The Terms of Agreement

By Patrick J. Murphy

Featured art: Untitled by Sue-Yeon Ryu

It was getting late and her grandson Buddy wasn’t back, so Vera decided to brave the heat and go with Alicia to find him. She’d wanted to talk to her daughter in private, anyway, but when she stepped outside, though the sun was low, the light still bounced with a glaring intensity off the pale houses, the plastered walls. Vera felt her skin growing damp, the small shock as the heat hit her body. It just took time to adapt to a Florida retirement, she thought, and remembered Little Rock and the parks along the river, the evening fireflies above deep grass.

It irritated her that Alicia, walking placidly beside her, didn’t seem to mind the climate, or much of anything else. Her daughter was overweight and wore long, black, wrinkled cotton dresses. Her left ear was pierced in five places, and she sometimes wore a silver ring through her right eyebrow. She was making a statement, she said, and didn’t care what anyone thought.

“Then why bother making a statement?” Vera asked once, only to meet with an uncomprehending stare.

            They walked down the sidewalk past the nearly identical white houses with freshly sodded lawns. There were four basic models, two with a small garage for golf carts added on, a whimsical idea she’d pointed out to Alicia, who seemed amused by it, but her grandson merely complained that the streets and yards were empty, that he wasn’t allowed in the recreation center or on the golf course, and that there wasn’t anyone around to play with.

            “That’s because you’re not supposed to be here,” she’d said to him once, and Alicia had stopped talking to her for days.

            For two months, now, Vera had been polite and understanding, and it couldn’t go on like that. Her husband, Anson, was getting upset and Brevart Johnson, head of the Homeowner’s Association, had sent them certified letters reminding them about the rules concerning guests. It was time her daughter realized that something must be done, that she couldn’t take advantage of others forever.

            They turned at the end of the street and headed for the river. Every three houses, a small palm tree grew, a brief pennant of fronds nailed to the top of a shoulder-high trunk looking like concrete. In the distance, beyond two still-empty lots, a couple dressed alike in beige shorts and green tee shirts and white ball caps stepped from their golf cart and picked their way across the grass to the green.

            Golf was a game she never played, one that seemed nearly impossible considering the glare and the heat, but she thought Buddy might be out there, stomping balls into the turf with the heel of his tennis shoe. She’d caught him at it once, but never told her husband. There were many things Anson couldn’t stand and trifling with golf was one of them.

            What little breeze there had been died and the sun beat down. Just ahead, a small pot-bellied man dressed in shorts stood in his front yard, his bare chest wet, his skinny legs braced, a garden hose in one hand and a drink in the other.

                 “Oh, God,” Vera said. She thought for a moment of crossing the street, but he raised his glass above his balding head and waved at them.

            She’d met Stu four months ago, just after moving in. He’d stood on their step and presented them with a wicker basket filled with fruit. “Just an excuse to check you out,” he’d said jokingly. “Make sure you’re old enough to be here.” Only those over fifty-five were allowed into the community, but Stu was certain some younger people were somehow slipping in, falsifying records, getting older relatives to sign the papers. “You have to be careful,” he said. “You’ve got to keep your standards up.”

            Since then, he’d dropped by often, inviting them to serve pancakes at the monthly breakfast or participate in the spring talent show. She could easily be in the chorus line, he said with a broad smile. Vera imagined herself on the small stage, one of a series of old women high-kicking in tights and sequins, and was horrified.

            Now, she watched him scratch a surprisingly hairy chest with his thumb. The water fell from the hose next to a small unhealthy plant at the center of a mulched circle.

            “It’s a mimosa,” Stu said.

            “It is?” Vera asked before she could stop herself.

            Stu seemed a bit offended. “The heat, you know. Summers are tough.”

            Some more than others, Vera thought. “You’ve met my daughter,” she said and drew Alicia closer.

            Stu smiled and nodded and raised both filled hands. “Warm today,” he said.

            Vera agreed, but he spoke to Alicia. “You’ve been with us for a while, now, haven’t you?”

            “No,” Vera said. “Actually, she’s been with me.”

            Stu seemed puzzled for a moment.

            “You haven’t seen my son, have you?” Alicia asked.

            “Your son?” Stu turned, as if the boy might be sneaking up behind him.

            “I just can’t keep track of that kid. Too much energy in too small a package.” Alicia smiled and flapped one hand helplessly.

            Vera wanted to throttle her. “We’ve got to be going,” she said and grabbed Alicia’s arm. “It was nice talking to you.”

            Alicia moved at her own speed, refusing to be hurried. “If you see Buddy,” she called behind her, “tell him to go straight home.”

            “You shouldn’t have called it that,” Vera said quietly, when they were far enough away. “It isn’t home. You know it’s not.”

            “I don’t see what you’re so upset about.”

            “Because you can’t stay here. Because you don’t seem to be doing anything about that.”

            Alicia’s face grew solemn, the pale mouth turning down, the eyes tightening. “We’ve been all through this.”

            Vera waited for more. There had to be more. No reasonable person would just leave it at that. “And?” she asked finally.

            “And,” Alicia drew the word out, “do you know we’re being followed?”

            It took Vera a few seconds to realize the topic had changed. It was just like the girl to do that, she thought, then looked behind her. She expected to see Stu, waving his drink, having thought of something else to say, but instead there was a tall, thin, white-haired man in a pleated shirt and long brown pants. The man stopped when she did. His head jutted forward. His white hair hung across his eyes. They stared at each other for a moment, then Vera turned back and continued walking.

            “He isn’t following us.”

            Alicia smiled knowingly. “He’s been behind us since we left the house.”

            Vera wanted to hurry, but Alicia held her back.

            “You have to be mistaken.”

            Alicia laughed and her smile seemed straight out of childhood. “If you ever went out now and then, you’d have seen him before. But no, you hide in your perfect house. It’s too hot. It’s too sunny.”

            Vera didn’t know how to respond. “It isn’t a perfect house,” she said finally, “and I want you out of it, in any case.” Gone, she thought. The rooms empty again, but for Anson collapsed in the recliner. She was tired of putting up with her daughter, with her grandson. All she wanted was cool and quiet and her life the way it should have been and never was.

            “And just where do you want us to go?”

            Out. Away.

            “It’s not like that asshole left us anything.”

            Alicia and her husband Eric had had a history of trouble and this time he’d taken off for good. Or so Alicia claimed. And it was only what Alicia had expected all along. All he’d ever given her, she said, was a paycheck, never a real commitment. Her life was nothing but emptiness, and his leaving didn’t matter a damn, because someone who could just pick up like that she didn’t want hanging around her, anyway.

            “At least Dad sent you child support,” she said.

            Here it comes again, Vera thought. Everything would have been so much better if her parents had just stayed together. She’d had a ruined childhood. She never learned to trust. And so on and so on.

            Every time they talked, every time something difficult had to be decided, it turned out it wasn’t Alicia’s fault at all and now, in recompense for Vera’s first marriage failing, the world had an obligation to provide for her daughter, to satisfy her every need.

            “It’s your life I’m talking about,” she said.

            Alicia stopped. “Talking? You never want to talk about anything.”

            Vera looked behind her. The old man still followed. He loped, lifting his knees, as if struggling through high grass. Vera stopped and then took a few steps toward him. He backed up. “Why don’t you leave us the hell alone?” she screamed. “Go away!”

            The man seemed puzzled and Vera realized suddenly that she hated what her life had become. She turned and put her head down, looking only at the sidewalk as it slipped by in front of her. The silence grew.

            “There’s no reason to be like that,” Alicia said finally. “No reason at all. You always get so upset. It’s one of the things I’ve never learned to live with, not really. It’s one of the reasons why I left when I did. I kept wondering if it was all my fault. I internalized everything.”

            “You did?” Vera asked, nearly amused. She remembered Alicia’s childhood as one where nothing seemed to sink in.

            They followed the road out through the back, past the gate house. The guard was a young man named Boyd and hardly looked at them, merely nodding as they passed. They left the road and walked away from the wall enclosing the community and down a partially mown slope. A path beaten into the pale sand led along the river. They followed it and came to a small, weathered dock with sprung boards and canted pilings. After that, there were only reeds, brown, green near the tip, and minnows darting through the yellow shallows.

            Further out, the St. John’s was broad and gray in the early evening dimness. White caps moved brightly across its surface. On the far bank, the docks and shipyards were still visible, with their cranes like skeletal horses, and beyond them the twin brown hourglass towers of the Blount Island Nuclear Reactor.

            The NRC had shut it down two years ago, but everything, Vera had heard, was fine now. Soon, the plant would go back online and, every once in a while, she imagined the turbines whirring into life, a cold green glow pulsing ever stronger in water-filled crypts. Whenever she thought about hurricanes, she imagined the wind and the black rain lashing against the towers, lightning forking into the concrete. Her husband, Anson, of course, merely smiled. “Our deaths,” he said, “will be so much less dramatic.”

            She felt the countless gallons rushing by, the deep submerged mass of the river. She looked along the bank, wanting to see Buddy playing near the water, floating leaves like tiny ships, or skipping stones.

            “Where do you think he is?” she asked finally.

            “That boy could be anywhere.”

            With so much space, it seemed silly to call, but Vera did it anyway. “Buddy!” she shouted in each direction. The sound seemed to vanish, less noticeable than the cries of the gulls gliding just above the water.

            The old man was still there, waiting for them when they returned. He stood by the gate house and talked with Boyd until they passed, then fell in behind. His expression seemed serious, concentrated, and Vera wondered if she should be afraid.

            They turned and as they walked the streetlights buzzed and flickered into life, making it seem darker. Though Buddy had been warned never to play there, they checked the rec. center, anyway.

            It was a relief to get in out of the heat. The center seemed deserted and smelled of paint. In two days, Vera knew, there was another evening social planned, where a few of the men would cook hot dogs on the grills and a few of the women dressed in aprons would giggle and hand out paper plates and plastic utensils. Then they’d all break into small groups for quilting class or the next installment on the never-ending bridge tournament. Everyone was expected to volunteer to serve at such functions, but she’d put it off, risking being considered a bad neighbor.

            They passed the empty ping-pong room and the TV room and the small library. Through the large glass windows, they saw the pool. There were lines painted on the bottom, dividing it into lanes, as if races were a common occurrence. The water gleamed, rippled only by filtration.

            When they came out, it seemed suddenly darker, but the old man had vanished. Blue haze drifted between the houses and, beyond them, on the golf course, rainbird sprinklers shot dark water against a purple sky.

            “He’s already home,” Vera said, meaning Buddy and thinking he wouldn’t be.

            “You’re probably right,” Alicia said.

            “You really should keep a tighter rein on that boy.” Vera didn’t want to cause trouble, but had to say it. A streetlight etched deep shadows under Alicia’s eyes and in the creases to each side of her mouth. “I’ll raise my child as I see fit, thank you very much.”

            “Well, you should do it somewhere else.”

            Vera’s feet hurt and her hips ached. She wanted to get home, and was thinking only of that when she saw the flashing yellow light of the golf cart patrol coming out of the darkness, heading toward them.

            Every evening at dinner time, when many of the residents went out to eat and the houses stood empty, two volunteers drove around the complex, through the back yards and across the greens, checking that everything seemed okay. Anson had already tried to talk Vera into giving it a shot and she supposed that, sooner or later, she’d be in the passenger seat, bouncing along next to her husband’s hefty body. Now, she saw that the volunteers were Mr. and Mrs. Brevart Johnson.

            “Of course,” Vera said quietly.

            The golf cart pulled to a stop in front of them and Brevart climbed out. He wore his customary green blazer and white knit shirt and held some papers in his hand. His wife waved greetings.

            “Nice evening,” she said from the cart.

            Vera waved back, but felt Alicia stiffen beside her.

            “Did you find him?” Brevart asked. He had a broad, expressive face and now he seemed concerned. He turned to Alicia. “Stu told me you lost your son.”

            “I’m sure he’s around,” Alicia said.

            “I am, too.” Brevart’s voice was heavy with secondary meanings. He held up the paper in his hand. “I stopped by the office to get this.” He was talking now to Vera. “You know what it is?”

            She knew, of course. “I haven’t the faintest idea.”

            “It’s the Homeowner’s Association Contract. According to the terms of the agreement . . .”

            Vera wasn’t going to listen to it all again. She walked deliberately around him and past his seated wife. Brevart stopped talking, then shouted, “Hey!” She kept walking and a few seconds later, Alicia ran to join her. For fifty feet they were alone, hurrying down the sidewalk, then the golf cart was on the road beside them.

            “You can’t just run away,” Brevart shouted, driving but still waving the papers.

            “Sure I can.” Vera smiled at him pleasantly and suddenly realized she actually could.

            “A contract is a contract!”

            Vera reached out and grabbed her daughter’s hand and it was as if thirty years had vanished. They both kept walking. Brevart continued to talk about the various legal actions that could be taken. Permission to use the golf course and the recreation center could be revoked. Fines could be levied, liens placed against their property.

            She saw her house just ahead. Anson had come outside and stood in the front yard. Beside him, Buddy’s thin, gangling form leaped and bounced and waved its hands.

            “You see what I’m talking about?” Brevart shouted. “You see?”

            As they got closer, Vera suddenly noticed Stu at the T-intersection, about to join them and, beyond him, the strange old man with the high-stepping lope.

            Doors opened as they passed and neighbors stepped hesitantly out into their yards. In the distance, Vera saw the flashing red and blue lights of the community security service. She felt distant from it all, secretly amazed. None of this, she thought, had anything to do with her. She could just as easily be in a small apartment back in Arkansas. There was nothing stopping her. Nothing, really. She pictured them all together, herself and her daughter and her grandson, wrapped in the peace, the cool Arkansas night falling softly around them.

            “Where the hell have you been?” Anson yelled. Brevart climbed from the cart. Stu stood near him, waiting.

            “Out for a walk,” she said and, as if seen from high above, she imagined the neighbors closing in around them. “You don’t have to worry,” she said. “We’ll be leaving. Tomorrow if we can manage it.” She looked at Anson, his bewildered expression, and felt only joy as Buddy ran toward her.

Patrick J. Murphy has been the lead Electronic Technician aboard the U.S.S. Alacrity, an ocean-going minesweeper (USN), an intern pastor for the Presbyterian Church, spent two years as a theological student in Heidelberg Germany, an adjunct professor for the University of Texas and Florida State University teaching English, an electronics engineer in charge of the NASA Standards Laboratory at the Ames Research Center and a forensic toxicologist for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

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