by Trish Perrault
From his apartment above Butler’s Clothing Store, Lloyd had a good view of Main Street. On the sidewalk below his window, mothers and fathers protectively clutched the hands of their children as they hurried across the bridge that led to the brick schoolhouse. As a boy, Lloyd had attended the elementary school, but he didn’t remember his foster mother, Edna, ever holding his hand. Through the closed window, he heard the children’s voices drifting across the river. He watched as they smiled and waved goodbye. Lloyd wondered what it would be like to have someone smile at him again.
Using a hand towel, he patted the thin brown hair that still clung to his scalp and peered down the street at the C&L Market. His mouth opened in surprise when Mable Hastings’s bright pink hair appeared in the early morning sunshine. He’d been expecting Clara Donovan, the owner of the market. Sadie, Mable’s six-year-old daughter, wore bright yellow mittens with a matching hat and rubber boots. Lloyd chewed the soft skin of his cheek as he thought. He did not stock bright colors in his store. Edna had told him solid colors like navy, brown, and gray lasted longer because they didn’t stain.
Lloyd watched as Sadie and Mable started across the cement bridge built as part of FDR’s New Deal back in the thirties. Chunks of ice bobbed in the river below. Mable walked stiffly beside her daughter. Clara had told him that Mable’s ex-boyfriend had shoved her down a flight of stairs a few weeks earlier.
Sadie skipped gleefully into a puddle, splashing her boots. Lloyd’s throat felt tight. He’d never been one for sentimentality, but Sadie’s innocent laughter floating skyward made his chest ache.
Checking the clock, he calculated how long it would take Mable to walk to the school and then to the market to open up the shop. Every morning, Lloyd walked to the market. While Mable assembled his sandwich, she would tell him about her daughter. Lloyd knew that Sadie’s favorite color was yellow, she had a book about kittens in her backpack, and she was afraid of men. What Mable didn’t say he heard through the town of Emery’s grapevine. He knew that the once purple bruises at the base of her neck were put there by her ex-boyfriend, Buck, and that Clara Donovan had driven her to the hospital last week. He’d also heard that Mable and Sadie were living, temporarily, in a one-room studio over the C&L Market.
Mable pointed at something in the water below the narrow bridge. The little girl stood on the toes of her yellow boots so she could see over the railing. Lloyd pressed his cheek against the cold windowpane. A gnarled pine tree, at least a hundred years old, with sharp branches, had fallen across the river. He had seen the dead tree when he’d gone for his morning swim earlier. As a little boy, Edna used to drag him down to the river every morning to swim. Even in the winter. She’d read that ice-cold water helped the immune system and decided the cold water would fix Lloyd, who she complained was too quiet and motionless for a boy. At first, he feared the water. He worried about the slimy fish and river snakes that hid in the rocks, but Edna had made him go into the water, watching him from the riverbank. As he grew, he came to like his time alone in the river. The sound of the nearby rapids had drowned out Edna’s incessant chatter.
Below his window, a red truck pulled up and parked in the middle of the bridge beside Mable and Sadie. Lloyd recognized Buck Tucker as the man swung out of the driver’s side door. He stood well over six feet, much taller than Lloyd and a lot heavier. Buck held open his arms and said something to Sadie. The little girl cowered from him, burying her face in Mable’s jacket.
Unsure of what to do, Lloyd opened the window and bent towards the screen so that he could hear what was being said. He knew that it would take him two minutes to get downstairs – but he was only wearing a towel. His fingers gripped the windowsill.
“Don’t come near us!” Mable screeched as she faced Buck. Mable pulled her daughter behind her.
“What’s your problem? I didn’t do nothing except stop and say hello!” Buck said, stepping in front of the young woman.
Lloyd looked down the sidewalks, but they were empty.
“Stay away!” A green car turned down Main Street and slowed down as it drew past Buck’s truck. Lloyd recognized the four-door sedan as belonging to the Mr. Wilke, the former mayor. Buck swore then stomped over to his truck and opening the door. The truck’s tires screeching as exhaust poured out of the rusted tailpipe. Mable picked up her daughter, cradled her against her chest, and hurried across the bridge in the direction of the elementary school.
Lloyd stayed frozen and unblinking as he stared at the spot where Buck had been yelling at Mable. He wondered if he should call the police, but knew the chief was a distant uncle of Buck’s.
Across the bridge, the schoolhouse door opened, and Mabel came out. Lloyd watched as she crossed back over the river. She hurried down the sidewalk to the C&L Market and disappeared inside.
Lloyd turned away from the window and scanned his cramped apartment. There wasn’t much to see. On his nightstand sat a white alarm clock, a pair of wire-framed reading glasses, and a paperback. Several math and science books were stacked on the table beside a brown recliner. The red light on his answering machine remained unblinking.
Lloyd’s elementary school teachers had told Edna he could learn to be more social; after all, he earned high marks in school. Over time, though, they’d started to see him the way Edna saw him. Lloyd had pretended not to notice their rubbernecking and whispers. As a young man, he’d ignored Edna when she insisted he read self-help books. Most out-of-towners who stopped by the clothing store hadn’t noticed he was quiet. In fact, most outsiders were preoccupied with trying to figure out if Edna was a man or a woman. She used to cut her hair butch-short and had worn the same chinos and button-front oxford shirts that Lloyd wore.
Twice, Lloyd had asked Edna about his birth parents, but Edna hadn’t thought there was much to tell. The last time he’d asked, she took his hand, took her last breath, and died.
This had been six months ago. After the funeral, Clara Donovan had started coming by on Saturday evenings with a casserole and salad that they would share. Sometimes she’d bring a bottle of wine. He supposed she’d felt bad for him since he had no family. Clara helped him clean Edna’s apartment and restock items in the store. He remembered how embarrassed he had been when an order of women’s undergarments came in. Clara had held the pieces of colored silk against her chest for him to admire—slips, pajamas, lace underwear, a selection of brassieres, and stockings with garter belts. He flushed as he remembered Clara buying one of the slips. A peach-colored one with small bits of ivory lace that had felt light as air. His hands had shaken as he folded the silky garment and placed it in a small paper bag. Not wanting her to know he felt uncomfortable, he’d started to dust the shelf beside the register. Clara left the store and didn’t answer him when he said goodbye, slamming the door so hard the windows rattle. After that, she stopped coming by on Saturdays. He sometimes thought about the slip and wondered if she was dating someone, but he never asked.
Shaking off the memory, Lloyd flung open his bedroom closet. Seven carefully ironed white oxford shirts hung on wooden hangers next to seven pairs of pressed, putty-brown pants. He thought of Mable’s pink hair, Sadie’s yellow mittens, and Clara’s peach-colored slip. He decided that today he’d take out the catalog and order more colorful clothing. Maybe light blue.
On his way out of his apartment, Lloyd paused on the stair landing. He’d bought the building fifteen years earlier and made two apartments above the store. Lloyd crossed the hall and opened the door to Edna’s old apartment. The heat from the radiator made the air dry and stale. The one-bedroom apartment was almost identical to Lloyd’s. A white Formica table stood with two chairs next to the kitchen counter. A plaid loveseat sat near the fireplace, a brown recliner near the window. A small black-and-white television with rabbit ears stood in the corner. The only personal item in the room was a set of three framed pictures of some famous actress from the forties that Edna had admired.
Lloyd grabbed an umbrella as he left. He decided to write up an advertisement for the apartment. Tightening his fingers on the handle of the black umbrella, he tried to brush off his discomfort at the thought of a stranger living so close to him.
Twenty-five-year-old Mable Hastings stood at the meat slicer, her arm moving mechanically back and forth as she quickly sliced ten thin pieces of boiled ham. She wondered why Lloyd ate the same thing every day. Since he owned the only clothing store in town, she knew he could afford to eat something different every day of the week. When she said as much to Clara, her boss, the older woman told her to mind her own business.
Mable didn’t want to think about her own business. A lump formed in her throat as she remembered Buck confronting her on the bridge. Her fingers started to reach up to touch the healing bruises at the base of her neck, but instead she grabbed a poppy seed hard roll, picked up a knife, and sliced the bread in half.
“Would you like to try Swiss cheese on your sandwich?” Mable asked. The older man was standing near the candy bar rack, reading the cork bulletin board, which was littered with business cards and flyers. She wondered if he felt lonely living above the store all by himself. Looking at his brown pants and gray overcoat, she remembered that his mother used to wear the same drab clothing.
Lloyd spun in her direction. “No, thank you.” His eyes flickered to a spot over her right shoulder.
“I tell my daughter it’s good to try things when you’re young. That way you won’t stop trying when you get old.”
“Edna used to s-say that.” He looked back at Mable and smiled a little.
Mable stopped slicing a tomato and gave Lloyd a hard look. He usually only spoke in one- or two-word sentences. “My mother died when I was five,” she said matter-of-factly, wondering if he would continue the conversation.
The half-smile slipped from his face. “I’m sorry.”
Lloyd didn’t ask about her father, but she figured he’d heard the gossip. Her father left town the day after she was born.
“Did you see the flyer with the kittens?” she asked. “Sadie and I like the marmalade one.” Lloyd stepped closer to the flyers. “You have a cat?”
He shook his head. “Edna’s allergies.”
Mable said softly, “Maybe now that she’s gone, you can get one.” She placed the sandwich on a piece of plastic wrap.
Lloyd leaned his umbrella against the counter. “Ah…Mable…” She watched his mouth move up and down, but no words came out. Lloyd’s blue eyes met hers, and then he blushed and turned his head. He cleared his throat often. She realized he was eyeing the telephone and wondered if he wanted to use it. “Ah…Mable…”
“Yes?” Mable said, leaning forward.
He inched closer but kept a foot between them. She noticed his eyes were a lovely shade of blue. “The bridge—”
The bell rang frantically at the front of the store.
“Good morning, beautiful.” Clifford Tucker’s voice filled the small store as he entered. Mable anxiously watched Buck’s father, Clifford, stomp towards her in his heavy work boots. She knew Buck, her ex, would be close behind.
Clifford’s face was bloated and red from years of drinking. “Clara around this morning?”
“She’s at the post office,” Mable said. The bell rang a second time, and she saw Buck’s head over his father’s shoulder. The bottles on the shelves clinked against one another as he stomped past them. Mable glanced at the phone on the wall. The last time she’d called the police, Buck’s uncle, the police chief, had threatened to arrest her because she scratched Buck’s face. Clifford had calmed the chief and Buck down, saying it was a lover’s quarrel. That wasn’t the first time Buck had hit her, but that time he’d gone too far. Sadie had seen him hurt her.
“I’m almost done with your sandwich, Lloyd,” Mable said, ducking her head. Buck’s bloodshot eyes glared at her just a few feet away.
“Where’s the aspirin?” Buck asked, rubbing his thick forehead where it met the bridge of his nose.
Mable looked at the shelf and was about to reach for a box of Bayer when Lloyd said, “Above your head.” He swung his umbrella, the tip passing by Buck’s ear, towards the yellow and brown boxes.
Buck turned, his mouth curled in an ugly sneer. “Oh, Butt-ler, I didn’t see you standing there.”
Lloyd lowered his umbrella.
“You still jumping in the river every morning?” Clifford asked. He tapped a greasy white lighter against the counter.
“Yes,” said Lloyd. He leaned his umbrella against the deli case and carefully poured coffee into a paper cup.
“Crazy,” said Clifford, adjusting his belt around his distended belly. “You have to have a screw loose to jump in that water.”
Mable saw Lloyd’s face turn red as he pretended to read the flyer with the week’s sandwich specials. Compared to Buck and his father, Lloyd looked small; he was only a few inches shorter but lean, whereas Buck was already getting soft in the middle.
“Swimming isn’t crazy,” she said, her voice almost lost in the Tucker men’s laughter. She wished she had learned to swim as a child. There had never been time, moving around from one foster home to another.
“You wouldn’t catch me going in there,” said Buck. He slapped the counter with a flat hand.
Mable flinched. Her hand hit the side of a jar of pickles and knocked it over. Buck snickered. She threw the spilled pickle slices away and wiped up the juice. “That’ll be three dollars even,” she said to Lloyd.
Buck leaned a hip against the counter and stayed there. Lloyd reached around him to hand Mable a five-dollar Billy. “Thank you, Mable.”
Mable opened the register and held out the change, but Lloyd shook his head. She tucked the extra cash into her pocket. Lloyd was one of the few customers who tipped.
Lloyd’s footsteps on the wooden plank floor were quiet as he walked away. She noticed he wore old-fashioned rubber galoshes. She wished he wouldn’t leave. She opened her mouth but didn’t know what to say to keep him in the store.
“Bye, Butt-ler,” Buck called as he waved a limp hand in the other man’s back.
“That’s mean,” she said, lowering her voice.
“If you’re weak, you get what you deserve,” Buck said, stepping closer to her. Mable shifted so that her hip pressed against the box freezer.
“Calm down, Buck,” Clifford said, gripping his son’s wrist.
Buck jerked his arm, pulling Clifford off balance. His angry eyes met Mable’s. She turned away and grabbed a broom leaning against the wall.
“I always thought Butt-ler was a pathetic little turtle.” Buck stuck his head out and opened his mouth in a half-smile.
Clifford’s unlit cigarette fell out of his mouth and rolled onto the floor as he laughed. “A turtle—that’s a good one!” he said.
Mable’s heart pounded in her chest. “He doesn’t look like a turtle,” she said, her voice thin. Buck leaned over the counter and winked. Dark stubble covered his face. At one time, she’d thought he was handsome.
“A freak,” said Buck. He grabbed an apple and took a single bite before flinging it into the wastebasket near Mabel.
She stepped closer to the phone, wondering when Clara would be back from the post office.
“His mother got pretty crazy at the end. Not shaving her legs and letting her armpits go…I nearly got sick every time I saw her.” Clifford coughed.
The bell over the door jingled, but Buck was blocking Mable’s view of the door. She remembered Mrs. Butler giving Sadie a cherry lollipop whenever they went into the clothing store. “She seemed nice to me.”
“Edna probably liked you,” Clifford sang. He grabbed a can of soda out of the cooler and walked to the front of the store. “Buck will pay.”
Mable watched Clifford’s wide back on the other side of the glass door, and wished he had stayed. The older man was rough, but he only let Buck go so far. Her fingers shook as she pressed the keys on the register, ringing up Clifford’s soda and the large coffee that Buck was drinking.
“I’ll have something sweet too,” Buck said, leaning close. Mable could smell the sweet apple on his breath. Buck playfully grabbed her hand and yanked her arm.
“Look at me.”
Mable shook her head. “Leave me alone.”
“Look at me,” his voice louder.
The bell over the door rang, and Mable felt a moment of relief, thinking Clifford had returned.
“Pardon me, Mable.”
Mable’s head jerked up. She saw Lloyd standing near the sugar and boxes of cake mix. “I came in to retrieve my umbrella.”
She saw the umbrella leaning against the side of the deli case.
“Here you go, Lloyd.” She lifted the umbrella towards him handle first.
“Thank you.” His face and ears were tinged with red. He stepped closer to the rack with the candy bars and read the notices on the bulletin board.
Buck turned to face Lloyd. Lloyd looked at Buck’s hand on her arm.
“Aren’t you supposed to open the store?” asked Buck, his hand releasing Mable’s.
“In a few minutes.” Lloyd gave a slight nod then took out a pair of slim reading glasses and put them on his nose. She rubbed her arm as she noticed he was studying the flyer with the picture of the kittens.
“Then what do you want?” asked Buck, his voice and body tense.
“Nothing,” Lloyd said, easily.
“Everything all right, Lloyd?” Mable asked, her eyes going from Buck to Lloyd. She looked at the door hoping someone would come in to help her.
“I thought”—he cleared his throat and tapped the tip of the umbrella against the wooden floor—“I thought you might like some company, Mable.”
Lloyd’s light blue eyes met Mable’s a second time. Mable read the uncertainty in Lloyd’s lined face. She blinked, her eyes felt suddenly damp. Then she picked up the broom again and slowly swept the space behind the counter. Her chest hurt as she tried to breathe, but a faint smile had of relief formed on her lips.
“She doesn’t need your company,” Buck said.
“I’ll stay anyway,” said Lloyd. Lifting his cooling coffee to his lips, he watched the other man.
“Thank you, Lloyd,” Mable said, matter-of-fact.
Buck finally left the store. Lloyd stayed, reading cat food labels and browsing the shelves until Clara returned from the post office. Mable saw him return to the bulletin board and take down a flyer and stuff it into his overcoat pocket. When he left, Mable told Clara about Buck and Clifford.
“I am going to ban those two from coming into my store,” Clara said, turning away from the window. She pulled the bag of trash out of the bucket and tied the plastic in a knot.
“You don’t need to do that,” Mable said. Through the tall glass windows in the front of the store, she watched Lloyd walking down the sidewalk in the direction of his store. “It was nice of Lloyd to stay, don’t you think?”
The trash bin’s lid banged shut. Instead of answering Mable’s question, Clara picked up the bag. Her high heels made a marching sound as she swept past her and out the backdoor. Mable knew Clara was angry, but she wasn’t sure why.
Lloyd stepped around the puddles that littered the cracked sidewalks. He walked past Edna’s old house; a young couple lived there now. The Gonzalezes. They had painted the siding a bright yellow, and there was a pink swing set in the side yard. Most people in town didn’t like the couple. Some thought they were odd for boiling bananas; others were annoyed when they spoke Spanish in public. Lloyd decided the house looked better yellow.
Turning back towards the C&L Market, Lloyd saw Clara Donovan step out of the store. She carried a bucket of sand, which she spread across the sidewalk. She was fifty. Seven years older than Lloyd. The sun glistened on her still brown hair. She’d been married once, but her husband had died of a sudden heart attack. Edna told Lloyd it was a blessing, Clara’s husband dying so quickly, but sometimes Lloyd wondered if Clara wished she’d said goodbye.
Inside the clothing store, Lloyd put his umbrella next to the cash register and stowed his sandwich in a small icebox beneath the counter. He brushed a feather duster across the stacks of neatly folded shirts and pants that covered the shelves that ran along the back of the store.
The wooden floorboards were broad and long. Dust clung to the crevices even though Lloyd swept every day. He pulled out the flyer for the kittens and admired the creature’s golden colored fur. Surveying the store, he pulled out a box and wondered if it was the right size for a kitten to sleep in. He glanced at the box off and on throughout the morning as he tried to imagine whether he’d like a cat living with him.
The store smelled of leather boots and the steam that leaked from the radiators. He turned the knob on the radio to a talk program about cars and opened his ledger to calculate the sales for the previous month. The morning passed quickly; the afternoon passed more slowly. He ate his ham sandwich and waited on the customers who came in to buy sturdy flannel shirts, suspenders, handkerchiefs, and cargo pants. Only one woman stopped in front of the cabinet of women’s undergarments. A few regulars stopped in to gossip and talk about their misfortunes while Lloyd nodded and sipped his tea. Because he said little and didn’t tell everyone how to live their lives, people seemed to like to tell him their troubles. Lloyd felt relieved that he’d been spared all their difficult troubles.
After he had closed the store, Lloyd spent an hour at the small library next to the elementary school. He picked up three paperback Westerns and placed them in a cloth tote bag. Down the aisle, he noticed Clara Donovan hunched over a stack of books. She was wearing a slim-fitting coat. Lloyd noted with surprise that on the cover of one book was a picture of a near-naked woman being embraced by a man dressed like a ship’s captain. Lloyd hesitated, unsure if Clara would appreciate him seeing her reading a romance book. His fingers tightened on his book bag. Stepping behind another shelf, he watched Clara pick out several books, quickly slip them into her book bag, and then stop at the librarian’s desk to check them out. In the dim library light, her brown hair seemed darker against her cranberry raincoat.
After she had left the aisle, he passed the table where Clara had been sitting. A light scent of flowery perfume lingered in the air. His gaze followed Clara. She stood at the reference desk talking to the librarian, Mrs. Brogle. For the second time that day, he wondered why Clara had stopped coming by his apartment on Saturday nights. Lloyd smoothed a hand over his thin hair. He needed a new hairstyle. Maybe a blow dryer.
After checking out his books, Lloyd stepped outside. Donald Wilke, the town’s former mayor, struggled to pull a cigarette from the pack in his hand.
“Wish they let us smoke in there like they used to,” Mr. Wilke said, sticking a cigarette in his mouth and lighting it. “The building’s made of brick.”
Lloyd said, “The b-books…”
“They’re just making these rules to get my goat and drive me crazy,” said Mr. Wilke.
Mrs. Brogle came out and lit a cigarette. Clare stepped around the older woman.
“Well, look who’s over there,” Mr. Wilke said, pointing his cane over Lloyd’s shoulder.
Lloyd recognized the dark-haired teenager sitting on the stone retaining wall that curved around the white protestant church. Carter Payne. The boy waved. Only Clara and Lloyd waved back.
“Those teenagers hang out over there and smoke and drink all day instead of getting jobs,” Mrs. Brogle said, taking a drag on her cigarette.
Lloyd saw no cigarette or bottle in the boy’s hands.
“What jobs?” said Clara.
“Speaking of jobs,” Mr. Wilke said, “I saw that girl you hired fighting with Buck Tucker on the bridge this morning.”
“What happened?” Mrs. Brogle asked, her birdlike eyes bright in her tired face.
“She’s going to get herself killed if she goes back to him,” said Mr. Wilke.
“She’ll go back,” the older woman predicted.
“Mable is not going back,” said Clara, touching the heart-shaped pin on her lapel.
“They always do.” A thin stream of smoke pouring from Mrs. Brogle’ sharp nasal passages. “They can’t break the cycle.”
Clara’s hand went to her throat; she reached for a pair of sunglasses and put them on her nose. “Not if I can help her,” she said, matter-of-factly.
Lloyd thoughtfully regarded the sunglasses. He recalled a time when Clara had had a black eye. She had been married then.
Mr. Wilke sniffed. “Bleeding heart,” he said, trying to lighten the tension that had descended over the group.
Lloyd reached out hesitantly as if to brush the fabric of Clara’s sleeve but she stepped around him and his hand fell back to his side. Mrs. Brogle’s head whipped back and forth. Her dull eyes suddenly alert as they bounced back and forth between Clara to Lloyd. Lloyd’s cheeks redden.
Lloyd waited at the crosswalk, he saw Clara drive by in her burgundy car with old Mr. Wilke in the passenger seat.
Lloyd looked both ways before he crossed the street in front of the library. There was no traffic. Down Main Street, he noticed Mable’s pink hair as she walked across the bridge. Her daughter rode a few feet ahead of her on a pink bicycle with training wheels.
Lloyd said hello to Carter Payne as he passed. Suddenly, Lloyd heard the loud, high-pitched whine of a truck’s engine and saw Buck Tucker’s truck barreling directly at him. A hand grabbed Lloyd’s jacket, jerking him away from the edge of the road.
“You okay, Mr. Butler?” Carter asked. His face was filled with angry pimples. Lloyd nodded, unable to speak. Horrified, they watched as the red truck veered across Main Street. Sadie stopped pedaling her pink bike, frozen on the side of the bridge.
Lloyd’s mouth opened. His shout joined Mable’s. He dropped his book bag and umbrella and ran to the bridge.
The truck swung wide, skidding on the ice as it headed directly towards Mable. The wheels spun in the opposite direction, wildly careening across the road. Then, the vehicle crashed, catching the front tire of Sadie’s bike and jerking the girl so hard that her small body was thrown into the air.
Lloyd watched in horror as the little girl disappeared over the side of the bridge.
The bike lay mangled on the bridge’s sidewalk. Mable ran to the side where Sadie went over, gripping the bridge’s railing as she screamed and pointed at the water. Lloyd’s lungs hurt as he ran in the cold air. He searched for the little girl in the dark water flowing around the ice blocks. He prayed she wouldn’t get caught in an ice drift. His legs pumped faster and faster as he neared the bridge.
Twenty feet below the bridge, he saw Sadie clinging to a downed tree in the middle of the river.
“Save her! Please save her.” Mable pleaded, her arms waving wildly. “I don’t know how to swim.”
Buck staggered towards her. Blood ran down the side of his face from a large gash in his forehead. Buck stumbled and reached towards Mable.
“Get away!” Mable screamed, pulling away and turning back to the river. “Sadie. Sadie.”
Lloyd ran to the side of the bridge and started down the riverbank. His shoes slid against the ice and mud. As he neared the edge of the water, he saw that the girl was settled in the middle of the tree. Her mittens clutched the wet bark. If he moved quickly, he decided, he could reach Sadie in time. Lloyd kicked off his shoes and threw his overcoat onto the ground as he flung himself into the frigid water.
His eyes stayed on Sadie, measuring each slip and dip of her body in the fast moving current. A massive sheet of thick ice covered the river behind her. Lloyd knew he’d never find her if she slipped under. He was twenty yards away when Sadie’s fingers slipped; she fell lower into the water. Only her head was now visible. Lloyd remembered how panicked he felt as a boy when he started swimming. Edna had called out to him, telling him to keep kicking, until, finally, he’d pulled himself to shore.
Ten yards away, he made sure Sadie was still hanging onto the tree. The tip of her chin touched the water as she anxiously searched the top of the bridge for her mother. If she made a sound, he couldn’t hear it. He couldn’t tell if she was crying, but he knew she must have been freezing.
“Don’t let go. Hang on,” he shouted as he pushed his body forward. Usually, he didn’t swim this far out. The overflowing river and ice blocks made it too dangerous.
He focused every bit of his concentration on fighting the pull of the water, just as he had that time when he was a boy. When he was ten feet away, he stopped swimming to tread water. Thick pine branches scraped the girl’s chin. He wondered if she’d been hit by the truck. This close, he could hear Sadie crying and asking her mother to help her. Lloyd pushed his body closer and broke a tree branch that was preventing him from reaching the little girl.
“Hang on. You can do this,” Lloyd said, repeating the same words Edna had once said to him. The water pulled at his waist, chest, and thighs.
The girl’s face was white with shock. Above them, Mable’s cries were drowned out by the sound of rushing water.
He inched forward and held a hand out to the girl, willing Sadie to reach out to him. Then he remembered that Mable had told him the girl was afraid of men. “Do you remember me? Lloyd, from the store?”
The little girl shook her head, not looking at him.
“My mother, Edna, used to give you lollipops in my store, remember?”
Sadie remained still. Lloyd inched closer so that he was only an arm’s length away. A large branch lay between them. The tree could sink if he tried climbing over it to reach Sadie.
“I like grape,” he said, not feeling his feet. “What’s…what’s your favorite?”
The little girl turned then and looked over at Lloyd. Her lips were purple against her white face. “Ch-cherry,” she whispered.
“Your mom wants me to get you.” Sadie’s mittens slipped. The girl seemed so small against the sheet of ice next to the tree.
Sadie shook her head and pressed her body against the tree.
He swam closer to the tree just as Sadie’s mittens slipped, and she went under the water. Lloyd dove under, the water pushed him, and he scraped the top of his head. His numb fingers felt for the girl, his body thrashing wildly in the water. Then, his hand grabbed something soft. He yanked the girl against him. Surfacing, he gasped for air. Sadie began choking and coughing. Water ran down her nose and out of her mouth. Lloyd fiercely pulled the small child to his chest.
He thought of Mable standing on the bridge. “I got her,” he shouted. A flash of joy rushed through his body.
“Hold on tight,” he told Sadie. “You’re okay. You’ll be okay.” Lloyd slipped his arm around her chest and kicked his feet against the current.
When they were close to shore, he stood up. His knees buckled, and he almost dropped the girl. He pulled her closer and carried her over the rocks and blocks of ice along the shore. Carter came to Lloyd holding out a blanket. Lloyd wrapped it around the little girl and then scanned the bridge. Clara held Mable in her arms.
“She’s okay,” he called up to them. The crowd above him clapped and cheered. A woman dressed in an EMT uniform ran down the embankment. She pulled Sadie from his arms. Lloyd, exhausted and shivering violently, followed slowly behind. Carter ran to get more towels and blankets.
By the time Lloyd reached the bridge, Sadie lay on a gurney in the back of an ambulance. Mable knelt beside her, holding her hands.
The ambulance driver swung the door closed and jumped in behind the steering wheel. Lloyd watched the vehicle, its lights and sirens blaring as it sped in the direction of the hospital.
Buck stood on the sidewalk, bleeding and crying. A state police officer held out a pair of handcuffs and ordered Buck to turn around.
Clara’s eyes were wet and soft as they met Lloyd’s. She wrapped a wool blanket around his dripping body.
“That was brave of you, Lloyd.” He felt the pressure of her strong fingers against his cold flesh.
“It was lucky.” His thin, wiry frame shook as he watched the ambulance drive away. “The water was w-warm today.”
Two hours later, just as the sun was setting, Lloyd noticed a car stopped in the middle of the bridge. He saw Mable’s pink hair. He sprinted down the stairs and called out to her, worried that something had happened to Sadie.
“She was crying for her little bear.” Mable clutched a stuffed bear to her chest. “I almost lost her,” she said, watching a piece of ice break free in the water. Her cheeks were damp. “You saved her.” She rubbed her sleeve against her runny nose. “I don’t know what I would do if something happened to her.”
Lloyd regarded the long building that was his clothing store on the other side of the bridge. He remembered Edna pushing him into the river when he was a boy and how angry he’d been. Today, he saved Sadie’s life. If it wasn’t for Edna, he might not have reached the girl in time.
“You’re doing your best,” Lloyd told Mable, thinking of Edna. Remembering how she’d taken him in and tried her best to be his mother. His throat hurt. The sun shifted in the sky and moved towards the mountains. “Tell Sadie I’ll bring her cherry lollipops tomorrow – if she wants.”
After Mable had left, Lloyd stayed on the bridge, watching her car’s rear lights until they disappeared. He glanced up at his apartment and saw the lights on in his living room. The back apartment, where Edna once lived, was shielded in darkness. He would stop by the hardware store in the morning to pick out some paint. Maybe yellow. Then he’d tell Mable that the apartment was hers and Sadie’s for as long as she needed it. From the pocket of his overcoat, he pulled out the flyer he’d picked up earlier that day. His index finger traced the still damp picture of the marmalade kitten.
Down the street, the door to the C&L Market swung open. Lloyd heard Clara’s high heels on the sidewalk. He pulled his shoulders back, stood up straight, and then turned to watch Clara walk towards him. In the soft, honey-golden light, Clara’s face seemed to glow. As she drew closer, he noticed for the first time that her eyes were the color of field grass in early summer.
She leaned against the bridge’s cement railing, her arm touching his as they stood side by side, gazing into the distance. Behind them, they heard the cars and trucks slowed down as they passed over the cement bridge.
“I wonder what they’re saying about us,” Clara said. She placed a bare hand on the sleeve of his coat.
Lloyd took a deep breath and covered her fingers with a warm hand. She turned her wrist so that their fingers entwined.
“They’re probably saying I’m one heck of a lucky man,” he said.
Trish Perrault earned her MFA in creative writing from Lesley University and works as an adjunct professor. Her stories have been published in Snowbound – Best New England Crime Stories 2017, The Literary Nest and The Lindenwood Review (May 2018). Trish lives with her family just south of the Adirondacks.