The day the fat man fell in the bushes was the day they were fighting in court over who would get the children. There was no connection between the two events, she knew, the width of the country separated them, and yet the bulk of the fat man flailing in the bushes, his glasses smashed by his elbow, his shoe and pink sock off, seemed to be an essential link to the courtroom she couldn’t imagine, the dapper, hell-bent lawyers, the judge who said every time they appeared before her that she had seen them too much. She was sick of the case which she had settled years ago, in theory. But theory didn’t hold, Anna knew, when it was a case of a teenaged girl running wild in the streets, smoking pot and God knew what else, “active,” the social worker had told her in the last urgent call—Anna was the grandmother although she hardly knew the girl—and everyone knew what “active” meant in that context. Fourteen years old. It broke her heart.
She remembered fourteen, how she had hated them all, then, her mother slapping her across the face for “defiance” although she’d never said a word, the farm she’d vowed to leave, and did leave, with the army boy and her first child, two years later—the boy who became the young father of this girl, before any of them had figured out what was what—how to live, how to make money. And now these few years later the girl, her granddaughter, was running wild, on streets where a lot more was available, in terms of options, than had been the case three decades ago. Then it had been beer, cigarettes, sex, all major sins, she’d known at the time, and all, for that reason, irresistible, but they were so ordinary now, so widely distribted, that no one considered them anything but nuisances, way stations on the road to much bigger and better excitements.
The man was huge. At first, hearing him calling when she was crossing the motel parking lot, she’d thought it was some kind of animal; the call was more like an owl screech or a coyote scream. She’d gone over to look and seen the vast white bulk thrashing in the bushes, a small pink shirt covering a part of his upper half, his belly exposed like some kind of enormous shellfish half out of its shell. She’d seen something like that earlier in the afternoon when she’d taken the tourist boat around the harbor, a great white jellyfish, floating, undulating, its orange center beating like a heart.
“Are you hurt?” she asked the heaving man, politely, wondering if he was only a falling down drunk. Then she looked at his shoe, lying five feet away, a nicely-polished brown loafer. He was not a drunk.
“I can’t get up,” he said, almost conversationally, from under his bent arm. “I’m hurt.”
She squatted down and he peered at her over his elbow, his eyes vague with nearsightedness. She thought he could barely make her out, and reached for his glasses, but they were smashed, useless. She didn’t want to touch him; there was no way she could haul him to his feet.
“You’re hurt,” she repeated, feeling foolish and, somehow, found out. All day she had been a tourist, with big sunglasses and sandals slapping the streets of this city where nobody knew her.
The bushes, like nothing she knew back home, had waxy leaves that squeaked against one another and the man’s skin as he struggled rocked his body from side to side in a bid to roll over onto his back. The branches didn’t so much snap as they bowed and creaked like the screen door swinging between her parents’ kitchen and the yard between the house and the barn.
Anna stood up.
“Help,” he breathed, more urgently, now. Sweat ran down his face and ticked off his nose. A button-nose, she thought. He shut his eyes against the sun and perspiration, while his mouth groped at the air, as if it, too, needed lenses to focus. His hand was manicured, the cuticles nipped, the nails rounded.
“I can’t. I’m sorry. I’ll go and find help,” she said, still politely, as she took a step back from the bushes. The motel parking lot was empty. Where was everybody? She didn’t want to help. There was just too much, too much food for the man in the bushes, cream pies and hamburgers passing from those perfectly cared for hands through his dainty lips, grease dripping onto his shirt, an oily film on the surface of his glasses, and all the drugs, bushes where fourteen year-olds stole away to be active, pulsing flesh, the spring and slap of a screen door. It was all too much for her to heave up on her own.
The attendant behind the motel counter was disinterested when she asked to use the phone. The dispatch officer on the other end of the line sounded board as she repeated back the address, the details—large, male, white, pink shirt, bushes. “An officer will be on the way.”
She didn’t go back to wait with the man in the bushes. Her mother—a great-grandmother—would have, but not Anna. Let someone else strain and worry. She couldn’t help, wouldn’t do it anymore.