by Julia Johnson
He liked to watch the geese. He often made bets with himself about whether the geese would move should someone walk a bit too closely to them. He always won these bets, knowing the geese were accustomed to humans, so they would rarely move. Except when the young neighbor boy with Downs came to the lake and rushed at them. The boy’s babysitter laughed just as hard, every time, but the child sometimes ran so close to the slimy edge of the lake that the man worried he might fall, and that certainly wouldn’t have been funny.
The man claimed the same unremarkable bench for his spectator’s seat above the lake each day. He liked it because it sat atop a hill high above everyone else who came for an afternoon at the park, so he could watch them without being watched back. The wood sagged in a few places, rotting from years of morning dew, but for the most part it was just worn enough to be soft and smooth, offering no risk of splinters. When the man was new to the practices of both watching and sitting, he would sometimes bring a blanket or a cushion for added comfort, but that quickly took on the tone of an amateur, so he stopped doing that.
The man was forty-four, of average height, and had a bloated belly riddled with small silvery stretch marks left over from a violent adolescence of growth spurts and insatiable hunger. The scars reminded him of the swimming bacteria he would view on slides under microscopes as a young boy in his father’s medical office. Lying in his twin bed some nights, he’d imagined them wriggling off his skin; itchy and unable to sleep, he would then turn on a light and inspect himself in front of a full length mirror, staring at his teenaged belly that had already started to round, just to make sure the scars weren’t moving.
Sometimes he saw the same people at the park, other times he didn’t. On St. Patrick’s Day, he didn’t recognize anyone. His wife had given him an old Tupperware container with some kind of green cake in it; he hadn’t opened it. She had meant for him to bring it to the lunchroom at work, to share whatever buttery recipe she had adorned with food coloring and sprinkles. She had meant for him to enjoy it, to come home and thank her with a light kiss on her forehead, after which she would cook him a perfectly adequate dinner with a chopped and steamed vegetable he wouldn’t like the smell of. She had meant for him to make love to her after they ate, when his gut would be most swollen and uncomfortable, because she was thirty-seven and didn’t have much time left.
He would not be bringing it. He would not be going to work today. And he hadn’t even called in to say so, but he wasn’t terribly worried about that. Nuclear plants employ many hundreds of people; he was certain on an atomic level that he would not be missed, at least not for a day. Someone else could push the buttons, write the reports. And it would be easy to say his medical appointment was on account of the radiation levels he’d noted the other day on his personal dosimeter clipped to his shirt pocket. His exposure readings had been high, much higher than normal. No one would dare question a medical appointment with levels like that. But they would perhaps raise seemingly good-natured questions should they learn that the appointment was, in fact, with a urologist (but he did not, of course, plan on telling anyone this).
The man went to his bench. His khaki pants felt too tight as he sat down. He wondered if anyone would notice were he to unbutton them, just for a little bit. The waistband dug into the uneven ridges of his gut. The first time his wife had seen him without a shirt, she had said his stretch marks reminded her of aerial views of canyons and valleys, like flying over the Grand Canyon, even. He had never really seen anything like that, but he knew it was a kind thing to say.
He decided to keep his pants buttoned. The dull pinching around his middle was maybe more tolerable than he’d thought. He checked his watch, his wrist bulging slightly around the strap. The appointment was in an hour. He thought of how the woman he’d spoken to on the phone had said their office offered same day consultations and procedures. His wife’s holiday cake sat next to him on the bench like another person. He wondered why they had been using the same Tupperware for thirteen years, the once-clear plastic sides now mottled and cloudy no matter how long he scrubbed them in the sink. When his wife had bought the 36-piece set of the plastic containers (because she’d felt sorry for the weary door-to-door salesman, she’d said), the lids had started out the chemical-scented bright pastels of new kitchenware––pink, yellow, blue. They now made the man think of rotten Easter eggs.
A fat woman lounging on a grassy knoll below sat up to stretch her segmented arms. Lower and to his left the man saw a young couple with their bodies folded together like a pair of hands. The girl had red hair and long legs. The boy whispered something to her and the red-haired girl laughed, tossing her head back and then leaning closer into him. The boy curled his full lips into a smile and began to run his fingers through the girl’s hair.
The fat woman turned around and her eyes were red, and they looked at the man. He wondered if she saw his scars from where she sat. A silly thought, considering they were hidden beneath two shirts and a jacket. A few minutes passed. An older woman by the lake began to feed the geese bits of moldy white bread. The fat woman was still staring at him. He needed to look somewhere else. He looked at his hands. They were dead birds in his lap. He needed them to do something.
The man felt his skin. He rolled up his sleeves, touched his forearms, tugged at the hair. Pulled one out and looked at the follicle that had come with it. He glanced at the fat woman with the red eyes to see if she was still looking at him, but she had turned back around and was facing the lake again. He grabbed his stomach. His wife would probably be at the elementary school by now, taking temperatures and calling mothers and sending the fakers back to class. She was good at her job. Fitting the part, she was a natural with small children. When they’d first married, all those years ago, he’d promised her four of their own. Instead, they shared five miscarriages and 36-pieces of moldy Tupperware. Now he found the prospect of having children with her unlikely or impossible. He had been preparing to say as much to her. In fact, he’d waited over a decade for those perfect, honeyed words to come to him; he’d sat quietly, monk-like at the kitchen table, and awaited some kind of sweet, illuminating language to strike his tongue with grace and clarity. But the words never came, and he drank his coffee with extra cream and said nothing.
The woman at the medical office had said that modern men get vasectomies all the time now. That he could expect to feel some pain in his nether regions for a few days, naturally, some possible blood in the urine, but that it is an overall easy procedure. He would be allowed to return to work in just a few days, as if nothing had ever happened. His wife would not know.
A shiny green June bug landed on the lump of his belly he was still holding. He let it stay there, examined the tips of its insubstantial legs that resembled the split end of a hair, how they seemed to grasp the fibers of his shirt without having fingers. It appeared to move in slow motion. The emerald metals of its wings caught the sunlight every few seconds as it crawled across his lower abdomen, crossed the valleys of his scars underneath his cotton shirt. It stopped for a moment when it reached the beginning of his khakis, his groin, then turned around and moved back up along his belly once more. The man was still hunched over, clutching himself and staring at the beetle, when he realized the fat woman with the red eyes was now standing next to his bench. Startled, he sat up straight. She told him he was lucky the bug had landed on him or else she would have had to pinch him. The June bug detached its thin legs from his shirt fibers and flew off in a slow whirr. He was silent as he watched it disappear.
The fat woman’s eyes were even redder up close. The sun-spotted skin around them was puffy, blotchy. She asked if he knew that you have to pinch people on St. Patrick’s Day if they aren’t wearing green. He swallowed, and said he knew that. There was a long pause, during which the fat woman took her thin, dishwater-colored hair out of its limp ponytail, letting out a heavy sigh. The man looked away, at the geese. They waited for the other to say something. She asked who the cake was for. The man didn’t know how to answer that, so he didn’t.
The young couple on the hill below stood up, the boy stretching as the girl began to fold up their blanket. The fat woman breathed deeply again, and told the man that she would have to pinch him now that the bug was gone, unless his underwear was green. He looked at her then, at her red eyes. She asked him if he would like to come with her somewhere. He remembered his appointment, his vasectomy, he was to have in less than an hour. He said yes.
Hotel walls are thin, and sometimes call attention to the solitude of the listener. The man could hear the muffled conversation of a busy family in one room to his left, an arguing couple behind the walls to his right. He waited on the edge of the bed as the fat woman ran the sink in the bathroom. He counted to ten. His wife would be getting home soon and wonder where he was. He’d missed his appointment by a few hours. His wife’s cake sat on a chair in a dark corner beside the heavy floral curtain, like another person. He ran his hands along his stomach, feeling the ridges. The fat woman would not see them as aerial canyon views.
The man thought of the beetle that didn’t care about his stretch marks, and he got up to leave. He thought of the boy with Downs, running about the side of the lake. He left the cake on its chair, the woman in the bathroom. The scars on the edge of the bed.
About the Author
Julia Bailey Johnson is a writer and producer born and raised in California. She received a B.A. in Film from Vassar College, and has worked in commercial and independent film production for the last 8 years. Her writing has been recognized most recently by the 2020 Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival. She has a black cat named Houdini, but does not necessarily identify as a cat person.