Fiction, Vol. 8.3, Sept. 2014
Once again Fritz had been arrested, this time at Pinsplitters, the bowling alley.
He had given June, his neighbor at the Linger Longer Over 55 Mobile Home Park and RV Storage, a key to unlock his trailer in case of an emergency, and she knew where he kept the bail money—in a battered slipper at the bottom of Whitey’s cage. This was a giant floor-to-ceiling cage housing a beautiful, mean, loud cockatoo. June pulled on her garden gloves, opened the door, and fought Whitey off to dig through the droppings and husks of bird seed and peanut shells. The bird clawed and shrieked and bit down on Maeve’s shoulder, and she shrieked and clawed the bird off. She slammed the door of the cage, but not before she grasped the filthy slipper.
This had all begun even before Fritz’s wife died a few years ago. An extremely quiet woman, Allie’d had a stroke, and then she was unable to speak at all. Fritz cared for her with love, but everyone knew his house was relentlessly silent, even more than it had been over the course of his long marriage.
Then, one Sunday morning Fritz had stood outside of Five Holy Wounds Roman Catholic Church with an old clipboard and a pencil after 12 o’clock Mass. As the parishioners left the church, they shook Father Raus’s hand. Fritz met them in the parking lot. He told them he’d been hired by a research company to take a survey about chicken noodle soup. After a few Sundays, however, Father Raus told him gently he would have to move on, that he made some of the members of Five Holy Wounds uneasy. Confused, they thought he was trying to sell soup, and they had complained to Father Raus that it seemed an inappropriate use of church grounds.
Fritz took his clipboard to the Palmetto Mall. There he could question folks all day. He even talked to the children, and one of the things Fritz discovered is that children love to talk about chicken noodle soup.
For a while, he was fine. Every morning he woke up and put on his funeral suit, picked up his clipboard and went to the mall. Ultimately, though, a mother complained to a security guard that a suspicious old man was asking children personal information. The security guard ran over to him and actually blew his whistle, which hardly ever happens. He told Fritz sternly he would have to leave. Fritz nodded politely and left, but he returned a couple of days later wearing his fishing hat as a disguise. He had a different clipboard—clear blue plastic—and he asked shoppers to describe their favorite kind of pen.
Just as children love talking about chicken noodle soup, a surprising number of adults love talking about pens—brands and types and colors—they rambled on deliciously. He discovered that many adults are nostalgic about fountain pens. They like the feel of a fat writing instrument with a bit of heft to it, and they loved blotting the ink dry. So many stories! One woman said that it was an epiphany when she had to buy blue-black ink for Sister Therese’s sixth grade class, that a thing could be both blue and black. It was the discovery of ambiguity—that a thing could be both this and that at the same time. She said she felt Shaeffer’s Blue-Black ink opened the doors of reality for her. As she spoke, her grandson, about eleven, shouted, “Rollerball! Rollerball!” The security guard who had asked Fritz to leave before was alarmed by the disturbance. This time he called the police.
One of the young patrolmen called to the scene, Sam Zewinski, watched a great deal of TV. He was certain he had a predator. Clearly, this was the behavior of a predator. What kind of predator, he wasn’t sure, but on the basis of this, Officer Zewinski and his partner brought Fritz into the station and asked him many questions. When they discovered there was no survey company, they became even more suspicious and ran a background check, but the background check came up clean.
Fritz tried to convince them that he was doing the survey because he was writing a book about pens. Yes, favorite pens. When Patrolman Zewinski said he found this unlikely, Fritz said, “I know, I know. I was going to write about chicken noodle soup, but I didn’t think I would have enough for a whole book. People like chicken noodle soup, but they’re much more passionate about pens. I suppose I could combine them. I mean I could do a chapter about people writing while eating chicken noodle soup but—” Zewinski wanted to do a lie detector test, but his captain rolled his eyes, so he let Fritz go with a warning to stay out of the mall.
Fritz just couldn’t stay out of the mall—any of the malls. So many people with so much to say—they just needed a prompt to get started, and then they talked happily about which was better, Office Depot or Staples, which was the worst airline, what was the best candy bar. The elderly favor Baby Ruth. Again and again, Fritz was arrested for trespassing or loitering. They tried to get him for public intoxication, but he passed the breathalyzer test, and you can’t charge someone with walking while sober.
Of course, he went other places too. Fritz liked to work outside of Red Lobster or Carrabba’s on Friday nights while people were standing around or sitting on benches waiting for a table. They didn’t have anything to do anyway, and they would talk and talk. People under forty generally prefer Twix to Snickers, he learned.
At election time, he volunteered for both political parties. That way, he could talk to people about the candidates at a wide variety of different festivals and events. The problem came when someone—Tampa is a small town, after all—realized he had been having people sign petitions for and against the same proposed and controversial law. It infuriated people. You can’t be for and against restricted lawn watering at the same time.
It wasn’t like blue-black ink.
At any rate, Zewinski was sick of him. The other officers made fun of Zewinski whenever Fritz was arrested. “Your stalker is here,” they would say. Or, “Here comes Mr. Molester with his clipboard. Are you getting the grand jury ready?”
And now it had come to this. At Fritz’s place, June opened the crusty slipper with two forks as the cockatoo shrieked and flew at the now-closed latch of the cage. Inside the slipper was a paper bag. Inside the paper bag was a plastic Ziploc, and inside that was a great deal of money. June sighed. Surely, there must be a better way for Fritz to find people to talk to.
Money in hand, June went to get Fritz out of the slammer, as she called it. In the back seat of the car, Fritz muttered his gratefulness over and over. She waved him off. “Tell me about that bird,” she demanded.
“Oh well, Whitey has been with us—or me now—since Allie’s parents died. At least, Allie’s mother. Her father tried to take care of it when he was alive, but it was too much for him, and the shrieking bothered the neighbors. So Allie said she would be Whitey’s forever-bird-parent.”
“What about her father? Didn’t the shrieking bother him?”
“He was used to it, and he was pretty deaf by then. And quiet, like Allie. He just stopped talking after a while, like Allie. That’s why the bird got louder and louder. It didn’t want to be ignored. Then the neighbors came in an angry group—a mob, I guess you could call it. And now, well—he sighed. “Anyway, I promised Allie I would take care of Whitey. I promised.”
“How old do they get to be?” said June. “What’s the expiration date?”
“Oh, they get to be forty or fifty. That’s the problem—Whitey was four when I got him.
June gasped. “First of all, Fritz,” she said, “we have to find something for you to do.”
“I’m OK,” said Fritz. “Really.”
“Of course, but we need you OK-er,” said June. “And we have to figure out something about the damned bird.” As she walked him to his front door, she handed him the bag with the remainder of the money. He opened the door, and they could hear the terrible bird piercing the silence. Fritz gave a little wave, and as she left, June said, “I left you some hamburger soup in the fridge.” He waved back and went in.
For a long time after that, there were no calls from Fritz. Some of the neighbors thought he was in jail again. There seemed to be no one home at all. His bougainvillea went wild and curls of jasmine hung down morosely waiting to be poked into the trellis. Fritz was usually good about these things. June tried to keep things tidy around his trailer, pulling weeds and tending his flowers.
“Do you suppose he went too far?” a man shouted to June from his golf cart one afternoon.
“What do you mean ‘too far’?” said June, picking up the unclaimed newspapers from Fritz’s driveway.
“Well,” said the man, unidentifiable behind his I-just-had-a-cataract-removed wraparound sunglasses. He got out of the golf cart, so it was impossible for June to avoid talking to him. He wore blue shorts and a blue polo shirt tucked in. His white belt was up around his nipples. “Well, maybe he was talking to the wrong people. Asking too many questions?”
“Oh well, I don’t know about that,” said June. “He just has his own ways—”
“Like what if he was accidentally asking someone in the Mafia questions. Like what kind of guns they liked best. That would be dangerous.”
“Well, I don’t think he would do that,” said June, irritated.
“Yeah, but if he did, you know—or if he started asking people about their, you know, personal lives.”
“Fritz would never do that. He would not ask people about their, you know, personal lives,” said June, not entirely sure that was true. The man wandered back to his golf cart and drove off, but not before he pinched June on her bottom. She jumped. “Oh honestly,” she said.
After he’d gone, June tended to the jasmine and swept the driveway. The side door slowly opened. “June,” came a gruff voice. She jumped again. “Come inside,” Fritz whispered. Whitey shrieked.
“Where have you been?” June said. “All of us are worried sick. We knocked and knocked. I was about to have the police break in.”
“Shush,” he said. “Just come in.” Whitey shrieked behind him.
Jerry Springer was on, and there was a rusty TV table next to his scruffy recliner. On the table was a mostly empty bottle of Popov vodka. “Oh, Fritz,” she said. “Popov?”
“Yes. Popov. I don’t deserve good vodka. I don’t even deserve Popov. I thought it would make me feel better, but it didn’t. Vodka is the drink of people who have someone to talk to. It just makes me sad.” Two tears dripped slow as honey, one right off the tip of his nose. “It’s these,” he said pointing to the table and the floor. “I found these.”
“These” were what used to be called composition books. Over the years, Allie had carefully covered each one with a different print fabric. She’d glued lace or rickrack around the edges. Pastel ribbon had been glued in for bookmarks. There were droplets of dried glue all over them, as if Fritz’s tears had dropped and solidified there. “There are thirty-seven,” he said.
“Her journals?” said June. “Well, of course you’re going to be sad. How could you not be sad?”
Fritz nodded. “This,” he said waving toward the vodka, “is the first I’ve had to drink in thirteen and a half years. Even when Allie died—”
“What are you doing to yourself?” said June. She poured herself an inch of vodka and sat down on the worn ottoman.
“Thirty-seven,” said Fritz, tapping the notebook. “The first one is for the year we got engaged, and then one for every year we were married after that. It’s her whole life with me. I didn’t even know she could write after the stroke. Who knew? She—”
“There must be many happy memories there,” said June, her heart sinking again. She thought about Fritz reading Allie’s daily reminiscences—gifts, meals, sex—she really shouldn’t be thinking this way. But she was. “It must be very sweet.” Her voice trailed off.
“Not so much,” whispered Fritz.
“It’s not so sweet at all.” He wept openly as Whitey screeched and howled as the park’s lawn care crew roared by with mowers and chain saws.
“What do you mean?” Was it just too painful to look at their great love over the years? Or maybe Allie had used the flowered journals to vent about toilet seats or trash sitting in the kitchen bin or about Fritz’s passing gas, which he made little effort to hide. Most likely, it was a mixture. June remembered her own diaries over the years—love and jealousy, passion and boredom along with the daily problems of the tree that needed to come down, the cracked manifold, other people’s rude children, all written with the same absorption and silly sense of importance.
She poured herself another inch of vodka. Popov really was as terrible as she remembered, but then it was a pretty terrible afternoon. Fritz would never get over Allie. And June would never, never get over Fritz.
The pile of worn notebooks, covered with cotton fabric with designs fashionable for the year they were written, lay strewn beneath their feet, as if at some point he had flung them to the floor in what—grief, exasperation, anger? There were the perky cherries of kitchen curtains of the 1940’s, the pink and charcoal gray angles of the late fifties, the myriad vines of dusky avocados, the Mickeys and Minnies ubiquitous in Florida. There were stripes and checks and flamingoes—“Oh Fritz,” she found herself saying, “Don’t take it all so personally. Avocados don’t even grow on vines. She loved you—that’s all you need to remember. Put them away, Fritz.”
“She didn’t love me, I found out—”
“Don’t be ridiculous—”
“Actually, she didn’t like me at all. She stopped liking me July 4, l976. The fourth of July. The Bicentennial.”
“What are you—?”
“It says so in the journal over there with the cauliflowers.” June picked up the Harvest Yellow notebook, smudged with coffee stains. It felt wrong to open it, a thing so private. She’d never really liked Allie, but she had never wanted to admit it to herself. It felt wrong not to like stroke victims.
Fritz quoted with his eyes closed. “’I am done liking Fritz. He is obnoxious in his red, white and blue tie, cheering for Nixon, burning hot dogs…’”
“Maybe she was just irritated that day. Maybe there was beer involved. You can’t take that—”
Fritz picked up the notebook and began to read. “’I probably didn’t like him just as much yesterday, if ever. He’s nice enough. He showers. I just don’t like him. I’m not writing about him anymore. Because I don’t like him.’ And she didn’t. I only get mentioned twice more, once more in l997.” He picked up a diary like the others, royal blue with little spirals and stars. Where had June seen them before? Starbucks? A dress she once had? “‘July 4, l997. Stopped talking with Fritz today. Greatly relieved. I don’t like him.’ And then in 2010. ‘Still don’t like Fritz. Had a stroke. Can’t talk to anyone. Oh well.’” Fritz sniffled. “‘Oh well,’ she says. And I thought she was quiet, lost in her own thoughts until the stroke, and then she had the stroke, and I thought she couldn’t communicate at all and then she died.” He took a deep breath and a long, terrible wail quavered above Whitey’s high-pitched scream. Then there was silence.
There was more silence. There was no right thing for June to say. Should she try to convince him that his wife had been joking? Should she try to convince him he had been married to a terrible shrew and deserved better than this? Should she try to shrug it off and say, ‘Well, now, Fritz, you know sometimes people don’t like other people…’ And there were terrible questions she didn’t want to ask but really wanted to know. Had the two of them made love during those years? Was it silent? Did they play music to cover the quiet? Did he write her notes? What happened when he called on the phone, say, from work, wanting to know if he should bring home a quart of milk? And there was the huge question: Why? What had he done or failed to do?
As if he could read her mind, Fritz moaned, “What did I do?” He began to sort and stack the notebooks. “You can read about every sale at the A & P from 1971 till we moved in 1980. You can read about the death of Diana and Mother Teresa, on the same day, and about every goddamned run in her stockings, but not me. Just not me. Help me, June.”
Did this mean Fritz was free to love her now? Or did it mean that after several years, Allie had found out Fritz was not lovable, not even in any sense particularly likable? Perhaps Allie had seen his essence. Poor Fritz. What could June say to him? What could June say to herself? Who were these people, and what was she doing here, tipsy, in a room with a deafening bird, still holding the trowel of Fritz’s neglected garden? On the television, Jerry Springer grinned and the audience booed a weeping woman as her husband/boyfriend pumped the air in victory. And here Fritz was, looking to her for comfort. “Say something, June. Please.” He reached for her arm.
June picked up her empty glass, stood and walked to the door. As Fritz watched, she let herself out. She absentmindedly reached for a tendril of jasmine that had poked its head out of the trellis, then pulled her hand back, as if burned. Fritz called her again from the door. “June? June?” Behind him, she could hear the bird, furious at being ignored, screeching for attention. On her way home, she considered jasmine, and the training of jasmine. Why in the world, she thought, are we always trying to shape a thing that has a perfectly good mind of its own?