Stanley sits on a bench just outside the Lionel Street playground watching Leslie and her daughters. By now, he has memorized their entire after-school routine, which has remained virtually unchanged since he started following them.
Mondays they go to Mrs. Wiggan’s Ballet Studio. Tuesdays are the Newman Square Library Story Hour and then a grocery run at Price Chopper. Unless it’s raining, Wednesdays and Thursdays are always spent here in this playground. And Fridays they go to the Eastside Y for Polliwog and Guppy swim classes, then on to dinner at Luigi’s Pizzeria with Leslie’s husband and another family.
Even though the morning has been fairly mild, it has degenerated into a brusk, fall afternoon, the kind that comes on by surprise. Strong blasts of wind send brown maple leaves torpedoing through the park. Leslie has taken up her usual spot, perched on a worn-out picnic table surrounded by eight other mothers pulling their too-thin jackets tightly around themselves. Her younger daughter is in the sandbox making castles with the same sullen-faced boy that she’s always with. The older one is up on the jungle gym, then on the monkey bars, a constant swirl of girls trying to keep up with her.
One of the mothers comes back from a coffee run and the women clutch the paper cups as they talk furiously, their hands gesticulating. Occasionally someone says something particularly funny and they all laugh.
He met Leslie last summer at her annual Fourth of July barbecue. A woman he dated briefly had brought him along. It was a particularly hot day and Stanley spent most of his time in the air-conditioned basement watching a baseball game with a group of men who were avoiding the heat and their families. At one point during the long afternoon he had helped Leslie open a bottle of white wine and it turned out they both had an affinity for guacamole.
He spotted her coming out of Price Chopper a few months later, wheeling a large cart through the parking lot with her two daughters hanging off it. He called out to her, but she didn’t respond so he walked closer and tried again. Still nothing. He realized that she hadn’t even seen him, so he crouched down behind a car and watched her unload bags of groceries into the back of a blue Volvo station wagon, hand each girl a colored plastic snack container, talking to them in that sing-song, pretend-happy parent voice. As she reversed out of the parking space, she rolled down her window and he could hear children’s music wafting out. There was something fascinating and also, he had to admit to himself, slightly comforting about this transpiration of events and Stanley felt an overwhelming urge to find out where they were going next. So he hurried towards his own car and drove after them.
It wasn’t long before he changed his work schedule so that he could be there right as Leslie picked up the girls from school. “It’s wonderful to see fathers who want to be involved with their kids,” his supervisor said when he asked about utilizing the company’s flex-time policy to work the 6:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. shift. Like most of his co-workers, he was on a short-term contract and kept his personal details to himself. No one really knew anything about each other.
But that might change. Human Resources assigned a social worker to the Content Monitoring department in the wake of Ted Farley’s recent suicide. The first thing she did was distribute composition notebooks, which she called Thought Journals, and encourage everyone to read out loud from them. “Keep track of any increases in anxiety, sleep problems or depression,” she’d instructed after demonstrating relaxation techniques that mostly involved deep breathing and visualizing waterfalls. “You should also record emotional responses to disturbing images. And I find writing down dreams and memories helpful. Just FYI.” The Thought Journals were to be turned in to her at the end of each week.
Their jobs were now classified as high-risk, Keith Orlanski reported in the break room the following day, as if he had some inside information. His theory was that if they could demonstrate workplace-related trauma or permanent psychological damage, they might be eligible for disability. This caused quite a commotion. “They’re not going to renew your contract if they think you’re a loonie,” Mona Little said firmly. “Just FYI.” Most people seemed to agree and went back to quietly eating from the Free Snacks tray.
Stanley pulls out his journal while he scans the playground and starts to work on this week’s assignment: write down five favorite childhood memories. Instead of going to Little League or ice hockey like the other boys in his neighborhood, Stanley’s father took him birding on Saturday mornings. They were up before sunrise and the kitchen was always cold at that hour, even in summer. He’d sit at their green Formica table eating Froot Loops, watching his father fill up a thermos with fresh-brewed coffee before they set off. They’d listen to sports radio while they drove through dark, empty streets out to Ella Lake.
If he closes his eyes, Stanley can still recall the way the fog looked as it lifted off the water, the day just beginning to explode with light. The best place to see birds was a partially rotted dock overlooking a marsh. They’d sit there quietly together, binoculars pressed against their faces, watching ducks, Canada geese, cardinals, robins, his father pointing excitedly if they saw the blue heron gliding above the water. The fishing boats stayed in the deeper part of the lake where the trout and bass were, so the only human sound was his father sipping coffee from the thermos and clearing his throat. If they managed to get to the lake extra early, they’d catch the barn owls still out, their underbellies lit up like translucent ghosts as they swooped through the sky.
Stanley looks up from his journal just as two boys run at top speed right through the younger daughter’s elaborate sand city. Her friend screams, grabs a fistful of sand and chases after them. Several nearby adults swoop into action, rousing themselves off their cell phones to intervene. Somehow during the commotion, Leslie’s daughter gets stepped on and begins to wail.
It takes a few minutes for Leslie to realize and Stanley has to stifle the urge to call out to her. Finally, one of her friends notifies her and Leslie rushes to her daughter, picking her up. The small child’s shoulders wrack with sobs as Leslie pats her back, gives her something to drink from a sippy cup. She checks her watch and seems to decide that it’s time to go home which only makes the girl cry even harder. Leslie continues to soothe her, whispering something reassuring that eventually calms her down, and she clambers off her mother’s lap to go find her shoes. It takes a bit more persuading to pry the older one away from her friends. They both gather up their backpacks and coats, wave goodbye to most of the playground and pile into the Volvo.
Stanley trails a few cars behind. He knows the route by heart, changing into the left hand lane on Walnut Drive. Only another mile and a half and they’ll be on Cripple Creek Hill. Home.
Now that they are in a residential neighborhood, the traffic has eased up. He lets a few more cars get in between them just to be safe. Up ahead he can see her turning onto her street, a cul-de-sac that dead ends at the woods. He idles at the corner while she pulls into the second driveway on the right. Even this far away he can hear their dog barking and jumping against the kitchen door. The girls bolt out of the back seat and rush inside their two-story, Craftsman-style house. He waits until Leslie has gone inside before parking directly across the street from the house, like he does most afternoons. Leslie’s husband won’t be back for at least another hour and Stanley likes to just sit there for awhile.
Lights come on in the kitchen but only the outlines of their bodies are visible through a plate glass window overlooking the front lawn. He can’t see any of the details of the room or remember much about what it looks like. It’s hard to tell from the car what exactly they are doing in there.
He pictures Leslie’s daughters arguing playfully while they do their homework, Leslie cutting up vegetables on a wooden cutting board, saying, “now girls,” from time to time, jazz playing from the public radio station, the dog under the table, wagging its tail. The walls are probably overcrowded with children’s artwork, the refrigerator smothered with family photographs and school memos in a cluttered yet generally organized way. Maybe they have those labeled ceramic containers of flour, sugar, coffee, and one for brown sugar with a folded-up paper towel on top to keep in the moisture, like he had in his kitchen when he was growing up.
There isn’t even a real kitchen in the apartment complex where he lives now. It used to be a motel until it was converted into rental units but the developers didn’t bother to put in large appliances, supplementing the spare rooms with hot plates and mini-fridges instead. The only evidence of its holiday-destination past is an empty, leaf-strewn pool in the courtyard. On warm evenings Stanley eats on the small balcony overlooking it. He hasn’t actually cooked anything since he moved in, eating cold cereal for breakfast, getting take-out from the Great Wall of China or Sal’s Italian Eatery across the street.
Once he trailed Leslie in Price Chopper, hoping to discover what she fed her family, but he worried she would see him and couldn’t get close enough. She seems like the type who makes a couple of dishes on Sunday afternoons that she freezes for later on in the week, lasagna maybe, or chili, the kitchen permanently filled with the scent of spices, fresh baked brownies, slowly simmering stew, bacon on Sunday mornings.
He needs to be closer, to press his face right up against the window and watch them in there, to see it actually happening, for real. To smell their dinner cooking.
Slowly, he opens the car door and steps out into the quiet hush of late afternoon. Light spills out from the houses onto front lawns all up and down the street in the post-daylight savings darkness. No one else is outside.
He crosses the street and stands in their driveway breathing in the crisp fresh air that smells of bagged-up leaves and smoke from a nearby fireplace. A sliver of the new moon juts out from behind the trees.
Looking around one last time just to make sure no one can see him, he crouches down and quietly shuffles towards the moving shapes in Leslie’s kitchen. A jack-o-lantern is on the stoop of the front door. The jagged smile twists downward, sagging with decay, beckoning him forward.
Photo by gerlos on Flickr