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Julia Madeleine
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communityservice.jpg
Art by Aisling Kerins 2011

Community Service

 

 

Julia Madeleine

 

 

A wet cough issued from the old geezer’s lungs like he was going to puke up his insides all over his lap.  Sheri turned away feeling her stomach heave at the sight, and the disgusting smells that lifted off him. When his repugnant hacking finally ceased, he continued to eat the lunch she’d prepared for him: a ham and cheese sandwich begrudgingly slapped together.

 

On the cluttered coffee table in front of her, she turned the cardboard pages in one of the leather-bound books that he kept jammed together on the bottom shelf of a bookcase. There had to be two dozen of them: all leather, mostly brown and black with a couple of forest green ones mixed in. A fragile piece of tissue paper separated each page.  At least there was some consolation in having to visit this old buzzard who looked like a corpse waiting to lie down—for a first-year photography student, she found the volume of this work completely fascinating.

 

“I love these ones of the beach,” Sheri said, tapping a finger on one 8 10: a black and white shot of a sand dune with the ocean in the distance. “Where was this taken?”

 

She took a sip of her green tea and looked up at the old man. She watched him swallow, his Adam’s apple bouncing like a golf ball in his saggy neck, his flesh the texture of loose alligator skin. He sat there in his wheelchair, sinking inside his clothes, like a fading sandcastle in a creeping tide. His shirt collar hung down around his chest, and the cardigan bagged on his arms. The clock on the wall ticked softly in the stale air of his modest home.

 

He turned watery eyes toward her.

 

Even though Nate Michaels was a frail old man of eighty-four, who was soft spoken and always seemed pleased to see her every Saturday and Wednesday afternoons for the last month that she’d been forced to visit, there was something about the way he stared at her—a tethered look in his eyes—that gave her a peculiar feeling. It was hard to put her finger on it exactly, and she had wondered more than once if it was something she’d imagined. She wasn’t used to old people. Didn’t know anyone besides her grandmother as old as him. But Gran was a different sort of old person, more like seventy-five going on thirty with her yoga classes and nature hikes, even did some woodworking in her garage.

 

“They’re taken in Australia,” he said, his voice a shaky whisper sounding just like he was swallowing glass and trying to talk at the same time. “Was in sixty-five. That’s Wanda Beach there.”

 

Spit ran down into the creases at each sides of his mouth and the late afternoon sun gleamed on his blue-veined skull.

 

Sheri turned the page and studied the next photograph: more sand dunes, puffy clouds hovering on the horizon, and a woman laying on the beach, sunbathing.

 

“Is that where you’re from?” she said, looking closer at the woman in the picture. She appeared young and quite thin. She was lying on her side, turned away from the camera.

 

“I was born in Toronto. Lived here all my life.” He farted, actually lifting a hip to let it escape. It was loud and seemed to go on forever.

 

She ignored it and turned the page to the next photograph. At this age, she guessed all they cared about was taking their next breath. Everything else, like manners, was secondary.

 

“Who’s the woman?” Sheri asked, flipping the page to another photo of the same woman. She sat back on the sofa and pulled the book to her lap trying to see the picture better. It was odd, the way the limbs were positioned and then she realized suddenly there were two women in the picture. They were young. Girls, perhaps. One looked half buried in the sand, her head pressed up against the foot of the first girl.

 

“Can you get me some water? And take this away,” he said, pushing the plate across the little TV table she’d set up for him. “And this, too.” He pushed the flimsy table, nearly knocking it over.

 

Reluctantly, Sheri pulled herself away from the pictures and stood. She set her cup of green tea on the coffee table and looked at the clock. It was almost time for her to leave. Another hour off her sentence. A tough lesson for shoplifting an iPod, but at least she didn’t get any jail time.

 

On her first visit she’d thought of going through the old geezer’s drawers and cupboards, see if she could find any hidden valuables—old people were notorious for hiding cash under their mattress—but the idea of stealing from a vulnerable senior was low, even for a petty thief like her.

 

She put his plate in the sink and brought him a glass of tap water. He was repositioning his wheelchair when she came back to the living room. The tick of the clock seemed louder in her ears, a maddening sound. She didn’t know how he could stand it, like a reminder of how much of his life actually remained. Days, perhaps. Even hours.

 

She handed him the glass of water but he shook his head. Why did the old bastard make her go fetch him water if he didn’t even want it?

 

Sheri sighed and set the glass on the coffee table. She took her seat again on the sofa and turned her attention back to the photo album.

 

“Who are these girls?” she asked.

 

Nate gave her a sideways look, his black eyes betraying nothing. He didn’t respond, only studied her as if sizing her up. She took a swallow of her green tea and tried to ignore the way his gaze seemed to cut straight through her.

 

She wondered if the girls were models and this was some sort of artistic photo shoot the old man had wanted to do. There was a close-up of one girl’s face in the next picture—a profile shot of her laying in the sand, one bare shoulder visible. She had dark hair that lay in loose curls around her head. Sprinkles of sand sat in the corner of her closed eye as if the wind had swept it across her face.

 

“Did you go to Australia a lot? You have family there?” she asked trying to make conversation. It was a futile effort to stave off the oppressive silence in the air.  Trying to get any sort of conversation out of this old man wasn’t an easy task. It involved her asking a lot questions, and him responding with cryptic answers. No wonder the other girl with the Meals On Wheels program who’d been visiting him before had suddenly quite. Nate was a drag. Pure and simple. A boring old fucker with nothing left to say. And on top of it all, creepy as hell.

 

Sheri took a gulp of her tea, now growing cold, and turned to the next page. This picture confused her. She studied it for a moment trying to understand what she was seeing. She flipped back to some of the previous photos of the girls taken at more of a distance, and studied the long marks in the sand leading to where they lay.

 

 Sherri looked up at him staring at her with a stony face and his eyes like two black holes, his flesh shrinking into his skull. She felt suddenly like she couldn’t get enough air. She took another long sip of her tea. Her heart began to hammer and her vision blurred. There was an odd ringing in her ears. She drained her cup.

 

Then she turned her attention to the bookcase and the next book in the sequence on the shelf. She needed to see more photos, see if there were more pictures like these ones. More pictures of what she was beginning to surmise. Or imagine.

 

Sheri stood and took a step. Her legs felt rubbery. The ringing in her head grew louder. Squatting down unsteadily, she hauled the next heavy photo album from the shelf and stepped back to the safety of the sofa. Why did she feel so light-headed all of a sudden? Maybe she was coming down with the flu.

 

Sheri looked over at the old man as she opened the book in her lap. He was still staring at her in the same disturbing manner.  The nineteen seventies, it read on the inside  of the book. She flipped the delicate tissue paper and looked at the first black and white photo. It was a woman. Different from the ones in the previous books. She had blonde spiral curled hair and she lay on her back on a sofa, all long and pale limbed. She wore a lace slip and appeared to be sleeping. Sheri tried to focus her eyes on the dark smudges around the woman’s neck.

 

She looked up at the old man. His face doubled in her sight. She shook her head, feeling like she was going to faint. Waiting for the sensation to pass, she gazed at the worn carpet the color of excrement, and wondered at the amount of grime it actually hid within its dark fiber. He’d lived in this house more than fifty years, or so, he’d said. Judging from the furniture, the carpet was probably the original, or close to it.

 

A noise from the kitchen, the squeak of floorboards, jolted her.

 

“My son, Ivan. He’s the photographer,” Nate Michaels said.

 

A tall, stooped man appeared from out of nowhere. His eyes were shining as they trained on her. He wore a small smile on his pasty face. Even though he had a full head of hair, dark and oily like seaweed stuck to his scalp, she could tell he was old, in his early sixties at least. Clutched before him in his long slender fingers was a camera.

 

“I told Ivan all about you,” Nate said, sounding like he was drowning in his own phlegm. “About how pretty you are. How you admired his work. He came all the way up from New York City to meet you . . . and take your picture.”

 

Sheri’s head was swimming. Her vision narrowed. She slumped on the sofa, her head back, and watched as the stranger approached her. What was wrong with her that she felt so weak? She reached for her teacup and realized she’d drunk it all. The tea! She looked up at Nate, his black eyes peeling away her flesh.

 

 Ivan set the camera on the coffee table. His movements were slow, delicate, almost feminine. From his pocket he pulled out a cord, winding the ends of it around his hands. His face held that same little smile as if that were the only expression he had. His eyes were slippery and staring like a dead fish’s.

 

She felt the weight of him as he put one knee on the sofa next to her. She could smell his aftershave. It made her feel sick. In that moment she knew that she hadn’t gotten off easy on the shoplifting charges. What the judge had given her for stealing that stupid iPod, was a death sentence. 

 

 

 

Julia Madeleine is a thriller writer and tattoo artist living on the west side of Toronto. Her short stories have appeared in Crime Factory Magazine, A Twist of Noir, and Dark Valentine, The Flash Fiction Offensive, and more. Her second novel title, No One To Hear You Scream, was released in June 2011. Visit her here for more info: www.juliamadeleine.com

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