by Jan Christensen
This story has never before been published.
“I wish you could have met my son,” Jessica said. She took a bite of her sandwich. “But he’s dead.”
I swallowed my own bite of sandwich with difficulty. “I’m sorry to hear that. You only had the one child?”
“Yes. No daughters, either. I always wanted a daughter.”
Sitting on a park bench, we ate the sack lunches I‘d brought from home. A month ago I’d found her perched on this same bench, elbow on thigh, chin in hand, staring sightlessly across the park. I’d just taken a new job around the corner and decided to eat my lunch outside in the fresh spring air.
“Mind if I sit here?” I’d asked that day.
Her eyes shifted toward me, then away again. I felt sure she hadn’t really seen me, that the glance had just been a reflex reaction to my voice.
“Go ahead,” she said, her tone listless, her eyes glazed and staring once more.
I busied myself opening my lunch. The crackling of waxed paper must have caught her attention because she looked at my hands unwrapping the food. This time, she didn’t look away.
I offered her half of the pimento-cheese sandwich. She hesitated only a moment, then held out a grimy hand. She looked to be between fifty-five and sixty, and it appeared she’d been homeless awhile. The requisite stuffed black trash bag lay next to her feet. She wore two shapeless sweaters and a nondescript coat, baggy men’s pants and battered Nikes. Her hair, uncovered, looked like a matted brown wig, and she squinted at me as if she needed glasses.
“It’s a beautiful day,” I remarked, opening a plastic container of orange slices. I held it out to her, and she eagerly took one.
Nodding and smiling, she replied, “Yes, it is.” Her teeth contrasted whitely against her dingy skin.
“I’m Nancy Phillips. I work around the corner,” I told her. “Just started at Smedly, Smedly, and Gross.”
“I’m Jessica,” she said, biting carefully into the orange slice. “I know the Smedlys. Are you a lawyer, too?”
“Paralegal,” I replied.
“Oh.” She stuffed the rest of the orange slice into her mouth, stood up, tugging at the trash bag, and slung it over her shoulder, almost hitting me with it. “Thanks for the food,” she said. “I’ve got to get moving.” And she left me sitting there wondering what I’d said or done to make her leave so abruptly.
The next day I brought two sandwiches, two hardboiled eggs, and some chips. She appeared to have forgotten her sudden departure of the day before and accepted everything I offered her.
We were halfway through our food when I saw her cringe. She seemed to be trying to make herself invisible. I looked in the direction her eyes squinted. Peter approached, frowning. He looked handsome, as always, in his policeman’s uniform. My heartbeat speeded up, but I glanced away so that Jessica wouldn’t know we knew each other.
“Why are you doing this?” Peter asked Jessica, ignoring me. “Go home, please.”
Jessica shook her head, staring at the ground. Peter glared at her a moment, walked away, shoulders slumped. Jessica quickly finished her food, got up, put the bag over her shoulder and left.
During the next month, I continued to eat with Jessica on pleasant days. We talked about the weather, the birds, a little about my job. But I never could get her to talk about herself, until now.
I wanted to ask her more about her son, but a sudden downpour caught us unawares. We dashed to the bank across the street. As we tried to enter, the guard blocked our way. Not looking at me, he said to Jessica, “You can’t come in here.”
“She’s with me,” I said. Taking her arm, I steered her toward the counter where a few deposit slips sat in sloppy piles and noticed no pens were in sight. Jessica plunked her garbage bag down onto the floor and started rummaging through it. I watched curiously as she pushed aside neatly folded pieces of clothing.
When her hand grasped the gun, I took a step backward. She came up from her crouched position, pointing it at me.
“Nothing personal,” she said, motioning me toward the nearest teller. Slowly, I walked to where she indicated.
A big man lumbered out of one of the offices. He took in the scene and came to a dead stop, stomach and jowls jiggling.
“Jessica,” his voice boomed eerily around the marble lobby. “Put that away.”
“I won’t,” Jessica said. “I’m going to get my money, or this little girl’s going to get hurt.”
“Have you gone crazy? You can’t expect to get away with this.”
Jessica tossed him a black garbage bag. It fluttered near his feet. “Have them fill it, Harry. Then go out front and warn the cops away. I know someone here has already tripped the alarm. I’m sure Peter still has enough regard for his mother that he won’t want to see me hurt.”
“How can you do this to Peter?” Harry asked, bending down with difficulty to pick up the bag. “Isn’t it bad enough his brother got killed trying to rob this bank? Now his own mother’s doing the same thing.”
“You never did get it, Harry,” Jessica told him. “Johnnie wasn’t trying to rob the bank. He handed that note to the teller because he had laryngitis. Then all hell broke loose. He got scared and ran.”
“Taking the bag of money with him, don’t forget,” Harry said sarcastically.
“And getting shot and killed. Well, I’ve come to get what’s due me. Enough talk. Get that bag filled!”
“Jessica,” I said. “Don’t do this! Peter loves you and wants you to come home. He asked me to help. He and I are going to get married. You said you always wanted a daughter. Now’s your chance.”
The gun wavered in her hand for an instant, but then became steady again.
“Johnnie’s gone,” I continued. “Peter’s still here. Why won’t you acknowledge that he’s your son, too?”
“Peter killed Johnnie,” she said, her tone flat.
“I know,” I said softly. “He didn’t mean to. He didn’t even know it was Johnnie–”
“How could he not have known?” she asked scornfully.
“All he saw was someone running away. When he yelled at him to stop, Johnnie kept running.” I could feel the tears in my throat. Peter had agonized over this ever since he shot his brother in the back. I swallowed. “He shot at his legs, but Johnnie tripped and the bullet got him through the heart. Peter lost his brother, and his mother wouldn’t speak to him, wouldn’t listen to his explanation. Come home, Jessica. Peter needs you. He needs your forgiveness, too.”
I held my breath while she slowly lowered the gun. I glanced around, praying no one would make a stupid move. She held the gun out to me. Harry dashed over to take it as I put my arm around Jessica. I hoped that now she’d get the help she needed. Through the glass doors I could see Peter standing there, smiling at me.
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