Sharon stopped washing the dishes, a plate held in one hand, a sponge in the other. The man was back, walking down the middle of the street. There was no traffic on the quiet suburban road, but she felt herself flush. She could see him clear as day through the window over the sink. She put the plate down and turned off the water hissing into the sink.
Her lips tightened. “What kind of person walks in the middle of the street? Day after day? As if decent people need to see someone get hit by a car in front of their house.”
She fumed as she watched him meander past, seemingly indifferent to the sun beating down. He’d first shown up in spring, walking absentmindedly amidst a shower of petals from the plum trees that lined the street. Now it was summer, and he was just as clueless, wandering down her road, then turning right at the corner.
She picked up her phone and called her best friend, Cindy.
“What’s he wearing?” Cindy’s voice sounded tired. Or resigned. Sharon couldn’t tell.
“The brown outfit,” replied Sharon. “He’s heading your way.
The wanderer, as she called him in her mind, had four outfits. He wore each randomly, but the components were always the same. Today he wore brown pants, a tan shirt, brown shoes, and a dark brown belt. The blue outfit had a baseball cap, but the brown one left his head was bare. She wondered if his head was getting sunburned.
“I’ve got to get Timmie to eat something. Come on over, okay?” Cindy hung up without waiting for an answer.
Sharon turned the faucet back on as the man walked out of view. She finished the dishes quickly, then took a moment to put on some lipstick before leaving for Cindy’s house. She locked the front door, then jiggled the handle to make sure it wouldn’t open. “Can’t be too careful. He could be a mass murderer, or a thief, or a pervert, waiting to do who knows what.”
She darted her eyes to the left. Empty. He’d gone around the corner then. She crossed the street quickly, looking carefully before stepping into the road. Almost tiptoeing, she hugged the wall of the house at the corner, peering around to check that he had not stopped or turned around. He was halfway down the block, back towards her, walking steadily. She slipped around the corner, cursing the rose bushes in her path, then ran up the steps of the next house over.
She tried the doorknob and it turned easily. Sharon ducked into the house and shut the door as fast as she could.
“Cindy! How can you leave your door unlocked? What if he just came in?”
Slumped on the couch, a toddler in front of her in a highchair, Cindy rolled her eyes. “He’s welcome if he can get Timmie to eat something.”
Sharon pulled a chair over from the dining room table and took the spoon from Cindy’s hand. “Oh my goodness, Timmie, what have we here?” she asked in a high-pitched voice. “Bananas? Oh my, what a treat!”
Cindy closed her eyes and smiled. “Thank you. I’m gonna get up in a second and clean up a bit. Just a moment to rest my eyes.”
Timmie glared at Sharon as she waved around the spoon of bananas, making airplane noises. She finally zoomed the spoon into her own mouth, eating the mushy bit of banana and making smacking noises. Timmie wiggled in his chair and reached for the spoon.
“Nana!” he demanded.
Sharon grinned in triumph and pushed a spoonful into his mouth. She glanced around as he spat out half of what she’d fed him. The room was a mess, with dirty dishes piled on the table and toys scattered around the floor. She would straighten up before she left. Cindy was a decent person, but completely unprepared for the rigors of having a child.
A soft snore came from the couch. Cindy was laying down now, fast asleep. Sharon handed the spoon and bowl of banana to Timmie, who joyfully started digging in the bowl then licking the spoon.
“Look at this mess! I’ve raised three children and survived the death of my husband, and I’ve never let my house get this bad.” She stood for a moment, looking at Timmie, now smeared with banana, and his mom, feeling a sense of smug righteousness rise within her.
She decided to start in on the dishes. Cindy’s kitchen window overlooked a small back yard. Sharon washed the food encrusted plates, gazing out at the dead bushes and overgrown grass. “Maybe if that husband of hers would help out a bit, rather than coming home from work and just sitting around playing video games all night...”
Sharon cleaned and straightened up the first floor of the house. She made Timmy lunch, went through his alphabet book, and put him down for a nap. Cindy woke up as Sharon was writing out instructions for how to entice Timmie to eat more.
“Sharon! Oh wow, thank you! The place looks great! But you didn’t have to.” Cindy made an effort to tie her hair back.
“It was my pleasure,” said Sharon, in a prim voice. Once a week she came over to Cindy’s house, once a week she cleaned the first floor as Cindy slept. It was part of their friendship. In exchange, Cindy listened to her worries about the wanderer and didn’t ever mention Sharon’s late husband.
“What time is it? Oh! We almost missed him.” Cindy peered out the front window, mostly hidden by the drapes.
Sharon smiled. Cindy might need to nap through the day, but Sharon was keenly aware of when the wanderer would show up. He’d walk back past Cindy’s house, then turn left at the corner, then walk down the middle of Sharon’s street in less than a minute.
“We should ask him,” said Cindy suddenly. “We should go out and confront him.”
“No. No that’s not safe!” Sharon’s voice came out louder than she intended.
“There he is.” Cindy ran to her front door and pulled it open, running down the steps and across the lawn.
“Oh no. Oh dear God no.” Sharon hesitated, panicked, then ran after Cindy.
The man was a few houses down the street. Sharon caught up to Cindy and the two of them stopped in the middle of the street, watching him walk towards them.
“High noon at the OK Corral,” thought Sharon. She looked back at Cindy’s house, at the open front door, and thought of little Timmie sleeping peacefully in his crib. What if the stranger was dangerous? What if he suddenly killed them? Would little Timmie be alright? Her own children had taken their father’s death well, but they were fully grown, and her husband had been elderly. “They took it well, too well. They don’t even miss him.” She swallowed and tried not to be bitter. It was difficult.
The strange man was only a few yards away now. He stopped and nodded at the two women.
“Hi! I’m Cindy. I live on this block,” said Cindy, in a bubbly voice.
He nodded again.
“This is Sharon. She lives close by. You walk here a lot,” continued Cindy.
“Bill,” said the man.
Sharon’s lips tightened. Bill. Not William. Her husband had always used his full name to introduce himself.
There was a long silence.
“What do you do Bill?” asked Cindy, her voice extra bright.
“I’m a writer,” he replied. His eyes had hollows under them.
“Would I have read any of your books?” asked Sharon. “Are you published? Do you make a living writing?” asked Sharon.
Cindy looked at her as if shocked by her bluntness.
The man shrugged. “Yes.”
“Why are you wandering around here every day?” demanded Sharon.
“She died.” The man’s eyes filled with tears. His shoulders slumped, as if bearing a weight too great to carry.
Sharon froze. She felt a huge wind sweep through her, like a bell pealing through her bones.
“My husband died. Four years ago.” She heard herself say the words slowly, as if against her own will. She steeled herself against the stranger’s pity.
“My wife died four months ago.”
“I’m sorry.” Cindy’s voice was gentle. “So why are you walking here every day?”
Sharon held her breath.
“I can’t…” he said.
“I can’t breathe. I can’t sit down, or sit still. I can’t let anyone see me cry, or see my house disheveled. I can’t live like this, I can’t live.” Sharon felt tears fill her own eyes. She searched the stranger’s face for what it was that he couldn’t do, what he had lost with his wife’s death. Had he lost everything that mattered too?
He looked at her with such forlornness her breath sighed out in understanding.
“I can’t write.”