Saturday, September 14, 2013


Edie Macklin, a thirty-something attired in yoga pants and accessorized by a Starbucks cup with a heat guard, yes, Edie Macklin, a frizzed and frazzled mom of three, two of whom are bleating and wriggling in an unsuccessful bid to escape their double-wide stroller, frowns as she spies the Subway wrapper on the sidewalk. "Boys!," she booms, rather louder than she'd intended, but the end result is satisfying, as it distracts both toddlers from their stroller gymnastics and causes them to gape at her. "Look ahead. Someone tossed a sandwich wrapper on the ground. That's called littering. Lit-ter-ing. And it is wrong, unfair to others who have to clean it up, and unfair to the planet we try to keep healthy." The boys blink. If they understand their mother, they make no sign of it, but Edie is grimly satisfied that she has imparted today's instruction. She stoops, and with an exaggerated motion she picks up the offending wrapper. Her children watch as with two fingers she carries it to the corner and drops it into a trash can. "There!," she cries, prim and didactic. She rubs her hands together. It is unclear whether she is wishing that she had brought along some hand sanitizer or whether she is congratulating herself on a job well done. She resumes pushing the stroller across the street and towards the park, where she had been headed before the opportunity to teach a lesson presented itself.

Several minutes later Roger Brown crosses the same street in the opposite direction. He's been feeding the birds in the park. He saves stale bread for just this purpose, has been doing so for years, even though lately people are frowning as he scatters bits of bread in an arc limited only by his reach and his position, seated as he is on a once-upon-a-time forest green, now peeling and grayed wooden park bench that occasionally rewards him with splinters in the backsides of both his legs. "You know," a lady accosted him just last week, "that's terrible for the birds. It teaches them to depend on humans for food, and then they can't fend for themselves, so they beg." As she finished her little speech she glared at him with contempt and indignation. If she'd written her argument, that outraged look of hers would have been the proper place for an exclamation point, Roger reflected. After a beat too long, he offered her a mild, "That so?," and, looking deflated, she stalked away. And so it went. Things don't bother him the way they used to, when he was young. He admired the woman's conviction, but only from a great distance, and only somewhat, and he would have preferred that she step back several feet and leave him to his work, which, it seemed to him, benefited both the birds and himself, and how could that be a bad thing?

Now, crossing the street, Roger is surprised by an uncharacteristic gastric growl. He is hungry. Well! He hasn't been hungry for days, possibly weeks. He sees a Subway wrapper in the trash can on the corner and decides on the spot that he will buy a sandwich from Subway, which establishment he has never before patronized. Once in the restaurant, he hesitates before approaching the teen behind the counter. "I'd like a turkey sandwich, please?," he half-asks, half-declares. The teen looks nonplussed and shoots back an indecipherable stream of questions about condiments, this or that, this or that, that or this. Isn't it the store's job to decide how to make the sandwich? Still, Roger enjoys his meal, and is delicately patting at his mouth with a napkin when the door to the restroom opens. Out runs a girl, about six years old, he guesses, and behind her a beleaguered-looking man, likely her father. Fleetingly Roger wonders whether it's strictly proper for a father and daughter to occupy the same bathroom. Times have changed, he decides, and stores this scene to share with his wife on Sunday at his weekly visit to the cemetery in Queens.

Roger has saved most of his sandwich and tucks it under his arm as he exits Subway. He is on his way home, which route takes him past the trash can holding the Subway wrapper that prompted his uncharacteristic decision to dine out. Behind him he hears the girl and her father, the ones from the restaurant's bathroom, arguing. "But you said we'd have time to go to the playground!," she is wailing. Her dad's response is inaudible but fails to sway the child, who shrieks, "Then I'm going without you!" She runs past Roger. With mounting horror he understands that she means to run right across the street, despite the rushing traffic. He is neither young enough nor strong enough to tackle her, but suddenly he remembers his sandwich. The boy at the Subway counter had tried to convince him to purchase a "foot-long, because it's the same price as the six-inch," but Roger had balked at the excess. Then he'd remembered the birds, and given in. They'd like this bread. So the sandwich he now carries is a good eight inches long with a full complement of condiments, and instinctively, attempting to quell the father's frantic yelling, he throws his sandwich with a practiced birdfeeder's arm, throws it hard, too, right at the back of the kid's head. She stops just short of an oncoming yellow taxi. Its brakes squeal long and loud, and its driver sticks his middle finger out of the window and shouts, "F*cking idiot kid!"

The girl puts her hand up to her head and wheels around, crying at the sudden, throbbing pain, the unexpected venom of the cab driver, and the shock of it all. Her father rushes up to console her, but not before mouthing a "Thank you" to Roger, who has dropped to his knees in an effort to salvage the bread from his sandwich, which is lying dismantled and forlorn near a gutter.

"Now I really have a story for Joan this Sunday!," he murmurs, and the thought of it makes him smile as he stands and dusts himself off.

But what of Edie, who has indisputably played a part today in preventing a six-year-old child from being hit by a cab? After all, the Subway wrapper she swept up off the ground and into the trash inspired Roger to eat his first (and last) meal at Subway, which then put him in just the right place at just the right time... Poor Edie. Edie will never learn of the day's events, and she will continue to spend her time teaching her children awkward, ill-timed, and contrived lessons, buoyed by righteousness and a fanatic's devotion to Dateline. Why just the other week she lectured an old man in the park about his nasty habit of feeding the birds. Everyone knows that you aren't supposed to feed the pigeons. Rats with wings, that's all they are. Rats with wings. 

Poor Edie, indeed.


V-Grrrl said...

so clever and so true

Anonymous said...

I love the twist at the end. I felt like I knew these people, even though the story was short, which is a testament to your descriptive skills. I want to read more!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, that last comment was from me, Elizabeth.

alejna said...

This was wonderful. I love the way you brought all the strands together. I really enjoy your fiction.