Bowman Wilker - Fiction
by Bowman Wilker
“Where is this puddle?” I ask.
He does not look at me, staring at a spot somewhere between his waist and his naked knees. His eyes so dark that one might call them black. I watch his face as he mouths the word over and over, his head moving forward slightly with each beat.
“Alright already” I relent. “Let’s go for a walk and we will find one.” I can hear the exasperation in my voice, but truthfully I am looking forward to the distraction. Now that I know that I am leaving here, this house has seemed even more oppressive than usual.
He stops at the door only for a moment to shove his socked feet into his open backed sandals. And then with a pull of the door he is off, bouncing down the concrete steps, not looking behind to see if I have moved or not. I know him well enough that he will stop for me, as he always does, within the hard sun of the sidewalk.
“O.K. O.K” I sigh, this drama only for myself. I punch in the code to lock the front door and step down into the hot summer day.
There is an urgency to him now. He grabs my elbow and begins to tug. His nails are sharp and grip painfully into the the hair of my arm. But I let him take me, curious as always as to what is happening in that strange little mind.
This new word of his had popped up in the last two weeks and has become the full breadth of his verbal communication. Truly it was an improvement on some of his other utterations. He had about a half a dozen ways to say it. Sometimes in a gruff old man voice, “Puddle, puddle, puddle”. Sometimes fast and high pitched until it squeaked “Puddle, puddle, puddle” like he was working hard to get each one off his tongue. Even in his sleep I had heard it.
Honestly, I thought this word was no more than a sound to him until he brought me to it. The puddle he took me to sat across from the abandoned lot on the corner of Quinpool Road and Sycamore Way. There had been a house there once, a bungalow I believe, but it had been sold and then demolished. A construction fence, warped and broken, was still in place around it but little else had been done. Stepping over it, you could jump down into its old foundation and find a wealth of local social history, broken bottles, butts and the occasional used condom.
I could not remember the last time we had passed it on one of our walks. It would have surely been before this new word. He had stopped there abruptly, putting his back to the lot, forcing me to move around him to see it. There was a sidewalk on this side of the street, a wide strip of dirty grass and then a heavy hedge which blocked the house beyond it. The puddle sat oddly between the sidewalk and that hedge, a perfectly round hole filled to its top by a pitch-dark water. Its surface seemed still and perfect like an oily skin resting sticky in the shade of the hedge.
“Puddle, puddle, puddle.” He was starting again, this time with his head held forward. His tone was monotonous, each word sliding into the next, making the word come loose from its meaning. He brought his finger up to point to it, as if I had not seen it. As if I was not now staring directly at it. Slowly, so not to scare him, I lifted my arm and patted him on the shoulder. “I see it buddy! I see it. I see it”. I layered the words with cheerfulness and he stopped.
He looked up into my face now and it shocked me, our eyes locking. I could see an odd light in them. Their blackness so in contrast with the creamy whiteness surrounding them. And I was the one that had to look away.
Sitting against the hedge there was a stick. The kind that you would like to find at the beginning of a walk in the woods. It was about three feet long, I would suppose. It still had its bark, but it was free of any protrusions or twigs. The one end sharper than the other, inviting you to grip your hand around its thicker head. I grabbed it and looking once more at him, I put the tip of it barely into the surface of the puddle. The two of us watched. Thick ripples spreading out and quickly dying at its edge.
I could feel his stillness beyond me. And for that moment I was lost with him in the immediacy of the moment. Slowly I lowered it, waiting for its contact with the ground below. And yet I could not find it. All the way up to my wrist the water rose upon it and I felt nothing but the pressure of the water as each inch broke the surface.
Now I have become fully interested. I look up to see him staring at my hand posed just above the puddle. And I begin to pull it out, watching the water droplets coming off of it, the stick now dark and musty smelling from its contact with the water. My body is in a crouch and as I begin to stand my fingers move reflexively to feel the water dripping from it.
And at once a voice.
“Don’t touch it!”
In my shock I drop the stick. I know he can’t have said these words. But when I look up he is the only one there. He holds his face as if he is in some deep pain. His lips pressed tightly, his brows lowered, his eyes aware but pinched so that all his features have come together. I want to move to him. To grab him. To shake him. I look down at the puddle and for a moment I think to put my hand inside it. But instead I stop.
For awhile we stand both stunned. I am conscious of the bones in my spine and I can feel a tingle of electricity brush through me. I think, “the stick.” But when I look down I find it is gone. Not a piece of it bobs on the surface of that water. And that electricity becomes a shudder, it has become cold in the shade of that hedge.
I crouch back down to look closer inside it. But as I do, I hear that voice again and I almost lose my balance. “We must cover it” it says. And I turn back up to him, quick enough this time to see the last movements of his lips. His hand is pointing now and my eyes follow its direction over to the abandoned yard.
“What do you mean?” I hear myself ask. And then I move towards him. I grab him by the shoulders, this time without warning. I put question after question to him but he does not reply. Except for his finger. I try to push it down to its side but he resists me and all at once I seem petty and small. I can smell his sweat and mine. The sun has crawled to its full height in the sky. And I realize that not a single car has passed by as we have stood here.
I think of leaving, of walking back to the house. I wonder if he would follow me. And I realize that I am angry with him. For all the strange things he makes me do. And this realization allows me to become unfrozen. I move quickly to the lot, pulling myself through a hole in the chain link fence. I find a square of plywood resting against the side of the pit. One side is wet and crumbly but the other is clean except for a red splash of spray paint in one corner. I clumsily drag it back up through the weeds and using leverage drop it over the fence.
He is still standing there. His hands now at his sides watching me, as I lift the plywood awkwardly in front of me and carry it over the cracked asphalt of the lifeless street.
I place it over the hole, wet side down, shifting it carefully so that it lies as flat as it can around the bumps and grooves of the grass. And then I crouch, observing it, rubbing my hands together to remove the dirt and the feeling that the rough wood has made in them. I look up at him, curious as to what I might see. And his voice comes to me again. This time hard and gruff. “You must weigh it down.
So many words, that I am at a loss. I sit back on the edge of the plywood and look at him. His hand moves once again to its point and I shake my head resolved. The whir of the cicadas ever rising in pitch add their tension overhead as I move back and forth. It takes a half dozen trips to bring enough bricks so that the entire surface of the plywood is covered. And when I am done he turns and begins to walk back to the house.
All the way home I question him. And for many more days after that. I try to surprise him by asking him in the midst of one activity or another. I invade his personal space constantly. I shout into his ears and I am ashamed to say that once I slap him. But he gives me nothing.
Often on Tuesdays, I drive him to his music therapy. On the way back I now take a circuitous route that takes me down Sycamore Way. Each time we pass I drive slowly past that puddle. The bricks and plywood are still there, sitting as I laid them. The signs of autumn’s approach are all around us, and I realize that I will not be there, if and when the puddle is uncovered. And I am filled with a strange sense of regret as I wonder what other things I might miss.
When we pass by that puddle I look at him. To see if he will shift his head. Or give me any sign. But he does not seem to wonder why we slow. And I am tempted. That stick must still be there inside. Surely by now it has come to the surface.