Richard Miller was average; middle aged, mediocre shape, slightly balding. He was not married nor had he ever been, and he lived in a modest two bedroom Cape Cod on a street called Oak in a town known as Pleasant Hill. Richard had a good job-one that he could tolerate at least, teaching ninth grade English at the local high school. His students were mostly attentive and never gave him a great deal of trouble, except for that time that they found out his first name and used it more than once in a sexual context. But Richard never really cared.
His daily routine was simple. He taught until three in the afternoon, and then he got into his mid sized SUV, drove home, fixed himself dinner, watched the evening news and went to bed. On occasion he would stay up late and sit on his front porch, but that was only when the weather was nice and the sky was clear enough for the stars to shine through. On weekends Richard spent the hours reading, or gardening, or grading papers. In the summers when there were no papers to grade, Richard went to the movies. He liked the romances the best. On Sundays, Richard visited his mother at the Pleasant Valley Retirement Community, but he never understood why it was called such when it was clearly a nursing home, and it was certainly not a nice place to visit. The smell of disinfectant made his stomach sick every time.
Every other Friday, Richard would go to Weinstein’s Market on the corner of Ridge and Main Streets. There Stella, the young checkout girl who worked the day-to-dusk shift knew his name. Sometimes he stood in the meat department, where he had a clear view of the checkout lanes, and watched Stella ring up customers’ groceries. She made it an art. He loved to watch her pretty hands type the sequences to make change while her full red lips moved silently, reciting the prices to herself. He would never ever dare talk to Stella about anything more than a few nonchalant references to the weather. Somehow, though, Stella knew his name and was never anything more than polite. Richard often wondered if Stella knew he watched her from his sanctuary among the salami.
Richard didn’t really have any friends; just acquaintances and colleagues who he never saw socially outside of school. Richard didn’t particularly care for friendships anyway. Lately though, Mrs. Rosedale had taken a sudden liking to him, striking up odd conversations with him in the faculty lounge or stopping him between periods to discuss various topics of interest. Mrs. Rosedale-Elaine, as she insisted Richard call her-was middle aged but had not yet accepted it. She taught Art and always dressed as if she shared a closet with her teenage daughter. Richard knew that Elaine had a teenage daughter because she boasted about Emily often.
It was a Friday when Elaine cornered him in the parking lot after school. Richard was halfway to his car when she called out to him. He turned and noticed that Elaine was not wearing a coat despite the chilly late October breeze. He mustered a friendly “hello” but quickly turned, eager to get on with his routine and get home in time for the news.
Elaine smiled at him. She had a pretty smile, he decided. Crooked, but pretty. “I can’t believe someone hasn’t snatched you up years ago, Dick,” she said in a sugary sweet tone.
Snatched up? Richard had never had any desire to be snatched up by anyone. Love was just a concept that existed in movies.
Richard skipped his trip to the market that afternoon. In the back of his mind, he wondered if Stella would notice. He hoped she did. Instead, he went home to prepare for his appointment. This was by no means a date. Richard hadn’t had a real date since his last semester of college. Her name was Ami-Amy, but with an I. They had gone to the movies. From Here to Eternity with Deborah Kerr. Richard did love the romances. He saw Ami for a little while after that until she took up with a premed student and married him. Richard wondered if she was as happy now as she’d been then.
Richard took a comb through his hair, put on a fresh shirt and tie, and changed his socks. He missed the nightly news but obviously the world was the same as it had been last evening. He got into the car and drove straight to Elaine’s house, following the directions she had given him. She had written them in scrawling, loopy handwriting on the back of a student’s assignment. Jimmy Lewis. B minus. Richard wondered what the minus was for.
He found the house. It wasn’t very far from his, actually, on Hillcrest Avenue across from the bridge. It was a cute house, one story like his own but longer. Probably three bedrooms, at least. There were rose bushes out front, and little plastic skeleton figurines-the kind they sold at the Dollar store in town- lined the brick walkway. Richard knocked on the heavy oak door. Elaine answered. She was dressed in a pale blue dress that was decidedly too small for her aging curves. A pair of flimsy gossamer wings were attached to the back, and she wore a strand of Christmas tinsel atop her thinning hair. “Welcome Dick. I’m a fairy.”
She invited him in. It was obvious that she had made a genuine effort to clean her home for him, but it was so cluttered with knick-knacks and figurines that her efforts had been fruitless. Somewhere further inside the house, soft music played from a stereo. Richard wasn’t dumb. He knew why he had come.
To Richard, the next few hours seemed a haze, as if he were back in high school smoking dope with his friends. Mr. Rosedale was out of town, Elaine had said. Mr. Rosedale didn’t do things the way she liked. She found Richard very sexy. She wanted him from the moment she met him. Too soon she had found her way into Richard’s arms and they were dancing; clumsily, awkward steps out of sync with the music that Richard wasn’t entirely sure was real or just inside his head. Her kisses felt hungry to his inexperienced lips; kisses that led to exploring, and finally she had danced him into her bedroom.
When it was over, Richard looked at Elaine’s sleeping form, and suddenly he felt very bored. Not knowing what else to do, he found his clothes and made his way to the door. He pictured Mr. Rosedale coming home from his trip. Maybe he would take her in his arms, kiss her sleeping lips and fall asleep beside her. Maybe he would drop his bag by the front door and fix himself a sandwich. Or perhaps he was doing the same Elaine had just done but with a different woman in a different city. It wasn’t Richard’s concern.
The night air was crisp and chilly and smelled of wet leaves and sweet smoke from someone’s chimney. A little ghost, a Batman and some sort of dinosaur rushed past him, giggling and swinging ridiculously bulky plastic bags. One of the children’s bags smacked Richard square in the shin, but the kid didn’t even look back. And then he felt himself falling towards the ground. Richard looked up to see a young woman, maybe mid-20s pushing a fat baby in a flimsy stroller, and an older man wearing a camouflage ball cap. Both were smoking long, filtered cigarettes.
“I just bumped into something,” said the woman.
“Watch where you’re going, asshole,” said the man into the darkness.
Richard stood up as the couple continued down the road. He opened his mouth to say something, but he didn’t know what he’d say to two people who didn't see anyone but themselves. Just like Elaine. Just like his students. Just like Mr. Rosedale.
But not like Stella.
Instead, he got into his car and drove away. As he drove across the bridge on his way back to Oak Street, Richard thought about Stella. Had she missed him today? He pictured her in her blue uniform, her deep red lips, and her petite hands-so different than Elaine’s-clicking across her machine.
Richard stopped the car on the bridge and sat there for a very long time. It was late; there wouldn’t be traffic for hours. He got out, leaned over the edge and stared at the water below. Cold. Black. Mysterious. He wondered if Elaine would tell Mrs. Forker and all the other teachers she lunched with about tonight. Maybe she would tell Emily. Maybe it would be their own secret forever. Above him, the Halloween stars gleamed down, putting Richard at ease just like the summer nights on his own front porch. Just Richard and the stars. Below him, the Winter River churned excitedly. It sang a new, wild song, one much different from anything Richard had ever heard before. He wished he could hear this melody forever. And so Richard Miller opened his arms wide and gave the stars a knowing wink.
And he jumped.