From Saint Catherine’s Baby – Stories. By Gabriel Constans.
The Window Cleaner – Part 1
A warm breeze squeezed through the holes in the window screen of the small box trailer, caressing the hair on Steven Rice’s arm. He stopped writing his notes on the pink paper and looked out the spotted, streaked window, at the old trees, vines and plants rooted in the lush green gully bordering the backyard. He wondered how this small land of wood and greenery had flourished so bountifully, while trapped between residential asphalt and city streets of noise, grime and drifting exhaust.
“The stories they could tell,” he thought, staring at the knotted oaks, “hot, cold, dry, wet; season after season; change after change.”
Mr. Rice had survived a few blustery seasons of his own. Surgical intrusions, vandalistic relationships, precarious illnesses and winds of death had blown through the canyons of his life, leaving crevasses and jagged scars on the landscape of his soul. His receding, graying hairline and scarred, wrinkled skin, were testament to his growth and decay. Wire-rimmed spectacles framed his large protruding nose, providing an exclamation point to his tall, skinny frame. A light blue dress shirt and beige, corduroy slacks covered him modestly. They were just right for his kind of work: not too shabby, not to fancy or extreme.
Steven watched a brown, orange-bellied feathered friend jump from one of the trees to the soft green grass below the window. He wasn’t sure if it was a dull robin or a bright male sparrow. The sound machine hummed and the violins, emanating from the radio playing in the adjoining room, traveled through the thin plywood walls. They used the machine and classical music, to drone out their confidential conversations and keep the words, sounds and cries from reaching beyond the small, fern-potted cubicle they used for their private, intimate encounters with mortality.
There were two stout chairs with short, wide backs and legs; that looked like they had been dropped from a tall building and compressed on impact. An acrylic-padded office chair had been rolled under the insignificant, almost nonexistent, desk facing the dirty window. Fresh cut flowers, a miniature digital clock, some calligraphic business cards and a blue lit candle, graced the small glass table situated between the flattened chairs. The wall was adorned with two of his wife’s framed photos. One displayed a sensuous purple orchid in full bloom. The other contained a golden-orange poppy poking its head through the crevice of an intimidating mountain of cold, gray granite.
His wife, Jillian, was an excellent photographer, but hadn’t practiced her craft for years. Children, a job with the city planning department and various environmental causes had limited her photographic pursuits. Now, with the kids in their twenties, she and Steven had more free time for their individual passions and pursuits. Steven planned on taking up hang gliding, running off the tops of mountains and floating above earth like a bird. Some mornings he awoke with delight and told her about a flying dream.
Steven had been twice married before taking his vows with Jillian. The first mishap was as a young man of eighteen, when he had mistaken lust for love and connected with a warm, loving woman named Yolanda. There union lasted but a short two years; neither knowing who they were or what they wanted; both believing freedom equaled zero responsibility and no commitment.
The second marriage, to Peggy, had matched all the images in Steven’s head of “settling down”; but other than producing two beautiful children, the relationship was awash in misunderstanding and contrary ambitions. Everyone but he and his wife saw the mismatch from the start. They relinquished their individuality and personal boundaries to try to meet the others perceived needs or desires. They mistook control, security and acquiescence for love.
Jillian was the first to believe in Steven, to love him without an unconscious, unspoken need to control or manipulate his behavior. He had returned her respect and care in kind. The magnetic current that had originally attracted them upon first sight had done nothing but increase in intensity and strength.
The candle’s lavender aroma and the scarlet scents of spring, mingled conspiratorially, as Steven redirected his attention to the form under his hand and scribbled, in his disjointed, undecipherable hand writing, the words which best captured the last hours drama. The documentation was tedious, at best; but the lives and stories of those with whom he crossed paths, were anything but.
As he put the pink pages back in their vanilla envelope and placed it in the drawer, he felt the familiar vibration of footsteps on the wooden ramp. The ramp, made out of plywood and two-by-fours, had been hastily installed for wheel chair access, after the temporary trailers had been placed on their cement blocks.
The outer door to the middle office opened suddenly, sucking sound and air into the self-contained unit like a surfacing diver gasping for breath. Someone entered, knocked on the open hollow door to Steven’s little cubicle and peered around the corner.
“Yes,” Steven replied, standing and holding out his hand. “Please, call me Steven.” He was forty-nine years old, had accumulated a number of advanced degrees and training, but still felt strange when somebody called him Mister or Doctor. The formal titles carried too much weight; too many expectations and implications of difference and separation. It made him feel old, defined and limited.
The gentleman clasped Steven’s hand cautiously, as if he could be infected with suffering by mere association.
“Mr. Hartman?” Steven asked.
“Rob,” Mr. Hartman nodded warily. “Rob is fine.”
“So . . . you found us OK?”
“I’ve seen the sign whenever I drove by, but never had any reason to . . . you know . . . stop in.”
“Sorry I’m late.”
“Actually, you’re right on time,” he said, closing the door. “Please, have a seat.”
Steven took the opposite chair and handed Mr. Hartman a clear clipboard with a form and pen attached. “A brief formality; we don’t want there to be any surprises or misconceptions.”
“Of course,” Mr. Hartman replied calmly, while his instincts told him to drop the damn form and run for his life.
“Whatever you tell me is confidential.”
Rob nodded, glancing over the printed page. His jaw was clamped tight as a pressure-cooker, the corners of his mouth descending, searching for something solid; some anchor to latch on to. His dark black hair was combed neatly in place, his striped sport shirt was buttoned to the collar and his cuffed slacks nicely pressed. Steven noticed a slight shaking of the fingers, as Rob signed and returned the form, carefully avoiding any eye contact.
Rob tried smiling as he handed over the clipboard, but it got stuck in his throat like a chicken bone before reaching his dry lips.
“Thank you,” Steven said, placing the “formality” on top of the desk. “Thank you for coming. I know this is hard.”
Rob nodded, rubbing his hands on the wooden rests of the armchair and looking at the floor. He cleared his throat several times, as if he was going to speak, but decided against it.
“He knows how hard it is?” Rob said to himself. “I doubt it.”
“When you called,” Steven interjected, “you didn’t say how your mother died. Can you tell me what happened?”
“Man!” Rob thought, his adrenaline pumping. “I barely hit the cushion before this guy is asking me how she died!”
Steven saw Rob flinch.
“She . . . she . . . I don’t . . .”
Rob braced himself, counted to three and turned an inner, emotional valve, squeezing off the pain that was about to blow his boiler. He reverted to his mind for expediency and safety, uncrossed his arms and went on a litany of chronological events leading up to his mother’s death. The room swam with details, accusations, judgments, blame and anger. He talked animatedly about doctors, nurses, relatives, family members and friends; his hands gesticulating freely, framing his words with emphatic motion. He told a long, labored story of the medical community and their assault upon his mother; of relatives who “never helped” and others who “always interfered.”
PART 2 (CONCLUSION) TOMORROW
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