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“Were you scared, Dad?”
Richard Greene is telling Jonathan, his 14-year-old son, and Linda, his wife of 18 years, about what happened to him on the way home from work. While he was picking up a prescription at the drugstore near his bus stop, a group of youths started grabbing everything in sight and smashing glass counters. He quickly headed for the exit.
Richard takes a bite of stale pizza and smiles at Jonathan, who’s sitting across from him at the table. Between jobs and school, the dining room is where the Greenes spend the most time together. It has a high, tray ceiling, cream-colored walls and a dark hardwood floor.
“Not scared, Son, but cautious. At the door, a kid in a green jacket with a hood pulled down to hide his face blocked my way and demanded my wallet. When he reached into his pocket, I thought he might have a gun.”
“What happened next, Dad?”
Richard chuckles. “I pointed behind him and said ‘I already gave my wallet to her.’ When he turned, out I went.”
Jonathan gives his dad a thumbs up. “Oldest trick in the book.” Taking after his mother, the boy has curly hair and is tall. He’s looking forward to trying out for his school’s junior varsity basketball team.
Linda fans herself with her hand. “Does anyone else think it’s hot in here?”
“Me,” Jonathan says.
Mr. Schrödinger hops down from Linda’s lap when she goes to let in some fresh air. She’s careful to not bump the cut crystal vase glistening on a stand in front of the window. As soon as she returns to her seat, the calico is back on her lap. “Thank goodness you weren’t hurt, Richard,” she says, munching a slice of day-old pizza.
Jonathan reaches for another piece. “I loves me some pepperoni.”
“Watch your grammar, Jonathan,” Linda says.
“How can I? She lives a hundred miles from here.”
Linda starts to say something, but instead bursts out laughing. She looks at her husband, who doesn’t crack a smile. “You’re a sad sack this evening, Honey,” she says. “And you need to eat up. You’re losing weight.”
“Guess I don’t have much appetite these days.”
“I’m sure it’s from all the pressure you’re under at work. That boss of yours should be more understanding after what you’ve been through.”
Richard forces down a second slice.
While waiting for his bus, Richard notices a kid in a green hoodie. He follows him to an apartment building with graffiti on the façade and a boarded up window. A woman using a walker with tennis balls on the front legs meets the kid at the entrance. She gives the boy a leash.
“I followed him and struck up a bit of a conversation to see what he was like.”
Linda returns from opening a window. “Are you sure that was a good idea? Seems like he’s a hoodlum.” Mr. Schrödinger leaps onto her lap.
“There were people around. I just asked him about his black Lab. How old it was was, its name. He was polite. I’m -”
“The dog was polite, Dad?”
“No, Son, the -” Richard laughs. “Jonathan, if your career as a basketball player doesn’t work out, I think you can be a comedian.”
Jonathan gives his dad two thumbs up.
“Anyway, I’m not sure he was the one from the drugstore.”
“Green hoodies aren’t exactly rare,” Linda says. She taps a slice of pizza on her plate. “I think it’s the last day for this.”
Sitting in his dining room chair, Richard leans his head back and stares at the ceiling, which is colorfully speckled with light the crystal vase refracts from the setting sun. Linda’s face appears above him. From the odd perspective, it’s almost as if he’s seeing her for the first time. He studies the arc of her eyebrows, flare of her nostrils, curve of her lips…
“Roy G. Biv,” she says.
“Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. It’s how I tell my students to remember the colors of the spectrum, the visible ones.”
Richard thinks it’s comical to watch someone talk upside down, but doesn’t feel like laughing. The ceiling slides away as he lifts his head, “You’re a wonderful teacher, Linda”
His wife takes her seat. “I think our class project with prisms has a chance to win at the science fair this year. I’m looking forward to it.”
“Maybe you should take up a hobby or something… Kitty, kitty, kitty.”
“I’ve been thinking about volunteering as a big brother.”
Jonathan appears across the table. When he frowns, Richard feels a twinge of guilt. “You’ll always be Pop’s best boy, Jonathan, don’t ever worry about that … How about we shoot some hoops after pizza?” He pretends to lob a basketball to his son.
Jonathan smiles. “Sure, Dad.” He tosses the imaginary sphere back.
“OK, you two,” Linda says. “No playing ball in the house. I don’t want you breaking my vase.” She laughs, father and son joining in. Mr. Schrödinger meows from under the table.
There’s a backlog at the pharmacy when Richard stops by to pick up his prescription for sleeping pills and sedatives. Richard almost doesn’t recognize him without his green hoodie.
“Are you the boy with Loki, the black Lab?”
“Hi, mister sir. Yeah, I remember you.”
“…He was there picking up meds for his mother,” Richard tells his son and wife. “Turns out she has -”
The doorbell rings. Richard leaves the table and returns a moment later. “Hot and fresh,” he says. “Where was I?”
“You saw that boy at the pharmacy,” Linda says, as Richard slides the box to her. She hands a slice to Jonathan then takes one for herself.
“Oh, right. We got to talking to pass the time while waiting. His name is Gabriel. His mother has MS. It sounds like he’s pretty much taking care of her.”
“What about his father?” Jonathan says. “Mmm, the cheese is hot and melty.”
Richard puts a slice on his paper plate. “I don’t think he’s in the picture, but I didn’t want to seem nosy. Gabriel said he does the cooking, laundry… works at a hardware store weekends. Do you know him, Son? Gabriel Maurne. He goes to your school.” Richard watches his son hold a pizza slice high and nibble on a dangling string of mozzarella. At that moment, boy appears to be about half his true age.
“Don’t play with your food, Jonathan,” Linda says.
Richard squeezes his eyes shut, and when he opens them, the boy appears as a 14 year old again. Richard wonders if he should cut back on the sleeping pills or sedatives.
“Never heard of him, Dad.”
Linda sniffs. “Do you smell something?”
Jonathan, his mouth full of pizza, nods.
Richard stands and heads for the kitchen. “Maybe I left the oven on when I reheated the pizza.” He returns a moment later. “It’s off. I don’t notice an odor.”
Linda opens the window. “Almost smells like gasoline. Strange.” A breeze ripples the paper napkins on the table. “That should clear it out… Jonathan, I want you to go straight upstairs after supper and do your homework,” she says walking back to the table. She smiles at her son. “You might be in my science class next year. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
“Total mortification,” the boy says. “Dad, you haven’t said anything about that Gabriel kid. You don’t run into him anymore?”
Richard returns a half-eaten slice of pizza to his paper plate. Linda puts her thumb and finger around his wrist. “Honey, you’ve got to eat more. I’m getting worried about you.”
“I know. I will. It’s just… you know…”
Richard feels his wife’s lips on his cheek. “We’re here,” she says. “Jonathan and I are here.”
Richard clears the emotion from his throat. “I did see Gabriel again. I stopped by the hardware store for some nails to fix that lose board on the porch. It wasn’t busy so we had a nice chat. He mentioned that he’s struggling in his math class. He’s afraid a bad grade might keep him out of nursing school.”
“Nursing school?” Linda says.
“Yeah, and it sounds like he’s thought it through. He has experience taking care of his mom. He can go to school locally, live at home, keep on part time at the hardware store. I’m thinking about offering to tutor him. We could have him over for pizza one evening then I can help him with his math. What do you think?” Richard looks at his son then at Linda.
Jonathan remains silent.
“You wouldn’t mind sharing your pop with another boy for a good cause, would you? Gabriel might play horse with you.” Richard sees Gabriel’s image flicker in his son’s place.
“Maybe,” Jonathan says. “I guess… Sure, why not?” The sound of his son’s voice snaps Richard out of it.
“Then it’s settled. I’ll -”
“Just a minute,” Linda says. “For all we know, this boy was one of those kids who ransacked that drugstore and maybe had a gun. I’m not sure I want him in our home. And around my son.”
Richard sighs. “Maybe you’re right. I’ve been so impressed with Gabriel, I kinda… Tell you what – before I invite him over, I’ll ask him point blank. I’ll know if he’s lying.”
Linda drums her fingers on the tabletop. “OK… invite him over. But if I get a bad feeling when he’s here -”
“I’ll make him leave immediately.”
The next day on the way home from work. Richard waits outside Gabriel’s apartment building. After a few minutes, Gabriel approaches with Loki. “Hello, mister sir,” the boy says. “What are you doing here?”
Richard reaches down and scratches the dog’s ear. “I’d like to make you an offer, Gabriel. But first, I need to ask you something, and you have to promise to answer me truthfully.”
Gabriel looks at Richard.
“Do you promise?”
“Sounds like you’re calling me a liar before I even say anything.”
Richard’s cheeks burn. He’s always prided himself on being a good judge of character. Besides, even if Gabriel was involved in the drugstore mêlée, no one got hurt. He deserves another chance anyway. “No, Gabriel, I’m not accusing you of lying. I thought you could come over one evening for pizza with my family and after I’ll help you with your homework. I was a bit of a math whiz back in the day.”
Gabriel stares at Richard, who squats down and kisses Loki’s nose. Then he looks up at the boy.
“Well,” Gabriel says, “I could use some help with all that x equals y plus z BS.”
Richard gives Gabriel his address and they agree on a date and time.
The doorbell rings. “I’ll get it,” Richard says. He returns to the table with a pizza box. “Fresh and hot. Hope Gabriel’s on time.”
Jonathan takes his place at the table. “Me, too. I’m starved.”
About a minute later, the doorbell rings again.
Linda sits up straighter, and Mr. Schrödinger hops onto her lap. “Remember what I said.”
Richard’s conscience pricks him for not asking Gabriel about the drugstore.
“Nice place you’ve got here, mister sir,” Gabriel says as Richard leads him to the table.
“We like it. And enough of that ‘mister sir’ stuff. My name’s Richard Greene.” He holds out his hand. “Call me Richard.”
Gabriel ignores Richard’s hand and picks up the crystal vase from the stand by the window. “Bet this is worth a lot.”
Hearing Linda gasp, Richard takes the vase and returns it to the stand. “My wife has great taste.”
“That’s why she married Dad,” Richard hears Jonathan say and laughs. Gabriel doesn’t react.
“Honey, this is Gabriel Maurne. Gabriel, please meet Mrs. Greene and our son, Jonathan.” He hears a meow. “Yes, Mr. Schrödinger, you’re part of the family, too.”
Gabriel looks in the directions of Richard’s gestures. “I don’t… What?”
“Please sit. Let’s have at this pizza while it’s hot.” Richard pulls out a chair for Gabriel. “Then we’ll tackle your math homework.” Richard furrows his brow. “You didn’t bring your textbook? That’s ok, we can use Jonathan’s. You don’t mind, do you, Son?”
Gabriel steps back from the chair. “Richard… Mr. Greene… what’s wrong with you?”
“Linda, why don’t you go get us some sodas. You like cola, don’t you, Gabriel?”
When Richard puts his arm on the boy’s shoulder, Gabriel pulls away. “You’re crazy, dude.” He hurries to the door and shuts it behind him.
Richard stands motionless. “Well, that was stunning.” He looks at Linda and Jonathan, who shrug their shoulders.
Wanting to know what got into Gabriel, Richard keeps an eye out for him at the bus stop. He checks the drugstore and the hardware store. He lingers outside the boy’s apartment building and along his dog-walking route. After a week of not seeing Gabriel, Richard gets a sinking feeling and decides to talk to the boy’s mother.
Richard rings the bell. After a few minutes, Mrs. Maurne opens the door, panting to catch her breath.
“Sorry to bother you, Mrs. Maurne. I’m Richard Greene, a friend of Gabriel’s. Is he here? I haven’t seen him around, and I’m getting concerned. I -”
Mrs. Maurne steps away then returns. “Last week, Gabriel…” Unable to continue speaking, she hands Richard a newspaper open to the police report. Sobbing, she points to a brief article about the boy being shot and killed during a street mugging. Richard reads the last sentence aloud. “A witness says the assailant, who got away, was wearing a green hoodie.” Richard drops the paper. “How horrible. I’m so sorry,” he says, forcing the words through his constricted throat.
Mrs. Maurne, gripping her walker with one hand, stoops and picks up the paper. “Now go away. I’ve no time for your nonsense.” She starts to close the door.
Richard blocks the door with his foot. “Nonsense? Gabriel and I were friends. I was going to help him with his homework. I -”
“Gabriel told me about you. I appreciate that you’ve been nice to my boy and wanted to help him. But he told me how you were talking to people who weren’t there when you had him over for dinner.”
“What? That’s -”
“He found out how your wife and son burned to death in a car wreck months ago.”
“That’s crazy. Why -”
“That evening my baby got shot, he was going to your place to tell you how sorry he was. I’m sorry for you, too, but I can’t help you. I’ve got my own problems. Who’s going to take care of me now? I -”
“Why would Gabriel say… I don’t…”
Mrs. Maurne tilts the walker so that one of the tennis balls is over Richard’s foot. He pulls it away, and she slams the door. Richard calls out her name several times then leaves.
Ears ringing and in a cold sweat, he leans against a parking meter to steady himself. He gets to the stop just as his bus is arriving.
Riding home, Richard stares out the window as pedestrians and traffic blur into a dizzying smear of colors. He takes deep breaths and chants Roy G. Biv like a mantra. He grips his seat to keep from falling out of it.
When he gets to his house, he staggers upstairs and collapses fully clothed on the bed. He awakens to darkness. Crazy dream, he tells himself, walking to the top of the steps. “Something smells good,” he says, going downstairs.
Richard takes a seat at the table and smiles toward Linda and Jonathan’s places. He feels Mr. Schrödinger rub against his legs. “How was your day? You won’t believe it when I tell you about mine.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Greene. Could you please pass the pizza?”
“Certainly,” Richard says and slides a box of stale pizza to his right. “Here you are, Gabriel, my boy. Glad you could join us.”
“Honey,” Linda says, “there’s nobody there.”
Richard closes his eyes. When he opens them, he finds himself alone at the table. Mr. Schrödinger hops up on his lap.