Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 430 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, and LGBTQ: 33 Stories, and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.
By Steve Carr
Bill’s house was a ramshackle structure that looked as if it had been hastily built, the central part of it no larger than a one car garage, with attached rooms built onto it, like afterthoughts. It sat behind a larger house, a 1950s structure built with red bricks and green shutters on the windows. The man who owned Bill’s house, Mr. Cruny, the landlord, lived in the red brick house with his bedridden wife, Clara, and their dog, Rusty, a chihuahua that seemed to never tire of barking.
Weather and time had worn away the white paint on Bill’s house, patches of which clung to the gray, exposed boards like splattered milk. The front lawn of Bill’s house was Mr. Cruny’s backyard. Bushes badly in need of trimming lined the front of Bill’s house as if planted there as either to keep whoever lived in the house, in this case, Bill, held captive there, or to keep others out. A gravel driveway ran from the street in front of Mr. Cruny’s house to one end of Bill’s house where Bill kept his broken down black Ford pickup truck parked.
At a little after noon on the hottest day of the year, Sara arrived at Bill’s house in an Uber taxi driven by a Sikh from India who wore a turban. He helped her take her three large suitcases from the trunk of his car and stack them on the straw welcome mat in front of Bill’s door. After she handed him the money – including a generous tip – for the ride from the airport, he wished her a good life and then got in his car and backed out of the driveway and drove away. Sara removed her shoes that were too small and had pinched and abraded her feet all the way from Cincinnati to the point of producing blisters and tossed them behind the bushes. She sat on her suitcases, crossed her legs, and tried to ignore the rivulets of sweat that ran from under her arms and between her breasts.
Within minutes after Sara’s arrival, Mr. Cruny came out the back door of his house, having used his foot to push Rusty back to keep the yapping dog from running out, and crossed the backyard to the aluminum tool shed that stood near the back of his house. Having watched Sara from his kitchen window from the moment she had stepped out of the taxi, he glanced at her surreptitiously several times, trying to decide about his mixed feelings about there being a young woman sitting outside his tenant’s front door. This kind of thing hadn’t happened before, not since Bill had moved in the year before and while he had always been concerned, and slightly suspicious, about Bill’s solitary life, having a barefoot female camped out on the welcome mat didn’t entirely set well with him.
He opened the tool shed and took out the push mower and steered it in a perfectly straight path through the recently cut grass. As the blades of the mower churned up what few blades of grass there was that needed cutting, Mr. Cruny remembered he had forgotten to tell Clara he was going outside, and hoped he would hear her through the closed windows and from her bedroom at the front of their house if she called out.
Sara paid little attention to Mr. Cruny, busying herself with applying additional coats of bright green polish to her fingernails while frequently stopping to flap her arms to stir a breeze in her blouse. She thought about ordering some lunch via Grubhub but when she took her cellphone out of her clutch purse it was dead, owing to the continual problem that she had with forgetting to recharge it. While sitting in the back of the taxi she had noticed block after block of suburban homes but hadn’t seen a restaurant within walking distance of where she now sat. She had passed up the croissant and juice that the airline served during the flight, and too excited to get to Bill’s to stop long enough to get something to eat at the airport, she listened with regret as her stomach rumbled and gurgled. Believing she could rely on her cellphone to keep her connected to the rest of the world, she had packed her watch in one of the suitcases, and forgetting which one, she tried to determine the passing of time, and the hour of the day, by the location of the sun in the sky. She thought it odd that the old man cutting the grass said nothing to her, but she made no effort to say anything to him either.
With half of the backyard mowed to the point of there being nothing but nubs of grass poking out of the dirt, Mr. Cruny returned the mower to the shed and then went back inside. From there he watched, somewhat mortified, as Sara doused her entire body with water from the garden hose attached to the back of his house. Her appearance of that of a wet scarecrow reminded him of his childhood and brought back horrifying memories of growing up on a poorly tended corn farm in Iowa.
The back tire of Bill’s bicycle was flat. It stirred up the rocks as he rode through the driveway to his house. His sweat-soaked shirt clung to his body and his curly black hair hung limply over his forehead and into his eyes. His backpack had shifted to the middle of his spine where it rested there like a bag of cement, interfering with his ability to breathe normally. From inside Mr. Cruny’s house, Rusty’s high-pitched barking followed Bill from the front of Mr. Cruny’s house to the back of it, where it continued unabated. He got off of the bike, peeling his sweat dampened pants from the plastic seat, and ran across the lawn and into Sara’s open arms. They hugged and kissed for several moments without saying a word, each finding the dampness of the other’s clothing slightly off-putting. When he saw her baggage outside his front door, he asked, “Why didn’t you go inside?”
“The door is locked,” she said.
“Didn’t you get my text that I left the key under the mat?” he asked.
She made a barely perceptible groan but didn’t bother to explain about her phone.
He hoisted his backpack a few inches up his back. “I brought some groceries but I think the ice cream has melted,” he said.
Ignoring Mr. Cruny standing at a back window of his house and peering between the curtains, the couple carried Sara’s suitcases into his house and shut the door. They set the suitcases on the floor while Sara did a slow turn in what would euphemistically be called the living room. The walls were a very pale green, as if whoever blended the paint hadn’t had the energy to commit to either white or green, and the resulting effect was that of diluted pea soup. There were two pieces of furniture: a loveseat with yellow nylon upholstery, and a broken grandfather clock that stood in a corner with a pendulum that hung to one side, the position it was in during the clock’s last working moment. A huge home heating and air conditioning unit placed against one wall was as silent and seemingly dead as the clock. Everything was covered in dust. There were two doors leading from the room, one on the right that led to the kitchen, and one on the left that led to the bedroom and bathroom.
Without going into the other rooms, Sara knew right off that she may have made a horrible mistake by leaving a job, her family and friends, and her own home, for a man she had dated while in high school six years before and hadn’t seen since then.
Cicada had arisen from the ground after a seven year absence, overtaking the usual evening peace and quiet with their constant raspy screeching. Sara sat in one of Bill’s kitchen chairs that rested on the welcome mat to his house, rocking the chair side to side on its rickety legs, while nervously attempting to chew the green fingernail polish off of her fingernails. The dark of night had only lowered the temperature by a few degrees, with the inside of Bill’s house no cooler than the outdoors, no matter how much he fiddled with the knobs on the air conditioning unit that turned on but didn’t generate cool air. The door to his house was open and Sara could hear the television on in his bedroom, where he laid on his bed in his boxer shorts watching wrestling. The lovemaking between the time of her arrival and her seeking fresh air outside his front door had been brief, and unsatisfactory for her. He seemed content with his performance, even though she was quick to point out that it was lackadaisical. She considered that sex with him as a high school senior, done in her bedroom or in his car, must have been more exciting, even if she couldn’t recall any of the details. Before he left Cincinnati they promised they would see one another again one day, but neither of them really believed that. They reconnected on Facebook six months before and dated online and by phone before deciding they belonged together and that she should leave Cincinnati and move in with him. She could see Mr. Cruny as he stared at her from his kitchen window. She spat out specks of nail polish and swatted at gnats and mosquitoes that swarmed around her head.
Sara awoke in the middle of the night twisted up in a sheet like a loosely wrapped mummy. Her hair was stuck to her face, glued there by sweat. Her mouth felt as if it had been stuffed with dust bunnies and a grit she couldn’t identify had become adhered to her teeth and couldn’t be removed no matter how much she ran her tongue over them. Bill lay next to her, uncovered and on his side in a fetal position, facing away from her and softly snoring. The springs under the mattress squeaked like a nest of mice as she freed herself from the sheet, sat up, and hung her legs over the edge of the bed. Through the flimsy, yellowed lace curtain over the window she saw the light on in Mr. Cruny’s kitchen. Before they went to bed Bill had raised the window high enough to allow fresh air to enter the bedroom, but the air was still, although the scent of cut grass wafted in. She picked up her bra that laid on the floor next to the bed, slipped it on and then pulled on her jeans and went into the living room.
Her recharged cellphone sat on the air conditioning unit. With it in her hand she opened the front door and saw that she had no calls or texts, except the one Bill had left her about the key. That not even her mother had bothered to contact her made her angry despite knowing that every person she knew back home thought what she was doing was crazy, just as they thought her moving in with the guy in San Francisco who she had met on an online dating site and turned out to be a drug dealer was crazy. In freshman year in college she moved in with a married man who had recently separated from his wife, and everyone told her that was crazy also.
Rusty’s incessant barking poured out of the Cruny house rivaling the noise made by the ubiquitous insects. Sara quietly trod across the lawn, around the corner of the house, and stealthily stepped up to a window that looked into the Cruny living room. Two lamps with fringed shades shone dim light around the room that was crammed with medical equipment: oxygen tanks, bedpans, walkers, a ventilator and a wheelchair. A stack of folded hospital bed sheets were on the coffee table along with pillow cases and towels. She watched as Mr. Cruny walked through the room carrying a cup of tea and a bottle of pills and opened a door and went into an adjoining room, followed by Rusty who ran around Mr. Cruny’s feet, barking.
Sara turned from the window and walked back to Bill’s house. She brushed blades of grass from the soles of her feet and went into the house.
“You’ll get arrested walking around like that.” Bill was sitting on the love seat and drinking water from a plastic bottle.
“Nothing is like I thought it would be,” she said.
“It rarely is,” he said.
She walked into the bedroom, took off her jeans, and got in bed. She glanced over at her suitcases that she hadn’t unpacked. There was one old four drawer dresser in the room and a small closet, both packed with Bill’s things.
Mr. Cruny watched from his kitchen window as Sara dragged her three suitcases to the edge of the driveway, stacked them, and then sat down on them.
She took her cellphone from her skirt pocket and read on her Facebook page that Matt Homestead had contacted her She had dated him while a Junior in college and for a short time after he left school to join the military she had hoped he would send for her no matter where he was stationed in the world. But she didn’t hear from him and they lost contact. He said in his Facebook message to her that he was still in the Army and soon returning to Afghanistan for another tour there. She knew very little about Afghanistan but she liked the idea of waiting on someone to return from there. She vowed to begin waiting for him as soon as she returned to Cincinnati, and with any luck he would send for her as soon as he could. That was her plan anyway.
Mr. Cruny came out his back door with Rusty circling his legs and barking non-stop. He stopped a several yards distance from where Sara sat. “You brought a lot of baggage for such a short visit,” he said nodding at her suitcases.
“I decided it’s not going to work out here,” she said. “I don’t know Bill as well as I thought I did and there are things he didn’t tell me, like the truth about the house he lives in.” She held out her hand and looked at her fingernails and thought the next color she chose for them would be something with a purple hue. “When you see him, please tell him I said goodbye.”
Mr. Cruny raised his bushy eyebrows. “Don’t you think you should tell him that yourself?”
“I’ve learned by experience that leaving someone is never as romantic as meeting them,” she said.
He glanced at his house. “Sometimes life circumstances keeps you tied to one person.”
An Uber taxi pulled into the driveway. Sara stood and put her cellphone in her pocket. The Uber driver, a young Black woman with large hoop earrings, got out of her car and opened the trunk. The two women put Sara’s suitcases in the trunk. They then got in the car and drove off as Mr. Cruny tried to quieten Rusty, which of course was futile.