He saw her sitting there crying. When he asked why and she replied that they wouldn’t let her play, that that mean boy told her she was ugly, that when the ice cream truck came they pushed her down and ran for it, he said:
“They wanted all the ice cream for themselves.”
She found herself unsatisfied with this answer, but like so many, the anger manifested with no more moral suasion then ad hominem; he was after all being a meanie to be sure; he had after all wounded her in some ugly way, even despicable, but he found that her quick kick to his shins the true ugliness. All after all was a celestial creation with its center his center; the plain and obvious truth was that the world existed either to please or to vex, and he was vexed. He returned to the house and moved about with a keen curiosity, the curiosity of the masochist. He found the bucket. He filled it. He walked back to his stoop. The girl once drenched, wailed. He did not understand her wailing. Clearly she was on his stoop, and his efforts to explain an inscrutable world was met with a lack of gratitude. She thus ought to get off his stoop: plain as the day that rose for him.
He sat and he watched the news, its vulpine vulgarity and shouting enough to make anyone feel that inward anger, the kind housed sometimes in the arms, sometimes the head, sometimes both. This anger, when verbalized, merely pretended to grasp the cunning hatreds stoked with image and fury; and when delivered by that woman, who the producers kept insisting sit in profile with legs crossed when talking to the drooling nincompoop whose case was jammed up by expensive lawyers, was all the more convincing. It took nothing, this hatred; it took a tone of indignance; it took the assumption that all we see is the surface of the cosmos that when not plainly ordered to maximize our pleasure was disordered, that fairness meant all or nothing. A mere unwieldly wanderer thrown off orbit to threaten his gravity was enough, even if gravity was conjured, even if it was all imaginary, or especially if it was all imaginary. To ask this old man sitting there to think critically about the lives of others was the ultimate insult.
She came back with her father. Her father was calm, felt it necessary to get to the bottom of this, found that a reasonable accounting of the whole interchange would be enough to demystify this man’s mystifying actions. He knocked. He knocked again, and when the man finally heard her, father was taking several deep breathes and watching his anger. He was watching over his own shoulder and imagining it as though dispassionate angel. It did him good to imagine.
The situation from this distance was one of an old man who was hard of hearing, had probably lost his wife, had probably no children, had probably lost his pension to some speculator whom the old man believed acted only out of magnanimity and that somehow it was the folks down the street who had robbed him; he imagined that if only this man were loved he would love, that if only his sour heart weren’t choking on indifference he would be a saintly person by comparison. He imagined that all this wasn’t enough: perhaps she had done more than kick him; he imagined he had dementia and the pharmaceutical company refused to shill till he had proven that all the cheaper meds didn’t work, that this old man had all day been looking for some target of his rage. Surely her father could understand, for we lived in a forbidding world, unloving and unkind, but for his choice to simply breathe and think about the other person, to imagine, to be creative.
As he stood he realized that if it weren’t for this man he wouldn’t have realized that the true problem was that empathy took imagination and that so many were unimaginative because they were told all along to straighten their ties, sit up straight, and pay attention to some odious authority who could explain; as he resumed knocking again and again, even the loud TV he heard he knew was explaining the old man’s reality in a way that was itself a bucket of water thrown over his empathy, that the price of his form of happiness seemed to come at the very surrender of his critical faculties. She screamed out, but he hadn’t time to stifle her before, the door finally swung open, the old man’s rifle did it for him. The father just had time to imagine life without her before he lay on the ground too.
“There. That’s better. Couldn’t hear a goddammed thing.”
HW fitzroy is a Visiting Instructor of English at Purdue University Northwest, where he maintains a steady output of critical thinking stylists. When he is not writing or teaching writing, he is rebelling as political activist. He lives alone in the Midwest. He recommends the American Civil Liberties Union.