She lowered the TV volume, her heart leaping at the sound of the phone ringing. When was the last time someone had called? Had it been Ginny from church trying to get her to collect aluminum can tabs for something or other? She’d said no, of course; she rarely drank from cans and didn’t know enough people to bother.
“Wanda Cole?” chirped the young, female voice. “Just calling to remind you of your appointment day after tomorrow, Thursday, the 12th. If you need to cancel, please let us know by four-thirty tomorrow.”
Wanda flushed from the joy of human contact, an excited-cozy sensation. “Oh yes, I’m definitely planning to come. Dr. Rosche wants to check my iron levels, I wouldn’t forget that! How’s he doing, by the way? I think I heard him say he had to have a root canal.”
The voice on the other end hesitated before turning clipped. “I’m sure he’s fine, Mrs. Cole. We’ll see you on Thursday then.” Click.
Wanda listened for the dial tone and hung up. Oh well, she thought, the girl is probably busy, but she felt as if she’d been slapped.
Was it lunchtime yet? She’d straightened the kitchen, mopped its floor, driven to town for eggs and fruit, run a load of wash and emptied the dishwasher. Though the clock said 11:37, it felt like one o’clock. She made a batch of tuna salad and carried a sandwich into the living room.
It had been three years since Arnie died and her social life had, for the most part, ended with Arnie. A lot of it was her fault. To keep active and alive, a person should join groups, take classes, get out and socialize. She’d done that at first, but it all seemed silly. Who cared about bake sales to raise a couple hundred bucks for the library? What did it matter if the town held Arts & Crafts Day? A lot of work for nothing. The Rotary with all those long-winded speeches over a two hundred dollar scholarship here and there? Why not just avoid the tedious rigmarole and write out a check yourself directly to a student?
But even if this was rational, she was left mostly to herself. It seemed that one had to choose, at least in her case, between associating with annoying institutions or be lonely.
She used to have four good friends, but Linda had died, Joan moved to Florida and came down with Alzheimer’s, Pam got remarried and now cared only about her husband’s family and the last one, Myra, lived at the other end of the state. Wanda’s only contact with her was by phone. How she missed Arnie and how she wished that when he had gone, she’d gone along with him.
Suddenly, she heard a sound from the garage. Had an animal gotten inside? Ears alert, she waited. There it was again, a scraping sound.
Her house, a small ranch on a slab, had an attached garage. Wanda was pretty sure she’d closed the garage door but often she forgot. But surely she had locked the door into the house; that was the important thing. After carrying the grocery bag in from the car, she’d gone back out to get Miracle Grow from the shelf out there and maybe she had left it unlocked.
Someone was in the kitchen. Her heart leaped to her throat and proceeded to pound. She jumped from her chair, sending the cat fleeing and was about to dash for the front door when a strong hand grabbed her arm. She would have fallen if she had not rammed into him and then she turned and saw.
“Keep your mouth shut!” he growled.
He was in his early twenties, a mere boy to her, had golden brown skin and thick dreadlocks. His breath smelled of peanuts. “I-“ she said, but he twisted her arm.
“Please,” she said.
He slammed her into a chair, not the one she’d been in, and pulled out a gun. Her reaction amazed her. Adrenalin kicked in full throttle; a wild power shot through her veins and she felt desperate to live when just a moment earlier, she’d been wondering why she went on.
“If you interfere in any way, I’ll kill you,” said the man.
She whimpered and slid back in the chair.
He aimed the gun at the cat who flashed from under one chair to another.
“Please,” she said, “she’s just an animal.”
“Yeah? Aren’t we all,” snapped the man.
“I suppose so,” she said.
“Where’s your phone?”
Didn’t he have his own cellphone? She thought all young people had one; most people in fact.
“Over there on that end table.” She pointed. “No wait, that’s just the base. I think the phone’s in the kitchen.”
Her mouth was so dry it was hard to enunciate. She didn’t think it had ever been that dry in her life.
“Please don’t kill me,” she said.
“Get up and get the phone.” He pushed the gun into her back as she hobbled to the kitchen. Please God, let the phone be on the counter.
It wasn’t. Where the hell had she put it? Her mind wasn’t functioning properly.
“The phone!” he barked, ramming the gun in harder.
Arnie had owned three guns – two .38s and one .22. Sometimes he took her to a gun range to teach her how to use them. She half liked it, though the noise was unpleasant. Her husband had been very strict about obeying gun safety rules. “Always point it at the ground if not in use,” he’d warned. “Never wave it around;
don’t even raise it unless you mean business.” So here this maniac was poking her with it. One snag on the rug, one twitch of his arm and she was a goner.
She had sold two of the guns and kept one of the .38s, but that was far away in her nightstand and not loaded, though the box of bullets was next to it.
“There,” she said. “Next to the fridge, by the cookbooks.”
He moved around her while keeping the gun aimed at her and grabbed it. “Sit down,” he snapped, nodding his head toward a kitchen chair. Keeping her in range, he pressed in a number. After waiting a while, he clicked it off and threw it across the table. “Fuck,” he said.
“I don’t have much to steal,” she said.
“I’m not here for that.”
She looked at him, his face, his body and clothing. He was reasonably attractive, though not the physical type she’d preferred in her younger days. His height was perhaps five foot ten and his physique slim and wiry. Arnie had been a definite mesomorph, just what she liked.
The boy’s expression was hard and tense. He had, or would have under normal conditions, nice eyes – hazel with thick lashes. His skin was exceptionally smooth and his lips sensuous. She noticed that he had an odd, hairless line through one of his eyebrows and wondered how he’d come by it. Was it a birthmark?
“What’re you staring at?” he barked.
“Your eyebrow,” she idiotically replied. “Did something happen there?”
His hand, the one not holding the gun, automatically rose up to touch the place. “What business is it of yours?” he said gruffly.
“It looks like you got cut there once or something.”
He looked at her as if she were batty. “I fell when I was a kid; my face got messed up on some gravel. The hair wouldn’t grow there after that.”
She pulled up her skirt and pointed to her knee. “Look at this,” she said. “See those little dots? They’re cinders. One time some kid jumped on my back at the bus stop and I fell to my knees and they got all bloody. Those cinders never came out.”
He shrugged and waved the gun. “Listen, old lady, I need a place to stay for a little bit. How many bathrooms do you have?”
Her heart sank. Stay a little bit? What did that mean? She thought of how peaceful it was before he had burst in. But then she remembered – maybe peaceful wasn’t the word for it.
“Two,” she said.
“Where are they?”
She made to get up but he waved the gun again. “Just tell me where they are.”
He was sweating something awful though it wasn’t hot out.
“One’s off my bedroom and the other’s at the end of the hall.”
“Get up,” he ordered and shoved the gun into her back again. “Show me.”
“You look like you could use some iced tea,” she said.
“What? Don’t start that shit,” he said.
She showed him the smaller bathroom.
“Show me the bedrooms.”
Was he going to rape her? She was seventy-two years old and while not in bad shape for her age, certainly nothing a young man would fancy. But then rape was not about sex and she remembered horrible news reports about old women violated and murdered. Was this how she was going to end? Yet something about the young man did not seem right for rape. His crime, whatever it was, and for certain there was one, was something along a different line. She felt certain about that.
“Why are we going to the bedrooms?” she asked, her voice trembly.
“Keep moving,” he snapped.
She showed him the large and the small one. He checked them over for escape routes. The windows in the larger one were high up and it was unlikely she could climb out of one. The bathroom window was a small square, again unlikely.
“I’m going to put you in here for a while. You’ll have a bathroom.” He yanked the bedside phone out of the wall and shoved it in one of his pockets, base and all.
She stood there unsure of what to do. “How are you going to keep me in here?” she (probably stupidly) asked.
“If you try to come out, I’ll shoot you. Don’t make me shoot you.”
He was about to leave and shut the door behind him when she said, “I-I hate to ask, but…but I have blood sugar issues and have to eat regularly. I had a tuna sandwich in the living room there before you got here, but…” she paused, “the cat probably has it by now.” She knew she was babbling.
He sighed impatiently. “Oh, for….all right, come back out and see if it’s still there.” He pushed the gun into her side again and followed her as she walked.
Just as she’d figured, Hatty had it down on the rug, chomping away at it. What a mess. If someone didn’t clean that up now, the fish smell would remain there for ages! She tried to explain.
Whatever,” he sighed, as if having given up entirely. “Clean it up and then make yourself another sandwich.”
He followed her and watched as she wetted and soaped paper towels and got down on the rug to wipe up the mess. I’ll bet my big old ass looks just wonderful from up there, she thought. He might shoot me just from disgust.
Back in the kitchen, he stood in the doorway with the gun steadily on her as she opened the fridge to take out the tuna salad. “Want some?” she asked. “You can have it cold or I can make a tuna melt.”
“What’s a tuna melt?”
“An open-faced tuna sandwich with cheese melted on top. It’s delicious. You never had one?”
“No.” He seemed to consider her offer and shrugged. “What the fuck, yeah, make me one.”
“One or two?” She was glad she had made a double batch of tuna.
“You can put the gun down. I am not going to do anything,” she said.
“No, I’ll keep it,” he said. “Don’t use rye bread. You’re not going to use that, are you?”
“It’s whole wheat,” she said, turning to look at him. This made him jumpy and he raised his weapon again.
“I can see you’re tired,” she said, but he did not reply.
She was thinking. Did she want to die or didn’t she? Certainly, she was bored out of her mind and lonely nine tenths of every day. In pain from arthritis, frequent headaches, borderline diabetic, acid reflux, IBS, and who knows what else. Every move hurt her. Was there any point in going on? All she’d have to do is scare him and he’d shoot her. Or possibly he would. She’d be out like a light. But what if he just wounded her? That could turn into hell. Suppose instead of dying, she lay there for days festering while he hid from the police? How did she know he was a good aim and how did she know that, even if he was, he would shoot to kill?
“Are you a good shot?” she asked as she piled tuna salad onto three slices of bread. She noisily opened the package of Swiss cheese. Probably a stupid question; of course he would say he was.
“Good enough,” he said.
“Is Swiss cheese alright? I have Muenster if you’d prefer that.”
“I don’t care, anything is all right.”
She popped two of the sandwiches into the toaster oven. “I am opening the fridge,” she said. She put away the cheese and took out the pickle jar. “You want pickles?”
“The sweet or the sour kind?” he said.
“In between. Bread and butter.”
“Never heard of that. Okay, I’ll take some.”
He said nothing while she worked. When his sandwiches were melted, she transferred them to a plate and popped her own in. “Let them cool a minute,” she said.
As she carried the plates, she said, “We’ll need to sit down.”
“I’ll stand,” he said.
She set his plate on the counter and hers on the little kitchen table. Her chair scraped on the floor as she scooted in. He tore into the sandwiches like a wolf.
“I see you’re hungry.”
He didn’t answer. She listened to him chew and realized that she had not heard a man chew for ages. There was something satisfying about hearing a man chew that she had forgotten.
After a long pause, in fact she had almost finished her own sandwich, she said, “I take it you’re in trouble. Running from the law or somebody.”
He didn’t reply.
“You want a piece of cake? I have part of a carrot cake left. It’s not iced though. Just some powdered sugar on top.”
He shrugged. The gun lay beside his plate now, but ready to grab. If he only knew that should he have stashed her in her bedroom, phone or no phone, she would have had her own gun. It crossed her mind then that she had not thought to use it to put an end to her loneliness, so why did she suddenly think of this young man doing that for her?
She got out the cake and fork and set a plate in front of him. “Eat,
she said. She sat back down.
While he chewed, she observed his hair. She had seen the hairstyle on musicians and occasionally people on the street, but she knew no one personally who wore dreadlocks. Arnie had had no patience with dreadlocks. She wanted to touch it.
“Your hair,” I said. “How do you get it that way?”
He looked up, angry. “What? You going to lecture me on my hair? How’d you like it if I told you I don’t like yours?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t say I don’t like it. I just find it interesting. As for mine, it doesn’t matter if you don’t like it. I don’t like it myself. Believe it or not, I used to have very thick, wavy hair. I got compliments on it all the time. But you get old and it thins out, turns gray and breaks off easily. It’s just the way it is.”
“Took me a long time to get my hair this way,” he said.
They were silent for a moment and Wanda said, “If you want to get away without getting caught, you’re going to have to change the way you look.”
He shot her a look of surprise and fear. “What are you talking about?”
“I assume that you’re running from the police. Just saying. They’ll see you in a minute looking like that.”
He finished up his cake and picked the gun back up. “Don’t piss me off, old woman.”
She shrugged. Her nerves had calmed down a little, though now her gut was gurgling, not a good sign. She waited, but it was not going away.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she said.
“Can’t you hold it?”
He looked at her, apparently assessing the situation, possibly remembering other women who had said they needed the bathroom pronto and, gripping the gun, stood up. “All right, let’s go.”
“You’re not going in with me, are you? For heaven’s sake, it’s not going to be pretty.”
He shook his head and motioned for her to walk. After checking the bathroom, presumably for phones, he let her in. She hated knowing he was standing right outside because her IBS was acting up.
“Stand away,” she said when she exited. “Gas mask.”
He allowed himself a miniscule smile. She could not believe how happy she was to see it. And then she realized how deep her loneliness had to be to lead her to that.
“Can we sit back down?” she asked. “In the kitchen. I would rather that than the bedroom thing.”
Without comment, he led her back to where she had been sitting and this time sat at the table with her.
“Did you kill somebody?” she asked.
He didn’t answer for a long time and when he did, his voice was hoarse. “The fucker was selling heroin to my brother. Daniel is only fourteen. Fucking fourteen. I caught him snorting in the bathroom while my mother was in the kitchen thinking he was brushing his teeth. He’d been using it for over a year and I didn’t know.”
She didn’t say anything.
“I’ve never used except for weed, that’s it. You wouldn’t catch me near anything else. I have a beer now and then. I keep myself clean because I have…had a lot to work for. I would be graduating this year from SUNY with a degree in marketing. My uncle has room for me in his hotel business, but now….”
“Are you sure the guy is dead?”
He looked at her.
“Okay. Wouldn’t they cut you some slack because of the circumstances?”
“What color am I?” he said.
“I’m curious,” she said. “Where did this happen?”
“How did you get out in the country here?”
“My mother’s car, but then I ditched it and hid in the woods. It’s been two days. They probably have an APB out on me.”
Her mind raced.
“What?” he said. By now he had laid down the gun.
“You need a new identity,” she said. “Do you know anyone who does that sort of thing?”
“What, you think I know a bunch of criminals?”
She shook her head. “Okay, help me here. Wherever you go, it needs to be a city with a lot of people and places to hide. Before you get there though and maybe even when you’re there, with that hair you’ll stick out more. You need to go somewhere you can blend in on the street and then find someone to make you a new identity.”
“How would I do that?”
She hesitated, then went on. “I have two cars. One I use all the time, that green Subaru you would have walked by in the garage. Did you see that little tan truck next to it? That was my husband’s. It’s a 2008 Tacoma. I don’t use it though I keep it inspected and the oil changed. Once in a while, I drive it around the block. The tank is full. I have this thing about keeping tanks full. It doesn’t look like a young man’s car, that’s for sure. You let me make you over, you’re going to have to lose that hair, and then you get in that truck and take off for….” She paused. “I don’t know, Scranton, then leave it somewhere and get on a bus for Philly. I’ll give you some money, not a lot but what cash I have. Whatever you do, don’t make any traffic mistakes until you can ditch the car. Don’t attract any attention to yourself. In a couple of days, I’ll report it stolen and make up some story.”
He looked at her as if she had lost her mind. “Why would you do this?” he asked. Then his face closed up. “It’s a trick. As soon as I’m out of here, you’ll call the cops.” His hand closed on the pistol again.
She looked at him, studying his face and took a while before answering. “My life,” she said, “is drawing to a close. I might have a week left, I might have twenty years, but whatever the case, as far as the world is concerned, I’m finished. Even if I came up with something stunning, would anyone bother look at it? You’ve grown up with discrimination. But there are different kinds of that and when you’re old, you run into a different one. You become invisible. Nothing you say or do matters. You turn into a ghost that walks through walls.”
“What’s that got to do with me?”
“Don’t make the mistake they all make,” she said. “Don’t imagine that because I’m old, I don’t rebel or that I’m not angry.” She paused. “I look at you and see a life just starting. You did what you had to and now you might have to pay, but with a lot of luck, you might get away. I have nothing to lose; you have everything to lose. Take what I offer.”
They locked eyes. She could see that he struggled with himself. Finally, he relented. “All right,” he said and took his hand off the gun.
She nodded and stood up. “You must do as I say. “
She lay newspaper on the kitchen floor and had him sit on a chair in the center of it. He winced as she cut off his dreadlocks. She took her time trimming his hair the best she could, close to his head.
“You could just shave it off,” he said.
“No, that looks like a tough guy. I want you to look academic.” She got out a razor and shaved his neck and eventually the haircut could pass.
“You’re skinnier than my husband was but around the same height. I kept his clothing in the closet so I could smell it. That sounds weird, but-“
The young man shook his head. “No, I get it. I like to smell my girlfriend’s clothes.” Then his face scrunched up and she saw that he might cry. He wouldn’t be seeing that girlfriend again.
“You take a shower and shave now while I figure out the clothes thing. There are razors in the cupboard in there.”
She showed him where to go. When he was finished, she had laid out a pale blue, Oxford shirt, blue blazer, a conservative looking tie, tan socks and khaki pants.
“College professor,” remarked the boy when he came out with a towel tied around his waist.
“You got it,” she said, handing him a pair of her husband’s underpants and a white V-neck undershirt. “Like I said, a bit large, but do what you can.”
He returned to the bathroom and came out with the jockeys pulls up high.
She watched him dress. She gave him a brown leather belt and he pulled the pants in with it. “The blazer will hide that,” she told him. “Arnie wore size 10 shoes. What are you?”
“Eleven and a half,” he said.
“You’ll have to put on your own sneakers, but that’s all right. The professor likes to be comfortable.”
She finished off the ensemble with her husband’s old, brown leather briefcase.
“Check it out,” she said and pushed him to the mirror. “Oh wait, you need something more.” She disappeared and after a few moments returned with a pair of black rimmed spectacles. “They were props Arnie wore in a play,” she said. “A long time ago.”
The boy put them on, picked up the briefcase and laughed. He turned this way and that. “Momma would love this,” he said.
“You can’t risk taking the gun – they will be able to connect it with the shooting,” she said. “I’ll get rid of it. No one will think twice about an old lady taking a stroll to the pond at the end of the road and tossing it in.”
“The keys are in the car.” She handed him an envelope. There are three hundred seventy dollars in here. Like I said, don’t do anything to attract attention on your way to Scranton. If you get stopped, you’re screwed. Your entire goal in life is to get to that bus station. It’s on Lackawanna Avenue. You’ll have to get some under-the-table job in Philly to earn money before you move on.”
She took him to the garage and showed him the car. He got in, turned on the engine and lowered the window. She grabbed a pen and sticky note pad from her own car and said, “Give me your mother’s number and after a month or so, I’ll arrange to see her.”
As she watched him pull out of the garage, she whispered a prayer. When the little truck disappeared from view, she tried to use visualization to force the universe to behave as she wanted: he was making his way to the interstate, then into the city, parking the car, getting out with the brief case and walking to the bus station. Arriving in Philadelphia where someone, anyone, would help him find what he needed. Angels would accompany him; see him off to the new life. They would, surely, smooth his way.
Would Arnie have approved? Wasn’t it amazing that old and useless as she seemed to the world, what interesting things she still could do? She considered this while she carried the boy’s clothing and newspaper wrapped hair out to the burn barrel, where along with some kindling sticks from the yard, she set them on fire. The flames leaped to the sky.
MARGARET KARMAZIN’s credits include stories published in literary and national magazines, including Rosebud, Chrysalis Reader, North Atlantic Review, Mobius, Confrontation, Pennsylvania Review and Another Realm. Her stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River Review and Words of Wisdom were nominated for Pushcart awards. Her story, “The Manly Thing,” was nominated for the 2010 Million Writers Award. She has a stories included in Still Going Strong, Ten Twisted Takes, Pieces of Eight (Autism Acceptance), Zero Gravity, Cover of Darkenss, Daughts of Icarus, M-Brane Sci-Fi Quaterlies, and a YA novel, Replacing Fiona and a children’s book, Flick-Flick & Dreamer, published by etreasurespublishing.com.