A journal of narrative writing.
Old Tricks
Page 2

As she walked up the leaning staircase, the angle of her ascent didn't seem real to him, because he felt so dizzy, anyway. He could not believe the intensity of the emotions that had grabbed hold of him. He and Jane had made a mistake getting married, that was clear (and would be to her, as well, once he explained, or maybe he wouldn't even have to) but, still, without it and their ill-advised move to the country, he and Angela would never have met, so had it been essential? Or would there have been no need to meet, since their meeting had been a reaction to the torpor and malaise of the marriage? He knew it was all intertwined, but how exactly? Will knew he was not a clear thinker, he was a picture man, but he couldn't stop the boyish barrage of ideas occurring to him now. Love was like a stick that upended a rock under the ocean and flooded the area with little fish, that's what he felt. Suddenly, he realized he'd never used that word—love—about this experience, but knew now the word was right.

He had experienced the feeling at some point in both of his marriages and a few of his affairs, but never so passionately. He moved to and stood at the end—the beginning?—the bottom of the stairs and waited for Angela's return like a young groom impatient for the appearance of his bride and the start of their ceremony.

Will waited for what began to seem a strangely long time. He knew that, since he was in this state, even an instant without her would seem an eternity, but still. He checked his watch: Angela had been gone for almost twenty-five minutes.

Cautiously, not wanting to seem like he was spying on her—or worse, having an older, parental, you-feel-hot-to-me-let-me-kiss-your- forehead burst of anxiety (when it was after all the opposite: a timeless I'll-break-the-door-down-and-drag-you-off type thing), he started slowly up the stairs. When he reached the top, not liking to but having no brighter idea, he listened at the door. Hearing nothing, once, gently and—if it was possible—with good humor, he tapped upon it. Still, there was only silence. Finally, affecting an amused and affectionate tone meant to dispel any sense that he was snooping, hysterical, or simply a strange man, he said, "Angela?"

When there was no answer, he turned the knob. He knew that no door in the house had a lock, which was something he had intended to change when he thought he would be staying. Then he opened up.

Angela was curled upon the bathroom floor. She was entirely naked except for her shoes and a thin gold choker he hadn't even noticed she'd been wearing. Her clothes were piled up neatly upon the closed toilet. For a second, in his shock, Will thought he saw bright red sleeves upon her bare lower arms, a strange fashion, he thought. Then he slowly realized he was looking at lines of blood that started at her wrists and ended at her elbows before dripping down and pooling in the hollows of her knees, which they were resting upon.

The medicine chest behind the mirror was open and a small but still sharp pair of scissors sat in the sink, an implement of Jane's that Will assumed Angela had used to jab herself with until she opened her veins. There was also an empty bottle of pills beside it, the cap nowhere to be found.

Will stood gripping the sides of the threshold like an obedient man in an earthquake. He was totally immobile and for once his overactive mind was empty but for the facts of the sight before him. The one detail he made sure to retain was that Angela was still breathing.

He saw that her little handbag—which he hadn't even been aware she was carrying—had been placed upon her carefully arranged blouse and pants. Will reached into the room gingerly, as if sneaking something from the bedside of a sleeping thief, and grabbed the bag by its thin hoop handle. Then he pressed it to his chest, primly and absurdly, and turned to go. He knew that there might be information inside that he would need when he called an ambulance.

As he approached the stairs, he didn't consider the threat to him in doing so—the explanation, inevitable lying, and possible exposure—he only knew it was essential that someone save Angela's life and he didn't know how to do it himself. He had been confined to the base during his stint in the service and his only physical dealings with someone dying had been seeing his elderly mother expire in a nursing home. Also, as a child, he had—unfortunately—forced himself to watch his pet cat being put to sleep, a process which turned a sick but living creature into something as stiff as a fossil frozen for a century, haunting him for the rest of his life and inspiring a painting he had once started but never completed.

His mind was starting to fill again with thoughts like dirty, drowning water, and, to avoid them, he moved ever quicker to the crooked stairs. His first step was more like a skid and his hand slid off the thin, attractive, useless railing. Will rolled idiotically down, pinballing off the sides of the walls.

When he hit the bottom, he was as curled as Angela, though fully conscious and cognizant of startling and unprecedented pain coursing through his right ankle and left knee. He glanced up and saw that the little handbag had jumped from his hand and opened, its meager contents strewn upon the rug like breadcrumbs leading to her identity: a credit card, a driver's license, and a photo of Angela with a man and baby boy Will could only assume were her ex-husband and son.

Will's upper body so far felt only sore not broken so, carefully, he propped himself up on his elbows, then placed his hands on the floor for leverage. He felt like a character in the old movie, Freaks, who was just a head and torso and lit a match without any limbs, and he didn't care how old the reference was. He pushed himself up enough to test the weight on one leg, then the other, and found both to be equally unbearable. Still, he stood, then tried to walk, hopping from left to right, holding onto the wall, knocking down Jane's framed pictures of her family, that annoying Monet poster, and a Fritz the Cat clock, as he went. As last, he reached the small table where the phone was, tears dripping from his chin like raindrops. He sank slowly onto a hard wood chair, his opposite knee and elbow so savaged he was surprised they weren't sending out those "shooting" pain signals that were always in cartoons. He dialed 911, staring at the liver spot that now seemed so prominent on his shaking hand.

The EMS people came quickly, their siren piercing the silent street. Three young paramedics, two men and one woman, got cursory information from Will before rushing up the stairs to the bathroom. Will had meant, of course, to cover Angela, but there was no way he could reach her again, not on the legs he had now. So he simply sat on the same chair, immobile and slumped a little forward, like an invalid in a doctor's waiting room.

In a few minutes, he watched the men bring Angela down on a stretcher, under a sheet that came to her shoulders, her wrists bandaged, an oxygen mask on her mouth. Her clothes were in a plastic bag tied loosely around the wrist of the lady medic, who followed.

"I think she'll be all right," she said, kindly, and Will felt a final tear fall from his eyes, not from pain but pure relief.

"I hardly know her," he said, helplessly, without her even asking. "She had just come by for—" what was the least incriminating occasion?—"tea."

Then he gestured at the documents and picture still lying on the rug which he could not even consider stooping to retrieve. The woman bent and scooped them up, plus the handbag which Will had also helpfully pointed out. Then she took down his name and number and the men hustled Angela out the door to the ambulance. None of them had looked at him with any suspicion at all. While relieved, Will soon realized it was for the worst reason: they could not imagine that he and Angela could have been in this world in any way romantically involved.

"Can we do anything for you?" the woman asked, in a clearly pitying tone.

"I'm fine," Will said, annoyed now, but the force of the statement sent a new and terrible sensation down his legs. The woman only smiled, slightly, then nodded with a wholly irksome kind of understanding, and was gone.

A few hours later, over the phone, a doctor told him that Angela was out of danger, fine, expected to make a full recovery. Will said that that was wonderful to hear. Then he offered to make himself available for any questions, even from police, if need be. But the doctor—sounding, infuriatingly, amused, Will couldn't help but think—said only that he'd be sure to pass the information along. Will left a message at Angela's hospital room, but it wasn't returned; and the next morning, he was told she'd been released.

Over the next few days, no one called Will at all about the incident. If word got around the small town about it, he was not made aware. Finally, a week after his and Angela's date, he received a small letter with no return address. It was a hand-written note from Angela, which was short but still somehow rambling.

She said that her depressions had led to her divorce and the loss of custody of her child, and her psychiatrist, a man of Will's age, had recently died. She had now been put on a prescription for a new pill she hoped would be effective, and she would be moving back to the city. She was sorry she had caused Will any trouble and wished him luck in the future. Will thought he could hear her slight English accent on the words "shan't" and "mustn't" which she used several times in regards to their relationship. She left him no way to get in touch with her.

As he put it down and folded it away, Will realized that the letter proved what so many might have suspected: a woman her age would have to be crazy to want him.

The reckoning shook and sobered him, but soon he had other concerns. He began to regret not responding more honestly to the female medic's question about his condition. His belief that his ankle and knee would simply improve turned out to be unfounded, and, after both became purple and bulging, he was forced to seek a doctor's care. His ankle was said to be severely sprained and wrapped, and the ligaments of his knee were torn and it, too, was taped. He was given crutches and a cane to walk with for the next six weeks.

Jane had apparently not heard (or maybe just disbelieved) any word of the incident, and she readily bought Will's white lie that he had tripped down the stairs while running to get an art reference book. At first, she showed sympathy, but when Will's condition not only didn't improve but seemed to worsen—leaving him ever more hobbled and dependent on pain pills which made him weary and a little groggy, in contrast to his usual robustness—she began to lose patience. Now she occasionally called him "Grandpa," which she had only ever done once and with affection after love-making, and his slightly slurred speech brought the polite requests, "Speak clearly, for goodness' sake" and "Please don't sound like you're in an old age home." When his memory, also weakened by the pills, faltered, she snapped a correction at him, tightly smiling, and in front of company.

Now trapped all day at home, not able to drive, his paints and easel lying beneath a layer of dust, his mind dulled by hours of daytime television, Will began to feel desperate about what seemed Jane's growing disdain for him. Far from negative or even mixed about their marriage, as he had so recently felt, he started to fear her rejection, for in this state, at his age, who else would have him? he would be lonely for the rest of his life, and so he became clingy in ways that clearly annoyed her.

Soon Jane began to stay overnight more often in the city, citing work obligations. There were frequent calls to the house with no one on the other end or quickly hanging up when Will answered. If he checked the Caller I.D. machine, which could catch the name and number, it always said "Unavailable" or "Anonymous."

One dusk, Jane had stayed away in town again. Not having turned on any lights, his cane at his side, unshaven for the entire day, his face full of gray stubble like the old men he used to see in bus stations reading paperback westerns, Will felt disgust at himself. Defiantly, he stuffed the cane into a closet. Then, holding onto pieces of furniture as he proceeded, he managed to move to open the back door and walk outside, unassisted.

It was a horribly humid day near the end of August. He had neglected to use bug spray, and mosquitoes and gnats swarmed his face; it was more of a swamp than he'd even suspected. His feet squished in the mud as he pried apart tall grass. But he didn't stop. Soon Will was pleased by his progress and laughed at himself for taking so long to try this and test himself.

But eventually the sweltering heat made him feel a little swoony. His shirt became soaked with sweat and his skin began to itch and sting. After a few more minutes, he panted more than breathed. His legs ached so much they shook. The sun had almost set, but if possible, it seemed even more stifling. Will felt that, if he kept on standing, in one minute more, he would fall down.

He stopped. He had gone far enough, as far as he could go. Slowly, Will turned back. The house was at too great a distance to reach, and, when he turned the other way again, to his horror, all he could see was the woods.