The Walking Lesson
The voice was weak. “Simon. I can’t breathe.”
by Rob Hunter
Simon took the pills.
“The damned town looks like a trailer park,” said Simon Alexander. There was only one tree left of the elm-canopied streets of their childhood; Carpelli Construction was wrestling it down. This was a living, healthy tree, uninfected by Dutch elm disease. The city was widening Garfield Street. An older man appeared to be in command. He stood ramrod straight in a corduroy suit with leather elbow patches. Ten men with yellow hard hats tucked under their arms waited expectantly.
“Simon... Isn’t that?” said Bonnie.
“Phlegm.” The rival.
“Oh. Hiya, Phlegm.” Simon shook hands.
Fleming Ward winced at his high school name. He flipped the tails of his corduroy jacket and extracted a baseball cap from the back of his waistband. The cap was a military green twill, gored and stitched to a matching green fabric button at its apex. Where Bud Man or Cat Power might have been was Willipaq Historical Society.
Simon’s cane was commandeered. “You don’t really need that to get around, do you? Here, let me have a try.” Phlegm cut into his wobble-dance, a decent knock-off of a Fred Astaire double shuffle, the tap of an imaginary top hat and a snap-to finale forward into the footlights with a thump of the rubber ferrule at the cane’s tip, ta-da-bump. A rimshot followed by a pause for applause.
Simon Alexander needed his cane. His knees were crippled by arthritis, shattered by sports injuries and, at the moment, between surgeries. “Phlegm, you are a flaming asshole.” Simon snatched back his cane. He felt a flush of silent rage that could have become verbal had he allowed it. But no, they were grownups now.
“Pre-senility, whatever,” said Fleming. “Long time no see.” He flourished the baseball cap and positioned it firmly over his ears. He adjusted a tiny leather belt at the back. Untidy wisps of steel gray hair stuck out at the nape of his neck.
“Forty-five years if you don’t count the reunions,” said Simon. “Nice hat. You been back long?”
“Only a week. The cap is one of a kind. Except I’ve got a ninety-nine more in a box at the house.”
“So there is no Historical Society,” said Bonnie.
“Not yet,” said Phlegm. He called to a long lanky man with a floppy moustache who was sitting on the running board of a Carpelli truck, “C’mon, Jim. Let’s get to work.”
“Hiya, Deedee.” Simon turned his attention to Deirdre, Mrs. Phlegm; they had gone together in their sophomore year. Phlegm and Bonnie had been a hot item in the sophomore class. If this was a contest, then what was the prize? No prize; Fleming had screwed his wife. His wife. Bonnie and Simon hadn’t started going steady until their senior year. The timing didn’t matter; Phlegm had got there first. And now he is giving me walking lessons.
“Hello, Simon.” Deirdre flinched as the mustachioed man kicked up his chainsaw.
“Jim, can the chainsaw. That’ll take all day,” called Fleming Ward. “Have to do it the old-fashioned way.” The chainsaw sputtered to a full stop. Jim tipped his hard hat and thumbed the lid off a container of coffee.
A Carpelli Construction king cab pickup rolled to a stop just behind the Wards and the Alexanders. The project supervisor settled his yellow hard hat lightly on the back of his head and considered his idle crew and silent chainsaws. The man had the robust red-faced look of a man who spent his days behind the controls of a bulldozer. Sensing trouble on the way, Jim the sawyer gave a perfunctory fly at his saw’s starter cord. The chainsaw burped and passed a small cloud of blue vapor.
“And just who the hell are you, mister?” said the red-faced man, pissed-off that some elderly busybody had just walked in and appropriated his work gang.
Phlegm pulled out a card which he handed over to the foreman. The card said Consultant. “Gotta get ‘em down. There’s a standby clause in the grant proposal. Federal money. All the trees have to go before Willipaq gets the check. And the jobs.”
“And who put you in charge?”
As his arms and hands were still in play directing the captured crew, Fleming Ward indicated his left lapel with his chin. The chin bobbed on a flag lapel pin. “The United States of America, that’s who.”
“Six feet across at the base,” Fleming Ward would later recall, “And all they could think of was a front-end loader could push it over.” The front-end loader came with a crane hook and a single asphalt-breaking tooth welded on the bucket. The driver dug the tooth into the street, engaged his hydraulics, and leaned his machine into the tree. The front-end loader had been Phlegm’s second plan, too, but Frank Carpelli banished him from the work site before he had time to voice it.
The front-end loader fell over, sideways. Carpelli had to call in cherry pickers for the last standing elm in Willipaq. And the fire department’s ladder truck. They took two days to cut the tree down; they did it in eight-foot lengths. Then it took the Carpellis three days to dig out the roots and remove the debris.
The public animosity began with the first meeting, the organizational meeting, of the Historical Society. Phlegm had brought in a little American flag attached to a dowel with a clothespin that he placed smack in the center of the salvaged oak dining room table that had been left out in the rain for years. As the meeting was called to order, Phlegm suggested the Pledge of Allegiance be recited. The motion was presented as a challenge, with thrust out chest and jutting jaw. Phlegm’s posture at 70 was ramrod straight. He was still, as the cheerleaders had once agreed, a fine figure of a man.
“Everybody OK with that?” The tone was accusing, uncalled for, by Simon’s lights. Simon actually flew the flag all summer, right through Labor Day. It gave him a good feeling, that there were some things it represented that he believed in, too. “The older I get, the more I appreciate Norman Rockwell,” Simon joked, really meaning it. When the summer people teased him about it, he said, “Oh, that’s just my redneck repellant. So the neighbors don’t burn down the house when I’m away.” When Simon Alexander had lived in New York City, on the upper west side, he placed a suction-cupped St. Christopher on his dashboard to keep the local gangs from wrecking his BMW. It hadn’t worked, he noticed, as well as it worked for folks with Dodges and Chevys.
Phlegm searched the faces of the founding members. There were only seven that first meeting. A couple of the older members, a couple in their late eighties and hard of hearing, had already partly risen from the green plastic resin chairs Harry Pease’s wife had picked up at Marden’s Discount. They were a good buy. An older couple, Elliot and Marcia, had sat back down, confused as to just what was going on. Phlegm looked behind him to see if the platoon was following; the rest jumped to their feet and faced the flag.
“We are disorganized,” Phlegm noted correctly, “I don’t suppose there are any terrorists here?”
“The president only gets sworn in once,” noted Elliot Moore, an eighty-six-year-old veteran and a known Democratic voter. The town clerk kept the voters’ rolls and there were only 285 registered voters in Willipaq. “And we make the kids at the elementary school renew their vows every morning. Don’t seem fair to me.” Elliot sat back down and crossed his arms over his chest. Unsure just what to do, the assembled faithful jumped to their feet and faced the flag.
Simon had no objection to taking the Pledge. It was that they had been ordered to do it, like unsuspecting accountants getting hooked up to a lie detector when they had been promised a chocolate sundae. Hands were applied to hearts.
Simon doubted that making the Pledge of Allegiance with fingers crossed would make any difference to a dedicated suicide bomber; he would get all seven of them.
Simon Alexander reached over his sleeping wife and fumbled to silence the alarm clock.
Burreep. Burreep. Not the clock. The telephone. Let the answering machine get it.
Four rings and then Bonnie’s voice tinnily from the tiny speaker, “Hi there, this is Bonnie. Simon and I are not home right now. If you leave a message we’ll get right back to you. Wait for the beep.”
Beep. Dead line noise. Click. A hang-up. Some drunk or a wrong number. Simon rolled over went back to sleep.
Burreep. Burreep. Shit. Persistent son-of-a-bitch.
Bonnie again, “...wait for the beep.”
Beep. Click. Nothing, not even a heavy breather.
Burreep. Burreep. Bonnie snored softly at his side, a gentle unperturbed gurgle in her sinuses. One of their shared jokes was that Bonnie would sleep through World War III.
Simon’s feet hit the icy floor and he made a grab for the phone, catching it before the machine cut in. “Goddamit, who the hell is this?”
The voice was weak. “Simon. I can’t breathe.”
“Fleming?” Simon felt warm moisture. “Shit.” There was a spreading stain on the sheets and a larger wet patch down the front of his pajamas. Simon squeezed shut the offending sphincter.
“Help me,” from the phone.
“Where’s Deirdre? What’s happening?”
“Panic attack. I’m out of meds. Deirdre is visiting the grandchildren in Virginia”
“What do you take?”
“I’ll be over. Hang on.”
Forty-five years and mocking demons still twisted rusty dental tools in his vitals at the sound of Fleming’s voice. Was it an enlarged prostate or the legions of hell come to deliver a cancer diagnosis as he slept? No, just Phlegm getting him pissed-off at a distance, telecommuting. The pajamas got dumped into the hamper. Damned prostate, he should have had it out long ago. Here in the hours of night sweats and horrors, the small hours before sunrise, Simon’s embarrassment was equated with Phlegm Ward’s joy.
Simon checked in the back of the bathroom medicine cabinet. There was some menopausal nostrum Bonnie had had to take the edge off her mood swings. Bingo. Simon held the bottle to the lights of the vanity mirror. Ahh, whatever the stuff was, the last three letters were PAM. Valium or something. The prescription was six years old but would probably work.
“Screw Phlegm,” said Simon. He pulled a Dixie cup from the wall dispenser, knocked back an antacid and returned to bed.
Here they were, seventy years old and doomed to replay a long-ago rivalry until one or the other dropped dead. Not a day had passed, well maybe a week, of the past forty-five years that Simon Alexander had not thought of Fleming Ward with either hatred or affection. Sleepless, Simon stared through the dark at the ceiling he knew was there. He used his cane to reach the stairs, then his walker to reach the car. It was ten degrees below zero, but the car started on the first crank.
Fleming Ward was waiting at the curb, his steamy breath reflecting a guttering streetlight halfway down the block. “Phlegm.”
“Simon.” He opened the passenger’s side door and slid into the welcome warmth of the car. "Sorry about the trees." They drove till dawn, then returned to their separate wives and hearths. Happy for their private silences, Phlegm and Simon drove home alone, together.
copyright 2009, 2015 Rob Hunter