Every Friday afternoon was the same. He’d drive down to St. Casimir’s to give a weekly report to his parents, who would sulk at him from their burial plot. Then he’d drive home and walk five blocks to a no-name dive where he could sit at the bar and be left alone. The Polish girl who tended bar was attractive but always unfriendly, which he counted on. No banter, just give me a beer and here’s what I owe you. He was too old to flirt with her, anyway. He’d have one beer, then another, until he felt good. Then he’d drink on through the good feeling until he wanted something. Maybe food, maybe his bed, maybe just to not be here, on this bar stool, in this shitty bar, for one more second. Then he’d walk home, the cars and trees and brick buildings all bathed in a golden lager glaze.
This Friday was no different. He left the bar around 3:30 when hunger started to creep up on him, not long after the school down the street let out. It was warm, so he unbuttoned his shirt on the way to Nicky’s Hot Dogs. There was a looseness in his speech that bordered on good humor when he ordered from the boy behind the counter. Change in pocket, he headed south on Pulaski and ate as he walked, immersed in the pleasure of satisfying a craving. Some part of his brain recognized a noise as a car without a muffler growling over the rest of the relentless traffic. He popped the last bite of dog into his mouth exactly as he was turning onto 48th St., a pleasing but unintended choreography. Just clear of the corner, he tossed the empty paper wrapping onto the grass of the parkway.
“You shouldn’t litter.”
He stopped and turned around. Two girls and a boy stood there. Teenagers. Students. He knew which one had spoken because she was looking straight at him and the other two were looking at each other. She was shorter than him, but not very short. Pretty. She had dark eyes and long hair glinting like a metal alloy, neither blonde nor brown nor red, but all three. Corinthian bronze, maybe.
“Wha’d you say?” he said. He wanted to make her regret her words.
“You shouldn’t litter. This isn’t your house, someone has to clean that up.”
He considered what to say, then articulated each word so it would carry the full weight of his convictions, “Mind your own business, cunt.”
“Excuse me?” and he could see the blood rising to her cheeks.
Her friends motioned to her to keep walking, “Come on, let’s go, he’s obviously crazy.”
“No, he called me a fucking cunt!” and then, directing her attention back to him, “Who do you think you are to talk to me that way? You’re a pathetic old man, look at you! Your disgusting stomach is hanging out, you can’t even button your shirt! You know what, I feel sorry for you. Go back to your sad life, keep throwing your trash on the ground and calling people cunts and see how that works out for you.”
As she railed at him he didn’t hear her so much as feel the vibrations of her indignation. He looked at her mouth as it gave shape to the hot words rising up from her core. He hated her. He didn’t know her from Adam but he hated her. She wasn’t the girl with the shimmery hair anymore, she was the other girl who had spewed angry accusations. The one who ruined his life. The one who tempted him with her coy smiles and charged glances and barely there intimations of what might, could, most definitely shouldn’t happen between them. And didn’t happen! But that got him fired anyway. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, people said. She was the reason friends and colleagues stopped speaking to him. She was the reason he never taught again. Not even as a shop teacher, not even in an all-boys Catholic school. And worst of all, she was the reason he lost Miriam.
Miriam. She was perfect, and he hadn’t known it. When they met forty years ago he’d picked her up like a kid would pick up a stray marble, because she was there. He put her in his pocket without noticing the flourishes of color swirling in her center. He almost forgot she was there, and then one day she wasn’t. It wasn’t like she’d disappeared in the wash. No, it was more like he’d accidentally swallowed her. Now he could feel her lodged in his chest. Ever present but forever lost. It was only then, when he knew that he’d never see her again, that he could finally appreciate her beauty, her uniqueness.
Most details were blurred by the thick lens of obstinate time, but he remembered how delicate and vulnerable her shoulders looked when she bent over the ironing board and how she could never wink without scrunching up her whole face. The way her hair smelled faintly chemical after a shower. She was the only person who could use his given Lithuanian name without him minding. Sometimes after they made love and were lying in bed she’d trail her finger lightly down his chest and whisper his name. Jokubas. Marveling at the fact that he was hers, and she his. After the divorce he heard that she remarried and moved up to the north side to start her new family. She would be a grandmother by now.
This time when her friends called to her, the girl turned and followed them, but not without throwing a final remark over her shoulder, “Who says that, anyway? What would you do if someone called your mom or sister that?” He stood unmoved, steeped in a bitterness brewed decades before. The kids walked on towards the bus stop. He looked around to see if anyone else was there to witness what had transpired, but only the trees hovered near him, fortified with another day of springtime sunshine. He turned towards home, the empty wrapper forgotten.