Heroes

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By John McNamara

When a day passed without even a card arriving to mark the anniversary, Thomas grew concerned. For eighteen years, Bonnie had appeared at his door on the evening of June 28th, with Kirsten in tow, to thank him, with a plate of chocolate chip cookies, or a loaf of zucchini bread, always on a paper plate covered with aluminum foil, and a card. When Kirsten was three, the first year, Bonnie penned the words of gratitude but at the bottom of the card a capital “K” was block printed in purple crayon. He envisioned the perfect, tiny hand enclosed within the mother’s, gripping the stubby crayon, as Bonnie watched it sketch the letter. Eighteen cards in the top drawer of his bedroom bureau, bound in green twine.

On that first June 28th, Thomas had driven under an expansive blue sky to his doctor’s office for a blood draw. Elevated cholesterol and a need for reading glasses had distinguished his fortieth birthday that April, so he arrived at the village station for a later train than his usual 7:20. Waiting in his suit and tie on the uncrowded platform for the 9:43 train, Thomas, holding his brown leather briefcase and wearing polished shoes, contrasted with university students and mothers with children, some young enough to need strollers. The time of day and the incongruity of the crowd placed him out of his element; he wondered if the sense of eeriness would persist when he arrived at the office. Recently elevated to partner at the accounting firm, a position earned with quiet performance. The track to promotion required a plodding tempo, long hours logged without complaint, geniality but no garrulousness, learning to stand out without attracting notice (a behavioral oxymoron, but it had netted elevation within the firm’s ranks). Thoughts of the dues paid to achieve his success circled through his consciousness as he stood in the shade of a platform shelter. The bright sunshine added to the strangeness of the late start of his day. The thin light at seven o’clock in the morning highlighted fewer details, or perhaps he merely noticed less when reassured by his weekday routine.

Thomas glanced down the platform where a young mother pushed a stroller, the toddler inside coddling a brown and cream-colored stuffed animal, a horned goat, he realized, as the pair got closer. In the distance a train horn sounded and the green and white engine came into view as it rounded the curve half a mile west, near the Grandling Street crossing. He knew from experience that it would arrive in two minutes, slow to a standstill, and then the doors would skid open. The mother walked around the stroller to release her daughter from the webbed restraints that bound her. The child’s eagerness to be freed from the seat belt challenged the mother’s patience as she wrestled not only with the locking mechanism, but the stuffed goat flapping in the toddler’s frenetic grasp. The shuddering bellow of the approaching train registered on the child’s face, her eyes widening, her grip on the goat relaxing as she whipped it toward the tracks. It flew from her hand and landed on the strip of yellow, nubby textured tiles that warned of the platform edge. Her mother eyed it for a moment and then released her daughter, lifting her from the stroller and guiding her away from the train tracks. She depressed a red lever with her foot and began folding the stroller; the diaper bag straps slipped from her shoulder to her elbow, tangling in the stroller’s shade hood as it collapsed between the long metal handles. The woman murmured a curse and jerked her body to sling the bag’s straps back to her shoulder as the station crossing gates clanged and descended.

He stepped forward, intending to help the woman, just as the train lumbered past the lowered gates. The clamor animated the child, who darted on unsteady legs toward the yellow tiles, oblivious of the danger that Thomas immediately perceived. Dropping his briefcase, he lunged as the child lurched toward the platform edge to retrieve her goat, which lay on its side mere inches from the drop-off to the rail bed. Her mother, the folded stroller between her and her child, screamed as he plummeted to the concrete sidewalk, his arm extended, gripping a handful of the child’s denim overalls, clutching her to his chest as he rolled onto his back and then his side, cocooning her in his grasp as the engine and passenger cars slowed to a stop. Only when he was certain the child was safe did he relax his grip and study her. She gazed at him with eyes as blue as the sky, made no sound as he rose to his knees and stood her on tiny sneakers with red lights that blinked when she walked. He’d seen them when he dove toward her, thinking of the flashing lights on the warning gates at the crossing near the station. When her mother scooped the child into her arms, clutching her with relief, the girl squirmed, frowned, repeatedly voiced a word that sounded to him like guht, and then erupted in a bawling fit.

People gathered around the three of them. An older woman murmured concern for the child while patting the mother on her back. A man Thomas assumed to be her husband offered his hand to help him from his knees. He gripped it and rose to his feet, probing a rip at the knee in his right pants leg, his fingers coming away bloody; stirrings of pain fired in the joint. The old man whispered a compliment of Thomas’ bravery, then bent and retrieved the stuffed goat, handing it to Thomas, saying the girl would probably appreciate his giving it to her.

Thomas nodded and took the toy, turning toward the mother and child. He held it out to the toddler and she snatched it from his grasp, clutching it to her chest. Her crying slackened to a subdued whimpering. The mother, Bonnie, fumbled a litany of thank yous echoed by the gathered passengers, who praised his quick thinking and swift reaction in saving the child. It embarrassed him. He muttered what he expected most people would say in the same situation: that it was nothing, and that anyone would have done the same thing. His suit ruined, Thomas decided to return home, call the office and inform them he would be working from home that day. As people boarded the train, he offered to assist Bonnie up the steps to the train vestibule, but she shook her head, saying she had planned an outing to the children’s museum, but thought she had better postpone it and return home.

Thomas was reluctant when Bonnie asked for his address so that she could send him some kind of thank you. He eschewed entanglements, had few friends beyond his immediate neighbors, but relented and gave her his business card. He walked home, reviewing the event in his mind, the recollection a slow motion replay. Recognition of the child headed toward the tracks, dropping his briefcase as he bolted along a path to intersect her, awareness of the proximity of the locomotive nearing the child, lunging, diving toward her, closing his fist around a handful of denim cloth, tugging her to his chest, landing on his knees and then twisting midair to roll onto his back, enfolding the child in his arms. In retrospect, a perfectly executed response. When he stripped off his suit and examined his legs, Thomas grimaced. Both knees were bloodied by the fall to the sidewalk, a flap of skin on the right knee hung like a vegetable peeling. He washed the abrasions and taped a bandage over his right knee. In the kitchen, Thomas glanced at the clock, 10:13, then opened the refrigerator and removed a bottle of beer. He carried it to the living room, sat in the floral print armchair by the front window, unscrewed the cap and swigged, a long, gratifying swallow. Then he trembled, shivered, his body quaking in a writhing contortion of delayed dread, warning him that the outcome of his actions had been lucky. He’d been fortunate.

Two days later, Bonnie appeared on his doorstep, Kirsten riding her hip (holding the stuffed goat), a foil-wrapped, paper plate of cookies in her hand, telling him there was no way to thank him for what he’d done, that she couldn’t imagine what would have happened had he not been there. Thomas accepted the cookies and they chatted in the living room as Kirsten explored the new surroundings. But he didn’t see Bonnie again until the anniversary of that day, when she knocked on the door, a baked gift on another paper plate, Kirsten hiding behind her, gripping a card in a pink envelope. The pattern repeated annually and Thomas tracked the growth of the girl through those visits. Bored youth, sullen teen, eager college student. Bonnie’s hair styles changed. She gained and lost weight. Began wearing eyeglasses. Their relationship endured but never deepened, although Thomas anticipated Bonnie’s visits as a perennial respite from his solitary life. Her predictability appealed to his fondness for precision. The anniversaries, like his birthdays, marked the passage of time and prompted reflection. The arrival of Bonnie and Kirsten became mini-celebrations of what Thomas came to believe might have been his finest hour. No other event in his life equaled the instinctive courage he had displayed that day. So when the nineteenth anniversary passed without the two women visiting, Thomas experienced disappointment and then worry, as though the dread of what might have happened on the train platform had been postponed all these years.

He considered calling Bonnie, but he’d never telephoned her before. The entirety of their relationship consisted of the annual visits, with no contact in between those occasions. Thomas knew where she lived but had never been inside her home, a Craftsmen bungalow three miles from his house. He liked order and accepted Bonnie’s unspoken terms of their arrangement; stepping outside those borders had always seemed to him like an imposition, but her not visiting or sending a card breached those terms and he debated whether that permitted him to infringe on her privacy. As worry grew into concern, apprehension blossomed, and he drove to her house. Thomas parked in the blacktop driveway behind a silver Prius, switched off the engine and paused, remembering the eeriness of that day nineteen years ago, contrasting it with the strangeness of reversing the roles he and Bonnie had established for nearly two decades. Opening his car door, Thomas noticed a curtain flutter in the wide window beside the porch. As he climbed the steps to the front door, Kirsten opened the door. Straight blond hair framed her face. The blue eyes that had gazed at him with unmasked curiosity that day softened as she smiled and stepped onto the porch. She greeted him, waving aside his comment that the visit might be stepping out of line.

Her mother had been speaking about him the other day; she motioned for him to enter the house. Thomas hesitated before stepping across the threshold, a literal line-crossing, as Kirsten apologized for missing the anniversary. Bonnie had been sick. He stood in the front room as Kirsten closed the door and walked to the center of the living room. During a regular mammogram, they’d found a lump. Breast cancer. She’d undergone a mastectomy of her right breast, chemo and radiation therapies, and now endured a rough recovery. She paused, as though prepared to say more, but then fell silent. He muttered his sympathy, asking about Bonnie’s prognosis. They were hopeful.

For nineteen years Thomas had associated Bonnie with being thankful, not hopeful, as Kirsten said the disease had been detected early, that removing the breast had been precautionary. When she mentioned there was a family history, the young woman’s face clouded and she bit her lower lip. Thomas wondered if any words could lessen her obvious anxiety and decided against saying anything. Kirsten offered to show him to Bonnie’s bedroom.

He nodded and for the first time since entering the house took notice of the furnishings. Sturdy furniture of fine quality and workmanship, upholstered in muted shades, designed and crafted to endure and become heirlooms. What his frugal but value-minded father and mother would have considered sound investments. Above the fireplace mantle hung a large color photograph of a derelict barn in winter. Warped, rust-colored boards austere against a pristine white snowfall. Following Kirsten down a hallway, he passed framed portraits of her at various ages, not class photos, but professionally lighted studio shots. He identified with the gallery: their visits had provided him with visions of the girl captured at annual intervals.

Kirsten opened a half-closed door, rapping gently with her knuckles, and then announcing him to Bonnie. The young woman stepped aside and he moved to the threshold, feeling a disruption of routine similar to the day of the train incident. A sense of being out of place. That day when he returned home and opened the beer, he dwelled upon the notion that while every person’s life is his own, on occasion another’s life also becomes one’s own. Bonnie and Kirsten…their lives had become his as well. Suppose saving Kirsten’s life had been his destiny, then in doing so, he had fulfilled his. What else was to come?

Bonnie rested in a seated position, bolstered by several pillows, a cocoon of cushions behind her and on either side, wearing flannel pajamas in a red and black plaid print, covered to her waist by a yellow cotton blanket. She made no effort to shield her hairless scalp, but stretched her lips into a fatigued smile as he slowly approached her. A straight-backed kitchen chair faced the side of the bed and he sat, reaching forward and gently taking her hand in his. Thomas returned her smile as Kirsten said she’d give them some time to chat; he promised to keep his visit short. She told him how good it was of him to come and he waved away the comment, muttering how it was the least he could do. During the annual visit to his house, Bonnie spoke exclusively of Kirsten: how she fared in school, her aptitudes, whom she dated. As she grew older, Kirsten fleshed out the biographical updates. But always the focus remained on the child, never on the mother, and as Thomas sat beside Bonnie, he realized how little he knew about her life beyond her role as grateful mother. In contrast to his own retrospectives after the pair left his home each year: their appearance occasioned an annual review. What changes had he undergone in the past twelve months? The customary answer: none. His life, so even-keeled and monotonous, provided few ups and downs. Work occupied both his time and his consciousness. He remained unmarried and happy with that arrangement. Thomas did not consider himself lonely: other people contributed nothing to the quality of his life and their absence never detracted from it. He enjoyed the untethered banality of his routines.

With a humility he remembered as integral to her own nature, Bonnie apologized for missing the anniversary visit. Thomas wagged his head, declaring her remarkable for believing any apology was appropriate. He expressed gratitude that her prognosis was hopeful, she thanked him, and then the two of them traded niceties for a few minutes until Kirsten reappeared, advising against tiring her mother with too long a visit. Thomas rose, still gripping Bonnie’s hand, and then bent over and kissed her forehead, the skin dry on his lips.

At the front door, he asked Kirsten if he could visit again. The young woman smiled, told him she thought her mother would like that, and then handed him a pale blue envelope: the annual card. Stepping forward into a clumsy embrace, she whispered a thank you into his ear.

In the quiet of his home, Thomas reflected on the expected sounds of Bonnie’s house when Kirsten was a child: boisterous reverberations of play, late-night squeals of friends sleeping over, whimpers and cries of disappointment or displeasure. Guesses and suppositions, concentrated around Kirsten, because she was the topic of his and Bonnie’s nineteen, evenly-spaced conversations. Of Bonnie, Thomas knew little. Acquaintances on an annual schedule. He walked outside the sliding doors to the small brick patio behind his home as a gust of wind disquieted the tubular wind chimes suspended from the bough of a maple tree. He recalled the wind on his face that morning, not a gust, more of a comforting massage as the train passed, inconsistent with the drama occurring beside it. What did he know of Bonnie? Did she adopt a solitude that paralleled his own? Snippets of her backstory and everything he’d ever gleaned attached in some manner to a detail about Kirsten.

Two days later Thomas returned, clutching the handles of plastic grocery bags containing rotisserie chicken, broiled potato wedges, mixed green salad, and oatmeal raisin cookies. The melded expression on Kirsten’s face, disbelief and appreciation, banished his hesitancy that he again had overstepped a boundary. As they unloaded the food in the kitchen, Bonnie entered, questioning the fuss, and then paused in the doorway, staring at him. She wore a cream-colored terrycloth robe, loosely tied, revealing a glimpse of a pink t-shirt, emblazoned with the words F**k Cancer in black script. As Thomas’s glance fell to the shirt, Bonnie gathered the lapels of the robe and cinched the belt more tightly around her waist. Kirsten put out place mats and silverware, glasses of ice water, and white paper napkins in a plastic holder, and the three of them sat in an alcove overlooking the rear yard, at a round, wooden table. Thomas cautiously asked about Kirsten’s studies. One more year before graduation with a degree in botany. Bonnie pointed to the raised garden beds in the yard, attributing the proliferation of blooms and greenery to her daughter’s energies. Thomas nodded, declaring them lovely, then asked Bonnie about her recovery. Was she in much discomfort or pain? She shook her head. Fatigue, general weariness. Then Thomas posed the question he had decided the day before would be the most critical: how were her spirits? In considering the return visit and the inquiry about whether or not the ordeal had left Bonnie depressed, he understood the embarrassing extent to which he was uninformed about her life. Were there family members nearby to lend assistance? To relieve Kirsten of the responsibility for constant attention to her mother’s needs?

Bonnie hesitated and studied Thomas. The glance they exchanged confirmed a shared understanding that the limits of their friendship had shifted. She detailed the difficulty of remaining cheerful and Kirsten reached across the table to lay a hand on her mother’s thin forearm. Thomas fathomed the daughter’s comprehension of her mother’s constant practice of caring for her child. Superseding her own needs with those of her daughter. A question of duty, Thomas reasoned, but tailored to circumstances. The child becomes the parent; the acquaintance becomes a friend. Perhaps a confidant.

On his third visit, Thomas suggested Kirsten spend a little time away from the house. Some selfish indulgence: go for coffee or meet a friend. Something trivial to interrupt her round-the-clock nursing of her mother. He’d expected resistance, but Kirsten and Bonnie each thanked him. The young woman slung her purse straps over her shoulder and he and Bonnie, seated on the sofa before the flat-screen television, muted since he entered the house, watched her open the screened door and walk to the Prius. Thomas had parked on the street instead of the driveway.

Prefacing his conversation with an admission of how little he knew about Bonnie, Thomas eased into his inquiries and learned particulars of her life, both before and after the eventful day at the train station. He enjoyed listening to her respond in a clear voice and remained guarded about tiring her. But Bonnie’s reaction to his interest in her life energized her. She emphasized stories with hand gestures and facial expressions that reminded Thomas of her monologues about Kirsten when the two of them made their annual pilgrimages to his home. Kirsten returned an hour after she left and asked her mother if she was tired, to which Bonnie responded with an emphatic wag of her head, claiming a lack of fatigue, joking that Thomas was probably tired and bored of the conversation. He chuckled and claimed fascination with all she’d told him. As he prepared to leave, Bonnie rose and embraced him. He worried about holding her too tightly, imagining her bones to be fragile or brittle, but she grasped him forcefully and whispered she looked forward to his next visit. Kirsten walked him to his car and also embraced him, thanking him for lifting Bonnie’s spirits. He scorned the instinct to dismiss her gratitude and simply muttered that they were welcome.

Every second or third day he visited bringing food, an abundance of treats from the bakery on the village’s main street. On one occasion, after Kirsten had left the house to go to a movie, Bonnie asked Thomas to help her to her room. He gripped her elbow and allowed her to lean against him as they walked along the hallway to her bedroom. Bonnie wore sweat pants and a plain white t-shirt. He noted the flatness on her chest, the absence of her right breast, as she sat on the edge of the mattress and lifted her legs. He covered her to the waist with the thin yellow blanket and stood as she settled into the pillows, half sitting, half reclining, and then asked if she wanted to nap. She motioned him to the straight-backed chair, reached out for his hand, which he extended, and then thanked him for everything he was doing for them. Her undisguised gratitude dispelled his long-held belief that he had fulfilled his destiny nearly two decades earlier, and for a moment he reflected on the nature of rescue: he of Kirsten, again with Bonnie during her recovery, and now Bonnie of his listlessness and isolation.

Again, he avoided the reflex of denying the significance of his efforts, and told her, while enfolding her hand, that she and Kirsten were very welcome. Bonnie closed her eyes for a moment and then reopened them and drew his hand toward her. Thomas leaned forward to accommodate her gesture, pressing his knees against the edge of the mattress. She lifted the hem of her t-shirt and guided Thomas’s hand under the material. He resisted but Bonnie continued to slide his hand to the scar where her right breast had been. He could not see it, but felt the juncture of the incision edges, sickle-shaped, spanning from beneath her armpit to her sternum, a texture glossier than the skin on either side of the blemish.

Bonnie closed her eyes again and thanked him, saying she missed the intimacy of touch more than she missed the breast itself. This time as Thomas avoided saying she was welcome, he instead thanked her, his voice gruff with comforting melancholy, and then watched Bonnie’s eyes move beneath her closed lids. A thin-lipped smile blossomed on her face and she closed both her hands over his, gently rubbing the tendons on the back of his hand with her fingertips. Eventually her movements stopped and Thomas recognized the signs of sleep. Destiny, he once read, owed more to choice than to chance, and as he carefully scooted the chair closer to her bed, concentrated on keeping his hand as still as possible while she napped, the warmth of her flesh beading droplets of perspiration where his fingers touched her skin, well then…that was fine with him.


John M. McNamara’s short fiction has been published in Crosscurrents, Old Hickory Review, Piedmont Literary Review, Minotaur, Snapdragon, Four Quarters, FlashFiction, Quick Fiction, Bear River Review, Inside Running, and Prairie Light Review. In the summer of 1999, he was awarded a professional artist residency at the OxBow Summer Arts Program for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in Saugatuck, Michigan.

Image courtesy gratisography