Short Mysteries

The Stalker

To start with, it was Arty’s idea, not mine. I never would do something as crazy as he did. But that was Arty—always daring the guys to do risky things like smoke cigarettes behind the school, throw firecrackers at cars, or run across the tracks when a train was coming. He was suspended from school for firing a pistol out the window New Year’s Eve. He was a rebel through and through.

I was walking my bike beside Arty to the east side bus terminal, where he picked up the 83 bus to take him home. It was our last school day before summer vacation, a muggy May afternoon, so sticky our clothes clung to our bodies like snakeskin. We were dressed like typical eighth-grade boys: baggy shorts, running shoes, T-shirts, and baseball caps. Next year we’d move to Preston High School across town, something I was dreading, having heard tales of upper-class boys ganging up on freshmen, roughing them up in the halls, and putting foul things in their lockers.

The terminal was four bus lanes behind the intercity bus station, which hundreds of passengers passed through every day. While we waited for the 83, a bus from a nearby town pulled up, the driver straining at the wheel to make the tight turn into his designated lane. He braked hard, eased into the slot, and jolted to a stop. He pulled a lever, opening the door with a whoosh.

A stream of weary passengers filed out carrying newspapers, shopping bags, and cheap luggage. Tall and short, fat and skinny, young and old, all slicing into the sticky, humid afternoon air.

Arty watched the departing passengers and said, “Who are these people? Where do they go? What do they do all day?”

Arty’s eyes got huge, and he came alive. He squealed and pointed at the last man off the bus. “Look at that guy!” He slapped my arm. I recoiled from the sting of his slap. Arty was physical, pushing and shoving like a bully. I hated it.

“He looks like De Niro, doesn’t he? Look!” Arty’s voice broke when he got excited, starting in his normal pitch and then breaking an octave higher like a cat’s screech. “Where’s he going?”

The guy did look like De Niro: thick black hair, scratchy beard, rumpled shirt, and work boots. His face wore a scowl. His dark, hooded eyes scanned the crowd like he was hiding from the cops. He carried a black bag the size of a bowling ball, and he moved through the crowd like a bull, leading with his shoulders, flexing his chest, his feet making sideway moves to gain a step on slower passengers.

A pretty girl in a tight dress walked past, and he lowered his eyes to stare at her swishing rear end. A corner of his mouth curled in a leer.

Arty whistled under his breath, poking me in the side. “Man, he looks tough. Hard as nails. Where he’s going? Let’s follow him. Maybe he’s going to rob a bank or something.”

“Arty, you’re crazy!” I protested. “He could be dangerous.”

Arty shook his head. “He looks like he’s going to pick a fight. You see De Niro in that boxing movie? He’s a dumb fighter who gets beat up bad. Man, his face looks like hamburger at the end.”

I was scared. “What if he sees you?” I said, shaking. “He’ll wallop you and break your arms. I’m going home.”

Arty grabbed my arm and squeezed hard. I flinched. “Stick around. Don’t be chicken. Let’s follow him and see where he goes. He won’t even know.”

The guy disappeared into the bus terminal. Arty grabbed my arm and pulled me and my bike to the bus lanes leading to the street. We came out on the sidewalk just as the man passed ahead of us, swinging his bag and heading down the street. I wanted to run away but was worried Arty would smack me.

The guy walked to the end of the block and turned into a corner bar. Over the entrance a neon sign in blue and red bulbs blinked “Silver Slipper.” The glass window advertised “Beer. Pool. Steak. Burgers.” We put our faces close to the window and looked into the dim interior. A Johnny Cash song about a guy with a girl’s name boomed from a jukebox.

At the bar, the guy greeted an old man with a dark beard and a gut that hung over his belt. He slapped him on the back, said something, and they both laughed. A bartender brought a glass of beer and put it on the bar. The guy grabbed the glass, tipped his head back, and drained it, slapping the glass on the bar. A foam of bubbles slid down the empty glass. Two rough-looking guys carrying pool cues came over, poked him in the arm, and flashed wide grins, their teeth crooked and pitted. Their T-shirts had emblems of motorcycles and eagles over American flags.

The bartender saw us looking in the window and bolted around the bar. He stuck his head out the door, a cigarette dangling from his lips. “Hey, what you kids doing? Get the hell out of here or I’ll call the cops. Scram. I mean it.”

Arty and I jumped back and dashed away, back toward the bus terminal. Arty was cackling as he weaved among the pedestrians, his head tipped back, uttering meaningless gibberish. He stopped at the bus entrance as his 83 bus pulled in.

“Hey, there’s my bus!” I followed behind him, panting from the sprint from the bar. “I gotta go,” he said, his head turning back to me as 83 pulled into its arrival lane. “Why don’t you stay and find someone to follow!” Arty yelled. “Maybe you’ll see a movie star or something.” Then he laughed his hyena laugh—yip, yip, yip.

Arty was crazy. His stunt proved it. I had been scared when the bartender yelled at us, but I felt strangely exhilarated by our brief adventure. I never would have done something like that unless Arty had dared me. I knew I’d never do that by myself.

“I got to go home, Arty,” I yelled back as he stepped up into the bus. “My mom’ll get worried if I’m late.”

Arty didn’t even turn around to wave back. His head bobbed between the rows, slapping the empty headrests with both palms as he headed to the back of the bus.

Man, I thought to myself, that kid’s nuts. The bus driver closed the door and eased the bus onto the street. In the next lane, the 113 bus pulled in, and the driver opened the door. The passengers exited.

Arty’s comment came back to me: “Who are these people? Where do they go? What do they do all day?”

I watched as a mom got off with two little kids, followed by a teenage boy and girl. Then an older woman holding a shopping bag.

I froze. The last person off the bus was a pretty woman. Her long hair was curly and as yellow as corn. I had never seen a more perfect face in my life: full pink lips, round blue eyes, pure white complexion, and a delicate nose like a doll.

She was older than my nineteen-year-old sister, Jean, and not a beanpole. She had a woman’s body: full breasts and a thin waist that accented her hips. Her sexy dress was like those in Mom’s fashion magazines. The sun shone through her hair, making it glow like a crown. Even in the muggy air, she looked as fresh as if she’d just come out of a swimming pool and toweled off.

I liked to look at girls. I didn’t have a girlfriend, but I watched other guys in school fool around with girls, laughing, teasing, and joking. They made it look so easy, but I didn’t know how to do it. I wished I could; I knew I was missing out on fun. I got excited when I saw pretty girls coming down the hall or sitting across from me in class. I never knew what to say to them; I smiled, but it wasn’t a cool smile. They always looked away. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t like my smile either. I had read a magazine about how to attract girls, but nothing worked for me.

I would go to the movies and stare at actresses on the screen. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to meet one. Or talk to one. The prettiest woman I knew was Ms. Phillips, the girls’ PE teacher. She would walk down the hall during first period to turn in her attendance at the office, next to my classroom. I sat in the front row and would listen for her gym shoes squeaking across the polished floor. I would try to sneak a look as she passed by, my eyes soaking in the beauty of her tan legs and cute rear end. When I went to PE, I would walk past her door so I could smell her perfume. It reminded me of roses. I would close my eyes and breathe deeply, holding the scent as long as I could.

The woman who got off the bus was even prettier than Ms. Phillips. She glanced my way as she headed into the terminal. I felt weird, having naughty thoughts about how she would look without her clothes on. The urge to look at her was the most powerful sensation I’d ever felt.

My armpits were becoming increasingly damp, and my hands were getting sweaty. What was happening to me?

My body moved without any voluntary action on my part. A force was taking over my body: a powerful, exciting force. What was it? I was losing control and couldn’t resist.

I pushed my bike through the crowd onto the sidewalk facing the terminal entrance. I saw her leave and head in the opposite direction of the Silver Slipper. She walked down the sidewalk briskly, as if late for an appointment. She turned around to look into the street, stepped off the curb, and hurried across after a car passed her.

She walked two more blocks and headed toward Memorial Park. When she reached the park, she started on a path that led to the fountain pool surrounded by Civil War generals. I got on my bike and crossed at the corner as she disappeared into the grove of elm trees. I knew the park well and followed on the sidewalk, looking into the trees for a glimpse of her copper dress shining in the sunlight.

She had no idea I was following. Her eyes looked straight ahead as she disappeared and reappeared among the trees and hedges in the center of the park.

She reached the fountain pool and sat down on a bench. I got off my bike and crept into a grove of trees that let me see the bench through the branches. She reached into her purse and took out a mirror. She touched her fingers to her hair, wiped something off her cheek, and put the mirror back into her purse.

A man came from the opposite direction, and she stood up. They hugged, and he put his arm around her. They sat down on the bench close to each other. They were happy and started talking and laughing. She reached up and kissed him on the cheek. They looked around to see if anyone was watching. They kissed and held each other close a long time. Then they started talking again, their faces close, her hand on his leg, his arm around her shoulder.

She said something and a sad look came over the man’s face. She talked more and he looked off in the distance. Then neither one of them talked.

She looked at her watch and fidgeted. He resumed talking, she kept listening, neither looking at the other.

She stood up and straightened her dress. He stood up slowly. She looked at her watch. He kept talking. She reached over and hugged him the way my mom hugged my dad when he went to work in the morning.

She turned and left while the man stood by the bench, watching her walk away. She never looked back.

I pushed my bike from the bushes to the sidewalk and pedaled to the corner, where I could see her leave the park. She left the park and crossed the street to the Chelsea area. I rode across the street and got off my bike. She walked two more blocks and turned into a complex of apartments. I followed her through the first complex, then the second.

She went to an apartment facing a children’s play area, dug a key out of her purse, and put it in the lock. As she turned the key, the door opened and a man stepped out. Tall, thin, almost bald, and older. He looked like a fireman.

His face wore a stern look. He looked at his watch and said something. The happy face I had seen in the park was gone, replaced by a mask that showed no emotion. I couldn’t tell if she was angry or disappointed. She stepped back, and the man came towards her. She stepped back farther, and he reached for her, his fingers gripping her arms.

My heart was beating so hard I could feel it through my damp shirt. I was sweating like I had run around the bases after a home run. My legs were wobbly; I wanted to do something but didn’t know what to do. Did she need help? Should I race over and try to stop him?

She removed his hands from her arms, and the two remained talking seriously. I had seen his scolding look when our principal rebuked a student for messing up in class. But these were grownups, not schoolchildren.

They finally got quiet, turned, and walked into the apartment, with him following behind her. I couldn’t move for minutes. Then I got on my bike and rode home.

Summer vacation started the next day.