A Look and a Voice by William Cass

Doris said, “Seems like it might snow. First of the season.”

She turned from where she stood in front of the kitchen window and looked at Martin. He was sitting at the table holding a nearly full glass of milk. He regarded her with a blank stare. They’d been married for forty-six years.

She said, “Well, what do you think about that?”

Martin shrugged. The mid-morning light in the room was dim. He stood up, went to the sink, poured out the milk, rinsed the glass, and put it in the dishwasher. Then he turned and went down the hall to his bedroom. He sat at his desk, turned on the gooseneck lamp, and adjusted his thick glasses. He selected a stamp from between sheets of waxed paper, studied it under his magnifying glass, flipped his collection book open, and prepared to mount it. As he did, he heard Doris go into her own bedroom and close the door. He heard her bed springs groan under her weight.

Front of a duplex
Photo by Valeriia Bugaiova on Unsplash

*

The boy first stole from a store a mile or so away that afternoon. From behind the front counter beside the cash register, the owner, whose name was Jack, watched him in the round, beveled mirror perched high in the far corner. The place wasn’t very big, and although the boy was behind some shelves in the clothing section, Jack could see well as he glanced around, then took a knit cap off a rack. The boy slipped it into his bookbag and walked slowly to the front of the store, his head down. As he opened the door, a blast of frigid air followed him inside. The doors jingled closed behind him.

Jack frowned. He’d seen the boy go by often on his way to and from school. He watched the boy’s breath make short clouds as he walked to the corner where a homeless man was slouched in his regular spot in the alcove of an empty storefront, his sleeping bag and other belongings in a shopping cart next to him. Jack knew the cardboard sign at the man’s feet said: “Out of work vet” because he’d sometimes dropped a few coins in the coffee can next to it when he walked by. Jack watched the boy approach the man, unzip his bookbag, take out the knit cap, and hand it to him. The man looked from the cap in his hand to the boy with wide, startled eyes. Jack watched the boy continue up the sidewalk as the man fitted the cap over his head.

*

Gail appeared in the foyer of the old restaurant a few blocks away from that alcove a little after seven. She was dressed nicely, as always, the bottoms of tailored slacks and polished flats visible beneath a stylish overcoat. The maître d’ greeted her with a warm smile.

“Table for two, then?” he asked.

She did her best to return his smile. “No, my husband is travelling. I’ll just eat in the bar tonight.”

He nodded and gestured with an open palm towards the low-lit adjoining room. It was empty except for the bartender who stopped washing glasses and nodded to Gail as she entered.

She settled onto a stool at the far end. The bartender came over and set a cocktail napkin in front of her. He raised his eyebrows and held up two fingers.

“No,” Gail said. “My husband is out of town. Just me this evening.”

He nodded again and began making her dirty martini. Gail unbuttoned her overcoat to the waist and fingered a necklace against her silk blouse as she watched him shake and pour. He set the frosted glass in front of her, three olives instead of two at the bottom.

“Thank you,” Gail said.

She took a sip and watched him return to the other end of the bar and resume his glass washing. She took another swallow, and whispered, “Slow down.”

Gail took her cell phone out of her coat pocket and checked for a reply from the last text she’d sent her husband. There was no response. A couple of hours earlier, he’d told her about his affair and had left their house with a small, packed suitcase. Her text read: “Why? Please come back.”

*

Snow fell that night and had blanketed the lawn and street the next morning when Doris opened their living room curtains. She pulled her quilted bathrobe around her girth and tightened its cord. Martin passed her in his own plaid robe and slippers, opened the front door, and picked up the newspaper leaning against it. He carried it by her to his easy chair, sat down, and lifted off the front section.

“Well,” Doris said. “It snowed.”

“Yes, it did.”

She watched him snap open the pages, his head hidden behind them. She turned on the table lamp between the two easy chairs and went into the kitchen where she heated water for tea and toasted four pieces of bread. Doris buttered the toast and cut it diagonally on a small plate. She carried it into the living room and set it on the table between the chairs. Then she went back into the kitchen and returned with two mugs of tea. She took the section of the paper with the advice column and the comics and settled into her own chair.

For the next hour, they sat silently reading and taking bites of toast and sips of tea. Occasionally, Doris looked over at the backs of Martin’s liver-spotted hands that held his paper; she couldn’t remember the last time she’d held one of them.

*

Around that same time, Jack stood at the kitchen window of his apartment above the store and watched the boy pass by on his way to school. The boy was perhaps nine or ten years old, thin and waifish with a shock of brown curls. Jack watched him pause on the snowy sidewalk in front of the alcove where the homeless man lay on his side sleeping, then continue on his way around the corner. The school was midway up that street. Jack had attended it, too, when he was young. Before his mother moved away and it was just he and his father living in the apartment. He began helping his father in the store when he wasn’t much older than the boy. In his will, his father left the apartment and store to him, but Jack had to have someone else manage it until he was released from prison a few years after his father’s death. When he took it over, he didn’t change a thing from the way his father had kept it all his life: the last remaining five-and-dime that Jack knew of anywhere.

He soft-boiled an egg for breakfast and ate it with coffee standing at the kitchen counter looking out the window some more. It hadn’t started snowing again, but the light was flat and gray, and he could see his muffled reflection in the glass. He knew he looked older than his forty years and that the things he’d done before prison were mostly to blame for that. The morning train clacked into the station a few blocks away, and a cat nosed at debris in the snow from a fallen trashcan in the alley below.

Aerial view of road and buildings coated with snow
Photo by Adam Butler on Unsplash

 

*

Gail hadn’t slept much, and her head ached from the drinks at the bar and the ones she’d had when she got home the night before. She lay flat on her back in bed staring at the ceiling and was vaguely aware of the tick of the clock on the bedside table. She was still clutching her husband’s pillow and she lifted it to her face once more to smell his scent. She took her cell phone from where it lay beside her and checked again for returned voicemails, texts, or emails from him. There were none. She blew out a long breath and forced herself to climb out of bed.

A little over an hour later, she was sitting at her desk at the museum where she worked pretending to look through an exhibit catalogue. Her assistant sat a few feet away smirking at her computer screen.

“I’ve just about had it with him,” her assistant said.  She looked over at Gail. “My boyfriend. He’s lame.”

Gail glanced at her, then turned back to the catalogue. She kept her hands flat on the desk to still their tremor.

“He’s taking me to a B & B this weekend,” the young woman said. “And he just sent me a link to it. Place is a dump.”

Gail looked back her way and swallowed over a hardness in her throat.

“Your husband would never do that. He always takes you to the nicest places.”

Gail found herself blinking. She said, “I don’t know.”

*

That afternoon, Martin drove Doris into town to run some errands. Their last stop was the five-and-dime. Martin stayed in the car parked across the street from the store while Doris went inside. She and Jack nodded to one another when she came through the tinkling doors. She took a plastic basket from the stack in the entry and headed to the crafts section. She quickly found the hanks of yarn she needed for the afghan she was knitting but dropped a few more things in her basket on her way to the check-out counter: a jigsaw puzzle with a photo of a cat on the front, two rolls of Scotch tape, a ruler, a birthday card for Martin, and a paperback romance novel.

She watched Jack work the cash register, take money from her, and close it into the drawer. As he began bagging her items, she said, “You know, I was once close to your father.”

Jack’s hands stopped, and he studied the old woman. “That so?”

“Yes.” She spoke softly. “Back in high school. We went to senior prom together, actually.”

He raised his eyebrows and said, “No kidding.”

She nodded. “But then he enlisted right after graduation and went away to serve. I met my husband while he was gone.” She paused. “But things might have turned out differently for us if he’d stayed. We were very fond of one another.”

They were quiet and just looked at each other until Doris said, “He was a good man.”

A flush spread through Jack. “Yes,” he said. “He was.”

“Oh, well.” Doris pursed her lips and lowered her eyes to the items on the counter. Jack followed her gaze and finished bagging them. He handed her the plastic sack. They exchanged small smiles. Jack watched after her as she left the store.

It had begun to snow again very lightly. Doris noticed the boy coming towards her on the sidewalk as she was stepping off the curb to cross the street. The toe of one of her shoes caught in a crack, she stumbled, and dropped the sack, its contents scattering onto the street. Before she regained her balance, the boy was beside her, helping her upright gently by the elbow. Then he bent down and replaced the items into her sack. Jack watched from inside the store; Martin did, too, from where he sat in their parked car.

“Thank you,” Doris said as she took the sack from the boy. “That was very kind of you.”

He nodded and headed up the sidewalk past the five-and-dime. She watched him pause in front of the slumbering homeless man in the alcove; so did Jack and Martin. The three of them watched him until he turned around the next corner.

The boy continued through the streets of town towards his neighborhood. When he entered the park that fronted the house where he lived, he saw Gail sitting in her overcoat on a bench in front of a small pond. She was tossing bread crusts to a pair of ducks who swam in the

shallows in front of where she sat. He stood very still under a tall, bare tree and watched her cry quietly as she tossed the bread with tiny shakes of her wrists. When all the bread was gone, she folded her hands in her lap and lowered her chin to her chest. The ducks finished eating the last of the hunks and began quacking, paddling up to the concrete lip of the pond.

The boy unzipped his bookbag, opened the lunchbox inside, and took out a baggie of crackers he’d left uneaten. He zipped the bookbag closed again, shrugged it back over his shoulders, and walked across the snow-covered grass to Gail. She’d stopped crying but looked up at him with damp eyes when he reached the crackers out to her. As she took them from him, he thought she looked pretty, like photographs he’d seen of his mother before she died.

Gail took the crackers from him with a crooked, pained smile, and said, “Will you help me feed them?”

The boy sat down next to her. His feet barely reached the ground. She handed him a few crackers, took several herself, and they began breaking them apart and tossing them to the ducks as the snow fell silently around them.

*

A few hours later, Gail was perched on the same stool as the night before in the old restaurant. It was a Friday evening and the place was more crowded. Martin sat a couple of empty spots away from her on the short side of one of the bar’s “L’s”, and Jack was across from him on the other. They were both drinking draft beer; Gail had two martini glasses in front of her, one empty and the other full. Jack watched her chew the olives that had been in the empty glass, imagining their taste as he did. He admired her appearance, her tasteful clothing, her removed, troubled bearing.

He thought she was about his age and considered sending her a drink but decided against it when he saw her fiddling with her wedding and engagement rings.

Martin watched Gail touch a brooch pinned to her crisply pressed linen blouse. She felt the old man’s stare and looked over. He said, “Lovely brooch. Antique?”

She nodded.

“Family heirloom? Keepsake?”

She shook her head. “Anniversary gift from my husband. Last year.”

“Lovely,” he said again. “I was a jeweler. You’re a lucky young lady.”

Gail felt her stomach fall. She said, “I guess.”

Martin and Jack watched her take a long sip from her glass.

*

The next day was even colder, and snow fell off and on. The boy came into the five-and-dime a little after noon wearing his bookbag. The store was empty again. From behind the counter, Jack watched him head down the aisle towards the clothing section. Jack glanced out the windows to where the homeless man sat in the alcove wearing his knit cap and sleeping bag around his shoulders like a shawl. Jack turned his attention to the mirror and shook his head as he watched the boy put a scarf and pair of mittens into his bookbag.

The boy didn’t look at Jack as he made his deliberate way back to the front of the store. When he put his hand on the door handle, Jack said, “Stop. Wait right there.”

The boy froze where he was. He turned and fixed Jack with worried eyes.

“Wait,” Jack said again. He came around to the front of the counter and took a couple bags of chips, several candy bars, and a package of beef jerky from the shelves under the cash register. He clutched them awkwardly against his chest, then stepped over next the boy.  He looked down and said, “I’m sure he’s hungry, too. Open your bag.”

The boy’s gaze remained the same. Very slowly, he took off the bookbag and unzipped it in front of him. Jack dropped the food into its cavity on top of the scarf and mittens. Then he held the door open for the boy. A gust of snow blew across them.

Their eyes held for a long moment until Jack said, “Go.”

The boy dipped under Jack’s arm and hurried up the sidewalk. He didn’t re-zip the book bag but carried it in front of him like an offering. Jack closed the door and watched until the boy was kneeling in front of the homeless man handing him items from it. The man leaned forward with his mouth open in wonder. Jack went back behind the c ounter and turned on the radio that his father had always kept there. He adjusted the dial until he found the station of old standards that his father had favored. A slow song played, a sweet ballad that Jack recognized but couldn’t name.

 

Person in coat holding mug


William Cass
William Cass has had over a hundred short stories appear in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review and an earlier issue of Streetlight Magazine. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination and won writing contests at Terrain.org and the Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.

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