Thomas Sowell sat at his desk in the room of his apartment which he called his office, trying to get his word-count achieved for the day. He called it the “office” because he had to call it that. If he did not, he would never take it seriously enough to get any work done, and as a self-publishing author, this would prove fatal. In times past he had called it his “library,” his “playroom,” and “the alcove,” each bearing a different meaning upon his soul at different times of his life.
The room oversat the staircase of the second-story apartment, and was positioned as the front-most area of the dwelling, with a towering, five-foot-wide window overlooking the outside world. His desk faced the west wall of the room, the balcony above the staircase to his right, and the giant window at his left.
On a hot, breezy mid-afternoon in August, he had the window open so that he could listen to the birds of late summer. This, he thought, would serve as a form of white noise to help him tackle a few chapters of the science fiction adventure he was attempting… something about a girl on a boat. Just over an hour into the attempt, however, he allowed his mind to open up to distractions, and, when the TV on his desk was off, his wandering focus usually turned toward the window.
The outside view was nothing spectacular. The apartment was along the backside of the back-most building of the complex, and the window overlooked, in order: the sidewalk, a grassy knoll, a black chain-link fence, more knoll, a ten-foot drop-off, and the parking lot of the back-most buildings of a completely different apartment complex. On this particular afternoon, it was something in that neighboring complex which caught his straying attention.
A white mini-van pulled up to one of the apartments, and a girl or woman too far away to be of discernible age hopped out of the driver’s side. Dressed in pink Capri pants and a sleeveless blue denim shirt, her long blonde hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail. Based on what he could tell of her general shape and demeanor of motion, she could not have been more than forty nor younger than twenty.
Thomas watched as she opened the rear hatch of the mini-van and pulled out a blue plastic crate of various books and movies from among a few other crates. With a certain touch of grace which he found himself admiring, she walked around the vehicle and up the three short steps to an apartment door. He watched to see if she would knock or if she would struggle with the crate to produce keys from her pocket. She produced keys. She fumbled with the lock and handle, pushed the door open with her foot, and disappeared behind the self-closing door which did so with a dull thud he could hear even across the distance.
He swiveled his office chair back around to face his computer, and thought a bit about how to get the girl on the boat to escape the clutches of an impending peril facing her crew. He had just rested his fingertips on their familiar positions along the keyboard when he heard the dull thud again. The sudden turning of his head toward the window stung his neck a bit.
The girl or woman was back outside, this time with a tiny black and white dog which hopped around not unlike a rabbit. Whether a chihuahua or a Boston, he could not tell, but he admired the way in which it never seemed to hop very far from her for something without a leash. It bounded freely, but close to its human, who sat herself down on the front stoop and began thumbing around on her smartphone. Thomas watched to see if she would call someone, a significant other perhaps, or if she would just keep thumbing as though merely navigating a social app. She kept thumbing. The dog-rabbit cocked a leg and relieved itself on a nearby shrub.
He thought about turning once again to his writing, but decided to watch her stand back up and retrieve another plastic crate from her trunk… this one filled with shoes and a couple of hats. She gave a curt whistle to the doggit, who followed her to and through the self-closing door. Another dull thud. If she comes back out, he thought, I’m taking action. He paused for a moment to wonder what he had even meant by “action.”
He turned to take a shot at a paragraph or two, thought about the leftover Chinese food in the fridge, and resigned himself to make the short trek to the kitchen for at least a can of soda and to start a pot of coffee. Mid-trek he paused to look at his own tiny dog, asleep on the sofa… a beige chihuahua named Tom Petty, simply because that was the name he had wanted to give her at the time he picked her up as a small pup from the breeder. Regardless of whether he had picked out a male or a female that day, its name was going to be Tom Petty.
The fridge was disappointingly bare by the time he got to it, which he took harder than normal not only because he lived alone (with Tom Petty and an orange cat), but because he had had the money and opportunity to grocery shop yesterday but had decided to pick up an extra shift at the deli instead. At least the Chinese food was there for him if he wanted it, which at the time he decided he did not. For now, a fresh pot of Chock Full O’ Nuts, and a zero soda while it brewed, would suffice.
He made his way back toward the office, putting a hand on Tom Petty along the way to make sure she was still breathing. Whether she was five or six years of age he could not remember. He had acquired her with a bit of the severance money he received when he was let go by the bankrupted grocery chain, and could not now remember if it had been five or six years past. He knew it wasn’t quite time to say goodbye to her, but he also didn’t like to think about the hands of time moving ever forward against her. For now, she was still breathing. Lazy as hell, he thought, but still breathing.
Sitting the soda on his desk, he checked the window, running his fingers along the hard, hot mesh of the screen. No sign of the girl. Mini-van still there. The boat, imbedded in the text of the computer screen, still in peril. He sat. He typed. He stopped. The birds had ceased chirping, just as they had done every day at 3:27 for the past five days, and he had no idea why. He committed the cardinal writing sin of firing up the browser, but only for the purpose of putting on some Dylan for background music to replace the birds. If there was anything that could see a girl on a ship safely out of peril, it was Dylan.
Dull thud. He turned. She was there, opening the rear hatch again. Another crate, this time hot pink. He rose, pulled up the mesh screen, and leaned out beyond the edge.
“Hey!” he yelled. She looked up. “Hey! Need any help?”
She looked left and right. And finally back toward him. “No, I got it, thanks!” she yelled back. She started back toward the apartment, leaving the hatch open. He could see that there were only three more crates remaining, but God knows what all else potentially crammed into the back rows of the van.
“I really don’t mind!” he yelled out. A couple of dogs began to bark in the distance.
She paused, turned toward him, and put a hand above her brow to block the sunlight. “I don’t know you!”
“I know!” he yelled.
“We can all hear you!” someone else bellowed.
He scrambled to get his slip-resistant deli shoes on. They were a bit on the ugly side for social endeavors, but they were slip-ons and made for good get-out-fast shoes. Tom Petty looked up and tilted her head sideways as Thomas dashed down the stairway and out through the front door. He scaled the fence, scraping his arm on one of the loose links at the top, and tumbled down onto the grassy knoll. Surveying the drop-off into the adjoining parking lot, he discerned that it was more seven feet than ten, and hopped down, landing harder than he anticipated and crumpling to the asphalt. He grabbed his ankle and writhed.
“Oh my God,” he heard the girl say after a gasp. Seconds later, she was upon him. “Are you okay?” She sat the hot pink crate down beside him.
He grimaced and looked up, squinting partly from the pain and partly from the sunlight searing into his brain. “I’m Thomas,” he grunted. “Thomas Sowell. No relation to the economist. My friends call me Tom.”
“Yes,” he said, rising to his feet and hopping lightly on one foot. “But no relation.”
He could see plainly now that she was probably in her late twenties, and a bit more attractive than he initially realized. She probably had someone. All the bit more attractive ones usually did.
“I’m Claudia,” she said, looking quizzically upon his hopping.
“Well, I don’t know who all else I would be.”
“No, I meant your last name.”
“I know what you meant. I just don’t know who you are.”
“Thomas Sowell, yes… I know. No relation to an economist.”
“Right. I was just wondering if you needed any help… with the crates, I mean.”
She glanced over her shoulder back toward the mini-van. “Look, I don’t mean to come across as rude, but I don’t know you.”
“You’re not a racist, are you?”
She tilted her head, not unlike Tom Petty had done moments ago. “Uhm… you’re white too.”
“Oh I know,” he said. “I just don’t marry racists.”
She laughed softly. “Look, it was nice meeting you. I guess we’re going to be neighbors.” She looked up at the concrete wall topped by the grassy knoll, and the fence just beyond it. “Well, relatively speaking. But I think I can manage. The crates, I mean. I just wanted to make sure you were okay. You landed kinda hard.”
“I’ll be okay,” he said, extending his hand. She shook it.
“Anyway, I better get back to it. I’m expecting the moving company any minute.” She turned and headed back toward her apartment.
“You didn’t say ‘no’,” he called out to her back.
“Excuse me?” She paused and turned to look at him again.
“To the marriage proposal. You didn’t say ‘no’.”
“Right,” she said. “I’ll get back to you on that. Have a nice rest of the day.” She turned and continued her short trek.
“Okay.” He put a hand up. She didn’t see it.
He tested the ankle with just a touch of weight. The pain shot up into his brain, and he suddenly realized that, other than the wall he couldn’t scale and the fence he could no longer climb, he had no idea where the proper entrance to this complex might be, or how far away it was. The pain subsided for a brief moment by the excitement of her turning back toward him yet again.
“You know,” she said, “you didn’t propose to me.”
“No, you didn’t. You just said you wouldn’t marry a racist.”
“Damn. I thought I had nailed that on originality alone.”
“It was original,” she said.
“I’ll get back to you on that.” He tried to put weight on the tender ankle and scrunched his face up from the shot of agonizing pain. Not wanting to fall again in front of her, he knelt quickly on his good knee and propped himself on both hands.
“Oh, shit,” she said. “You’re really hurt, aren’t you?”
He looked up into her eyes. “I never fake a botched proposal.” He held her gaze and could almost see her thoughts churning behind the hazel-green eyes.
“Is there someone I can call for you?”
“Good idea.” He reached into his pocket, putting more weight upon his propping hand. “I left my phone upstairs.” He rolled over to a sitting position.
“I could call an ambulance.”
“Don’t bother. I’ll manage. You’ve got your work to do.”
“You can’t even walk,” she said. “Let me at least call an Uber or a taxi or something.”
“My wallet is up there, too. I don’t want you to have to pay for anything.”
“Oh, I didn’t intend to.”
They sat and stood in silence in the bright sun of the afternoon, neither knowing what more to say. Every few seconds, he glanced up into her eyes. Again he could tell that she was deep in thought. Finally, she broke the silence.
“Come on, I’ll help you to my van. If I drive you around to your apartment, will you promise me you’ll find a way to the E.R.?”
“I suppose that would be the wise thing to do. Do you always ask for promises from strangers?” He rubbed his swelling ankle as gently as he could. “Or invite them into your van?”
She extended an arm out to him. “Well, I guess for a moment you can be Thomas Sowell, not the economist, instead of a stranger.”
He grunted as she pulled him up and awkwardly allowed him to lean himself upon her, putting one of his arms around her shoulders. “And you’re Claudia… just Claudia.” They hobbled off together toward the van. “You know, I feel this is the closest we’ve been in quite a while.”
“Who are you?” She opened the passenger door for him and helped him into the small dog bed on the seat. “Oh, you’re on the–… nevermind. I don’t wanna ask you to move again.”
The van smelled like a mix of lilac and lavender. That girl-car smell, he thought. He reached a hand to press the eject button on the CD player. “What are we listening to today?” He took the CD as it emerged.
“Hey! Cut it out!” She popped his arm and made him wince from the sting of it. “Oh my God, I’m sorry… I didn’t mean for that to be that hard.”
“Boys II Men? Seriously?”
“What’s wrong with Boys II Men?” She grabbed the CD from him and put it into its case from the center console, her face turning a shade of red.
“Nothing, I guess. I just had you pegged for Taylor… for some reason.”
“James or Swift?” She cranked the van and looked behind her as she backed out.
“Both,” he said. “Either.”
“Yes to one, no to the other.” She shifted into first gear and slowly started through the complex.
“Ah,” he said. “But yes to which? No to which?”
“You figure it out.” She shook her hands with the palms still resting on the steering wheel.
“That could take some time.”
They navigated the apartment complex with no music, and in relative silence. He tried in the meantime to decipher whether it was good or bad that she had had no response to his last comment.
“So where are you moving from?” he asked as they turned onto the public roadway.
“Michigan,” she said. In one block, they were at the entrance of his complex.
“Michigan? What brings you all the way to Alabama?”
“Do you have the gate key-card?”
She let out something between a growl and a sigh, and he tensed at her legitimate impatience.
“Relax,” he said. The keypad code is 4381-asterix.”
“It’s not you,” she said as she punched in the numbers. “It’s just been a long day.” The gate swung slowly open and they rolled through and into the maze of buildings.
“And I’ve added to it,” he said.
“Where are we going? Tell me the turns.”
“Right, at this next turn.”
“No, you haven’t added to it. If anything you’ve been a distraction from it.” She took the turn. “Totally bizarre, but a distraction.”
“The next two rights and then a left. That bad a day? It must be, if all this doesn’t cut it as a low point.”
“Well, Thomas Sowell, it’s not every day a non-economist falls from the sky and breaks his ankle right there in front of you,” she said, following his directions.
“It’s not broken. That’s–… I think it’s probably not broken. There’s a good chance.”
“Nah, if it was broken, you’d know. Believe me, you’d know.”
“You sound like you’re speaking from experience.”
“Oh yes. Yes indeed.”
“This one,” he said. “Pull up right here.”
They parked, and she came around to help him out. He counted himself lucky to again be leaning upon her, his arm draped over her shoulders. They made their way around the back side of the building to his front door, and he leaned on it and stared at her for a few long seconds.
“Well, this is me,” he said. “And that’s you.” He pointed beyond the fence and the drop-off, toward her apartment door.
“Small world,” she said. “So, you’re good now?”
“Yeah, I’m good. Listen, I really appreciate it. Taking the time and all.” A moving truck pulled up in front of her apartment.
“Least I could do, Thomas Sowell.” She turned to wave at the truck. “Hey! Up here!”
“Did we come to the wrong place?” one of the two men emerging from the truck yelled out.
“No! I’ll be over in just a minute!” She turned back to Thomas. “Let me know how everything turns out, will you… with the ankle.”
“Oh, you bet. Hey, you never did tell me what brought you all the way from Michigan, Just Claudia.”
“Weston,” she said. “Claudia Weston. And that could take some time.” She smiled faintly and waved as she began to walk off. He waved back and stood there, leaning on the door, watching her as she walked around the corner.
A handful of seconds turned into a handful of minutes as he watched the white mini-van pull back up in front of its new apartment. He remained propped long enough to watch her interact with the men from the moving company, and eventually disappear through the door, the dog-like thing bouncing at her feet as she entered.
He smiled to himself, despite the pain in his ankle. He turned slowly on his good leg and pushed down on the latch of the door, realizing that he had it set to auto-lock upon closing, and that the keys were on his desk.