A short story by Nancy Callahan
 

A Public Square
a short story by Jon Thorpe

Part I

1

There is an old man who often forgets his own name. I can see him now and I can tell from the near panicked look in his eyes that he is lost. I follow him and we become lost together. It is not an unpleasant experience as we meander and I think about the last time that I spoke with the old man. He sat by an upstairs window in his large, empty house. Tears streaked his face. I asked him to tell me why he was crying and he looked at me for a long moment before collecting himself, before speaking, uninterrupted, for almost two hours.

2

A child sits at the sidewalk’s edge and sighs. A car passes by and the child does not look up even though the driver cries out the child’s name. I have heard from some people in authority that the child might possibly be deaf. Perhaps that is so.

3

A woman, fingers strained with growing and deepening arthritis, sleeps and dreams of her first time. She talks in her sleep, mumbles, and her husband leans over and wakes her gently and asks, “What are you dreaming about?”

“I can’t remember,” she lies in answer.

4

A young man stands next to the green garbage dumpster behind the laundromat and smokes a cigarette. He finishes the cigarette then crosses the street and enters the all-night diner.

5

Two men refuse to speak to each other. One man sits upstairs and stares out the window that overlooks the small garden. His hands shake. The other man sits downstairs at the dining room table and smokes a cigarette as he mutters violent curses beneath his breath.

6

A stranger greets a woman. His arms are open wide. The woman turns and begins to walk the other way. The stranger follows her and she walks faster and faster and faster and then she is running because the stranger is chasing her.

The woman screams and screams and screams for help but no one helps.

No one even pretends to notice.

7

A lonely housewife watches the rain streak the large bay window as she sips from a mug of coffee. The television is on in the living room. She runs a hand through her hair. The puddles begin to grow larger in the yard. Once, years ago, this lonely housewife showed me some poems that she had written. After reading them, for some reason, I told her that they were terrible even though they were not that bad. She broke into tears and I felt guilty and tried to comfort her but it was too late.

8

A man grimaces on the subway. He begins to shakes his head violently. All the passengers pretend as hard as they can to believe that he is invisible. Some passengers try to hide behind their newspapers. Others behind paperback books.

9

Gordon dies alone in his room.

The window is open and a light breeze jostles the blinds back and forth and back and forth.

10

A young girl holds her mother’s hand as they walk through the brand new, still less than a year old, shopping mall. The girl points to many things that she wants. The objects of her desires are perfectly placed behind the glass of the brightly lit shop windows. The mother tries her best to ignore her daughter’s endless demands.

11

A man plays chess with a friend in the park as his younger brother looks on. The older brother playing chess wears a tattered tweed coat, a leftover from his intellectually pretentious salad days. His younger brother, who has a large black scar on the side of his face, wears no coat although it is quite cool out.

12

Two pennies lurk in a puddle. One penny is hideously rusted and should be removed immediately from circulation. Two boys who are just about to escape their youth spy the pennies and squat down and pick them up. The two boys hold their pennies up to a sun that has just broken out from behind dark clouds.

13

The man in the movie theater masturbates as discreetly as possible as the woman on the screen does three guys at one time.

14

“So was it okay?” a young wife asks her husband as he lights a cigarette.

He nods.

15

Two men stand with the crowd and cheer as the ball finds its way into the gap.

Two runs score.

16

A homeless man crouches and slips beneath the turnstile. In the pocket of his decaying coat is a five-dollar bill. He hopes to take the subway four stops to the shelter. He feels that he needs to take a shower.

17

And it is Anna who finally discovers Henry. His head is face down on the desk. Blood covers the wall behind him. Her first instinct is to scream but she suppresses it.

18

Jack stumbles through the empty streets. He is thirty-eight years old and still thinks he is a poet. He has never published a word but he is a trooper and keeps at it. His friends pretend to encourage him when they are not laughing at him behind his back.

In his heart of hearts Jack knows that his mother, although outwardly supportive of his attempts at profound creativity, secretly despises him.

19

Ned decides, in the end, to pick up the check. He watches as his brother dabs the corners of his mouth with a napkin.

All in all, it was a pretty good meal.

20

Two women, one young, one old, pray in church. The older woman prays for her grandson. He lives with her and is a junkie. She has not seen him for three days. The younger woman prays for her husband because she knows that he has been having an affair for quite some time.

21

The infant screams. Mr. Jordan opens the door and enters the dark room and picks up the infant and holds him close.

“There there now,” Mr. Jordan coos into the infant’s ear. “There there.”

22

The woman in the park tries to stand. She has been beaten and raped by a man she thought was her close friend. She stumbles and falls onto her face and then turns over onto her back. She searches but cannot find the strength to call for help.

23

Two teenagers smoke a strong joint in the backseat of an abandoned car.

24

Edgar sings passionately as he drives. As the song climaxes, the tortoise-shell glasses slip from his face. He lets go of the wheel as he fumbles for them and the car swerves into the oncoming lane.

25

A beautiful young couple sit on their front porch and watch the sunset.

The man whispers into the woman’s ear. She smiles.

 

Part II

1

I watch the old man as he visits the grave of his father. The old man had been in Europe fighting against the Nazis when his father died from a massive heart attack. When the old man returned to the United States, his father had been in the ground for quite some time.

2

A child heads for home. He walks carefully along the sidewalk’s edge. He feels hungry and he hopes that his mother is cooking something good for dinner. Maybe meatloaf. Maybe mac and cheese.

Maybe.

3

A woman contemplates her affair.

It is late at night and the cold is affecting her arthritis. She lies in bed and stares into the ceiling and does not notice her husband’s snoring. She does not blink and thinks of her new lover’s hands on her thighs and how she feels like a little girl every time he enters her.

4

A young man smokes a cigarette in a diner. He asks for a third refill of coffee and then flirts with the almost pretty waitress who says she has a date after she finishes her shift.

5

Two men hold hands in a movie theater. One of the men begins to cry as the movie reaches its touching, emotional climax.

If only the real world contained such selfless people.

6

The stranger grabs the woman from behind and covers her mouth to stifle her screams. She struggles but he is just too strong. He forces her to the ground as she tries to bite his fingers.

7

A lonely housewife watches television. The rain has stopped and slants of sunlight crisscross the living room floor.

8

A man sleeps on the subway. His head leans against the window and vibrates in rhythm with the forward movement of the train. A newspaper is open on his lap. A thin line of drool breaks from the corner of his mouth.

9

Gordon’s mother pours herself a strong drink as she listens to her favorite Sinatra song. She takes a sip of her drink and puckers her lips and thinks about adding just a touch more water.

10

A young girl watches the puppies as they frolic behind the glass of the mall’s pet shop window. The puppies are so full of life and they make the young girl smile. As her smile begins to fade she looks away from the window and her eyes begin to search for her mother.

11

The brother playing chess cannot figure out his next move and so he curses. It has been ages since he has won a game. His scarred brother, moments before, had asked him for a small loan. The brother playing chess pretended that he heard nothing, that his brother’s voice was nothing more than nonsensical murmurings in the wind.

12

Two boys buy Cokes at the corner drug store. They sit on the stools in front of the high marble counter. One boy closes his eyes as he sips through his straw. The other boy traces circles on the counter with his rusted penny.

13

After climaxing into a Kleenex, the man leaves the theater and contemplates his next move. He still feels aroused and so he thinks about taking a trip around the corner in the hopes of finding a woman who will have sex with him for less than a hundred dollars.

14

The young wife reads a thick paperback romance as her husband sleeps next to her. The light from her lamp is dim and she strains her eyes to make out the words. Her husband snores but because they are still in love she does not mind.

15

Two men stand with the crowd and cheer as the ball just clears the right field fence.

16

A homeless man picks the butt of a cigarette up off the street. He slips the butt into his mouth and asks a man in an expensive camel coat for a light. The man in the camel coat obliges then remarks: “I’m trying to break the habit myself.”

17

Anna covers her mouth as she sprints to the bathroom. She falls to her knees. Her body trembles as she vomits into the bathtub.

18

Jack sits in his room. He leans back in his chair and stares at the revolving ceiling fan. He smiles as he runs his hands through his greasy hair.

19

Ned drives as his brother sleeps. They’ve been on the road for almost two days now. Ned takes a quick glance at his watch. It’s late and he’s starting to feel a little tired.

20

Two women pray in church.

The older woman prays for her mother. Her mother has begun to suffer from Alzheimer’s. The younger woman prays for her brother. Her brother is a cruel man and sometimes, when he is drunk, he beats his wife mercilessly.

21

Mr. Jordan holds the infant until the child returns to sleep. He places the infant back into the crib and watches the child for a long moment and allows a wave of emotions he thought he could no longer experience to overcome him.

Lightning flashes and fills the room with blue light.

22

The woman in the park stares into the night sky. She finds the strength to reach up into the heavens to pluck out a star.

23

Two stoned teenagers laugh themselves silly as they walk home in the early evening. They both have final exams in the morning and they find this to be terrifically amusing in their altered state of mind.

24

Edgar’s car is struck by an oncoming station wagon. He is not wearing his seatbelt and his body smashes through the windshield.

25

The beautiful young couple returns home.

He reads the afternoon paper.

She pours two glasses of red wine.

 

Part III

1

The old man sits in the restaurant. He stares at his plate but feels no motivation to eat. I close my book and watch him. He runs one wrinkled hand through his thinning gray hair. The waiter stops and asks him if everything is okay and the old man nods. I open my book and return to my reading.

2

A child eats dinner. His father sits across from him and lights a cigar. The child’s mother is in the kitchen washing the pots and pans. The child finishes his food. His father exhales a large ring of smoke.

The child gestures, asking to be excused. His father nods.

3

A woman wakes to the sound of rain.

She rubs her eyes and sees her husband standing by the window. The woman feels a swell of irrational fear rise within her and then it abates. Her husband is watching her and he notices this moment of fear and smiles a knowing smile the woman does not return.

4

A young man regrets kissing the waitress as he walks home alone. She had been in his arms and after kissing her he felt nothing and so he simply said goodnight and ignored her expression of intense confusion. The young man lights a cigarette as he passes from streetlight to streetlight. He thinks to himself that he will return to the diner the following day. He vows to speak with the waitress to straighten everything out.

5

Two men share a laugh over cups of espresso.

They sit at a sidewalk cafe table near the fountain. It is a warm day and many people are milling about, doing nothing more than enjoying the weather. A group of musicians has gathered close by and begins to play traditional Mayan folk songs. One of the two men remarks that it hasn’t rained in quite some time.

“It has been a dry summer,” the second man replies.

6

The woman’s throat is cut by the stranger from ear to ear with the blade of his dull pocket knife. He stands over her body for a long moment before raping it.

He will not climax.

7

A lonely housewife contemplates dinner. She sits at the kitchen table and flips through the glossy pages of a newly purchased cookbook. She lets her eyes wander from the cookbook to the window. It is quite pleasant out but she only allows herself to think about scalloped potatoes.

8

A man wakes on the subway. He feels a moment of confusion. He had been dreaming about the house in which he was born. He realizes that he is filled with feelings of nostalgia. He blinks his eyes and the nostalgia begins to fade.

9

Gordon’s brother is catching hell from his boss. The boss is deep in debt and has no idea how to get out from under it. He never tells anyone about this major financial problem, not even his wife, and so his repressed anxiety manifests itself in irrational explosions of rage. Gordon’s brother listens as his boss screams and thinks about murdering him, about bludgeoning him with the large golf trophy on his desk.

“And you’re fired!” the boss screams and suddenly Gordon’s brother snaps out of his violent fantasy.

10

A young girl rides home in silence. She watches through the back window of the station wagon as the mall recedes from her line of sight. Her mother hums along with the radio. It is hot in the car. All the window are rolled up and there is no air conditioner. The girl’s mother accelerates and the station wagon merges with the freeway traffic.

11

“I understand,” the scarred brother says as he watches his brother play chess.

“I’m sorry, but that’s the way it has to be.”

The scarred brother nods as he watches his brother contemplate his next move.

“Then I guess that’s the way it has to be.”

The scarred brother turns and walks away as his brother curses under his breath, unable to find the one move that will unlock a victory.

12

Two boys sit at the river’s edge. They watch the barges come in and sidle up next to the giant iron cranes. It is dusk and the sun has just begun to set. One boy holds up his rusted penny so that it eclipses the light of the sun.

13

The man orgasms and the woman beneath him pretends to orgasm.

14

The young wife drifts in and out of sleep as she reads her thick paperback romance novel. Visions of Norsemen run through her head.

15

The two men stand with the crowd and cheer. It is the top of the ninth. Two outs. They watch the pitcher, a young man from Salt Lake City, as he leans in and takes the signs.

16

A homeless man is given a bed in the shelter. It is not comfortable but it is better than sleeping outside. He has showered and feels almost full. The priest who runs the shelter is a wonderful man although he does have a bit of trouble maintaining his vow of celibacy.

17

Anna just cannot get herself to think straight. She sits in the small space between the toilet and the tub. The small bathroom is filled with the aroma of her vomit. She curls her body into a tight ball and begins to rock ever so slightly back and forth.

18

Jack awakes to the sound of rain.

It takes him only a moment to realize that he is terribly hung over.

19

Ned pulls over for a cup of coffee. Dawn is breaking and he sips his coffee as he watches his brother through the gas station’s convenience store window. Ned’s brother sits on the hood of the car and lights a cigarette.

20

The older woman leaves the church. The younger woman continues to pray. She has been praying for over two hours now and never once noticed the older woman’s presence.

21

Mr. Jordan returns to bed. The rain is falling hard and he reaches over and turns on the lamp and stares into the cracks of the ceiling. His thoughts turn to his wife and how he misses her so very much. He does not know if he can do it all alone.

22

The woman in the park is discovered by a man out for his morning jog. The woman is alive but she is aware of nothing except for the star she cradles in her hands. The man calls the police and stays by her side until they arrive.

23

Two teenagers study for their exams. One teenager looks up from his textbook and contemplates the DNA molecule that floats right in front of his eyes. It is hard for him to concentrate but he feels that, overall, the studying is going well. The second teenager sits on his bed and lights another joint and leans back as he watches Andy Rooney discuss the merits and demerits of laugh tracks.

24

Edgar’s skull shatters when it strikes the road. His body rolls over and over until it comes to rest in a ditch.

25

The beautiful young couple make passionate love.

 

Part IV

1

I watch the old man as he lights his pipe. I watch him begin to engage in lengthy, imaginary conversations with no one in particular.

2

A child locks the bathroom door. He has one of his father’s pornographic magazines tucked beneath his arm. In a moment, the child will open the magazine to his favorite page and will become aroused and then masturbate. After masturbating the child will feel a keen sensation of guilt because he knows his mother would disapprove.

3

A woman contemplates the upcoming afternoon as she breakfasts with her husband. Her husband is hidden behind the sports section and she realizes, as she spoons cornflakes into her mouth, that she has been feeling just a bit too guilty lately in isolated moments.

She often wonders if guilt is something that one can truly ever escape.

4

A young man returns to the diner. He asks the woman at the register about the waitress and is told that she has called in sick for the day. The young man curses under his breath before taking a seat at the counter, before ordering a short stack of blueberry pancakes with a side of sausage.

5

Two men drift on into sleep in each others arms. It has been a difficult week for the two and they made a vow to never fight again. The two men really are very much in love but within two days the vow will be broken and one of the men will batter the other into a state of near unconsciousness.

6

The stranger leaves the woman’s body behind. He feels and remembers nothing. He walks slowly, his hands deep in his pockets, and thinks about the time when he was a young boy and how he had watched a perfect monarch butterfly walk delicately along the rim of a glass filled halfway with red wine.

7

A lonely housewife greets her husband. He has suffered through a hard day of work.

“What’s for dinner?” he asks and she tells him that ham and scalloped potatoes are waiting on the table for him. The husband nods and sets his briefcase down and she watches him as he scuffles towards the dining room. Her lower lip begins to tremble.

8

The man ascends from the subway station. He has lost track of the time and is very confused. He pulls at strands of his hair as he makes his way in zigzag fashion down the sidewalk. He calls out the name of a woman who had died giving birth to his child. He stumbles and falls and cuts his chin on the pavement.

9

Gordon’s phone rings and then goes silent.

Gordon’s phone rings and then goes silent.

Gordon’s phone rings and then goes silent.

His mother has been trying to call him all afternoon. She wants to have her boys over for dinner. The roast is cooking in the oven and she wonders why Gordon just won’t answer his phone because it’s jut not like Gordon not to answer.

10

A young girl screams as the oncoming car swerves into their lane. The young girl’s mother slams on the brakes but it’s just too late.

11

The scarred brother returns holding out his hand.

“Please?” he asks. “I’m down to my last five dollars.”

But the brother playing chess now refuses to acknowledge his scarred brother’s presence.

12

Two boys throw their pennies across the river. One boy gets his rusted penny to skip five or six times across before it dips beneath the surface.

13

The man returns home and pulls a copy of The Canterbury Tales down from his bookshelf and begins to reread the introduction he wrote for this edition. He has a class to teach in the morning and he feels thoroughly unprepared.

14

The young wife is awakened by the hooting of an owl. The thick paperback romance is on the floor. She reaches down and picks the novel up and places it on the night stand.

15

Two men stand with the crowd and cheer as strike three is called and the game is over.

16

A homeless man leaves the shelter as morning breaks. It is cold but he thinks that he just might get through this day okay. He fingers the five-dollar bill in his pocket and stops at a diner and has a cup of coffee. The almost pretty waitress refills his cup as he reads the grisly headlines off a newspaper that a customer has left behind.

One woman assaulted.

One woman murdered.

17

Anna returns to the room and picks up the phone and dials 911. She tells the operator, in a slow, methodical tone of voice, that her husband has shot himself.

18

Jack picks up his pen and places it to a blank sheet of paper. He lets some words bleed out and then sets the pen down. Within an hour he is sitting on his favorite barstool sipping from a shot of whiskey.

19

Ned sleeps as his brother drives. Ned’s brother leans over and turns up the volume on the radio. He lights a cigarette. The road is straight and narrow and the driving is easy. The city is close now. They only have a few more hours left to go.

20

Two women, far removed from one another, one older, one younger, resume their lives of quiet, passive denial.

21

Mr. Jordan dreams. He listens to the chirping of the crickets outside and sips from a bottle of beer as his wife reads the evening paper. Mr. Jordan glances at her. She is very pregnant and he thinks that she looks incredibly beautiful.

22

The woman assaulted in the park has trouble recovering her senses. All she can do is sit by the window and stare at the unkempt grass of the institution’s courtyard. She cradles the star in her hands. It is the only thing she feels, the only thing keeping her alive, and she knows that once its light goes out she will die. She tried to tell several of the doctors this but she knows they don’t believe her, she knows that they don’t know how fragile life can truly be. Somewhere in the distance she can hear the sounds of children playing a game of stickball.

It is a nice sound.

23

Two teenagers pass their final exams. The one who studied feels that he has done well. The one who did not study also feels that he has done well, and strangely enough, he is right. He receives the higher grade of the two because of his innate ability to perceive things in a way that sometimes makes it difficult to relate to others. He smokes marijuana because he feels that it is a necessity because it takes the edge off his sense of perception that, if left to its own devices, would drive him mad.

24

Edgar is not killed instantly. It takes him some time to die in the ditch as his brains bleed out of his skull. And as the long moments pass he hears the high-pitched screams of a young girl before he slips into oblivion.

25

The beautiful young couple has come to realize that the end is near. Their prophet has told them about the coming end of all civilization and how the space ship with the benevolent aliens will soon arrive to take all believers to the Planet of Utopia. And so the beautiful young couple, because they are so concerned about the human race, have taken it upon themselves to sell everything they have and to spend each remaining day of their lives standing on a street corner in order to spread the truth to anyone who will stop to listen.

  

©2001 Jon Thorpe

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