NIGHTWALK

By P.H. Wilson

Ann was thinking about her therapy session again.

All through a solitary dinner at Graham's Cafeteria she mulled over the fifty minutes in Dr. Elliott's office. It was a groping, painful time for her, as always, but she felt they were making progress. Dr. Elliott smiled more often and called her Ann now instead of Mrs. Garrison.

She had dreaded the appointments at first. The good doctor spoke very little then, except for a few questions to draw her out. She thought of him as a cliche, puffing on his pipe...a shrink. When she asked a question he often responded with the irritating, "How do you feel about that?" .

Now, after four months of twice weekly visits it seemed that he was loosening up; even starting to advise her a little. She felt that they were finally in complete sync, tackling the unreasoning fears which, together with her unpredictable rages, had rendered her powerless to survive since the divorce.

There was the fear of leaving a stove burner on, so on the way out the door she would return to the kitchen to check it. Walking away, she had to turn to recheck. It was never on.

Afraid that cigarettes were smoldering in the ashtrays at night. Arising, angry with herself, stubbing each one again just to be sure.

And there was the pesky problem of locking the front door. Tricky, because when she put her Maltese cat Ming out and went through the ritual of checking slide bolts and safety locks, Ming would be back mewing to come in again a few minutes later and the process had to be repeated.

Ann was realizing that her nagging fears were symptomatic, like the panic attacks, the racing heart and sweaty palms. Little clues to unresolved conflicts that were important. But the anger was more difficult to control and she needed therapy twice a week to keep her steady.

In time, Dr. Elliott urged her not to stay cooped up in her condo. This was difficult. She had to get dressed and would sit staring out the windows for a while before venturing out. Yet in only a few days she realized that dining out was more satisfying than cooking at home. She always went to the same restaurant, Graham's Cafeteria, across the street from the bank where her ex-husband David worked. The lights in the dining room there were tastefully muted and the walls were mirrored. Sitting across from her own image every evening kept her from feeling so conspicuously lonely. Mealtimes were always depressing.

Not that everyone there wasn't friendly. There were few strangers, mostly just bank employees and a few stray customers in the evening.

With a flush of confidence she gradually increased her outings. Every day, fortified by a martini or two, she would go out now, to the library, to shops, always winding up at the same cafeteria at dinnertime where owners Fred and Shirley Graham gave the place a homey atmosphere. Jimmy, their son, a college student, worked nights as host/cashier. Jimmy seemed especially welcoming tonight. She had missed coming in the evening before, instead hunkering down with Ming in front of the TV with a frozen pizza- for-one.

"Hi, Mrs. Garrison! We missed you last night."

"I wasn't feeling too well," she said smiling. Actually she had had an extra double martini and had fallen asleep on the couch with all the lights on.

Jimmy fiddled with some chocolate mints wrapped in foil at the side of the cash register.

"We've got stuffed peppers tonight," he said brightly. "Really good!"

She nodded, making her way down the cafeteria line. She made a point of checking with Jimmy first to avoid making a choice among all the food displayed behind glass, homestyle food mostly: fried chicken, meatloaf and steel trays of overcooked vegetables. Everything she ate tasted like dust to her anyway but she had to eat.

Shirley Graham was behind the counter portioning out plates of food. She gazed over at Ann in a shrewd, small-town way. Of course, she knew about the messy divorce and how the bank president, David Garrison, within just a few weeks had married Sharon Gaines, a young teller at his bank. Mrs. Graham felt that Sharon dressed too flashily and, as she was quick to tell Ann, her sympathies were always with the first wife. Ann resented the woman's confidences and offered none of her own, yet felt pleasantly martyred.

"New dress, Mrs. Garrison?"

Ann nodded shyly. She had bought it this morning on an impulse. It was tight fitting, but she wanted Dr. Elliott to notice.

"And you've lost more weight." Mrs. Graham was holding up people waiting in line but she was curious. " Have some of this coconut pie. It's homemade."

"Just coffee, Shirley. No dessert tonight."

Jimmy grinned as she slid the tray down to his register. "Mom's always trying to fatten people up. I'd be as big as a blimp if I listened to her." He patted his midsection. He was aware he was not as big as a blimp, Ann knew. Tight-fitting khakis. White shirt over powerful shoulders. White teeth. Just about perfect.

She went to her usual table in the corner across from a large mirror. It was her first meal of the day but she downed the food without noticing the taste, still concentrating on how Dr. Elliott looked at her and what to wear on the next visit to make him see her as a real woman, not just a patient. She chewed stolidly, considering this.

Her reflection showed a pale blond little woman, expertly streaked hair framing her face in a much-studied style. Despite good clothes; she still looked like a bank president's wife. She certainly didn't look like a mental patient. It didn't show at all, she thought.

But David, her mainstay, had been unwilling to even try marriage counseling, telling her lawyers he had to get out, could no longer cope with the rages, her constant need to know his whereabouts. Then too, lately there was something about the way she would stiffen up and narrow her eyes, watching him when he tried to relax with a drink or read the paper. When she thought he was looking, that made him afraid. Funny, because his wife was small and utterly fragile appearing. Hardly a threat.

On the other hand, Sharon, the sleek little teller at the bank, was so safe, so self-sufficient. Ann was sure he was free now to have his weekly poker night, his lodge night and more frequent golf dates. No one waiting up for him with hysterical recriminations. No Ann to bitch at him in night long tirades about his neglect of her. Yes, how free he must feel. But she, Ann, still felt she was a part of him, unfree.

She sighed, draining her second cup of coffee, which was making her jittery. Ready now to go home and watch TV, to take the Xanax.

She had lingered later than usual, it seemed. Everyone was gone except for the porter, cleaning up, and Mr. Graham, who unlocked the door for her. He stood smiling, looking, as Jimmy had said, rather blimpish.

"Shirley's in the car. Need a ride, Mrs. Garrison?"

She repressed a shudder at the idea. But then, everyone offered her rides lately. After she backed the Volvo into a neighbor's mailbox she had decided to give up driving. Combination of Xanax and alcohol. Dr. Elliott didn't know about this little mishap. But for now she walked or caught cabs. Of course, one could never tell about the cab drivers, which is why she always carried a sharp little knife and a dispenser of pepper spray in her Chanel purse.

"Tell Shirley thanks, but it's such a nice night I think I'll walk off my dinner." She waved and smiled, hurrying away. Click, the door locked behind her.

Moving purposefully along, she spied Jimmy across the street, staring into the lighted window of a sporting goods store. She passed him quietly and he didn't turn around, engrossed in a large display of golf clubs. He was probably considered a jock at school.

The golf clubs reminded her of the interminable Sundays when David used to play eighteen holes at the club, sometimes calling her late to meet him at the nineteenth hole. After having waited by the phone all afternoon, she was so angry she drank too much, embarrassing him, begging to go home, away from club members and their predictable wives. Hating herself for wanting to make love in the abandoned way they did when they both had been drinking. David could always reassure her with his body.

"Mrs. Garrison!" The voice startled her and she whirled to find Jimmy standing right behind her.

"Oh, Jimmy! You scared me to death." She raised a little fist in mock anger but something in her expression made him step back. "Don't creep up on people like that!"

"I'm sorry." But he was smiling broadly. Not sorry. His TV model's teeth gleamed under the streetlight. "Didn't mean to scare you."

She stared at him stupidly as he took her arm, falling into step beside her. "I'm goin' bowling at Tri-Lanes later, but I'll walk you home first if you want. A lot of women have been attacked around her lately. What happened to your Volvo?"

"It's in the shop." His statement both frightened and enraged her. She remembers vaguely hearing something recently on the news about attacks on local women.

"Still living at the same place?"

She nodded, wondering how he knew where she lived. Things were taking a strange turn.

"Jimmy, don't bother. You must be tired after work."

He shook his head, watching her closely. She had never noticed before how unwavering his attention was.

"I'm not tired, really. It's spring vacation and I'm as free as a bird."

She plodded on, self-conscious about walking at night down the main street with him. Everyone knew her. What would people think seeing her walking in the dark with Jimmy? Her routine never varied. She never walked with people.

When they passed the bowling alley she paused again. "I'm just fine, really. It's not that far. Go ahead and meet your friends." She knew he was popular, had seen the young people, mostly girls, clustered around the cash register.

"Oh, I'm not in any hurry. Itís Monday night - a real dead night."

A real dead night. The expression chilled her. They were all dead nights for her lately. And she couldn't remember the details about the women who were attacked. She unsnapped her purse, furtively feeling inside for the pepper spray. Her fingers closed over it and she felt better.

Ridiculous. Time to take the Xanax.

Jimmy persisted. "C'mon, I wouldn't feel right about you walking alone."

They began to move again, slowly. She couldn't think of a thing to say to him. A boy his age. But Jimmy seemed content to walk along quietly, humming a little, watching each car as it passed. Her heart was starting to race. Maybe she should come right out and ask him if the women had been beaten up or raped. No, she wouldn't ask him that.

The streets were so familiar; she knew every crack in the sidewalk. She walked home often, without incident. Once David had walked with her, trying to discuss the alimony and divorce settlement, begging her for a change not to demand so much. When she refused to relent he fell silent, sulking or perhaps involved in thoughts of his own and Sharon's world. He had never called her again. The memory gave her a momentary twinge of anger.

"Do you miss being married, Mrs. Garrison?"

It was if he had read her mind. An impertinent, un-Jimmy-like question.

"Don't be silly!" she snapped.

"Sorry...thought you might want to talk about it."

"Well, I don't!"

He went on anyway. "How long has it been now, I mean, since you guys split up?"

"Almost a year....please."

"But they were fooling around long before that, weren't they? I knew about that Sharon before you did, I bet. Used to see them getting into his BMW on the parking lot. What a bimbo she is. Good-looking though."

An awkward silence. He was young; didn't realize he was being too familiar, and cruel. All the same, she decided not to go back to the restaurant again.

Turning the corner, they moved together a bit and she noticed he smelled like the restaurant. The odor of fried chicken, of coffee, had permeated his hair and clothing. Her heart lurched again. Anxiety reaction. Nothing to worry about. And Jimmy was harmless...

"How about you, Mrs. Garrison?"

"Me?" she screeched.

He put his fingers to his lips, shushing her, and whispered, "Yeah, I mean, do you have a boyfriend?"

The question was menacing in its softness. She couldn't answer. It was too much. In her panic she wanted to break away and run. She did quicken her step, but stumbled on a broken part of the sidewalk.

He grabbed her arm, his hand grazing the side of her breast.

"Whoa! Easy does it! Are you all right?"

She nodded numbly. His grasp tightened, perhaps just to support her but she didn't think so now. He was up to something. Soon he would make another move, maybe put his arm around her waist. A little thrill of fear piqued her. It was always these beautiful ones, these too-perfect ones, that turned out to be dangerous. Like Ted Bundy. Ingratiating, able to manipulate their victims; pretending to be nice guys, then seeking their victims out in the night as they walked home from the cafeteria alone. She had been careless, too preoccupied with her own problems to really heed those news reports. If she survived this night, there would be extra locks installed on her doors and all her meals would be taken at home.

Jimmy's walk seemed stealthy, cat-like, beside her. There was very little light on this side street. She prayed for a car to pass so she could flag it down. Didn't care how funny it might look. Jimmy's grip didn't loosen on her arm and she wondered when he would push her into one of the black alleys that welled up on either side of them, holding a knife to her throat, pressing her against a wall.

No, Jimmy's pants were too tight to hide a knife. He wouldn't need it anyway; he could easily overpower her. He must have sized her up for a long time as she stood in the cafeteria line, observing her indecisiveness, her need to hover close to David. Then lately, without David, she had checked with him, Jimmy, every night. Allowed him to choose what she put in her mouth. He knew she would be incapable of putting up much of a fight.

And there would be no point in resisting. A male's strength was something she craved and, perversely, enjoyed giving in to. He would not kill her, this Jimmy. No, he was wearing a white shirt, he had no knife.

He had zeroed in on her vulnerability, mistaking her dependence on him for something seductive, and for a boy his age there would be the curiosity about how an older woman would react to him sexually. Even David used to call Jimmy a real ladiesí man.

Ann wanted to live. She would give in. Jimmy would lead her manfully behind some bushes and put his hands on her, sensing she was too frightened to cry out. The familiar smell of the restaurant would be strong on him. Hewould bend down to her, his mouth slightly open, strong teeth bruising her lips and then, smiling in a superior way, would pull her onto the grass and she would be lost - lost.

"Here we are." he said.

Ann, unable to meet his steady gaze lowered her eyes. Waiting.

Nothing happened. Jimmy just stood there.

She looked around and realized that they were standing in front of her condominium. Jimmy was staring toward the entrance. "Quite a place. Someday I want to live somewhere like this, be a bank president or something like your husband. Maybe we can be neighbors."

She stared at him, uncomprehending.

He shifted his weight, growing restless. "Want me to wait until you unlock the door?"

She shook her head, unable to speak.

"You sure now?" But he was already turning, impatient, wanting to be bowling, away from her. He didn't see her reach out for him.

"Okay then, see you tomorrow, Mrs. Garrison. Same time, same place."

She watched him stride down the street. Still unbelieving, she counted the streetlights as he passed beneath them.

Two...three...four...he was almost gone.

How strange she felt, how bereft.

Dr. Elliott. She would call Dr. Elliott in the morning. Tell him the Xanax wasn't working. She needed something stronger, something to make her feel more secure.

She remained standing there, her jaw tightening as she saw Jimmy way down the street, almost to the corner. From this distance he looked very small. Soon he would turn the corner and be gone. Jimmy. so sure of himself, playing games, upsetting her and then stalking off with a smirk on his face. She had realized on the walk home that Jimmy was a bit of a gossip. He had seen the need on her face even if he had rejected it. It wouldn't take much, a discreetly whispered remark to his lunchtime customers from the bank, and in the small town word would spread. Not only that...

David and Sharon would have a secret laugh about her encounter with a teenaged boy.

She reached into her purse for her keys but grabbed the can of pepper spray. She paused, remembering, reaching further to feel the little knife. She took it out, narrowing her eyes in concentration as she opened it, carefully testing the sharpness against her thumb. The old familiar hatred washed over her, heating her as she moved with sudden purpose back down the street.