© 2023 Kingdom of Pavement

SHORT STORY: WORDS FOR TODD BY CONNOR FITZGERALD


Mr. Handover came to my shop Tuesday afternoon and said, "I need you to talk to Todd. He's gonna do it tomorrow, and I want you to be with him, say some wise things to him.”


"Like what things, Mr. Handover?”


“Fuck if I know, but I specifically want them to affect him the right way. They should be short, just one or two sentences. They should ease his sense of guilt while imbuing him with a sense of purpose. They have to be original of course, so you can't go quoting any movie script, he's seen all those. Maybe you can quote a good book. A really good book, he won’t have read it."


"Of course, Mr. Handover.”

“And for the love of Christ, fix my wife’s purse.”


“Of course, Mr. Handover.”


I immediately tried to think about some good wise words, but one of Mr. Handover's men approached the counter and handed me two pairs of shoes, four belts, and Mr. Handover’s wife's purse, which had a deep scuff along the flap, almost as if a dog had taken to it. I told him so. He said, “Yeah, the goddamn neighbor's Corgi, little thing's half wolf, absolutely vicious, had to pull a gun on it this time, nothing to be done, anyway why are you asking, shut the fuck up and polish the shoes you dumb cunt.”


I've never considered myself a man of wise words. I had a brief stint in the National Society of Cordial Debate, where it was in fact determined that I was a man of less than wise words, stupid words even, words not worthy of the NACD's endorsement. But I'm quiet, and I think that's why Mr. Handover thought I should talk with his son. Somewhere, someone is telling others that the quiet ones are the smartest, that we are harboring worlds inside our thin, veiny lips. I can't say if that's true for other quiet men. If it is, I feel even more foolish, seeing as that would make me quiet, stupid, and unintentionally prone to false-advertising.

Also, I served in the war, which might make Mr. Handover consider me knowledgable of Todd's inevitable moral crisis. I’d only been kept in the reserves.


I finished three shoes and two belts and stared at the scar along the handbag, wondering how to communicate its permanence to Mr. Handover. Those words had to be wise indeed. I had little aptitude in speaking, I realized. I’m not going to be good at either of these tasks. So I closed down the shop and went home.


My condo has an unfortunate hinge between summer and winter that makes it hard to relax. During summer months, the front room is beautiful, golden during sunset and hazel in the mornings, until November. Then everything becomes still and grey-blue, very grey- blue and inordinately still, the way it is now. It stays like that, like a photograph of a group not quite ready for the brightness of the flash. I've done just about everything to make the winter version more habitable, decorating the walls with string-lights, setting out a platoon of space heaters, decorating the space heaters with string-lights, decorating the string-lights with little ornaments you find in the gift-shop of historical societies from all around the midwest. I've also tried to lower the standards of the summer version by leaving out dishes and drawing the blinds, but it never works. I wish more and more that I'd married Katherine Belgrad or let my brother move in with me, or that I'd invested time and money in a large bird, or a small cat.


I wondered if the Handover’s house feels the same way. All those big rooms up on a big hill. I wonder if Mr. Handover minded the stillness of November, how he fought against it. Mr. Handover was a strong man who would not just lie down and give up his November through April. Mr. Handover would combat winter like a prize-fighter, and he'd be bigger than winter. Winter would make him slim down by dieting and sweat- lodging and riding the stationary bicycle just to make weight, and Mr. Handover, exhausted from losing twenty pounds in two weeks, would still put up a savage fight. Maybe I'd say that to Todd, about his father. Would that both ease his sense of guilt and imbue him with a sense of purpose? Was I absolutely positive that I knew what the word imbue meant, even though I thought I could guess the meaning by context? That would be a foolish mistake, and consequently un-wise words indeed.


Todd had come into the shop only once or twice, but he'd walk past it almost every Friday and Saturday with is friends. My shop was between the diner and the movie theater, and in the winter they’d hurl chunks of ice at the windows of all the shops in between, including mine. In the summer, they'd hurl rocks, with less frequency. Still, I always saw something in Todd after they'd pitch the ice/rock against my window, sometimes bouncing off, once or twice sailing through, taking the glass inward and downward, once into the ankle of a poor lady getting her husband's wallet embossed. The others would run and hoot, but Todd would have the smallest hitch-step as he left the frame. A sort of pause, almost a trip. I noticed only because it happened on every occasion of vandalism, his head bobbing down then back again. It could be guilt, I thought, a physical pang in his stomach he couldn't fight if he wanted. The natural inclination toward right and wrong, the inalienable empathy toward other human beings, toward the beautiful works of leather, of which other teenage boys seem completely unaware.


Or it could be the lip of the sidewalk, which jutted up slightly just at the end of my shop. It could be that too.


But could a young, red-blooded boy, one with just as much balance and agility and depth- perception as his peers, trip every time on the same crack without a hint of correction? Didn't that seem insane? Sometimes I preferred when the window broke because I felt that there were no more barriers between Todd and me, that I understood him and his little hitch-step.


Of course, if I told him that, it might actually imbue him with a sense of guilt and de- imbue him of his purpose! How does one create wise words with so many consequential imbuings and de-imbuings attached? The only way possible seemed in a vacuum, where only the words in themselves could be judged as right or wrong. Maybe I should write the words down, lock them away, then read them at Todd's funeral, whenever that may be? Or if I weren't alive -- of course I won't be alive, you dolt, the doctor said inoperable, you remember -- I'd pass it onto someone, possibly to Mr. Handover himself ! That would be perfect, Mr. Handover's huge shoulders expanding and compressing around the phrases, his voice clear of emotion even at the grave-side until he reached the final line, a stroke of poetry and insight so wrenching and prophetic that he would pause, every so slightly, with the same hesitancy with which his son fled my shattered store-front. Of course, Todd would likely outlive Mr. Handover, and also Mr. Handover had said tomorrow, not “whenever Todd dies,” Jesus, what Mr. Handover would do if he knew I was even contemplating his son’s death! But now I had the image in my mind and grew certain that anything I came up with would pale in comparison.


I made a little dinner, I don't remember what, only that I put a great number of conflicting sauces on it in my absent-mindedness -- mustard, marinara, soy sauce and milk. I ate it slowly and focused only on the up and down of my teeth, the anti-gag of my gag reflex, so that no words could enter my head. No words were better than the wrong ones.

At 9am, one of the Handover cars -- not their Mercedes Benz, but the black town-cars used for business — pulled up to my house. It took three and a half minutes to find my left boot, to amble out the door, to lower down the porch steps, to reach the car’s handle.. These three and a half minutes, I had decided, would be the unit of time in which divine inspiration struck me, conducting my tongue as it had Joseph Smith’s, giving me the words that I required. It didn't. I got into the car.


Todd sat compressed against the corner of the opposite seat, facing away from the motion of the vehicle, leaning slightly over his cellphone every time the driver pumped the breaks. I looked at him, waiting for him to look up. He didn't. I opened my mouth. He didn’t notice.


I wondered if, should I come up with the words in time, maybe I text them to him? My niece texted me happy birthday every year, though not always on the same day. How did she format those tiny smiley faces, and what exactly did they mean? Did multiple smiley faces next to each other form a new meaning, as with hieroglyphics? A sudden thought took me that these young children were developing a new language amongst themselves, a code which our most intelligent adult operatives would never break no matter how many of the characters and smileys and small party-popper icons they studied, and thus extending the void even further between the generations. Oh damn. I realized that my wise words, which had yet to exist, would require translation soon as they were created in order for Todd to grasp their full portent. Could the driver translate? If I chose not to text, would I have to mime out the faces as I spoke to indicate the emotion of the words? No, that was stupid. I had stupid words and stupid ideas about the words. Todd's life was about to change forever, and Mr. Handover had chosen the wrong man to sit in this car with him, sweating and wondering if a drink from the minibar would be inappropriate.


After a long while, Todd tucked his cell phone into his pocket and stared at me. His face still had the roundness that would fall off in the coming years, but you could tell already that his eyes didn't belong to his Dad. In fact, they didn't seem to belong to his mother either, who'd greeted me at the door once when I re-heeled one of her knee-high boots. She'd tipped me thirty dollars. Her eyes were deep-set violet, a color suggesting a sense of complacency that could survive plague or genocide.Todd's pupils seemed a little ragged, undefined. I'd seen the burn-outs at the train station and knew that it wasn’t from drugs. It wasn't affected, or the effect of anything. His pupils hid in the large whites of his eyes, which hid in the fat folds of his face, not like an animal hiding from a predator but like an animal seeking shade. I looked down at his shoes, Air Jordans. I looked down at his wrist, a sub-water Patek Phillipe. I looked at his haircut, a custom fade that must be kept through biweekly visits. I looked at his eyes.

We pulled up to the location, his uncle's house. The driver turned and handed him a small 22 caliber gun, which was cruel, I thought, because he'd have to fire three or four times to kill.


Todd broke eye contact from me to take the gun, and in that moment a string of sensations and memories and thoughts rushed into my head. The image of my father lying dead in our kitchen, the indentation of the baseball bat burrowed deep into the folds of his not-so-smart membrane. The scratchiness of all the suits at the funeral, the scuffs on my shoes as they sank into the mud at the grave site. The priest, who glanced slightly at Mr. Handover's father as he said the final blessing. And Mr. Handover, who was Eddie back then, who my mother would not look at, but at whom I stared openly across the small hole in the ground that would now be my father's hole, my father's unit of Earth.


No one will blame you, I thought to tell Todd. No one will think that you did anything wrong. Your Uncle will not blame you in the moments beforehand. His family will still be your family, and they will attend your dinners and shake your hand and give you discounts at whatever store they might own, selling ice cream, reupholstering your furniture, painting your child's crib, shining your shoes. There is no guilt to be felt because all the people who will do the wrong thing have already done them, and that is the reason we are here now. You are not a bad person. And you will go home tonight and sleep the same way you did before, and the small child that will find your Uncle, a cousin whose name you will not remember, will not blame you.


As I opened my mouth, Todd opened the door and walked outside, closing it just as my throat began to make noise. The driver and I waited. A few moments later, we heard five pops from inside the house. Todd came out and got into the back of the car. I had never been inside the house, but I knew from homes by the same developer that the time Todd spent inside was just about the exact amount necessary, to a step. He didn't have the gun with him. He sat down in the exact position he had before, plucked his cellphone from his hoodie pocket, and returned to his text messages.


The driver dropped me off first. I considered telling Todd my epiphany on the way out, but he didn't look up from his cellphone. I saw that he was playing a game, one in which you must tap the screen at the right time to cause your character to jump over oncoming cars rather than slam into their front grill. That's how I left him.


The walk to my front steps seemed as long as it normally, did. The walk to the liquor cabinet, the same. I mixed a vodka martini, spilling the Vermouth slightly as I always did, and thought to myself, "How have I not learned to keep the damn Vermouth in the bottle or in the glass? What does it mean that I haven't?"


Nothing, was the answer. The room was very still and very grey-blue and very quiet. I turned on the television.


...


Connor Fitzgerald is an LA based screenwriter by way of Chicago. He isn't on Instagram but is frequently in various coffee shops around Silverlake if you're interested in reaching him. Connor's website is: connorfitzgeraldwriting.com

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