BY MICHAEL NEAL MORRIS
Copyright is held by the author.
HE PASSED the two girls, and as they were talking to each other, noticing him just enough to give him room on the sidewalk, he wished them a good morning. Both returned the greeting with a measured cheerfulness, but no eye contact, and resumed their conversation.
They were on the way to the school bus, Marcus surmised. This is the time of day he was used to hearing the voices of teens outside his apartment, their banter and playful shrieks usually piercing the quiet of his first cup of coffee on the tiny balcony he shared with tomato and pepper plants.
But today he had been out of coffee, and with the grocery less than a mile away, he had decided to walk instead of drive. At the store, he also bought a quart of milk and a container of fresh strawberries for his wife, and he was halfway home when he remembered she’d died a few months prior.
The girls’ scent lingered on the sidewalk after their voices were less than a memory. He had just entered the gates of the complex as they exited, heading toward the covered shelter of the mail centre where they would keep conspiring and gossiping as they waited for the bumpy ride to school. Marcus slowed his gait, and he breathed in the smell of recently washed and made-up skin.
His wife had never needed clouds of perfume to attract or excite him. Up until the end, she brought with her the scent of the honeysuckle that grew along the backyard fence at the old house. He had been so in love with the essence of her, that even in the last weeks, when putrid smells of skin and sweat and shit and disinfectant permeated her room, he refused to acknowledge them.
He was also not used to politeness or cheerfulness in teenagers. The girls had not really been the former, and though there was no “sir” involved in their return greeting, they had acknowledged him without eye rolls or expressions of contempt he had come to expect from people this age or his far off grandchildren. So he was ready to credit them with good qualities he was in no position to assess.
Before climbing the stairs, he looked up at the balcony of his apartment. Nothing was growing on the tomato or pepper plants, most of Fall having passed. From his vantage point, they looked like thin sticks masquerading as trees. He’d have to bring them in at some point to protect them from a freeze he’d heard on the forecast but could remember few details of.
He trudged up thinking, I suppose I’ll eventually have to move to a downstairs apartment. The idea seemed to slow his pace. Marcus felt a twang in his knee.
He’d nearly made it up when a young man seemed to appear out of the sound he’d created, the stomp of heavy sneakers mixed with the whoosh of a red and black jacket as it hurried past his startled figure.
Marcus dropped his bag on the next to last step, and began to exclaim something like “What’s the rush?” But all that he managed was “Wha —.”
The boy was a blur who at the bottom of the stairs may have emitted a mumbled “My bad” or “No Dad” or “So sad,” but Marcus could not understand him.
He watched the spot where the blur was until the sound of the plastic bag recaptured his attention. From behind him, he heard the voice of the boy’s mother, “I’m so sorry, sir. Let me get that.”
But he was already bending toward the package. He was beginning to say, “It’s no problem” when his hand caught the loops of the bag and his body tumbled over them.
The groceries had twisted around him and by the time he’d stopped rolling it was wrapped partially around his neck at the bottom of the stairs. The mother shrieked for her son to come back and help her as she descended, but he pretended to not hear and ran as if possessed, joining his friend in the line entering the bus.
By the time the mother had run back upstairs to get her phone, a small crowd of children, meant for a different bus, was standing in a semi-circle around him, saying nothing, just staring at the old man and the puddle of strawberry-infused milk forming beneath his head.
“911. What’s your emergency?” the children heard from the mother’s phone. It sounded like a television from another room.
“My neighbour. He just, uh, fell down the stairs, and he’s not waking up,” the woman said. “He’s hurt real bad. He needs help please.”
“What’s his name?” the dispatcher asked.
“I don’t know. He just moved in a few weeks ago.”
“Alright. You said he’s not moving?”
The mother bent over Marcus’s body. The faint aroma of crushed strawberries touched her face. “No. No, but he’s bleeding, I think, from his head. Oh please get someone here or he’s gonna die.”? “Try to stay calm, ma’am,” the dispatcher directed flatly. “Give me the address, and an ambulance will be on the way.”
After providing the information and promising to stay beside Marcus until help arrived, the mother again noticed the children. She shooed them away, and the kids slowly started for the mail centre. One boy told his friend, “Bet that lady shot him.”
“Nuh uh,” the friend said. “No way. There’d be brains all over.”
The woman ignored the argument and rubbed her arms as she muttered prayers that someone would come soon. Then the acrid aroma of urine wafted to her. She looked and saw that Marcus’ pants were soaked. She’d heard somewhere that the bladder releases what it has when a person dies. This can’t be what it’s like, she tried to tell herself, but she was already crying with conviction.
Marcus, however, had a few more minutes. The paramedics arrived, one began to ask the woman questions as they both bent over to check the injured man’s vitals. Marcus groaned and his head moved a little as he tried to speak.
“I need you to be still, sir,” the paramedic said. He felt around the back of Marcus’ neck, then said to his partner, “We’re gonna need the board.”
“I think I fell down,” Marcus breathed.
The paramedic stifled a chuckle. “Yessir, you did.”
“I need to get these strawberries to my wife,” Marcus said, “before they get warm.”
The paramedic said “O.K.,” and stood up. He asked the woman, “You his wife?”
“No. Neighbour,” the woman said, “I ain’t seen a wife. Don’t think anyone lives in that apartment but him. He ain’t lived here very long.”
Marcus mumbled, “I used to live somewhere. Now I live here.” No one heard him. There was a tremor as he inhaled, breathed a kind fragrance.
Michael Neal Morris’ most recent books are Based on Imaginary Events(Faerie Treehouse Press) and The Way of Weakness. He posts regularly to the blog This Blue Monk and makes music as Device Flesh, sacramental, and Clique Bait. He lives with his family just outside the Dallas (Texas) area, and teaches Composition and Creative Writing at Dallas College’s Eastfield campus.