Maggie had awakened with a violent
start at not quite 5:00 a.m., and that in itself should have told her that it was going to be a strange day. She knew better than to try to go back to sleep. It wasn’t
going to happen. It hadn’t been a dream that had pulled her out of a sound
sleep, for there were no little fantasy particles still dancing around inside her head that told her something strange and
interesting had been cavorting there. A sound from the street? Not possible. Her hearing was no longer able to detect such
things anyway, so it was a subject best accepted and ignored. Her hearing aids were dropped carelessly in the drawer of her
telephone table, and she seldom used them at home anyhow unless she needed to use the phone.
Telephones were not high on her list of priorities. Come to think of it,
she no longer had a list of priorities!
Maggie made coffee and two slices
of toast and took them with her to the recliner by the living room window. It
wasn’t even daylight yet, and it would be another hour before the sky to the east would begin to lift its curtain on
the day. The street below was already buzzing with traffic; people from outlying
areas heading to work the early shift in the city, trailer trucks getting a head start on deliveries to warehouses across
the river, and newspaper vans huffing and puffing, dropping off their big string-tied bundles on street-corner after street-corner.
There were a few lights on in the
apartment complex across the street. It was a huge building, almost twice as
big as this one, almost twice as prestigious, more than twice as expensive. The
Gateway Complex at 341 East Side Drive was constructed of concrete, glass and stainless steel, and its contractor had not
taken into consideration that the enormous bay windows in the living rooms of
every unit were open invitations to the inquisitive souls who resided in the
apartment across the way. Some tenants put up thick draperies for privacy, but
most did not. Thus, retired nursing supervisor Margaret Kincannon had discovered
a fascinating pastime which she’d come to relish and quickly turned into a full-scale preoccupation. Her former lonely existence of boredom and silence suddenly turned into a most welcome adventure of delight
and discovery and she now looked forward to each day with an enthusiasm she had not known in years.
Maggie was on her third cup of coffee
when she saw Paul in Apartment Eight move slowly from the black hole of his bedroom into the half-lit cavern of his living
room. Ordinarily he would not be out there quite this early, but she already
knew this was not an ordinary day. He was still in pajamas and bathrobe. This was unusual, for he was an early riser, although also a man of unpredictable
nocturnal pursuits. She had seen
him fully dressed as early as 6:00 a.m., and sometimes in the middle of the night when she could not sleep and looked for
a diversion, she would see him prowl around with a labored and halting gait, as though he might suffer from intermittent back
problems. Perhaps he was taking today off.
Everyone deserved a day off now and then, didn’t they? As she watched,
Paul stood there motionless, unshaven, wavy chestnut hair in disarray, half leaning against his Steinway grand piano on a
half-bent elbow, staring out the big window and into space, looking almost wistful.
She wondered what might be going on in his mind.
Of all the tenants at Gateway, Paul
was her favorite. She liked Fancy Nancy too, and the Athertons, especially Scooter,
but Paul was by far the most fascinating … and the most mysterious. Fancy
was young; an auburn-haired beauty, and obviously wealthy. Her chic wardrobe
and expensive jewelry almost seemed to define her as a person, and she was fascinating to watch as she posed like a trollop
in front of the full-length mirror on the wall next to her front door. Paul,
however, had no mirrors. His place was plainer and more refined. Built-in bookcases lined two walls and piles of books were stacked everywhere. His heavy brown leather furniture and what looked like mahogany side pieces topped with brushed-steel lamps,
added further subdued elegance. She was sure he was a professional man, as elegant
as his surroundings. He dressed recklessly however; most times in loose blue
jeans with a casual sport jacket and sometimes an open-necked pastel shirt to offset the darker attire.
Maggie always chose names for her
Gateway tenants carefully. The characterizations she endowed them with had to
fit their personas, their physical appearances or their mannerisms. This man
was handsome; slender and graceful, but not haughty or autocratic. He had a nice
smile, though she saw it seldom. He was tall, but from this distance even her
high-powered binoculars could not discern just how tall. He had a sharply defined
face, high cheekbones, thin nose and a stern brow. His most redeeming feature,
Maggie believed, were the azure-bright blue eyes. And yet there was a sense of
sadness about him, an aura of deep regret and mourning, as though he had recently lost something very important in his life. He spent most of his time alone, as though he had not yet recovered from whatever
it was, and in this sense they were kindred spirits, for Maggie had lost something too.
She had watched him a long time before she’d finally graced him with a name.
She’d narrowed the choices meticulously: Charles? Paul? Vincent?
Finally he had become, for her: “Paul”. Because he looked the most like a “Paul”!
He had a friend who came by once in awhile, a handsome young man she’d already named “Richard”. That one had been easy, but that was a whole other story.
By eight a.m. the city was wide awake
and bustling with activity. East Side Drive, and a block north, Cranston Avenue, both of which fed into the main artery, were clogged with the expensive
cars, fancy pickup trucks and SUVs of Princeton’s white collar workers bent on getting behind their desks by nine. As Maggie peered across the street, she chuckled to herself at the scurrying going
on in Fancy Nancy’s apartment, one unit below and one east of Paul’s. The
girl wasn’t going to make it to work on time today. She was already behind
with her primping, and the array of fashionable clothing piled on her credenza attested to her inability to make up her mind
about what to wear. She was a pretty girl; auburn-haired and slender, deep brown
eyes and an impish smile, mid thirties and supremely gifted. She owned and operated
an art gallery somewhere in Plainsboro, Maggie had heard, and her stylistic work on display there was rumored to have brought
prices in the thousands. But she was a “material girl”. Nancy’s bangly-dangly earrings and
other little glittery googahs which adorned her person tweaked Maggie’s mind with silly images of a walking Christmas
tree, and she imagined that every time the girl moved, she jingled or rattled or tinkled.
Maggie couldn’t hear these sounds anywhere but inside her head, but they certainly were loud enough in there! Finally Nancy pulled
herself together and looked ready to leave. She picked up a huge shoulder bag
from the floor, draped it across her back like a sack of grain, threw open her apartment door and stepped into the hallway. It took her two tries to finally pull the door closed behind her. Maggie smiled. On the heavy maple credenza a pile of discarded
silky outfits began to slide onto the floor one by one until only a single shiny blouse was left behind, half on and half
off the edge. Then slowly, like molasses from a jar, it joined its companions,
thread by thread, on the pile on the carpet.
the same time it settled there, Nancy’s yellow RX8 pulled
out of the underground garage and turned toward the street which led to Plainsboro.
At 9:15 a.m. Maggie swallowed the
last dregs of her coffee. It was cold!
By ten o’clock the sky opened
and let down the rain and the wind and the lightning. Tumbling cascades of excited
water painted silvery images on every window pane in Maggie’s apartment. Unhurriedly
she turned from her guardian duties and went to the kitchen closet for her vacuum cleaner and a dust rag. The remainder of the morning she puttered around with a bit of sweeping up the carpet, a bit of dish washing
and a dab of light dusting. By noon the chores ran out, the wind died, and rain
continued to dance happily down the gutters in a steady ballet. She did not return
to the chair right away, but heated a packet of noodle soup and made an egg salad sandwich.
She consumed them at the kitchen table and cleaned up meticulously afterward.
She went to the bathroom, relieved herself and immediately washed her hands.
There! Now she was ready to go back to the window and the recliner and
check back on Paul. Had he simply taken the day off from work? Or was he not feeling well and stayed home to recuperate? Perhaps his back was bothering him.
There were no lights on in the apartment
across the street. Neither could she detect any movement. Normally, darkness did not hinder her view, for the street lights outside gave enough illumination to at
least throw interesting objects into silhouette. Now, however, the falling rain
obscured everything she might easily have noticed on a day with more sun. Today
Paul’s place seemed dark, abandoned and unnaturally still. He was not there. Maggie was relieved. It meant he was
all right. He was out somewhere enjoying his time off, or maybe spending some
pleasant hours with his friend Richard.
Maggie sighed with contentment and
turned on the TV. There was a documentary about the Egyptian pyramids on the
History Channel. She lifted the handle on the recliner, tilting it back as far
as it would go, and settled down to watch.
It was almost 2:00 p.m. when Maggie
Kincannon next opened her eyes. The rain had stopped, but the sky was still overcast. The History Channel was showing an armchair tour of the Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, and lamenting on the fact that the old ship just below the
surface of the harbor was slowly disintegrating beneath the ravages of time. She
decided she didn’t need to hear about that; it seemed depressing somehow, and she clicked the set off. There was nothing good on TV in the afternoon anyhow. She
levered slowly out of the recliner and made her way to the bathroom. Her knees
and hips were stiff with osteo-arthritis and it took a minute for her loosen up and stop limping.
Back in the kitchen she grabbed two
Pecan Sandies from the cookie jar and munched on one of them. She poured a glass
of milk, then went back to the recliner. Paul’s place was still dim, but
the small lamp he kept on his piano was turned to a low setting, and its glow lifted some of the gloom. He’d come home while she’d slept, but she still didn’t see him anywhere. He must be in the bath, one of the bedrooms or the kitchen. Something
blurred and indistinct lay near the couch, but without the binoculars she could not tell what it was. She drained the glass of milk and set it on the sill, picked up the glasses, adjusted the focus and aimed
at the pile of … whatever. A blanket, two bed pillows and a couch pillow. That was curious. Other than piles of
books scattered about the room, he was generally neat.
Somewhere in her peripheral vision,
the binocular lens picked up a glint of motion to the left and she moved her head in that direction. Paul was emerging from the kitchen with a
glass of something in his left hand.
Fizzy. Ginger Ale? Sprite? 7-Up? She continued to watch him, her brow furrowed in puzzlement. He was more than a little
lame. As he walked slowly and with obvious effort out of the dimness and into the light, she saw that he was still in pajamas
and bath robe. When he skirted the big piano to start across the room toward
the couch, he looked as though he was leaning on it in a struggle to steady himself.
The glass in his other hand wavered and a few drops spilled out onto the carpet.
He let go of the piano and nearly staggered the rest of the way. Leaned
his free hand on its wide arm and slowly lowered himself down. She could see
all of him now and his shoulders were slumped, head down, body bowed forward. In
the shrewd observation of an old nurse, the man was definitely in pain. Was it
his back? Or was it something else?
So he had been ill! He must have spent the morning on the couch where the lack of light and the falling rain made it too dim
to see him She watched him switch the drink to his right hand, take a few swallows
and set the glass down on the end table. He leaned slowly sideways, and Maggie
saw him lift his right leg onto the couch manually, until he lay curled on his left side across the cushions. One of the pillows from the floor found its way beneath his knee. Shortly,
his TV went on, its picture flickering anonymously in the gloom. After that, she did not see him move again for the rest of
So it wasn’t his back! He had somehow injured his knee. Or his
leg. Either one would cause him to lift the limb with both hands.
Maggie sat in the recliner unattentive
of her surroundings, contemplating this obsession of hers to be bothered about the well being of a man she had never met. What was it about him that drew her in? He
was attractive, it was true, and the aura which surrounded him exuded a strange vulnerability about his person that she still
did not understand. He was young enough to be her son; perhaps even her grandson
if she ever got the opportunity to see him up close. That would probably never
happen though, for Maggie always kept her distance lest it spoil the illusion. But
it still bothered her that he was hurt. She let her head lean backward and allowed
the recliner to go back also, frowning a bit in concentration and remembering the first time she had seen “Paul”.
At the time her intriguing fantasy
life had taken root, Maggie had been a new tenant at 318 East Side Drive. It was an old building, but elegant, and perfect for her needs, due to its convenient access to the bus
routes and easy approach to downtown shopping centers. Maggie had given up her
driver’s license when she moved in due to the hearing failure, and she did not feel confident behind the wheel anymore. She definitely did not want to have to move into a high rise for the elderly, mainly
because she hated the lingering odor of old age. She’d had more than enough of that while still employed as a nursing
supervisor. Maybe some day when she too thought of herself as “old”, it would be a different story. But not yet! There were too many things to see, too many places
to go, and too many years spent on the top floor of Polyclinic Hospital
in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She was alone in the world. Arthur had
passed on two years before, and they’d had no children. Their love had
been deep and lasting, and she still missed his presence. It was an ache inside
that never quite went away. Much like the ache she’d seen in the face of
the man in the apartment at Gateway. Just like that! Paul’s face looked like her face every time she looked in a mirror. After a time, she found that
Arthur’s memory lingered deeply in every inch of their home in Harrisburg,
and she found that she could not live there any longer if she wished to keep her sanity. An ad in a national magazine had
drawn her to Princeton, New Jersey,
and the rest was, as they say, “history”.
It was the middle of March then,
and she was still getting things put away in her new apartment, Number 26, when she stopped to take a breather and a drink
of something. She’d pulled one of the stray kitchen chairs over in front
of her living room window and sat down to drink a diet Pepsi and see what was to be seen of the neighborhood. At that time of year, not much! It was a drab season, and
even the movement of traffic in the street three floors below seemed bored and early-afternoon sluggish. She cast her gaze in a circle, taking in the limited vista afforded by the restrictions of the window’s
view, and contemplated some of the buildings in the area. Most of them were condominiums
or high rises like this one, for it was a residential neighborhood rather than commercial, and the common bustle of a business
district atmosphere was further toward the center of town.
She brought her attention back to
her own block and looked over to the almost-new complex across the street. Luxury
apartments, each with a large bay window in its living area, pulled her gaze to all the things she could easily see inside
if she looked in the right direction. She could see people moving about in some
of them; people going about their everyday lives oblivious to the curious old woman spying on them wide-eyed from just across
the street. A flicker of something stirring in close proximity to the glare of
reflection in the afternoon light drew Maggie’s attention to the apartment closest to the center of this side of the
building. She concentrated and looked closer.
There was a man with his back turned to her, seated; thin build, dark shining hair.
His arms moved away from his body, then back; spread outward again and back in and back out, over and over. It looked almost as though he might be playing with a ball, bouncing it back and forth from hand to hand. Then she saw the expanse of white keyboard, and she understood. He was playing a piano. A beautiful dark shiny huge grand
piano. Motionless, she continued to watch him.
Presently he finished whatever he’d been playing and turned around on the bench, facing in her direction. He could not see her, for the light was full in his eyes. She saw him push carefully to his feet, move slowly up to the window and look outward, leaning into the
window sill, his face tilted full to the sunlight. Just standing there. There was a glass of something in his left hand.
Maggie went to one of the open packing boxes that still lined the edges of her living room. The old binoculars were there. Arthur’s. High-powered things. She didn’t know why she’d
kept them, but at that moment she was glad she had. She trained them on Apartment
eight across the street. Her neighbor was still at his window, and now she could
see his face. She saw the vulnerability first.
Then the pain. Then the intelligence.
Who … was he?
“Paul” was the first
one to whom she gave a name.
One floor directly
above Paul’s place lived people Maggie called “The Athertons”.
“John” and “Mary”
were pretty much uninteresting. Like lily pads on a pond, you could only pay
attention to them for a few moments before they turned intensely boring. Maggie
did not bother with either of them much, other than to assign them boring monikers.
But they had a child; a boy about six or seven years old. Maggie called
him “Scooter”, because that’s what he did. He scooted. Never still for more than two minutes at a time, he was a happy-go-lucky little kid
with a sparkling smile, beautiful blue eyes and hair as black as a raven’s back.
He was always rumpled, shirttail hanging out on one side or the other, and trousers hitched in an uneven way that made
him look like he was walking sideways. He never had both shoes tied at the same time.
And he couldn’t have cared less.
Scooter’s main mission in life, it sometimes seemed, was to annoy as many people at the same time as he possibly
could. And he was good at it. After
school he would hang around the entrance to Gateway Complex with three or four of his small friends and make life miserable
for anyone who walked by. Anyone with a dog on a leash was fair game. The boys would jump out and pounce menacingly, and if it was a small dog, the creature would usually wrap
itself about its owner’s legs and its mouth would crank open and closed like a pair of electric scissors, obviously
peppering the surrounding area with furious small-dog yaps. If it was a large
dog, there would be further furious crankings of much bigger jaws, but also lunging at the end of the leash and dragging the
angry dog owner forward like a ship behind a tugboat, while the boys ran happily down the street, faces triumphant with “one-upmanship”,
and out of sight around a corner.
Scooter and his pals would eat granola
bars and potato chips and throw the wrappers in the street, or chug soda pop and fling the empty cans at the metal mail box
or the large public trash can on the corner, probably just to hear the noise and startle those who happened to be in the vicinity. Maggie would watch them and shake her head at their childish disrespect, thinking
that someone needed to give them all a stern talking to! Either their parents
did not know of their misbehavior, or didn’t care. Maggie hoped it was
the former rather than the latter, but these days one never knew.
It had all come to a head the week
before while three of the boys were dawdling out front, laughing and giggling and cuffing at each other until one of them
went too far and thrust an elbow into Scooter’s face, giving him a bloody nose.
After that, a fight ensued in which three small bodies hammered at each other with arms flailing, knees butting, and
in general pummeling one another on the sidewalk, rolling around like street hoods three times their age.
Suddenly two of them found themselves
lifted bodily, dangling with their feet off the ground and held aloft by the
iron fingers of two strong adult arms as they continued to flail at nothing but empty air and finding themselves staring into
a pair of smouldering blue eyes. The third boy’s face froze in alarm as
he stared at his pals’ dilemma and began to back away. The man before him
was shouting something at him, and he did the most logical thing he could think of.
He turned tail and ran. Next, the arms lowered slowly to their owner’s
sides and two stretched-out-of-shape collars snapped back against two scrawny necks.
Scooter and his remaining friend, both slightly bloodied, regained their footing on the sidewalk, still awed by their
experience and still riveted in place by the stern countenance of the person towering over them.
Words were being exchanged; older
to younger. A long finger pointed at the curb, then back to the empty food wrappers
in front of the steps and wheelchair ramp at the wide front entrance. Maggie
would have given her life’s savings to be able to hear what Paul was saying. It
was clear he was very angry. When he finally stopped talking, but continued to
point, the two boys hurried to pick up the mess they had made on the street.
boys, arms loaded, went meekly to the public trash can and deposited all the junk inside.
then did the stern expression leave Paul’s face. It was only the second
time Maggie had ever seen him smile. His
head tilted back and his thin face opened like the pages of a child’s picture book.
That was also the second time she’d seen the deep dimples that furrowed his cheeks, and at that moment she was
very glad she had come to “know” him. He had a special “thing”
for kids, and that pleased her very much.
Paul lowered himself down gradually
to sit on the building’s front stoop. He stretched his long legs before
him and motioned both boys to approach. They came forward as he directed; cautiously,
heads down, faces unreadable. Paul spoke to them both, eyes animated, and they
listened, she thought, almost respectfully. Presently they sat down also, one
on each side of him, and the conversation continued for another ten minutes. At
that time, Paul pushed himself to stand up once again and turn to go inside. He
reached across to the entrance railing and retrieved something she’d seen him place there when he’d confronted
the boys, but hadn’t given a thought to what it might have been.
Even now, Maggie still could not
be sure exactly what happened next. The boys were ready to part, one of them
on his way up the street toward home, and Scooter directly in front of Paul as he began an ascent of the ramp to enter the
front door of Gateway. The way she remembered it was, the second boy reached
around to give Scooter a friendly parting shove, but instead caused his friend to trip and fall head first against the front
of Paul’s legs.
Startled, Maggie saw the blaze of
agony contort Paul’s face as he went down in a heap. Scooter went down
beside him, but rolled onto his back to get up and shout something to the other boy who was already nearly out of sight up
the street. So he turned to Paul instead, beginning to laugh at the way they’d
landed in such an awkward position. Paul, however, was not laughing. His face was twisted in pain, and it was obvious he was unable to get up.
Scooter stood staring, unsure what to do. Then he turned and ran inside.
Thirty seconds later, two large men
were on the landing, reaching beneath Paul’s shoulders, helping him to stand up, supporting him from either side and
assisting him as he limped painfully through the door. He could put precious
little weight on his right foot. Maggie gasped.
Behind them, Scooter picked up the
object Paul had dropped when he fell, and held it with both hands as he silently followed the three men inside.
It was a cane.
Shortly after that, “Richard”
arrived. Someone must have called him. He entered Paul’s apartment in a
flurry of swirling coat tails and open-mouthed alarm. Scooter was there on the
couch beside his new-found friend, one small hand on Paul’s arm, his face tear-streaked and pale. Richard touched Paul’s face gently with the backs of his hands, and the other man nodded slightly.
Richard walked across the room and
sat down in a chair, beckoning Scooter to come to him. They must know each other!
The boy did so, and they spoke for a few moments.
After that, Richard ruffled the boy’s hair and walked him to the door.
Scooter had stopped crying by that time, but he still looked worried. After
another minute, Richard held the door open for him, and Scooter left reluctantly.
Richard returned to Paul’s
side immediately and just sat there with an arm around the thin shoulders. They
were talking, but Maggie had no idea what they might have been saying. After
a time, Richard stood and held out a hand to Paul, who took his cane in his right hand, and placed his left one on Richard’s
steadying arm. In this manner they moved slowly and with effort, to the bedroom.
Maggie saw the light come on.
Richard was still there when Maggie
went to bed. She was glad Paul was being cared for by such a caring friend, and
she slept deeply.
The next morning Paul’s apartment
was shut down. All the lights were off, everything neat and in its place. For a week, the unit was deserted. No
one left there. No one went there. The
piano sat silent and lonely. It was like a concert hall abandoned by the only
orchestra it had ever known.
Scooter Atherton could be seen from
time to time in the evenings, at the bay window of his parents’ apartment, gazing down into the street. Hanging out. The youngster had finally found a reason to stand
still for a change!
He came home on April Fool’s
Day. On crutches. Moving painfully. Richard was with him, no further away than his elbow.
So was a petite older woman who Maggie recognized instantly as Paul’s mother.
Same blazing blue eyes. Same dimples, same dark chestnut hair, except
that hers was sprinkled with generous splashes of grey.
“Ruth”. Maggie chose the name at once. Definitely Ruth!
They wanted him to go to the bedroom. Maggie could see they were arguing with him.
He did not want to listen. Richard was upset. His pretty dark eyes were wide and worried. At first Maggie
thought he might weep. She could see his face as he spoke, and caught the word
“bed” more than once. Paul was shaking his head “no”. Finally Ruth turned on her heel and left them, still at odds with one another, and
disappeared into the bedroom. She returned in a few minutes with an armful of
bed pillows and a large comforter.
When all was said and done, they
settled him on the couch, two bed pillows supporting his back and two others beneath his right leg; the same leg Scooter had
stumbled into downstairs the week before. Maggie thought about it awhile and
came to the conclusion that Paul’s injury had nothing to do with the boy bumping into him. Whatever was wrong with his leg was chronic and had been an ongoing problem for quite some time. It was fragile and easily hurt. She could not understand why
she had not picked up on it before. It should have been obvious, and she a nurse!
God! She was slipping!
In the meantime she had things to
do and places to go. Her Social Security check and monthly pension should be
credited to her account by now, and all her first-of-the-month errands lay before her. She
sat at the kitchen table and wrote out the rent check. She still needed to go to the bank, the post office, the drug store, maybe K-Mart and definitely the supermarket. She got up from the table and pushed her chair in against it. The bus would be going past out front in about ten more minutes.
If she hurried, she could catch it, do all her running around and take a taxi back home again within two hours. She glanced across one more time to Paul’s apartment, but without the binoculars,
she couldn’t see much. The lights were all on and there was movement. He was in good hands. Maggie put on her
coat, grabbed her handbag, and left.
She had been gone longer than she’d
planned, but it turned into a pleasant afternoon. Lunch at TGI Friday’s
gave her a nice diversion after browsing at K Mart and picking up a few toiletries.
She lingered over her second iced tea with lemon and took some time to peruse an impulse purchase: the latest James Patterson novel to come out in paperback. After
that, the supermarket had been her last stop, and Maggie tipped the taxi driver generously for moving her groceries out of
his trunk and into the elevator of her building. From there it was only a few
feet to her front door. It took her about fifteen minutes to put everything away
in the kitchen and store the toiletries in the bathroom.
poured a diet Pepsi into a glass filled with ice, turned out the lights and went to sit down in the recliner. Over in Paul’s apartment the lights were dimmed from the intensity she’d seen earlier, and
there was no movement; only the flickering image from the TV which reflected off the surface of the highly polished grand
piano. Ruth was not present. She must have left and gone back to wherever “home”
was. Maggie picked up the binoculars and trained them on the opposite side of the room.
and Richard were both there, and she could not help but smile at the way they were positioned.
Richard sat with his back tight against the furthest arm of the couch, his right leg bent and propped against the backrest. He was in his bare feet and was stripped down to cut-off jeans and a tee-shirt. Paul was clad only in tee shirt and sweat pants.
His back was tight against Richard’s chest, the back of his head nestled into the hollow spot between Richard’s
shoulder and his half-lowered head. His feet were also bare, the injured leg
propped on two pillows; his opposite leg lay beside Richard’s at the edge of the cushion. There was a contented half-smile on his face and he looked comfortable.
Richard’s left hand gently caressed Paul’s forehead and temple, and his right cheek rested tenderly atop
Paul’s tousled head. Their right hands lay with fingers entwined on Paul’s right shoulder.
In spite of herself, Maggie felt
her eyes begin to sting and then fill with tears. She’d had a small inkling
of their devotion before, but now it was certain, and she knew she was trespassing on something beautiful and very private. She had no right to intrude on their affection and intimacy. Since they obviously did not live together, they probably got very little of either. She replaced the binoculars on the window sill and leaned back in the chair. Tears continued to run down her cheeks and she did nothing to check them.
Instead, she felt giddy and light hearted and illogically enchanted. What
she had just been privy to was confidential and absolutely none of her damned business!
Maggie went to bed early that night
and slept the sleep of the “innocent”. That concept, however, was
pure bullshit! She was really just an idiotically delighted old voyeur.
In the weeks that followed, Maggie
watched Paul’s place a little less, especially while Richard was there and they were alone together. When Richard was away at work during the day and it was Ruth who stayed close to her son’s side,
then Maggie felt free to intrude a bit. In fact, she kept her watchful nurse’s
eye trained on his progress, and was pleased to note that during the second week at home, he began to wean himself from the
crutches one halting step at a time. It could not have been easy for him, working
through the pain and having to pause to rest every few minutes. In the early
afternoons he would disappear into the bedroom, presumably to sleep and renew his strength before being able to resume the
unending battle. During these times, Ruth kept him fed and his laundry caught
up, and gradually he even began playing the piano again. Richard joined him most
evenings and sometimes they would eat out. Paul always used the crutches on these
occasions, but by the end of the third week he was back on the cane, still very sore, judging from his movements, but improving
a little more each day. His cane was black and a little difficult to see when
all the lights were not on, and Maggie was forced to forgive herself a little for not noticing before how completely he had
to depend on it for aid in getting around.
Monday morning of the fourth week,
he appeared in the living room fully dressed by 7:00 a.m., and Maggie knew he was at last ready to return to work. He left by 7:30, still much too lame, but walking with a cadence which almost shouted his eagerness to
return to whatever was “normal” for him! At 7:40 his car left the
underground parking garage and joined the mass migration toward Plainsboro. Maggie
heaved a sigh of relief when she saw him go. She would miss him, but she was
happy he was finally able to recapture the life he obviously loved.
In the weeks that followed, Maggie
made a conscious effort to focus her attention elsewhere in the neighborhood and give Paul a break from her prying. This didn’t mean that she didn’t monitor him at all; she still watched him when he came
home from work, just making sure he was all right with his return to more active pursuits.
Sometimes his painful movements told her that he was still hurting, but she knew he was working through it gradually.
The activities of the young street
urchins led by Scooter and his friends of the “Potato Chip Bag and Soda Can Gang” suddenly ceased their littering
ways. When they sat on the front stoop of Gateway, chattering and laughing after
school, their accumulated junk food wrappers found their way quickly to the trash can on the curb, and peace reigned. Dog owners could now walk past out front in the company of their pets without fear
of being accosted by a flock of young air heads. All
this made Maggie smile and shake her head appreciatively.
bonus of this hard-learned lesson came mid-afternoon one Thursday while Maggie had been standing at her front window, drying
the newly washed glass with a page of crumpled newspaper. Looking down in the street, she saw Paul drive up more than two
hours early from work. He waved to the boys out the car window as he turned into
the entrance of the underground garage. She hoped he’d taken the afternoon
off for leisure rather than come home ill or hurting. She needn’t have
worried. He came walking around the corner a few minutes later, having taken
the outside steps rather than riding to his floor in the elevator. Maggie knew
there were only five steps up, but he certainly had to have been feeling much better to even attempt them in his condition. She saw him grimace as he lowered himself gingerly to the stoop with his newly earned
friends, so she knew he’d already paid a price for the concession. Like
the last time, which had ended in disaster, he sat and talked with them for ten minutes, and perhaps longer. Maggie was mesmerized at the rapport he’d so easily established with these former little ruffians,
and when he finally struggled to his feet to go inside, she saw that they all hung back with newfound respect for his disability. No one punched anyone else in roughneck farewell, and the other three boys left for
home, waving backward to Paul and Scooter who moved slowly inside, Scooter following his friend rather than preceeding him. Maggie’s respect for the man grew in leaps and bounds.
Sometimes in the evenings she would
scan the neighborhood and see Scooter standing motionless in front of the Atherton’s bay window, staring out at the
street lights, traffic lights and Princeton’s night life. She would then wonder what the boy was thinking, and consider the sea change his life had taken recently. He was calmer, less hyper. His pants
were hanging straighter on his small frame and he no longer appeared to be walking sideways.
His shirts were either tucked all the way in, or left all the way out. His
sneakers, when he chose to wear them instead of loafers, tended to both stay tied at the same time. Once in awhile he even combed his hair. Maggie speculated
whether it had been Paul’s influence which had done the trick at exactly the right time, or perhaps his parents had
finally become weary of his attitude and simply cracked down. It didn’t
matter. Whatever it was had worked in spades.
Once while she was observing in that direction, Scooter’s attention had been riveted on a low-flying plane, and
as he watched it disappear toward the far horizon, his line of vision was drawn toward her apartment, and she could have sworn
he stared right at her with a puzzled look on his face. She’d lowered the
binoculars quickly, half embarrassed at being discovered. If she’d been
discovered! But it didn’t matter.
She had not been watching him specifically.
In Fancy Nancy’s apartment,
things were happening. The girl was beginning to fly in and out of there with
amazing speed. Sometimes she would be home all day, just flitting about like
the humming bird she was, and at other times returning late at night in a flurry of
frenzied motion, only to disappear into the bedroom, turn off the lights and not come out again until late in the morning,
unwound and undone. All her bangly danglies had taken a powder to another place. She
did not look like she was jingling anymore. These days she resembled a tattered
little waif in torn blue jeans and old tee shirts. She began to remove boxes
of smaller items from her place and cart them away to somewhere else, then return for another, and then another. Finally, Maggie understood. She was moving! Day after day Nancy dragged at least a
dozen clothes racks from the hallway into her living area. These she filled to
overflowing with a wide assortment of garments from somewhere in her bedroom. Maggie
began to ponder whether her bedroom might be about the same size in area as a circus tent!
At odd times Nancy would return to her apartment with a ragged detachment of young men in tow; young men
of endless varied descriptions: tall, short, fat, lean, clean-shaven and grizzled, body pierced and tattooed. Or not! All of them seemed willing to do her bidding. In one day they had carted away almost everything but a few odd chairs and the tall
maple credenza. That night her place was dark.
She did not stay there. She paused in her open doorway for a lengthy kiss
with one of her hairy ensemble before turning out all the lights and locking up for the night.
Maggie sighed. Well hell! It looked as though she would soon have to break
in a new neighbor! Damn! A sudden
thought occurred, and it sent an involuntary shiver of alarm down her spine. She
hoped Paul didn’t decide to do likewise! Since she’d discovered his
relationship with Richard, however, the possibility was not out of the question. They
really needed someplace where they could be alone together and not be clandestinely watched by some nosey old broad. They needed to be able to do whatever they wished, whenever they wished. Paul’s place was not quite big enough. Oh boy! She knew
she was way ahead of herself, but the panic button had already been pushed and it was far too late to unpush it. She hoped sincerely that all her instincts were wrong!
The weekend was rainy. Saturday morning arrived with drizzling rain and low temperatures.
Nasty for the middle of July, and especially messy downtown in Princeton,
New Jersey. Traffic was doing a
snail crawl and all traffic lights were blinking on amber. A transformer must
have blown somewhere, but Maggie did not see any utility crews on it yet. Must
have just happened.
She had all her chores done by 9:00
a.m. and sat in the recliner with a cup of coffee, staring into the pitiful day. Across
the way, Fancy Nancy’s place was still dark, and Maggie wondered when she would bring her fuzzy little crew back to
pick up the credenza. She still had about two weeks before the month ran out
and she would be required to vacate, but there was a lot of time til then. Scooter
and his family were not around. The lights were on, but she could see no movement. But then, they were a little too high to see anyone not within a few feet of the window
or a few feet away from the furthest wall.
Maggie lowered her attention for
a moment to Paul’s apartment, breaking her vow to let him alone except when she checked on his well being. She got the surprise of her life. Richard was there. (Of course! It was Saturday!)
must have been music on, and they were dancing! Dancing! Not slow dancing, cheek to cheek, to accommodate Paul’s disability, but spirited, jumping-up-and-down
dancing! But how could Paul possibly … ?
Maggie’s mouth opened in utter astonishment, and her jaw dropped like a stone on its way to her ample chest. Dancing! Paul too! She stared, laughing like a lunatic. It was wonderful and
she was so happy for them. They were in sock feet on the bare floor. And it was
sweet Richard who was in control. Arms outstretched, his hands grasped Paul securely
by the shoulders. Paul’s arms lay on top of his, the other man’s
hands holding on firmly to his upper arms, and that way they formed a perfect tripod of considerable upper-body strength. Richard’s feet were making all the moves, forming all the steps, gently leading
Paul into the same rhythm. For his part, Paul held the foot of his bad leg a
few inches off the floor, but his other leg was busy, moving from side to side, matching the rhythm supplied by Richard, and
between the two of them, they were doing quite nicely, thank you!
The music must have ended a minute
later, for they broke apart, puffing and laughing, heads thrown back in obvious delight.
Richard kept one hand protectively near Paul’s right arm, and Paul did not dispute it. After a moment he broke away and hopped on one foot over to the couch where he’d left the cane. His smile faded and he lowered himself carefully.
His pain was returning and Maggie did not want to see it. She turned away
just as Richard went to his knees and gently touched Paul’s thigh.