Michael Kardos |
I lay on the sofa, ballgame on, the sounds of summer night coming through the window screens—cicadas, a dog’s bark, the voices of children in the lot—when gradually it seemed that the voices belonged not to children at all, but to adults, adult, singly, a young woman who was shouting with urgency borne of fright, no, of animal panic, as if hunted, and that was what it was, because then I heard another’s footsteps stomping the pavement behind her, and the shouting came into focus, becoming one word, repeated and alarming: Help.
But I didn’t help, because children often sound like adults, they often cry wolf, and I knew there was no need for fear in a place like Jefferson Garden Apartments in a town like Pineville. Then I heard it again—Help—and again, and again, each time shrill and artless, nothing like crying wolf, and I remembered being told once as a boy that if I were ever in trouble I shouldn’t yell help but rather fire, because people were not apt to help strangers but would flee a building they thought was burning. The woman wasn’t yelling fire, though, and I became afraid of whatever was causing her to yell help as if she meant it, and I became caught between inaction and action, and so inaction prevailed until I heard a firecracker, and since Independence Day had passed recently it could have been that a child had saved one for tonight, a cherry bomb or bottle rocket, only I knew there was no child and it wasn’t a firecracker but a gunshot, though I’d never heard a gunshot up close before, and then the woman screamed.
It was a scream of terror, maybe pain but certainly terror, and I wanted to help, only I didn’t want to be the first, and anyway I had no wife or children then and hadn’t yet developed that sense of selflessness that lengthens the survival of the species but puts yourself at risk. I rolled off the sofa and crouched low onto the floor, wanting to help, wanting it badly, but remembering almost like instinct that when somebody is shooting a gun you’re supposed to get down low and curl up into a tight ball to make yourself a smaller target, so that was what I did. On the television, Manny Ramirez swung the bat, and the ball went up and over the centerfield wall, and as he jogged around the bases I reached up and felt around for the remote control on the sofa and turned the television off because it was intrusive and I couldn’t think or hear. The woman outside was talking fast, not screaming but speaking almost in tongues, her words racing as if on tape, fast-forwarding, about to snap, and I thought about all the other people in my apartment building and how many of them must have already dialed 9-1-1 and how many others were surely on the way out the door to help, and I felt jealous of them but glad they had the courage I lacked. The only footsteps I heard now, though, were sprinting away, shoes slapping on the pavement and echoing, leaving just the woman who needed help, whose voice was becoming louder, nearer to my apartment, as if she were seeking me out, exposing my fear, and then she was right outside my window—I could hear her footfalls on the grass, she was that close—and there was choking between the mutterings that made no sense, and then I was startled to hear my own name—Michael!—and again—Michael!—through the choking, and only then did I recognize that it was Debbie, Debbie L., who lived a block over, who was my friend, who dropped recipes into my mailbox sometimes so that I’d eat better, who’d been calling to somebody who wasn’t a stranger, running for help where she thought she’d find it.
I got out of my fetal ball, and in my bare feet I ran outside where she was alone in the darkness, injured like people shouldn’t be, bleeding and needing help, and I stepped onto the sticky part of the grass and took her by the arm with both my hands and led her, because she was walking in circles, toward the parking lot where I shouted for help again and again, my voice echoing and dying like the announcer’s at a ballgame, and then all I heard were dozens of air-conditioning units droning like some giant, clunky engine that sucked all the air out of the sky, until a gentle night-breeze brushed over us like a spirit, and as we waited together for help I began reciting ingredients—a chopped onion, a half-pound of ground turkey, a can of pinto beans—though by then she was far-away and dreaming.
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