by John O'Toole
Linda and her parents. The old man roaming the neighborhood. Hiding in doorways, fedora pulled low on his wet, droopy eyes. The one who'd first noticed that the Minogue woman never aged. He should have known. Eyes and ears of Rosemont Avenue. Gathering intelligence to be pondered at his clerical job in the Loop. It was Mama, though, who'd first claimed that Claire had a family. Somehow just knew. Whole neighborhood knew, though none had ever seen them. Linda's darling mama - Yes, really, she was - seated in her aquamarine housedress by the living room window. Simply no idea the thing's you've been through, Linda's aunt had once remarked. Linda's bulging glass eye had seen a thing or too for sure, though she couldn't for the life of her describe these things to Mama. And even when she tried, Mama would scowl at her and not get it, then bop little daughter on the head or the snoot (depending on her mood) with that omnipresent fresh daisy of hers. (Daddy picked them for her from the McNamaras' garden.)
Linda knew the seasons by heart, yes she did. In summer, at that hour, the backyard trees along that stretch of alley would shudder at the coming of night, the sky lying flat out, tired of being blue. In winter there would be that sickly yellow; the bare trees glowing with it, giving up their souls.
The trees had always been there, lining the alley that Linda had traversed every evening of her young life, at first on her way home from grammar school, later from high school, now from her job marking books at Xavier Library. This latest alley stroll found her bouncy, nearly skipping, past the two-flats and bungalows toward the big, dark multi-entrance dwelling in which she still lived with her parents. The woman relieved that Claire had freed her at last.
Claire Minogue, a willowy brunette with shoulder-length curls, sometimes worn in a so-called French twist, who had recently taken over the library's moribund, long-overdue automation project. A whizz at computers, she had started as a lowly book marker next to Linda, then somehow, literally overnight, had shot straight up the ol' library ladder, sashaying into Marking one fine September morn to announce her promotion, her willowy body no longer in jeans, but wrapped, a bit snugly (for a library, at least) in a navy-blue power suit. Must have been sneaking off to library school all those nights she had turned Linda down for a date. This alone a distinct relief, in that it might conceivably mean - underline "conceivably" - that she had not shot Linda down for any personal reasons, i.e. bad breath, false eye, lime-green pants from Woolworth's, or lack of college degree.
Not that Claire's promotion had "emasculated" Linda, discouraging her with that gut-sick malaise that men suffer from a figurative kick in the balls. For no sooner had Claire installed PaintShop in Linda's pc than the love-struck young marker, discovering a natural gift for digital imaging, had begun sending her the now-legendary "Claire Caricatures." Prompting the curly-haired Head of Automated Services, after several months of skilled ignoring, to threaten Linda - via email - with disciplinary action, should the smitten young artist send her one more cartoon.
Which of course she promptly did, this one showing Claire frowning sternly, one slim finger raised in scolding. Linda's punishment inexplicably put off till late that afternoon, to the point at which the girl, catlike grin on her popeyed face as she slapped the last Dewey of the day on a textbook, actually grew convinced that she had gotten off scot-free. The delayed result, though in hindsight inevitable, nonetheless rammed her with that same gutball syndrome, as though Claire had personally descended from her executive suite and dropped her computer into Linda's lime-green crotch.
But nothing that dramatic could have possibly transpired, not in their little world. Instead, she was summmoned to the Personnel Director's office and forced to read aloud Xavier University's three-page policy regarding sexual harrassment. And that...well, that was that with that, as they say.
Passing the Minogue family's two-car garage now, behind it their bungalow's cramped backyard, its flagstone patio and porcelain bird bath visible through the gangway. Linda spotting her father Harv as he skulked down said gangway in his ratty old overcoat, fedora - as always - pulled low on his eyes. If Harv had spotted Linda, he wasn't letting on. Never ever did on these unexplained stakeouts. Linda felt grateful when the old nut, finally catting his way into the alley, ducked instantly into the warped little doorway of the toolshed next door to the Minogues' bungalow. Wouldn't do at all to have the H-man stalking young Claire. Especially on THAT blighted night.
Linda's mother in green light. TV showing live night-vision of our jets taking off to bomb Baghdad. Linda told her about the incident with Claire (prudently renamed "Clarence") at the library that day, and worried aloud that she would never find a boy to love her back. That creepy daisy stroking her hot cheek now, "Oh, it's easy !" Mama said. Rising in her sea-green shift to throw a meatloaf together. Daddy due home any moment from his haunting. Would want to eat supper watching Baghdad get bombed.
In her darkened room, seated straight as a laser beam in the Naugahyde armchair the Minogues had dumped years ago. Tempted to slouch but afraid that the army's night-vision might spot her and draft her into Desert Storm. Nothing to do but stare into the rich balm of darkness. Bathing was out. The two of them had shit up the bathtub again. Linda hadn't bathed in three days and truly longed to. Her Mama never let her use the tub. Only rarely the toilet. Thank God for that Burger King with the lax restroom policy, right across the street from Xavier Library. Eight years old and filthy, in her big sister Vicky's plaid Bermudas, several sizes too large for Li'l Linda. Bare chest and legs streaked with shit. Nose crusted over. Shoes stolen right off her small, scabby feet. Gut-kicked by one Billy McNamara, son of a neighbor (into whose toolshed door Dad had ducked that very evening.) Crawling on the hot, shardy asphalt when Claire came along, her shopping cart full of eats from Jewel. "Hi, I'm Claire." Same willowy young body. Same dark curls, in a ponytail that day. "Looks like they flushed you down the toilet this time." Then, "Where's your mommy, little girl?" Oh, would Mama ever hear her simply, undistorted? Would the two of them ever connect? Linda had once read a book before marking it, a book by E. M. Forster, whoever he was. "Only connect," he had written.
Claire must have heard her that day, or maybe some little BOY'S voice in her head. Because she promptly took Linda into the Minogues' bungalow (no sign whatsoever of family) and ran a lukewarm bath and undressed the girl, gently bathed her in the tub. And Billy hadn't kicked her and it wasn't really shit on her body, just common backyard dirt. But the shit had been real in the past, as had Billy and Tommy and Chrissy and Jimmy, who had grown up ass-backwards into hospital staff (way back when, early fifties), dropping those cloying diminuitives like toys, the kind with sharp edges and parts you could choke on. A chain of attrocities that would have made headlines had her parents not run the damn paper.
Saturday morning, thank God in his heaven. Though yesterdays' chewing out had left her downright giddy, the laughing gas had worn off now, leaving her as sore as though a molar had been yanked from the center of her heart. Perhaps a nice sponge-bath at Burger King that morning. Yes, because Mama hadn't cleaned up the tub yet, and probably never would. New turds, lumpy meat loaf, sat coiled, set to strike. Linda finished dressing - Levis this time, baggy like the Blacks wore - kissed her father on the forehead (the nut sound asleep in his armchair after watching the Big Invasion all night), then tiptoed into her mama's room and picked yesterdays' daisy off the floor and stroked the sleeping woman's cheek with it. Then threw it in the trash. Let herself out the back way, down the three flights of barking back stairs (grey dogs with mange; let them lie) and south down the alley. Passing the Minogues' with the sudden, extraordinary idea of knocking on their door and asking them (asking Claire, since the others weren't real) if she could use their bathtub. At the last minute panicking and, instead of trudging forth to Burger King, spinning on her sneakers and running back home.
About the author:
After living most of his life in Chicago, John O'Toole moved to Los Angeles, where he is now employed as Cataloger of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Southern California. His stories have appeared in Eclectica, Wild Violet Magazine, Muse Apprentice Guild, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and of course Pindeldyboz. "Beer and Confession," a book of his tales, will be coming out shortly from StoneGarden Press. The title story first appeared right here in the aforementioned Pboz.