Here’s an updated version of a short story I originally posted in February 2017. It benefits from numerous reader suggestions.
The man had been so incredibly rude. Bob didn’t realize how annoyed he still was until, arriving home, he slammed the keys on the small table by the front door. He heard the metal exclamation as if with Jenna’s ears.
Emerging from the kitchen, dishtowel in hand, she said, “What’s wrong? You look upset.”
“Nothing. Just some guy.” With great care, so as to gain control over his irritation, he undid his tie while crossing the living room to kiss her.
She said, “Just ‘some guy’ has you all steamed?”
He announced he’d get changed, and she said dinner would be ready in fifteen minutes, adding, “Salad and linguini with tomato sauce. I hope a light dinner is okay.”
It was as they started in on the meal at the dining table corner of their apartment that he explained. “There was this blind guy standing at the corner of 12th Street, near the subway entrance. I asked if he needed help. He said he was waiting for a friend. I said, ‘Have you been waiting long?’ and he said, ‘Ten minutes.’ I have no idea how he knew ten minutes. Maybe those people have internal clocks. You hear about people who can tell the time without clocks.”
“Or maybe he has a watch,” Jenna said.
“How could he read a watch?”
“I don’t know. Tactile watch hands?” she suggested.
“But he couldn’t help moving them when he touched them, so he’d always be getting the wrong time.”
Jenna laughed in her soft, melodic way. “Aren’t you making assumptions?”
Hunched over her dish, as usual when they ate at home, she said, “What does he look like? I wonder if I’ve seen him around the neighborhood.”
“Red hair, thirties, University of Florida T-shirt. No dog. Has a cane. Familiar?”
“I’m not sure. Anyway, what made you so mad?”
Bob wound a strand of linguini on his fork. “So I said, ‘Sure your friend is going to show up?’ And he said, ‘She always has before.’ Well, I didn’t like leaving him like that. I mean, suppose she didn’t. Then what’s he going to do?”
“Ever the knight on his white horse.”
“Are you making fun of me?”
“I like it when you get on your white horse,” she said. “Sometimes it’s funny, that’s all. What happened next?”
“So, I said, ‘If she doesn’t show up, will you know how to get to wherever you need to be?’ He gave me this big shit-eating grin and said, ‘Sure I’ll know how to get where I need to be.’ Which made me feel pretty stupid. I mean, it was like it was obvious, which it wasn’t.”
“Obvious to him, maybe,” Jenna said.
“Right. But not obvious to me. So I was still in this, like dilemma. Here’s this blind guy waiting for some woman—his sister maybe—”
“Or office colleague,” Jenna pointed out.
“He doesn’t work in an office, not wearing that T-shirt at six on a weekday evening.”
“More like sister,” Bob countered. “I don’t see girlfriend in his life, unless she’s blind like him.”
Jenna had asked that they not turn on the room’s lamps yet because she so loved the evening light at this time of year. Still, though her features were blurred, her fair hair glowed. He remembered first noticing how her expressive face one moment made her appear sly, the next full of emotion. So familiar after four years, two of them married to her. So familiar that tonight he wasn’t sure if he saw those shifts in her expression or just knew what they must be. Was he right, then, that he saw or sensed her frown?
“Anyway,” she said, “so there you are, in a dilemma…”
“Right, so there I am, and even though he’s acting like an arrogant son of a bitch, I don’t want to leave him stranded.”
“Sounds like he was telling you to do just that.”
“How could I? If you know how to swim and you see someone drowning, you don’t shrug and say, ‘If he wants to swim out that far, he must want to drown.’”
“Drowning and standing on a street corner seem like two different things, don’t they?”
Jenna was so damned reasonable. He said, “Not if you’re blind they’re not.”
“How do you know?”
“How do you know they’re not?”
“Okay,” she said, slicing a long strand of linguini, “I don’t. So tell me, what did my hero do next?”
“You keep turning this into a joke.”
“I keep trying to find out what happened.”
Bob paused to collect his thoughts. Nothing was cut and dry with Jenna, unlike those nice, dependable actuarial tables he studied nine-to-five every workday. It was the teacher in her. Frustrating sometimes, like now. But like she said, he supposed it helped to talk things through.
He said, “I figure he’d gotten there by subway, with him standing by the entrance and all.”
“It might have been the woman who was coming in by subway,” Jenna suggested.
“Whatever, I said, ‘I guess you know how to use the subway,’ and he said, “Yes, I do,” like I was insulting him. So I said, ‘Here, let me help you with the fare.’ He said, ‘No need.’ ‘I’m sure,’ I said, ‘but let me help out anyway.’”
“Weren’t you being a tad pushy?”
“I was trying to help.”
Jenna didn’t react.
“Just trying to help,” he repeated.
She looked up. “You’re a kind man.”
He retorted, “And kindness is so overrated, isn’t it?”
“I meant what I said.”
“I know,” he said, by which he meant that although he hadn’t known, he believed her.
“Well,” he continued, “I pulled out a five-dollar bill.”
She chuckled. “Enough for two subway fares.”
“And I said, ‘Here, take this. It’s five dollars.’ ‘No, please.’ Why ‘please,’ I ask you? Normal people say, ‘No, thank you.’ His saying ‘please’ sounded really aggressive.”
“Aggressive or firm?”
“You’re taking his side again.”
“There aren’t sides to take. I’m trying to understand.”
“So he gives me this aggressive ‘No, please,’ and I say, ‘Take it, please,’ and I pushed the bill at him.”
“How did he know?”
“I guess I touched his chest with it. All right, I know, now who was being aggressive? The guy stepped back. ‘Hey, careful there,’ I told him, ‘you’ll fall off the sidewalk if you go back any more.’ He stopped, straightened up and guess what? He folded his hands behind his back, with his cane poking out behind his shoulder.”
“So,” Jenna said, “there you are, hand outstretched with a five-dollar bill, and he’s doing everything he can to say no.”
“You don’t say no to someone who’s trying to help. Be decent about it at least.”
“Come on, Jenna.”
“You were in a difficult predicament.” She rested her fork on her plate. He recognized she meant him to see she was sincere.
“An incredibly difficult position,” he said.
“So what did you do?”
“I threw the bill at him and I said, ‘Here,’ so he’d know.”
“Did he catch it?” she said, now brimming with mirth.
“It fell on the ground.”
“Hard for him to find, I imagine.”
“I don’t know. He could tell the time, couldn’t he?”
“And then I came home.”
Jenna picked up her fork and went to work on the remains of her linguini. “And the five-dollar bill?” she said.
“Probably one of the homeless guys who hang out there picked it up and…”
“Please don’t say ‘And bought a pint of cheap gin.’”
Bob put on his fake grin. “I was going to say a tofu and kale sandwich. Mind if I turn on the lights now?”
He pushed back his chair, which scraped on the wood tiles, jarring against the quiet of their dinner.
As he reached for the light switch, Jenna said, “I’m sure his girlfriend was just held up somewhere.”
Bob said, “You mean sister.”