Short story from George Sparling

The Nearness of You

    Sue should have been surprised, when she saw the top story on Google News about Len

slashing the throats of a black man and white woman on the busy square. She wept

reading about Alice’s death. The black man also died. Alice, her bisexual, longtime

partner, had done what came naturally and Sue hoped she had not pushed Len’s hate

button.

    Sue waited for a table at a vegetarian restaurant, and seated next to her was a man who

beat his feet on the floor and rubbed the stub of his ring finger which had two digits

missing.

    “Rousseau took walks to think. I tap and think,” he said. A table freed, he asked

whether she wanted to sample what he ordered and he would share some of her meal. “A

few bites, I don’t have HIV.” His energetic speech appealed to her, whose stamina

needed a recharge, so she and he sat across from one another.

    “My name’s Sue. I drive a bus, 200 miles a day,” she said. “I do what I want on

weekends.”

    “Call me Len. This is my first day in town. You know, I never had a job.” “How in the hell

had he supported himself”, she thought, sipping the smoothie as he said, “Prosit,” and

clicked her glass with his smoothie. He mimicked her frown, two pairs of eyes staring

over their glasses. The waiter brought them smoothies while they waited. “I dreamed

about blueberry smoothies in the slammer.” She heard his feet bop the table’s metal

stand.

   

    “Prosit,” she echoed. Soft, electronic harp music and ocean waves played on the sound

system and swept away Sue’s qualms. The bright, colored framed images on the walls,

diners’ comfortable conversations, the hum attuned to the shared experience, appeased her

doubts about him.   

   

    They ordered soup, salad, and entrees. Len said, “Good German word, ‘prosit’, they

really made Europe tick, cleansing filth. Where would we be without Germans?”

    Alice, her Jewish partner, would have thrown a barrage of punches at this asshole with

that. Alice at the beach with some guy, Sue had slipped out of her familiar orbit and

bumped into this, but why walk away from fine food?

    She turned in the chair, stretched out her hairy leg, and said:

    “I can bench press one hundred pounds ten reps. That makes my fear threshold pretty

high.” He stared at her exposed leg. She wanted to make it plain that he would not hit on her.

    “It must put hair off your chest and lead in your pencil.”

    “That’s a guy thing. What about you?”

    “About what?” The waiter placed the orders on the table and when he left ,Sue

asked with a smirk, “How much lead’s in your pencil?”

    “Before my trial, I wrote a blog. I don’t ejaculate anymore. Are you sorry?” He had no

sorry bone in his body. Was he intentionally ambiguous? Either the blog or trial was

responsible for his sexual retreat. “Why had paranoia begun to encroach?” Sue thought,

uncomfortable with its alien presence. Interjecting sex bluntly did not gel with organic

food.

    “Why the trial?”

    “See this? A groid cut most of it off. I survived but he caught a cold.”

   

    “Caught a cold”? You meant ‘black man’, don’t you?” Her voice rose and

diners turned their heads. Her aspirations proved too high for this lowlife. “Alice and I

usually eat at that table by the windows,” she added, pointing at the teenage trio at the

table.      

    “Got killed, but not by me. I didn’t want to do a backdoor parole and die a natural

death inside.” He looked smug, boasting his prison slang.

    She would stick it out with Len. His disclosures both disarmed her and threatened her.

When she told Alice about Len, she would undoubtedly tell Sue that she should have told him

he was a thug, and ‘accidentally” kick him in the shin beneath the table, and leave with

two checks to pay. 

    “I marched for gay rights and got arrested but they released me after three hours.”

She wanted to demonstrate their differences – she, a genuine progressive, he, an inveterate

criminal. There was no hope of converting Len. She had marched for an end to those

Christian conversion groups, thinking gays could become respectable heterosexuals.

But it took mass movements to get rid of racists like him. Or, Sue might arrange for her

black weight trainer to put the terror of God into Len, get him the hell out of this laid-back, cool town.

    “Protesting is a dead end.”

     “Who’d have you in their demonstration anyway?”

     Sometimes police infiltrators joined them during protests against the treatment of

Bradley Manning, world-famous whistleblower that leaked damning documents about

this government’s illegal and genocidal atrocities in Iraq. But, the march continued with

the undercover uglies anyway. It was difficult to avoid enemies.

    There was an empty table to their right where she might break bread alone, yet she

remained seated. What held her there? She hoped never to run into Len again, but if he

stayed in town, that would be impossible.

    Sue ate her meal slowly. Len slurped his soup and chewed maple glazed

walnuts, goat cheese and roasted beets, then plowed into the Shepard’s pie, chomping

down the mashed Yukon potatoes and sweet potatoes, soy sausages, steamed veggies and

cashew gravy. He then reached over and snagged half her spinach salad, stabbing with

his fork the grilled bosc pear slices, dried cranberries and toasted hazelnuts, and

Ethiopian tempeh, then spooned lots of her millet loaf.

    A little too loudly, Sue said, ‘Save some for me, dammit.” Diners fell silent a few

beats, then resumed conversations.

    “Lebensraum, my dear, I needed more food and the Germans in the thirties needed

more land.” After Len’s pillage, Sue’s remaining food had the taste of paranoia.

    Sometimes, late at night, Alice and Sue would cuddle, listening to nostalgic, romantic

songs. Among their favorites was “The Nearness of You,” sung by Sarah Vaughn. It was

written in 1938. That same year, Nazi Germany announced its “lebensraum” policy. It

wanted more land, especially to invade Poland. Poland, on Germany’s eastern border, its

proximity marking it for invasion and enabling the Nazis to sweep into Russia, crushed

communism before it matured. Those nights, the lyrics brought Sue and Alice closer and

forged a union unbroken by boundaries. Len erected barriers, just as nations at war do.

    “Ever listen to music, Len?” Sue said.

    He blushed, then recovered. Everybody listened to music- it was inescapable, but her

question caught him off-guard, as if he were not part of humanity. He squinted his eyes,

brought both fists on the table, flicking the severed finger at her. It was like brandishing

the raised middle finger, but more menacing, more threatening. It was as if he had given

her a cliterectomy. He regained calm as it moved across his face, he unclenched his

fists and moved his face and body away from her. He had leaned across the table to

achieve maximum intimidation, and now relaxed, except for his restless legs.

    “I listen to Sabaton, a metal band singing about Germany’s wars and millions of dead

heroes. Their lyrics are taken from history and almost makes me shoot my load,” he said.

     Why his candid disclosures – had he nothing to lose? Most persons would have left by

now, but Sue would not leave the untainted food. After all, she and Alice dined here

frequently and it was as much as their territory as Len’s. She conceded space to him,

allowing all persons admission under the Big Tent. An exponent of multiculturalism,

even released criminals and their underworld culture had the right to co-mingle with folks

such as Alice and Sue. His extreme terrorizing and Sue’s maximal tolerance: inclusion

must be the price of human differences.

 

    “Peace is better that rehashing old history.” She pretended not to hear the “load”

business. “Metal bands thrive on fear.” 

     “Fear motivates me. In Florida, I was so scared of getting attacked by a groid that I

shot the sucker. I didn’t kill him, though.” His body vibrated as he spoke, and he bounced

in his chair. The diners had thinned out but the remaining ones looked alarmed.

    Finished, Len said he would pay for them. Sue consented as she had already done

by sitting three feet from him.

    They walked a few blocks to the square. His arms brushed hers as they walked. They

sat on a bench. “Damn, why does his thigh have to touch me?”

    “I’m broke,” he said laughing under his breath.

   

    “Why pay our bill then?”

   

    “Something will come up,” he said. “I can beg or mug somebody. The square looks

touristy. That’s where the money is, in their fat wallets.”

    He pulled out a nasty looking knife from a sheath, concealed at his hip, that was inside his pants.

    “Careful, don’t cut me.”

    “I couldn’t stop yapping to you. Prison does weird things. This finger’s missing

when I tried to mug an old gal in Florida.” His voice steadier than at the table, he stared

into her eyes.

     Sue stood up, said goodbye and walked home.

     Alice was not there. “I could’ve killed Sue, but instead knifed these two, she a n*****

lover and the groid too,” the article read. That puzzled the reporter. There was no mention

of who Sue was- Sue had not yet been notified by local authorities.

    Sue played “The Nearness of You” alone in the living room and asked herself whether

she, Sue, was responsible for their deaths on the day-lit public square.

    People are just too damn close these days, she thought.

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