The Managing of Others' Lives
Maddie stepped outside as the sun broke, collected the Post off the stoop (delivery guy was getting better), and took in a big breath. Ah, fresh air – well the freshest of the day, before the rush-hour morons vomited tons of particulates into the atmosphere. Why the government didn’t just outlaw cars outright, she couldn’t figure.
“Maybe soon,” she chuckled as she scanned the headlines announcing the administration’s newest endeavors. A sunbeam stroked her cheek and she walked down her driveway to observe the world.
The neighbourhood stirred. A couple of joggers met her approval. Stay in shape, keep healthy. A couple of dog walkers got a similar nod – animals properly leashed, tags visible. She hoped they were properly vaccinated, but didn’t ask. Give the benefit of the doubt.
Maddie’s gaze drifted up the street. She frowned. Some of the neighbours still had their outside lights on. Wasteful. The number of coal plants (and nuclear. Shudder) working overtime to cover such thoughtlessness appalled her. Why don’t they install timers or something? Like mine, and she looked back at her door with satisfaction before continuing her street examination.
Now, what’s that, a pickup in front of the Smiths’? Bad enough it was a truck and all the wretchedness that implied, but it was new to the neighborhood and roused her suspicion. As she peered at it, a feathery column of smoke drifted out the driver’s side window.
Maddie gasped. Cigarettes! She could feel her lungs crusting already. “Well! We’ll see about this!” and she marched in that direction.
The rising sun lit the occupant, a thirty-ish white man (of course) dressed in a black flannel shirt, reading a paper, the cancer delivery system dangling from his lips. “Joe’s Construction” was lettered on the side of the truck. Of course.
“Excuse me,” Maddie said.
Startled, the man dropped the paper and made a defensive lean away from her. “Ma’am?” he said, around the cigarette.
Oh, God, the Clint Eastwood type. All macho and leather-faced with bright blue eyes. A country gal’s heart would melt. Fortunately, Maddie was no country gal. “Would you please put that out?”
The man blinked at her and then held the cigarette up. “This?”
Maddie prided herself on tolerating the stupid. “Yes, that,” she said, patiently.
Her tolerance only went so far. “Many government studies,” she enunciated each syllable so the moron would get it, “have validated the dangers of second-hand smoke.”
He regarded her coolly. “Many other government studies,” he enunciated his syllables, too, “have invalidated that validation. Especially for persons standing twenty-five yards away. In their driveway. Wearing a bathrobe.” He leaned forward, peering at her sleeve. “Is that rayon?”
“Certainly not!” Maddie grabbed her robe tightly, mortally offended. “It’s Egyptian cotton blend!”
The man tsked. “You are aware, are you not, of the exploitation of child workers by Delta landholders, just so you can have a robe that makes you feel noble?”
The twinkle in his eye gave him away. “Don’t you mock me, Joe or Jim Bob or whatever your name is!”
He laughed. “It’s Joe, but you can call me Mr. Construction.” He patted the side of his truck. “As for mocking you, no need. You’re a pretty good self-parody.”
“Self-ppp...” Maddie spluttered, Joe’s little grin sending her blood pressure through the roof. “Listen, you,” she snarled, leaning belligerently at his window, “I consider your breathed-out smoke as nothing short of assault and battery!”
“Then,” he said, “you’ll regard this as murder.” He took in a lungful and blew a stream right in her face, topping it with a smoke ring.
“Gack!” Maddie flew back, clawing at her face and eyes, almost into the path of a passing car, which swerved. “Hey, watch it!” the driver yelled. Idiot! Couldn’t he see that she was dying here?
Joe burst out laughing. “Careful there, missy!”
“I am calling the police!“ Maddie shrieked and turned for home, almost running out of her slippers.
“Sure,” Joe called after, “ask for Officer Bob. He owes me ten bucks,” and laughed her all the way home.
Enraged, Maddie slammed into the house and grabbed the phone and, finally, after a very annoying wait on hold, got the desk sergeant. “Yes, ma’am.” He sounded tired. “I’ll send a car.”
Must have done that while she was on hold because an officer pulled up as she regained the porch. Joe got out, still smoking, and met the officer halfway. They talked quietly.
Maddie stormed up the street. “Why haven’t you arrested him?” she yelled.
“On what charge, Mrs. Effington?” The officer regarded her over his mirrored sunglasses.
“He tried to kill me! He... he,” Maddie shook an agitated finger, “he pushed me in front of a car!”
“Oh good Christ.” Joe threw his cigarette down in the street.
“Don’t you swear at me!” She bounded back, sure Joe was going to leap on her, and almost got clipped by another passing car.
The officer regarded all this mildly. “Mrs. Effington, would you please go back to your house?”
“But he’s a killer!”
She knew that tone and huffed and glared but spun on her heels and almost ran out of her slippers getting home. She turned at the door and saw the officer and Joe standing rather chummily. And she knew nothing would be done.
Maddie watched out her window as they talked and chuckled and made a couple of gestures in her direction, shook hands, and then left, the officer in his car, Joe into the Smiths’. She suddenly felt very tired and went to bed. About noon, she got back up and peered out her curtains. Now there were three pickup trucks. And a table saw in the driveway.
Of all the nerve.
Maddie marched down. Three Mexicans were at the table cutting tile. So, Mr. Construction, exploiting indigenous peoples and the desperate circumstances that drive them into illegal immigration, huh? Had him now. “Yo puedo ayudarles!“ she declared in her high school Spanish.
The three looked up in surprise. “What’d she say?” The short fat one with the big eyes turned to the rail-thin one operating the saw.
“Sumpin’ about helpin’ us.” Rail-thin turned off the saw and nudged an ancient man with just a tiny fringe of grey hair on one side of his head. “Ask her what she wants, Gramps.”
Gramps rattled off a machine gun barrage of Spanish, bewildering Maddie. Gramps snorted. “She don’t speak Spanish.” He was the only one of the three that had an accent.
“Can we help you, lady?” Rail-thin looked at her.
“Aren’t you Mexicans?” she asked.
Rail thin shrugged. “I’m from Detroit. Leon’s from New York. Gramps is Guatemalan. Will he do? Or does it have to be a Mexican?”
Gramps looked at her expectantly and it suddenly occurred to Maddie that they thought she was picking them up. “Certainly not!” She bristled. Gramps was crestfallen. “Where’s Joe?”
“He’s getting us pizza. Why, you want some work done?” Now rail-thin looked expectant.
“No, not from him! He tried to kill me.”
“Oh,” Leon nodded at the others, “it’s the crazy lady.”
“I am not crazy!” She stamped her slipper at their knowing looks, not feeling the stone she hit. She felt nothing these days. “You work for a bad man! And that,” she pointed at the saw, “is too loud!”
They looked at each other and started laughing. Rail-thin turned the saw back on, shaking his head.
“It’s too loud!” Maddie yelled over the noise. “You’re putting too many vibrations in the air! It hurts the birds. It hurts people!”
Rail-thin shrugged, “Maybe. Ain’t illegal, though.” He picked up a tile.
“And that makes it okay to destroy the environment?” Such attitudes astonished her.
“Lady, go home. Please.” Rail-thin was annoyed. “Joe told us to call the cops if you showed up and I don’t really want to do that, soâ€¦” And he gestured her away with the tile.
“It’s not right. It’s just not right.” She stamped her slipper again, hitting another unfelt stone.
“Holy moly, lady.” Leon blinked at her. “Maybe you do need a dose of Gramps here,” and the old man raised his eyebrows suggestively, taking a step toward her.
Their laughter chased her in the house and to the foyer closet, where she pulled out the baseball bat and stood hidden beside the china cabinet, waiting for the old man to show. He would not have her. No one but Don ever had or would.
After a while, she sat on the couch. After another while, she fell asleep.
When she woke, it was dark. Cautiously, she pulled back the curtain and looked. The trucks were gone, thank God. The Smiths’ car was in the carport. Good. Their porch light was on. Not good.
She knocked on their door. “Oh no,” Mr. Smith, as sallow and defeated as ever, said as he opened it.
“That crew you hired is a menace,” she began, intending to segue into the porch light and what hazards both posed, but was interrupted.
“Who do you think you are?” Mrs. Smith, the source of Mr. Smith’s defeat, bounded up, pantsuit and short hair and eyes on fire. “Just, really, who do you think you are?”
“I-” Maddie would have no problem answering that, but was not given a chance.
“You are some piece of work, you know?” Mrs. Smith’s whole face was on fire. “You’re up and down the street in your bathrobe, regardless of the weather, bothering the whole neighborhood every single blessed day. Well, when you start interfering in my business,” big emphasis here, big thumb pointing back at her office-sensible vest, “then you’ve gone too far. If you ever come back here again, I’ll have you arrested!” She threw Mr. Smith aside and grabbed the doorknob, “You belong in an asylum!” her last words before she slammed the door.
Maddie stood quietly for a moment, then walked down the Smiths’ driveway. She turned back. “I’ve already been,” she whispered, and went home.
Maddie first saw Donald Effington in September 1942 at a USO dance in Dubuque. He was all leather and blue eyes. He saw her at the same time and how two sets of eyes could lock and pass promises to each other across a packed basketball court, she never knew. She was waiting for him at the bottom of the gangplank at San Diego harbor in September 1945, and how their eyes found and locked among fifty thousand other flushed and ecstatic women and rangy, battle-beribboned Marines, she didn’t know, either.
They farmed for a while, and then he GI-billed and there he was, a college graduate standing on a platform, newly minted engineer with a job in Washington, handsome and smiling, and she held up little Tommy and said, “See? That’s your daddy.” And across all those seated caps and gowns, his eyes found her.
She entered a world she had never envisioned. They moved in circles she’d never heard of but that he mastered, and he became a man of influence. His presence was enough to move mountains and resolve intractables, and a great clamour of acclaim followed him around.
He called her partner and helpmate but that wasn’t true. She was beneficiary and observer, an acolyte in his temple, astonished at the god’s doings.
“I’ve disappeared,” she whispered to him one night, warm and safe in his bed. He stirred and held her and was mortified and concerned because he knew his giant soul swallowed others and he did not want the role of dream eater. “No,” she said as she caressed his worried cheek, “it’s good. I want it this way.”
He was an indestructible force in a destructible time, when cities burned and youth sneered at foundations. He was unmoved by colossal tides and she anchored to him and life-lined their children and they rode high and safe through tempests undermining the very core of belief. Three sons with souls as gigantic launched on life’s missions, two daughters firm and stoic and blazing trails.
And one day, shortly before their fiftieth, he coughed up blood. She stared at the sink in horror because it might as well have been hers. He laughed his indestructible laugh and went to the doctor and she buried him, and herself, six weeks later.
And she knew, just knew, that all the cars of lesser people, all their smirking cigarettes, their jets and rockets and chemical plants and strewn trash and loud music and too-bright lights had all gathered to take him (her) away. It shouldn’t be allowed.
She opened her eyes. Tommy sat in the chair opposite, the morning light streaming over him and so much Don for a moment she was sure he’d returned.
“I got some calls, Mom. What have you been doing?”
There was really no need to explain. “I’m sorry,” she said.
He said nothing, but took in her robe. “Mom, you have to shower, change clothes.”
She nodded. Yes, she knew that, knew the importance of routine, even if she increasingly saw little use in it. She got up and did that and, to please him, selected a shift Tommy’s darling wife Lucinda had bought for her last birthday. Another sign of contriteness. A sign she did not need another institution.
Tommy was not there and she looked out the window and saw him up the street talking to that Mr. Construction fellow. Joe stood with arms crossed and nodded every once in a while. She went to the kitchen and put on the kettle and had two steaming cups of tea waiting when Tommy came back.
“You look nice,” he said and smiled and he was Don and her heart leapt and then broke again. They talked of small things, and then he stood, palm open. “Mom, please.”
“I’ll disappear,” she said, but they were not the words she used with Don.
“No, you won’t, Mom; I’ll make sure of that.”
She did not argue. He could not possibly know what she meant, anyway. She did not look at him as she took and swallowed the pill. He nodded, satisfied, but warned her, one more incident, and she was coming to live with him.
He kissed her cheek and patted her shoulder and left and she lay on the couch and the blankness overtook her. That’s what she meant.
At sunset, someone knocked on the door and she finally decided it required her attention so she opened it.
Joe stood there. “I just wanted to tell you,” he said, looking away uncomfortably, “that I’ve moved the saw into the backyard. Less noise that way.” He stared at her slow blinking eyes, his brow furrowing.
“Oh, yeah.” He brightened. “These?” He pulled a cigarette pack out. “I’m quitting. Wife’s been on me to do so and, well...” his voice trailed away, “there doesn’t seem any more reasons not to.”
He was quiet for a moment, said, “Hope you feel better,” then walked to his truck parked in front of her house, got in, and drove away. She watched him out of sight, then closed the door and went into the kitchen. Tommy had laid out the next dosage and she quietly threw it away.
She would be gone for a day and then sick for another, but she’d be all right in two or three. She would see Don again. And save another Joe.