The Tower Journal

  William Cass


 

    Failure to Thrive

  

            Peggy sat in the driver’s seat of her patrol car parked outside a convenience store waiting for her partner who’d gone inside.  She adjusted the rearview mirror and watched a man with a knife enter the intersection across the lot.  He was heavy-set with a dark complexion, a short jacket, tattered jeans, tattered sneakers with no socks, and his breath came in short cloud blasts against the cold.  The only other person in the intersection was an old woman a few steps ahead of him who was carrying a paper bag of groceries, her purse slung over one shoulder.  Peggy stepped out of the car quickly, drew her gun, and shouted, “Drop the knife!”
           
         
The man didn’t respond.  In fact, his pace quickened towards the old woman.

          “You,” Peggy shouted again, “I said, drop the knife!”

          But the man took another hurried step up behind the old woman, lurching suddenly, his knife hand extended, so Peggy fired once, hitting him in the side of his lower back.  He collapsed to the pavement.  The knife left his hand, clattering just outside the white lines of the intersection, glittering in the midday light.  Passersby stopped and stared, frozen in place.  The old woman had turned at the sound and looked down at the man with a hand over her open mouth.

          Peggy approached the man slowly in a shooter’s crouch, her arms straight out, her gun held in two hands in front of her.  She stopped when she was standing over him.  Blood pooled on the pavement under and next to his body.  He was breathing shallowly, lying with his face turned towards her, his eyes blinking rapidly and full of surprise.  His other hand was stretched out awkwardly in front him; it clutched a thin, hollow piece of wood covered with whittle marks that bleached its surface up to where his hand held it.  A series of holes was notched into the wood, giving it the appearance of an emerging flute-like instrument.  A hearing aid protruded from the man’s ear, and the toe of one of his sneakers was wedged in a small pothole.  Peggy’s shoulders slumped as she lowered the gun.

          Her partner, Dave, ran up beside her.  Quietly, he said, “I called for back-up and an ambulance.”  Sirens were already approaching.  The old woman had begun to tremble.  Dave gently took Peggy’s hand that held the gun and moved it to her holster, then called in a loud voice, “Clear the area!”  He waved his other hand at the passersby.  “Move on, all of you!”

          People began shuffling away.  The old woman was the last to go; she left shaking her head.  Peggy slowly re-holstered the gun.  By then, the ambulance had arrived with the back-up patrols just behind it.  They sealed off the area while the paramedics dealt with the injured man. Peggy stepped aside and explained what had happened to Dave and the senior officer.  She did so in a halting voice.  An officer wearing rubber gloves unclutched the whittled piece of wood from the man’s hand before the paramedics put him on a stretcher and screamed away with him in the ambulance.  Peggy pursed her lips as she watched the same officer delicately place the wood and the knife in separate plastic bags.  He didn’t glance at her as he carried them to his patrol car.

 

Thirty minutes later, Peggy was sitting across the desk from her supervisor and a taciturn officer from Internal Affairs making another explanation.  Dave leaned against the wall by the closed office door with his arms folded.  They listened silently until she’d finished.  Then her supervisor asked only one question: “And you thought the guy was going to attack the old lady, steal her purse.”

            Peggy looked down and nodded.  The Internal Affairs officer and her supervisor glanced without expression at each other.

            “Well,” her supervisor said, “You go on home for the rest of the day.  You know where the counselor is upstairs if you want to stop in there before you leave.  We’ll be in touch about what happens next.”

            She nodded, stood, and started for the door.

            “Leave your firearm,” the Internal Affairs officer said.

            She turned, took the gun out of her holster, and set it on the desk.  Dave held the door for her and closed it behind them.  Heads lifted at desks in the squad room, regarded them, and then were lowered quickly.  Dave took Peggy by the elbow and led her outside onto the station’s front steps.  The afternoon’s light had brightened further.  Dave squinted into it looking at her.  She avoided his gaze staring off at the passing traffic.  After several moments, he said, “You going up to see the shrink?”

          She shook her head.

          “Hey.”  His voice was almost a whisper.  “That could have happened to any of us.  You just reacted to what you saw.”

            Peggy nodded.

            “Want me to drive you home?”

            “No.”

            “Come over later for dinner.  Ann is making lasagna.  You can play with the kids.”

            “Thanks, but no.”  She looked at Dave for the first time.  “Did you hear what hospital they took him to?”

            He shrugged.  “Central, I think.”

            “Okay.”  She started down the steps.

            “You going to be all right?”

            She nodded, but didn’t turn around or stop.

 

Peggy showed her identification at the hospital visitors’ desk, explained why she was there, and found out that the man was in the surgical wing.  His name was Amit.  She took several hallways to the surgical waiting room, which was empty.  She queried at the window about his status and was told that he was still being worked on.  She asked to speak to the surgeon when it was over.  Then she sat on the edge of a chair and waited.  She tried not to think of what had happened or of her husband who’d left her three months before, but images of both kept invading her mind.

             A couple of hours later, a small man in scrubs and an operating cap entered the waiting room, came up to her, and said, “He’ll be all right.  The bullet entered through the soft tissue above his hip.  It appears that there hasn’t been any real organ damage, but we’ll need to admit him and monitor him for a few days.”

            Peggy blew out a breath and squeezed her eyes shut.  She opened them again and looked up at the surgeon.  “I’m the one who shot him.”

            He nodded, made a small shrug, and said, “Well, then.”

            “What floor will he be on?”

            “Second.  But, he’s in recovery now, and won’t be moved for a while.  He’ll be sedated.  Probably won’t wake up meaningfully until the morning.”

            “Thanks.”

            The surgeon nodded and left.  Peggy sat back in the chair.  Voices behind the window chuckled.  She noticed for the first time a television mounted high in the far corner that was on, but muted.  She was still the only person in the room.  The sunlight through the windows had lengthened across the carpet.  She looked at her hands in her lap and shook her head.  She kept shaking it for perhaps a minute before leaving and driving home.


When Peggy let herself into her apartment, there was a message from her supervisor waiting for her on the answering machine.  It said that she was being put on paid leave while a more thorough investigation by Internal Affairs could take place.  He said they needed to check on the man’s status, interview him, and try to see if they could find any witnesses.  He told her to take care of herself and that they’d be in touch.  A second message began from Dave asking how she was doing, but she erased it before it was finished.

          She went into the kitchen, took the bottle of vodka out of the freezer, and poured a juice glass full of it.  She took a gulp and grimaced.  Then she ran a bath, took off her uniform, hung her empty holster in the bedroom closet, and went into the bathroom.  She tied her limp blonde hair into a knot and got into the hot water.  She stretched out, leaning her head back where the porcelain met the wall, and set the glass on the side of the tub.  She closed her eyes.  Every now and then, she took a sip or added more hot water.  A small cloud of steam hovered over the tub and clouded the mirror.   At times, she was aware of footsteps in the apartment above her, of a dog barking nearby, of a train rumbling over the tracks a few blocks away.  Once, she pinched the skin above her hip.  Another time, she looked over at the sink where her husband’s toothbrush still perched next to hers in a cup.  She began to cry.  Light fell; the room became dim.

            Peggy was dressed in regular clothes and sitting by Amit’s bedside when visiting hours began at eight the next morning.  He lay on his back sleeping with the head of the bed raised.  In the small room, a hint of stale beer wafted on his soft snores or from his pores.  His hands were folded on his chest, hearing aids secured in both ears.  The monitor next to him beeped softly.  A bag hooked to an IV that ran to a vein in his wrist made a silent drip.  Every now and then, a nurse came in to check on him, take vital signs, or record information on a chart.  When Peggy arrived, she’d told her that he hadn’t yet awoken.

          Peggy looked at Amit’s dirty arms and dark, matted hair.  There was stubble across his face, and a thin worry line that began between his eyebrows snaked up his forehead.  His slumber seemed so deep that it appeared almost peaceful; she’d hardly slept herself.  She supposed he was a dozen or so years younger than her, perhaps twenty-five.  A wardrobe door on the other side of the bed was ajar; she could see his clothes inside it: the jacket on a hanger, pants and shirt folded next to the tattered shoes.  Voices and clatter were steady outside the open door, but it remained motionless inside the room, and aside from the beep of the monitor and his muffled snores, still.

            About eleven o’clock, Peggy watched Amit open his eyes.  He blinked several times and then frowned.  She saw him wince and reach under the covers to the area where he’d been shot.

            He turned his head and looked at her.  In an even voice, he said, “What am I doing here?  Who are you?”

            “You were shot,” Peggy said.  “I’m a police officer.”

            “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

            She nodded.  “Do you remember what happened?”

            He blinked some more and his frown deepened.  “I was crossing a street.  I tripped.  There was a bang, then I was on the ground with this horrible burning on my side.”

            Peggy said, “You had a knife.”

            “Yes.”  He reached up and adjusted the hearing aid in the ear closest to her, his hand shaking a bit as he did.  “I was carving a flute at a bus stop.  But, then I needed to find a restroom.”

            “Do you remember an old woman in front of you?”

            He waited a moment, studying her face, then shook his head.

            “Did you hear a shout for you to drop the knife?”

            He shook his head again and said, “No.”

            A shiver spread through her.  “I was the one who shot you.  I was the one who shouted.  I thought you were about to attack that old woman.”

            He leaned towards her and winced.  “But, I wasn’t.” A small whimper escaped him.

            “I know that now.”  She said it very quietly.  “I’m sorry.  I’m very, very sorry.”

            The nurse appeared in the doorway.  She smiled at Amit and said, “You’re awake.  How do you feel?”

            He turned to her.  “I don’t know.”

            “Well, let’s see how that wound is doing.”  She came to the bedside and looked at Peggy.  “You’ll need to leave for this.”

            Peggy nodded and stood.  She touched Amit’s bedrail.  “I’ll be back to check on you,” she told him.  “Take care.”

 

She drove down to the big park next to the river, bought a sandwich, and brought it to a bench beside the water.  She ate it slowly and watched the swollen river, tumbling brown and fast with end-of-winter run-off.  The day was warmer than the previous one, but she still pulled her fleece tight around her and her scarf up under her chin.  There weren’t many other people in the park in the middle of a workday.  All the snow was gone, but the trees hadn’t yet begun to bud.  She looked across the grass at the tall, wide tree where she and her husband had liked to sit with a picnic.  She hadn’t heard from him since he left.  She didn’t even know where he’d gone. 

            There had just been a note waiting for her one evening when she got home saying he was leaving, saying he was done. 

            When she was finished eating, she took a long walk along the river trail.  She went in the opposite direction from the one she and her husband used to take.

            Peggy waited until the early evening to return to the hospital.  Amit was asleep in bed in the same position as the morning, but there was a tray of food on a raised table in front of him.  The nurse told her that he’d had no lunch but had eaten a little soup for dinner.  Peggy sat down next to him in the same chair.  She watched him sleep, his broad middle section rising and falling under the covers.  She puzzled over something pleasant in his appearance until she realized that he’d been sponge-bathed and shaven; his hair was clean and combed.  After a while, she looked outside the window at the black night with the steady stream of headlights in the distance on the freeway overpass and the scattering of streetlamps piercing the darkness. 

            A few minutes before eight, a voice over the intercom announced the end of visiting hours.  Amit hadn’t awoken.  Peggy stood, touched his bedrail again, and left.  When she got home, she took a Benadryl and went straight to bed.  Sometime during the night, she was able to sleep.

            Peggy saw Amit startle slightly from his propped position in bed when he saw her enter his room the next morning.  His eyes narrowed, but then softened as she extended the plant she held toward him. 

             “For you,” she said.

            “Bamboo.”

            “Supposed to be lucky.”

            He nodded.  “Thank you.”

            She set the plant on his bedside table and sat in the same chair next to him.

            “My mother used to tend those.”  He turned his gaze from it to her.  “Three stalks: happiness, wealth, and a long life.”

            “How many means ‘good health’?”

            “Seven.”

            “I can get you another with four more.”

            He smiled.  It was a smile in which she saw intelligence, warmth, and deep pain.

            She said, “Amit.  What sort of name is that?”

            His eyes clouded.  “If you mean my nationality, I’m Pakistani.  My parents were from there.  I was born here.”

            She nodded.

            “Was that involved in your decision to shoot me?”

             “No.”  She swallowed.  “I don’t think so, no.”  After a moment, she said, “My husband was Armenian.”

            “Was?”

             He watched her turn away and swallow again.  “He’s gone now.  We’re not together.”

             A cart rattled by in the hall and stopped outside the door.  An orderly came in, lifted Amit’s breakfast tray, and asked, “All done?”

            Amit nodded.

            “Do you want to keep the coffee or juice?”

            He shook his head, the orderly left, and the sound of the cart went off down the hall.  It was a gray morning and the light in the room was wan.  Amit turned towards her slowly and said, “My wife left me, too.  She went off with another man.”

            They looked at each other until Peggy began to weep softly.  He reached over, put his hand on hers, then removed it.  He turned away and listened to her cry.  When she finished, she sniffed loudly and blew her nose.  It was quiet then in the room until she said, “What can I do for you?  What do you need?”

            He looked back at her and said, “Will you read to me?”

            “What?”

            “I asked the nurse if there was something to read.  She brought that magazine there from their break room.”

            He gestured to the magazine on the bedside table next to the plant.  It was the hospital’s monthly employee bulletin.  She lifted it onto her lap and asked, “What do you want to hear?”

            “Well, I prefer poetry, but I don’t suppose there will be any of that.  So, anything.  Just pick something and start.  I’d be pleased if you’d continue for as long as you’re able.”

            She felt her brows knit, but said, “All right.”

            Amit lay back, closed his eyes, and a small smile creased his lips.  She began with the introduction at the top of the first page from the hospital’s director, which was mostly a testimony of inspiration and staff appreciation.  She moved next to a profile of the employee of the month: a tech support provider whose hobbies included horseback riding and baking.  She followed that with tips from a member of the human resources department about maintaining a balanced lifestyle.  She paused partway through it because Amit had begun to snore quietly.  As he did, his mouth still held the trace of a smile.

 

Peggy repeated her lunch activities in the park while clouds gathered.  She chased away thoughts of what might have otherwise been with the shooting or her marriage.  As she walked along the river, she tried instead to concentrate on the darkening sky, the nodding branches of the cottonwoods in the stiffening breeze, the rushing water.  Afterwards, she drove home.  There was another message from Dave on her answering machine, and three texts on her cell phone from him that she hadn’t answered, all asking how she was doing.  The last text asked if she could at least let him know she was all right.  She tapped the screen and replied: “Yes.”

            She went into the bedroom, laid down, and tried to nap.  The curtains were drawn, and the light in the room was muffled.  She lay thinking.  After about a half hour, it began to rain softly.  She listened to its steady hum and looked around the room.  She hadn’t removed any of her husband’s things.  His clothes still hung in the closet, his slippers still sat paired by the bedroom door, his wristwatch still lay unclasped and flat on top of the bureau.  Her eyes fell on it and at the photograph of the two of them next to it.  The tiny urn with their infant son’s ashes was tucked behind the photograph.  She’d checked after her husband had left, and she didn’t think he’d taken any of them.  But it was hard to be sure; there weren’t many to begin with after only six weeks in the NICU.  The death certificate they’d been given noted the cause as: Failure to Thrive.

 

Peggy stopped at a bookstore on her way to the hospital that evening.  Amit’s eyes brightened when she came into his room.  She sat in the chair and showed him the cover of the book she held, which was a collection of best-loved poems. 

            “Ah,” he said.  “Wonderful.”

            She lowered the book onto her lap.  “How are you?”

            “Better,” he told her.  “They said I might be discharged tomorrow.” 

            His hand was around a steaming Styrofoam cup on the table in front of him.  The end of a teabag dangled outside of it.  She watched him lift the cup to his lips, sip, and replace it with a steady hand.  He watched her regard him as he did.  He said, “This has been the longest I’ve gone without a drink in many years.  Two days.”  He gave a short, dismissive chuckle.  “But I don’t miss it like I thought I would.”

            “That’s good.  Hope you can keep it up when you leave.”

            He nodded.  “Me, too.”

            “Do you mind me asking where you live?”

            “My car.”  He glanced quickly at her, then away.  “I’ve been down on my luck for a while.  Quite a while now.”

She watched him take another sip of tea, then said, “Well, things can change.  Things do.  I hope they do for you.”

            He nodded again with a sad smile.  “How long has your husband been gone?

            “Three months.”

            “Three years for me.”

            They were silent then for several moments.  She looked out the window into the night, and he stared straight ahead.  Finally, he said quietly, “Two police officers came to see me this morning after you left.  They were dressed in suits.  They asked me about the shooting.”

            Peggy took a turn nodding.  The phone had rung while she was making dinner, and she hadn’t picked up.  Instead, she’d listened to her supervisor leave her a message saying that the investigation had been concluded and that her hearing would be in the morning.  She said, “What did you tell them?”

            He shrugged.  “Exactly what I told you.”

            She nodded again.  Her fingertips had begun to tingle.  She rubbed them together on top of the book and said, “How about if I read you something?”

            “Yes.”  He lay back and closed his eyes.  “Please do.”

            She began with the first poem in the book.  She didn’t read with any special intonation or cadence.  Her voice was as flat as it had been when she’d read from the employee bulletin.  She

read five poems before she heard Amit begin to snore.  She watched him sleep for a while, thinking and listening to the rain.  Twenty minutes or so passed before she put the book next the bamboo plant, touched his bedrail, and left.

 

The following morning was clear again and bright.  Peggy dressed carefully in her uniform and carried her holster to the car.  She drove first to the bank, then to a department store where she bought some things.  Next, she stopped at a couple of places in the worn-down neighborhood of her former patrol.

            It was nearly ten-thirty before she entered Amit’s room carrying a large plastic bag.  He sat in the chair that she’d been using in his hospital gown, his girth filling it, a clean bandage visible above his waist.  His bare legs seemed unusually thin.  The IV on his wrist had been removed. 

            “Here,” he said.  “I’ll get back in bed.”

            “Don’t get up.  I can’t stay.  I have my hearing in a little while.”

            “Oh.”

            “Are you still being discharged today?”

            “That’s what I’ve been told.”

            “Good.”  She nodded.  “I’ve brought you some things.”

            She handed him the bag.  He frowned and said, “I don’t understand.”

            “See what’s in there.”

              He took the items out of the bag one at a time and placed them neatly on the bed.  There were a few pairs of sweatpants, several shirts, a jacket with a zip-out lining, underwear, socks, and a pair of slip-on sneakers.  There was also an assortment of toiletries.  He looked up at her when he’d finished.

            She said, “The clothes are all extra-large, and I guessed at the shoe size.  The receipt is in the bag in case you need to exchange anything.”

            His eyes had grown wide.  He looked up at her and said, “I don’t know what to say.”

            Peggy reached inside her pants pocket and took out a sealed envelope that had two addresses written on it with a name after each.  She handed it to Amit.  “That first address,” she said, “is to a residence hotel where I’ve gotten you a room.  It’s covered for a month.  The second is to a restaurant, a diner, next door to it; you’ve got a job waiting for you there bussing tables and washing dishes.  Won’t be fancy, but it’s a start.  There should be enough money in the envelope to live on until you get paid.”

            He stared down at the envelope in his hands, then up at her, and shook his head.  A little whimper, like the first morning, escaped him.  He whispered, “I’ll repay you.”

            She shook her head.  “No need.”

            He looked over at the book and plant, then back to her, and asked, “Why are you doing this?”

            She gazed past him out the window, then back.  “Well, aside from shooting you.”  She paused.  “I think we share the same sort of pain.”

Amit’s eyes had dampened.  He nodded.  They were quiet for a long moment.  Finally, she said, “Well, I need to leave.  My hearing.”

            “I hope it goes well.” Amit said.  “I do.  I’ll be thinking of you and hoping.  With all my heart, I’ll be hoping.”

            “Thanks,” she said. 

             They exchanged nods, and she left.

 

Outside in the hospital parking lot, Peggy paused before starting her car.  She glanced over at the empty holster on the seat next to her.  She didn’t know whether to bring it into the hearing with her or not.  She felt her heart beating in her ears.  A young couple passed by in front of her, the man pushing a baby stroller, and the woman pulling a small rolling suitcase.  She watched them stop beside a parked car.  The woman lifted a baby, a newborn, out of the stroller.  She burrowed her face into the baby’s stomach, tickling it.  The man grinned, opened the trunk of the car, collapsed the stroller into it, and put the suitcase in after it.  He closed the trunk and they secured the baby together into a rear-facing car seat in the back.  The woman climbed in next to the baby, and the man got in the front, craned his neck once to look at them, then turned on the ignition.  As he drove away, Peggy watched the woman make kissing motions toward the baby.  She watched the car drive off until it had disappeared.  Then she put her head down on back of her hands on the steering wheel.  A couple of minutes later, she sat up and blew out a breath.  She started the car.  She drove towards the station.

 
  Copyright © 2018 William Cass


William Cass has had a 150 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Ruminate. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.










 

The Tower Journal
Summer 2018