Short Fiction Sketch — Play and Forget

November 25, 2013

The strange man in the white car had approached Neil Sutherland as he was walking home from school one autumn afternoon. Neil usually walked home with Glen and Robbie, but on that day, for a reason he couldn’t recall, they’d separated and he’d walked alone. The white car slowly followed him before pulling alongside the curb, and the man rolled down the window and offered him a ride. The strange man had thinning hair—he was almost bald—and his eyes protruded from a doughy asymmetrical skull. He’d placed a tweed jacket folded next to him on the front seat of his white car and a scented Christmas tree dangled from the radio knob. Neil had shaken his head—no, he didn’t want a ride—and his step quickened. The strange man had spoken to him nicely at first, polite and friendly, but then his tone had changed, sounding more desperate. He’d wheedled and coaxed and pleaded for Neil to hop in the car. Neil had then run up to the nearest house on the street and had rung the bell and banged on the door, and he’d watched as the strange man’s face flushed like some demon before raced off down the street. Neil’s heart pounded. No one had come to the door and he’d feared the strange man would circle around the block, so he’d cut through several backyards and taken a different route home.

Neil Sutherland was in the fourth grade. After the encounter with the strange man three weeks ago, he made it a point never to be walking home from school alone or to be anywhere alone if he could help it. He often played in the park after school, and the walk home was only a couple blocks. He figured the walk from the park would be the only exception to his rule because he could dash down the street to his own house if the strange man or a different stranger, ever returned to bother him.

Today is a warm November afternoon in 1963 and Neil plays in the park with his friends. They play football and wrestle and eventually stop to gather around a couple other boys who are flying a kite. The kite is a cheap conventional model that you might buy at a candy store or soda fountain. The kite flutters and dives and snaps in the wind, a ragged and hesitant ascent. The boys shout suggestions and offer different ways to make the kite fly higher and push one another to take turns holding the line, but soon the wind dies down, and the kite, a victim to flight by committee as much as the vagaries of the wind, twirls in demented dervish loops and hits the ground.

As the light wanes toward dusk, Neil and his friends disperse and head home for supper. Something feels different tonight. Neil walks alone but as he passes the elementary school he sees a line of cars parked in front of the doors and recognizes his parents’ car among them. Tonight is PTA night, a Thursday, and his mother must be dropping off a snack for the meeting, usually chocolate chip cookies or brownies of which she always saves a batch for him to eat later . . . after supper. . . . On impulse Neil tries the car door and finds it unlocked. He decides to play a practical joke on his mother and climbs into the car, lying down on the floor by the backseat, certain that his mother will see him when she leaves the school to drive home. And it will save him the two blocks walk back to his house.

But his mother doesn’t see him.

Instead she starts the car and it takes about half a minute before Neil realizes that the movement and direction of the car is unfamiliar. His mother is not driving back to their house. From the floor looking upward through the car window, he sees bare gaunt tree tops sliding past and power lines, like parallel elastic strings, rising and dipping with the swell of the road. This isn’t part of his plan and he’s impatient to sit up in the backseat and surprise his mother while the car is moving, but then thinks better of it. He fantasizes that he’s being kidnapped but not by the man in the white car, he has tried to shut that experience from his mind. The abductors he imagines are also men, but not some lone sick pervert, rather more like the gangsters he’s seen in old movies on television, the sort of guys who talk from the side of their mouth. Neil pretends he’s a detective and it’s a matter of life or death that he sharpens all his senses to find out the location of the gangster hideout where they’re taking him, bound and gagged, but as it turns out his mother has driven downtown, to the stores on Main Street. She parks in front of Moore’s Market, the local grocery store, and gets out of the car. Once again she doesn’t see him.

Neil understands that he’s done something seriously wrong, but isn’t quite sure how serious. He could leave the car and follow his mother into the store, then act surprised and greet her with the story that he’d been walking along Main Street, coming from Doyle’ s soda fountain and candy store, and happened to notice her car. This scenario—discovering his mother’s car on Main Street—has in fact happened to him a couple times before and seems plausible, but it would ruin his joke, though the joke is becoming less of a joke by now. He thought he might also sit up in the back seat and wait until his mother leaves the store, employing the same lie about finding her car downtown. Or he could simply get out of the car and walk the six or seven blocks back home (a longer walk now than from the school) and forget the joke had ever happened. But Neil continues to hide below the back seat, figuring that his mother will have to load groceries in the back of the car and certainly find him. She’ll be shocked, but her shock won’t be the heart-stopping screaming fear she would experience if he’d suddenly sat up while she was driving. And he would lie in order to mitigate the meanness of his dumb prank, explaining that he’d only discovered her car on Main Street a few minutes ago.

Something is wrong. The wait is painful, interminable, and he can’t stand it much longer. It’s rush hour, almost supper time. A lot of traffic and pedestrians are on Main Street and in front of Moore’s Market. Car engines, horns, doors opening and closing, people talking on the sidewalk, hailing one another, gossiping, laughing. Thursday evenings are busy, maybe the busiest night of the week because many people get their paychecks on Thursday, like his father, and the bank and stores stay open late. The weather is too warm for late November. Even in a light jacket Neil is hot on the floor of the car. His mother is taking longer than usual, but Time has tricked him this way before, when waiting for a friend or watching the school clock toward the end of the day, or trying to fall asleep. Where is she? If he sits up quickly to look then at least his curiosity is satisfied that his mother is still shopping and coming out soon, and if she happens to see him he could fall back on his Doyle’s soda fountain story. Neil cannot stand hiding another second. He sits up.

The street is mostly dark except for corner lamps and store window lights. His mother stands on the sidewalk in front of the grocery market, but she does not have any groceries in her arms. She’s been standing in front of the store the entire time talking to a strange man. His mother and the man are talking happily to one another and they appear to be good friends, though Neil doesn’t recall having ever seen this man before. His mother smiles a lot at the man and she laughs (he rarely sees her laugh) at something clever the man is saying, and sometimes they both laugh, enjoying that they’re making each other laugh. Before his mother and the man part, she holds his arm for several seconds asking him a question, and then they both nod and smile and say goodbye. Only then does his mother enter the grocery store.

He would not wait for his mother now. He doesn’t wish to play a prank on her anymore, and he knows the hiding game is no longer interesting and that his plan has long gone awry. He leaves the car and pushes his way down Main Street through the maze and jostle of shoppers in the gathering darkness. He moves fast to steer clear of the grocery market and his mother because he wants to be far away from her now. . . . There are more shoppers than usual tonight, a kind of frenzy at the stores due to the warm weather and the fact that Thanksgiving is next Thursday, one week from today. People coming and going, bigger, indifferent people ranging above him, bumping into him, oblivious to his presence, as if he were some bug on the sidewalk they might unwittingly squash. He doesn’t care to look at them and keeps his eyes on the sidewalk and the rhythmic progress of his sneakers. He hastens toward the end of the next block, near the end of Main Street where the stores aren’t as busy, and decides that he’ll turn there and run back home. The large bank up ahead on the corner displays the date and time on its granite façade: 5:30 November 21.

“Neil? Is that you?”

He looks up into the face of his third grade teacher.

“Hi”

“Hello. Don’t you recognize me?”

“Of course. You’re Mrs. Dunn.”

“It’s good to see you, Neil. Are you okay?”

“Yeah”

Mrs. Dunn is a plainly dressed, gray-haired woman in bifocals.

“Were you shopping?” she asks. “I hope you’re not wasting your hard-earned money on candy,” she jokingly scolds him, and he resents her comment a little, thinking it more fitting for a younger kid.

“No, I’m on my way home.”

“So how do you like fourth grade?”

He shrugs. “It’s okay.”

“Mrs. Lassiter tells me you’re a good student. An excellent student in fact. Second in your class.”

He shrugs again and Mrs. Dunn laughs. “Oh, don’t be so modest,” she says.

He feels trapped. Mrs. Dunn, his teacher from last year, from third grade, has become a stranger, and he wonders why. You see the teacher every day for an entire school year, but once school is out they quickly fade into memory because you no longer have to answer to them, or fear any punishment or verbal abuse from them, you’re out of their control, and their authority turns into a melting witch the moment you step out of that door and leave the class room in June, and then the cycle will start again with a new teacher in September. This odd woman, slightly wrinkled, blinking at him through her bifocals, appears so different out of school, out of the domain of her class room. She’s being nice to him, friendly even, but Neil is desperate to leave and get off Main Street.

“Would you like a ride home? I’ll only be in the drugstore a few minutes. Eye drops,” Mrs. Dunn says with an apologetic grin.

“No, that’s okay. I have to go.”

“Are you sure? You live near the school. I’m heading over to the PTA meeting soon . . . I’m a bit early. I can drop you off.”

“My mother’s shopping at Moore’s up the street. I’m going to get a ride with her.”

Mrs. Dunn stares at him, confused, and he regrets having to explain his movements to her. He knows was heading away from Moore’s Market when Mrs. Dunn saw him, not toward it, but he would now back track for a couple hundred feet until Mrs. Dunn was in the drugstore and then he’d veer off of Main Street and head home as originally planned.

“Well, all right,” Mrs. Dunn says, straightening her corseted torso, the way he’d often seen her do when she was at the blackboard, a perfect barrel of belt and blouse.

“Say hello to your mother for me, and you be good, Okay? And have a Happy Thanksgiving, Neil.”

Neil takes the streets back towards the school and park. Those streets would be slightly more traveled at this hour, and he also wants to retrace the route his mother took the whole time he was hiding on the backseat floor of her car. He doesn’t care if he gets home late and his mother punishes him, because his supper is cold—he’ll take his sweet time. Several blocks ahead shine the vapor lamps of the park’s football field and front entrance to the elementary school. There are a few more cars now for PTA night and he wishes he could rewind and erase the movie of this late afternoon and return safely to where it all began and not get in his mother’s car this time. . . . The lights of the school beam toward him like a hazy sanctuary, but for some reason he thinks he’d be a coward or a sissy to run and find refuge in the place he normally aches to escape each day.

A car approaches on his left, moving slowly, following him. A white car? He won’t turn his head to check but he feels certain it‘s the same car. The strange man, the creepy and dangerous man, has been watching his every move for days, waiting for the perfect moment to seize him, to kidnap, torture, and maybe even kill him. Where would he run to now? He’s walking past a vacant lot with the next house standing a couple hundred feet ahead. It is him, white car, the strange man! Does strange man know the other strange man? The one who’d been talking and laughing with his mother? His mother had softly held that man’s arm and smiled at him. Were the two men somehow plotting together? He only has to make it to the next house. He steps fast and breaks a sweat and the car stays with him, a small acceleration. He’ll dash to the nearest house again, just like last time. He can outrun a fat man, and he’ll scream loud enough so that everyone hears his scream for blocks. He runs and the car speeds up, but he freezes, thinking the car will fly past him, but the car doesn’t fly past him, it stops too, the horn honks, the window opens.

“Neil!”

Neil still stands frozen on the sidewalk.

“Get in the car this instant! I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”

He’s relieved and not relieved. He’d really wanted to make it home safely without seeing anyone. He reaches for the backseat door handle but his mother makes him sit in the front seat. She looks beautiful under the dome light and he notices her bright moist lipstick with a mingling of elation and pain. She was more beautiful somehow when talking to that man earlier in front of Moore’s Market. The smell of his mother’s perfume fills the car like some lethal gas.

“Why weren’t you home?” she nearly yells, her worried tears verging on rage. “What could you have possibly been doing out this late?”

He reads the fear and worry in his mother’s face and realizes he’d been wrong when he thought she no longer cared about him.

“I don’t know. I was playing in the park, and then I went to the stores, to Doyle’s, and I was on my way back.”

His mother draws a deep breath. “Don’t you know they’ve reported a sex pervert in town who’s been stalking young children? Your teacher or the police haven’t mentioned it?”

“No”

“A pedophile,” his mother says with disgust. “It makes me sick to say that word, no less think about a person like that—a sick, evil soul. You haven’t seen anyone, have you? A stranger in a car stopping to talk to kids?”

“No—”

“Offering them a ride?”

“NO!”

His mother winces at the outburst. He fears she might slap him across the face.

“Please don’t shout at me,” she says and releases a weary sob. “What is the matter with you?”

“Nothing is the matter. I haven’t seen anyone, okay?”

They’re only a block from the house, and Neil and his mother stop talking. He feels better about his mother, and he isn’t sure why he feels better, but he decides not to think about her anymore and what he’d seen on Main Street. Tomorrow is Friday, his favorite day of the week, and it’s still warm out. His class plays kickball in the schoolyard every Friday afternoon, weather permitting, and he will count the minutes until the three o’clock bell and end of school and he’ll play with Glen and Robbie all weekend except for when they have to be home for supper and stay in at night, but then he’ll still be able to watch television. There are marathon games of football to play, and maybe he and his friends will buy a kite of their own at Doyle’s soda fountain and practice flying it, and next week there’s only three days of school and then Thanksgiving. . . . He’ll forget what happened today, forget his mother and the strange man and the pedfile in the white car, forget kindly but pushy Mrs. Dunn and all the teachers in his school and the mindless shoppers bustling along Main Street. Yes, tomorrow and the weekend and Thanksgiving and Christmas and the days after Christmas down through the hopefully snowy end of the year . . . all those days are calling him now with a promise to play and forget.

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