I admit, I always had to bite my tongue when I walked past the elementary school at the corner of Beech and Berry, no cars in sight save for the lone yellow schoolbus beached at the curb like the carapace of some prehistoric sea turtle, and Caroline, tricked out in her neon lime crossing-guard safety vest, told me it was “safe” to cross the street, granting me permission, on my way to the post office. Who did she think she was, Cerberus?
But I knew who she was, the jilted middleaged wife of that cad Brent Alford who’d dumped her for a younger woman, leaving her with a shitty alimony and a kid with serious disabilities. Caroline, formerly a housewife, needed this job to supplement her income, and even if she drove me up a wall, my heart went out to her every time I saw her standing at the crosswalk, holding the snotty hand of some little kid who needed to get on the schoolbus. We lived in the same neighborhood, had known each other for years.
There’d been rumors that her son-in-law, Ray Lawson, had lost his temper and slugged her on more than one occasion. Ray married Brent and Caroline’s daughter Elizabeth, and for a year, before they moved to Tennessee, they’d lived under the same roof with Caroline. Caroline had sported a shiner for a while, but she’d claimed she’d “fallen down,” even though the neighbors had called the police when the shouting and sound of breaking furniture had gotten out of hand.
So on this day, ambling down Beech in a stylized manner that looks rehearsed, if not choreographed, comes a young guy in a wifebeater, cigarette tucked behind his ear, a long greasy curl of hair shading the filter. Pimp-shuffle-skip … pimp-shuffle-skip…I’m behind him about fifteen paces on my way to the post office.
Wifebeater steps off the curb without looking around, lost in his head. Pimp-shuffle-skip.
Caroline blows her whistle, bleats, “Wait a minute!” In her uniform of faux authority (I always think of it as a “costume”) – baggy navy trousers with a wide blue stripe down the legs, a shiny badge that looks like it came out of a cereal box, a cap with a stiff plastic bill – she looks more “bureaucratic” than “powerful” or “intimidating.”
Startled, Wifebeater stumbles at the curb, loses the rhythm of his pimp-shuffle-skip.
“The fuck?” he shouts, glaring at Caroline. “Who the fuck are you, granny? Mind your own fuckin’ business, you old fuck!” And then he resumes his dance across the street, no cars in sight. Pimp-shuffle-skip … pimp-shuffle-skip.
Caroline looks offended, then kind of crumples. She looks around. Nobody but me.
Sure, I’m a retired old guy but not decrepit, and besides, I don’t need to do anything physical to come to her defense. Maybe a stern word of warning? But I don’t do anything. I try looking sympathetic, but I only feel like yet another man who has failed her.
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and edits The Potomac, an online literary journal–http://thepotomacjournal.com . His latest book is a collection of dramatic monologues called American Zeitgeist, published by Apprentice House, which also published his collection Mata Hari: Eye of the Day.