Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Short Story:
Raise High the Barriers


Turning toward Kennedy Plaza, the bus driver steps on the gas at exactly the wrong moment, when the front wheels are on a patch of ice formed by the overnight freezing of the previous day’s snow melt. The tires whir and the bus crunches into the concrete barriers that sprang up like mushrooms around the courthouse after 9-11.
Doreen had stood up seconds earlier, wanting to be the first off the bus so she could rush to work, knowing this would be the second time this week she’d be late. They know about her situation with Robert, but it doesn’t matter anymore. The company has cut back on everything, but the scuttlebutt is there’s more to come. A situation won’t save her.
Her head bounces off a stanchion. She manages to grab it to stay upright but her mouth fills with a sour tang and a metallic sensation trills down her neck. She closes her eyes and clings to the post until the wave of nausea passes. Then flows with the swarm of passengers out the door. While others wander to the front to survey the damage and commiserate with the driver, she weaves toward her office, moving doggedly even though her field of vision is constricted, like she’s inside a soap bubble, light breaking and refracting around her.

This must be why she doesn’t notice anything in front of the building. This will mystify the police when they interview her later. They’ll seem as concerned about their own competence – how did the cops let a woman walk right past them into a building that was supposed to be locked down? – as much as why she ignored the dozens of emergency vehicles, police in tactical gear, helicopters hanging overhead, spectators being pushed back.
And it’s not like her day had started that well anyway. Robert, the man she’d been married to for 36 years, father to her three children, the calm center of her soul, unfailingly polite and quiet, Robert had used the c-word that morning after she’d startled him by dropping a coffee cup. He looked up from his newspaper, face scrunching to that of a petulant child, and then said the word five times, each increasing in venom and volume. She’d rather he hit her than say these things. And when he was done, he looked puzzled and then asked her who she was. “I’m your wife, Doreen.” To which he silently mouthed “oh” and returned to his newspaper, puzzling out the article he’d been looking at since opening the paper a half hour earlier.
But stepping off the elevator, the irregular pulsing of a fluorescent light triggers some awareness, its strobe cutting through the fog and pressing her on-switch. Although it isn’t working right, this is the only one of the three fixtures producing light at all. The others are broken, frosted shards of glass scattered on the carpet like snow. Odd that they all went at once, she thinks. Maybe some sort of electrical surge? Robert would know what caused it. Even now, he could pull technical information from his brain, in spite of its rewiring.
She swipes her security card, remembers she needs an excuse, something new, something non-Robert-related for a change, and thinks the bus accident will do nicely. The lump on her forehead is probably visible. As she steps through the door, she thinks she should immediately go to the restroom, to make sure she looks okay.
Then she sees the body on the floor. Not the whole body. Just a set of legs from mid-thigh down, the rest hidden around the corner. She moves toward it cautiously. The legs are shod in nylons, unusual in this office anymore. One leg sticks straight out, a brown pump sitting upright next to it, while the other leg is curled slightly, the foot still encased in its shoe.
She reaches the corner and looks around with a growing sense of concern. Has she fainted? No, she hasn’t. She’s on her back, one arm theatrically covering her face, the other thrown back at a 45 degree angle, and a halo of blood on the floor.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, she thinks, stepping back, swallowing her bile. She can’t see the face but given the pantyhose and the location, it must be Dawn, the new assistant who’d started a few weeks ago. They knew only the bare bones of her life. She was from Rhode Island originally but had lived in Michigan for a number of years, until her husband “went loony” as she put it inelegantly over lunch in the break room one day, and she’d had to move back home.
Only then does she feel the silence. Her head has been buzzing since the accident, like cicadas loose in her skull. This sound doesn’t fade: it’s more like the silence rises around her like a noxious gas moving through the cubicles and corridors. There’s always a phone ringing, a printer going, voices discussing weekend plans or sales forecasts. Now there’s nothing.
She realizes she should check Dawn, see if she’s alive, if there’s anything she can do. As she steps forward tentatively, she sees the man. He’s standing 20 feet away, leaning against a wall outside a row of offices. He’s got one foot against the wall, his hands folded over his crotch, head dipped down, a James Dean imitation. She can’t really see his face as he’s wearing a grubby baseball cap pulled low and the overhead light casts his face into shadows. The cap covers a shaggy sprout of hair and when he tilts his head up, she sees a scraggly beard that could have been grease stains for all its irregularity. His t-shirt is plain and she can see sweat stains spreading from the armpits and down his chest, even though the building is, as always, too cold.
Then she sees the gun. She hadn’t noticed it at first as he’s holding it with his inside hand, the other hand mostly blocking it. But she sees it dangling from his fingertips and it all falls into place.
She feels it first in her knees, a quaking so powerful she thinks they’ll go out of joint and even glances down, only to see no obvious movement at all. Then her heart explodes upward into her throat, body going taut, senses flooding with adrenaline. I’m going to die here. And who’d going to look after Robert?
She thinks about making a run for it. There’s a stairwell only 15 feet away. But who is she kidding? It’s the 18th floor and she’s 57 years old. And then she’s strangely aware of what bad shape she’s in. She’s a modest woman, raised to avoid the sin of pride. But she’s always been proud about not weighing more than five pounds over her wedding weight, aside from being pregnant.
Then Robert got sick, and her gardening and daily walks trickled away. Even worse, he became super fussy about food, regressing to the diet of a 9-year-old. She had always enjoyed cooking, trying new things, buying recipe books, and she thought he enjoyed it. Then one night after five minutes of picking without a single bite at haricot verts with almonds, he suddenly shoved the plate away and said, “I’m sick of this damn rabbit food.”
She must have looked comical, a grossly exaggerated look of shock on her face, Luci caught in a lie by Desi. Robert had never complained about her cooking. In fact was usually quite complimentary, if occasionally flummoxed by what he was eating. But the swear word was even more shocking. He had never sworn in front of her. She wasn’t na├»ve. He worked almost exclusively with men on job sites. He must have dropped a few swear words. But never in front of her or the children. And now he regularly dropped the f-word and worse.
This left her 20 pounds heavier than she’d ever been, conscious of her age, her slowness, the unfamiliar bulge of a tummy. No, running isn’t an option.
They regard each other across the confines of the office, the cream colored walls, the beige cubicles, the whole nondescriptness of the place now grossly offset by the body on the floor with its blood halo. Don’t move, she thinks. Maybe it’s out of his system and he’ll let me go. Maybe he doesn’t want me here at all.
But another voice thinks maybe he’ll kill me. Maybe he’s got nothing left to lose. And if I die, who’ll look after Robert? They’ll put him in a home. Kate is out in California, Ron is deployed for the fifth time, and Susan has enough problems with that jackass of a husband and those four boys, all holy terrors. They’ll lock him away in a place that smells like pee and bleach. No, he can’t kill her. Can’t put Robert in that position.
Before she can figure out her next move, he speaks. “What’re you doing here?” His tone is surprisingly light, like a neighbor passing on the street.
She can’t think of a better explanation than “I work here.”
The man nods and returns his gaze to the floor, face disappearing from view. “Cops out there right now?”
“I didn’t notice. I was in a bus accident. Hit my head.”
He looks up. “You okay?” He looks concerned, incongruous from a man who she presumed just killed someone.
“I think so.”
“You better sit down.” He points to a chair in a cubicle opposite him. She walks toward him, the carpet spongy beneath her fit, getting within ten feet before turning to sit in the chair, conscious of the nylon stretching across her belly and the chair creaking as she settles into it. Am I a hostage now? How does this work?
Neither of them speaks and after awhile she finds herself thinking, “This silence is getting uncomfortable” and then almost laughing out loud at the thought. How could the silence be more uncomfortable than sitting in an office chair across from a man who’s holding me hostage?
The man finally breaks the silence. He shuffles his feet, leans away from the wall and reaches into his back pocket with his free hand. He pulls out a half pint of some liquor. He drains off the brown fluid, recaps it, looks at it and then drops it on the floor. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “You want to know what happened, don’t you?” He looks like a raccoon, dark circles around his eyes.
She shifts her weight in the chair. What do I say to this nut? Best just let him talk. She simply nods.
He begins to speak, a soft drone, words hard to distinguish. She picks up the bare details but it all blends together, the lost job, the years of not working, starting to drink, losing his license. Every time she starts to feel the slightest sympathy, she thinks of the body on the floor near her and thinks “Your problems are so petty.” The detective who’ll interview her later will have an even harsher reaction: “Blah blah blah,” he’ll say. “I’ve heard this story a hundred times. Lots of people lose their jobs and they don’t go out and shoot their wives.”
But she can’t help but notice a resemblance between this man and the guys Robert hung around when they met. She was 20 years old, working at a tavern to try and make enough money to go to college. Most Fridays, a group of men would show up right at 4 p.m., shift over, pay day drinking.
The older guys called her “sweetheart” or “honey.” They pounded back as many drinks as they thought they could get away with and then left by 6, peeling out of the parking lot to make it home to their permanently pissed off (to hear their versions of it) wives.
The younger guys called her “baby” or “chick.” They stayed later, drank more, sometimes to the point of throwing up or fighting, especially the guys who’d been to Vietnam.
Then there was Robert who didn’t really fit into either camp. He was the age of some of the younger married guys, but had no family so tended to stay with the younger men, even though he didn’t drink much. He was quiet, a peacemaker when they got boisterous and she could tell the other guys respected him, even while they teased him for being single at his age. He was bashful in her presence, never calling her anything other than the occasional “Doreen.”
He was so much older than her, it never struck her that he might be interested in her, until the night when one of the young guys blurted something out as Doreen brought a couple more pitchers over. “Would you go out with our friend here? He’s too shy to ask.” She was startled, Robert was red-faced and the other guys play-punched the man who’d mouthed off. But later he did come up to her at the bar and quietly asked her if she’d like to go to a show or have dinner sometime, and in spite of the age difference, she’d said yes, tired of young men and their stupid pawing behavior.
Those young men had the same face as this man – open and suspicious at the same time, wanting to appear confident and outgoing even while their eyes gave away their insecurities. None of them, so far as she knew, had gone on to kill anyone.
Doreen realizes that the man has stopped talking and is back to staring at the floor. He seems deflated now, as though he isn’t a real person but a blow-up doll and the act of speaking has drained the air from him.
They’re both startled from the silence by the sound of a door opening and then a shouted “Hello. Is anyone in there? This is the police.”
The man stands away from the wall, shoulders tensed, the loose hand gripping his gun hand and raising it partway. He gestures fiercely with the gun toward the door of the office behind him and Doreen gets to her feet, legs numb from sitting still for so long. She limps into the office and he follows behind her. He motions for her to sit on the floor and she awkwardly gets down and rolls back on her haunches so she’s leaning against a credenza. The man doesn’t close the door but instead braces against the wall and leans towards the door, the gun now held close to his chest.
They hear motion outside and the voice calls out again. This time the man responds. “Go back. I’ve got a gun. I’ve got someone in here with me.” If I wasn’t a hostage before, I am now, Doreen realizes.
The sounds of motion stop. She wonders what will happen next, what the police will say or do. Maybe they’ll try to pick up Dawn’s body. “We need to make sure everyone’s okay. Can we see you? Can you show us the person with you?” The man looks at her and gestures with his head. She tries to speak but can’t get words from her dry throat. She licks her lips, swallows and tries again. “Hello, I’m Doreen LeBlanc. I work here. I’m okay.”
The man speaks, a hoarse shout. “Now move back. Get off the floor. I need time to think.” The police start to speak again but the man loses it, shouting obscenities, face red and sweaty.
After they pull back, the man slumps down against the wall. He seems almost harmless sitting there and Doreen realizes he’s never actually threatened her. Never so much as pointed the gun in her direction, never raised his voice to her or been anything but polite. Sitting against the wall, he resembles nothing so much as a little boy with a toy gun hiding in a closet.
She hears a helicopter and glances toward the windows, which run floor to ceiling and allow her to see even from her perch on the floor. A news helicopter floats past slowly and she wonders if they’re close enough that they can see her, if even now her face is getting broadcast to the state. Robert is probably watching TV right now. Will he recognize her? Who knows? These days he might be completely lucid and know it’s her, or he might think he’s watching a movie. He slips in and out of reality in no discernible pattern.
The position on the floor is uncomfortable and she shifts, trying to get the circulation back in her legs and read end. The man glances at her. “If you need to stand up, go ahead.”
She rises slowly and carefully, gripping the credenza and shaking her legs until the tingling sensation and numbness disappear. As she shakes her legs, she looks out over Narragansett Bay, stretching away to the south and disappearing in the haze. She sees the soft green curve of the East Bay standing in contrast to the oil tanks and gas terminal on the west side. In the foreground, she sees the stack of the power plant and next to it, the hurricane barrier.
Robert helped build that barrier, one of his first projects after he joined the Army Corps of Engineers. Doreen found this out on their first fancy date, the night he spontaneously asked her to marry him. He’d taken her to Anthony’s on the water in Fox Point. She couldn’t help but let her jaw drop when she opened the menu. Those prices! But Robert seemed reasonably well off and she’d already noticed how careful he was with money so she figured he could afford it, although she felt guilty about ordering and kept herself to the most inexpensive item she could find.
Sometime during dinner, Robert asked if she knew the history of the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier. Not one to brag, he mentioned it only as an item of historical interest, not because he himself had helped build it. Doreen didn’t know anything about it but when he mentioned that it was Hurricane Carol in 1954 that had prompted the authorities to plan the barrier, she mentioned that she’d been born during that hurricane.
“You mean on the same date?” Robert asked.
“On the same date, yes, but also right in the middle of it.” She told him how her mom had gone into labor so suddenly that they couldn’t leave the house. They were busy boarding up the windows and doing what they could in the hopes that the house wouldn’t be too damaged so she hadn’t noticed the contractions or had chosen to ignore them. She was flat on her back on the upstairs bed unable to move as the storm surge grew closer. They got the doctor there and he did everything he could to hasten things along but the wind was shaking the house to the foundation by the time Doreen finally made her entrance. They bundled her up and ran downstairs into several inches of water already in the house. Her father told her later that they’d gone out the front door while the Bay came in the back door. They spun away through low ripples driving across the road and into the flats on the other side, gargantuan waves sparkling in the dark to their right as the Bay breached the seawall.
Robert was so taken with this story. He told her his tale, his 14-year-old brother and him deciding it’d be fun to take a boat and float into downtown Providence to see what it looks like underwater. The fun went out of it when they saw the first body float past and they found themselves hauling people out of the water and carrying them to safety.
For years Robert loved to tell this story to friends and family and co-workers. He’d always end the same way: “Doreen was a few minutes old and had the good sense to get the heck out of there while John and I like typical men ran right into trouble.” It was a exaggerated parable of how he saw his life before and after Doreen, although she never saw any risk taking side to him at all.
They’d tried to revisit the restaurant for their 35th anniversary. Robert had come to accept that he couldn’t drive anymore but seemed okay with letting Doreen drive them into the city for a special occasion. He was having a good night, remembering most things and acting mostly like the calm, reasonable companion he’d always been. She felt comfortable enough to leave him alone while she went to the restroom.
He was gone when she returned. He’d left so quickly that only the hostess had noticed him. “I thought there was an emergency or something he was moving so fast and he didn’t even pay attention when I said goodnight to him.”
Doreen ran outside and around the corner to the parking lot but the car was still sitting there with no Robert in sight. She moved to the edge of the water, frantically peering around. She thought she saw movement farther along the poorly lit riverfront and started to trot toward the movement. Soon she saw that it was Robert, striding purposely along for eight or ten steps and then pausing as if unsure where he was. She called his name and he stopped, turning to face her with a puzzled air. “I have to get to work but I can’t figure out how to get over there.” He gestured vaguely toward the Bay.
“Honey, you stopped working seven years ago.”
“I did?” He peered helplessly into the dark, lifting one hand to his forehead as if all he needed to do to clear the fog was to block the non-existent light.
“You did.” Then, “We need to go home now.” He gave one final exasperated look toward the water and then meekly acquiesced, accepting Doreen’s hand on his arm as she steered him back to the parking lot. It was the last time they’d gone out anywhere.
The man is chanting now. She realizes he’d started talking while she was thinking and now he’s back there, still sitting against the wall, a stream of words pouring out, mostly incomprehensible. Partly because he’s incoherent and partly because she doesn’t want to understand, she can’t quite grasp the meaning. She keeps hearing “I didn’t mean to” and “I didn’t want to” but it’s like listening to someone speak a foreign language.
Another helicopter buzzes past and this momentarily quiets him. Then he looks at her: “What do you think they’ll do to me?” He seems expectant and anxious like a boy waiting for his father to get home to dish out punishment.
“I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know,” Doreen answers carefully. He cocks his head in a strange “oh really” gesture and she sighs. “What do you think, young man? They’ll lock you up.”
“For how long, do you think?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’d guess at least 25 years. Maybe more. I don’t know how these things work.” The man grunts softly and puts his head back down. He pulls his legs in, wrapping them tightly with his arms and curling his toes up as he rests his head sideways on his knees, looking away from her. He begins to rock back and forth, imperceptibly at first but with increasing momentum until his back hits the wall.
He abruptly stops and raises his head. She sees streaks of tears through the dirt on his face. “You should leave,” he says. He stares directly into her eyes, then gestures toward the door with his head.
Doreen edges her way to the door. She gives him one final look and he gives the same head gesture. She steps out into the hallway. Her body is weak and shaky. She puts a hand on the wall to steady herself and carefully makes her way toward the lobby, hands moving to the tops of the cubicle walls to support herself, eyes carefully avoiding Dawn’s body. By this slow process, she makes her way to the lobby door.
As she opens the door, the gunshot explodes behind her. She’s never heard a gunshot anywhere near this close before and it deafens her. Her ears ring and she turns to clutch the doorframe. The door silently touches her right arm as she grips the metal. She feels she might collapse so she lowers her head until the front of her skull touches the frame just above her bruise from the bus accident. The metal feels shockingly cool. She shivers as she rolls her head from side to side on the frame, trying to draw the coolness into her body.
She pushes herself away from the doorframe. It’s over. I need to let the police know. She realizes that the elevators probably aren’t working and she’s not sure it’d be the wisest thing to just walk off an elevator when the police are waiting on a gunman. She turns back into the office. She’ll call them, that’s the thing to do. She walks past Dawn’s cubicle, again not looking down, and into the cubicle behind hers. She lifts the receiver and a second gunshot goes off. She’s not expecting this at all and it startles her far more than even the first shot. She lets out a gaspy scream and drops the phone, which bonks off the floor and proceeds to bungee up and down on its cord, each contact with the floor becoming quieter as it loses momentum.
Then an eerie noise starts in his office, an inhumane strangled cry, lambs being slaughtered, a mother keening for a lost son. Doreen braces herself on the desk, head down. Then she straightens herself and turns back toward the office where the sound continues to oscillate.
They’d gone to a party a few months after Robert had been diagnosed. A neighborhood gathering, people they’d known forever. Robert was fine most of the time but had started the occasional foul blurting that was now daily. Doreen didn’t want to leave him alone, didn’t want him to embarrass himself so she decided to stay with him with the group of men at the grill on the patio, rather than join the women, the group having fallen into this easy old pattern years ago.
It stopped Robert from blurting anything but only because it stopped conversation. Sideways glances were exchanged. Men started to speak and then awkwardly swallowed swear words with chagrined looks. She realized that her presence destroyed their whole easy dynamic. She could protect Robert only by destroying part of him.
She slow marches toward the office door. What are you doing?, she thinks. But beneath the fear and trembling, she realizes she’s angry.
She hesitates only when she reaches the door. Logic takes over. If I startle him, he might shoot me. “What’s going on in there?,” she calls.
The keening stops but he doesn’t say anything. “Hello?”
Nothing.
She carefully looks through the door, craning her neck to try and see if the man is still on the floor, if he’s hurt himself with the two shots. The air is strangely dusty, large white motes like a bird has been hit by a car. She glances up and notices the two holes in the ceiling tiles, then follows the trail down to the fine grit on the desk and floor.
Then she sees the gun, now abandoned on the floor three or four feet from the man’s leg. She takes a step forward, holding the door frame. The man is leaning against the wall, clutching one leg tightly with his arms while the other bounces slowly on the floor. She sees no blood, no sign of a wound. She takes another step forward and is now fully inside the door of the office. She looks down at the wreck on the floor. He doesn’t look at her, just starves vacantly at the desk.
“I can’t do it,” he says. “I can’t fucking do it.” He looks up. “How fucking useless is that? I shoot my wife without trying and now I can’t even fucking shoot myself. Useless piece of shit.” He closes his eyes and resumes the keening.
Doreen finds herself standing over him with her hands on her hips. “What are you doing?” He looks up surprised. “What in the world are you doing? You come in here, you shoot your wife, you scare me half to death and now you’re sitting there feeling sorry for yourself and you try to kill yourself? Grow up. Take responsibility for your actions. Be an adult.” She continues speaking even while she realizes that she’s gone off the deep end herself, that she’s berating a murderer as if he were her son, or any stupid, irresponsible little boy. Not smart, Doreen, not smart, she thinks, but the words continue to pour from her mouth.
But what’s funny is his reaction. At first he just stares rapt, jaw slowing dropping open. When she abruptly runs out of words, there’s far less tension in the air than she’d expect. He’s looking up at her from under hooded eyes. Then he shrugs and whispers, “What should I do?”
Doreen shakes her head. “We’ll call the police, I guess.” She moves toward the phone on the desk, looking back over her shoulder at him as she says “Okay?” The man closes his eyes and nods, head falling back against the wall. She takes advantage of the opportunity to shove the gun completely out of sight under the desk with her foot, then picks up the phone. What number to dial? 9-1-1, I guess.
The emergency operator connects her to the police and they in turn give her detailed instructions about what to do, what to tell the man, how to hold their hands in the air. She carefully confirms everything, making notes on a dusty pad on the desk just as she does when Robert’s doctor gives instructions. Then she hangs up and turns to the man.
“The police are coming up. They’re going to alert us from the lobby when they get here and then we have to walk out with our hands on our heads like this.” She demonstrates, fingers interlaced on her skull.
When the police arrive, everything seems to be going fine. Sure, the man is walking slowly and unsteadily. He barely seems there and with the white dust coating him, he seems more wraith-like than ever.
Then he sees Dawn’s body lying on the floor and something happens. Doreen is walking slightly ahead of him and misses the initial change, but she hears the police bark “Sir, keep your hands on your head” and turns to see his hands loose in the air as he looks down slack-jawed at his wife’s body. He stops moving, hands wavering in the air as the policeman’s voice becomes louder and more alarmed.
He turns away finally and looks at Doreen. She sees something in his eyes – despair, a resolution, a surrender – she’s not sure. Then he starts moving again.
She’s not sure if his sudden dive toward the police is a stumble, a faint or a deliberate move. It doesn’t matter. There’s a loud report and he’s on the office floor, clutching his shoulder as blood oozes around his fingers. He makes no sound, mouth open in mute agony. And just before the police hustle her away and swarm him, she thinks she sees the faint trace of a smile on his face.

Later, after the endless police interviews, after they sneak her out through the parking garage in an unmarked car to avoid the media, she’ll arrive home feeling wrung out. She’ll suffer her daughter’s clingy wet embrace and son-in-law’s cloying concern. She’ll thank them for coming to look after Robert and she’ll insist she’s fine, she needs to be alone, she’s had enough stimulation for one day. They’ll protest but eventually leave and Doreen will have the house to herself, the only sound the TV where Robert is watching a DVD on hurricanes. He has several series like this, “Storms of the Century,” “Tornado Alley,” etc. He views them constantly, sometimes hitting the repeat button and not noticing so he’ll watch the same episode on one particular hurricane five or six times in a row.
She’ll move to the den and watch him from the doorway, leaning forward over the remains of dinner on his TV tray, rapt as he listens for the umpteenth time to the story of how one tiny little tropical wave gathered strength and power to it until it was a colossus, churning up hundreds of miles of ocean, destroying everything in its path.
Her whole body will suddenly tighten, an electrical snap that causes her skin to tingle hotly, her muscles to tighten. She’ll feel her fingernails digging into her palms so hard that later she’ll discover blood. She’ll want to scream, the words running through her head so powerfully that she’ll wonder if she actually is saying them out loud. She’ll want to yell “Who are you?” and “Why are you doing this to me?” and “What else have you’ve got to tell me?” and “Will I ever get you back?”
But this will pass. The trembling will subside. And instead of yelling she’ll just walk up to Robert, acknowledge his brief “Hello dear,” kiss him on the top of his head, and take his dinner tray, pausing for a moment to wipe a smear of soup from his cheek.

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