Tom Cuthbert opened his garage door. A light snow topped the denuded branches of his crabapples and lay like a pale gauze over his yard. Winter’s depressing, steely-hued clouds clung tenaciously to the lake and its surroundings, still chafed about the warm air that had broken their hold a few weeks earlier. But Tom knew spring was coming soon, could feel it in the subtle stretch of his joints and muscles, even without turning the page of his calendar.
He pulled threadbare woolen gloves over his thick, strong fingers. One hand grabbed the garbage can, the other his recycling bin. A Wednesday morning ritual, repeated for the past fifteen years. The wheels on his garbage can bumped and thumped, a cacophony of sound he hoped for the umpteenth time didn’t rouse his closest neighbors, who he imagined snuggled in their beds or sipped their morning brews. He made a mental note, for the umpteenth time, to call city services and request a quieter receptacle.
Across the street, Colleen Spiardi hurried down her driveway to the tree lawn, grasping tightly the lapels of a quilted black coat over a red fleece robe. Brown furry Uggs sat midcalf, her skinny white legs resembling leafless twigs. She turned his way. Tom waved, chuckling at the impossible invisibility he knew she hoped for. Colleen stooped, retrieved the Plain Dealer, and walked briskly back to her door.
She did see him, Tom was sure. Tom positioned the cans and returned to his garage.
Another cup of coffee would help him shake off the cold.
In his sitting room next to the kitchen, he sat with his back to a window spanning the wall. Tom turned on his computer. Behind him, a side yard separated his house from the Jensen’s, their dining room window facing his back. He set his Impeach the Mother Fucker Already mug down, the coffee’s aroma warming a lingering chill. Tom read the latest Economist, its analyses of Europe’s impending climate crises. An Op-Ed analyzed the varying narratives around a respectable politician who left office due to a rumor, and the inability to persuade voters otherwise.
Tom sipped the last sugary drop of his dark roast coffee. He paused before opening his photo album. He scrolled backwards in time. When he’d bought the colonial in North Olmsted years back, he didn’t explain to his neighbors why he lived alone, middle aged and without wife, kids or animals. He presented an image without the added weight of history, much like trimming extra clay from his pottery.
Colleen had asked him questions, as had Mary Pat Jensen next door. After shooting basketballs in the Jensen driveway many afternoons with her twin sons Eli and Jameson, Tom would chat with Mary Pat and her husband, James, who appreciated Tom’s play with the boys. Tom demurred invitations to dine with them but enjoyed a beer or two with James after yardwork on hot Saturdays during summer.
James and Mary Pat bought custom-made mugs and plates from Tom, marveling at the intricate caricatures created by Tom’s big hands. Tom sidestepped answers about himself, intriguing Mary Pat who enjoyed being known as the Jessica Fletcher of the neighborhood. Facebook and LinkedIn produced Tom’s business credentials and gallery displays. She discovered an article in Scene magazine that explored his life as an artist and was published after he moved next to them. Cheapness prevented her from paying third-party online investigators to find out more.
James shrugged off Mary Pat’s questions about Tom. “Not everyone likes to talk. Not everyone has a dark past, that needs to be explored.”
“Well,” Mary Pat responded, “I sense things about people – and I’m usually right. He’s a little too quiet about his life.”
Tom chuckled again as he sat in his chair and remembered Colleen’s Uggs and her hurried attempt to retrieve her paper without being seen. Something about the gentle blue of her eyes and her active listening whenever he spoke made him comfortable with her. A measured cadence in her voice and tone, and her kind words to others on their street, made him think maybe. Maybe they could have coffee or a drink and talk.
And maybe he was being a silly old man, fretting the fact that she’d ignored him that morning. She could have been mentally itemizing her to-dos and didn’t see him, or stuck in a story or thought. He did that to others sometimes.
A sprig of sunshine lent a cheery aspect to his sitting room. Like a gentle massage across his shoulders, it rubbed his muscles and lit up the icon of his most precious album. Looking would renew his guilt and pleasure. Like other times, he’d suffer the aftereffects as they twisted and cloyed for dominance in the minutes, sometimes hours ahead.
He clicked the icon. He didn’t know why.
Two boys sat and smiled at the camera. They held sticks with marshmallows over a bonfire. They wore T-shirts and swimming trunks. Behind them, moonlight reflected off water. In the next picture, a fair-haired boy held a waffle cone, feet dangling inches off a bench, chocolate dripping from his lower lip. Water glittered in the background and the tip of a sail jutted like a triangle beyond the cliff where the boy sat. Tom reached for the screen, letting his fingers float over the youngster’s face, hair, and feet.
Scrolling left, Tom lingered on a dark-skinned boy poised on a rock with bare chest and arms raised as if preparing to dive. Sun glistened off his stringy arms. Eyes narrow and face scowling, he acted for the camera. Images of children on swings and ropes showed the picture taken at a Cleveland Metroparks location.
Toms’ stomach quivered, and a familiar sour taste irritated the back of his throat. The memory of their good-natured play and daily enthusiasm forever pummeled and hurt his heart, even as the pain eased up. Beautiful boys, a few years shy of adolescence. Tom scrolled again. He stopped at the fair-haired boy sprawled across a couch, his bare arms cuddling a scrappy teddy bear.
Another intrusive solicitation message on his cell phone, Tom was sure. He really needed to stop the increasing number and annoyance of robo calls and messages. He reminded himself to ask the Jensen twins, who were versed in all aspects of technology, just what could be done to stop the calls and all kinds of unsolicited crap like ED solutions and porn sites oozing from his computer. Tom spent too much time deleting the junk and deleting the deleted; he hadn’t anticipated the daily janitorial sweep and didn’t want it.
Tom ambled to the kitchen counter. A message concerning a special order from a client. Tom listened to the customer’s rambling specifications, missed some phrases, and replayed the message. Notepad nearby, he scribbled the dimensions, determined to avoid a grueling repeat of her voice.
He retraced his steps to the sitting room. Turning, Tom caught sight of a flutter from the Jensen’s curtain across his yard. The Jensen’s seldom opened their sheers, which gave Tom a sense of privacy whenever he was online. Plus, he minimized or closed his browser whenever he walked away from his screen. In the past few weeks, he’d forgotten to do either, leaving personal pictures exposed.
Inured to the friendly and respectful relationships he’d built with his neighbors, Tom needed to renew his diligence in keeping his photo album private.
Maybe age was sabotaging his memory.
He shut down his Dell. Outside the sitting room’s multi-paned window, crows flitted and gabbled on the bare branches of his maple tree. As if sensing a predator, they hurried off, creating a jumble of shadows on the ground.
Tom walked the corridor to his studio, a room renovated with shelves and containers for the accoutrement of his trade – clays, glazes and tools. A side door opened onto a brick walkway that led to his kiln. The smell of glaze, dustiness of stone particulate, bags of clay and bottles of color created a warm, safe space where he’d always found order and stability, if not equilibrium and peace for whatever roiled his insides. Today something cawed deep down in his being. Like a bird in a far-off field.
Tom removed the plastic from a clump of wedged clay he’d positioned on his pottery wheel. He clicked the gutter together and poured water from a sink into the moat. The hum of the wheel’s rotation acted like a sedative, removing all ancillary noise, pain, tension from his body as the rhythm allowed him to focus. His strong fingers, purposeful and guiding, nudged the clay out, up, down, to his desired shape.
The whir of the wheel lowered in tempo. Tom recalled the Jensen twins playing basketball on an unusually warm day in early March a few weeks before. He’d pulled into his driveway just as Eli made a basket. After placing his car in the garage, Tom sauntered over grass drenched with melting snow to ask if they wanted a third player, a routine request to which they’d always respond sure, and always furthered with a sarcastic vow to go easy on the old guy. He heard the ball bounce, hit the backboard and bounce again. Tom rounded the row of tightly placed yews separating his yard from the Jensen’s driveway, a big smile on his face.
Eli continued his toss to the basket but slowed his retrieval of the ball. Jameson slowed his running and stared at Tom until Eli back bounced the basketball to Jameson’s outstretched hands.
“Whaddya say, guys? Need some help from a pro?” Tom gave the boys his usual snarky grin, bait to set the tone and start the fun.
Jameson bounced the ball once. He twirled the ball in his hand, not looking at Tom.
Eli stared at the ground. “Actually, we have chores to do.” He glanced at his brother and motioned for the ball. Jameson bounced it over without a word. They headed into their garage.
“OK. Next time I shoot the socks off the two of ya!” He chuckled and headed back home.
He’d settled down on the sofa with a cup of reheated Starbucks and the local Villager newspaper. Minutes after leaving the boys, Tom heard the thump-thump of the basketball on pavement and a thud as it ricocheted off the blackboard.
Tom eased the wheel to a stop, slop running on his hands. He shimmied the wire under the decorative plate and nudged it gently toward his belly and onto a bat. Two more to complete the order before trimming. The minutes moved quickly after each clod of clay centered and eased outward. The wheel’s white noise subtly rose and lowered with the slightest fluctuations of Tom’s foot. He let up on the pedal. The whispering roll of the wheel’s revolution eased to a stop.
Dried clay clung to his fingers, and splotches dotted his pants. He rinsed off his tools. From the moat around his wheel, he gathered the wet chunks of clay to save for slip. His eye caught on an unopened bag of clay he’d set aside for himself. He wanted to create something nice for the Jensen’s and Colleen. Items to show his appreciation for the easy friendliness he’d experienced as their neighbor for so long. Maybe one for Tina, too, a single mom whose invitations to have a drink with her or just stop by he’d demurred often enough to feel guilty.
Good neighbors, good attitudes. Maybe something fun to make them chuckle.
He’d keep his eyes open, find a design fitting for them.
Snowfall melted just as frigid Canadian air bullied its way southeast across the Great Lakes. Ice covered sidewalks and secondary roads. In deference to the unstated civility that Tom Cuthbert and his neighbors exchanged, he rolled his Groundskeeper Rock Salt spreader out of his garage. He knew the Jensens and Colleen would appreciate this favor, and he needed to feel alive, connected. His neighbors had been absent lately, due to snow, schedules, who knew what else. Tom needed to break the ice – so to speak – shake off his own self-inflicted gulag from the nasty weather. He lowered his woolen hat’s red-checkered ear flaps. Tom salted the Jensen’s driveway and two others on his side of the street.
He turned and crossed the road. Colleen’s living room light was on. Maybe she was home; maybe having coffee and reading. Recently he entertained thoughts of sharing a bottle of Cabernet with her, learning about her earlier life and maybe sharing some of his. He proceeded to her driveway. He gingerly walked atop the concrete and dropped salt. Frigid air chafed his cheeks and nose.
“Tom! Tom!” Colleen’s bare hands grasped the railing of her front porch, her face scrunching as she quickly rammed her hands into a slouchy, gnarled cardigan. “Hey ...”
“Good to see you!” Tom yelled. The tip of his nose burned from freeze. He forced a smile, wished he’d used chap stick.
“Yes! I wanted to say . . .”
“This cold has everyone inside!” His taut lips strained to make the words. “Weatherman says the temperature won’t rise until . . .”
“Hey, thanks and all for the salt. But please don’t salt my driveway, Tom. Not anymore. I’m good! I don’t need your help. But thanks, anyway.” Colleen waved, went inside and shut her door.
A rush of bitter wind rattled the ice-covered branches, snapping loose small twigs and tenacious dried leaves. Tom poised for seconds, an idiot grinning still, as Colleen’s rebuff burrowed through his neural synapses. It pummeled into his awareness. No smile, no sweet appreciation for a tradition, a neighborly practice, for how many years?
Not to mention the unexpected snowball to his more romantic thoughts.
He retreated down the driveway, let the salt scatter along the sidewalks and street. Trees rose black against the sky. No traffic sounds, human voices or animal cries. Silence, Tom’s usual friend and sojourner, wrapped itself around him and squeezed.
In his garage, he placed the spreader in its corner. Light from a small window illumined his steps as he passed power tools and yard machines nestled like gossips in a shadowed corner. He removed his coat in the kitchen. Fat Cat meowed, circled his feet, and made a hasty retreat when she rubbed her orange mottled fur against Tom’s cold, wet boots.
He'd learned years ago that most people lie about what they know, what they think and how they feel. No matter how he’d tried to discern what neighbors from his old neighborhood accepted as true, he didn’t know who heard what from whom and what they believed. What Tom Cuthbert knew all too well was that truth didn’t dispel fiction if the narrative wasn’t openly discussed.
Tom stood still. Covid illnesses in the county were down, and everyone he knew had received the booster. National politics remained status quo, schools and businesses open. Ongoing disasters, like emerging weather patterns, border protests and rising prices had become the norm. Tom could think of no “new” news to explain the hostile fluttering in the air.
His neighbors were shunning his presence, demurring his friendly overtures.
Tom didn’t get it.
Two weeks later St. James Hospital cancelled its order of decorative tiles for a new atrium. The contract stated Tom retained the hefty deposit.
“You agreed to the artwork. You liked the first three designs I photographed. Is there something you wish me to change? Glaze?” Tom emailed the hospital’s Purchasing Manager after receiving the cancellation notice and leaving two unanswered voice messages.
He’d been in his studio when she left a voice message. The designs are good. We are going with a different contractor.
Tom regretted losing the work, but he didn’t need the money. He could sell the tiles already made somewhere else. It bothered him because Mary Pat worked for St. James Hospital in the Purchasing Office, or something like that. He wondered if she knew anything about the reasons for the switch. He’d ask her next time he saw her, although she hadn’t responded to his greeting just days before.
Rains soaked the ground, leaching mud and grime in splotches along the sidewalk. Hands in his pockets and a sour/sweet smell of earth in his nose, Tom ambled toward the Jensen’s house in April just as James arrived home. Tom measured his steps to be near James when he got out of his car.
“James, hello. How’s everyone doing?” Tom held fast at the end of his neighbor’s driveway, hoping to dispel the freeze he’d experienced lately with his neighbors.
“We’re fine, thanks.” James reached for his briefcase. He did not look at Tom.
“Good. Good.” Tom stared, waiting for James to turn toward him. “And Mary Pat? Jeez, I’ve hardly seen the twins in the past six, maybe seven weeks.”
“We’ve been busy.” James fiddled with his briefcase. He locked his car door and strode into his house.
James’ abrupt rebuff of Tom’s friendly overture at conversation bewildered him. Tom forced his legs to move, resisting the thrust of anger rolling within his gut. He shook his shoulders as if shaking away a mean monkey.
Something was amiss.
The sunshine of early spring withered like nascent shoots in the onslaught of rainstorms and intermittent cold that kept neighbors inside. Tom kept his outside lights ablaze in the dead weight of a thick and gloomy atmosphere. He finished projects and considered his second recent cancellation. Colleen Spiardi was friends with the manager who wanted clay sculptures for his company’s lobby. They’d verbally agreed to the assignment, and the CEO gave it a thumbs up. Colleen’s friend promised to forward contracts to Tom by the end of March. By month’s end Tom still had no written deal. In reply to Tom’s requests for the documents, Colleen’s manager friend emailed an apology, rescinding the understanding of intent to contract work with Tom.
Two good neighbors with connections to two dropped assignments.
Tom scraped away the extra clay around his project’s squawking mouth. He repeated the same paring with two like sculptures and elongated their talons. A few serrated marks along the wings and he’d let them dry a day or two before firing. He placed a damp cloth over the damp birds.
Tom took a break from pottery and walked to Café Bella, a mile away. The pall outside and light drizzle chilled him, and the scarcity of friendly faces on his street deepened the isolation he felt. His mood brightened as he entered the daylight glow within the eatery. A generous aroma of baked goods and brewed coffees warmed his body. He lingered at the counter, chatted with a tattooed, be-freckled cashier, and ordered a cherry croissant and mushroom galette for later. He glanced toward the booths while the cashier bagged his items.
He waved, half smiling when he noticed Colleen near a window.
She sat in a booth, talking and gesticulating with a young mother who lived four houses down on her side. Tom didn’t know the woman’s name but recognized the neon blue of her hair. He’d greeted her countless times as she strolled her baby. Colleen saw Tom and ignored him.
The cashier wished Tom a good day. He glanced once more toward the booth as he headed out the café door. Colleen spoke to her friend. The blue-haired neighbor turned and glowered at Tom.
The cold air hit him hard outside.
Summer arrived in fits and starts. The Jensen twins played basketball with friends and each other. Tom didn’t ask to participate and was not asked to participate. He and James did not share a beer or two after lawn duties on Saturdays. A few times he saw Colleen, James and Mary Pat talking on the sidewalk, their exaggerated casualness and low voices counterpoised against their swift retreats whenever he appeared.
Tom found a century-old farmstead thirty miles outside Cleveland, boasting an attached storage room perfect for his pottery studio. He put in a bid and bought the house prior to placing his on the market. He needed time to finish contracted work and personal projects before leaving for good. Now and then he questioned himself, wondering if he should stay and try to work out what happened with people he liked and respected for so long. Experience had taught him that even with reason and explanations, people grabbed hold and clutched onto wrong ideas and attitudes. Like the crows, they gathered and tittered, made themselves heard, cast shadows.
He packed up and left in late August.
Tom wandered up the ridge of a shady knoll within Whispering Ridge Cemetery. A sad, but weathered hollow nudged at his heart, each year a little less harsh. Those beautiful boys – his child Vaughn, and Vaughn’s best friend Myobi – together, always laughing, always on the precipice of mischief or trouble. Tom had been tired but wanted to be the hero when Vaughan and Myobi asked to go to the quarry to swim and make a fire before heading back home for the night.
“We’ll have a great time, won’t we boys?” he promised Myobi’s parents. But heavy traffic eastbound from Cedar Point and road construction following a day spent diving and swimming in the quarry perniciously played on Tom’s low energy level. He sipped the remains of a leftover coke, rolled his neck, opened the window to force himself awake as he drove home. In the back seat, Myobi fell asleep first, the setting sun like a halo around his dark body. Vaughn’s head nestled against Myobi’s shoulder. Tom’s own eyelids felt like rocks from the quarry, too weighty to lift.
Lights blurred. Tom’s eyes kept closing. He remembered bumping, rolling upside down, shadows and tall reeds. Outside the car, objects moved, lights flashed and strange sounds made him think he was in water. Inside it was quiet.
The boys died. He wished he’d died as well.
Tom’s world changed. Hints of weaving out of his lane suggested drinking, although he claimed he drank the two empty beers found in the cooler six hours before the accident. Tom mentioned smoky, diffusing traffic lights and his difficulty discerning lanes. Fast bumper–to-bumper traffic and no berms created unsafe conditions per one of the EMT’s at the scene.
The hospital proved his sobriety, but local reporting damned him. Neither boy wore a seat belt; where was Tom’s sense of responsibility?
Unlike molding clay into a recognizable form, Tom couldn’t shape the narrative to make people know he wasn’t drunk or negligent about telling the boys to wear seat belts. Information rife with errors flapped around him like winged shadows. Some neighbors avoided him. He healed and relocated to a different community.
Tom’s fingertips traced his son’s name on the granite stone. He kissed its top and prayed. Then he headed down an asphalt path circling a pond. Plastic red and pink flowers tilted against a cement angel on a child’s grave. He heaved a long sad sigh. When he reached Myobi’s grave, Tom kneeled and silently prayed.
Nudged by breezes rustling weeping willows near an algae-covered pond, shards of memory unsteadied him. He stood up. Clusters of finches, robins and sparrows dove into and out of the surrounding foliage. A mourning dove cooed from a high branch.
Tom opened the gate just as a FedEx stopped on his old street. Two boxes for the Jensens’, one for Colleen Spiardi. Tom had layered tissue around the birds, placed bubble wrap under the wooden stands. Each crow’s beak opened up as if squawking, their talons raised.
Flocking where they belonged.