Monday, July 13, 2020

New Short Story: "The Speed of Absence"

The Speed of Absence

by Brian Greene

Sally, in seventh grade at the time that she started taking care of David, had a head of bushy, fiery red hair that she usually wore halfway down her back. She had bright blue eyes, a face full of freckles, and fair skin. Naturally outgoing, she was a tomboy who knew how to ride motorcycles, competed in bike racing events, and played on her middle school’s and high school’s basketball and soccer teams. She could throw a baseball as hard as any boy. She was also a girl who began developing womanly bodily curves early.

Sally became David’s regular babysitter when she was 13 and he was six. David was an only child being raised by a single father. David’s parents tried to have a second child when he was three, but his mother miscarried. His parents began drifting away from each other after that. David’s mother, an art history college professor, later left her husband and son when she fell for a man she got to know at an academic conference. She abandoned David and his father at their Virginia home and moved to Arizona with her new lover, whom she eventually married and with whom she started a second family. That left David’s dad, a sociology professor, to take care of David on his own.

David’s father needed help with his son after his wife left them. He was just getting started on the tenure track at the time. His work was demanding and pressurized. In addition to teaching two courses each semester, holding office hours for students and mentoring two PhD candidates, he served on various committees both within his department and around the wider university. He also needed to travel to conferences at times. And, most importantly, he needed to get articles published in top journals and start making headway towards a first monograph. He signed David up for afterschool care, but even with being able to pick his son up from school as late at 6:00, he still needed time away from parenting. Sometimes, in the evenings and on weekends, he needed to be able to lock himself in his home study or work office and not allow any distractions.

When David’s dad started asking around for babysitter recommendations, several people he knew said, “Get Sally Reuter. She’s good.” Sally’s family lived 12 blocks away from David’s, in a neighborhood that was a few steps lower economically. Sally’s parents both worked at the same local university that employed David’s dad. Sally’s father was an HVAC mechanic who serviced the school buildings, and Sally’s mother ran a register at a university gift shop. David and his dad went to Sally’s family’s house and met father, mother, and daughter. Impressed by all of them, David’s dad told them he would pay Sally double her usual babysitting rate if she could make herself exclusively available for David. An agreement was reached.

David, in first grade when he met Sally, had dark hair, an olive skin tone, and soft brown eyes. Always among the shorter kids of his age, he was thin. Soft spoken and introverted, he was content to stay on the sidelines socially. He became more and more withdrawn from other kids after his mother’s miscarriage, and then even more so after his mom left him and his dad.

It was November when Sally first started taking care of David. The routine that got established, and that held for the most part over the next six years or so, was this: on Tuesdays and Thursdays, David’s dad stayed at his college office, working on his research, until 8:00. On those days, Sally picked David up from afterschool, on her bike, and the two of them rode their bikes to David’s family’s house. She got David his dinner, made sure he did his homework while (kind of) catching up on her own, and had him bathed and in his pajamas by the time his dad got home. She also spent four hours of each weekend day with David, while David’s dad kept himself locked away in his home study.

The summer before Sally began taking care of him, David participated in an organized sports league for the first time.  He played tee ball on a Little League baseball team. He didn’t distinguish himself in any way that season, didn’t enjoy it much, and didn’t plan to return to the league the following summer. His dad missed most of his games, too busy with work; the team’s assistant coach drove David to and from most games, and many of the practices.

But Sally took an interest in David as a baseball player and she taught him how to play the game. That first fall, winter, and spring after she became his regular sitter, they’d ride their bikes to the vacant Little League fields and, sometimes wearing sweaters, jackets, and coats, practice. Sally taught David how to field different types of hits, worked with him on choosing which pitches to swing at and which ones to let go. She schooled him on base running, how to read a pitcher’s moves when considering stealing second. They discussed the game’s basic strategies.

They continued to play baseball together over the following years. They also watched a lot of baseball on TV, sometimes went to minor leagues games together. They liked to talk about the plays, point out when a player made a mistake and when they felt one did things just right. Under Sally’s tutelage, David became a solid performer who was a starter on every one of his Little League clubs. He was a reliable fielder who could play center field just as well as second base. Remaining small for his age through the years, he was never a powerful hitter; but he was a choosy one who drew a lot of walks, and a speedy-enough runner to often beat out slow ground balls for infield hits. He was a brisk and gifted base runner who generally had a green light to try and steal second base any time he was on first and the second bag was open. His coaches usually placed him in the leadoff spot in the lineup. Sally went to the majority of his games through the seasons, sometimes attended his team’s practices. David’s dad rarely made it out to either.

When David was in middle school, Sally urged him to try out for his school’s baseball team. But David didn’t want to. When the subject came up for a last time when he was in sixth grade, they had an argument about it.

“Are you afraid of getting rejected?” Sally, who had a temper to match her fiery red hair, charged, when David told her, again, that he had no intention of trying out for his school’s team.

No. I just don’t care. The coach is stupid. I don’t wanna play for him.”

Bullshit! You’re just afraid you’ll be cut. Which is dumb, cause you won’t be. But you’re afraid to try and fail. I’ve taught you everything there is to know about the game. You’re ready for this. Quit being such a wuss and just try out.”

No. And I wish you would just shut up about it.”

Sally made a move like she was going to charge David, maybe punch him in the shoulder. But instead she let out a groaning yell, then left the house and sped off on her motorcycle. David was 12 by then, and at the point where it was okay for him to be in the house by himself for stretches of time. Sally babysat him less frequently that year, but she still came to almost all of his Little League games, missing them only if she had to work or had a motorcycle or bike race in which to participate.

Something else Sally and David did together was listen to music.  Neither of David’s parents were record collectors, both being people who were content to play the radio when in the mood for music. After his wife left him and their son, David’s dad listened to music even less than before. And when he did, it was usually just light jazz or classical as background sounds while he cooked or when he took the rare break from his research work on the weekends.

With Sally, David learned new ways of experiencing music. She brought her cassettes and, later, CDs to his house when she babysat. They usually didn’t talk while an album played, instead listening intently and without distractions. And then they’d talk about the music, comparing and contrasting their thoughts about the songs they’d just heard. Sally was unusual for a teenager in that she generally preferred classic rock to the hits of the day. She liked The Beatles, The Stones, The Doors, etc., Joni Mitchell or Simon and Garfunkel for the quieter times. But she also became a fan of bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden when they broke. She played David old songs by Faces, and then new ones by The Black Crowes, pointed out to him how the current band was influenced by the older one. Unlike David’s parents, she didn’t suffice with hearing the hit songs that got played on the radio, instead studied albums she liked and usually preferred songs besides the singles.

In high school, Sally had a classmate named Michelle whom Sally loathed, seeing the girl as pathologically self-centered. Sally and David changed the lyrics to The Beatles’ song “Michelle” to make it about Sally’s nemesis.

“Michelle, myself. I will say the only word I know that I understand: Michelle. I love me, I love me, I love me . . .”

They had a lot of laughs over that. They also laughed together when watching Weird Al Yankovic’s parody video of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song they both liked. They’d listen to the Nirvana album, Nevermind, and then when it ended they’d crack themselves up while singing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the garbled way Weird Al did in the send-up.

Sally made David a string of mixtapes and mix CDs over the years. The mixes always contained songs they’d listened to together and that Sally knew David especially liked, plus a few songs she knew he wasn’t familiar with and that she hoped she could turn him on to. David often listened to those mixes when it was just him and his dad in the house, and he felt lonely. He cried a lot while thinking about his mother when Aretha Franklin’s “I Say a Little Prayer for You” played, liked to picture himself as the lead singer of a band who performed David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” to a thrilled arena crowd, Sally foremost among the adoring fans.

Once, when David was in the fourth grade, he was struggling with math homework while Sally babysat him on a weekday evening. David was mostly a good student and easy learner, but math problems sometimes tripped him up. Sally, who made Cs and Ds in school and had to take high school geometry twice, didn’t know how to explain to David how to solve the word problems involving fractions that stumped him. When David pushed himself away from his homework sheet for the third time and cried, “I just don’t get it,” Sally pulled at her bushy red hair and growled, “Oh my god, you’re so stupid.”

David glared at her, then left the table and locked himself in the hallway bathroom. Sally punched herself in the arm, made a hissing sound at David’s homework page and then spat on it. Then she pulled a pack of Reese’s Cups, David’s favorite sweet treat, out of her Harley Davidson purse. Outside the bathroom door, she said, “Mmmm, Reese’s. I brought these over so we could each have one cup. But if you stay in that bathroom, I don’t think I’ll be able to keep myself from eating both of them. Mmmm.”

When David didn’t respond, Sally hummed the chorus of The Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow,” one of David’s favorite songs. She said, “If you come out of the bathroom, we can listen to the song. The whole tape it’s on. Mother’s Little Helper, Ruby Tuesday, Paint it Black. Yeah, I think that tape would sound perfect right now.”

The bathroom door opened. David, not looking at Sally, walked past her, said, “Put the tape on,” and plopped down on the living room sofa, his arms crossed over his chest.

When David was nine, Sally taught him how to pop wheelies on his bike. Later, she rode him around on her motorcycle; they ran errands on her bike with David hugging her from behind, sometimes went on fast rides out in open country.

Sally graduated from high school with a grade-point average that was too low for her to be accepted into any four-year universities. That didn’t particularly bother her, but she went ahead and began sporadically taking classes at a community college, for the purpose of raising her GPA in case she ever changed her mind about going to a university. She kept living at home with her parents and took a part-time job at a bike shop of which she’d been a frequent customer through the years. She kept regularly babysitting David when she first finished high school. But after David turned 12, his dad – who had gained tenure by that time – felt it was okay for his son to be home on his own, unless it was for more than a few hours. It got to where the only times Sally took care of David were when his dad left town for a few days to attend an academic conference, on which occasions Sally  generally had David sleep in the guest room at her family’s home. When she wasn’t needed to take care of David so much, Sally got the bike shop to give her more hours.

When David was just beginning the sixth-grade school year, a schoolmate he’d never liked told him, in front of two other boys, “Your babysitter’s a slut. She’s having an affair with a guy who’s married.” This happened in David’s front yard, in the late afternoon. The other boys passed by while David was in the yard washing his bike, his dad not home from the university yet. Sally wasn’t babysitting that evening. David didn’t respond to the kid verbally, but he set his bike down and charged the boy and tried to put him in a headlock. The other kid was bigger and stronger than David and had no problem avoiding the headlock, then pinning David on his back on the driveway. He sat on top of David and held David’s arms down with his knees, and then headbutted David several times, causing the back of the smaller boy’s head to smack against the hard driveway surface. The other two boys laughed.

David never mentioned the incident to Sally or his father. Some weeks later, on a Saturday afternoon after his Little League game, he rode his bike to the shop where Sally worked. She was in there doing a shift. David liked to hang around the store when Sally worked, and she didn’t mind his visits there. This time, a man who David thought looked like he was probably 22 or 23 came in. When she saw the man enter the store, Sally started acting in a way that David had never seen from her before. She knocked over some bike locks hanging on a wall when she clumsily came out from behind the counter to greet the man. The guy wheeled his 10-speed bike into the store, but he didn’t seem to need any work done on it. It looked to David like the man came in solely to chat with Sally. David looked and noticed that the guy wore a wedding ring.

Sally looked over and saw how David was staring fixedly at the man. The man saw what Sally was looking at and laughed awkwardly.

“This is David,” Sally said, chuckling but with an uncertain tremor in her voice, as she indicated David with a sweeping arm gesture. “I babysit him sometimes. I have clearly failed in teaching him manners.

“David, this is Ted. He’s a regular customer here and a friend of mine.”

Ted approached David with a forced smile and an an outstretched hand and said, “I’m not so sure about David having bad manners. He might just be following the cardinal rule of ‘don’t talk to strangers.’ I say that’s just smart. Nice to meet you, David.”

David accepted Ted’s handshake but did so without saying anything to him or Sally.

A little less than a year after that scene in the bike shop, Sally had a female friend over to her family’s house on a Friday night. Her parents were out of town to visit relatives for the weekend. Sally and her friend hung out in the family’s den. They smoked pot, drank wine coolers, listened to music. Sally rode them around town on her motorcycle, going too fast and occasionally zig-zagging, while they both laughed in an exhilarated way. Later, back at the house, Sally talked to her friend about the affair she’d been having with Ted. It was the first time she’d confided in anyone about the situation. The man’s wife was still unaware of the affair, as were Sally’s parents, although it was known or assumed by many residents of the small city.

At around 1:00 am, Sally’s friend said she needed to go home. She had a breakfast shift at her waitressing job the next morning and needed at least a few hours of sleep. On her own, Sally was too keyed up to even consider trying to go to bed. She smoked more marijuana, drank another wine cooler, and listened to Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window” six times in a row at full volume through headphones. She wanted to do something. She wished there was someone else she could talk to about her relationship with Ted. She kind of wished she could have David come over and listen to music with her, maybe play some card games. Maybe she would even introduce him to pot, ha ha. 
But there was no way she could call their house or drop by at that hour.

In the end she opted to ride around on her motorcycle some more, solo now. She took the bike back out and sped past the perimeter of the university town and into a neighboring area that was much less populated. This is where she’d taken David for motorcycle thrill rides sometimes. She found a long, straight street she liked for speed rides and got her bike going up to 80 miles per hour, then 90 when 80 didn’t feel fast enough. When riding at 90 didn’t give her enough of a buzz, she zig-zagged while holding that speed. Her wreck was epic, vicious.

Sally didn’t immediately die as a result of her accident. But she sustained severe internal injuries and her prognosis was dire from the start. David’s dad brought David to the hospital to visit Sally on her second day there. David wanted to go to Sally’s room alone and his dad respected that. Before David got to the room, he saw Ted walking out of it. Ted’s shoulders were slumped, his face sagged, and his eyes looked swollen. When man and boy saw each other, both hesitated in their movements. Looking at each other, neither said anything. But David saw Ted look at David’s face, and he thought he could read these words from Ted’s mind: I know. I need her, too.

David was back in Sally’s room on her third day in the hospital. By that time, the emergency room staff were saying that Sally was “in danger all the time now.”  Earlier that day, Sally cried violently on her mother’s shoulder and yelled, “Why? Why me? What did I do?” Later, when she was calmer on the outside, she asked her dad to go get some of her favorite kids’ books and read them to her, like he did when she was a little girl.

When David was in Sally’s room that day, her parents stepped out into the hall.  Sally tried to make casual conversation with David, asked him about his day. But David didn’t respond to those questions, instead sat in a chair and put his head in his hands. He said, “Why does this have to happen? First my mom –“

“Listen. Some people think that when we die, we’re not really gone,” Sally said, in a voice that didn’t sound like hers anymore. “Like we just become part of the atmosphere. If I die, you could think of me that way after. You could think that I’m in the sky, or on the ground, where you are. You could think that I’m watching over you, saying things to you.”

David shook his head, but he said, “What could I think you’d be saying?”

“Hmm. I’d say, ‘Try out for your school’s baseball team. You’re as good as any of the other players. If the coach doesn’t take you, it’s his loss.’ I’d say, ‘Go to your dad’s study, knock on the door, and say Dad, can we watch a movie together tonight, or can we throw the baseball around?’ I’d say, ‘Davey, go listen to “She’s a Rainbow” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and think about us listening to those songs together, and smile.’ “

David’s head was still in his hands, but he said, “Okay. I’ll try.”

There was a pause, then Sally said, “It’s starting to hurt for me to talk. But come here and put your back to me.”

David knew why Sally asked him to do that. She was going to do a game they used to play together when David was younger, where Sally traced letters across his back and David had to try to mentally follow the patterns of the letters and make out the words Sally formed. Sally used to slap her hands together when one word was done and she was going to start on the next one. But this time she could just manage to grunt, “Next” after each of the first two words. After the third word, she said, “Got it?”

“ . . . Got it.”

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