“Norman was a great man.”
Mary dug through wadded up tissues for the envelope of ibuprofen she’d seen Stephanie tuck in there before they left the house. She didn’t know how much more of this she could take. Too much talking. Her head was going stuffy, making the faux-wood podium, the sickly shade of yellowish white on the walls, the casket that the VA had refused to pay for, the solemn-faced cousins and the bored grandkids, the sprays of white chrysanthemums on cheap stands, look like a scene at the bottom of a lake.
“I have a story about Norman that I have wanted to tell for a long time,” the woman said.
Mary whispered to Stephanie, “can you find that ibuprofen?” and shoved the bag over with her foot.
“When I was in my mid-thirties, I saw something terrible happen. I was walking home from my shift. I was a typist at the Assessor’s Office for forty-eight years.”
Mary looked up at the woman, and didn’t recognize her. She was dressed more formally than anyone else in the room. Mary would have liked to have a black pillbox hat and pearls like that, but Norman would’ve said “where would you even wear that?” And he would’ve been right, it was the sort of thing she would’ve worn maybe once or twice a year, maybe when they went to church on Easter Sunday.
“There was a black boy standing on the sidewalk, staring at a car,” the woman said. “Couldn’t have been more than thirteen, maybe fourteen years old. A group of men walked up and one of them told the boy to move along. But the boy didn’t move, he kept standing there.”
Stephanie produced two capsules, dropped them in Mary’s hand, and Mary tossed them back dry, swallowed hard. She knew what this woman was going to say, and mentally willed her to wrap it up. She was going to say that those men had behaved poorly, and Norman had come to that boy’s rescue. Norman had always been that kind of man. Someone who helped people. In her mind, there was an image of him, all smiles, just back from one of his mystery outings, carrying a paper grocery sack loaded with New York strips, thick russet potatoes, a tub of sour cream, a spray of white daisies. They couldn’t afford it, but he’d figure it out somehow.
The woman droned on, as Mary tuned in and out.
“The men told the boy one more time to move along, and he didn’t move. I think maybe he was handicapped in some way, and maybe didn’t understand what they were telling him. Then I saw Norman approach. He gestured to the men, and I couldn’t hear what he said, but it looked like something to the effect of ‘I’ll take care of this.’ He put his hand on the boy’s back and led him away. And that boy was never seen or heard from again after that.”
Mary looked up, stared. Had she heard that right?
Everyone else stared too, dead silent.
Brittany Terwilliger is Managing Editor at Pithead Chapel and her novel, The Insatiables (Chicago Review Press) was published in 2018. Her short fiction has been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Microfiction, and the Pushcart Prize, and she was selected as a finalist for the 2021 Oxford Flash Fiction Prize. Find her on Twitter @Brttnyblm.