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Jul/Aug 2000 Fiction

Backsliders

by Oren Shafir


Thinking about Sherri's naked body and his mother at the same time made Tiny Teddy nervous. He sat on the bus chewing a mint anxiously because he was late for his violin lesson. His mother was going to be disappointed. If only he'd gotten a ride, he would have made it home on time. (Sherri already had her license, but Teddy had to wait for his birthday in two months.) Still, Teddy agreed that they had to be careful. They weren't even supposed to be alone at her house. Teddy thought about the conversation he'd had just before leaving for the bus.

"C'mon, I gave you a ride," he had said flashing his best naughty smile.

"You know it's not true what everyone says about you at school," Sherri had said.

"What do they say?"

"Well, they say you never smile, and ... " she paused.

"And what?"

"And, everyone calls you Tiny."

This made Tiny Teddy smile even more.

Now sitting on the bus, Teddy began masticating the whole pack of mints at once, and then he tried to concentrate on picturing his fingers moving across the violin strings. But it didn't work. He could still see her naked body: the dark cherry nipples on creamy white skin, the pink, moist mystery between her legs. And Teddy had been allowed to explore her. To taste her. He could still taste Sherri. Thinking about Sherri's naked body and his mother simultaneously made Tiny Teddy very anxious indeed.

 

Frank was getting ready to kill his wife. Judy thought he was at work, but he wasn't. He hadn't been at work at all that day. He couldn't concentrate on work. He could only concentrate on one thing. Catching her. Catching her in the act. He wanted to catch her in the act. The thought of it hurt so much, it made him want to vomit. He felt compelled. Yet, suddenly in the midst of his obsessive thoughts and for no apparent reason, Frank found himself thinking about Tiny Teddy Martin.

Frank remembered the day of the funeral of Tiny Teddy's father. Everyone still called the kid Tiny, and he still measured short for his age. But when he was a child, Teddy had really been the most tiny, delicate and fine specimen of a lad big Frank had ever seen. He had stepped out for some fresh air and found Tiny Teddy wandering sadly about on the grass in the stupid suit and tie his mother had dressed him up in. Frank's heart nearly broke. What a beautiful and sad child. Frank had always liked Lydia, but after her husband died, she seemed to become a completely different person with all her energy focused around her little son. Frank had liked the boy's father, too, a quiet and modest little man who had been determined to play college football. Frank, the team star, had befriended the little fellow and later when their fortunes changed, Teddy's father had fronted Frank the money he needed to start his own sporting equipment store. Then, he had died suddenly and prematurely.

"Hey there, Tiny, don't you want to go back inside to your mommy?" Frank had asked the boy upon finding him wandering about alone on the day of his father's funeral.

"No," Tiny Teddy said in such an expressive manner that Frank understood that that was the last thing the boy wanted. Frank wished he could comfort the little fellow, but he hadn't any experience with kids. He hadn't much experience with anything other than football.

Finally Frank said, "You know what, I think your Daddy kept a football in the garage. You want to throw it around?"

 

Lydia Martin sat drinking tea with her oldest and dearest friend, Judy Berg. Lydia was pretending to be impatient and cross with her son, Teddy. But really she was glad she had the opportunity to hear Judy tell her what a wonderful talent Teddy was and to brag to her. Lydia even complained about Teddy's tardiness with a twinkle in her eye, as if, when Teddy did it, tardiness could be charming. Lydia still thought of him as her tiny baby. When she thought of Teddy, she always thought of the period just after her husband had died. How sweet and sad he had been and what a comfort they had been to each other. She'd told him that now he was her little man, and he had made her so proud, always trying to please her. He had filled her to the bursting point with motherly pride: growing, developing and moving forward in just the right way. Lydia didn't know what to do with it all, and she sometimes suspected that she took too much pride in Tiny. But she just couldn't help it.

Lately, however, it seemed like her boy was slipping away. She never knew how he would react to anything these days. She had always let Tiny get away with a lot, but she also had high expectations about the things that really mattered. And Teddy had always respected those expectations and limits and respected his mother. Until now. Now it seemed to Lydia as though he were sliding backwards, and Lydia couldn't do anything about it because she couldn't reach him to pull him back.

 

Judy hated her best friend Lydia from the moment she had sauntered into the college dorm room they were to share and nonchalantly introduced herself to Judy and Judy's mother.

"I'm going to be a primary-school teacher," Lydia had stated with determination.

"Did you hear that, Judy, she's going to be a grade-school teacher," Judy's mother said.

Judy's mother had been pressing her because she thought Judy's choice to study music was impractical. In fact, Judy already saw herself as a music teacher, but she refused to share this with her mother. Judy had learned a long time ago that sharing goals with her mother was just setting herself up for rejection and disappointment. To Judy, it seemed as though her mother relished bringing her down.

Lydia, on the other hand, had never done anything to hurt Judy intentionally. She'd never done anything wrong at all. True the death of her husband had made her bitter, but one part of Judy pitied her. Yet that part was a small part. Mostly Judy hated her. She envied her. She hated her. She wanted everything Lydia had without knowing why. Judy wanted Lydia's straight blonde hair instead of her own black coils. She wanted her long slender body and flat chest instead of her own chunky curves and abundant bosom. She wanted Lydia's distinguished, cool and distant mother instead of her own pushy mom. She'd wanted Lydia's dead big brother, the war hero, whom Lydia always bragged about, instead of her own little sister, who still filled up so much place in Judy's life, even though they rarely saw each other anymore.

Even after Lydia's husband had died unexpectedly, Judy envied her the role of widow and single mother. The child was so beautiful - so sad, delicate and beautiful. Tiny Teddy had thick sandy blonde hair, a petite build like his father and enormous round and sad brown eyes. When he smiled, his whole face lit up and one couldn't help but smile with him. The only thing was, Tiny Teddy stopped smiling the day his father died, didn't smile all through the funeral and had rarely smiled since. At the funeral, Judy had looked at Lydia squeezing her little boy's hand, the center of attention, tears streaming down both their eyes, and she thought, "It should be me."

 

Frank had planned to just cruise around in his old Buick all day until it was time. And he had, he had cruised for hours, but the thought of walking in on Judy with some man between her legs made Frank crazy. He didn't know whether he'd kill the man or not. But he was going to kill his wife. Strangle her to death, that's what he wanted to do. The other man wouldn't be able to stop him. Frank was too strong.

When Frank realized that he was going to kill her, it surprised him. It amazed him. It seemed unreal. Yet, when he thought about it, he realized that it happened all the time all over the world. The oldest story in the world: man walks in, catches his wife in the act and kills her. A crime of passion. Frank liked the ring of that. It sounded nobler than anything Frank had done in a long time. The last great thing he had done was to intercept a pass in the Sugar Bowl. But after college, he'd gotten fat and his trouble had begun. Now, he was going to put an end to his miserable existence or at least change it drastically. He imagined his salacious wife writhing naked on their bed again, and it made him crazy. He got out of the car and headed toward the donut shop.

 

Was it her own fault? Lydia wondered. Had she indulged her son excessively? So what if she let her pride get the better of her sometimes. She knew it drove some people nuts. She could see their eyes rolling upwards and their jaws tightening when she talked about Tiny Teddy being the next Isaac Stern. Or when she talked about how handsome and even sexy he was - like a young Robert Redford. Judy's crude husband Frank had once said that Lydia talked about Teddy as if he were her boyfriend, not her son. Well, what did he know about motherly pride - or good looks for that matter? He was just jealous, that's all.

Lydia remembered how she'd caught Frank playing football with Tiny Teddy on the day of her husband's funeral. She had lost sight of her son for the first time since receiving the news that her husband had died his untimely death. She'd been so busy making sure every one of the funeral guests had a chance to pay their respects, and taking care of the practical arrangements like the food and beverages, that Tiny Teddy had just slipped away. He wasn't anywhere among the funeral guests, nor was he to be found upstairs. She knew she had to hold and squeeze and protect him constantly. He was the only thing she had left. Of course, there was her best friend Judy. True they were very different, but Judy proved herself so faithful and supportive and admiring that Lydia felt she just couldn't do without her. Judy's husband Frank was another matter.

Lydia had come out and couldn't believe her eyes: her little boy outside on the grass with that big brute throwing a football on the day of her husband's funeral.

"Tiny," she called him in a tone much harsher than intended.

"We were just throwing the football around," Frank said.

"I don't think that's appropriate today," Lydia said quietly and now in cool control.

"No, I'm sorry. Of course not."

Lydia walked away, once again with her son in her grip. She turned once more before entering the house.

"As a matter a fact, it's not appropriate for Teddy at all. He is to be a violinist."

 

Judy, somewhat aware of her irrational feelings always behaved especially nice to Lydia, hoping the feelings would fade. But instead they grew more intense, and everything that Lydia had or got, Judy wanted. When they went on a blind double date in college with two football players, Judy wanted Lydia's date, even though Judy got the star linebacker and Lydia was stuck with the puny second-string kicker. Judy understood that her envy of her so-called best friend wasn't healthy, and she felt the bitter irony later after each had married their own football player and Lydia's husband subsequently got rich. True, he died young, but he left Lydia with a wonderful little boy. Frank, as it turned out, was sterile. And Judy loved Lydia's Tiny Teddy. She envied her being mother to such a beautiful child so much that Judy even lead Lydia to believe that Teddy was far more gifted than he really was, so she could continue to give him music lessons. That way she got to see him both as his teacher at school and as his private violin instructor. Judy just couldn't stop envying Lydia.

 

Frank waited for his jelly donut.

"How 'bout that jelly donut?" Frank asked.

The pimple-faced kid behind the counter just stared at Frank. Stared at his face. Frank instinctively brought his finger up to his mouth and felt the sugar and the jelly around his lips. Frank had already scarfed the donut down his throat without realizing it.

"Give me another one," Frank said.

Frank knew he shouldn't be pigging out like this, but he couldn't help it. Normally, he wouldn't be doing this. Or at least he'd pretend that he was buying them for guests and then go eat them in the car, but today was no normal day. He ignored the surprised and amused look on the donut kid's face.

"You know what, give me a whole dozen," Frank said.

 

Teddy could smell her juices all over himself. He hadn't had time for a shower. He had to get home for his violin lesson, or his mother would give him the works. Teddy felt like everyone on the bus could smell her juices all over him rising like vapors from his body, from inside his jeans under the zipper, from his mouth and tongue. He opened a second pack of cool mints. He felt like he would never be able to get the smell off, and his mother would know. She'd know, and she'd never leave him alone. Not after they'd had the talk. She'd made it clear that she thought 15 was too young. She would be disappointed even if it happened with his girlfriend Sherri. Upon being asked point blank, Teddy had told his mother that Sherri was a virgin, and Sherri had met with about as much approval as any girl could hope for from Teddy's mother. Even so, Teddy's mother liked to put Sherri down subtly in front of Teddy and brag about her to everyone else. Teddy's mother was always bragging about him to everyone else, but she was always telling him how disappointed she was.

 

Judy felt that her soul was twisted inside, and she knew it was too late to untwist it. Had it ever been different? She tried to remember a different time, a different Judy. But she could only conjure a faint feeling of childhood innocence. When she thought for too long about her childhood, she saw an image of her disapproving mother, the schoolteacher. It was as if her mother were always grading her, and Judy never measured up to the desired goal. Only her younger sister did.

Once as a teenager spending thanksgiving at her grandmother's house, Judy had found a box of letters from her own mother spanning over a period of a year when she and her sister had been small children. Judy had counted the number of times her sister's name was mentioned compared to her's, and she'd suffered an overwhelming defeat of 110 to 3. But the funny thing was that as an adult, Judy's sister never had success with men. She turned into a schoolteacher spinster just like their mother. Even though their mother had a husband, Judy thought of her as a spinster because her father was never around.

Lydia was another old maid. Anyone could see that men didn't find Lydia attractive. She obviously needed a makeover: thick glasses, bony elbows, no curves, thin mousy hair. And Judy knew men found her attractive. Men came on to Judy all the time, and it made her feel good too - for a while. Mostly, she felt sluttish, even though Judy didn't really sleep around. Sex didn't really even interest her; she just liked the feeling of being desired and in control. But alone with the mirror, Judy didn't feel attractive at all. She'd inherited her father's looks: a big and chunky man with thick curly hair, sparkling eyes and a winning smile, which he reserved occasionally for Judy's mother and frequently for other women - all kinds of other women.

 

Frank reached into his pocket and found it empty. He'd been in such a one-track state of mind that he'd forgotten his wallet.

"Two-ninety-nine," the donut kid repeated.

No wallet, and he couldn't call home and ask his wife to bring it. This was going to ruin everything. He reached into his coat pocket and felt a lot of jingly change. He pulled it out hopefully and breathed a sigh of relief as he saw at least six quarters and a bunch of dimes. He had to cut it pretty close though, counting pennies on the counter in front of the unimpressed donut kid.

 

Of course, no one desired Judy more than Frank. And Judy tortured him. She tortured him on purpose, and then she felt guilty about it afterwards. She knew now that she had never loved Frank. She didn't even like him anymore. But she also knew that he didn't deserve to be tortured. Still, the more she felt guilty about it, the more she wanted to torture him. She'd lead him on, tickle his shiny pink head where thick black curls used to be, or take off her shoe and slide her foot up his leg at dinner, especially if there were guests. And he'd fall for it every time. Thinking he was gonna finally get some, like Charlie Brown in the Peanuts Comic Strips always thinking he was going to get to kick that football. But Lucy would pull it away at the last minute. And in bed Judy would just snort removing his heavy, hairy arms and throwing them aside.

 

By the time Teddy had hustled off the bus and fell into an easy jog the last block and half home, his smile had vanished replaced by his usual solemn demeanor. He hated the violin. He didn't even think he was all that good at it. Even now, although he'd given up begging his mother years ago, he still longed to play football. Thinking about football made Teddy somber, as it always did. For some reason, it made him think of his father's funeral.

And, he felt guilty. Not towards his mother, but towards just about everyone else. I don't deserve Sherri, he thought. I don't know what she sees in me. I don't know what anyone sees in me. Teddy felt as though he were slowly sinking into a pit of slime, and there was nothing he could do about it.

 

Frank had almost caught her a couple weeks ago when he'd come home early. He saw someone stepping out of the building into the shadows and thought it strange. Frank didn't think much of it though until he'd gone inside and smelled that smell. His wife hadn't even bothered to shower. She had just stood there as if nothing had happened. As if she thought that besides growing fat and bald, Frank had also lost his sense of smell. The thought of that smell made him furious once again. Frank floored the gas pedal. But instead of shooting away like a bat out of hell, the car just sputtered and coughed and died. Out of gas.

 

Lydia was in shock. How could he? How could he come running in, throw his jacket over the chair and begin playing violin with Judy as if nothing had happened? But when she'd picked the jacket up to hang it, her hand fell coincidentally into the pocket. She felt something wet and gooey. She pulled it out and couldn't believe it. A condom. A used condom. Did he even know how to use it properly? How could he? How could he do this to her? She'd make him suffer. She walked right up to him. Right in front of Judy; she didn't care. Let him be ashamed. She held it out in front of them, as if it were a murder weapon, and she were Perry Mason.

"Are you proud of yourself, mister, mister... horny devil."

Teddy stood with his violin teacher in amazement.

"Aren't you ashamed?" Lydia pressed.

Finally Teddy straightened his back and said slowly and defiantly, "Well, at least I practiced safe sex," glancing at his violin teacher with a tinge of shame.

But Lydia felt that there should be much more than a mere tinge. She couldn't believe his audacity. Then, she thought of a way to regain the upper hand.

She held the condom up right in front of his face accusingly and said, "Look at the size of this hole," although it was impossible to tell if it really was damaged.

But Teddy just stood there coolly. It was Mrs. Martin's oldest and dearest friend, Judy Berg, who gasped, lost all color in her face and ran out the door without another word.

 

Teddy caught up with Judy just as she was about to step into her car. He grabbed her hands and pulled her to face him.

"It's okay," Teddy said. "She was just trying to get to me. There was no hole."

"You don't know that for sure."

"It doesn't matter. See, I am sure about one thing. I didn't even use that condom with you."

"What?"

"I went to Sherri's right after I left your place," Teddy said averting his eyes from Judy's.

"What?"

"She lives right down the block from you," Teddy explained.

The sting of Judy's slap brought tears to Teddy's eyes. She's jealous, he thought, and it doesn't seem quite fair considering that she's been married to Frank Berg for the past twenty years.

 

Frank was running, sweat oozing down his bald head, down the multiple layers of his jowls, making his white button-up shirt stick to his enormous whale of a belly and staining the seat of his well-creased pants. He knew what a sight he was: people were staring. It was like a nightmare - Frank Berg's nightmare come true. But goddamn it, he wasn't going to be late. He'd catch her this time and find out who was doing her. He ran full speed imagining himself zapped back in time to the Sugar Bowl, in full gear, holding that pigskin and heading for the end zone like a locomotive.

But then, he started slowing down until finally he felt like he was running the wrong way on a moving sidewalk, constantly sliding backwards. It seemed to Frank that he had been sliding backwards for a long time. After only a block and a half, Frank had to stop, wheezing for air. He looked at his watch and realized that it had taken him twenty minutes to run the block and a half. I missed my chance, Frank thought, still wheezing.

But his chance for what? To become a murderer? His wet clothes stuck tightly to the fatness of his body, and he felt the cool sting of the evening air. His face felt warm, and he knew it must be bright red. He still couldn't breathe right. His ribs hurt. His chest hurt. His heart. His heart. Frank clutched his heart.

Suddenly, he knew who the man was. He remembered what he had seen. He got a clear flashback of the man who had slipped out of his building and into the shadows, and in his mind, Frank recognized the man who had been with Judy. Only it was no man. It was a kid. It was Teddy Martin.

"Tiny Teddy," Frank gasped in disbelief as he fell to his knees. But then Frank felt something strange and wonderful. He felt overwhelmed by a beautiful humming sensation, an indescribable phenomenon of invisible light and silent sound. He wasn't angry anymore. He wasn't hungry anymore. He felt Judy and Tiny Teddy's pain, and he wanted to help them. But he knew he couldn't because he was already too far away. Frank rolled on his back and his head hit the pavement with a clunk, but he couldn't feel it. He couldn't feel his body at all, yet inside, he finally felt peaceful.

He remembered tossing that football with the kid years ago after the boy's father had died. The tiny little boy had had an amazing arm. He lofted it up high, and both Frank and the child watched it float lie a balloon.

"Perfect spiral kid," Frank had said, and the kid had smiled for the first time.

 

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