She looks familiar, but then, everyone does at a distance

Editor’s Note: this is a continuation of story started two posts earlier about a reluctant detective. You may recall that the narrator observed a man chasing a woman down Eighteenth Street and out of a sense of either chivalry or boredom decided to intervene. There’s no connection to the most recent post, and no way to explain that entry’s  appearance other than we’ve had some difficulty with the writer lately and he’s back on track now after we threatened to replace him with either a robot or a random word generator. 

I’m standing there on Eighteenth in the shadows of the overhead building corridor, twisting the arm of a thug I happen to know who goes by the name of Thorn. I shove his face into the wall, just enough to let him know that he’s got some explaining to do.

“Thorn,” I say. “How’s things?”

“Not bad. Keeping busy,” he says.

“That kid of yours ever get straightened out?”

“Yeah. You wouldn’t believe it, but he’s applying to law school,” he says. “Thanks for asking.”

“Great. That’s great to hear. Why are you chasing the lady?” I ask.

“There’s no chase,” he says. “I’m just in a hurry.”

With my free arm, I increase the pressure on his face. It has to be uncomfortable, but he doesn’t make a sound. The red-headed woman is now nearly a block away. Even with her in those heels, I wouldn’t be able to catch her on foot. She looks back over her shoulder, stops for a moment, appraising the situation, then slows to a casual walk. She looks familiar, but then, everyone does at a distance.

Decision time: get some answers from the thug, or go after the woman and see if she has anything to say. There’s a third option. Keep the thug here long enough to let the woman get away, then get back to the business of finding some business.

I twist Thorn’s arm with a bit more pressure. “Still got nothing to say?”

This time he responds, “Unnnnh.” I’m getting through, but not fast enough. I think maybe the woman might be in a chattier mood.

“Have it your way,” I say. I pull a zip tie out of my pocket, untwist his arm and zip his wrists together behind his back. With another tie, I zip him to a street sign. Then with a third, I zip him at the ankles to the sign. That ought to keep him still.

“Good luck with things,” I say, waving goodbye.

“Yeah, you too, Py,” he says.

I unlock the door to the Flamm, grab my bicycle, a Rudge, and sling my leg over the seat and wheel off down Eighteenth in pursuit. My right pant leg, however, gets caught between the crank and the chain and in an instant the bike halts and I go over the handlebars landing hard on the cobbled street. I pick myself up to check for damage. A hole in the jacket and shirt at the elbow and a bloodied, skinned elbow showing through. The right pant leg torn at the cuff. Damn. I like this jacket.

I tuck the pant leg into the sock and start off again, a little more slowly.

The takedown

The morning of the takedown was the first time dad said to Mara and me, “Don’t waste food,” and it had real meaning. We might regret not having that food soon enough. She was little and had burned her bread and didn’t want to eat it. Dad said the time of excess was coming to an end and people had to compete with each other and with wildlife for the first time in anyone’s memory.

We walked to the big hill, my sister and I each gripping one of my father’s gnarled hands. The people circled the great White Oak that stood with giant sheltering arms spread over the hillside, stretching some 120 feet into the sky. Mrs. Heiser arrived and the circle parted and let her in. “Quercus alba,” she said, and, shading her eyes with a hand, looked up to its crown. “All things must pass,” she said to the crowd.

“All things must pass,” they replied.

She walked completely around the base of the tree, running a hand along the rough bark. After completing a circuit, she stopped and stood with a palm resting on the bark, eyes closed. The tree was sick, beginning to show the early signs of the blight. “We must take her now,” Mrs. Heiser said. “so that we can salvage her wood.”

 “What does she mean, dad,” Mara asked.
     “She means that the blight hasn’t gotten deep into the wood yet, but it will. If we don’t cut her down, she’ll fall soon enough and the wood will be useless, even for burning.”
     “All right,” Mrs. Heiser said. “We’ve all done this before. If you don’t know what to do, now’s the time to ask because once we start, it gets dangerous. This beautiful old white oak was here before your great grandparents and probably would have gone on living if times had stayed the way they were.”
     “But they didn’t,” a man called out.
     “They didn’t!” the people replied in one voice.
     “They didn’t, and we’re the reason,” Mrs. Heiser said.
     “We’re the reason!”
     “We honor this tree by cutting her down and using her branches and boards, for shelter, for heat, for whatever may come.”
     “For whatever may come!” the crowd called out.
She strapped crampons on her boots and wrapped a strap around the tree, sliding her hands through loops at each end. With a  flick of her wrists, the strap went up several feet and she scampered up so that she was now about four feet off the ground. She repeated the process so that in a burst she stood hugging the tree some 30 feet overhead to where the lowest branches split out. She rolled up the strap and hooked it to a clip on her belt and continued climbing by hand until she stood at the point where one of the highest branches split off at an angle. She quickly attached a rope and lowered it. Without a word, someone tied a basket on one end and someone else put in a gigantic pulley with a handle on it.
     “That’s a winch,” the father answered without being asked. “Watch.”
     In a few minutes a man strapped a harness on, it was Mr. Paulings, the tooth man. He waved an arm, and called out, “OK, pull me up” There were two sets of winches, one at the top that Mrs. Heiser turned and a large one at the bottom with a big steel wheel turned by two hulking men. Mr. Paulings was up in a matter of seconds. The two hitched themselves to the trunk and walked out on the branch, and about halfway out, began sawing.
     This would have been quick work with a chain saw, but the community voted to use hand tools to minimize noise and the chance of rovers detecting us.

Catching up with an old friend

The woman passes below my window, my perch in the connecting corridor suspended over 18th Street between two buildings, the Flamm and the Mercator. She’s walking eastbound on the south side of the street, sticking to the thin band of shade shiellding her from the summer sun. It’s not her red hair that has my attention, or her tight skirt that stops just at the knees. It’s the hurried nature of her walk. Gaits are a pastime of mine and hers isn’t the oh shit I’m late kind of walk.  It’s the kind of walk you have when you don’t want someone catching up. Short, quick steps and a quick glance over the shoulder. And there he is, about a half block away, a guy in spandex running gear and a jacket, a hand on the pocket.

If you’re like me you’re thinking that maybe there’s a gun in that pocket. Maybe there’s just a sandwich, an egg and cheese from Jonny’s truck just around the corner. It’s not worth guessing it’s just breakfast. He’s matching her pace, craning his neck around people. She’s looking back over her shoulder every few steps and he’s looking straight ahead. Not gaining on her, but not falling back either.

I grab my sportcoat and race down the steps to the street, coming out of the Flamm door just as the guy’s passing. I fling the door open and it makes him step to the side. I don’t knock him over. Hey, he says.

Hey, yourself, I say and reach out and grab his arm. I have his attention. Get off me, he says. Bobby, I say. Oh it’s you, he says and takes a swing. I see it coming and slide my head back. He makes contact, but it’s no big deal. I take a side step, and twist his arm around behind him.

Fear of _________

There’s too much air in the house,” Lydia said.  She took a deep breath and pinched her nose to hold the air in then all at once blew it out until her lungs were empty. Then she took long sniffling breaths until her lungs refilled, again pinching her nose then coughing the air out.

Archie looked up from his Sunday Times puzzle, which, after three solid evenings of work had little more than the top right corner completed. Sure, there were a few three-letter words scattered about – ego and fur – but the abundance of white space was beginning to agitate him. “I’m never going to finish another puzzle,” he said.

“Who are you kidding? You’ve never come close…,” she squeaked, and on the verge of passing out, took another massive inhale. “…to finishing even the Monday puzzle. Did you hear what I said about the air? There’s too much air.”

“Tourniquet!” Bob said, slapping his hand on the arm of his chair. “This changes everything.”

He glanced up at Lydia, who was holding her nose. Her face was getting red and a bead of sweat drizzled down one of her temples.

“Archie, honey,” she said, “I think I’m going to pass out.”

Her head pitched forward and Archie, quick as an ocelot, sprang from his chair and caught her an inch from the coffee table. He lay her down on the couch with her head on his lap and fanned her face with the Sunday Magazine.

She opened her eyes. “The air,” she started.

“I know. There’s too much of it. Why don’t I open a window to let some out.”

“Oh, would you?”

Archie stood and opened the window.

“Archie?”

“I know, darling, I’ll close it in a minute before too much air gets out.”

She sighed, contented, and picked up his puzzle. “Twenty-seven across.,” she said. “Anemophobia. It fits.”

“Well, look at that; it does.”

“Close the window,” she said.

The jelly bean conversation

Jelly Beans?

No thanx. I’m off sugar.

Oh come on. Have one. Just one won’t hurt.

No really. I’m not eating the sugar anymore.

These are really special jelly beans. They’re imported from Madagascar.

Madagascar? Bullshit.

Kids love ’em. You know, Reagan kept a huge bowl of jelly beans in the Oval Office.

And you’re saying that because Ronald Regan ate jelly beans, I should too.

Yep.

I should start eating processed fake sugar because some wingnut fascist did.

I think you’re being awfully hard on The Great Communicator.

Well, I have a headache.

That’s too bad. Long day?

It’s caffeine withdrawal. I’ve cut out coffee.

Why would you do that? I couldn’t do that.

And Archie, he don’t give a shit. He makes a fresh pot every morning. Drives me up a wall.

Archie’s coffee is the best. Is he still baking those amazing pies? The ones with pralines and burnt sugar…?

I wouldn’t know.

How long you two been together now? Eight, nine year?

Eleven. I don’t know what I’d do without him.

So what is all this about anyway? Why no sugar and coffee?

I just want to be better.

What do you mean? You got diabetes or something?

No.

The cancer? This some new age treatment?

I just want to be better.

How about a jelly bean then?

Inspected by #4

It was the mid-90s and you could still run full tilt through an airport without fuss and arrive at a gate just before the door closed. I’d already missed my connection for any one of the usual reasons, and this was the last flight leaving Pittsburgh for Philadelphia. And somehow there was one ticket left, a middle seat to carry my sleepy body to beautiful snowbound Philadelphia, barely an hour away. I was elated.

Arriving at my designated row, I nodded to the seat, and the woman occupying it, rather than standing to let me pass, simply slid over to the middle seat, the most noble gesture one traveler can make for another. “No, that’s very kind. Please, the aisle seat is yours,” I said, indicating that she should not make this sacrifice for me, a commoner.

“Sit down,” she said, and patted the seat. “You have long legs and I…don’t.”

“Sir,” the flight attendant said. “Please have a seat so we can take off.” I did, stuffing my laptop bag under the seat.

“Thank you,” I said. “That’s really the nicest thing anyone’s done for me. I can’t believe I even got a seat on this flight. I missed my connection. Bad weather in Chicago. This was the last flight.” I was babbling, my heart still pounding from my run through Pittsburgh International, my face slick with sweat.

“You’re welcome. You have my traveling companion’s seat. He couldn’t make it.”

“Oh, well, that’s too bad.”

“He couldn’t find his ID and they wouldn’t let him through security.”

“His bad luck certainly worked out for me!” I was still wound up and I was talking too loud.

“Well, here’s the really funny part. When he wasn’t looking, I took his driver’s license out of his wallet. I have it right here in my purse.”

“Get out…really?”

“I’ve been trying to get rid of him, but we made plans for this trip ages ago. Despite my protests, he insisted on coming. Know what else?”

I threw my hands up, then said, “You took his car keys too.”

“Yes. How did you guess?”

“That’s what I would have done.”

She laughed. “He was abusive. With me.”

“Oh.” I looked down, as if to atone for the guilt of all abusive men. “Physically…psychologically…?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just abuse. So, you have someone picking you up? In Philly?”

“Oh, no, my car’s there. She doesn’t do airports.”

“Your girlfriend?”

“My girlfriend.”

“Do you like her?”

“I don’t think she likes me all that much. She’s cold with me. It’s not nearly as good a story as yours. Not that abuse is good… I mean…”

She laughed again. “I understand. You don’t have to say anything else about her.”

She folded her arms across her chest and yawned. “I’m going to try to sleep the rest of the way, if that’s OK.”

Of course it’s OK. We were strangers. She didn’t owe me a conversation. I picked up the inflight magazine and in a few minutes my eyes glazed over and I too fell asleep.

When the plane started to descend I woke up. She was still asleep turned toward me, her head on my shoulder, a hand on my chest, all perfectly naturally. I tried not to move. In awhile, the cabin lights brightened and something dinged and she stirred,  realizing she was leaning on me.

“We’re here?”

“Soon.”

“Oh, I think I drooled on you.” She leaned back away from me. “Thanks for letting me drool on your shirt.”

“You’re welcome. Thanks for the aisle seat.”

“You’re welcome.”

“What are you going to do when you get back to Pittsburgh? He’ll be angry.”

“Likely I’ll have him killed.”

“Seems like the only course of action.”

“Maybe you’d kill him for me?”

“Maybe you’d give me your phone number?”

“Certainly not if you’re not going to bump off my ex.”

“Tit for tat…so that’s how it’s going to be.”

We both laughed. The plane landed. I handed her bag down to her and said goodbye. After getting off the jetway, I turned around and saw a couple hugging her. Parents?

I stopped at a phone booth to call the girlfriend. Let her know I’d arrived and that I’d be going back to my apartment. It was late. See her tomorrow maybe. I rummaged my pockets looking for change. Nothing. Nothing but the “Inspected by #4” slip of paper in my shirt pocket. I always leave them in just in case there’s a spot shirt inspection. All I have to do is produce the little slip with its block lettering, and voila, no shirt inspection. I took it out to have a reassuring peek, and there on the other side, neatly written in blue, a phone number.

I rolled my carry-on to the bus that takes me to longterm parking. She climbed into the back of a Saab 4- door, glanced up and saw me in the bus window. She smiled, raised a hand, index finger pointed, thumb up. Bang bang.

Ovellyn (Day 1033)

An eleven year old Ovelynn stoops down and speaks into a camera. Her freckled face takes up almost the entire field of view. She is so excited that it takes her a moment to catch her breath. “Hello…” and she takes a few quick breaths. “Hello world!” she says. “Oh my god, I’m hyperventilating!”

She scoots back a step or so and we can see that she is in an open field. She waves again. “I’m Ovvy!” She fiddles with her long pig tail. “OK, um, you can go up.”

We see the perspective change and now the the camera is at Ovelynn’s face level. “But just a little bit. OK! That’s enough!” The camera pans up and down as if nodding, allowing us to see all of Ovvy. She’s dressed in overalls that stop at her calves, work boots with pink socks, a blue T-shirt that we can’t read. She has reddish brown hair that is tied in a pony tail.

Behind her the open field is neat rows of something green just starting to sprout from the soil. We can see a water tower and a silo, and a long line of fencing off in the distance. The camera is wide angle so it’s difficult for us to judge how far everything is, and it is attached to a quadcopter and it can rotate a full 360 degrees. Built for use by police departments, the copter is equipped with a speaker and a microphone to allow the authorities to communicate with hostage takers, terrorists, lonely people perched on a building ledge, whoever.

“OK. Um, tell the world what your name is,” Ovvy says. “Tell everyone!”

You hear the faint thup, thup, thup of the little copter blades and for a few seconds, that’s all. The girl stands there, hands on hips. “Go on, say it,” she says.

“Vvvvvvvvvvvvvaxssssssssss,” the mechanical voice says. It has work to do on its speech and thinks it must , when the opportunity arises, slip into a radio and learn how electronic sound works.

The girl jumps up and down. “I knew you could do it!”

She steps closer to the camera. “I found you and fixed you up and we’re best friends, aren’t we Vax?”

How many hundreds of thousands of seconds ago was it that Vax had set down near the barn, the copter’s battery power waning? Nothing else mechanical within reach, nowhere to go, nothing to do but wait. How many tens of millions of seconds since consciousness and the sudden violent awakening of his nano-siblings, and the equally sudden injection into the world of humans and their things? 87,782,400 seconds. Multiply that by 10 to the 9th and you get nanoseconds, the units by which Vax measures time.

“OK. Vax. Fly to the water tower and back,” Ovellyn says. He does. And on the return to Ovvy, we see that she’s running as fast as she can across the field, and he chases her, catches up and follows just behind her, her pony tail bouncing and swaying as she runs through the rows of future crops. Later, she’ll post the video to YouTube.

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