Bobby Oldman gripped the handle of his briefcase and stepped off the bus. Clouds cast a dim hue over the street, but the humidity was rising. Standing in his grey suit and dark blue tie, he felt the wet, dense atmosphere pressing down upon him. He swallowed and loosened his tie, trying to breathe. It was 3 p.m., hours before he was expected home, but Bobby had to know. He thought of the crumpled note in his briefcase and started to walk.
He walked along Gabriel Avenue for a quarter of a mile, briskly at first, then slowing as he moved closer to the corner that would take him into Lily Street. His street. He stopped at the corner and closed his eyes. Breathing deeply, he thought of turning around. He could distract himself for a couple of hours. No one would know.
In the midst of his deliberation, he had leaned forward and looked down Lily Street. It was enough to convince him. He had come all this way. If he was wrong, he could make an excuse. That’s what he would do. He turned the corner and began to take long, quick strides. Sweat formed on his brow, but it fuelled him. He had to know if there was another man. The note said it all, didn’t it? It had looked the same as it always did, bent between Bobby’s sandwich bag and the soda can, malformed from the condensation on the aluminum. But when he read it, he felt something different. Something in the way she wrote the final line of the message was off. Her round penmanship had dwindled in the last letters, becoming a thin, anaemic scribble.
Bobby thought of the note as he stepped heavily upon Lily Street. He mouthed words, considering what to say to her when he found her, sure that he would be right.
Lily Street was a long road shaped like a horseshoe and Bobby’s house was near the end, where the pavement dissolved into a dirt circle for cars to turn around. He was near the middle of the curve, almost to the point where he could see his own home, when a voice cried out to him.
“Mister Oldman!” A little girl shouted. She was standing on the edge of the grass with her hands on her hips. She wore a white hoodie with the word “PRINCESS” spelled across the front and blue jeans with mud caked at the bottom. Her feet were barefoot. “You just stepped on Brian!”
He stopped and looked down. On the black sidewalk at his feet, he found a series of crudely made drawings done with coloured chalk. Some were animals and people, some were shapes, and some were failed attempts, scribbled out with a zigzag pattern. Right behind him rested the portrait of a man with a circle for a head, and half-moon shapes sticking out at the sides for ears. The man had a wide, bright pink grin that stretched almost to his eyes. Next to the drawing, the girl had tried to write Brian’s name, but gave up after the I.
“I’m sorry,” Bobby said. He bent towards her as he spoke. He recognized the girl from the neighborhood, but could not remember her name. Wasn’t it Sammy, or Shelby? Or was that her family’s dog? “But I’m sure he’s fine. He still looks happy to me.”
“He doesn’t feel anything,” she said. She had her arms crossed and her lips pouted now. “He’s a drawing.”
“Then no harm done, I suppose.” He straightened and glanced the wide road that led to his home. He moved to step forward again.
“It’s not good to step on people, even if they can’t feel it,” the girl said. “Apologize to him.”
Bobby sighed and reversed back to the picture, keeping himself from treading over any of the other drawings. He didn’t want to apologize to any of the rest.
“I’m sorry, Brian,” Bobby said, as sincerely as he could, given the situation. “I hope you forgive me.”
“He does,” the girl said. Her crossed arms now carried an air of smugness.
“Good,” Bobby said. “Is that all?”
“No,” she said, lifting a large, orange piece of chalk. It was thick and cylindrical. It must have originally been longer, but appeared to have broken near the middle, with the remaining pieces gathered near the girl’s feet. She held the chalk out towards Oldman. “I made a cat but it’s not good. Could you make one?”
He looked down and found her cat. It was nothing more than a bright orange circle with round cartoon eyes, circles with dots in the middle. She had forgotten the whiskers, leaving a simple thick dot as the nose. The mouth was similar to Brian’s, in that it was curled into a large, grotesque smile that stretched across the cheeks. The only part that distinguished the picture as a cat and not a person was the set of green triangles for ears, which were placed higher than would be normal for a human.
Bobby took the chalk from the girl. Kids have giant sticks of chalk, he thought, and adults have small. As he pondered the reasons behind this, he found a blank spot of pavement. He set down his briefcase near the grass and removed his suit jacket. He placed the jacket carefully upon the top of the case, so no cloth would touch the ground. He then crouched down and began to draw.
He worked for several minutes while the girl stood over him, swaying left and right to see around the movement of his arm. As he went, the clouds shifted, leaving an opening for the sun. The warmth came down upon Bobby and his shirt soon adhered to his back from sweat. About halfway through, the girl’s mother came outside and sat on the front steps of the house. She lit a cigarette and fiddled with a cell phone. The family dog followed her out, lying down on the driveway to sunbathe. After a minute, the mother finally looked up and saw Mr. Oldman.
“She’s got you doing that, too, huh?” she said. “Little bugger’s been stopping everyone on the street, like flies in a spiderweb. People are too nice to say no.”
Bobby responded with a polite chuckle and a nod, a neighbourly response.
After several more minutes, he finally stood and looked at the finished product. He never had considered himself an artist, but he had to admit that the picture was pretty good, given its medium was the rough surface of a sidewalk. When he had made his first mark, the outline of the cat’s head, he mistakenly made one side bulge more than the other. He ended up using the error to his favour, drawing the rest of the cat as if it was looking to the right, adding another dimension to the picture.
“Doesn’t look too bad, huh?” Bobby said. As Sammy or Shelby crouched down like a frog and looked at his drawing, he picked up his briefcase and his coat, hanging it over his forearm.
He heard a soft, deep rumbling but he was unable to tell where it came from, or whether it was thunder or merely a passing truck. He looked towards the sky, using a hand to cover his eyes, and he still saw the blue sky, but now it was being invaded by large grey clouds. The lining of the clouds were a painful white, reflecting light from the sun.
“Wow,” the girl said finally. Bobby looked down again, but the girl was already halfway across the lawn, yelling towards her mother: “Mom! I drew a cat! Come see!”
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” the mother said, but she wasn’t going to look away from her phone before she finished another long text message. Bobby took the distraction as an out and hurried on his way home.
He entered through the garage. The car was here, so she would be, too. He made his way into the kitchen quietly, but found it dimly lit and deserted, except for a solitary plate lined with bread crumbs that must have been used for lunch.
Bobby called out his wife’s name. Whatever suspicions in his mind, the familiarity of the place made him less stealthy than he had planned to be. He heard no response. He walked down the hallway, glancing in different rooms to see if he could find her. At the end of the hall, he reached their bedroom door, cracked open an inch. He pushed it gently and stepped into the room.
She was lying down on the bed, alone, with her back facing him and her front towards the window. The clouds were now in front of the sun, which gave the world outside the glass a darker tone. He placed his briefcase and jacket on the floor and joined her on the bed, wrapping one arm around her midriff. She made a soft hum as she felt him, but she did not wake.
From where he lay, he could see top half of the window. Wind blew the trees, branches swaying and twisting. Lines of rain fell, drops splattering against the glass. Bobby watched the rain as it grew stronger, until the view was blurred and washed away. The world melted.
(Published February 3, 2014)