Barney picked up the wet green plastic bag containing his newspaper, squinting with annoyance at the blue-chalked smiley-face (with slashes instead of dots for eyes) that had appeared once again on his sidewalk.
The paper-carrier, he thought, irritably. But why would she get out of her car to mark up my sidewalk? She doesn't even need to get out of her car to pitch the paper into the gutter.
He walked three houses up the street to see if the other recipient of the Tri-Valley Record had such a message scrawled in front of their house. 623 Marchen Street's sidewalk was devoid of any marking, even of bird crap, as the homeowners had cut down the tree planted in their front yard.
Goddam starlings! Why did they have to plant this tract with sycamores as landscape trees? Too big, attract all the freakin' birds in the county.
On his way back to his driveway, Barney scanned the drawing once again. "Good morning," the message said beside the smiley-face. The graffiti had to have been done between 8 pm and 6 am, because it had been at 7 pm that he had hosed the offending face into the gutter the night before, in the summer sunset light.
In the past two weeks, he'd found that chalked icon on the sidewalk behind his car ten times. Four days had been clear of it, but that was probably because of rain. Two weeks. Three weeks and two days since his Waterloo event at the Canal Street Bar -- surely it couldn't be related.
Wearing a large straw sunhat, Charlene let her neighbor's Shi Tzu shit two turds in the ornamental shrubbery of the house across the street. She watched Barney scowl at the chalked message on his sidewalk as he went to retrieve his morning paper.
She loved the way his moustache bristled when he snarled, his long teeth glinting, his hair morning-mussed. What must he be like when he first opened his eyes in the morning? I'll bet he wakes like a Viking dreaming of pillage. The thought made her shiver with longing.
Charlene walked on, tugging the tiny mop of a dog with her, listening for Barney's grimacing, grunting exclamation as he bent to pick his newspaper out of the gutter, where it had soaked up a little of the overflow from his next-door neighbor's lawn sprinklers. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him holding the damp plastic-wrapped newspaper with three fingers, away from his body, shaking it so that it wouldn't drip in his house.
That reaction alone told her he must be neat in how he lived. No extra dribbles of wet for him! It was obvious that he hated not having his newspaper right in his driveway -- that showed a strength of order and cleanliness in his day-to-day life. He must be cleanly -- every evening he would pull his front lawn hose from its reel and hose down the sidewalk, obliterating her morning missive, clearing bird dirt. Tidy, diligent, observant -- Barney was a man to be reckoned with; indeed, Charlene reckoned that she would love to be delivered in a carpet unrolled at his feet, like Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra in Richard Burton's Antony's chambers.
As he ate toast topped with peanut butter and honey, Barney glared at the headlines on the front page of the paper. The world had not ended over night. Various extremists had rioted, thrown themselves upon guns, blown up children by suicide bombs; borders between Middle Eastern countries were being contested; yet another public figure was exposed as being a greedy, corrupt profligate who believed that he/she was above the law. Nothing unusual to distract Barney from the repeated violations of his clean sidewalk.
He thought about the graffiti and shuddered. The slashes for eyes reminded him of Rose Walker, the single worst mistaken pickup of his life. I thought I'd never shake that nutcase off my leg. He'd changed his cell phone number and stopped going out to bars to avoid her. He jumped in his chair, sloshing his coffee cup onto the paper. She couldn't have figured out where I live, he thought. Could she?
Barney set the paper on the coffee table in front of the sofa to look at when he came home from work, brushed crumbs from the table, put his dishes and cup in the dishwasher. The bird droppings on his car reminded him that he ought to clean up his garage so he could park indoors -- keep Rose Walker from recognizing the white Accura, that is, if it wasn't too late already.
He averted his eyes as he backed out of the driveway, refusing to look at the manic slashes that stared at him from the sidewalk. Yet he could not wrest his mind from images of Rose's wide eyes, the whites showing above the opaque blue irises, not windows to her soul, because he was convinced she had none, no, none, she was an empty, insane zombie cannibal. Their sexual congress, in the parking lot of the Canal Street Bar in the back of his car, was violent and orchestrated by her shouted obscene demands. Drunk as he had been, the kinkiness seemed irresistible. Dawn had been lightening the horizon by the time she pulled her skirt down, and smiled that wide smile of promise and threat and crawled away into her own car. She had stared at him, unblinking, manically smiling from behind her car window, watching him like a menacing clown statue ...
Charlene's next door neighbor had pointed Barney out at the down-town farmer's market at the beginning of June. "Look, there's Barney. I work with him at the insurance office. He's single, kind of a smart dude, knows how to do everything. If you could figure out how to get him to take some bait, he'd be a terrific catch."
Charlene had returned to the farmers' market each week to observe Barney, his aquiline nose, his thinning auburn hair, his clean-shaven neck. Drifting close to him in the crowd, she let his voice impinge musically upon her ears, adding up attributes in her brain. He buys real food from the farmers' market. He doesn't eat all supermarket stuff. He's polite to people. For Charlene, it was all love.
She knew instinctively that he was alone, and needed someone to pay attention to him on a daily basis -- if not on an hourly basis. Someone who wanted only the best for him; someone who longed for the best of him.
A crush, that's what they used to call it, and Charlene indeed had a crush upon Barney. Her pillow in her bed was Barney -- oh, was his real name Barnard? -- her mirror was what Barney might see. She dressed for him, she planned for him, she hungered to press herself against his slightly paunchy belly and clasp him to her visions.
Barney took the freeway south, dodging traffic automatically, his mind still gnawed by the chalked message.
"Where were you last night?" Rose's voice had asked, a bit petulantly, without introduction, two days after their liaison. "I was at the Canal, waiting for you."
Barney had sputtered his coffee. "Uh! I didn't know you were going to --"
"Oh, come on, Barney, how could I stay away from you?" She'd sounded almost child-like, somehow full of hope, and yet underscored with a purposeful heaviness.
Only a wisp of recollection had surfaced in Barney's mind: yes, he had exchanged phone numbers with her some margaritas prior to their parking lot marathon. He'd chuckled nervously. "Frankly, I was still too hung over. I just slept all day and all night. Didn't even eat." Was he making any sense?
"Tell me your address and I'll bring something over for you."
"No!" he'd said a bit too quickly. "I'm ... going to visit my brother in Orangeville -- wedding in the family, all that."
"On a Sunday?" Rose's voice took on a layer of hardness.
"Oh, no, that is, the wedding is next Saturday, but we're planning a surprise for the groom, so uh, I'll be gone all day."
"Well, I'll be thinking of you all day, remember that."
"Thanks," he'd mumbled. "That's a good thing, right?" Another nervous little laugh escaped.
"See you," her voice crackled unintelligibly with the cell static. "... bring a treat to work. Bye!"
Barney had thumbed off his cell phone, looking at it with frowning eyes.
The next day Rose had shown up at his office with a plate of cookies. "You can return the plate next time," she'd said flirtatiously, eyes wide and glassy.
Trying to be polite, he'd begun to sweat under his armpits. How had she found out where he worked? Fortunately there had been paper plates in the break room, so he'd removed that obligation, but she'd stood and watched him choke down one of the cookies, smiling broadly, staring at his chewing jaws, until he swallowed the last bite.
There had been three phone calls that same day, all from her number. Another three that evening. And the next day she had shown up again at his work, popping suddenly around the edge of his cubical just as he'd been about to leave for lunch, killing his appetite as surely as if she'd stuck a knife in it.
All this flooded Barney's mind each morning he saw the repeated smiling chalk faces, growing more present and more nauseating with every appearance. The same smile haunted his sleep.
Rose Walker had smiled all the time, too, her mouth parted so that her tongue was always a little visible, even when he'd told her not to call him any more; that their indiscretion was only that, and her phone calls had to come to an end. She had nodded, never taking her eyes off him. She'd said nothing, nothing at all. No tears, not a blink.
Barney shuddered and gripped the steering wheel with whitened knuckles. The policeman who pulled him over on Carpenter Avenue had no sympathy for Barney's inadvertent speeding; the cop did not care that in his mental fortress he was just trying to escape the memory of those staring, soulless eyes and that rictus smile. The subsequent ticket, the late arrival at work, and his inability to concentrate on insurance claims -- all of it he laid at the feet of the insane sidewalk-chalker, Rose, the girl with the ponytail three houses down who sold him revoltingly inedible Girl Scout cookies, the paper-deliverer, it didn't matter who it was, Barney harbored a hatred for the mind behind the blue-smeared hand.
Minus the shi tzu, Charlene walked three blocks to Marchen Street at ten o'clock at night, a bright blue sidewalk chalk stick in her hand. Her way to say good night to Barney was to say "Good morning," to make sure that he started his new day with well-wishing.
Within another week, she was sure, he would come to welcome her sidewalk greeting with anticipation and curiosity. Surely he would see the sign of affection and constancy, and be intrigued about the author. Charlene imagined grasping his hand in introduction, seeing his teeth in a smile beneath his trimmed moustache. They would become friends, then lovers, then soul-mates.
The police refused to patrol his street to look for someone who scribbled, "Good morning" on his sidewalk, in spite of the menacing smiley-face that accompanied it.
Barney, showing teeth beneath his moustache, called a realtor and put his house up for sale, moving the following Monday to an apartment in Turlock, telling no one of his move except his employer, hoping beyond hope that Rose Walker would never find him again.