Rose: Short Fiction by John Randall Williams

Rose’s hip stabbed her at seven.  She stretched her legs under the quilt, finding a position her pelvis liked, and then she waited for her bladder to wake up and force her out of bed.  In her mind she clicked through her schedule for another Monday:  KRON news until nine, then New York Crime Sceneon cable 53, then over to cable 56 for its fraternal sibling, Miami Forensics, followed by the Judges:  Ray Brown, and Jody.  During lunch she’d watch KTVU news, and then another New York Crime Scene on cable 25. In the evening, she switched over to Las Vegas Crime Scene and then, after her nap, the five o’clock KRON news followed by two of the national news broadcasts: ABC and CBS.  Rose loved Dan Rather; was heartsick for a week after his retirement.  Then dinner and Tuesday’s prime time reality shows beginning with Police Call, over to channel five and Real Life Forensics, followed by Challenge of Fear, which she watched about half of, with sideways glances at the disgusting parts.  Her day would end with the eleven o’clock news on KRON, creating a neat KRON symmetry, the channel already set to start the next day. 

Rose milked her single cup of Earl Grey tea and settled into the overstuffed easy chair facing her twenty year old Zenith, a gift from Lenny for her 59th birthday.  Rose didn’t like going out, what with all the murders and muggings and drug traffickers and rapists, and just plain crazy folks infesting San Francisco.  She knew how bad the world had gotten; she saw it every day on TV.

At noon a standoff on the peninsula dominated the news.  Some deranged man held his poor family hostage and the police were negotiating, trying to save him and his wife and child from the hunting rifle he brandished from a window.  Rose sank deeper into her chair.  She bit into half a tuna fish sandwich, enraptured by the events unfolding on screen, comforted that this violence existed in two dimensions.  She could turn it off, but she knew she wouldn’t.  Better to be scared by the news than to suffer the deathly silence of loneliness.

She went to get a glass of milk and discovered that she was out.  “Darn,” Rose swore to herself.  That meant a trip to the Syrian.  If she left now, she would be back in time for the beginning of New York Crime Scene.  Rose liked the big, bold Inspector Joe Spangle with his outrageous Texas accent, so out of place in Manhattan.  He reminded her of her late husband Lenny, though he looked nothing like him.  Lenny had been short and quiet.  But like Lenny, Inspector Joe Spangle was a man you could trust to find the answers.  Where Lenny, an engineer for the National Traffic Safety Board, had meticulously reconstructed the chaos of an accident scene, Inspector Joe would do the same for a crime scene.  Sometimes, it almost felt as if she watched Lenny puzzling out the details on her TV. 

Rose put her light blue jacket on over the blue velour one-piece jogging outfit Lenny had bought her many years ago.  She slipped her white all-sports onto her feet without touching the Velcro tabs.  She stood in front of the mirror beside the front door and patted her naturally gray hair, cut short for practicality, and for the nth time, as Lenny would say, considered the strictness of her choices.  But she had no choices.  Lenny and his slimy broker, Bob Cusher, had made all her choices in the crash of 1987.  

Rose grabbed her everyday purse, really the only one she ever used, and carefully made her way down the flight of stairs to her building’s security door.  She checked the entry through the glass; looking left, then right, then left, and then right again, as she always did, making sure no predator skulked in the corner shadows.  Then she opened the big door slowly, so if someone did lunge she could slam it shut by letting go.  At the wrought iron gate Rose recommenced her right- and left-looking, while twisting the handle, pushing the gate and stepping out onto the sidewalk.

Suddenly, the rude young man from the fifth floor barged through the gate on her heels.  He wore ear plugs, sunglasses, a stocking cap, blue jeans, and a black shirt.  He ran by without a nod of courtesy for an old woman.  Rude!  On the street Rose kept her head up and her eyes moving, possessing her space just like Inspector Joe suggested, telling the murderers and muggers and rapists that she was aware, alert and ready with the mace can gripped, pale knuckled, inside her jacket pocket: no easy pickings here, you murderers and muggers and rapists.  She gave a wide berth to a urine-soaked homeless person, its sexual persuasion smothered by multiple shirts and sweaters and pants, each worn through to the next and black with filth.  It pushed a shopping cart brimming with greasy paper and empty milk cartons, clanging with black garbage bags of bottles and cans.  Rose watched it pass with her best right eye. 

The Syrian at the counter smiled and said his usual hi.  He reeked of the alien spices he ate.  Rose counted her change carefully, grabbed her quart of milk and said a stern thank you, with no kindness, mind you, don’t give him any ideas.  Show no weakness, that was the key.  On the trip back up the street the homeless man was gone, but a couple of young black men in dirty blue jeans and black t-shirts were arguing, yelling at that rude young man from the fifth floor, right in the middle of the sidewalk.  Rose did not approve of the young man, or his mother, a drunk that Rose had seen three times stumbling up the stairs, clutching her bottle like it could hold her up.  Rose carefully stepped off the curb.  Her heart beat in her ears as she walked a perfect half-ellipse around the knot of young men. 

She pulled her keys out before she reached her brown brick building.  A quick left, right, left, looking for trouble inside and out, as recommended, before opening the gate.  Inside the entry she relaxed a little.  Rose climbed the two steps to the security door and inserted her key.  Something dark attracted her attention.  It sat on the entry’s black and white tile floor in a triangle of shadow in the corner on her left, below the wall of tin mailboxes.  She backed her key out and bent down to see.  A gun.  “My God,” she blasphemed quietly.  It was a hand gun of some sort, maybe a .38, the same gun shown on all those Crime Scene shows.  Rose’s father had owned guns.  Lenny hadn’t touched one until the day he died. 

Rose bent down and picked up the gun.  It was too dangerous to leave lying around.  It was heavier than she’d anticipated.  When she heard someone clumping down the stairs inside, she quickly dropped the gun into her jacket pocket.  The weight pulled her jacket down on that side.  One of the kids from the new family on the third floor jumped down the last steps and held the door for her.  Rose said, “Thanks,” with a measure of meanness for the correct effect, and then she scuttled through, trying not to make eye contact with the young man, lest he see an opportunity.  She hurried up the stairs, unlocked her door, stepped inside her apartment, and then locked, bolted and chained the door again.

Rose placed the milk and her handbag on the kitchen counter and pulled the gun from her jacket pocket, hefting it in her hand, admiring the weight, the precise manufacture, how one piece fit another with hair-thin accuracy.  It was silvery, with a dark brown, deeply cross-hatched handle.  The gun represented the mathematics of matter and space turned to a simple purpose, something Lenny probably would have appreciated if his own relationship with a firearm had lasted longer than the time it took to blow his brains out.  She laid it on the table beside her TV chair.  

Rose put the milk away after pouring herself a small glass and drinking it.  She washed the glass out and put it in the strainer.  During the rest of that day, and into the night, Rose gazed at the gun more than she did her TV.  In the middle of Real Life Forensics she picked it up again and carefully turned the cylinder, listening to the clean clicks as each chamber came in line with the barrel.  She opened the chamber and was surprised to find it loaded.  She turned the cylinder some more, counting six brass and steel bullets.  Their ends looked like tiny Muni tokens without the SF cutouts.  When Rose went to bed she took the gun with her, laying it on her bedside table, pointing it toward her bedroom door.  Its single eye kept guard as she slept.

The next morning Rose felt restless during the KRON news, so she concocted an appetite for poached eggs and put on her light blue jacket, carefully placing the gun in one pocket.  She exited through the security door without looking left or right and did the same with the security gate.  She turned toward the Syrian’s store, but a crash startled her, stopped her.  The rude young man from the fifth floor had caught the gate and swung the wrought iron back hard, smashing it against the cage.

 “Young man!” she yelled, grasping the gun inside her pocket, laying her finger gently over the trigger, envisioning Crime Scene and all the after-facts, condensed to two dimensions, wrapped up in an hour: self defense, old woman is a hero.  She caught his attention despite the earplugs.  He scraped off his headset along with his stocking cap, revealing a wild flash of blond hair.  “What?” he said, grimacing as if she’d hurt him.

“Young man,” she repeated, not sure what she’d started.  “Young man, you shouldn’t bang the gate like that. You could wreck it,” she said, catching up with herself, but unable to think of a better word than ‘wreck’.  Lenny would have known the warp and weft to a degree of centimeters.  Her grip on the gun tightened.

The rude young man from the fifth floor smiled “Oh, hey,” he said, his cheeks dimpling and flushing at the same time.  “I’m sorry.”  Rose felt relief wash through her.  She let go of the trigger as if it were hot.  He was a handsome, man-sized child.  He shuffled from one foot to the next, expending all that energy like it was free and forever.  “Sorry, I mean, I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said, laughing. Rose appreciated that he described the matter better than she had.  He had startled her, made her grab the gun.  She didn’t give a whit about the gate.

“I get so distracted, listening to the tracks.”  He grinned and spread his arms.  With a rather graceful swing of one hand he pointed a finger at his belt and a little box clipped there.  “I produce videos, you know,” and he bent at the knees, pointing both fingers to either side of Rose’s head.  “And these tracks just blow me away, like, I’m composing videos in my head, you know?  It’s…it’s…you know, it’s like wild, you know?”

Rose nodded at the young man from the fifth floor.  Actually, she did know.  Lenny used to talk about his math like that, trying to think of words that didn’t exist.  “Yes,” she said, admitting her connection.  “Yes, I do know.  My name is Rose.”  She held out her trigger hand.

The young man from the fifth floor took her hand and tugged it gently.  He pushed a bang off his forehead.  “Glad.  My tag’s Kyle.  Nice-to-meetcha.”

“Nice to meet you, Kyle.”  Nothing given away, nothing risked, that was the key.  But Rose could afford a smile.  She had the gun.  Kyle nodded and restored the cap and the earplugs in one fluid motion that ended as a wave goodbye.  His gawky legs propelled him quickly around the corner.

She started toward the Syrian’s store.  She watched the new homeless person making the rounds of their block.  His/her bags of cans and bottles seemed to register the same level of clanking as yesterday, as if he/she hadn’t turned anything in for cash, maybe never turned anything in, keeping the black bags as a savings account against the storm.  As if living in filth was not a rainy day, everyday.  Rose touched her gun, running a finger along the barrel, across the hammer, down the spine of the grip.  She looked up into a cloudless sky wedged between the brick fronts and anchored cornices of the Tenderloin.

Rose discovered that the Syrian lived in back of the store. He was the only one watching the store, so he couldn’t enjoy the beautiful day except to stand or sit on his cement stoop.  Yes, going to the bathroom did entail a certain risk. He laughed and smiled and bowed to her as she exited with a half dozen eggs.  She didn’t even complain about the outrageous price.

Was it the gun? she thought.  Did it allow her to look at the world again?  To see the sky and everything below it in terms wider than her fears.  The weight in her jacket pocket felt like an invisible shield.  Young people being loud and brash passed her by and she didn’t alter her trajectory at all.  She walked around the block, observing her neighbors.  She’d forgotten how much she enjoyed watching people. 

The next day Rose skipped her morning TV altogether and caught a bus to the Mechanics Library on the edge of San Francisco’s Financial District.  She took the gun.  She hadn’t been downtown since Lenny died, but managed to find her way around just as well as twenty years ago.  Rose used the library’s computerized card catalog to locate a good book on handgun safety.  She spent the morning in the airy reading hall on the second floor, sitting at one of the soaring windows, enjoying the warm sunshine, periodically looking up from her book to watch the pedestrians on Market Street.  The gun book said that handguns should be cleaned regularly whether or not they were used.  Rose had no idea how long it had been since her gun’s last cleaning. 

That night she watched the news without cringing at the images of murder and mayhem.    The next morning, Rose took the bus downtown again, this time passing the Mechanics Library.  She exited at Post and Montgomery, following Montgomery a block to Market.  One of the historical F Line trains rolled past, its steel wheels screaming so loud everyone on the street winced.   She crossed Market and walked up the slight hill between Montgomery and Kearny to the Boulangerie Café.  Rose used to join Lenny and his friends there for lunch.  She’d been a little surprised it was still in business after twenty years. 

She picked up a meager breakfast of Earl Grey tea and a bran muffin and sat outside, watching people. Two young Asian men in leather jackets brought their coffees to the next table, glancing at her in a way that once would have had her ducking her eyes and clutching her mace. But now she didn’t mind, she stared back.  The weight in her jacket pocket rested comfortably against her thigh.   “Enjoying the weather, gentlemen?” she called to them as the tall one looked at her again. “Uh, yeah,” he said.  “Too nice for class.”  His partner ignored them both and stood, joining the pedestrian flow down Market.  “Enjoy your day,” she said to the tall one as he jogged to catch up with his companion.

The next morning, after cleaning her tea cup, Rose sat in front of the TV without turning it on.  She cleaned the gun thoroughly with a chamois and some household oil.  She dressed in her best dark pants suit.  In her day she’d been the daring one to wear a pants suit, now all the women wore them.  Rose emptied her everyday purse onto the kitchen counter.  From the pile she pulled a few dollars and some bus tokens, and put them in her jacket pocket.  She pulled on her best white gloves and put the gun in the purse.   She took the bus downtown.  At the Boulangerie Café, she picked up a cup of Earl Grey, and took the same seat on the patio beside Market Street.  Everything was perfect.  The morning was clear and cool.  The sidewalks were jammed with nine-to-fivers clutching Starbucks cups.  She waited for one of the F Line trains to trundle forward from the intersection at Kearny.  Its wheels ground the rails, sounding like a giant baby’s scream.  Rose cradled her purse with her left hand.  She put her right hand inside her purse and stood.  She turned to face the table next to her.

“Bob Cusher?” she asked the man sitting there sipping coffee and reading the Wall Street Journal.  She had to be sure.  She’d seen him take the same seat, at about the same time the last two days. 

“What?” he said, squinting, wincing at the sound of the train.

Rose braced herself and pulled the trigger three times fast, watching calmly as the slugs bloomed like red roses on Bob’s white shirt front.  The impacts threw him backward.  Rose took a deep breath, clutched her purse to her waist and strolled into the flow of pedestrians.  Behind her someone screamed.  Rose kept walking, slowly removing the white gloves and dropping them into her purse.  She walked all the way to the Embarcadero.  The sirens of at least five police cruisers were tearing toward the Boulangerie Café.  Rose crossed Embarcadero at the light and turned right, walking three blocks to the pedestrian pier next to the Waterfront Restaurant.  A couple of young men were fishing in the bay at the end of the pier.  Rose walked almost to the end.  She leaned over the railing and, making sure no one was looking, dropped her purse with the gun and the gloves into the bay.  The little black bag made a small splash and sank immediately.

Rose filled her lungs with moist bay air and tried to relax.  She remembered that horrible look on Lenny’s face when all the margin calls started coming in.  She remembered him swearing at Bob Cusher for talking him into buying stock on margin.  And then she imagined Inspector Joe Spangle going over her crime scene.  There’d be witnesses, lots of them, but the shooting happened so fast their descriptions would be all over the map.  That’s how Inspector Joe would have described it.  The forensic evidence would be there, fragments from her purse, the bullets, stray hair, all the millions of bits of potential evidence found in a public place, but without a suspect to measure them against, they’d merely point to a blank.  Rose had an association with Bob Cusher, through Lenny, one that could be checked if the police bothered to contact every widow of every client he’d had in the last twenty years.  She doubted they would.  It was, she hoped, the perfect murder – quick, in a public place, seemingly random, with the murder weapon permanently disposed of.  Rose walked back up to Market Street and caught the 5 Hayes as it turned off Front.  With luck she could still make it home in time for the afternoon episode of New York Crime Scene.

John Randall Williams

John Randall Williams is a writer living and working on Cobb Mountain. He has had numerous short stories published and is currently working on a novel to be published this year. He enjoys long walks on mountain trails and sampling local wines, not necessarily at the same time. His email is jwilli1894@yahoo.com.

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