JUST BE A GOOD PERSON
By Lane Kareska
On a cold summer day, Zach walked down a Chicago street and tried not to think about the future. He passed the time browsing through a three story mega-bookstore while Marta finished getting ready in the hotel room.
Just be a good person.
That’s what Zach had been telling himself for a year now. Simple. Just be a good person. That’s what Marta had said when he’d been at his nadir of professional and personal disgust. Law school and ten years of practice had left him cashed — about a decade sooner than he’d expected. The sacrifices of character had cut the deepest. Those and Marta’s encouragement had ultimately removed him from Eisenman, Gould and Wright and released him into a pool of vaguely euphoric confusion.
He bought a coffee and browsed the magazines and fought off the nagging idea that this was his last weekend of freedom. He drew a copy of Rolling Stone — Obama on the cover — tucked it under his arm and left for the café. His eye fell and lingered on a row of men’s magazines. The models on the cover looked, what?, less than half his age now.
Zach sat at a table and tried to read but the words meant nothing to him. He turned and watched the passersby out the window. Professionals, kids on summer break, a cop.
He couldn’t shake it. No matter how good a person he felt or tried to be, no matter how positive an attitude he maintained, this was still the end of his unemployment vacation, which was, horrifyingly, his most satisfying era in recent memory.
Tonight, tomorrow, then the drive back to Indianapolis for his first day of work at Student Legal at IU. A counselor position didn’t thrill him. But he and Marta had coasted for — they knew — far too long on savings. And this would buy him a little more time to figure out What Next. He caught sight of Marta out the store window. Bouncing dark hair. A natural smile. He loved her and he knew it.
They made eye contact and though they were still twenty feet apart, separated by a city street, a wall of glass, a steady river of people, Marta knew what he was thinking. Just be a good person. Just have a good attitude.
Yes, yes, but Monday.
Marta joined him in the café and sat beside, not across from him.
“Ready?” she asked.
Zach left the magazine on the table, drained his coffee and they left. They walked along the street until they found a restaurant still serving breakfast. They ordered mimosas and crepes and reviewed the play they’d seen the night before. Marta had drawn a few snickers when she yelped at staged gunshot. Zach squeezed her knee and, when the lights fell, her thigh. His hand quested inward until, smiling, she pinched his hand.
Sipping her sour mimosa, Marta watched the flow of people on the street beyond her husband’s shoulder as he cut into his breakfast.
A man who looked precisely like a man she’d known eight years ago passed by. He wore a t-shirt and jeans and cupped his hands around a cigarette and a flashing lighter as he walked. It was Tim. Wasn’t it?
She was not aware of her actions until she’d already stood from the table, stepped out onto the sidewalk and yipped, “Tim!”
Zach dropped his fork and turned to watch his wife. Tim?
On the street, the man she believed she knew gave a half-glance backward and stopped. As his stillness disrupted the pattern of foot traffic, Tim became as bright and clear to Marta as if a spotlight had fallen upon him and only him.
She stopped breathing. What have I done?
Tim turned to face her fully but made no move beyond that. They were nearly half a block apart.
It was him. Older, rougher in appearance. But he was no heavier or thinner. He looked like an old kid.
What have I done? Marta thought. Precisely the wrong thing.
She gave a subtle shake of her head. No. I’m sorry.
Tim took a halting step toward her.
He squinted. Marta? Tim became aware that this was that moment he’d imagined for years. And just as he’d feared, she looked beautiful, sophisticated, rich, happy and beyond him.
Embarrassed tears sprang to her eyes. Precisely the wrong thing.
Mortified, Marta turned back into the restaurant and clutched Zach’s shoulder. “Switch seats with me. Switch,” she said.
Zach stared at her. She had said Tim’s name. And now Tim was on his way here.
Zach stood and took his wife’s seat facing the window. He didn’t speak. He just searched the window, waiting for the face of the man he’d been waiting to see — one way or another — for years.
Marta left her hands in her lap and stared at her food. A tear slid down her cheek. “Is he coming?” she whispered.
Zach watched as a young looking man stood in the window staring at the back of Marta’s head. Tim. He looked like a landscaper. Someone you could hire for a day. Zach read the name of a restaurant on his shirt. La Fonda Fondue.
Zach did not know what he expected to feel when this moment happened. And he was shocked when he recognized a feeling of admiration for Tim — admiration for the way the man nodded at Zach, looked at huddled cowering Marta, and walked on to the rest of his life.
“He’s gone,” Zach placed his hands on the table beside the plate. “Marta,” he whispered.
After a moment she looked up. She wiped the tear from her face. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“I’ll say,” he said and regretted it.
After five silent minutes, they left their food unfinished, paid the bill and walked back toward their hotel.
“When did he get out of prison?” Zach asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You seemed to want to talk to him about it just now.”
“Please, please stop,” she said.
He reached across her back and clutched her shoulder.
* * *
In their hotel room, Marta stood at the sink and examined her own face in the mirror.
“What do you want to do?” Zach asked, leaning against the doorway.
“Nothing. I just need a minute. Shut the door please?”
Zach grimaced and closed the bathroom door. He listened to Marta run the water. Was she vomiting?
Zach flipped on the television and immediately switched it off.
Tim Waterson. The kid had done eight years of prison with nothing to sustain him but Marta’s promise to wait for him. And now, outside a restaurant at noon, the promise had been revealed — was there ever any doubt? — as an utter fake.
Zach took the elevator to the lobby, palmed an apple from a pyramid on a plate and approached the concierge.
La Fonda Fondue? Five blocks down the street.
The last time Zach had felt like this was sixth grade. Poor, fat Tommy Gallander had been taking a leak at a urinal in the Boys’ Room when Bob Woss entered, dragged the garbage can in front of the door and pulled oversized leather gloves onto his hands.
Zach, aged twelve, washed his hands at the sink and knew instantly what was about to happen.
Woss, incited by who knows what slight or whim was here to beat the living shit out of Tommy. This was not the first time something like this had happened.
Tommy zipped up and backed against the wall, eyes fishy and huge.
Woss, smacking his fist into his palm, stepped toward Tommy and dropped him with the first punch.
Zach had nothing to do with it. Didn’t particularly like Tommy and definitely wanted nothing to do with Woss. Zach wasn’t a tough kid. He’d never been a fight. He had no reason he could explain to himself to want to defend Tommy the Constant Victim. And yet, Zach found himself drying his hands on the hanging loop of damp towel, and walking right up to the fight.
Woss had Tommy on the ground. He knelt into his chest and swung sloppy punch after punch into Tommy’s face.
Zach had never kicked anyone before. But here, in the bathroom, he brought up his leg, jacked it at the knee, and drove the heel of his gym shoe into the back of Woss’ head. Woss slung forward and slammed his head on the tile of the wall.
Woss flopped over onto his back. Eyes half-open, half-shut.
Tommy and Zach looked at him, waiting for the reprisal, waiting for anything.
Looking somewhat asleep, Woss began to tremble and hum. There was no melody to it. It was like the noise of a bumblebee. Zach and Tommy looked to one another and, at a loss, took to screaming.
Woss had been concussed and Zach was suspended. But as the story came out, and Woss’ history of bullying revealed, Zach began to look like some kind of hero in the eyes of his family and classmates. On the third night of his suspension, his father took him to dinner at a local Chinese dive and over a pyramid of steaming egg rolls, said, “Good man, Zach. Good man.”
* * *
Now, Zach found himself walking into the small and empty blue dining room of La Fonda Fondue. Nervous energy popped and bubbled in his chest.
Tim — a stained apron tied around his waist — took down overturned chairs from tables. He looked up at Zach and froze.
Tim looked toward the kitchen. Knives scraped. Radio music fizzed. Voices spoke in Spanish. Tim cocked his head to the front door. Let’s do this outside.
What exactly is this going to be? Zach wondered.
They stepped out onto the street. Traffic honked. A cold wind blew by, dragging with it an odor like rusty metal, both urban and marine.
Tim sighed and drew a wrinkled pack of cigarettes from his pocket. With a gesture, he offered one to Zach, who found himself actually considering it, but he waved it away. “Thanks though,” Zach said.
Tim lit his cigarette, pocketed the pack, exhaled a long blue jet of smoke, then offered his left hand. “Tim Waterson.”
“Hi,” Zach found himself extending his left hand as well. “Zach Maydorn.”
They shook hands, one pump, but Tim did not release. He turned Zach’s hand over — he was incredibly strong, Zach could feel it — and examined the wedding ring on Zach’s fourth finger. Tim released the hand and Zach watched the cables of muscle twist in Tim’s forearm.
“So you’re her husband, huh?” Tim said, staring at the sidewalk.
Tim looked up. “So, say it.”
“Say what you came here to say.”
Zach had no idea what he’d come here to say. He remained silent.
“I won’t bother you,” Tim said. “I won’t come looking for her. You won’t have to worry about me.”
“Good,” Zach said, and then felt foolish. “Not that I thought we had to worry about you. You know. I mean, thanks. I know this is a weird situation. But as long as we can all leave it in the past. I think,” Zach recognized that he was babbling, “that would be best. The best thing.”
“I need to get back in there before I get in trouble,” Tim said.
“Okay. I get that. Thanks again.”
“She’s pretty though,” Tim said.
“She’s prettier now than when I last saw her.”
Zach could feel the comment sliding into him. Would this turn ugly after all? “Well,” Zach said, “she was a different person then.”
Tim laughed. “I hope so for your sake.”
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing. Just, don’t find yourself locked up for her choices.”
“Choices? Tim, I know what happened. You killed that kid. Not her. She had nothing to do with it.”
Tim backed off. “Okay, okay. I shouldn’t have said that. You’re right. This is weird.” Tim flicked his cigarette out into the street. “Do me a favor though?”
“What?” Zach asked.
“Don’t give her any message for me. Don’t tell her I said hi, or asked about her or anything. Let’s just leave it dead.”
“Thanks, Mr. Maydorn.”
Tim turned back into the restaurant and Zach took a step toward the hotel. Maybe it was the way Tim had said Mr. Maydorn, maybe it was the low hum of success ringing in Zach’s ears, maybe it was those old words from his father, Good man, Zach. Good man. He didn’t know what it was exactly that made him stop, turn back and say, “Hey, Tim.”
Tim looked to Zach.
“Just be a good person. It will all work out,” Zach said.
The kindness dropped from Tim’s face. He narrowed his eyes at Zach. What the fuck did you just say to me?
Zach turned and hustled down the street. What the fuck had he just said?
Neither Zach nor Marta was disappointed when rain clouds assembled themselves over Wrigleyville. After breakfast neither felt like attending the baseball game.
Thunder broke and an icy rain fell. The streets emptied of people and the neighborhood restaurants filled with tourists and locals. Zach and Marta sat at a high table in a crowded bar. Zach sipped a Miller Light and watched his wife’s face alternate between open and covert sadness.
He did not mention his encounter with Tim.
“Does this change anything for you?” Marta asked.
The question surprised and pleased Zach. “Me? What has this got to do with me?”
She sighed; he could be a drama queen. “I just want to know if you feel any differently about me now that we’ve run into him.”
Zach signaled the waitress for another beer. Was he smiling? Was he being cocky? “Honey,” he said — he never called her ‘honey’ — “I love you to death.”
Neither of them knew that Tim had followed Zach from the fondue restaurant. They did not know that he had been watching them all afternoon and was across the street now, watching them still.
Zach had represented a community developer with whom Marta was interning.
Marta had reluctantly agreed to accompany the uptight, nerdish Zach to a hip local coffee shop he thought she probably frequented. It was the first visit for either of them. They dated for two years before Zach proposed to the hippy-ish and history-less Marta — five years his junior. She was nothing like his friends, and this was, he knew, what had initially attracted him.
On their third New Year’s Day together, Marta brought two lattes from Starbucks back to their condo. Zach had been too hung-over to make the walk. They drank on the balcony and Marta told him, “Do you remember my story about Tim? The ex-boyfriend?”
Zach blew on his coffee. “Of course. The punk rocker. Or was he just a punk?”
“I should tell you the truth about him.”
Zach froze. No one ever told him the truth.
“When I was nineteen,” Marta said, “I lived in Chicago. With Tim.”
“Right. I know,” he said.
“Tim owed money to some guys. Like, a lot of money.”
“I’m listening,” Zach said.
“Tim was trying to impress his older brother and his friends. These guys were connected. Tim organized a Super Bowl pool, months in advance. He wound up collecting a lot more than he expected. I don’t know how much. Tens of thousands of dollars. And when the game actually happened…”
“Tim had spent the money.”
“He convinced me to leave the city with him. They beat up Tim’s brother and a couple of guys came after us,” Marta said.
“You’re kidding. Marta. ‘Came after’ you?” Zach asked.
She nodded. “It was bad. They found us in an apartment in New Orleans. They took Tim out to the street and they tried to beat him to death. Tim had a knife. He killed one of them.”
“You saw this? You saw him kill someone?”
“No. They left me inside. I didn’t know what to do. I called 911.”
Zach took Marta’s warm hand.
“Tim’s in prison now.”
“‘Good?’ ” she asked. “What’s good about that?”
“It’s over. You’re out of it. It’s good that you’re away from all that. Right? Isn’t it, Marta?”
“I promised Tim that I would wait for him.”
Zach leaned away and released her hand. “Oh,” he said. “I see.”
“I was nineteen.”
“When does he get out?”
“The sentence was ten years. But maybe he’ll get parole. I’ve lost all contact with him.”
Zach said nothing.
“I don’t still love him,” she said. “If I ever did. I just wanted to tell you this before our relationship…before we got married. If you still want to.”
He laughed at her. “‘If I still want to?’ Marta, please.” He thought for a moment and then decided to make a joke of it. “Who could pass up the chance to be the one who gets between Bonnie and Clyde?”
Tim Waterson wore a stolen raincoat and stood on the street corner. He smoked a cigarette beneath the hood and watched Zach and Marta sit at their table.
Marta looked sad and bored — mostly sad — while her husband, that dork, slugged down light beer after light beer. In minutes he lost coordination of his body. A few waitresses seemed to smile at him behind his back. Marta, still sly as ever, noticed and ignored them.
Just be a good person, Tim thought. Yeah, man. Just like you? Flinging the puck into the net while the goalie’s in the penalty box?
Maybe it was the storm, or the height of the towers, but night seemed to fall early in Chicago. Marta had watched and pretended to listen to Zach’s thoughts about crime and punishment and the impact of economic disparity on law enforcement in central America — not, like, Latin America, but the center of domestic America. The Midwest, you get what I’m saying? Right? Of course. The Midwest, particularly — while he slipped into a sweaty drunkenness.
Something was wrong with him. He was in too good a mood. She’d seen him like this before, but only when he was profoundly proud of himself.
Once, on a road trip to California, they’d stopped at a 24-hour Steak and Shake to stretch their legs and buy a late night dinner of cheeseburgers. A nearby bar must have closed; the place was full of drunks. While they stood in line, they watched some bulky college-aged kid hassle a pretty blonde. After a moment, Zach stepped toward the kid — Marta could see that her husband had no idea what to do, only felt that he must do something — ust as the drunk decided to leave the blonde alone and stumble out into the night.
Zach had stepped back in line and said not a word about it. He just smiled grimly to himself as he examined the backlit menu display.
And now, in the darkening Chicago bar, Marta recognized the same generous pride in her husband’s eyes. What had happened? She sensed that Zach knew more than he let on, and that he was immensely enjoying the sensation of withholding. She allowed another hour to pass before she signaled for the check.
“What? You want to go?” Zach asked. “It’s early!”
“I’m tired. Today was a little rough.”
He saw that his night had been ended for him and he nodded. “Okay, okay. You’re right. As usual.”
He signed the bill and they walked out into the night.
“Hey, it’s stopped raining,” he said.
It hadn’t, actually, stopped raining but only slackened into a chilly sprits. People on the street still carried umbrellas, still wore hooded raincoats.
“Let’s take a cab,” Marta said.
“No, no. Come on, it’s nice. A good brisk hike. It’s only a few blocks.”
Marta steadied Zach as they walked.
the hotel’s revolving door Marta
caught a reflection of a man standing a few yards
She turned back and saw, just as she’d expected, Tim standing there.
In the hotel room, Zach ordered a bottle of champagne from room service and determined to make love to his wife. He passed out before the champagne arrived.
Marta undressed her snoring husband and examined herself in the mirror. She curled her rain-damp hair behind her ears and checked her makeup. She stood at the sink for a long moment and felt a chill of adrenaline pass through her.
It was up to her. If she went downstairs, Tim would be there in the lobby. If she stayed in the room, Tim would still be there in the lobby.
In a move that struck her as a strikingly serious betrayal of her husband, she took her cell phone from her jacket pocket, turned it off, and placed it on the night table. She could always say she had forgotten it. She left the room and eased the door shut behind her.
She searched the lobby for Tim. Something fell inside her when she realized that he wasn’t there after all. Why, she wondered, was she actually disappointed by this?
Tim walked out of the Men’s Room and stopped.
He stepped behind her and tried to think of something to say, but she turned around and relieved him of the burden of having to speak first. Her eyes shot wide with fearful recognition, then calmed and she said only, “Let’s not talk here. Let’s go somewhere else.”
The rain had picked up again. The doorman whistled them a cab.
“A bar,” Marta said. “A loud bar.”
The driver nodded and pulled out into the wet streets.
“Marta,” he said.
“Wait,” she interrupted. “Not yet, please. Just wait.”
The driver eyed them in the rearview. Weirdos.
When Zach woke in the dark — in a lucid panic — he knew instantly he was alone. Marta had left the room. How long she’d been gone, he didn’t know. He flipped on the lights, called her name, checked the bathroom, called her phone (straight to voicemail), and pulled on his jeans, Cubs jersey and gym shoes. He left the room in a hurry, not really sure where he was going.
The taxi driver stopped the cab in front of a narrow brick bar wedged between squat apartment buildings. The sign read “Jake’s.” The darkened windows showed a bar packed with young people wearing piercings and leather jackets. They could feel the rumbling bass in the cab. Marta paid the driver with a twenty of Zach’s money and left him the change.
Inside, they found a table and Tim said, “I’ll get us some drinks. Vodka, right?”
Marta tightened her mouth and nodded once.
She smoothed her shirt while Tim moved to the bar. Her hands trembled. Stop that. And they stopped. Tim returned, a neat vodka in each knobby fist. He set them down and raised his glass to her and they clicked them together. Marta finished her drink in two swallows.
Marta’s left hand rested on the table.
“That’s a nice wedding ring,” Tim said.
Marta retracted all of her fingers save the middle.
Tim smiled. “How have you been?”
“I’m okay, Tim. When were you released?”
Released, he thought. Like a fish. “Seven months ago.”
“Are you furious with me?”
“Furious. No. Somewhere around year three I guessed the score.”
“Year three,” she said. “Tim, I’m so sorry.”
“Your man came to see me today. Did he tell you about that?”
“No,” she said.
“He came to my job and tried to talk to me. He was nervous. He tried to talk me out of hunting you two down.”
Of course, she thought. Of course he did.
“You didn’t tell him the truth, though,” he said.
“You told him I killed Peter,” Tim said.
“But who put the knife in my hand? Who put the knife in my hand, Marta? Who told me to kill him?”
She sat back. Something heavy and sharp materialized in her chest. “I was young. I was terrified. We both were.”
“Right. But only one of us went to prison.”
“Tim, what do you want me to do about it now? You’re out. Thank God, you’re out. It’s over. Isn’t it over? Let’s just move on.”
“Move on,” Tim said. He crossed his arms across his chest. “You want another drink?”
They sat there for a long time in silence, until finally, Marta said, “Did you tell Zach about that? Did you tell him what really happened?”
He took a long moment before asking, “Would it change anything if I had?”
“Would it? Would he be disgusted with you? Would he leave you? Free you up for me?”
“You didn’t tell him,” she said. “I know you didn’t. I’d know by now if you had.”
He nodded. “I wouldn’t do that to you, Marta. You can relax. I wouldn’t betray you.”
She said nothing.
After a moment, he leaned forward and said, “I had this friend in prison. His name was Jay. He was in for murder, a worse degree than mine. He’d already been in for sixteen years, but the thing was, he was innocent. Authentically innocent. A group of law students somewhere had set up this review group and they’d looked at his case, they used some new kind of forensic evidence and they proved Jay was innocent. He was released. He’d been married at the time of his trial and his wife, this woman he loved — he called her his soul mate — she left him after a year. He didn’t blame her. I wrote Jay a letter a little bit after he got out. I just asked questions mostly. He wrote me back and told me he’d met up with his ex-wife. Had dinner at her house with her and her new family. He said it was fine, nothing dramatic happened. But afterward, hours afterward… he said that was the hardest part. Because that’s when he realized he didn’t know anything about her anymore. His soul mate had become a total stranger.”
Tim shrugged. “How about that?”
An hour before dawn, a cab returned Marta to her hotel.
She found Zach sitting in a chair in the lobby. He wore his rumpled clothes and slept against his shoulder. She knew instantly what had happened. He’d woken and, in a panic, searched the city for her. He’d returned to the Wrigleyville bar, searched nearby restaurants and late night coffee shops. Perhaps he’d even called the police. And then, in the end, when he’d realized there was nothing he could do but wait for his wife to return from the company of her old lover and old life, Zach returned to the hotel to wait for her.
She touched his shoulder and he jolted awake.
His eyes focused on her and the twisty dream thoughts in his head fell away and left only the name Marta.
Zach stared at her face and tried to decide if the streaks on the pale skin of her cheeks were from rain or from tears.
Neither spoke. They only held their positions. She standing and he seated. They watched one another, husband and wife, and each, simultaneously, wondered what the other was thinking.
Lane Kareska’s work has previously been published in Berkeley Fiction Review, Able Muse, ThugLit, and elsewhere. His novella “North Dark” was published by Sirens Call Publications. He has an MFA from Southern Illinois University and an undergraduate degree in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago.
Copyright © 2016 Lane Kareska. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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