Short story by George Wynn
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he sky is dark and threatening. Nevertheless, golf balls are whizzing by on the greens of Harding Park in San Francisco. Lloyd is walking around Lake Merced, like he does every morning. There is a glimmer of a smile on his face while he lets a cherished memory run through his mind.
It seems like yesterday, but in reality it all happened three years ago, back in 2009, the afternoon he heard the commotion up at the Stonestown Mall.
‘’Lady, lady, you can’t sleep here!”
The bony, 40ish woman yawned, small book on her lap, and eyed the Stonestown Borders employee as disdainfully as he regarded her. “Lady, get going or I’m calling security.”
She sighed heavily, but made no attempt to get up. Her body language said: “I can’t take it anymore. I hate this life.”
In the chair across from her, Lloyd could have just continued reading Paul Bowles’ story “The Delicate Prey” and not stepped in, but of course he did. He stood up and approached her and nonchalantly said, “Ma’am would you care to have lunch at America’s finest dining establishment, McDonalds?”
She shook her head with a bemused look. “Sir, you have got yourself a lunch partner. And I do thank you.”
He hooked his arm in hers and they walked out, to the astonished looks of the Borders employees and gawking patrons.
Her leading man
The wind off Lake Merced gusted behind the Borders bookstore cafe, only a few steps away from McDonald’s. The wind died down quickly. Lloyd unhooked his arm from hers before they entered.
“How’s my acting?” said Lloyd.
“Honey, you can be my leading man any day.”
Lloyd smiled at that.
“My name’s Molly,” she said, sticking out her hand firmly.
“Lloyd. Pleased to meet you,” he said, feeling the sweat of her hand.
Molly ordered a chicken sandwich with large fries and coffee. Lloyd settled for a veggie salad and a carton of milk.
Molly drank her coffee fast. “I like the rush of caffeine.”
“I see,” said Lloyd with a baffled look.
Lloyd finished off the last of his salad while Molly nibbled on a French fry.
“Thank you for lunch,” she said. Lloyd nodded and reached for his milk. She gave a small grin. “You’re a good man Lloyd.”
He shrugged off the compliment and took a sip of milk. “No, just a silly, retired, meddling man.”
“What kind of work did you do, Lloyd?”
“I taught deaf youngsters for 30 years.”
“Did you like it?”
“Yes I did, very much.”
“What did you like about it?”
Lloyd raised his eyes as if he was reflecting, but didn’t say anything.
Molly repeated her question. “Lloyd…”
“I’m getting there,” Lloyd said, gesturing with his hand as if to say, hold on a minute.
“You all right Lloyd?”
He nodded and let out a few breaths, light as feathers. “Well, after I returned from overseas, I tried to block out all the terrible sounds of war, so I felt very comfortable with people who couldn’t hear. In a certain way, I even envied them.
“How about you?” Lloyd asked. “What’s your story?”
Molly eyed Lloyd’s tight fists and how he slowly unwound them. He was a man who understood pain and suffering, she was sure of that.
Disowned, alone, on her own
She replied, “I’m a country girl, Lloyd. Grew up in a small town in Kentucky. My father was a fire-and-brimstone preacher. I couldn’t date or even go to the movies (the devil’s pictures, he called them). I left home when I was seventeen and never been back. He disowned me anyway.
“I started out waitressing, then worked in factories up and down the East Coast. Fell in love with a dope addict in New York City who turned me on to the hard stuff and I got hooked. Stole money and jewelry, did a little stint in jail and wound up on mean streets U.S.A. and shelter heaven.”
“You got a place to stay now, Molly?”
“Yeah. I got a shelter bed.”
“That’s good,” said Lloyd.
“Nothing’s good,” said Molly. “I’m HIV, Lloyd.”
“That doesn’t exclude you from the human race,” said Lloyd firmly.
“I’m clean now, Lloyd.”
“That’s a start.”
“Start to what? I ain’t got no future, my life’s over.”
Lloyd didn’t say anything, just stared into her eyes. “What do you see in my eyes?” asked Molly.
“I see the drooping eyelids of sleepless despair. That’s all.” Lloyd closed his eyes then opened them. “I see a woman who society forgot.”
She put her head on the table, then looked up with wet eyes. “Anything else?”
“I see a woman struggling to comfort her fear.”
“You see a lot, Lloyd.”
“No. I just lived a long time, maybe too long.”
He stood up and patted her on the shoulder. “Will I see you at Borders tomorrow at two o’clock?”
Molly looked up. “Yeah,” she said in a slow voice. “I’d like that.”
“Okay then, see you.”
Lloyd took a step to leave and Molly shouted out, “Lloyd!” He turned around. “You are the strangest man,” she said.
“I know,” he said and walked out the door to his small apartment near the mall.
He took off his shirt and looked in the mirror. Body still as hard and solid as a 45-year-old man even though he was 65. Doing 75 push-ups in the morning and 100 sit-ups at night helped. He’d always stayed in shape since he’d seen the fitness guru, Jack LaLanne, on TV when he was a kid. Lloyd smiled to himself. He still had all his hair, although the blond, thick shock had now turned snow white.
Next day, at two o’clock, Molly was sitting again in the same chair in Borders. She regularly liked to escape the hubbub of downtown tension and take the M Streetcar out to Stonestown Mall.
Seeing her there, Lloyd smiled at her as if she were an old friend. She smiled back with a slight laugh. She had placed her red shoulder purse on the seat next to her as if to save it for someone.
Lloyd handed her the purse and sat down. “I like your outfit,” he said. Molly was wearing red Converse high-tops, faded pink jeans and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. “Makes you look younger.”
“I’m 46, Lloyd.”
“That’s a good age.”
“You really think I look alright?”
“You look good,” said Lloyd, like he really meant it. Molly had a pretty face and exceptionally high cheekbones that radiated femininity.
Sunshine days in the park
It was summer, and it was fairly warm and sunny. Wherever there was a green blade of grass, Molly seemed more relaxed. Day in and day out, they spent time together talking and walking and driving out to the botanical gardens in Lloyd’s used Toyota Corolla. They’d wander around the arboretum and Golden Gate Park and Molly would pick flowers for herself and Lloyd, whether it was legal or not. Lloyd would merely look the other way and smile at this mild indiscretion.
One Sunday, Molly seemed less talkative than usual when she looked into Lloyd’s eyes and said, “I feel very ashamed of myself and the life I led.”
“You shouldn’t,” said Lloyd.
“I was very much in need of a friend, and then you came along,” said Molly and handed Lloyd some flowers. “It’s soothing to know that somebody really cares if I live or die.”
Lloyd looked at her knowingly for many minutes, rubbed his eyebrows and said, “Time for ice cream,” and they walked to the mall for a treat.
“You make me feel like a kid,” she said, licking her strawberry cone with gusto.
“Thinking young, that’s always good,” smiled Lloyd.
Then they stepped into a record store and Lloyd browsed at a Hank Williams CD. “I was raised on that music,” said Molly. “What do you like about him?”
“He told the truth.”
“Yes, he did,” said Molly.
Lloyd purchased the CD and a player on sale and batteries, and listened to it on the street for 15 minutes. Then he put the player and CD in the bag and handed it to Molly. “Enjoy your roots.”
“Ah Lloyd, thanks, but how come you never want nothing in return?”
“I’m just an old-fashioned sucker.”
“No, you’re not, you’re a northern gentleman. “You remind me of my grandpa.”
“That old huh,” chuckled Lloyd.
“That kind,” smiled Molly.
“My joy is in sharing,” said Lloyd.
Molly pulled her wallet from her shoulder purse and slipped a black-and-white photo of herself into Lloyd’s hand. “I want you to have this,” she said, looking at him with tender respect.
Lloyd nodded. “Thank you very much.”
Suddenly for two weeks Molly disappeared. Each day Lloyd would go to Borders, but no Molly. Then one afternoon she appeared, sitting in her usual chair, looking weary and frail. When Lloyd saw the lesions on her face and arms, he knew.
Molly’s hard news
“Sit down Lloyd, I could use some comforting.”
“It’s good to see you again,” said Lloyd, patting her shoulder. “What have you been doing?”
“Watching my life float down the gutter.” She coughed. “I got the harsh news that I got AIDS.”
Their looks connected but Lloyd remained silent. She shook her head. “I been thinking about you, Lloyd. I’m always thinking about you.”
“I’ve been worried about you, Molly.”
“My sores are vile, Lloyd. Do they bother you?”
“They’re not vile, they’re rotten luck. Listen Molly, I was in a veterans hospital with soldiers with no limbs. So why would some little lesions bother me?” He held her hands in a fatherly manner and gave her an assuring smile.
“I don’t want to die, Lloyd,” she said.
Flashbacks of Vietnam
He squeezed his fists, flashing back to the horrifying screams of innocent, dying, young soldiers in Vietnam, pleading for their mothers. So hard to stay calm in crisis situations, Lloyd thought to himself.
“The doctor said I might have to go to the hospital pretty soon. If things get worse, the nurse said hospice might be in the cards for me.” Her voice had a grave tone. “I hate my body. I failed it.” She sighed. “What would you call my predicament, Lloyd?”
“Like I said — rotten luck. Life is so unfair.”
“I’m bitter Lloyd.”
Lloyd braced himself. “Enough talking,” he said. “Let me buy you some hot chocolate in the mall.”
Molly rubbed her eyes and said, “That sounds fine Lloyd.” She finished the rest of her hot chocolate and reached up to wipe the stream of tears from her face. Lloyd handed her several napkins.
“I don’t feel well, Lloyd. I think the Good Lord will take me pretty soon.” Becoming irritated, she said, “I don’t want to go to no hospital or hospice.”
Molly’s tragic eyes
Lloyd looked into her tragic eyes and said, “You can stay with me a few days.”
He let her sleep in his bedroom while he slept on the couch. For two days he cooked for her, and his warm hands smoothed her forehead. He tried to keep her spirits up. She was weak but not overly so.
“I want to give up Lloyd,” she pouted.
Lloyd spoke slowly and firmly, “Never give up Molly.”
Often she’d stare out into the distance as if she were looking beyond the world or just looked at him for a long while. At these moments, a profound silence would take possession of the apartment.
She hadn’t been sleeping well, but weariness got the better of her and she fell into a deep sleep in the bedroom. Lloyd had an oppressive dream and was in turmoil.
At last the day dawned. He rose from the couch, dressed quickly, put on his shoes and went to check on Molly.
Her face was rigid. He shook her hard and pounded on her pulse, but she did not come to. He touched her arm and shoulder. They felt cold. He grasped the fingers of her hand. They were ice cold and stiff and her heartbeat was no longer audible.
She was dead, and Lloyd heard the screams of war inside his head again. He breathed heavily and grasped her hand for the final time and said, “Goodbye Molly. You were a good friend.”
He opened his desk drawer. Next to his medals, he fingered the black-and-white photo of Molly and then mutely kissed it. He treasured the photo more than the medals. Tears were slowly rolling down his cheeks and for the first time in his life he did not try to keep them back.
Lloyd has almost circled the lake when he remembers Molly once saying “Lloyd, it’s a tough old world.”
He bows his head and doesn’t lengthen his stride as the rain comes pouring down.
He thinks to himself, in the imagination anything is possible. He imagines Molly as a spiritual companion buried deep inside himself. All of a sudden he hears her voice: “For God’s sake, Lloyd. Get out of the rain!”
Amid a deep stillness he raises his chin, lengthens his stride and breaks into a run.
In Praise of Older Hungry Women
by George Wynn
In the San Francisco of the 1950s
older ladies wore gloves
shopping at the Emporium
Now we see on Market Street
older ladies with outstretched palms
and worn-out clothes with cardboard
“give what you can” calling cards
in front of them reminding us of
Dorothea Lange’s ruined women
of the Great Depression
If you and I enter a trance
to escape the image of
their present circumstance
and go back in time we might see
young dreamy faces even after
a hard day’s work on the factory line
or young hearts sore but full of fight
after a long day of blows on
a post-war picket line
Who knows, we just might get a
true picture of their elegance