My feet pounded the pavement. Four blocks to go to finish three miles. By this hour lights were off in most stores. Midnight was not my preferred running time, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
“Hey bitch,” an angry voice yelled in my ear as a heavy weight crashed into me. I landed hard, sprawled flat on the pavement. Knees throbbing, palms scraped and…damn this was gonna mess up my time.
“Mind your own business,” the voice screamed. I raised my head a few inches from the pavement just in time to see a hooded large figure turn the corner. His fist pumped the air.
“Screw you,” I yelled to the now empty sidewalk, sounding far tougher than I felt.
“Are you all right?” A white-haired gentleman with a kind face bent down. He held a shopping bag of groceries in one hand as he helped me up with the other.
“ Just bruises I hope.” I tested my legs. “Did you see that guy?”
“I saw what he did. Might have been a woman though, that kind of run. Couldn’t see a face. Came from the corner over there.” He pointed down the block. “Whoever it was aimed for you like a torpedo. Slammed right into you. Lunatics are all over. I wouldn’t run at night if I were you.”
“Thanks,” I said, surprised he thought this was some random looney. The phrase,“Mind your own business,” had been blasted with my name all over it. I was almost proud. I’d gone from being boring to thriller-worthy in a really short time. I guess this meant I was getting close to the truth. But no attacker was going to stop me from writing the end of the story. Or from running. I picked up my speed.
Never eat ingredients you can’t pronounce. Except quinoa. You should eat quinoa – Melanie Deming
His lips met mine, warm, accepting, passionate. The glorious kiss touched every part….
“What happened to the crème fraiche? Are you still asleep?” Hurricane Daniel stomped through the bedroom, roaring through my dream.
“Nice wake-up call.” I jumped out of bed, grabbed a sweater from the closet and jeans thrown over a chair last night. I splashed water on my face but my lips still felt that kiss.
Whose lips were those anyway? Dreams were too vague. They should come with screen credits.
I stuck my head into our daughter Chloe’s room to check on her progress, and continued to the kitchen, also known as the war zone.
“It’s gone. This is a disaster.” Daniel was in desperate search mode with his head in the fridge searching for heavy clotted cream. The only catastrophe was that this stuff existed. I saw the container from five feet away.
“Here it is. Disaster relief.” I gingerly picked it up. “You do know this has eleven grams of fat and two grams of protein in two tablespoons, right?”
“That’s why it tastes good. Spare me the lecture.” Daniel dropped down into a carved chair at the oak table. He dumped the entire container of solid white gook on strawberries.
My husband should have been born an English Lord of the Manor in a different century. Then every morning a groaning sideboard laden with clotted cream, goose egg delicacies, and large slabs of freshly homemade bread would greet him. Instead he lived with me, an overly zealous health nut, in an old apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The downstairs buzzer signaled the school bus. Chloe raced out of the bathroom, past the kitchen yelling “bye.”and down the stairs where I saw her off on the bus. She had breakfast at the Huntley Private School which was like dining at The Plaza. Daniel’s mother footed the bill for the outrageous tuition at the school, which had been her alma mater.
Three more times up and down the four flights to our apartment brought my step count to twelve hundred. I was feeling pretty good about myself until a new neighbor, all bones, ran up beside me.
“Race you to the roof,” he yelled zooming past to the sixteenth floor.
“Knock yourself out,” I gasped. This is a really competitive city. I walked in the back door to our kitchen.
“Who does he think he’s kidding? Three stars? I’ve eaten there twenty times. The chicken’s like straw and the fettuccine alfredo is glue. His Prozac’s making him giddy.” Daniel was reading a rival food critic’s review in the New York Times.
“Doesn’t all fettuccine alfredo taste like glue?” I sniped.
Daniel looked up. “It’s a good thing I have taste buds for both of us.”
“And a stomach to match,” I stared at his paunch. This was usual breakfast jousting.
Maybe the weight gain was an occupational hazard. Daniel was a nationally known food writer. We were the odd couple, like Oscar and Felix. I cooked vegetables. He made anything just off the hoof like oxtail stew or tripe.
Why was this odd couple together? Wouldn’t I have been happier with a bike riding pescatarian and he with a Rachel Ray? The short answer was that it had a lot to do with orgasms. Orgasms were more important than food 12 years ago. Orgasms and a guy who could support himself. Daniel worked on both counts. Money still mattered, but sex? Twenty-five year olds should not make big decisions.
Daniel picked up his bowl and walked over to me. Holding the bowl with one hand, he kissed the back of my neck. “How about we go back to bed and I’ll stop eating.”
“You know I’d love to.” Probably the most popular white lie said by women to their men. I stared into his brown eyes trying to bore into me seductively. “But I teach this morning. And I have fencing.”
He nodded and went back to his clotted cream. Sure I could have skipped the gym, but a beard that dripped white gook was not a turn on. I grabbed a goat yogurt, (eight grams of protein, four grams fat), and went into the foyer to pack up supplies for the class – jars of jelly beans, flowers in vases, stuffed animals.
This gig was the latest in a long list of embarrassing jobs I’d had in the last nine years. Creative writing for toddlers. The very name made me twitch. Helene, the deceitful Association President, called it writing and parents believed her. I’d been an editor at a magazine, and sold a screenplay years ago. This job was the very lowest point in my resume, but I needed the money.
It was now 7:45. I had to be at the playground by 9:10. That left one hour for en-garde, riposte and lunging. Aggression and your butt get worked at the same time.
“Daniel,” I called out with one foot out the door. “I’m leaving.I signed up for a screenplay writing workshop for six weeks on Tuesday nights. We’ll need a sitter.”
“What? No….” he called to the closing door. I was down the stairs. Daniel didn’t get why I needed a course. “Just write,” he said. As if creating a screenplay was the same as describing lobster bisque. Anyway, he just wanted me home with him and Chloe.
Outside I relished the fresh air and a delicious sense of freedom. Indian summer had arrived. Late September’s cooling Canadian breezes eased out New York’s oppressive summer. And now I would see my crush, my secret fantasy, Ralph.
Looking up, the sun was visible through a thin screen of haze, and a quarter moon left over from last night’s sky. Around the moon was a reddish halo. What was that old poem? Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. A shiver went through me. Maybe the reddish halo was a bad omen. Or maybe I was getting sick. Damn, I forgot to take my ten vitamins running out like that. I popped two vitamin C’s.
At the gym I wrestled my too thick auburn hair into a lumpy pony tail and threw on a T shirt and leggings. Marta, our group’s Russian coach, ran through en-gardes and lunges till sweat poured down my face. Let’s just say we didn’t look like the Three Musketeers.
Class ended. I showered, dressed and left for the park. 8:55
“Have a good day.” Blanca nodded to me. Blanca was the newest of the club receptionists, a middle-aged blonde with dark roots and an olive complexion and after only two weeks, a history of lateness. Since there was no one at the desk when I arrived, she’d been late again. I gave her one more week before she joined the long list of fired employees.
On the way to the park, I relaxed from the morning by listening to a ten minute meditation.
“I love myself unconditionally. Breathe. I try to be positive in all interactions. Breathe.” My next interaction was with Ralph, the playground caretaker. I’d like to be more than positive with him, at least in my dreams.
I arrived at Riverside Drive and 91st Street, the park entrance to get to the playground and the cute red brick building that housed the class for kids. Riverside Park was Central Park’s less famous Manhattan cousin. But it boasted miles of views of the Hudson River.
4790 steps. 9: 05.
Old beech and oak trees in leafy foliage made a dark heavy curtain on the steep hill that led down to the playground. It would be noon before the sun would light up the park this far west. I couldn’t see Ralph around the swings.
The park was eerily empty today. City people don’t like quiet empty spaces. Drop us on a mountain top in Maine and we’ll see muggers behind every tree. Quiet is bad and people mean safety. Today it was so silent I could hear my heart pound.
Fortunately I had my secret weapon. I patted the illegal Mace in my pocket and felt reassured. Still, I walked quickly down the hill to the playground.
The gate was closed. This was odd. Ralph always left it wide open. I pushed on the gate and it easily swung clear of the lock. So he was here. But where?
“Hey Ralph, save me a donut,” I called out, a standing joke between us. The last thing I’d eat before starving would be a donut. My dire warnings about the perils of sugar were well known but not appreciated.
Ralph did not respond. I headed toward the class building. Where was he? This was too many changes. I never liked change unless I caused it.
From here on everything happened so fast. Jars of jelly beans, flowers, vases shattered into pieces as they hit the ground. Why did that happen? What klutz let them fall? Part of my brain thought all the rolling colors were pretty. The other didn’t understand how they got there. There was so much broken glass. I looked again and understood what my eyes and hands saw before my mind caught up.
Feet. Ominous, quiet feet in work boots stuck out past some bushes next to the storage building. Dead feet. I shivered. My hands, free now, reached into my pocket. I grabbed the Mace, and sprayed everything in front of me. I covered my face as I walked as close as I dared to the boots.
“Ralph. Where are you? What the heck’s going on?”
Then something moved. Maybe twenty feet away. In the woods beyond the building, near a hole in the wire fence. That hole should have been fixed years ago. You could get in when the front gate was locked, if you knew it was there. I was far away, but I swear I saw a glint of an eye watching me. I stared, determined to see into the thick woods. The eye disappeared but definitely something moved this time. It was too big to be a squirrel. No deer lived in Manhattan. There was a coyote loose in the Bronx. Coyote or a killer in New York City? My bet was on a murderer.
No crazed psycho was going to take me down at only 4,790 steps. I turned and ran fast around the holly bushes, around the path where it merged into the larger walkway, and up the hill. My legs really moved but my sneaker caught on the edge of the uneven pavement. When I fell my knee slammed against the concrete upraised edge of the flower bed. Pain raced up my leg.
I needed help. A jogger ran past on the nearby promenade. “Stop, please,” I shouted. His head turned in my direction but he kept going. I had to get control of myself. I took a deep breath and stood up. The knee hurt badly when I put weight on it, dizziness overwhelmed me.
After the second breath I thought the man lying there might not be dead. Maybe Ralph went to get help. I didn’t get close enough to see a face. It could be a homeless guy on drugs. That happened everywhere, why not here? A flush of embarrassment made my neck feel like an oven was on somewhere. Or maybe Ralph had a heart attack and I just left him. Or he could be in a diabetic coma after all that sugar.
Whoever it was, someone was in trouble and I ran away. I shouldn’t bring in the cops without knowing. We could all get fired. But what about the glint of an eye in the leaves, maybe someone in the woods just waited for my return. I wasn’t brave, living without any caffeine or sugar. Childbirth was the only brave moment in my life, but really if I could have hired someone to go through it for me, I would have.
Damn, my knee hurt. I spotted a large branch on the ground, picked it up. I automatically assumed the en garde position.
“What are you doing?” My feet shifted and I lunged in the direction of the voice.
“Hey, cut that out.” Louisa ducked nicely before I could impale her with the stick. Just as well that my aim was off and my lunge was too weak.
She squinted at me. “You look awful.” Louisa was my assistant teacher and my friend who was supposed to wear glasses. “You’re crying?”
I didn’t feel the tears till now. “Oh Louisa, I’m so glad to see you. Something’s wrong. Come on.” I limped back to the playground. We arrived there and saw the jagged shards of glass and jelly beans.
“What happened?” Louisa looked confused.
“Call me butterfingers. Over here.” I pulled her like a kid who tried to get mom to look at the store window. We were close enough now and saw the entire body. We knew immediately who it was. Louisa screamed. The scream was a solid 10. It filled the playground with its shock and horror.
“Shh!” What was I saying shush for? Like we’d wake him? I held Louisa’s arm. Ralph did not stir. I peered carefully into the woods this time. All was quiet. Whoever, or whatever had been there was gone. It was Ralph. Wonderful Ralph was lying there.
“But what’s happened to him? Melanie, it’s something bad. Let’s get the police. This is not for us.” Louisa pulled at my arm.
But I couldn’t move. Ralph lay motionless on the ground, his still form bluntly confronted us. I started sobbing. Louisa’s eyes filled with tears too. “Oh there, there, mamacita,” she said, little one in Spanish. My father in his casket flashed before me. I shivered.
“We have to see if he’s alive or not.” But we both knew the answer. His face was grotesquely distorted, eyes wide, mouth unnaturally gaped open.
“Mama mia, I don’t want to touch him,” gasped Louisa. She crossed herself.
“I don’t either, but we have to.” I knelt by Ralph’s heart. Between the pain in my leg and the sight before me, nausea made me gag. Blood trickled out of the left side of his scalp. Blood was all over his head and underneath, a pool of it. And there was an awful smell. Bile came up in my throat. I looked away and took a gulp of fresher air. I turned back holding my breath. “Louisa, can you do this with me?” She reached out a trembling hand and together we picked up his wrist. It felt like meat left out on a warm day-clammy, slightly warm. There was no pulse. I couldn’t bring myself to listen for a heartbeat.
“Ralph, Ralph,” I called into his ear. I’d never been this close to his face before. I fought back an urge to stroke his cheek.
“Melanie, he’s gone. We’ve got to call the police,” Louisa said softly.
“Yes, yes you’re right.” I was relieved she was there to stop me from shaking him. Wake up goddammit. Please don’t be dead. Wake up so this will just be a bad dream and disappear.
“We have to call the police,” Louisa said again, but louder this time.
“Okay. I’ll go. Watch out for kids coming. Keep everyone out of here.” If I didn’t get away from his body, I’d throw up all over the crime scene. This looked like a murder, not a death from an accident or natural causes.
I used the branch as a cane and limped around the storage room. I got to the entrance of the larger classroom building. The door was open. I peered inside, cautiously flicked on the lights. I ran to the bathroom and lost the contents of breakfast. Disgusting. Purple cutouts of dinosaurs watched me.
I dropped into a tiny chair, tried to breathe, and dialed 911 for the first time in my life. “Police, help!” I yelled when a woman answered. “A man’s been killed!” Not just a man–Ralph, my friend, my secret fantasy.
“Hold on miss,” a bored voice responded. “How do you know?”
“How do I know? Do I have to pass a medical exam? There’s blood all over, no pulse, get me the police this minute!” My screaming helped. In moments I gave the location of the playground to a Sergeant Murphy.
I grabbed a blanket we kept for picnics. Back outside, children’s voices wafted down the hill. Louisa and I lay the blanket over Ralph’s body. “The police are coming. Stay here. I’ve got to stop the kids.”
Up the pathway two members of my class were in sight. Nicole Bender, with her son Jason and his friend Cody in tow. Nicole was trying to act as if it was easy to totter down a steep hill wearing 3 inch heels. Nicole, a parent with an exaggerated sense of entitlement who I loathed, gave me the sense each week that I had not lived up to her expectations as a teacher or a fashionista.
The children looked puzzled by my walking stick. “The playground is closed this morning. There’s been a problem. The class has been canceled.” Nicole’s outraged expression was amusing, or would be. Absolutely nothing in life was ever as important as what she wanted this very minute. I gave her my still being worked on contemptuous look.
“What do you mean there’s been a problem? What am I supposed to do with the boys?” She snarled, teeth bared. “I have an appointment. You’ll just have to keep them until I get back.” She folded her arms across her clinging white low cut shirt. I had waited for this moment. This was the invitation I needed.
“I’m not one of your housekeepers, bitch.” Bitch was mumbled because of the kids but it still felt good. “The kids can’t be here. Try being a mother for a change. Or a human being,” I yelled. Too bad she didn’t hear me. The sound of wailing sirens pierced the morning quiet. Even Nicole kept her mouth shut as we watched five police cars from three different directions speed down the paths, across the promenade and past the walkway lined with cherry trees covered with rotting fruit.
Like Nascar choreography, all the cars squealed to a stop at precisely the same time. I walked toward them feeling guilty, as I usually did around police. They’ll think I did it, and before I could explain I’d have handcuffs on and be locked in a jail cell for the rest of my life. Which terrified me, but was tempting. I might get to finish a screenplay.