BY DON HERALD
This is the conclusion of a two-part story. Copyright is held by the author.
AS SELENA entered her teen years, she appeared less willing to stop and chat with Mary Ruth. Whenever she saw Selina leave the house and start down the street, Mary Ruth would hurry out to the front garden, pretending to fuss over her pink Queen Elizabeth roses. She anticipated being able to intercept Selina as the teenager swept by talking and laughing on her phone. But it never happened. Selina had no interest in Mary Ruth or her prize-winning roses.
Mary Ruth came to believe that her precious Selina was just too preoccupied with friends to care anything at all about Mary Ruth’s life. So Mary Ruth returned to watching, imagining and documenting the young woman’s activities from behind the upstairs window. Mary Ruth filled many notebooks devoted only to Selina’s real or imagined social life.
Three months ago, while sitting in the Park, Mary Ruth was surprised to see Selina enter through the Memorial Gate.
Walking beside her, far too close for Mary Ruth’s liking, was a tall, athletic-looking man. His clean-shaven head glistened in the late afternoon sun. On the upper arm closest to Mary Ruth, was a large tattoo in the shape of three barbed wire strands so popular these days with young people. Beneath cutoff jeans, his right leg – knee to ankle – was completely enclosed in a more intricate, highly colourful tattoo. Sitting at some distance from the man, Mary Ruth could not be certain of the exact details. After several moments, she decided it must be an open-mouthed cobra, long fangs dripping bright poison, the scaled body coiled completely around the calf muscle. Mary Ruth involuntarily shivered. She hated snakes. She also had no love of tattoos of any kind.
For the sake of the notes in Selina’s file, she decided to call him Tattoo Man.
Tattoo Man was quite a bit older than Selina. Certainly not a high school senior. His face was darkly stubbled, the upper body covered in a clean but well-worn red basketball jersey. A chain necklace glittered golden in the sun. Mary Ruth had never been a fan of men wearing jewellery of any kind. Except for the wedding band, she had strictly forbidden any frivolous adornment on her late husband.
Mary Ruth couldn’t believe that her precious Selina would even consider being in the company of such a questionable character. Tattoos all over, shaved head, flashy jewellery and several days worth of beard immediately sealed his fate with Mary Ruth.
Tattoo Man was openly smoking a joint. Mary Ruth knew it from observing Jennifer and her male friends. He passed it frequently to Selina who would laugh, take a long drag then blow a blue-white cloud of smoke into the man’s face as she passed it back.
Mary Ruth decided that Tattoo Man was most certainly not the young beau her beautiful Selina deserved. She also knew that Sofia and Luis would never approve of this boorish, pot smoking, tattooed, unshaven hooligan. In fact — and Mary Ruth was even more certain on this point — Selina’s parents likely did not even know about their daughter’s close involvement with this unsavoury creature.
Turning left onto Lakeside Trail, Selina and Tattoo Man moved leisurely off toward the boating pond. Selina stopped abruptly, embraced and deeply kissed the man — a little too passionately for such a public place or so it seemed to Mary Ruth. And then that evil man had the nerve to deliberately slide his right hand up under Selina’s denim half-jacket, beneath the white cropped tank top. Mary Ruth knew with absolute certainty that Tattoo Man was fondling Selina’s breasts. Shifting slightly while pushing down his hand, Selina playfully grabbed at Tattoo Man’s ass before leading him further along the tree-lined pathway.
Once Selina and that horrid man were out of sight, Mary Ruth pulled a small black notepad and red click pen from her purse. That entire distressing scene was definitely going into Selina’s current notebook. Given her rising feeling of outrage, Mary Ruth didn’t trust her memory well enough to recall the exact details later so she wrote them down right then while still sitting on the park bench.
Watching Selina being so publicly intimate with Tattoo Man threw Mary Ruth completely off her daily routine of documenting observations and writing her fantastical speculations about Jennifer, Ray and Audrey.
Mary Ruth reasoned that Jennifer would always be Jennifer and didn’t need close monitoring for the moment. Ray didn’t look well these days so, in Mary Ruth’s mind, he would likely die at any moment. And regardless of what Mary Ruth might say or do to thwart her intentions, Audrey was determined to have joyous sexual congress with the terribly lonely, unsuspecting Kent.
Mary Ruth’s immediate future plans were now clear. Selina must receive her total attention and vigilance to ensure her safety from Tattoo Man. Mary Ruth hoped that Selina would come to her senses and kick that awful man out of her life forever. It was at critical moments like this that Mary Ruth wished her dear Arthur was still with her to offer his wise counsel. Since his death, she had taken to talking quietly to his presence which she believed to be always nearby. Mary Ruth took comfort in a firm belief that when really needed, her Arthur would tell her or give her a sign about the best way to intervene in order to protect Selina.
The following Tuesday afternoon, Mary Ruth was taking a leisurely tour around the block. Since she had temporarily re-focused her watching and documentation activities onto Selina, there was not as much note taking to occupy the days and evenings. So she often strolled about the neighbourhood, forcing herself to chat with strangers or shopkeepers, always on the hunt for the odd bits and pieces she could enter into a new scribbler she simply called ‘The Neighbourhood’.
Sofia was coming out of Khan’s Variety. After a warm greeting, she invited Mary Ruth over for some tea on the front porch. It had been awhile since the two women had actually met in person, so there was lots of news to share.
Mary Ruth deliberately kept her news light and certainly did not share anything related to her hobby. She talked about missing Arthur, how she’d taken to driving his truck around the city and sometimes out onto the busy twelve-lane expressway that passes through the north-east edge. Mary Ruth said that while she had come to enjoy the deep growl and powerful surge of the engine, it was mostly the faint, lingering smell of Arthur’s cigars inside the truck that made the driving pleasurable. It gave her some comfort, she said, even though she had strongly disapproved of him smoking, especially those awful cigars.
Sofia smiled, agreeing that fortunately, Luis had given up smoking his favourite Italian Toscanos when his elder brother Christos died horribly of lung cancer after many years of smoking. Comfortable in their shared belief about the evils of smoking, the two friends sipped their tea in silence.
Mary Ruth asked after Selina, remarking that in recent days she hadn’t seen Selina out and about the neighbourhood. With tears in her eyes, Sofia reported that ten days ago, while Selina was going to meet a friend at a café, she had tripped on uneven pavement and fallen heavily into the roadway. Unfortunately, the fall broke Selina’s right wrist and heavily bruised her face, neck, shoulder and arm. While the injuries would heal with time, Sofia expressed worry that now her daughter was refusing to leave the house, claiming she was too embarrassed to be seen in public with noticeable facial bruising and the ugly cast on her lower arm. Brushing away tears, Sofia sighed, silently shaking her head at her daughter’s extreme reaction to the accident.
Instantly, Mary Ruth’s protective instincts kicked in. She sincerely expressed her best wishes for Selina’s full and quick recovery. If Selina needed a ride to the doctor’s office at any time, Mary Ruth offered to drive her. But while the right words and sentiments were being spoken, her thoughts were racing, her heart seemed to skip beats and her breathing became noticeably raspy. She hoped that Sofia did not notice her physical reaction to the news of Selina’s accident.
It was no accident. Mary Ruth was certain of it.
Tattoo Man, looking as he did and being as rude and aggressive as Mary Ruth had come to believe he was, had surely been the cause of Selina’s injuries. Of course, Selina would make up a fake story to tell her parents. She had to tell them something in order to cover up the secret relationship with Tattoo Man and her abuse at his hands. Something had triggered Tattoo Man’s anger toward Selina and most assuredly she had been badly beaten because of it.
Mary Ruth’s mind was rapidly connecting assorted snippets of information from her earlier fanciful speculations about this dreadful man. There was absolutely no doubt whatsoever that her beautiful Selina had been almost murdered by this hateful man. And just about as bad, Mary Ruth had failed to act sooner on her intuition — those worried feelings that had first been triggered back in the Park.
Selina appeared unexpectedly in the porch doorway from the front hall. Mary Ruth, startled to see her, immediately jumped up to embrace and comfort this frail-looking young woman. Selina was pale, the purple-yellow bruises on her face a striking reminder of the violent trauma she had been through.
“Miss Sullivan . . . I . . .” Selina barely managed the words before she was pulled tightly into the bosom of Mary Ruth.
Certain that she could not be seen by Sofia, Mary Ruth whispered into Selina’s ear — “Oh, my darling child, I will make that man pay dearly for what he did to you. I promise.”
Instantly, Selina jerked away from Mary Ruth as if she again had been struck, her mouth open, eyes wide and wild. “Oh, um … No, Miss Sullivan, I don’t . . .”
But Mary Ruth was already gone, walking with long, purposeful strides back to her house. Sofia looked up briefly at her daughter in the doorway – mouth wide open, left hand frantically pulling at her hair. Then over to the empty chair where Mary Ruth had been sitting. What had just happened? Sofia began to cry.
Mary Ruth stopped in her front hall and tried to collect herself. Settled, she went to the kitchen and made some tea. She went up to the front bedroom and flipped through recent notes until she found the record of Selina and Tattoo Man’s actions in the Park. In that very moment, the man had sparked something very alarming within Mary Ruth. That evening she had written several pages on what she imagined Tattoo Man’s personality and motivations to be. In light of Selina being attacked, much of what she had written now made perfect sense.
Acting on a hunch after seeing Selina in the Park that day with Tattoo Man, Mary Ruth had taken Arthur’s truck to the library and read up on the psychology of men who abuse women. What she learned caused her to be very frightened for the safety of her beloved Selina. On further reflection, she decided it was best to remain vigilant, recording as much of Selina’s daily routines as she could. She trusted that Selina’s maturity and ample common sense would take over. Whatever was happening with Tattoo Man, Selina would end it quickly.
Now it was clear from Selina’s injuries that Mary Ruth had made a serious miscalculation about the young woman’s ability to see Tattoo Man for what he really was. And for choosing not to act on her apprehension about Tattoo Man, her dear, sweet Selina had been almost killed. So now it was up to Mary Ruth to correct this situation in some appropriate manner. But she had no idea what that would be.
She would ask dear Arthur for his guidance. He never failed her in such matters.
Late Wednesday evening, Mary Ruth was in her usual place behind the sheers in the upstairs front bedroom.
As was her habit, she was on watch for any unusual activity on the street that she could record in her notebooks. But her mind was only on Selina. Mary Ruth worried that the young woman might never heal properly in both body and spirit. While she had written extensively about Tattoo Man in her speculative passages, with a growing sense of desperation Mary Ruth realized she didn’t know his real name, where he lived, where he worked or where he hung out when he wasn’t with Selina.
Down in front of Jennifer’s place, a slight shift in the dark shadows drew Mary Ruth’s attention. Odd, she thought. Jennifer and her current male visitor were already inside after an evening spent smoking and talking on the front porch. All the house lights were off. There — it was a dark form moving slowly along the opposite side of the street toward Mary Ruth’s window.
Quickly, she put the Bushnells on the moving shadow, adjusting the fine focus. A person in dark clothing, moving ahead a few steps, stopping and looking toward each house in turn. Mary Ruth realized this person was checking house numbers. House by house. Edging slowly along the darkened street, not wishing to draw the attention of still awake neighbours. She sharpened the focus a touch more.
A sudden gasp. “My heavens, it’s Tattoo Man.” She’d recognize that face anywhere. He was on her very street, now almost directly in front of her driveway. Step. Pause. Step again. Yes, now that he was closer, she was certain it was him. He moved slowly off to her right, stopping beneath the old oak beside the driveway into Selina’s house.
Using the zoom knob on her binoculars, Mary Ruth pulled in tight on the man’s face. Tattoo Man was looking up at the second floor, staring at Selina’s bedroom window. Something pale white suddenly appeared behind the top sash. Mary Ruth shifted the lens just in time to see Selina’s face looking down at the tree. Mary Ruth was certain she saw a quick flash of recognition. Selina’s mouth fell open, then closed. “She’s scared to death of him” Mary Ruth whispered. “And with good reason.” Just as quickly as it had appeared, the face disappeared. A white blind came down behind the window glass.
Tattoo Man waited for twenty-seven minutes. Mary Ruth timed him so she could be precise in her notes. He moved off toward the RC church then turned the corner, walking south on River.
It was at that exact moment that Mary Ruth realized Arthur had just given her a sign. “Thank you, my darling”, she whispered.
The man walked slowly along River, smoking and texting on his phone. The soft white glare from the screen under lit his face creating a ghoulish Halloween effect. He was smiling, maybe even talking to himself.
The Green River bridge split the community into East and West City. It was a long span of crumbling concrete stub walls embedded with rusty, black metal railings, roughly patched asphalt on the roadbed and 1950-era light standards spaced evenly along both sides of the narrow bridge deck. Six to each side, only two actually working, casting pale yellow cones of light.
Nearing the middle of the bridge, in a long stretch of darkness between two faint splashes of light, the man looked up from his phone, twisting slightly to glance behind. The deep growl of an engine approaching from the rear had broken his concentration. It was late, the bridge was deserted so the man was curious.
The truck bucked up over the low curb, launching briefly into the air, then came down hard onto the walkway just in time to smash into the man. The truck was moving very fast. The vehicle slid slightly sideways in response to the crushing impact of the man’s body on the shattering left side headlight, bumper and grill. The fenders and door panels scraped heavily along the wall for several yards causing a bright, brief shower of yellow-white sparks within a high-pitched screech of stressed metal. The driver’s side mirror snapped off and skidded alongside the truck for a short distance. The machine jerked sharply right back into the empty lane of the bridge. The truck straightened and skidded to a stop.
The driver side window rolled down. A face appeared, looking at the exact spot where the man had just been standing. On the bridge walkway, the crushed screen of a cell phone flickered twice then faded slowly to black. Just beyond, a sneaker — lace still tightly tied — lay on its side amidst shards of broken plastic, headlight glass, bent pieces of chrome and ragged bits of bloody clothing.
The impact had lifted the man upwards with explosive force, his clothing ripping partially off. Airborne, the nearly naked body had struck the top edge of the bridge railing. Then, as if in slow motion, it pin-wheeled crazily down into the fast current of the Green River.
The face smiled then slowly disappeared as the window closed. The idling engine roared back to full power. The truck sped away, tires squealing on the pavement, disappearing into the protective darkness of West City.