CULLY PERLMAN



SAD LONELY PEOPLE


         

      Lilith Walters stood at the kitchen sink, scraping her knuckles against the toothed end of a chipped tile, staring out at the derelict tomato plants in the back yard, their vines withered, wild, and simply disastrous, when she heard a car door slam shut and remembered it was Sunday. As a favor for her assistant, who was heading to a football game or a baseball game or some such thing, and because Norma Ricard was at a wedding in Smyrna, an hour and a half south, she’d agreed to the open house, partially because it was the old Abbott place and partially because she did not want to be at home.

      When the Abbots were alive, Lilith regularly spied the Mr. and Mrs. sipping tea and reading glossy architectural magazines, rocking back and forth like the active septuagenarians they were. They looked happy, and they looked satisfied with their lives and with each other. All day they bounced about the rocking chairs as if music played overhead and they took pleasure in the rising and sitting, working their joints, if that’s what it was. Sometimes they stared out to the road or to the dogwoods and maples scattered about, pointing, shrugging, spying, perchance, creatures hiding in the shade of the property’s overgrown flora. What did they see? Lilith wondered. I spy this, Mr. Abbot would say. And I spy that, Mrs. Abbot would say, or so Lilith imagined. A boring game, but in love, what was boring, really? Not much, Lilith assumed. Not much at all.

         The Abbotts’ place was a grand home, five thousand square feet of nearly immaculate taste, Victorian and solid and impressively charming. It had not been vacant long, only since the accident, and the asking price, perhaps a tad high considering the market, was just under a million dollars. It was a house plentiful in warmth, with as many gables as trees in the yard. The wraparound porch was wide and inviting, the kind of porch you saw men in top hats smoking cigars on in black and white pictures from the nineteenth century, looking dapper and refined and, occasionally, frightening. Rocking chairs made of ash wood lined two sides like perfectly-cut shrubbery. Another vacuous afternoon spent pawning the home of others was an endeavor that had long lost its appeal for Lilith. She bit her upper lip and sighed.

            An older gentleman with white hair, a faded beige polo and a limp, walked up the stairs and through the door. He looked to be a simple man all around, unremarkable in every way but for the hobble. He smiled at Lilith, a quick, compulsory flashing of his teeth, which were yellowed, but otherwise intact. When she asked, he declined to sign her guest book.

            “It’s so we know who’s come in. To show we had traffic,” Lilith explained. “We won’t call. In fact, you needn’t leave your contact information if you prefer.”

            “Mmm,” he said. But that was all.

Lilith smiled uncomfortably.

The white-haired man knocked on a support column, checking, presumably, its solidity, and casually let his eyes wander to the ceiling. “What did you say they’re asking?” he said.

            There was a grit to the man’s voice when he said “they” that did not go unnoticed by Lilith, but she had seen envy before in buyers who were not really buyers, who were window shoppers, who were nosey Nellys that jumped at the opportunity to peek into the lives of their more successful neighbors.

            “A good deal less than the comps,” Lilith said, but it was a mistake to have proffered such information. She knew it before she’d finished saying it. This was not a man on whom sales speak held sway. Besides, he seemed sufficiently distracted, aloof, if that was what it was. “Nine hundred and seventy-five thousand,” she said cheerily.

            “Mmm,” the man said again. “May I?” He motioned a dry and calloused hand to the stairs, and Lilith waved him on. A silver Mercedes was just then pulling into the driveway, and next to the white-haired man’s station wagon with its dings and faded paint it was not a difficult decision for Lilith whom to pursue.

            “I’ll be up shortly,” she said. “But please let me know if you need anything.”

            She watched the man limp up the stairs, and then she walked briskly to the front door to wave the young couple in the Mercedes inside.

 

About the Abbotts and all that had transpired, it was only natural that people talked. Not because the Abbotts were recluses—they were not. But circumstances lent to gossip and rumor. Things like this did not happen to residents of Helen, Georgia. Things like this happened in the movies, in big cities. In places where people did not sit on rocking chairs reading eight-page newspapers for high school football scores.

Brakes, they whispered. That’s the word. Someone cut the brakes on their Ford. Snip snip. But Lilith doubted that that was what had happened. An office full of chatty, small town women with nothing better to do, what could one expect? The implications, the motive, sure, check, check. They were there. Brakes made perfect sense, certainly, considering Mrs. Abbott had, at one tumultuous time, been Mr. Abbott’s mistress. Stranger things in life happened every day. God knew what infidelity did, how it ravaged a person’s mind. Yet no one accused Judy, the first Mrs. Abbott of anything. Not outright. If she had done anything, especially after thirty, forty years of marriage, well, who could blame her? The truth, however, was likely far less remarkable. Probably, she had done nothing. Probably, she had been as shocked as everyone else. Pained even. But this was beside the point. Here she was—Lilith Walters—alone in another obnoxiously large, vacant home, not abandoned, per se, but oh so empty, the sign out front soliciting visitors, she herself still waiting for prince charming. Lacking, what? Drama? Not that, surely. But certainly something. Undoubtedly, nothing less than that.

 

            So here they were, the couple. A handsome man and wife, vaguely familiar in the way plain, attractive people were vaguely familiar. She was sure, though, that she had never seen them before. She gave them her best come hither? friendly? trustworthy? smile, and when the young man held his hand out for his wife she took it gracefully, ascending the three stairs to the porch with an elegance that was neither ostentatious nor unnecessarily reserved. Lilith felt nearly blinded by the monstrously stunning princess cut wrapped in what had to be platinum adorning her ring finger, but she looked away as if she’d never seen it, because while it was obviously there, it was de rigueur to avoid acknowledging it had even caught her attention.

            “Greetings, greetings,” Lilith said, pushing forth as much joy, as much glee, as was possible for her these days. “Welcome to a River Run open house.”

            “Thank you kindly,” the young wife said, perhaps with a bit of indifference.

             “I’m Lilith Walters,” Lilith said, extending her hand.

             “And this, Lilith, is my husband, Gregory. I’m Sue. Susan Taylor.”

            “Nice to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Taylor.”

            “Please,” Mr. Taylor said, approaching Lilith. “Just Greg and Sue.”

            “Of course,” said Lilith. “Forgive me.”

             Sue laughed. “He’s not a Taylor,” she said. “Greg’s a Corwin.”

            “Oh,” Lilith said, wondering why Sue would keep her name. “Forgive me, Mr. Corwin.”

            Greg waved her off. “Anyway, I think I’ll live,” he said.

            ”Yes, of course,” said Lilith, pointing Sue and Greg now to the sweet tea, asking if they wouldn’t like a glass. It was hot outside, not quite ninety but hot all the same, and Mr. Corwin had a single bead of sweat slipping halfway down the right side of his perfectly tanned cheek. “Thank you,” Sue said. She walked to the coffee table and picked up one of the double-sided color brochures, flipped through a few pages.

            “It’s my favorite listing,” Lilith said. “And the yard—as you can see—is as level as a putting green.”

            Sue returned the brochure to its spot on the table, said, “He doesn’t golf, Lilith,” and smiled.

            Greg said, “And yet I don’t think that’s the point, dear.”

             “No?” said Sue, turning to Lilith, and smiling. “You see, Lilith, I never do get the points. It’s a shortcoming of mine, evidently.”

            “Nevertheless,” Greg said. “She does have great instincts in real estate, regardless of anything else. So let’s shop, what do you say? How about it, huh?” Greg lifted a hand to the room, waved it back and forth in a slow sway the way a magician’s helper might.

            “Oh absolument, Greggy, absolument. That’s what we’re here for, no? To buy buy buy, n'est-ce pas?”

            Lilith bit the inside of her cheek.

            Greg, blushing, smiled. “A bit of playful exuberance, Lucy. My apologies.“

            “Her name is neither Lucy nor Loretta, Greggypoo. It’s Lilith. Li-lith.”

            “Of course,” Greg said. “Lilith! Truly sorry, Lilith! I’m an absolute dunce with names. Anything else, I’m more than—”

             “No, no,” Lilith said. “Really. Don’t apologize.” She stepped back a few paces from Greg and Sue, allowed the house to open up to them, and in a way, to create distance. “Anyway, I can show you around or, if you’d like, you can take a tour and just let me know if I can answer any questions.”

            Heeding Lilith, Greg and Sue stepped directly into the kitchen area, giving Lilith their backs, and with no prior intent to do so—and horrifying herself in the process, Lilith flicked—flicked!—the back of Sue’s perfectly alabaster neck with the middle finger of her left hand. Stunned, Sue jerked her head around to Lilith, but before she could say a word Lilith said, “Oh my heavens! My heavens! I’m so very sorry, Sue! There was a spider or something horrible and…I’m so, so sorry. It must have flown off somewhere and…” Lilith seized Sue’s arm, and Sue’s face contorted into something resembling an awkward, confused smile. Rubbing her neck, Sue said, “It’s okay, Lilith. Don’t work yourself up about it. I do have a certain phobia about insects.”

            Staring blankly, Greg said, “She does, Lilith. You do, sweetheart.”

            Sue nodded. “Which is precisely why I said I did, isn’t it?” she said.

Making a fortuitous and timely entrance, a glittery gray late model SUV of some sort snailed up along the road in front of the house. The sun mirrored off of the SUV’s frame, blinding Lilith momentarily, and she wondered if its occupants would come inside, or if the outside, which could have used a coat of paint, was enough to scare them off. At any rate, the open was turning into a grand success, which pleased Lilith considering the last open she’d held had gone three hours without a single buyer, but also because she would be able to hide herself away from Greg and Sue now that there would be more people milling about.

             

            Soon Lilith had a splendid open going, Sue and Greg, Jim and Peggy Jones, and a fellow broker, Sissy Van Tassel, who had been the property’s previous listing agent. Peggy had sold the home to the Abbotts, the first Abbotts, not the second set, and was curious to see what had changed over the years. Everyone was sipping tea, admiring the details Mrs. Abbott (the first or second, Lilith wasn’t sure) had paid careful attention to throughout the house. Quite spectacular, really, Lilith agreed as they walked about, pointing to the wall-to-wall wainscoting, which added such depth to the living room, the dining room, struggling, as she was, to project sincere interest.

            A few minutes later, Lilith was talking to Sissy, telling her that yes, she also thought the second Mrs. Abbott was probably a little depressed, but no more depressed than anyone else she knew whose life had fallen into place yet probably not particularly how she’d dreamed it would, when Sue began climbing the stairs to the second floor, leaving Greg discussing mortgage rates with Jim, who, apparently, had seen the subprime lending fiasco coming long before the crash. Lilith noticed the red mark on Sue’s neck as she ascended the staircase, and then, like a bolt of lightning breaking the splendor of what was turning into a reasonably pleasant afternoon of potentially interested buyers, some of whom could probably write a deposit check for half of the listing price and deliver the rest with them to the closing, a horrific clattering of glass and metal rumbled from up above. Breaking from the kitchen, Lilith loped up the stairs past Sue and her reddened neck, and tripping halfway there, scraped her shin. It hurt dreadfully, the searing pain burning into her flesh, the need to breathe—to keep breathing—through such unbearable agony, overwhelmed her. The silence was so deafening after the initial crash it took her a second to register what on earth could have made such racket. It was then she remembered the white-haired man, the first of her visitors to the open house, the man with the—what—attitude? She had completely forgotten about him, ordinary and pathetic as he was, but now, he was all she could think of. He was all there was.

            Shin throbbing, she found the old man with the white hair in the bathroom, lying on the tile on his side, all elbows and knees, looking like a pale heap of bone and gristle. He was conscious, but there was blood already zigzagging along the grout lines, smeared along the lip of the tub. For just the slightest moment, Lilith lost herself in the red and white, the movement of the white-haired man’s life as it crept along the sharp angles beneath them, so extraordinarily, excruciatingly, straight-lined and precise. She stepped closer to him, pulled back, and then, horrified with herself for showing…what, fear? disdain?, bent a little too quickly towards him, so quickly, perhaps, that anyone entering would have thought she’d flung herself upon this injured, this incapacitated man, in some desperate act of salvation. It had been many years since she’d seen anyone in quite the same shape, if she had ever seen anyone in quite the same shape; to say she was concerned, well, of course she was. Only she wasn’t sure why, exactly.

            “Are you okay? Please tell me you’re okay?” she said. She pleaded for him to answer, to respond in some fashion, and so she repeated herself again, nudging at the cleanest spot on his wrinkled shirt she could find.

            “Mmm,” he said. “Mmm. Unh.”

            But he was not okay, and she knew he was not okay. There was nothing okay about his getting blood all over the white tile, into the rough, porous grout. Surely he’ll be fine, she thought, but if there is no sealant, the floor will be ruined.

            She looked up and saw the black cord, snapped in half, pulled thin like the licorice at candy shops. An extension cord is what it looked like, half in the tub, half dangling from the old, solid curtain rod. She looked again at the old buffoon, struggling to sit up. He kept slipping in the pools of his own blood, slapping his head sickly, clumsily, to the floor, so that more blood, if that was at all possible, gushed from his head.

            “Stay still,” she said. With the tips of her fingers, she pushed down on his shoulder. “Help is coming.”

            Why, thought Lilith, would this man try to hang himself here? Now? Using a curtain rod of all things? Why had he not gone to someone else’s open? Why hers? What a peculiar thing to have happened, this. And on top of everything, so horribly planned, this caper, this fiasco. This failure of imagination. If ever there was a time for diligence, well, this statement, if that is what all of this was, was it. How indelicate could one person be? How inconsiderate? And beyond that, more than anything else, how very, utterly, unsuccessful!

            She looked at him, blinking. “What’s your name?” she said. “Can you tell me your name?” She wasn’t sure if he understood her. She knew head wounds bled a great deal, but the blood was overwhelming, nauseating almost, for her, so for him, it must have been unbearably frightening.

            “Please,” he said. “Just help me up. I’m sorry. I just—I need to go.”

            “You’re hurt,” she said. “We should wait for help.”

            But she did want him to go. At that moment, she wished for him to have never come at all.

            Lilith saw their feet first and followed their legs up to their horrified faces. Sue and Greg were standing in the doorway, and then Greg was pulling the plush white towels from their racks, pushing them under the man’s head, just below Lilith’s legs. Like magic, the towels turned a bright crimson, and Lilith was reminded of the explosive blooming of irises and Casablanca Lilies in the time-lapse videos she’d seen on PBS, a mere few seconds of film capturing life and death and so much beauty in such vivid, stunning hue. It struck her, these ludicrous thoughts entering her head at such a time, but she could not stop herself from thinking them.

Embarrassed in some way she could not articulate, Lilith glanced up and caught Peggy’s distraught expression a foot or so behind Sue. Peggy, who had probably never seen ten seconds of the world outside various country clubs, looked as if she’d witnessed Kristallnacht. And then, a second later, Lilith watched and then heard as Jim pulled Peggy away, back down the stairs and through the foyer as they presumably fled the house.

            Greg shook his head and looked at Lilith with what appeared to be empathy. “Keep pressure on the laceration,” he said. “He probably has a lump or two, but it looks like the laceration is the only real wound.”

            Lilith thought, No, this man has other wounds, other damage. She made wide-eyes at Greg and Sue, a look meant to say can you believe this man, this fool?! He is so very different than us, isn’t he? But the look returned was not one of accordance, of unity, between peers. It was something much different, though she could not say, or perhaps would not admit, what it truly was, because what it truly was was not anything Lilith wanted to know.

She ran her fingers through the old man’s hair, pretending to seek injury, to show concern. But seeing the blood, having it right there, her motivation became something quite different. She wanted to feel the blood against her skin, to touch its slipperiness, and know, for herself, what it could be like. For a moment, her hand in his hair, he held desperately to her warm wrist, and in his touch she felt a thousand hands pressing down, a thousand familiarities.

            Later, she could not say she had fought with the man, not really, but she had certainly struggled, certainly restrained him. Because of his injuries, it had not been all that difficult. She had held him down, and he had fought to rise. But in the end, with Greg and Sue, who fetched cold water from the sink and hand towels from the kitchen, and Sissy, who had called the ambulance and directed the traffic in and out of the house when the ambulance arrived, as well as folded up the open house signs along the road, everything had worked out splendidly. Greg and Sue provided their contact information, and only left once the ambulance had taken the old man away, extinguishing their deafening sirens as they rolled down the hill and onward toward the hospital so they—the emergency medical technicians and their bloodied cargo—slipped inconspicuously away. And Sissy, graciously offering to help Lilith clean up once everyone was gone, had left at Lilith’s insistence, in particular because Lilith did not want to provide one second further of gossip material for Sissy to bring back to her own office—which, in the end, was River Run’s main competition in White County—but also to prevent Sissy’s being able to steal Greg and Sue’s contact information from the kitchen counter, where they’d also provided a cell phone number, not just the landline, which, Lilith assumed, was likely all that was listed in the guest book. Thank you kindly, she’d told Sissy. But you go. Go enjoy the rest of your day. And Lilith presumed she did, because she left briskly and with a peculiar smile not two minutes later after washing her hands in the kitchen sink, and wiping them on the dining room tablecloth, because where else could she have wiped them?

The shame gone—or the pity? or what, something else?—if that’s what it was she felt for him, Lilith walked back to the upstairs bathroom. She glanced at the chaos inside, the pink rivers, the dark, blackening splotches of clotted blood, so prominent against the whiteness of the tiles, and then continued on to the bedrooms. The upstairs was much narrower than the downstairs area, more so than she remembered when she’d first walked its halls, and even more so now, somehow, as if the walls had pulled their shoulders in and tightened up at having been victimized by the drama of the day.  

            She peeked into the two guest rooms, which were located on the south side of the house and that overlooked the small green lake. Circles radiated out wherever the lips of fish broke the cloudy, jade-colored surface. The tulip poplars were blooming, their bright yellow leaves almost too bright to look at, and when she looked back into the room she was in it took Lilith a minute to get her bearings. She sat on the twin bed with its ornately quilted bedspread, took a breath and then another, stood, and then smoothed down the trivial dimple she’d left behind. Pulling her hand back from the bed, she saw a blot of crimson on the bedspread and stood looking at it. She was surprised to have marked the bed thusly, sure she had wiped all of the blood from her person, but there it was, a stain on what was probably a century’s-old heirloom, and she was wholly to blame.

She licked her fingertips and ran them over the smudge, but the smudge remained. She licked them again, and again she ran them over the splotch in the bedspread, which was not, in truth, all that noticeable. But she would always know it was there. She closed the door behind her and moved on, the taste of copper rolling on her tongue.

 On the walls of both rooms were humdrum pictures of boats and bowls of fruit, their frames pale, and weathered, and so very ordinary. A thin sheen of dust lay on the tops of the frames, the glass-covered vanities, the unopened, lacquered music boxes. She had never heard of the Abbotts having children, either the first or second set of Abbotts (although, at their age, the second set would probably have been something for the record books), and the rooms seemed clearly to reflect the lack of offspring. She felt saddened by the neglected rooms, abandoned as they were to sit vacant, she assumed, month after month over the long winters, the summers, yearning for the pitter patter of children’s feet, of fork tines clanging in the middle of joyous celebrations, of moving bodies warming the air and voices liberally shattering the dreadful silences with laughter. In a sliver of sunlight coming from a window, she saw dust on the floor, and in a way she felt herself buried in dust as well.

After another little while staring out at the weathered veranda out front, Lilith set to cleaning the bathroom, to ridding the white of red, to scrubbing the white-haired man’s blood from the grooves and nicks in the tile. It was more than an arduous process, but it gave her afternoon some purpose. When she was done, it had taken a full twenty minutes to rid her skin of every last bit of the old man’s blood, to checking and re-checking to make sure nothing remained beneath the nails of her fingers, caught on the fabric of her sleeves. In the wiping, in the stress of it all and the immediacy of her responsibilities, somehow Lilith found an interval of what felt like peace. There was a certain comfort, a necessity to the cleaning, to ridding for good what the old man had left behind. And that—that—was so very comforting.

 

            “You most certainly did not have to,” Jackie, River Run’s office manager, told her. “We have people that do that sort of thing, Lilith.”

            “I couldn’t bear it,” Lilith replied. “To see him like that. To see that beautiful bathroom in such a state. I couldn’t just walk away. Others might; I couldn’t.”

            “You’re a better woman than I am,” Jackie said.

            “Doubtful,” Lilith replied. But she was, and she knew she was.

            Toward the end of the week, Lilith drove to the hospital to drop off the man’s keys, which she’d found under the clawfoot tub. She had stared at the keys for some time before reaching out to them. She thought, maybe if I leave the keys where they are certain doors will never open, and perhaps may remain locked forever. An impractical thought, but what could it hurt? She left the keys with the nurse on staff on the old man’s floor, whose offer to visit the old man she’d declined. The hospital was deathly quiet, except for the footsteps of one or two of the nurses walking about in their fantastically comfortable shoes, the faint, rhythmic beeps of distant machines, keeping the injured and infirm alive. Lilith could not stand any of it. It was quiet, and it was haunting, and more than anything in the world she wanted to scream. She pulled her purse under her arm tight and walked out into the sunlight and breathed a breath of fresh air and drove away without so much as a glance back.

           

            “Her husband,” Myra said. “Can you believe it? Her husband!”

            It was the following Thursday, bridge night for some of the River Run ladies, and they’d all convened at Norma Ricard’s. Myra, as usual, had shown up late, perspiration glistening on her lip, and somewhat out of breath.

            “Whose husband?” said Norma. “What are you talking about?”

            But Lilith knew. She could hear Myra’s next words before Myra could even form them in her mouth.

             “The elderly man,” Lilith said. “The one who tried to hang himself.”

            “Yes,” Myra said, “that’s precisely who. The man from your open. He was Mrs. Abbott’s ex-husband. Her ex! Can you believe it?”

            Lilith looked at her hands, not overly-wrinkled but frail, aging. A mess of lines and paper cuts and unfortunate mishaps. “She left him for Mr. Abbott,” she said. “And he must have still loved her. Horribly, he must have.”

            Myra wiped her upper lip with a paper towel and turned with astonishment to Lilith. “You knew, Lilith? And you didn’t say a word?”

            “No,” Lilith said. “I did not know. Not really. But it makes sense. Don’t you think it makes sense?”

            “No. I don’t,” said Myra. “It doesn’t make sense at all.

            “They were from Cleveland, weren’t they?” Norma said. “If I’m not mistaken, he was a teacher. History. Economics. Something like that.”

            “And old girl? She was a cashier,” Myra said. “At the Piggly Wiggly.”

            “I don’t know,” Norma said. “That’s what the story is, but who ever knows what’s what, when it comes to these things?”

            “Why don’t we just let people live their lives?” said Lilith. “Just let everybody be?”

            “Oh?” said Myra.

             

            At the hospital, Lilith could not get herself to go up to Russell Latham’s room. She walked into the lobby of the hospital and pushed the button for the elevator but backed away. Her heart rate rose, and she felt a gust of wind from the elevator shaft whoosh up and chill her upper lip, which was moist with sweat.

            She walked to the waiting area and sat in one of the aqua-colored chairs. She put her purse in the chair beside her, patted a tissue over her forehead. She glanced at two young girls playing with red-haired dolls in a toy house with no roof and a broken front door. When the elevator bell dinged, she looked up.

            She watched the number two atop the elevator doors light up and fade away, and stared at the empty elevator until the doors closed. She closed her eyes, pictured walking along an endless sterile hallway, clutching her purse, her flats slapping against a freshly-mopped floor. It was silly, but what did she owe this man, this Russell? It was the second Abbott wife, his ex-wife; that was who owed him. Not her. She had been nothing but kind to him. She, who let him walk right in and up the Abbott’s staircase without the courtesy of signing her guestbook. She, who washed his blood from every nook and cranny of what was not a small bathroom. Who held him when buyers were crawling over themselves to flee, to run away from the embarrassment? the shame? he had caused them. But she knew these were professional reasons, reasons affected and influenced in large part by monetary motivation. She tried to come up with personal reasons, human reasons, but struggled, and struggled mightily.

      Later, she drove along the lightless bends of Helen’s back roads. She wondered if everyone on earth, if everyone even just in Helen, had a breaking point, a particular and precise catalyst, that if met, would push them, right then and there, to take their own life, to want to end it, to bear it not a second longer because it was simply easier to not bear it a second longer. Naturally, she wondered if she herself possessed such a point, but she doubted it; all the various methods she could muster in her head were simply, absolutely, unimaginable. All of the ways to escape so dreadfully needy.

      She slept late into the next morning, and did not wake until well after eleven. She felt refreshed, but her body ached, and the arthritis in her hands was a dull, numbing weight. It was cool outside, a thin gray fog spreading over the tops of the evergreens, and she thought she would go for a walk, maybe up and back Main Street, work herself into a sweat, get her heart going, then shower, make a few calls. She walked up Main, but found herself drifting toward Edelweiss, toward the Abbott’s, or actually towards Greg and Sue’s future home. She knew they would be closing on the house soon; everything was moving along without a hitch, and Bonnie Euring, who worked over at Connie’s Flowers in Cleveland, had driven over a giant vase of Gerbera Buds and champagne (Bonnie told Willie Boyd at the Bavarian Bottle Shop, who told Myra, who told Lilith), which Lilith found at the front door. It seemed the new homeowners would be stopping by later that evening for another walkthrough for some reason or other, an inspection perhaps, and this little piece of information found its way to her. She assumed they would be by after working hours. So what was the harm in just passing by?

      At the door, Lilith stared at the bulbous flowers, which reminded her of so many things, but really, mostly, of herself. Their stems were firm yet delicate, their flowers rich and layered and full of the most beautiful complexity. When she looked at them, looked at their marvelous velvet faces, she saw universes of yellows and pinks, galaxies of the most inspiring shades of red, all of which would, sooner or later, fade and wither and crumble away. The champagne was Sissy—Sissy that vile shark—going overboard, Bollinger Blanc de Noirs Vieilles Vignes Francaises, a name so long she couldn’t remember half of it when she looked away. But she knew it from the wine shop, and of course, ostentation had always been Sissy’s way. It must have been four or five hundred dollars, the bottle, when a two hundred dollar bottle of Krug or Salon would have sufficed. She pulled the card from the flowers, opened it, but stopped short of actually reading it. She did not have to read it to know what it said; she could only imagine. A pang of bitterness hit her, and she swallowed it whole. Hmmph, she grumbled. Hmmph!

      When Greg and Sue pulled up, Lilith smiled, as if the most natural thing in the world was for her to have been there at that very moment.

      “Lilith,” Sue said, stepping (it looked to Lilith) cautiously out of the car. “Why, you’ve brought us a gift, haven’t you?”

      It was an awkward moment that Sue seemed perfectly adept at managing, so why not her as well?

      Lilith fingered the card in her hand and glanced matter-of-factly at the flowers, and at the obnoxiously expensive Champagne. “Oh,” she said, crumpling the little card and tucking it into her pocket ever so casually. “It’s nothing, really. Just a wee little welcome, I suppose.”

 

      The next morning, slightly before noon, Lilith brought homemade ginger snaps to Russell in a brown paper lunch bag. He’d peeked out the window when she’d rang the doorbell, and for a moment he seemed to hesitate, as if opening the door would allow failure—his previous failure at killing himself, at losing his wife not once but twice, at all the failures he’d ever experienced in his life—back in. Lilith held up the bag and shook it and smiled, and when he opened the door the first thing she noticed was that he still wore the hospital bracelet around his spindly wrist.

      “I brought you some cookies,” she said. “Homemade.”

      Russell stared at her for a moment and then, if she was not mistaken, looked past her. “Ms. Walters,” he said.

      “May I come in, Russell?”

      Russell pushed the door open and Lilith walked in and waited to be invited to sit.

      “I don’t really have time right now,” Russell said. “I was just about to leave, actually.”

      Lilith tried not to look at his boxers, his undershirt, where tussocks of white peeped out at her. “I wanted to see how you were. I won’t bother you, if you’d prefer.”

      “I’m fine,” Russell said. He raised a hand, put it down. “Again, I just want to reiterate my apology for interrupting your thing. It was wrong. I apologize for that.”

      “Please,” Lilith said. “It was no bother. Really.”

      Russell gave her a look, a look Lilith could not identify one way or the other, and sat in a wooden desk chair that had seen better days. He placed his hands on his knees and looked quizzically at Lilith. Lilith took a seat on the couch across from him and seemed to stare.

      “What can I do for you?” he said calmly.

       Lilith wanted to say he could do much, so very much, but she wasn’t sure how to begin. Finally she just looked right at him. “Tell me what it’s like,” she said. “That’s what I want. Tell me what it was like, when you got to that place. That moment. How did you know it?”

      Russell stared at Lilith, but she could see in his eyes that the façade, whatever he’d been able to project outwardly when she’d first walked through the door, disintegrated. She worried desperately that she’d opened the gates to some private hell he’d only just fled. Lilith recognized it immediately, and Russell knew she’d seen it, and they were caught in a moment of awkwardness neither could escape. But she saw he recognized something in her as well. He clasped his hands and bit a corner of his lip and looked thoughtfully at Lilith, as if saying, we are in this together, aren’t we? More than just me.

      Hesitantly, Russell looked at her with those blue eyes again, and for a blip of a second Lilith felt like prey. He said, “If I tell you, will you promise to leave?”

      “Yes,” Lilith said. “I will.”

      And then Russell seemed to consider the options before him. He lit a cigarette and he closed his eyes and finally he said, “I just couldn’t breathe. That’s how. And I knew it was that. It’d been coming for a long while, like clouds before a storm. Cliché, I know. But when it came, I knew. There just wasn’t any doubt.”

      “Literally you couldn’t breathe?”

      “I don’t know if literally, Lilith. Literally enough. I’m alone. When she—when Joan—left, everything crashed. Everything ended. I couldn’t take it. I didn’t want to take it. If I can’t stand one thing, it’s being alone. I’ve—well, I’ve just never been, you know?”

      “But you were—I’m sorry. You and your—and Joan--were separated for a long time, were you not?”

      Russell ran a hand over his unkempt beard.

      “Do you know what it’s like to feel alone, Lilith? Not just to be alone, but to feel it? To really feel it? I don’t mean to be sitting at home watching movies or reading a book or crying because you’re lonely. I mean to feel like you’re the only person to have ever been left behind?”

      “I do,” she said.

      “Do you?”

      “Yes, Russell. I do. Believe me.” But she didn’t know, and she knew he knew it. Not like he knew, anyway. They were silent for a moment.

      Russell asked her if she wanted coffee. “No,” Lilith said. “Thank you.”

      He sat back in his chair. He shook his head. “And the treachery of it all, you know? To see her living there with him. Payback, Lilith. That’s what I wanted. More than anything in the whole world, I wanted just a little. But I got cheated. My whole life doing the right thing and I got cheated of everything right there at the very end.”

      She watched him brush aside his white hair, watched his face redden, the veins in his forehead pulse like a river below the skin.

      She looked at her hands, sucked a corner of her lip. “They’re gone, Russell. They’re gone and they can’t come back.”

      Russell laughed a sad, sickly sort of laugh that felt, to Lilith, was meant more for him than for her. “And that’s the problem, isn’t it, Lilith? They’re gone. But me? I’m still right here.”

      She pulled herself up and took the few steps across the room to Russell. She put her hand on his, and when he looked up he let himself ease into her trembling arms. “It’ll work out,” she said. “You don’t give up, mister.”

      Russell held her close for a moment and then let go. He wiped his eyes with the backs of his hands. “Oh Jesus,” he said. “Jesus Christ almighty.”

      “There is no shame in being human,” Lilith said. “There is only the going on.” She said, “We’re all human, and in that there’s something, isn’t there, Russell? Isn’t there?” But she wasn’t sure herself. She felt like a fraud. She felt fraudulent.

      Russell was quiet, and for a second Lilith thought maybe, in her rambling and ridiculousness, her words had found some sort of delicate purchase. Something to keep not only him afloat, but her as well. He looked at her with kindness (she thought), with those cold blue eyes, the handsome white whiskers. For a moment he seemed to stare at her. “You’ll be okay too,” he said. And to Lilith’s surprise, he leaned skillfully in and pressed his lips to hers, and then walked to an open window and stared out at the coming of fall. He asked her to leave, and she left, and the colors of the leaves, like drawings children made of fire, fluttered all around them.

      Driving down the hill from Russell’s home, admiring the beauty of the season and delighting in the lovely, the almost perfumed country winds on her face, it occurred to Lilith that she could not remember the precise day she would have to turn her clock back. She knew it was fast approaching and dreaded that awful moment always, when she would gain sixty minutes of darkness, sixty minutes that would indubitably find her sitting alone at a kitchen table in front of MLS printouts and prospect phone numbers. But what she did know, incontrovertibly, was that never would she tell of the insignificant crack that flicked in her ears, the sound of the single, solitary twig snapping, that had the crows of Inverness bolting from the trees in a unison both remarkably horrifying and yet, somehow, stunningly gorgeous. When it occurred, Lilith dismissed it as not coming from Russell’s home, as not being what she most certainly knew it was. No, she would not divulge that little realization to anyone ever, nor would she admit to Russell’s kissing her—Lilith Walters, realtor extraordinaire!—to having pressed his lips thoughtfully, tenderly, to hers as he whispered what would be his very last farewell. Nor why, however comforting, however calming, however necessary she found it at that precise moment, she let him.




Copyright © 2013 Cully Perlman

 

Cully Perlman's fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Real South Magazine, Avatar Review, Creative Loafing, Connotation Press, and The Good Men Project. His novel, The Losses, made the short list of finalists for the 2012 William Faulkner – William Wisdom Competition, and he has been a finalist for Glimmer Train’s short story contest. He is currently completing three novels, a few short stories, and maybe an essay or two. Cully lives in Georgia with his wife, daughter, and attack dog, Kane, and will be graduating from the University of Tampa's MFA program in January.