Ray

“Step on a crack, break your mother’s back,” Ray dutifully reminded himself as he watched his left shoe, and then his right shoe, pass each other on the sidewalk below, looking from his vantage point like compact autos negotiating a tiny two-lane road. If one could even call it that, given a buckling surface strewn with cigarette butts and used tissue papers and rubble – were it a road, heaven forbid, the poor hapless drivers below would have been catapulted through their miniature windshields. He shuddered and kept walking, stepping gingerly over the cracks as they appeared, moderating his pace so there were no surprises.

Ray’s weekly afternoon walk was no picnic, at least the part where he had to negotiate the endless stretch from Maple Avenue to Elm Street, crossing busy Main along the way. The neighborhood was old, with rundown California-style bungalows sporting small brown lawns tended by their elderly owners. Ray didn’t see himself as elderly; he liked to think of himself as on the edge of senior citizenship and not someone who had been collecting Social Security checks for a good fifteen years.

One of the residents called out to Ray from his front porch.

“Afternoon, sure looks like rain out there.”

Ray never liked passing this particular house for this very reason. It meant he had to wrench his head up and respond in deference to his genteel Southern upbringing and thus lose his pace.

“Yes, sure does,” he said quickly, nodding and waving politely. The niceties dispensed with, he then had to pick up where he left off. It was a pain in the neck. And now on top of it all he was reminded that it was a lousy overcast day.

He only had so much time. The residents at the Tucson Valley Residential Home were allowed two-hour daily walks on its vast grounds before being required to report back with Nurse Winifred, the head honcho and pill lady. Ray had been violating this rule once a week for the past year or so, and apparently no one had noticed. He didn’t want to think about the consequences. Nurse Winifred, for reasons that escaped him, already had Ray at the top of some invisible shit list and singled him out regularly for various infractions.

Tucson Valley Residential Home was something else Ray didn’t like to think about. Previously a forbidding, gothic mansion that housed wayward teenage girls up until the early 1950s, it had since been minimally renovated so that now it was a forbidding, gothic mansion that housed old people. And one reason Ray didn’t have visitors, he knew, was because of stories that the mansion was haunted.

Ray stepped up his pace after crossing Main Street, the worst part of his walk. The traffic light gave him only so much time to cross, some drivers would try to run the light, and there were double cracks on the edge of the curb.

But at last, Elm Street beckoned. Ray found himself walking a bit faster, now, as he approached the familiar front gates of the Paradise RV Park and stepped through. He lifted his head to look at the pink flamingos grazing on the shiny green Astroturf in front of the Office/No Vacancies sign. On cue, the sun burst out from behind the clouds, creating a spectacular Technicolor moment. Ray squeezed his eyes shut and shivered in gratitude.

A dozen yards beyond, a double row of bright sausage-shaped Airstream trailers was parked, a lane of gravel meandering between the rows. Ray sighed at the near perfection before his weary eyes. Each silver trailer had a set of wooden steps and a tiny square of Astroturf or grass with its own pink flamingo. As he crunched along the gravel road, the familiar yipping of the many resident Chihuahuas and poodles began from inside the trailers, escalating as he neared his destination. To Ray, it was like a celestial canine choir singing, “Welcome to Paradise!”

Ray arrived at Number 3, the silvery home he knew and loved. He glanced at his watch. He had just 45 minutes. Unlocking and pulling open the aluminum door, he stooped down and stepped inside the air-conditioned living room with its sweet calico couch and matching rocking chair, and moved quickly down the hallway to the bedroom. He stepped up to the chiffonier and stool and sat down, skooching closer to the mirror. An earring rack sat off to one side. Ray carefully slid out a drawer and plunged his hands into a cool pile of costume jewelry — rhinestone necklaces and bracelets, pearls and glass beads. Gently, he lifted out a rhinestone necklace and bracelet, selected matching clip-on earrings, and set them out on the dresser. He stood and turned, walking to the clothes closet next to the door and emerging with a sea green watered-silk dress and matching pumps. He laid them down on the bed.

Within minutes, Ray was transformed from an old man in a tracksuit and sneakers to Blanche DuBois. Of course, no one would guess he was really some aging Southern belle; he wasn’t a complete idiot. This was for him. It was his own private world.

Ray wobbled in high heels toward the kitchen with its kountry kitsch calico valances, tieback curtains and decorative gewgaws. He glanced up at the rooster-themed clock above the sink. 30 minutes left, right on schedule. He pulled open the cupboard next to the stove and removed a cup and saucer, then went into the broom closet and located the familiar bottle of Southern Comfort. He poured himself the usual two fingers and daintily stepped into the living room, where he sat down in the rocker, crossed his legs, and took a lovely sip.

The burn of the booze moving down his throat soon subsided into delicious languid warmth. He put his head back and closed his eyes, rocking himself gently, taking occasional sips, savoring these precious stolen moments. Minutes passed while he quietly indulged his fantasy of waiting for the suitor, gardenia corsage in hand, to knock on the door.

Finally, Ray took the last sip of his drink, reluctantly stood, and went into the kitchen, where he rinsed and dried the cup and saucer and put them back. Back into the broom closet went the Southern Comfort after he lifted the bottle to eye level to see how much was left. He allowed himself to think briefly about the possibility that a trap had been set for him – that someone had detected the gradual depletion and put a hidden camera somewhere – but it seemed ridiculous. Doesn’t liquor evaporate? Of course it does!

Ray went into the bedroom and changed into his tracksuit, white socks, and sneakers, stuffing the stolen front door key inside one sock. The dress went back into the closet, the jewels into the drawer. He leaned into the dresser mirror to regard himself with the bright earrings clutching his lobes. He did not feel sorry for himself; he knew he would have another opportunity in another lifetime. He pulled off the earrings and put them back. He stood and turned to leave.

Ray knew that sooner or later he would be caught. It was a looming inevitability that kept him up some nights. One day he would be sitting in the rocker, sipping the Southern Comfort, enjoying the feel of the silk dress, and in would walk the RV park manager or the cops or even Nurse Winifred.

And more likely Nurse Winifred than anyone else, he knew all too well, because someday she would decide to come home early.