Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., has had over 270 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. He has two collections of short stories, Sand and Rain, that have been published by Clarendon House Publications. His third collection of short stories, Heat, was published by Czykmate Productions. His YA collection of stories, The Tales of Talker Knock was published by Clarendon House Publications. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/
The Man From The Heights
By Steve Carr
That’s Hardy Pennington. He lives in an area of the city known as The Heights. He’s thirty-two. On the stand next to where he’s sitting there’s a bottle of whiskey and a shot glass. Watch his hand shake as he pours whiskey into the glass. He then pushes the lever on the side of his Barcalounger. As the chair tilts back he tightly grasps the glass so as to not spill any of the liquor. With the footrest up, he crosses his ankles, eyes the hole in the tip of his leather slipper, and then gulps down the whiskey. The effect is immediate; see how the muscles in his smooth face relax and his hand is calmed. He leans his head back and closes his eyes. After a moment, he begins to hum along to Nina Simone, on a scratchy vinyl LP, singing “Strange Fruit.” The needle sticks on the record and the word “flesh” is repeated over and over.
The living room window is open and the twilight breeze blowing in carries with it the scents of automobile exhaust fumes and the distant metallic sounds of the wheels of the rail cars on the El Train. Watch as Hardy places the empty glass on the stand without opening his eyes. He slowly circles the rim of the cool glass with his index finger. There’s a shout from the street, and thinking it was his name that was called out, he opens his eyes. He waits, listening, and not hearing his name called again, he shifts the lever on the chair and sits up straight.
Zeph gets up from the throw rug he has been laying on and walks over and puts his head on Hardy’s knee. See how gently, affectionately, Hardy pets the dog’s head. Zeph’s wagging tail swishes back and forth on the hardwood floor. The English Pointer’s big, brown eyes look up at Hardy’s face.
“It’s okay, boy,” Hardy says as he scratches beneath Zeph’s chin.
Hardy’s cellphone that is lying on a table by the door buzzes. Hear his groan as he stands. He walks to the table, taking the needle off the record along the way, and picks up the phone.
“Yeah, I got in just a little while ago. I’m fine,” he says. He listens, and then says, “I don’t need for you to tell me that I need to do something. I’m well aware of that.” His tone is defensive. Zeph is sniffing at Hardy’s exposed sock through the hole in his slipper. “Sal’s not available to take Zeph on his evening walk tonight so I’m going to try to do it myself.”
The dog’s ears perk up. He runs to the wooden box near the door where his leash is kept, pulls it out, drags it across the room, and drops it at Hardy’s feet.
“Yes, I’m going to call Joanie tonight, as always,” Hardy says. You can hear the softening in his tone. “Okay, thanks Dan. I’m sorry about getting snippy.” He puts the cellphone on the table.
He picks up the leash and attaches it to Zeph’s collar. He then folds the leash and Zeph takes it in his teeth. The dog jumps about excitedly as Hardy kicks off his slippers and puts on his sneakers that he keeps near the door. At the door, Hardy stands very still, as if frozen. Look at the way his hand is trembling as it lays hesitantly on the doorknob. He puts his forehead against the door, mumbles the Lord’s Prayer, and then opens the door.
At the bottom of the steps outside of his apartment building, Hardy attaches the leash to the collar around Zeph’s neck. “Let’s go, boy,” he says softly to the dog. Hear the quivering in his voice?
The streetlamps are on and cast dim orbs of light as night falls. Watched by their parents who sit on the tenement steps, children play on the sidewalks. The children play only with other children who have the same skin color. Watch as Hardy cautiously winds his way through a group of Hispanic children, keeping Zeph close to his side. Hardy is biting his lower lip so hard that the skin on lip has broken and blood trickles from it. He quickens his steps, attempting to escape the noise and crowding of the sidewalk. See the panic in his eyes as he approaches a group of middle aged black men standing on the corner. He’s seen these men many times before and he knows several of their names. Carl. George. Al. The men are smoking cigarettes and a hazy smoke cloud hangs above their heads. Before he’s near enough to speak to them, or to be spoken to, he quickly checks the traffic, and then steps into the street, pulling Zeph with him. See the terror in his face when half way across the street he is caught in the headlights of an oncoming SUV as its horn blares. He quickly lifts Zeph into his arms and rushes across the other lane. On the sidewalk he sets Zeph down. Watch him hug Zeph’s neck as the dog licks his sweating face.
He goes around the corner, and as the dark of night blankets the local park, Hardy leads Zeph between the two small columns at the park’s entrance. The park is quiet, somehow blocking out the cacophony of noise from the surrounding neighborhood. The path in the park is lit by bright yellow streetlamps. The small park is mostly grass, with only a two trees, and a play area for the kids. As Zeph stops to poop in the grass, Hardy realizes he forgot to bring along the scoop and a plastic bag. He patiently waits until Zeph is done, kicks grass and dirt on top of the pile, and then looks about as if he has just committed a major crime. It’s then he notices something large is hanging from the branch of one of the trees that is shrouded in darkness. Pushed by the hot breeze, whatever it is, is slowly swinging.
Watch as Hardy stares in disbelief. Is that a body?
The sudden sound of footsteps on the walkway diverts his attention from what he has seen. Under the light of the streetlamps two men, one white, one black, are walking hand-in-hand toward him. They see him just as he sees them and they quickly release their hands. They pass by him in silence.
When Hardy looks back at the tree, the swinging figure is gone.
When all else is quiet, the clacking of the train cars on the El is more pronounced, making it seem much closer than it is. The curtains are fluttering in the humid breeze. See Hardy sitting on his sofa with his laptop propped up on his knees. Zeph is outstretched on the sofa beside him, his nose nuzzled against Hardy’s leg. The lights in the room are out and the glow from the laptop screen illuminates his face.
“When will we be together?” Hardy asks, staring at the screen.
Joanie twirls a strand of her black hair around her finger. Her fingernail is painted a pale pink. “Hopefully it will be soon,” she says. “Never being able to see you other than by skyping kills me.”
“Dan thinks it’s weird that it’s the only way we’ve ever seen each other,” Hardy says.
She pouts her lips. “Your friend annoys me.”
Hardy rubs Zeph’s side. “He’s my only friend.”
The expression on Joanie’s face suddenly brightens. “We’ll have to have the wedding out here. I have tons of friends and I want them all to see me walk down the aisle. I couldn’t get married without having my girlfriends as my bridesmaids.”
He hesitates before he asks, “Have you told your parents about us yet?”
She pushes the strand of hair back behind her ear. “Not yet. Not everything. They’re very old fashioned in some ways.”
“I see,” he says. Watch as he glances toward the ceiling, searching for words. He looks at her, but not directly at her. “I’ve been experiencing problems lately. And they have suddenly gotten much worse.”
She looks at her watch. “Oh honey, I wish I could talk more, but The Bachelorette is coming on and I must see who Bernadette is going to give roses to.”
Look at the way Hardy’s fingers grasp Zeph’s black and white mottled fur. The dog licks his hand.
“Okay, I’ll talk to you tomorrow night,” he says.
“You better,” she says, “but call me earlier because one of my favorite shows comes on early tomorrow night.” She blows him a kiss and then she’s gone.
Hardy closes the laptop and sits in the dark, petting Zeph.
For ten minutes Hardy stands at his front door, staring at it. See the beads of sweat rolling down the side of his face. He has his black metal lunch box in his right hand and taps it repetitively against his leg. His gray overalls feel like a straitjacket and he’s doing everything in his power to keep from ripping them off. Look at the way his shoulders slump, as if he’s caving in on himself. He drops the lunch box. Its metallic echo reverberates in the hallway when it hits the floor. He takes his cellphone from his pocket.
“I can’t do it, Dan. I can’t get out the door,” he says, on the verge of tears. “Tell Shirley I won’t be in today.” He holds the phone to his ear for a moment. “Okay, I’ll see you after work.” He puts the cellphone on the table, removes his work boots and overalls, and leaves them in a heap on the floor near the door.
In his bedroom he puts on sweatpants and a sweatshirt. The logo for The University of Hawaii at Manoa is printed on the front of the sweatshirt. He stands in front of his floor length mirror gazing at the logo, wondering how his life would be different if he had finished college. When he looks at his hazel-colored eyes staring back at him, the thought passes through his head, Who am I?
Zeph follows behind as Hardy goes back to the living room. The dog is whining, almost inaudibly.
Hardy sits in the Barcalounger and Zeph sits besides the chair. Hardy rubs the top of Zeph’s head. “Sal will be here soon,” he says. He turns his head and looks out the open window. The morning traffic is stalled. One driver keeps beeping his horn. The echoes of the El reverberate above the other noise. He looks up and watches jet contrails scratch the hazy morning sky.
“I didn’t know you were home.”
See Hardy’s startled reaction when he turns his head and sees Sal standing in the room, keys dangling from his fingers. He quickly rises from the chair. “I’m staying home today.”
Zeph runs to the box and comes back dragging his leash. With it in his mouth, he nuzzles Sal’s hand. Sal squats down and affectionately, but vigorously, rubs Zeph’s back. The dog’s tail wags excitedly. Sal looks up at Hardy. “Are you feeling okay?”
Look at how Sal studies the Puerto Rican’s face. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
Sal hesitates before saying, “As long as it’s not too personal.”
“How do you feel about your skin color?”
“Skin color?” Sal says with a laugh. “It is what it is. I feel nothing about it.” He rises, folds Zeph’s leash and puts it in the dog’s mouth. “Was there anything else?”
“No, nothing,” Hardy says.
“I’ll be back with Zeph in about a half hour,” Sal says as he goes to the door, with Zeph following. “Oh, I hate to tell you this but I can’t walk Zeph this evening. The study group for my calculus class wants to get together before the exam. I’m really sorry to do this to you two nights in a row.”
See the panic sudden cross Hardy’s face. “That’s okay,” he says.
When they go out the door, Hardy goes to the cabinet above the kitchen sink and takes out the bottle of whiskey and a shot glass. He fills the glass up to the rim, and then gulps down the warm whiskey. He carries the bottle and glass into the living room and places them on the stand next to the chair. He sits in the Barcalounger and turns on the television. He flips through the channels, finally stopping at an old rerun of The Jeffersons. See how his hand shakes as he pours another glass of whiskey.
Dan sits at Hardy’s kitchen table and takes small sips from a can of beer. “I looked it up,” he says. “You have the symptoms of some kind of agoraphobia.”
Hardy sits across from him. “I’m not afraid of open spaces, or any spaces at all,” he says. He picks at a small scab on the back of his hand. “Do you give much thought to the color of your skin?”
Dan takes a larger drink of his beer. “It’s different than yours, but what’s wrong with the color of my skin?” he asks, defensively.
“Nothing,” Hardy says, resignedly. “I’m just trying to figure out what’s happening to me.”
Dan tilts his chair back, and gazes at his friend’s face. “You really should see someone about whatever it is that’s turning you into a nutcase. Only a few weeks ago you weren’t having panic attacks at the thought of seeing other people and talking about skin color. It isn’t normal.”
“It’s as much about people seeing me, seeing the color of my skin,” Hardy says.
Dan puts the chair back on all four legs. “As I said, you need to get help.”
Hardy presses his fingertip on the dried scab. “From the time I was a toddler I grew up in nine different foster homes. Every time I was shipped to a new family I had to get help to get over losing the family who no longer wanted me. I’ve lived with a family from every race.”
“You never told me that before,” Dan says. “Maybe you’re having a kind of delayed reaction to that.”
“Maybe,” Hardy says, “but this feels like something bigger.”
Dan looks at his watch and then out the window, at the fading light of day. “Isn’t it time for Sal to take Zeph for his evening walk?”
“He can’t tonight,” Hardy says. “I’ll take Zeph out after I talk with Joanie, which I better do before it gets any later.”
“I can take Zeph out for you if you want me to,” Dan says.
The two men stand up simultaneously.
“No, thanks,” Hardy says. “Zeph is used to me and Sal but he hasn’t been taken outside by you. He can get skittish.” He walks Dan to the door. As he opens it, he says, “I’ll call Shirley in the morning if I don’t think I can make it in.”
“Okay,” Dan says. He turns and goes down the hall. Over his shoulder he says, “Get some help.”
Hardy shuts the door. Watch as he leans against the door, holds up his hand and looks at the scab. Zeph comes up to him and rubs his body against Hardy’s legs. Hardy pats him on the head. “I have to call Joanie and then I’ll take you out,” he says. He walks into the living room, shuts off the lights, picks up his laptop from the coffee table, and sits on the sofa. He props his feet up on the coffee table and places the laptop on his knees. Zeph climbs onto the sofa and stretches out. Hardy connects with Joanie.
There are tears streaming down her cheeks.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” he asks.
“I have to break it off,” she blubbers.
An extending blaring horn outside his building momentarily diverts his attention and he turns his head to the open window. When he returns to her, he hears her say, “They would never forgive me.”
“Who would never forgive you for what?” he asks.
“My parents,” she says, her voice raised, annoyed. “I told them I was engaged to a man I met on the internet and had never met in person. They hit the roof.”
“I’ll come there or you can come here so that we can meet before the wedding,” Hardy says. Hear the panic in his voice.
“No, it’s not just that,” she says.
“What is it?” he asks, his voice shrill. “Is it my skin color?”
Screaming, he says, “Is it the color of my skin?”
“Hardy . . .”
“I can’t do anything about the color of my skin,” he shouts, holding the laptop screen close to his face.
Hardy throws the laptop across the room. It hits a wall and crashes to the floor. “Let’s go, Zeph,” he says as he jumps up from the sofa. He goes to the box and takes out Zeph’s leash.
Zeph climbs off the sofa and approaches Hardy submissively, with his head down, and stands perfectly still as Hardy attaches the leash to his collar.
Hardy leaves his apartment and his building and goes out into the night, pulling Zeph along. Two white boys on skateboards nearly collide with them at the base of the building’s stairs. Hardy takes a perfunctory look both ways before stepping into the street. Zeph sidles alongside Hardy’s legs until they reach the opposite sidewalk. Hardy looks at no one as he and Zeph rush down the sidewalk, around the corner, and into the park.
A little past the park’s entrance, the hot breeze blows the garbage from an overturned trash can across the walkway. Zeph stops to smell a the remains of a wrapped sandwich as Hardy continues walking.
Hardy turns. “No, Zeph,” he says, sharply and tugs on the leash.
“Get your hands up,” the voice behind him says.
Hardy feels the barrel of a gun poking into his back. He raises his arms, letting go of the leash. “I don’t have any money,” he says. He slowly turns.
The man is dressed in black black pants and a long sleeve black turtleneck shirt and white high top sneakers. He’s wearing brown leather gloves. A red knit cap covers his head. A pair of dark sunglasses hide his eyes.
“Give me your watch,” the man says, his voice muffled by the cap.
Zeph comes up beside Hardy, glares at the man, bares his teeth, and begins to growl.
“Down, Zeph,” Hardy says.
“I said give me the watch,” the man says waving the gun at Hardy and Zeph.
Hardy starts to take off his watch.
The hairs on Zeph’s back bristle. His growls become more fierce. He crouches, ready to spring.
The man aims the gun at Zeph.
“No,” Hardy yells out, dropping the watch and stepping between the man and Zeph as the man fires the gun.
The bullet hits Hardy in the chest. He puts his hand where the bullet entered his body and then pulls his hand away and stares at it for a moment.
“All blood is red,” he says.
Watch as he collapses on the ground, dead.