What they saw was the last thing they expected.
December 11, 2014
A VG Serial: A Year Without Killing
Louella Johnson was alone in her apartment talking on her phone to a friend in South Carolina, “Myrtle May, I’m still shakin’. One of those pale white street thugs with a mohawk stole my purse and ran away. A woman tried to knock him down and he just brushed her off and kept on arunnin’.”
“Then the woman chased after him.”
“You didn’t call the cops?”
“I was glad to get outta there. Figured the other woman could call’em. She didn’t act like she needed any help.”
“My goodness!” said Myrtle.
“Thank god I hadn’t got paid yet. I was on my way to my job when it happened. If he would’a hit me after work, my week’s pay would be gone.”
“Honey, you lucky you alive.”
“When I finally got to a phone, I called Mrs. Honeycutt and she gave me the day off, but I got to go in on Saturday to make up for missing today.”
“That ain’t nothing Lou, take care of yourself.”
“I gotta check my blood pressure. Call me back after while and check on me, okay?”
“Of course. You know I will. You ain’t got no headache do you? Don’t want you havin’ another stroke.”
“I think I’ll be alright after I calm down some. I may have a sip of red wine and take a nap if I can sleep.”
“At least get you some rest.”
“I’ll put on The Bold and the Beautiful. That always puts me to sleep.”
“You still have them rabbit ears?” Myrtle May asked with a laugh.
“No ma’am! I got cable now. Let me go. Call me back after my nap.”
“How I’m gonna know when your nap is over?”
Louella said, “Bye bye, now,” and lowered the receiver of her vintage 1963 telephone onto its cradle. She shuffled into the kitchen and fumbled through the cabinet over the sink for her favorite glass. One of these days, I’ll splurge and get a wine stem. This glass the Welch’s grape jelly came in is fine for now. She poured it half full of Bell’Agio Chianti, held it to her nose and looked back at the bottle. Hmm…vintage 2012. Oh well, two tears in a bucket.
By the time she was settled into her recliner, the second glassful was almost empty. Damn. Where’s the remote? I thought it was on the table here by the Lazy-Boy. Forget it. She drained the glass, tucked her New York Jets Snuggie around her legs, and dozed off.
An hour and forty-seven minutes later, a knock at her apartment door awakened her. It took a moment to get her bearings and wake up. She rubbed her eyes with both hands, leaned forward in the chair and sat upright. A few seconds later, she pushed herself up with each hand on an arm of the chair and wobbled to the door. This is not a good day for someone to come calling on me. Probably some neighbor kid selling magazines for school, or a Jehovah’s Witness.
A careful look through the peep-hole revealed an empty hallway. She slipped the chain onto the door and opened it with care. What she saw was the last thing she expected.
The Manhattan skyline glowed like bullion thanks to the sun’s rays just before dusk. Claudia Barry appreciated the spectacle from her table in the Vu Lounge of the Hyatt Regency in Jersey City. She held her martini glass up so she could observe the Freedom Tower through her drink. She liked the distorted view. It gave her ideas for a watercolor painting she planned to complete while in the Northeast.
She turned to a fresh sheet of paper in her leather portfolio and wrote with her antique fountain pen.
She moved the pen with a deliberate pace—a painter’s hand moved the premium writing instrument with an assassin’s precision. This collection of my writings could be my masterpiece. The words began to fill the page and she continued on another:
Mr. Debert kept me at the pub longer than I had anticipated. It was almost 4:00 P.M. when I left for Mrs. Johnson’s apartment. I hired a car and tried to relax on the trip to Queens. Dozens of scenarios fought for attention. Who was this Louella Johnson and how did she come to find herself living in Queens? For whom did she work in Manhattan? If she’s a regular customer of the hot dog man I wonder about her diet and her health. Today I sound like the habitual stereotyper, but how often have my profiles been wrong? I wonder if Mrs. Johnson is diabetic? If she is, she doesn’t carry medicine in her purse. Is it right for me to feel the way I feel now? Should I be patting myself on the back? Hixon would be proud. So would Mr. Debert. He said so at lunch. My smile tipped him off.
Throughout my career, I always thought I’d done something good for humanity with every assignment. Now I’m supposed to be on leave. How do you change who you are overnight?
It felt wonderful to watch from a distance as Mrs. Johnson retrieved her purse. Somehow it reminded me of the anticipation of that fatal moment when I squeezed the trigger. How can doing something society recognizes as being so good feel so similar to what it considered unacceptable? Was the hundred dollar bill enough to leave in her purse, or would two hundred have been too much? Does it matter? She probably didn’t expect to get her purse back at all, much less anything extra. She’ll never know that I got more from today’s events than she did.
Claudia folded her portfolio and capped the fountain pen. The waiter arrived with her check and she took the elevator up to her room. The view from the top floor should be memorable.
She entered her room, flipped on the light switch, and stopped in her tracks. What she saw was the last thing she expected.