The midwestern city lay quiet as the early summer dawn slowly broke. Faint gray light slowly revealed a skyline of smoldering smokestacks and square brick buildings. Dirt and rust seemed to hang in the warm, muggy air. The bell in a cathedral started to clang and not far away stood a row of bleak apartment buildings.
As the six o’clock bell peeled, John stretched his tall, lanky frame. He yawned as he thought of his work in the copper factory. He turned on his side, wishing for more sleep, making his worn bed squeak and moan. With a long sigh of resignation he slid off the worn mattress and pulled on his clothes. Methodically he prepared a lunch as smoke drifted in the window from the nearby factory. He forced himself to eat a small piece of stale bread. Inside his head a projector played vivid images of horrific battles in France where he had fought during the Great War. That was over fifteen years ago, and he was beginning his 35th summer.
He left his apartment, walking down the cracked steps to the sidewalk. Others were up and moving about now, but most had their heads down preferring not to speak just yet. John walked resolutely down the street, breathing in the tepid air. Soon the sidewalks and steel of the city would be uncomfortably hot.
Inside the factory the morning passed slowly and beads of sweat trickled down John’s back as he worked. His muscles ached as he wound copper wire around a wooden spool by hand. His eyes watched carefully as the guide kept the new, clean copper spinning in a neat row across the spool. When the spool was full he lifted it off its stand and placed it on a table full of others.
A grizzled foreman walked by with his clipboard, counting the number of spools John had made that morning. He smiled at John and nodded. “Doing a good job, as always, John. Ready for the weekend? There’s a carnival in town, you know.”
John nodded back and smiled ever so faintly. The foreman had known him for years, and walked away without saying anymore. John never wanted to talk like the others. He always did a good job, and never caused any trouble, as long as he was left alone.
The noon whistle finally blew and John stopped his work. He stretched his back and sighed. Picking up his lunch he followed the trail of workers out into the courtyard. He walked towards the grass where some of the young guys were choosing sides for a baseball game. He headed for the shade of a large tree, away from the others. He saw a flower growing in the yard. Its beauty dazzled him and he bent down to pick the colorful bloom. It seemed to brighten his mood and he laid it carefully next to him looking at it as he ate his lunch in the cool breeze.
John took the flower with him back inside the factory and sat it on the table. The long, sultry afternoon hours turned the flower from a bright blossom to a dark mass of shriveled ugliness.
His mood fell with the wilting of the flower. He wished he hadn’t picked it from the ground. His head was full of darkness as the day ended. When the whistle blew, John picked up the remains of the flower and threw it in the trash. The workers lined up for their pay and John walked around them. His foreman was watching and when John passed he pushed an envelope into his hand. John stuffed the money inside his shirt without looking at it. The foreman shrugged as the others watched John leave. He walked out the door out into the hot evening.
His hurried steps took him towards the waterfront. He ignored the shouts and excited voices around him. The workweek was over and people were happy for a day off. Close to the river he stepped into a quiet saloon. He walked towards the bar and pulled a bill out of his pay envelope.
“Howdy, John.” A bored man in a dirty white shirt said. “Usual?”
John nodded and the bartender turned towards the row of bottles behind him. Pulling a small bottle of whiskey from the shelves the bartender took it and sat it down on the bar. He picked up the bill from John and counted out his change.
The bartender shook his head as John picked up the bottle and bills and walked out without uttering a word. He watched him step through the door twisting the cork out of the bottle.
John’s hand trembled as he lifted the bottle to his lips. The liquid burned his dry throat. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Then he took another gulp from the bottle. Slowly he opened his eyes as he began to feel the familiar numbness spread through his mind and body. He leaned against the tavern door and noticed a colorful poster on the wall of the building next door.
A circus would be performing tonight close to the river. Mesmerized by the poster John stared at the roaring lion, crying clown and shapely form of dancing girl, all pictured on the poster. He wiped his mouth, corked the bottle and shoved it into his pocket. He shuffled down the street towards the river and the circus.
He walked for a long time, sipping occasionally from the bottle as he made his way between the hot brick buildings. Dirt would swirl in the breeze mixing with sweat, streaking his face. Children were playing quietly, waiting for the cool of the evening. Finally he reached the waterfront and he began walking between the tents in the smelly, humid air.
The caged animals growled moot protests at their imprisonment as he walked by. The eyes of a tiger held him for a moment, as they both saw themselves in the other. The tiger was growing old, having lived his life in captivity, and knowing not what to do about it. The whiskey bottle slipped from John’s hands and fell to the dust. He picked it up, cursing.
He moved down to the corner and walked by the burlesque tent. He stared blankly at a revealing poster. One with a veil across her face caught his eye. She, even in this painting, held him with her beauty. “A flower that I would probably just wilt,” he mumbled in the twilight. People pushed by him and he stared after them, watching them go. He turned and walked the other direction.
He soon emptied his bottle and he looked into the glass seeing his reflection in the dull light. His eyes were gray and scowling. His hair was disheveled and wet with sweat. His face was streaked with dirt, and he needed a shave. His mind though elated from the whiskey was as empty as the bottle. He wanted to be away from the crowd. In the last light of the day he rounded the corner of tents, thinking he was on his way back to the city, but instead he was lost. In silent despair and exhaustion he sunk down, hugging his knees to his chest. As he sat alone in the sawdust and sand, time passed. The circus performance started and ended. People came and went, and still he sat alone.
It was completely dark and late in the evening when he realized someone was talking very near. It was some time more before he realized she was talking to him. As he forced his tired eyes open and tried to focus, he saw the same eyes as on the burlesque poster. The face and her words were hard to believe as she spoke in southern drawl.
“Wouldn’t you like to come and eat a bite with us?” She was asking. A small, frail looking girl stood behind her, watching. She was the most delicate child and her earnest eyes softened his heart.
“Please come and eat with us,” the beautiful woman pleaded gently, holding out her hand. He took it without thinking and stood up. She led him to a dimly lit tent. “It ain’t much, I know, but it’s hot.” She said with strained cheerfulness and motioned to a small table. “You look hungry.”
He thought that the food would not be so delicious as the thought of being served by such a beautiful woman. He sat down and soon they were all eating. He was enjoying it immensely so he smiled at the young girl as she watched him shyly over the top of her cup. She smiled back with a timid look, sending a wave of concern through John.
“She’s a wonderful child.” The woman spoke. “He looked at her, still taken by her beauty. “She cain’t hear, though.” She said, “But she’s a wonderful child.” She smiled at the little girl and squeezed her arm.
“Won’t you have some more?” She asked John. He started to answer but the little girl started coughing. The cough was not a dainty cough one would expect from such a small girl, but the hacking kind of cough of someone who was desperately ill. It sounded horrible to John and his face winced.
“She needs a doctor with special medicine, but we have sech little money…” She left the words abruptly as the little girl doubled over in pain with another coughing spasm. The woman reached out and held her until she quit coughing then pulled her onto her lap. “She wanted to have you come and eat with us.” The woman said to John. “She felt sorry for you.”
John nodded his head as his heart ached with pain. He watched with a desperate feeling. The little girl’s face showed immense agony. He smiled at her helplessly. He felt ashamed that such a delicate creature should have to suffer so.
He reached inside his pocket for his pay envelope. He counted out enough for another bottle of whiskey and handed the rest to the lovely woman.
“Oh, we cain’t take your money, mister.” She said looking at the bills in his hand. Her eyes looked hopeful.
“Please.” John spoke for the first time. “Please, for the meal, at least?” He said. She looked into his eyes trying to see if he really wanted her to have the money.
“Thank you, mister.” Was all she could say. A tear ran down her cheek.
He lay the money on the table and smiled again at the young girl, who smiled weakly. “I really, uh, got to go,” he stammered, feeling uncomfortable. “I got, uh, stuff to do.” He walked to the door of the tent then turned and said roughly. “Thank you for the nice meal.” As he said the words, he looked down at his feet. He saw that the floor of the tent had holes in it and grass was coming through. Feeling overcome with emotion, he threw back the flap on the tent and walked outside.
As he walked away from the tent he heard the young girl begin to cough again. Her mother started to come after John, but her eyes shifted back to her daughter. “Mister? Do you have to go jest now? I mean, couldn’t you stay a spell?”
Her eyes were wide with fear, John thought. He didn’t know how to help. “I best go.” He said. She nodded with sadness and turned back into the tent to comfort her sick child.
John walked quickly now, in a hurry to leave the circus tents. Soon he was walking into a tavern, remembering the little girl. The hurt on her face was more than he could bear. He wanted to forget.
The whiskey tasted sour but it soon restored his trance, making the world but a daydream where nothing real mattered and the only things that mattered weren’t real. In his alcoholic stupor he wandered the city streets thinking of the woman and her child. He wanted her to get better. He hoped she would get better. He walked for hours, aching inside for the child.
When the peacefulness of the city was shattered by the sunrise, he turned towards home. He pulled off his clothes and lay on his bed, hoping to sleep before it became too hot. He didn’t want to hear the voices of people.
The hours of the day passed as he slept. In the early afternoon he awoke and he spent the rest of the afternoon sitting by the window, looking at the street below him. When nightfall came he could stand being inside no longer. Under his mattress was a bit of money he had stashed for no particular reason. He took some and went out into the streets, intent on buying more whiskey.
The streets were alive and he felt out of place until he found a quiet tavern not far from where the carnival had been. The tents were gone now, the circus on its way to another town. He went in and made his selection from the many colored bottles among the shelves. Once outside, a cool evening breeze was blowing and several swallows of whiskey made the world seem right again. He began walking with no destination in mind, only to get away.
The hissing gaslights glowed as beacons for moths and mosquitoes to buzz above his head. The moon came out from behind the clouds and somewhere in the distance someone was playing dance tunes on a radio set.
John looked up and found himself in front of a toy store full of shiny new dolls with dancing eyes and bright clothes. One in particular he noticed because it caused him to remember the small, frail girl. She had smiled back at him once.
Something about the doll made him look closer. It was broken, and its tiny glass eyes were half shut. He stared at the doll for a long time as the bugs buzzed over his head. He was startled by someone tapping him on the shoulder, gently from behind. When he swung around the woman only smiled a painful smile through slightly uneven teeth, but to him it was a dazzling smile. “Hello, mister. I thought it was you.” She said quietly.
“Hello.” He said smiling back. She had a black scarf over her hair, but he didn’t notice. She looked beautiful in the orange glow of the gas lamps.
“I was.” She started then stopped and stifled a sob. “I was hoping to find ya.”
John stared at her eyes. The beautiful eyes were wet with tears.
“I don’t need your money no more.” She held out her hand.
“Couldn’t you buy her a doll with it or something?” John said as he turned back towards the window.
“I could…” She started. “But the dead don’t play with no dolls.” Her eyes were trying to blink back the tears. Some were already falling upon her cheeks.
“I think she would like this doll here, if it weren’t broken.” John said to her, not understanding. He went on, almost to himself. “She smiles at me you know. The same as this here little dolly is smiling.”
“Didn’t you hear me mister?” She asked with emotion rising in her voice. “She’s dead!” She began sobbing. John turned back and looked at the heart broken woman in front of him. The words she spoke at last beginning to make sense to him. He felt cold and broken inside.
She looked up at John and started to speak. “She died this morning, the poor thing.” She was crying quietly now, letting the tears come as she thought of the child. Her child.
John understood now what she was saying. He put his arm across her shoulders, awkwardly but tenderly as he sought to comfort her, not knowing how.
“The circus?” He said. “Didn’t you go with the others?” She buried her face into his shoulder and didn’t answer for a long time. “I found a flower once,” He began talking quietly to her as he remembered. “The prettiest flower ever, so I picked it and it just wilted. It could turn sugar sour.”
She was still crying. The gaslights were still burning. The moths and mosquitoes were still flying around them. The music from the radio still played and the shouts and laughter of children could still be heard as they stood in an embrace of comfort. The world played on.
In a short while she began talking slowly, reliving the words as she spoke. “She was so sick. She never cried. She just coughed. The others had to leave this mornin’ but I couldn’t move her. I just couldn’t. She was so sick…”
“I wanted to get a doctor but I was scared to leave her, and no one would go for me. I was scared to leave her even for a bit. I was so scared!” A moth flew into her hair and John gently picked it out, so very gently, she didn’t even notice but kept on talking. “Finally she fell asleep, so I thought she’d be alright so I left to get her medicine. But when I got back…” She trailed off. There was a long pause. “It was too late. I shouldn’t have left her. I shouldn’t have…”
“You couldn’t have known.” John said straining inwardly for the right words to help her. “You couldn’t have known,” He finally said again.
Time passed. In days and in months, time passed and with it wounds bean to heal, and lives changed.
The cathedral bell was striking six o’clock as John lay in his bed wishing for more sleep. Smoke drifted in the window from the nearby factory as he prepared his lunch. He walked to the familiar factory and worked his familiar job.
Later in the day, the foreman stepped up to check his spools and asked about the weekend. John only smiled at the questions. The foreman winked as he wrote on the clipboard. “Doing a good job this morning.” He said to John and he walked off.
At noon he ate his lunch in the quiet shade of the factory wall, as he watched some of the younger guys play a game of baseball in the open yard, not far away. The ball got loose and rolled close to John. He threw it back to a young, smiling man who yelled, “Thanks John!” before running off again with seemingly endless energy.
The afternoon hours slowly went by and then he was out in the cool, late autumn air. He walked past a tavern and smiled to himself, quickening his pace towards home. Arriving at his house he opened the door and was greeted by the most beautiful woman in the entire world. His woman.
“It came today,” she said excitedly as she hugged and kissed him. He savored her touch for a few moments, then overcome with excitement he rushed in to look. On the small table was the radio set they had ordered, so they could listen to music and voices from far away places.
In the evening, as the cool autumn air turned crisp, they sat before a cheery fire in their small cozy world and talked. On the shelf, above the radio set, sat the broken doll from the toy store. It sat there smiling at the couple before the fire. It was a memory. It was a presence.
They talked of their lives and of another life. Of a child. Their child. As they talked they smiled and looked at each other and saw each other. They saw only each other.
And they didn’t remember it making any difference that a flower can wilt, or that sugar turns sour.