32 • Falling
Will waved a hand back at his friends without turning around and walked out the door. He turned left and kept walking, away from the bar and away from the office and toward nothing in particular.
It’s no simple task wandering aimlessly in a small town. Every street leads to something, none of them go on for very long, and around every corner is a familiar site. Yet tonight, Will seemed to be managing aimless just fine. After what seemed like an hour walking darkened streets, he looked up to orient himself under a street light and saw a woman approaching. She had just jogged across the street and her small dog was tugging on the leash toward a large maple in the boulevard. He stepped to the side and stopped, waiting for her to pass.
“Will?” she said as she approached the lit area.
Will looked up. “Huh? Oh, Cameron. Hi. What’re you doing out so late on this side of town?”
“I’m just out for a run with Finn, ” she said. Cameron was dressed in a black jogging suit with wide reflective stripes down the outside of the legs and sleeves and along the jacket’s front zipper, which Will noticed was not completely straight. He looked back at his feet.
“But what do you mean ‘this side of town’? We’re just about home.”
Will looked around and saw Judge Barkley’s well-coiffed yard lit up by 200 tiny solar lights in a carefully engineered design around his garden, stone path and landscaping rocks.
“Oh. Yeah. And so we are.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Looks like I lost track of things.” As it turned out, for all his aimless wandering, he’d been walking ten minutes on a very direct route from downtown to Pearl’s house.
Cameron was bouncing from one foot to the other, without lifting them from the ground to keep her body from cooling down before she continued her run. It reminded Will of the way Barbara would pace behind him when she thought he wasn’t finishing something fast enough. He couldn’t see her but could always sense her impatience with him. “Listen, don’t let me keep you, ” he said, turning to go. “It was nice to see you.”
Will walked away from his house, toward nothing in particular that he knew of. Cameron stood under the light, watching him walk, hands in his pockets, head down. She stopped her silent jogging in place.
He didn’t hear her and kept walking.
“Will, ” she called out.
Will turned and looked up, tipping his head sideways. “Yeah?”
“Pearl’s house is this way.” She motioned behind her with her thumb.
Will quickly scanned the street and saw the Methodist church at the end of the block ahead. “Oh shit. You’re right.”
Of course she was right. Everyone was right.
“Walk with us, Will.”
“You sure? I don’t want to—“
“Shut up and walk with us. We had a good run.”
Will straightened and started back toward Cameron and Finn, for reasons he couldn’t place almost feeling a slight happy skip in his step which turned as quickly to catching his toe on a high spot in the cement. Before he could get his hands out of his pockets to steady himself, he went to the ground, landing on his right shoulder and rolling over to his back. He could only see blackness and his head felt pinched. He heard Cameron shout and then felt Finn’s tongue on his cheek as the dog earnestly tried to slobber him back into consciousness.
“Will, are you alright?” Cameron was on one knee next to him.
“I’m fine. Fine, ” Will mumbled. “But I can’t see.”
“Umm, ” Cameron said. “Maybe open your eyes, Will.” She ran a hand gently against his forehead. Her skin was soft and warm.
Will realized he was holding his eyes shut, as though if he didn’t look he might be able to convince himself—and Cameron—that he was not lying on the sidewalk in front of Judge Barkley’s lawn.
Cameron was leaning over him, the streetlight glowing softly behind her head and her honey locks cascaded over her shoulder and onto his chest.
He pulled himself up on his left elbow and smiled weakly. “I should have thought to fall down a long time ago.”
“You, ” Cameron laughed, and tossed her hair back. “Seriously, are you okay? Can I help you up?”
“Well, my shoulder feels like there’s a little campfire burning in there. I should probably ice it when I get home. Finn jumped up onto Will’s stomach and licked his mouth. He reached for the dog and dropped to his back again, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. “Maybe I should try to get up before Finn here slobbers me to death.”
“Come on, Finn, get down.” Cameron gave the leash a light jerk and the dog jumped off Will’s middle and onto the sidewalk. “Alright. Let’s get you up.”
Cameron held out an arm to steady him as he sat up and then got to his feet. His head buzzed when he stood upright and he leaned from side to side. “Maybe this wasn’t a good idea yet. I’m going to sit.”
He shuffled to the boulevard and slid down next to the maple. “I think I’ll be fine if you need to get the dog home. I got up too fast. Just need to wait it out a few more minutes.”
Cameron sat down next to him, leaning her back against the tree. “I’ll wait with you.”
“One of these times I’ll get to make a good impression, right?” He tipped his head back against the silver gray bark.
“Maybe, ” Cameron said, chuckling. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Will rested his hand in the soft grass, playing with a small stone between his fingers. “Pearl would be very unhappy with my performance tonight, that’s for sure.”
“Pearl doesn’t need to know anything about it, ” Cameron said. “Unless you are one of those guys who feels the need to tell his landlady everything.”
Will tossed the stone into the lawn across the sidewalk.
“Something tells me you are not one of those guys, ” she said, scratching Finn’s ears.
“Yeah, probably not.”
Cameron sat quietly for a few minutes, then asked, “Whose beautiful lawn is this? I don’t think I’ve noticed it before.”
“It’s really something at night with all the little lights. Completely different look than daytime, ” Will said. “Belongs to Judge Barkley. Have you met him?”
“I don’t think I have.”
“The old judge is living proof that things are not always what they seem, ” Will said, as though every person alive walking around under their reshaped and painted-over selves were not such proof enough. But Judge Barkley was a perfect specimen. “He was famous for his gentility, ” he explained. “Always polite, never had a cross word for anyone. Never raised his voice to his six children, who walked to school every day holding hands. He’d employ just the right amount of calculated severity when delivering a hard verdict, and a kind of twinkling-eye sternness when he let a guy off easy.”
“Is he still on the bench?” Cameron asked.
“Nah, ” Will said. “Been retired a year or so. Folks really miss him. Anyway, he’s weaker than a son of bitch. Stands about six feet tall and he’s lucky if he weighs 140 pounds. Every year he gets a little more frail, but he’s still out and about quite a bit. Pearl has him and his wife for dinner now and then.”
Will reached for Finn and pulled him into his lap, holding the dog’s front paws loosely until he laid down.
“So, one night last spring, he and his wife go for dinner to the Grainery. As he opens the door, a guy at one of the sidewalk tables who’d had a beer or two too many (and had been in Judge Barkley’s courtroom a time or two) whistles at his wife—who really is quite stunning—and mumbles, ‘I’d do her.’”
“Seriously?” Cameron asked.
“Yeah. Who says that to an octogenarian?” Will shook his head. “Judge puts his hand on the small of his wife’s back and follows her quietly in the door. Doesn’t even flinch. Looks like he hadn’t heard it, which everybody thinks was a good thing. But just before the door closes, he sticks his head out, looks the guy straight in the eye and says ‘I’ll thank you not to speak about my wife that way.’”
“Did you see this happen?”
“No, but I sure wished I had. Mad Dog was at the bar and told me about it the next day.” Will rubbed his shoulder. “Old Judge Barkley walks in and lets the door close behind him and I guess the folks on the patio let loose in howls of laughter. When he and Mrs. Barkley left, the guy’s still sitting there and raises his bottle of beer to them as they go by. ‘Quiet everybody, ’ he says and pulls off his cap, ‘The Duke of Barkley and his fair lady are passing by.’ The judge nods lightly and they walk to their Lincoln Towncar without a word.”
“That’s crazy. What a jerk.”
“Well, it gets good though. Ten minutes later, Judge Barkley pulls up to the curb again, but he’s by himself. He dropped the missus off at home. As he gets out of the car, the jackwagon takes a swig of beer and laughs. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand looks around at all his buddies. ‘Hey Judge. Beautiful night, ain’t it?’”
“Judge walks up to him, rears back and punches the guy in the jaw. Now listen. This guy is huge, like 280 pounds, and he just tips over in his chair, all sprawled out on the patio.”
Cameron laughed, covering her mouth with her hand.
“Everybody is on their feet and cheering. Judge Barkley shakes his hand a little in the air, turns around and walks to his car. Drives straight to the sheriff’s office and asks to be arrested for assault. The guy was so embarrassed he refused to press charges, but Judge Barkley retired the very next day.”
“He sounds like quite a character, ” Cameron said.
“Sure is, ” Will said, running a hand along Finn’s back. “Not at all the guy you expect to find in that scrawny little body.”
“Do you want me to knock on his door and get you some ice?”
“Hell no. I’ll be fine.” Will set the dog on the ground and rolled to the side to get on his knees and stand up. “See? Spry as ever. You ready to go, or do you need a little more rest?”
He held out a hand to Cameron. She smiled up at him, then took his hand and stood to her feet. “Yeah, I think I’m rested enough to walk another block, Mr. Spry Man Who Didn’t Just Fall on the Sidewalk.”
“Never happened, ” Will said. “I can ask Judge Barkley if he saw me fall outside his house, and he’ll deny it. You have no witnesses to prove otherwise.”
Cameron opened her mouth to argue, then thought better of it and just shook her head. “Alright. Let’s go.”
(to be continued)