Commonplaces

Adam Reger

On Monday, a child falls down a dry well in the southwestern section of the city. The child’s name is Angelina and she is three years old.

Baby Angelina lives a privileged existence, food and water lowered to her on a sturdy rope. In bars, on talk radio, citizens wonder why Baby Angelina doesn’t simply grab hold of one of the baskets containing food and ride up out of the darkness. A bearded expert addressing the question on the television news is visibly annoyed. “It’s more complicated than that,” he says, frowning.

People in the city defer to the expert, though the sentiment is general that progress on freeing Baby Angelina is altogether too slow. The expert lays out the options, pros and cons considered: there is straight drilling, which could bury Baby Angelina; and lateral drilling, which some fear could frighten her to death.

There are hourly news updates as authorities debate which action to take. Ben Howell, sitting on a bar stool, watches coverage of a city council meeting. His wife has been nagging him about doing household chores and he has ducked down to Frankie’s, at just the same time as he has done most nights for the last few years. On the television, an old woman shuffles to the microphone and lambastes the city for its inaction on the Baby Angelina issue.

“But it’s only Monday,” Ben murmurs, speaking in such a voice that anyone at the bar who cares to respond can do so, or can ignore the sentiment if they’d prefer. “It just happened today.” The other Frankie’s patrons stare at the television, or into the air where their smoke rings dissipate, or into the streaky mirror behind the row of liquor bottles.

The stock market is climbing day by day, and experts are sanguine it will continue edging toward a year-long peak. The city’s Double-A baseball team, the Crayfish, win a 6-0 game on the strength of an up-and-coming right-handed pitcher’s four-hit shut-out. The temperature is in the high sixties and should stay steady heading into the weekend.

***

On Tuesday, the mayor calls an emergency press conference to announce his resignation, effective immediately. He does not answer reporters’ queries as to why he is resigning and leaves the briefing room abruptly, flash bulbs and questions afflicting the empty space he leaves behind.

The mayor’s reasons remain secret for several hours, until an anonymous note is faxed to the television station. “The mayor’s wife is divorcing him,” the note reads. “The reason is adultery. The wife and her lawyer were trying to extort money from the mayor.” Although the note’s source is unknown, the television station runs with it, and soon other media repeat the information.

That evening’s broadcast of the Crayfish game is interrupted to show the mayor holding an impromptu press conference in front of his house in the wealthy northeastern section of the city. It is dusk and the cameramen’s lights illuminate the mayor. In contrast to his earlier bewilderment, the mayor now is in command and forthright, his chin high and his eyes steely with resolve.

“I apologize for not saying more earlier,” the mayor says. “But I looked within myself and saw that I needed to put the interests of this city before my own.” He pauses, listening to a reporter’s question. “I’ll do what God and my public tell me to do,” the mayor says. “I’ve thrown myself on the mercy of the citizens, and now I’m all ears. Their wish is my command.”

A reporter asks about the adultery charge. After a long intake of breath, the mayor says, “I cannot tell a lie. The charges are true. For her protection, I will not reveal the woman’s identity. I have wronged my wife—soon to be ex-wife—and I can only hope that with time she will find it in her heart to forgive me. I can only ask the same of the people of this fair city.”

A prominent council member arrives and, within earshot of the cameras’ microphones, and in the scope of their lights, presents the mayor with a document, signed by a plurality of council members, refusing the mayor’s resignation. “Let me read from it, Mr. Mayor,” the councilman says, and clears his throat. “‘In light of recent revelations, it is clear to this council that the mayor did resign only under duress; moreover, the mayor’s action is seen to be a selfless one, undertaken to save the city undue embarrassment and degradation.’”

This touching gesture moves the mayor, and he and the councilman—who have not always seen eye to eye—shake hands warmly. The mayor accepts the council’s offer. The press conference breaks up in a haze of good feeling.

“I wonder who sent that fax?” Ben Howell wonders aloud. He is at Frankie’s again, on the same stool as the previous night. He is not paying close attention to the television tonight because he is engaged in conversation with a woman, Connie, who sometimes appears at the bar. She is younger than Ben by perhaps ten years, friendly, and attractive, though with a slightly horsey face.

Connie glances up. “We might never know,” she says.

Ben nods and monitors the television for a few seconds. “Hey, how about that Baby Angela? I didn’t think they’d get her out alive,” he says. Baby Angelina was rescued in the early daylight hours Tuesday by a team drilling laterally through the well shaft. She is in good health and should soon be out of the city hospital, where doctors are keeping her for observation.

Connie agrees that it is inspiring, maybe even miraculous. “So, are you in here every night?” she asks. “Or do you just pick the same nights as me?”

Ben explains that he comes most nights, but it isn’t a particular habit or routine. Connie nods, hiding a smile. “I was taking a class,” she says. “I only had this night off, just once every three weeks. But the last class was yesterday. I was thinking if I should come in more often now.”

“I’d say you should,” Ben says, and feels something in his chest. It is familiar, the feeling Ben got when his wife, Barbara, asked him to dance. They were both in high school then. “This same stool should be open,” Ben says. “Or I could save it for you if you wanted.”

“That would be nice,” Connie says, and looks at her watch. “I suppose I’ll see you then? I should go now. My ride will be here in a few minutes.”

Ben rises and bows slightly as Connie passes by. She laughs and walks out of Frankie’s, and Ben immediately begins thinking of her. Within half an hour her sharp, cramped features have softened and her thin lips have filled out, taking on a sheen that makes Ben, in his imagined interactions, take Connie against him and lean in to kiss her, at first softly and then strenuously.

***

On Wednesday, a group of lawyers holds a press conference on the courthouse steps. “We’ve asked you here today,” the lead lawyer says to the media personnel assembled before him, “to announce that Alvin Reynolds has been wrongly convicted of a crime he did not commit.”

The lawyers detail the flawed trial given to Alvin Reynolds—29, a lifelong resident hailing from the mostly black southeastern section of the city—as well as evidence that was not admitted, which proves that Alvin Reynolds could not have committed the crimes, burglary and rape, of which he was convicted.

The tone of the anchors on that night’s evening news is grave, and at the tail end of newspaper articles about the case, passing reference is made to recent, similar cases handled by the same team of lawyers.

The stock market continues to climb and the weather remains unseasonably temperate. There is a feeling throughout the city that the year is turning a corner, moving solidly into spring and bringing summer up on the horizon. “The living is easy,” a drive-time disc jockey says, without sarcasm. The Crayfish win both games of a twilight doubleheader.

Ben is in Frankie’s when the television plays a short promo that shows Alvin Reynolds’s creased face, talking silently, with a voiceover saying that you won’t believe the new twist this story has taken, but you can tune in at eleven to hear about it. Ben wonders distractedly where he will be at eleven o’clock. Connie will be arriving shortly and Ben has come earlier than usual. He’s had two beers already. He told his wife that he is helping a co-worker with a woodworking project.

To calm himself, Ben surveys Frankie’s. Who Frankie is or was, Ben has never known. The décor along the walls gives no clue: it’s all plaques commemorating teams that Frankie’s has sponsored and honors that those teams have won, along with a few framed eight-by-ten photographs autographed by minor celebrities. There are only a dozen or so people in the bar, doing ordinary bar things: shooting pool lazily, drinking quietly in twos and threes and noisily in larger groups, debating some point laughingly, voices rising, hands slapping the sticky tabletops.

Connie enters while Ben is looking around the bar. She touches his arm, her fingers cool and light. “Sorry I’m late.”

Ben smiles and stands. He expects to fumble for words but instead he says, “Mademoiselle, you are incapable of arriving at any but the precise right moment,” and smiles more broadly, knowing that “debonair” is the exact right word to describe him.

Connie smiles back and the evening begins in earnest.

***

On Thursday, the city conducts its business. There is a council meeting at City Hall; it is televised, but the city barely notices. The Crayfish have the day off, and will be on the road the next six days. The weather is fine but in the middle of the day the temperature drops noticeably and clouds gather. The stock market continues to climb, a bit more slowly than before.

A high school in the posh northeastern corner of the city holds its recital. Chorus and orchestra members give the performances of their young lives, fighting back nerves and the sensation that everyone in the crowded auditorium is staring intently at them.

In a coffee shop not far from the school, a 38-year-old woman breaks up with her boyfriend of two months. He has been too distant, she says. She needs someone she can count on, someone she can see herself with in ten years’ time. The man takes it stoically and he and the woman part amicably, with a stiff hug. This, as much as the break-up, kills the woman, who is not getting any younger or more attractive.

The man is hurt but not desperately. He is ten days older than the woman, the same sign of the zodiac (Pisces), facts they both found surprising and meaningful at the start of their relationship. The man walks down a hill toward his apartment building. It is evening and the temperature has dropped, aided by an aggressive wind that scatters garbage and dust over the streets of the city. He pauses to shake off a newspaper page that drapes itself around his leg.

The page that blows away contains a back-page story on Baby Angelina, who has been released from the city hospital and is home with her parents in the run-down southwestern section of the city. On the same newsprint sheet, an inside-page story reports that Alvin Reynolds’s appeal is being contested by the District Attorney, and a hearing set for several months from now, in the heart of summer. Until then, Alvin Reynolds will remain in prison and the city will forget about him, as it’s already begun to do.

In the southwestern section of the city, where Alvin Reynolds sits in a prison cell and Baby Angelina sits in front of a television while her parents quarrel in another room, Ben Howell takes Connie to a motel on Highway 18. Tractor-trailers fill in the edges of the parking lot, and closer to the building there are rusted pick-up trucks and dirty Oldsmobiles. In the motel room, Ben undresses Connie slowly. It is a novel sensation, undressing a woman who smiles up at him shyly, wanting these moments together as much as he does. Ben knows he has experienced this before, been in this position of leaning over a woman splayed across a bed. But the familiarity is negligible: it is Connie he is with, it is the Ravenwood Motel whose bed he kneels on, it is the roar of trucks along Highway 18 that he hears. Ben leans into Connie, merges with her. He experiences the same feeling of novelty, only more so.

***

On Friday, a baby is found in a dumpster behind a fast-food restaurant downtown. The baby, a 7-pound boy medical personnel determine was born three hours earlier, is found when his cries disturb a homeless man sleeping in the alleyway. Police arrest the homeless man when he enters the restaurant carrying the naked, screaming infant, and asking diners if the baby is theirs. He is held overnight on suspicion, though the police sergeant on duty considers this as much a reward for finding the baby as a punishment, as the man has likely not had a bed to sleep on, or a hot shower or a warm meal, in some time.

Residents of the city ponder how anyone could put a newborn baby in a dumpster, and are thankful that the baby was found before he starved or smothered. “The mother should be ashamed of herself,” a woman on the street, not quite old, says into the camera on the evening news. She drags lightly on a cigarette, letting the smoke whirl away in the strong breeze. “I’d at least have brought it to an orphanage or something,” she says in the thick local accent of the city.

By the time of the late news, the baby’s mother has come forward, and her yearbook picture is shown on the air. She is only seventeen, still a high school student, and an employee at the fast-food restaurant in whose dumpster the baby was found. She was working the counter, the anchorman says, when the homeless man brought the baby in. There is a shot of the girl masking her face with a jacket as she enters the central city police station. An obese woman identified as the girl’s mother toddles beside her, putting a thick hand out toward the cameras. It is night but the cameras’ probing lights cut through the darkness, saturating the girl and her mother. A light rain falls, dotting the cameras’ lenses. The television news team reports that the girl delivered the baby in the restaurant’s bathroom, then secreted the infant outside in a trash bag.

Ben Howell is back at Frankie’s and checking his watch as the news report concludes. Because it is Friday night, Frankie’s is crowded and a man, haggard and with sad-looking eyes, here by himself, sits close by Ben. He says, “A shame about that baby and all that business, isn’t it?”

“It sure is,” Ben answers distractedly. “A damn shame.”

“Then again, it’s alive, so that’s something,” the man says. “Something to be thankful for.”

Ben and the man go on talking as the news continues. The Crayfish won another game in extra innings, the sports announcer says, but the manager is afraid the team’s ace pitcher may have injured his arm. The warm weather isn’t expected to last much longer, and there may be a snag with the stock market’s recent climb. When the newscast ends, Ben excuses himself to the other man and climbs off his bar stool. He goes out to the parking lot and drives to the southwestern section of the city, where he meets Connie again at the Ravenwood Motel.

***

On Saturday afternoon, a motel housekeeper, hearing no answer from tenants in room 136, unlocks the door to find a murder scene. Two men and a woman have been shot: one man and the woman evidently were in bed together, for they are naked and their positions suggest that they had begun to rise from the bed, peeling back the covers, only to be thrown back by two shots each to the chest. The other man sits serenely in a chair beside the window, blood and bone matter stuck to the cheap wallpaper behind him. No one reported gunshots, and police determine why: the killer used a cheap homemade silencer, a length of garden hose duct-taped to the barrel of his pistol.

The victims are the mayor and his mistress. Her husband was their killer. The mayor’s wife—their divorce was not yet finalized—cannot be reached for comment. A friend of the mayor’s mistress says that she had warned her friend against the affair. “I said, ‘You don’t know what he might do if he finds out,’” the woman says. “‘He’s got a short fuse,’ I told her.” The city councilman who appeared at the mayor’s house on Tuesday issues a solemn press release vowing to carry on the mayor’s good work. Blurry photographs of the mistress and her husband appear on the news alongside recent photographs of the mayor, smiling good-naturedly.

On an empty downtown street, a man who has started his own church, with a congregation of seven, stands at a busy intersection holding a sign that reads “The Wages of Sin is Death.” He stands throughout the day, shaking his sign at motorists, despite gathering storm clouds. Congregants stop by to bring him food and drink.

On a radio talk show, a gun-control advocate is a guest in the studio. He intones somberly that the fault for the mayor’s tragic death must be laid at the feet of the gun-makers and those who fail to learn from past tragedies. Callers argue that irresponsible gun use, not gun ownership, was the issue. One says that the lovers got what was coming to them.

Listening to the program in his kitchen, picking through the newspaper alongside his wife, Ben Howell shakes his head slowly and says, “Some people.” He gets up and changes the station to the Crayfish game. Barbara Howell looks up at her husband curiously, but her expression is blank by the time he sits down again.

They eat lunch together, and in the afternoon Barbara goes out to work in the garden. Ben balances the checkbook and drives to a home improvement store in the southeastern section of the city.

Outside the store, Ben calls Connie from a pay phone and asks if he can see her tonight. The wind rustles the sleeves and collar of Ben’s jacket as he stands at the edge of the parking lot, listening to Connie’s voice on the other end. The sky is dark, bruise-like in places, and rain seems imminent. When Ben and Connie meet, it is at a motel forty minutes down Highway 18, well outside the city limits.

And when the rain comes it falls in a cascade that keeps Ben and Connie inside the motel room overnight and into Sunday morning. They watch television, and nap in the afternoon, waking as the light is failing, with raindrops sliding across the windowpane.

#

Adam Reger lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His fiction has appeared in cream city review, New Orleans Review, Juked, and other places.