’t here for him, he tried to convince himself, but he knew they were.
At the gate, he put his hand on the latch and stopped. He didn’t want to open that gate. The people, as they saw his hand tense, tensed themselves. His hand clenched, and they clenched, and his hand loosened and they loosened.
There were signs. Placards. He remembered the protests he’d seen, and the placards those people had held. Those were larger groups, they’d had chants, there had been a reason they’d been there. Why were these people here?
He looked to his left, saw a woman sitting in a car, her fingers on the steering wheel. Under her fingers were folded, crumply pieces of paper. He looked to his right. The praying duo were there, and clusters of people. He unlatched the gate. He swung it open.
The people stood there, looking at him. They did not point, or run, or shout, or duck, or scream. They just stood and stared. He moved out into them. He kept his head down. He put his hand to his chest pocket where his grocery list was. He moved as quickly as he was able to move through the crowd and around them and breathed a sigh as he got past the edge of his yard, where they were the thickest. The people behind him, he knew, were turning to watch him go. He heard their feet shuffling, the sussuration of the simultaneous movement of groups, but he did not look back.
He walked up the street, keeping his feet moving. The people did not follow him, but they did not stop watching him as he stood at the bus stop. He watched them out of the corner of his eye and they watched him back. They did not approach but they did not leave.
Back at Philip’s house, a cab pulled up and an angry-looking man got out. It was not, Tammy thought as she looked at him, that common that people actually looked angry. What she’d previously thought were mad or upset looks on people’s faces paled in comparison to this man’s face. The cab had pulled up not long after Philip had left, turning the corner just after the bus had pulled away, in fact, and Tammy had seen them both. She’d noted the cab because they were not common in this little subdivision. The cab slowed as it approached and stopped in front of the house. The back door on the driver’s side, facing Philip’s house, swung open hard enough to rebound back and the man got out. He paused as the door moved lightly into him and pushed it back more, and began walking across the street.
“Hey,” yelled the cabdriver, and the man stopped. He did not take his eyes off of Philip’s house, but he stopped. “The fare’s fifty-three dollars,” the cab driver said. Tammy wondered if that was a lot. It seemed like a lot. She looked at her small change purse sitting among the crumpled plastic bags and coffee cups that were the containers her food had come in lately. She only had about twenty dollars left and had no idea what she’d do when that ran out. Fifty-three dollars just for a drive to this house seemed like an awful expense.
Tammy did not think that she would be concerned about money for very much longer. Not given what she planned to ask for.
The man backed up, but stayed staring at the house. He pulled out his wallet and glanced through it. The cab driver held out his hand and the man finally had to look down as he fumbled around with money, seeming confused for a moment. The reason for that became obvious when he spoke.
“Sorry, mate. Don’t know your money.” He had an English accent, Tammy heard. He handed a few bills and looked at the cabdriver. “’sat enough?” he asked. The cabdriver looked at them, at him, and then pulled out one of the bills. Tammy could not make out what it was.
“Gave me too much. I’ll keep a little for a tip, but this’s too much. Can’t take advantage of you, can I? Not with what you’ve been through.” The man took the bill and stuffed it into his coat pocket carelessly, having turned his attention back to the house. The cabdriver watched his gaze, then looked from the man to the house to the man. “Sure hope you’re wrong,” he said, and drove off.
The man stood in the road for a few second, and then without glancing around marched up between the people on the sidewalk and to the picket fence. He pushed on the gate, staring at the front door, and only took his eyes off the door when he had to look down and figure out how to open the gate, which he did quickly. He strode forward again and up to the door and peered in through the small square windows scattered across the solid door. He put his face right up against the screen door, and Tammy could see it pushed in from his nose.
The man looked to his right, saw the doorbell button and pushed it several times. Without waiting, he then began to knock on the glass above the screen in the outer door. Then he opened his hand and slapped the glass harder, one, two, three times.
“’Ey! You! Out here!” he yelled. He continued slapping the door and yelling for the occupant to come out.
“He’s gone,” someone from the sidewalk said, quietly during a pause for breath. The man stopped, hand in mid-air. He turned around, looking at the people gathered around the house and then to the cars with people in them and it looked to Tammy like he’d actually not noticed them before that moment. He stared at them all.
“What do you mean, he’s gone?” he asked. His accent was not heavy at all, but it gave his voice a strange quality, like the man did not belong here. We all shouldn’t be here, Tammy thought to herself. “He’s died?”
“He left this morning. He went out.”
“Out? Out? This bloody… this … he’s gone out?”
The speaker, the ‘mother’ in the group of three, just nodded, pulling back within herself. The man looked around.
“And you all saw him go?”
A few others nodded. Most just watched.
“And nobody stopped him?”
At that, the people gathered round reacted in one of several ways. A few looked at those near them, those people being mostly those who had come with someone else. Some, like Tammy, looked down, suddenly finding interest in their own shirts or shoes. Others looked off into the distance.
“Where’d he go?” The man still stood on the stairs, elevated above them. He had the podium, as it were. Nobody answered. “Do you know?” Nobody answered again. Tammy had not been there long enough to know where Philip might have gone. She wondered if the people that had been here before her knew.
The man turned back to the door, looked in through it. He revolved around, took in the crowd again, and then took a step down off the porch, contemplating the house. He walked over to the large front picture window, stood up against it and peered in, shading his eyes. When he stepped away, Tammy could see the outline of a smudge where he’d breathed on the glass. The crowd felt to her like it was holding its breath, more in suspense than when she’d gone to look at Philip in the backyard. She kept glancing from the man to the street, to see if Philip would come walking back and see the man. She wondered what he would do.
The man then walked over to the other side of the house. He turned the corner and she watched as he went to the side door, or so she imagined because she lost sight of him for a second. Just as she wondered if he’d go into the backyard the man came walking back out. He walked to the front porch again and then turned to face the assemblage again. He did not talk, though. He looked at them. He looked at the candles, the signs, the faces, and then walked down the path. He still looked angry. His jacket looked bulky. Tammy wondered if he was armed. He looked angry enough to be armed.
He let himself back out through the picket fence but did not bother trying to latch the gate. He walked up to the college-aged girls with the signs. He did not talk to them right away, and they did not talk to him. He took the sign in his hands and held it up to them.
“Stop The Killing,” he said. He put a question mark on the end of his comment, one that was not on the sign. “You really think he can do that?” The girls just looked at him. He stepped back and looked at the other two signs: No more death. Celebrate life. The last one he snorted at. The girls looked offended but scared to say anything. The man turned around, looked at the small family group.
“What ‘bout you? You here to try to stop him, too?” They shook their heads.
“We want to ask him a question,” the older woman said, after a moment. The man cocked his head at her. She went on: “I want to know if I’m going to go into remission again.” The man just looked at her. “Or if this time it will kill me,” the woman said. The man was about to say something, it seemed, but he turned away. Then he paused and turned back and looked at the woman.
“How’d you find out?” he asked her sharply.
The woman bit her lip and answered quietly. “There was a man who comes in for chemo the same time as me. His wife told me.” The younger woman by her touched her hand. The older woman was crying. “His wife told me,” she repeated “I don’t know how she knew.”
“Was.” The man said. “So that’s how.” The woman nodded. The man lost a little steam, then, looked as though he was thinking. His mouth pursed and he looked around and he turned back to the house. “I’ve come to kill him,” he said.
Tammy sucked in her breath.
The man heard and looked at her. She sat there, in her car, hands on the steering wheel, and met his gaze. Under her left hand was the obituary, under her right was the other article. The man looked hard at her, and walked over, stood in front of the car. Met her eyes. Then he turned around again and walked away. Tammy breathed out.
“So what’re you all doing here, then, just sitting? Just doing nothing? Just watching him come out and go off to the movies or to get a burger, and you don’t stop him? Nobody stops him?” Nobody said anything. Nobody in the cars rolled up their windows, either. Nobody walked away. They looked at the man, and looked at Philip’s house, and looked down at their hands or their steering wheels. But nobody answered him. “You all know what the hell he’s doing in there, right? That’s why you’re all here, isn’t it? Because he did it to you… well not to you but to someone you knew.”
The man was stalking from group to group and getting louder and more excitable.
“To someone you knew, maybe someone you loved and didn’t want to go. Maybe to someone like your mum, who has the flu, the fucking flu, just a bug that everyone gets in the world and they throw up once or twice and then they take some pills and they’re fine, only your mum this time she wasn’t fine, was she?” He had passed back over the little group a few times and was standing at the picket fence, back to the crowd now, hands clenched on the fence the way that Tammy gripped her steering wheel. She saw his hands clench as he said again “This time she wasn’t fine after the pills, no she wasn’t.”
And as he started crying looking down at the fence Tammy abruptly got out of the car and moved up to him. His shoulders shook as he cried quietly, the way large men do, his chest heaving up and up and up and then down all at once into his belly, and repeating that. “And when she doesn’t get better she says Maybe I’ll go see the doctor tomorrow, Stewart, and before she can she dies.”
Tammy hugged him from behind, still clutching her papers. He wouldn’t let go of the fence. She hugged her head into his back, thinking that he did not remind her at all of her ex-husband. She hugged him so tightly she barely heard him say “And when you watch her die, suddenly you see… this fucking house in your mind and you know.”
He pulled away abruptly and looked down at her. “You know.” He said again. She nodded. He backed away from her.
“I know,” she said. He looked at her. She stared back. The rest of the crowd, the rest of the people, did not say anything but they had all moved a little closer, drawn to the man, maybe.
“What happened with you?” the man, Stewart, she guessed, asked.
Tammy looked down at the article and the obituary. She shook her head. She just stared at her fists. Her lip quivered and she dropped her head lower, closed her eyes against the tears. After a moment, even though she knew she could not cry anymore, she kept her eyes closed. Her chest sunk in and her hands shook and her nose sniffled, but there were no tears left. She stood there shaking her head slowly back and forth, felt the man pry out the obituary. He read it, quietly, but loud enough that she could hear the words, the words she saw constantly and could recite by memory. No memorial service will be held.
The man looked at her. “He did that?” She nodded. “A kid? A little boy?” She nodded again. She kept her eyes closed. In a moment, she felt him take her other hand. She kept it balled tightly into a fist. The man held her hand. He didn’t pry. He just held his large hand around her small one, gently, cupping it. Finally, she opened her hand. She could feel others around her, a little closer. The man read again, and this time his voice trailed off near the end but she still knew this one by heart, too.
Police seek area man and daughter. Buffalo police issued an Amber Alert late last night for Molly Hudson, age 3, and her father, Steven Hudson, age 33. Hudson is described as stocky, 5’5”, with shaggy black hair, a beard and a tattoo of a parrot on his right forearm. Hudson is believed to have fled after assaulting his ex-wife in her home two days after their divorce was finalized. An arrest warrant has been issued for him on charges of first degree murder.
Police found Hudson’s son Thomas at the house after they were called…
The man’s voice trailed off as Tammy found her tears. She felt a hand on her shoulder. “Christ,” Stewart said. “He did all that…” and she took the stories back from him, clenched them in her hands. “So what’re you going to do to him?” Stewart asked her. “You must want to kill him.”
Tammy looked up in surprise. She sniffled and spoke through a mouth that was clammy. “That story was written more than a week ago. I’ve had my cellphone with me the whole time.” Stewart just stared at her. She had to finish the thought. “I’m not going to do anything to him,” she waved one hand, the one with the newspaper article, at Philip’s house. “I want him to do something for me. I want him to kill my ex-husband.”
Stewart seemed a little taken aback at that. “You want to use him?”
“It’s been over a week. Nobody’s heard nothing. I’ve heard nothing. I know what happened to Tommy Jon. And I know what happened to Molly…” she paused. “And I’ll know what happens to that bastard, too.” She said that last quietly.
Philip was carrying a small paper bag, with handles, in one hand, and a plastic bag in the other.
Tammy could see some celery sticking out of the paper bag, and in the plastic bag she saw round shapes, little play-balls. When Philip took another step there was a tiny, tinkling sound from the bag. As the crowd turned towards him, Philip pulled the paper bag up to his chest, protecting himself with it. No, Tammy thought—protecting the bag.
They stood like that for what seemed an absurdly long time, Philip just to one side of the gate, clutching his plastic bag of pet toys to his chest. Tammy and Stewart in front of a semi-circle of people all staring at him. Philip just kept looking from one to the other. Finally, he moved. He edged towards his gate, put one bony old hand onto the latch.
Stewart roused himself. “None of that, then,” he said. “You’re not going anywhere.”
Philip looked at him, and said in a soft voice “I don’t think all of you should be here.”
“All of us? Why do you think we’re here?”
Philip looked at them, at each of them that he could see, and then back to Stewart. “I honestly don’t know.”
“You say you fucking don’t know?” Stewart yelled, suddenly. “You don’t fucking know?” He was hollering, and advanced a step towards Philip, who took a step back and put the plastic bag behind him. He dropped his grocery bag, too, and Tammy heard a clank that sounded like glass.
She hoped, for some reason, that nothing had broken. Maybe it was the way Philip stood, or the way Stewart seemed to loom over him. Maybe it was just that she’d been crying. Or that she needed Philip. Maybe more than anyone here. She said “Stop.”
Stewart looked at her.
“I will not, and I won’t let you talk to him.”
“You can’t stop me from talking to him,” she said. “Don’t you try,” she added.
“You’ve certainly done a right job of it so far,” he said, “sitting here for a week. And it’s wrong what he’s doing,” there was a squeak and Stewart whirled around, grabbed Philip’s hand on the latch that had squeaked and Stewart hissed “Don’t try to get away,”
Philip tried to puff himself up then, and pulled at his hand, which Stewart kept clamped tightly to the gate. Philip tried, though, Tammy could see, to be tough, and said in a louder voice, “Let go of me or I’ll… call the police.” He very obviously had to pause to think what it was one does when a stranger in a crowd won’t allow you to let go of your gate. “What are you all doing here?”
“Doing here? What are we all doing here? You know perfectly well what we’re doing here, old man. We’re all here because you… because you…” Stewart faltered.
Tammy knew why. Tammy knew he’d faltered for the same reason nobody had talked earlier. The same reason they’d all avoided contact with each other up until now. The same reason Stewart had veered away from it in his rant earlier.
“Because you are killing people with your work,” she said, calmly. Stewart turned to her. They all did. They were surprised. They were surprised that someone would actually cross that line, say what they were all thinking, because (Tammy felt and knew they felt) saying it out loud meant that your old life, your old world, was gone, and you were now part of something new, something horrible. Part of a world where a man could write some words and kill people. Or part of a world where you were crazy and did not even know it. But how much worse could her life get, she thought? Maybe I’m the only one crazy enough to have said that, but I don’t care, she told herself. Maybe that makes it real or horrible, but I don’t care. She looked straight at Philip.
“You write things down and the people die. We all know it.”
Philip looked around at them, shook his head. “You’re all wrong, you’ve got it backwards. People die and I write about them. I write obituaries. That’s what I do.” He smiled at her, encouragingly. “Whoever you’ve lost, I’m sorry, but I don’t cause that. I just report it. I’m a reporter.”
“No, you’re not,” Tammy said. “You make it happen.”
Philip opened his eyes wider. “Young lady,” but Tammy thrust her hand forward. She held out the articles for him. “You wrote one of these,” she said. “You wrote one of these and it appeared in my newspaper, but you live here, you live thousands of miles away. You live thousands of miles away here, and that didn’t stop you from doing it! It didn’t stop you from doing what you did, from saying what you said!
“Do you know what you did?” She grew louder, and her mouth opened wider. She continued to shake the newspaper articles at Philip, who did not shrink back but stared at her. “Do you know how my son died? Do you?”
“I don’t,” Philip said, but Tammy didn’t hear him because she was screaming. She’d pulled the articles back, clutched them in her hands as her hands pushed at her cheeks, pressing in on her face as though to try to stop the words from coming out.
“He died when he walked into the room where my fuck of an ex-husband was beating me up, he’d come in and he was drunk and had walked into the house and I should have fucking changed the locks but I never had any money to do that and he was beating me up and the kids heard” Tammy was not even stopping for breath now and poured ahead “and Tommy Jon came in and I was on the ground, and Steve was going to step on my neck, he had those great big work boots on that always smelled like oil and he was going to put it on my neck and kill me and Tommy Jon rushed forwards and Steve turned and he kicked him! He kicked him, he kicked him, he kicked him across the room and I heard his neck break… it just snapped and then Steve kicked me and I was knocked out.”
She gasped, and collapsed onto her knees, articles folded in her hands, and pressing her hands into her stomach.
“I woke up and Tommy Jon was dead on the floor and people were putting me on a stretcher and Molly was gone. She was gone and all I hear now is the clicking of Tommy Jon’s neck. And they can’t find her, they haven’t found her and I know they won’t.”
The husband, there with the mother and law, bent down and touched her shoulder. “They’ll find her,” he said.
Tammy laughed. It was so incongruous, so startling, so frightening, that the crowd and even Philip stepped back a pace. It was not a laugh of happiness. It was the wail of a hyena that is lost in the woods.
“They won’t find her. It’s been two weeks. It was too late by the time I could get out of the hospital. I couldn’t find him and they can’t find him and they won’t find Molly. But I had one thing I could do. I had one thing I could do,” she looked towards Philip “Because I knew what all these people know, and what all the people know who will come here the longer you do this. I don’t know how you do it or what you do or why but I know you can do it and I came here to have you do it one more time at least. I don’t give a fuck about stopping war or saving lives or anything else. I can’t even close my eyes without seeing Tommy Jon fly across that room.”
Philip looked around at the crowd. He looked back at Tammy, who had reached out a hand and now clutched Philip’s pants just above the knees.
“You’ve got to do this for me. I’ll pay you whatever I can, I’ll do whatever you want.”
Philip looked down at her hand. “I don’t know what it is you want me to do.”
Tammy looked him in the eye. “Don’t play dumb with me. I’ve been waiting and waiting, and I’ve been watching these other people and watching you. I want you to write Steven’s obituary. I want you to kill him.”
Now Philip’s eyes grew wide. “That’s not… I can’t… you don’t mean to suggest.”
“You know what you do! You know what it is that you do,” Tammy said, and pulled at his legs. “You have to know. Nobody comes into your room, nobody calls you, nobody gives you assignments. What do you think, each day, when you go up to that room—yes, we see you – and you write these things” she waved Tommy Jon’s obituary again – “What do you think you’re doing? Where do you think you come up with these things? You’re doing it!”
Philip took the obituary from her, unfurled it, smoothed it, and squinted at it. He clutched at his small bags more tensely as he did.
“I’m not doing anything,” he said.
“Yes, you are! It’s you! None of these things would happen if you didn’t write about them. None of these things would occur, Tommy Jon would still be alive if you hadn’t written this! You write them before they happen!”
Philip stood there looking at her, blinking. “That’s preposterous,” he said, finally.
“Just please, you know you do this, just please, write one about Steven,” Tammy begged. Philip backed up a step. Tammy clung to him and he shook his leg. “Please, do that. He’s killed my baby boy and he’s killed my girl and why should he go on living?”
Philip finally shook her hand off and stepped back to the gate, sidestepping Stewart, who simply looked at Tammy as Tammy implored Philip, repeating why should he go on living. Philip slowly slipped the gate open and began to back into it, and said to Tammy,
“It doesn’t work that way. I don’t do these things you think I do. I don’t.”
“You DO! Why won’t you just…” but Tammy broke off and lunged at him, clawing at Philip’s shirt, and now she was the one that was angry, and Stewart had to pull her off and the others stood and watched and Philip flailed at her and swung his arms and slammed the gate shut, a small trickle of blood appearing on his cheek as he backed slowly up the path.
Tammy was smothered in Stewart’s arms, lifted off the ground, kicking and screaming and shouting, and after a series of obscenities in the midst of her sobs she could finally be understood, saying “Don’t know why you won’t do it, don’t know why, you can take a little fucking boy and a little girl and you can kill them but you won’t even think about getting rid of the one who should be dead…” and the people around heard a door slam and Philip was back inside his house.
Tammy went on like that for a while until she wore out and Stewart set her down, where she crumpled on the ground. Her hand loosened on the other article and it began to slowly blow away down the road in the intermittent breeze. The obituary was gone.
Tammy sat up, after a long time, and wiped her tears. The rest of the crowd had pulled back but they all looked at her, some straight on, some sideways. She stared at the house.
“Feeling better?” Asked Stewart. She shook her head.
“You sure gave him hell,” Stewart told her.
“I’m not done. I’m going to get him. I’m going to make him do what I want, or I’ll kill him.”
“I wouldn’t try anything,” Stewart said.
“Why?” Tammy asked, but before Stewart answered, they were startled by the light in Philip’s attic office coming on. They stared at it for a second; everyone outside the house stared at it. They saw the curtain move slightly, and some thought maybe they could actually see Philip fer de Lance peer out.
Stewart, after shaking his head, looked at Tammy. “I wouldn’t try anything more because now he knows your name.”
The light stayed on. Philip was working.