Global stories, local voices

|| Ununited States

It Really Does Matter

By Helen Özbay

Lire en français (FR)

The quiet atmosphere of a suburban neighborhood on the west coast of the United States. An ordinary morning for a man of his habits. A quietness interrupted by this black teenager knocking on his door.

On his way down the stairs, at the start of another summer day in California, Roy ignores the slight ache in his knees and lets his left hand run gently over the polished teak handrail. He makes his way through to the kitchen and stands, with his palms resting on the granite countertop, looking out into the garden behind his house. The vines he’s spent hours pruning and cultivating are growing nicely along the fence; the fence he spent even more hours securing into the sloping terrace above the swimming pool.

A leaf, curling and twirling in a ripple of wind, lands on the surface of the pool and floats there, unmoving. Rust-brown and shaped like a boat, it reminds Roy of a model yacht with a timber hull his sea-going uncle had given him as a birthday present. He’d taken it to sail on the pond in a local park until a group of boys tried to snatch it from him. They’d pushed him into the shallow water and he’d arrived home wet and smelling but clutching his boat. He’d repaired the broken mast, polished the boat to a fine shine, then placed it on a shelf above his bed where it sat for the rest of its days, un-sailed.

Roy can feel a slight wrinkle in the crimson rug he’s standing on. He smooths it out with the toe of his leather slipper, and turns to make his coffee. Almost the only thing out of place in his garden of trimmed lawns, colourful flowers and neat rows of vegetables is the stray leaf in the pool. He’ll remove that later when he goes out for his morning swim.

Cup in hand, Roy makes his way to his desk and sits down. He has a long to-do list for the morning: talk with his business partner in England, consult with a company in Spain, and arrange an online meeting with a manager in Italy. He knows what time it is in each country and has planned his international calls accordingly. He picks up his phone.

‘Evening, Jim. How’re things in Manchester?’ He smiles to himself. ‘Not raining again where you are, is it?’

Roy knows, of course, that it is raining in Manchester. He checks the weather as well as the time.

‘What’s your feeling, Jim, about the approach from the Spanish group? Is it the sort of role we want? ... Yes... Yes... You’re probably right.’

Over the conversation, Roy hears a tapping sound. He glances down at his laptop screen and then at his phone. It doesn’t seem to be coming from either.

‘Tell you what, we could take a day or two to think it over and I’ll let the group know…’

There it is again. Tap, tap, tap.

‘Hold on, Jim, someone’s at the door… Okay… Yes… Yes… Wednesday, then. Bye.’

He pushes back his chair and takes the two steps to the hallway in his stride. Light floods through the oval stained-glass panel in the centre of the door, and Roy expects to see the outline of his visitor – perhaps the solar panel engineer dropping by to check how the new system is working. But there is no broad silhouette of a man. Instead he sees a perfectly still, slender shadow as though a cardboard cutout of a figure has been placed, face forward, on the doorstep.

‘Hello,’ says Roy as he opens the door to see a young boy dressed in shorts and a polo shirt.

His attention is caught by the stiff immobility of the boy, who is cradling one furled fist in his other hand.

Roy knows by sight the very few families with teenagers who live nearby and he’s certain he’s never seen this boy before. He’s certain because this child is black. He rarely sees a black family in the roads, gardens or driveways of his suburb. It’s perfectly possible for a well-to-do black family to move into the area — many of the younger professionals in the neighbourhood work in Silicon Valley where the workforce is diverse. But this particular suburb is not.

‘Hello,’ he repeats.

The boy plunges into an explanation, ignoring Roy’s greeting.

‘My dog ran away. I chased him and I caught him. I was holding him in my arms but he escaped again.’

The boy’s voice is flat, the intonation monotonous.

‘Just a minute,’ says Roy. ‘I’ll get my shoes and come and help you.’

The expression on the boy’s face doesn’t change but he shakes his head.

‘No. I need a band-aid.’ He raises his fist, turns it over, and uncurls his index finger.’

Roy bends forward and peers at it.

‘Oh, yes. There’s a cut and it’s bleeding a little. Does it hurt?’

The boy shakes his head, changes his mind and begins nodding.

‘Okay. You wait there.’ Roy points to the short wooden bench in the porch. ‘I’ll go find a band-aid. And then we can look for your dog.’

Roy walks back down the hallway into the kitchen and pulls open a drawer. He picks out the box of band-aids, flips open the lid and fans the individual packets out on the countertop, looking for the right size.

He can remember the comfort of a plaster on a small wound. Wet clothes, a broken model yacht and scraped knees eased by the magic of a plaster and some consoling words.

He picks up two of the narrower strips. On his way through the hall he stops for a moment to swap his slippers, which he places side-by-side in the shoe closet, for a pair of sandals.

‘Right, here we go,’ he begins as he approaches the door.

There is no one on the bench. Roy steps into the porch and looks around the garden. The boy has gone. Roy walks down the curved path, past a vast bank of magenta-pink roses, the blooms so numerous, so heavy, that the stems struggle to stay upright. Standing on the sidewalk he looks to his right, towards the park, and can just make out the figure of the young boy. He’s too far away for Roy to be able to attract his attention and anyway, he’s busy trying to catch a small dog that prances in circles around him. Roy keeps his eye on them for a minute or two. With a sigh, he walks back up the rose-lined path, slipping the band-aids into his shirt pocket. 

At his desk, Roy checks his to-do list: nothing that can’t wait until after his morning swim. He’s just started up the stairs to get changed when he hears the sound again.

Tap, tap, tap.

Roy isn't surprised when he opens the door. He knew who he'd see. The boy clutches a golden coloured spaniel with long ears. It wriggles and fidgets in his arms. Its tail thumps against his t-shirt, its tongue licks at his face while its body fights to escape his grasp.

Roy smiles down at the sight of the serious-faced boy only just managing to hold the exuberant dog, but at the same time keeping his injured index finger extended.

‘Did you find a band-aid?’ the boy asks.

‘Yes. I see you found your dog.’

‘Yes. Can I have the band-aid please.’

‘Here,’ says Roy.

He removes a band-aid from his pocket and is about to tear open the paper covering, but the boy reaches up and takes the plaster out of Roy’s hand.

‘I can manage.’

‘But, you’ve got the dog.’

‘I’m going home now.’

The boy turns away and the dog yelps in its frenzy to get down and run.

Struggling to hold him, the boy stumbles against the roses, scattering a carpet of petals across the path.

At the gate he stops suddenly and without looking round calls, ‘Thank you.’

His slight figure is soon out of sight behind the flowering shrubs that line the front of Roy’s property.

Roy decides that while he’s there he might as well tidy up. He goes through a side door into the garage and collects his yard brush and dustpan. Back outside he begins to sweep up the bruised petals that now trail all the way to the gate. He wonders about the boy. Isn’t he just a bit too old to be asking for a band-aid for a small scratch? And, why is he knocking on strangers’ doors in this day and age? All the same, he’s glad the boy took the plaster.

Roy bends down and sweeps the petals into the dustpan. He carries it over to the other side of the garage and lifts the lid off his composting bin. Tiny fruit flies, feasting on decaying scraps, fly up, circling and waiting for the next addition to their banquet. Roy scatters the wilted petals into a neat, even layer on top of the grass clippings and dried leaves, and carefully replaces the lid. He puts the brush and dustpan back into the garage and is just locking the side door when he hears a voice.

‘Excuse me.’

Roy looks up. A tall, lean man, dressed for running, is coming up the path towards him. He’s breathing heavily.

‘Hi. I’m Jack. Just moved in Tuesday. Down the end of this road. I’m looking for my son. And his dog. Puppy, really. Have you seen them?’

The man wipes sweat from his forehead with the back of his wrist. He’s black, like his son.

‘Yes, I think I have. A thin boy? Shorts, polo shirt?’

‘Yes, that’s him.’

Eager to help, Roy moves towards Jack.

‘Don’t worry. He’s on his way home. He cut his finger, only slightly, and he came to my door to ask for a band-aid.’

Jack groans.

‘How many times have we told him not to knock on people’s doors or ring their bell? He just doesn’t get it.’

His hands, fingers taut with tension, press against his temples, and he closes his eyes for a moment.

‘He can always ask me for help,’ says Roy.

He reaches out to touch Jack’s shoulder, decides not to, and lets his arm fall.

Jack opens his eyes and looks at him.

Roy smiles. ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s okay.’

Jack sighs, looks away, and wipes his face again.

‘Well actually, it really does matter. It’s not okay. But...’

He takes a step down the driveway then turns to face Roy.

‘I’d better go check that my son and his dog have made it home safely. Thanks for your help. I’m grateful. Really I am.’

They nod, in understanding or goodbye, or both. In a synchronized move, they turn, almost back-to-back, and step away from each other: Roy to go into his house, Jack to go after his son.

It is at this moment they hear, not loud but distinct, the sound of three sharp cracks.

When Roy turns towards the noise, Jack has swung back round to face him. ‘What the hell…’ His face is tight with fear or, perhaps, anger.

Roy’s instinct is to reassure, but before any words can be spoken, they hear the wail of sirens. An echoing cry from Jack shatters whatever moment of empathy they might have shared. He races down the drive and is gone.

Roy steps inside his house and closes the door. He walks slowly to the far end of the kitchen and stands for a moment, pressing his trembling hands down onto the countertop, breathing deeply in an effort to steady his heartbeat.

‘Surely not,’ he says.

He slips the fingers of one hand into his pocket and pulls out the unused band-aid. No memories now of comfort.

‘It can’t be him.’

Roy stares blankly out at the garden. The water in the pool is clear and still. He doesn’t notice the leaf that blew into the pool that morning is no longer there.

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About the author

Helen Özbay
More stories

Half a lifetime ago, Helen settled in Turkey. Finding work as a language and literature teacher, she developed her fascination with style, structure and story. Now, as a content editor for a textbook publisher, she targets grammatical structures and vocabulary for language learners. In her own writing, however, she seeks to understand unexpected incidents and the people who live through them.