He was trapped between life and death. If she saw him watching her cry, and understood he’d been there the whole time, she’d think he was a freak. She might say something to him. Or yell at him. Or worse, give him one of those wounding looks that can only come from a stranger. The moment they make up their mind about you. A one star review. He held his breath and tried to shrink behind the hedges.
He had meant to walk past her. But she was crying with absolute abandon and he spooked.
She thought she was alone in the park. It would make sense. During the slow season, few people venture into the little enclave.
Her hair was lovely dark, clashing with the white flowers behind her. Finally she dabbed her face with a piece of fabric. There were several items stuffed into a tote bag half the size of her body. A Mary Poppins bag that probably contained most of her life. He waited longer than necessary. Until she had been out of frame for two minutes. After she was gone he found himself disappointed. He hadn’t seen her face clearly.
Reel around the circular park. Past the bench, but he had to pause. There was a book covered in pastel pink on the bench. A plain square with no title. A notebook.
It was impossible she had left it, she had grabbed so many things off the bench. He picked it up and looked right and left to make sure no one was watching. The park was still empty.
A diary. The inside cover said something in German,
“bitte zurücksenden an".
Under that phrase someone had written in chicken scrawl “ CHAR WILLIS #113 10th St.”
There was no other information, no phone number. The scrawled name juxtaposed the neat little printed lines. She didn't write on the lines. The pages were full and crinkly. He let the wind whip them around, afraid if he did it himself he’d slip and start reading. That was an invasion of privacy. There were many scrawled messages. Many drawings. A garish pencil sketch of a man’s face. Bug eyed and ugly. A name written under it. Gary Grey. It repeated, Gary Grey, Gary Grey, Gary Grey. She wasn't half bad at drawing. Gary Grey looked a bit familiar.
There had been an old Buick in the parking lot. It was gone now. He wished he could remember whether it was silver or blue. Only his truck remained. The notebook sat on his passenger seat. He had an address, he would take it there.
It felt like an adventure cut short. The British voice from Google Maps insisted he had arrived at the destination. He'd been driving for three minutes. There was no destination. It was a vacant lot next to a vacant lot next to another vacant lot. The street was void of structures. He racked his brain, ‘what used to be here?’. It might have been a skate shop. No, that was further up the road. It could have been the old homeless shelter. He thought of who he could text and ask, but realized anyone who might know was long gone out of town and out of his life. A small place with a giant turnover rate. Mostly because things were getting too expensive. Eight dollar bagels, two hundred square foot boxes for rent at two thousand dollars a month.
Workers in scrape-by jobs were getting younger and younger. There was no margin of error. You kept on the up and up monetary trajectory. Or got the hell out of dodge once you reached a certain adult age.
He was turning thirty five on July 20th. Next Wednesday. He was not scheduled to have the day off, they needed him. He didn’t voice any feelings over it. One of those people who pretends it’s a day like any other. Chloe had threatened to bring in a cake. As long as she didn’t try to sing, he was okay with it.
There were tenth streets in every city. The girl had carried a large bag. It was possible that she was from out of town and that the city could be anywhere. It could even be foreign, like Germany. Switzerland. Austria, somewhere they spoke the language. No, that was wrong.
He pulled the car shade down in front of him to block out the sun. Back to the marina, he would put the journal back. And maybe the girl, Char, would already be there looking for it. They would meet and she would be impressed at his restraint of not reading the thing. And her face would be soft and perfect. And he would find out whether Char was short for Charlotte. He was a hopeless dreamer. A thinking introvert.
A summer storm. The forecast hadn’t even hinted towards a chance of rain. He turned around again and headed home.
He’d never dare leave the journal in the truck. But it did feel wrong to bring inside. There was no good place to put it. So he stuffed it deep into the laundry basket so it would be out of sight. Under stained t-shirts.
It happened after the third beer. He peeked and he read a full entry. One of the last pages. Dated two weeks ago. It was like being on the phone with a close friend. Hearing their secrets and swearing not to break them. Gary Grey.
It was the first night since April he didn’t dream of Sydney. Her overly large and bony hands. Her ability to talk to strangers. Her slightly off kilter face. Her inflated sense of ego that she pretended was a front but was the truth. She thought a lot of herself. She was too tall for him anyway, that’s the thing he tried to comfort himself with. And that ego.
Absolutely pathetic. They’d never even kissed. He did hold her hand once, but only for three seconds.
When he woke up, it was Thursday morning, not the middle of the night. He got to work on time. Chloe made jokes all day long about this. When they sorted through the tip can at the end of the shift, she stopped joking. Enough for dinner at a sit down restaurant. It was unheard of.
She put the pressure on him, they had to celebrate together. He’d had sex with Chloe once before they worked together. It was after a house show when they were college age. He hadn’t thought of her since, before or after they started working together. But he was still nice to her. She was very pleasant to work with. Dependable, never minded his tendency to run five minutes slow.
Petite, soft faced, attractive figure. Not at all like Sydney. Over a fifteen dollar cocktail he listened to Chloe talk about her upcoming vacation. He wasn’t sure where the Catskills were, but they sounded boring. She showed him a sketch of her next planned tattoo. He fought the urge to cringe. An overused and often misapplied Shakespeare quote.
Chloe was an old timer, she could know where 113 10th Street had gone.
“There’s nothing on 10th street here, no, but it probably means the 10th street apartments. It's the name of the building. That big brick place on Lynn Street. Everyone has known someone at one point who lives there. My friend Sydney used to live there. Did you ever know her? Sydney Starling, you know. Awful place but it’s one of the last places for people like us to live without six roommates.”
Stupid small town. Everyone knows everyone who knows everyone else. There are no secrets. And there are never enough lukewarm opinions. Everyone is a friend or an enemy.
To appease Chloe he paid for both drinks. He parked on the street outside the 10th Street apartment building. His hands slipped on the diary's pink surface. Sweat from the heat and nerves combined. Artificial light came through the blinds. Someone was home. Number 113.
The railing on the building would make it impossible. He couldn't leave the diary without knocking. He stood his ground at the door. His hands were clasped around the diary behind him. A man opened the door. Around forty years old, blazing blue eyes that looked like they could shoot out acid rain if provoked. There was a wave of rosemary and cloves coming out of the apartment. The lighting looked planned. Romantic.
The man was polite and lit up a little when Char’s name was mentioned. The man acted like a friend after that. But as things warmed up, Ben asked the man an inappropriate question.
“Is your name Gary by chance?”
The man’s face turned to stone. His name was not Gary. Ben would never know what this man’s name was. He narrowed his eyes and asked how it was that Ben knew Char. The diary had to be handed over. Ben knew that this man was going to read every page. And if Char hadn’t been in trouble before, she would be now.
“Thanks for returning this. Have a good night.”
The door was slammed in Ben’s face.
Driving now, he took an alternate route and ended up back in the parking lot for the park by the marina. The clouds were over the stars per usual. Like a blanket over what was beyond. He should have left the diary in his laundry basket.
It was quiet in the truck cab. It would not be quiet in Char Willis’s apartment. There was nothing he could do. He felt like getting out of his truck to sit on the same bench she had and cry. But he hadn’t cried in a few years, and wasn't sure if it would work. There were emotions somewhere under the surface but he couldn’t will them forward.
After half an hour he drove back home. They needed to install more lights near the crosswalks. People often crossed at random, like they were in a metropolitan city. And the cars would just naturally stop.
Ben’s reaction time was delayed when it came to honking. He put on the brakes, but he didn’t make a sound. The man he almost ran over didn’t either. The front bumper was inches away from the man’s side. He gave Ben a long look and was off. Gary Grey. Stupid small town. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone is in everyone else’s business.