“He’s out there again, Frank.”
I said it out loud even though I knew Frank couldn’t hear me. Frank, who has been gone almost two years now. Frank, whose shirts still hang in his closet because sometimes I need to sit in there and smell the cocktail of his deodorant, soap and hair cream to erase the stink of his last ugly, messy weeks. He wouldn’t stop apologizing, even as his delirium increased. “It doesn’t bother me, sweetheart,” I said at least a thousand times, but of course it did bother me. Excrement is no picnic.
“What is that hoodlum doing?” I asked phantom-Frank. The boy was standing on the sidewalk, staring fixedly at the rose bushes. His pants looked five sizes too big and he had those little worm-like braids sticking out all over his head. “What ever happened to belts?” I asked ghost-Frank, knowing he’d shake his head to humor me. “And what’s wrong with getting a haircut?”
It was the third morning in a row that this boy stood there, transfixed by my roses. I get emails every week from Lindy over on Kite Street, who runs our neighborhood watch list. She is always warning us about criminals casing the area, so I keep my door locked tight and Kenny — Ken now, of course — had security lights installed after Frank passed. “They’ll help you sleep better, Mom,” he told me, but mostly they just startle me, blazing on when a skunk or raccoon wanders past. But this boy didn’t really worry me, mostly because I’d never heard of a criminal so focused on flowers.
“I’m going to ask him,” I told Frank. “My curiosity is too much.” I paused for second for Frank to make his crack about what curiosity did to the cat, but of course it didn’t come.
When I shut the security screen sharply behind me, the boy jumped, spooked. “What are you doing,” I ask-said, a tone left-over from when I had two teen boys at home and asking them to fold their laundry or put away dishes was not effective. The boy stared at me blankly for a moment. Closer now, I could see how young he was. There was still some childhood chubbiness in his cheeks and his absurdly long eyelashes were visible even from the stoop.
The boy blinked once. “They’re Double Delight, aren’t they?” he asked, jutting his chin toward the nearest bush. “My grandmother had them in her yard.”
He paused. “She passed last year.” His tone was matter-of-fact, almost unnaturally flat. I recognized it instantly. It was the “make people comfortable even though you’re talking about death” voice. The “I’m fine — really — you don’t have to worry” tone. It took me a month or two to master the tone, when Frank was still sitting in his own puddles. It was nicer for others to strip the emotion out. People tend to edge away when you sound raw.
I didn’t expect this tone from this boy.
“I’m sorry,” I said, although I doubted he was old enough to hear that I really was, and I wasn’t just giving him the empty words that people use when there really wasn’t anything to say.
The boy nodded, gazing at the flowers. He had a backpack, heavy-looking and square with textbooks, and a trumpet case slung bandolier-style across his chest. Kenny had played trumpet too, lugging it to the K-8 school around the corner, which I realized made the boy no more than 12.
“See, Frank?” I said in my head. “Nothing to worry about.”
And then the boy was stepping toward me, hand outstretched. “I’m Conrad, ma’am. It’s nice to meet you.”
I almost stumbled as I stepped off the stoop. It was the “ma’am.” The new family next door lets their kids run wild and shout out, “Hi, Shirley!” like I’m their buddy. Even my hairdresser — a little thing with more tattoos than a marine — doesn’t bother calling me “Mrs. Antonini” anymore. Yet from this boy in his droopy pants, I get a “ma’am.”
I wasn’t sure what to say and so “You have excellent manners, Conrad” came out. I knew it was the wrong thing even as I said it. Even though I meant it as a compliment.
I could tell the boy agreed with the wrongness. The left side of his mouth curled up a little, but wistfully. “It always surprises people. My grandma told me it would, and that there’d be power in the surprise.” He shrugged. For a moment, I could see his face in a few years, not as soft, more guarded.
“I’m sorry,” I said again even though I wasn’t sure why this nice thing to say put so much space between us. It was the kind of puzzle that Frank might have helped me untangle, over an afternoon cup of coffee, back when he talked back to me.
The boy shrugged again. “I gotta go.” He hitched the backpack up onto his shoulder and turned away.
I called out, “I’ll see you tomorrow,” but he was already going. If I was a gambler, as Frank used to say, I’d guess that he will take the next road over tomorrow, and I won’t see him admiring my roses again.
I’ll have to think about why that makes me sad.
“Double Delight” first appeared in A Year in Ink. Vol. 11, Ink Spot Press, 2018, San Diego Writers, Ink.