Friday, September 9, 2011

Helpless, a Short Story

As I was locking my apartment door in the morning, Janine came out of her apartment.

"Morning," I said.

"Hi, Andy," she squeaked.

A walked past her down the short hallway we shared and held the door open for her. As she passed, I reflexively blurted out, "What happened?!"

She told me she had tripped in the kitchen, accidentally, and hit her face against the countertop.

But I knew that wasn't the truth. I knew it was Glenn, her live-in boyfriend. I had heard the truth last night, through the wall — the yelling, the breaking glass, the yelp of pain that gave way to muted sobbing. It had happened so quickly that I hadn't even had time to put on my headphones and try to ignore it, like I did on so many other nights, telling myself that it wasn't my problem, and that there was nothing I could do about it.

I clung to those excuses as I held the door, accepting Janine's explanation and telling her that she should try to be more careful. It was too easy.

At least I thought it would be easy, but Janine invaded my thoughts throughout the day. At odd times, I would find myself staring blankly at the computer screen, the image of Janine's swollen, tender face at the front of my mind, her red-purple cheekbone, fading to brown at the edges, swollen enough that her left eye didn't open as widely as the right . . . and I would try to suppress the image and get back to work.

By the afternoon, incessant thoughts of Janine turned into fantasies about Glenn, fantasies in which I attacked him with masterful precision, breaking kneecaps, severing fingers, gouging eyes, fantasies that ended with Glenn running off forever, or lapsing into a coma, or dying, and Janine being forever grateful for my manly intervention.

But these were just fantasies, I knew. Even while I daydreamed of being the hero, I knew that I didn't have the skill, the strength, or the gumption to stand up to Glenn.

All day, I felt tortured by my inability to help Janine, a sentiment made orders of magnitude worse by the guilt of knowing that my emotional torture was nothing compared with the emotional and physical tortures that Janine underwent daily. Because of Glenn, Janine's best days hurt more than my worst.

The drive home left me irritated. Every light was red. Every stereo was too loud. Every other driver was a selfish nuisance who should just get out of my way.

And when I turned the last corner, and my apartment building came into view, the gray cloud that had hung over me all day darkened. In front of the building, Glenn's big black Escalade was parked sideways across three parking spots. The passenger side, closest to the building, sat at an odd upward angle.

I pulled into a nearby parking spot. A pair of legs stuck out from under the jacked-up vehicle. Muscular legs. The legs of a man who spends most of his day at the gym.

Glenn's legs.

The front passenger-side wheel had been removed, and crammed between the jack holding up the SUV and the front disc brakes, Glenn's lower half, from the waist down, lay face-up, his feet resting on the edge of the sidewalk.

I closed the car door and headed for the apartment.

"Hey, Andy, Is that you?"

I stopped, turned. He was helpless, I thought. The day's hero fantasies came rushing back. In three quick steps I could plant my heel in his crotch or jam my foot into his ribs. But I was out of shape, flabby, and graying. Glenn, by contrast, was a study in human musculature -- bulky, rippling, solid -- who hadn't yet hit thirty.

And if he could beat up a beautiful, delicate, helpless woman like Janine, what greater horrors would I be in store for?

"Yeah, it's me," I said flatly.

"How's it going?" he asked.

"Okay," I said.

"I'm just replacing a brake line here," he said, as if I gave a damn what he was doing under that behemoth. He grunted with the effort of using some tool that I probably couldn't identify. The SUV rocked back and forth.

"Do you ever do any of your own work on that little Honda of yours?" he asked, grunting and shaking the car again.

"I don't know crap about cars." It was the truth.

"Figures," he said. "I just can't seem to get this..." He grunted again, and the vehicle rocked again. "...coupling loose." Another grunt; the SUV shuddered.

"Well," I said. "I'll, uh, leave you to it, then."

Glenn grunted again. It was quickly followed by a clank and another grunt of a different sort, airier and more forced. On the asphalt next to the Escalade, the jack lay on its side. The weight of the front of the vehicle now rested on Glenn's broad chest. He kicked his legs into the air, but he didn't scream, the weight of the vehicle somehow keeping him from drawing a much-needed breath.

I rushed forward instinctively and reached for the jack. But I stopped.

I stood up straight and looked around. No one else was in sight. No one had seen the SUV drop. No one knew that Glenn was trapped under there except me and...

The gray-haired woman I knew only as Phyllis stood at the second-floor window in the apartment above Glenn and Janine's. Her mouth was a dark little O, her eyes wide watching Glenn's legs flail feebly, looking for purchase in the empty air.

Then she looked at me. Her eyes narrowed to slits; her mouth became a thin line. For a heartbeat, we just stood there, staring at one another.

Then, after giving an almost imperceptible nod, she let the window blinds fall between us.

I crotched down and looked under the SUV. Glenn stared back at me, bulging eyes in a red face, mouth moving in silent pleas. "Helpless," I whispered.

And then I went inside.

The ambulance arrived half an hour later, and the squad car soon after that. When the ambulance left, its lights were dark and its sirens silent.

The policeman who knocked on my door told me the horrible news and asked me a few questions. Yes, I had seen Glenn working under his car when I got home from work. No, I hadn't heard anything unusual. Yes, it was unfortunate that I hadn't heard the jack fall over, or this horrible accident might not have ended so badly.

I didn't see Janine the next morning, but when I came home from work, an odd new sound drifted through the wall from her apartment. I stood silent and still and listened. It took me a good four minutes to figure out what the noise was.

Janine was snoring.