“Please don’t sit on the cannons,” said the hunchback. “There’s a sign.” Then his face turned the color of the geraniums outside the library doors. Sandy felt sorry for him, and got down from her cannon.
It was the middle of the summer. In cities, people were spreading out cloths on their roofs and claiming barbecue time on the public grills; air-conditioned museums were packed with tourists every day, and free movies were showing in the park. In Tunkhannock, the sound and smell of lawn mowers weighted the air. Mornings, people got in their cars and drove off to Scranton, or settled down behind the counter at the antique store, the bakeryor the Prince Hotel. Everyone was sick of hearing about the heat.
Sandy, whose real name was Simone, came to Tunkhannock every summer. She lived in a low white house, up a steep hill from the main road, with her aunt Eliza — a former chorus girl. Eliza had danced the whole length of the East Coast; now she made muffins that sold at Gable’s bakery for two dollars each. She could never believe anyone would pay that much. Every morning Sandy brought the box of muffins down the hill to the bakery, pushing the door open with one knee. Then she waved to Eliza from across the road and went to sit in front of the library until it opened. The cannons would get so hot in the sun that they burned the inside of her thighs. But no one else wanted to sit on them, so Sandy didn’t mind. She propped a paperback book on the cannon’s mouth and leaned over it, and if she sat still enough she could imagine no one noticed her.
She had seen the hunchback before, cleaning the library steps. He always looked at her and she always stared him down. His glances were quick and periodic, like small waves; she had thought they were friendly. But he had been screwing his courage up to ask her to get off. Sprawling self-consciously in the grass beside the cannons, she wondered how long ago he had decided to speak to her. Three days? A week? The hunchback sponged his face with a pink cloth every time he finished a step. There were flecks of white on his cheeks, as if he always had shaving cuts to heal. Sandy liked him better than anyone else she had seen in Tunkhannock.
When he had finished the last step and gone back inside, she slid up the cannon again.
At six in the evening the hunchback, whose name was Richard Merville, began to walk back to his car. The sun had baked furry caterpillars out of the tree trunks, and they lay curled in balls on the ground. He thought he could smell them dying, just as he smelled the worms that seeped out of rainy soil.
Still several feet away, he saw three boys perched like crows on the hood of his car. They swung their legs back and forth, making the metal creak. He took out his keys and deliberately unlocked the front door.
“This your car, mister?” The smallest boy, with a half-chewed plastic straw between his lips, jumped down from the hood.
“Yes. Yes, it is.”
“You mind us sitting on it?”
“Not a bit.” Merville stared at the boys, and the boys stared back at Merville. “But I’m driving home now.”
“Where’s home?” Now the biggest one was down, though he kept a proprietary index finger tracing patterns on the windshield dust.
“Does your bed go down in the middle for your hump?” asked the shortest boy — seriously, Merville thought, although his brothers began to laugh.
“No,” said Merville. He got in and started the engine. The last of the boys slid off the hood, and they stared after him as he drove away.
On Friday afternoons at the public library, the head librarian showed a movie on an ancient projector. Her name was Miss Carlson; she wore shiny expensive heels and farted silently as she walked up and down the aisles with her book cart. Ten years ago she had dripped with sarcasm, but now she was all dried up. Sandy had seen most of the movies already, but she came anyway; the central hall of the library was quiet and cool. Hidden among rows of still-faced Tunkhannock grade-schoolers, with eyes shallow as mirrors, Sandy twisted her head to see Mr. Merville dusting the shelves. He never seemed to know the kids were there.
When the last frame had melted, leaving a puddle of light on the screen, Miss Carlson made shooing motions with her hands.
“The library is now closing,” she said. “Go home.” The first three rows filed towards the screen door. Sandy dropped behind.
“Are you going home now too?” she asked Mr. Merville, pausing beneath his stepladder. She didn’t think it out, but she realized later that it had been kind of her to pick a moment when he could bend down to her.
“Pretty soon,” he said.
“Do you live near here?”
“Not too far. By the highway.”
“That’s nice. I see you in the morning sometimes.”
“Yeah. You buy my aunt Eliza’s muffins.”
Merville stretched up to get the corner of the shelf. “She used to dance on the fourth of July. In the high school auditorium.”
“She used to dance in New York.”
“Never saw her there.”
Sandy nodded. The hall was empty now, though she had felt eyes on the back of her neck. “I’d better go. So long.”
She didn’t turn around to see the books on the top shelf beginning to slide off, and Merville cumbrously climbing down to pick them up. She had distracted him; his arm had slipped. Books are slick and tricky things, with dust the color of drying blood.
How long was it before Merville found himself at the foot of the steep hill, hearing the howl of a smoke alarm? When he thought of it afterwards it seemed like hours, but it might have been days, or even weeks. He had left work and was walking to the laundromat, where he would buy a bag of red licorice bits and eat it in front of the dryer.
The smoke alarm could be heard faintly a street away; at the bottom of the hill, it was impossible to ignore. Merville hesitated. He leaned his elbows on the handle of the wheeled suitcase that held his laundry. Across the street, someone gave him a suspicious look.
At last he grasped the handle and started up the hill. There was a smooth concrete driveway to walk on; the air smelled of cats and basil. The climb made him pant, but it didn’t take long. He bumped his suitcase over the dirt path to the door. Here, the alarm was so loud it made his face hurt. He knocked sharply, without expecting an answer, and pushed open the door.
He saw Sandy surrounded with scraps of pie dough, her arms covered in flour.
“Hey,” she said, smiling widely. He didn’t think he could talk loudly enough for her to hear. He tugged his ear, and made a confused, exaggerated shrug.
“It’s the smoke alarm,” said Sandy. Merville pointed to the top of the stairs, and she nodded. He led her toward them — trying not to think, as he walked, of Sandy’s eyes on his limp. At the foot of the stairs, the alarm reached a pitch so intense that one had to forget one was hearing it, though it filled up the brain. Merville grasped the banister. Sandy touched his hand and said something there was no chance of hearing. They climbed the stairs. The alarm, a tear-shaped white box, hung several feet over Sandy’s head. Merville looked up at her and gestured towards it.
Her lips moved. She ran down the hall and came back dragging a wooden desk chair. Looking at Merville, she climbed up on it and screwed the alarm from its place on the wall. She handed him the shrieking box, sat down on the chair and watched him find the battery compartment. Merville removed the battery. The wails became beeps, then lopsided whispers, and stopped at last.
“Thanks a lot,” said Sandy, into the new silence. “I guess it was pretty annoying.”
“When it does that it means your battery has to be changed.” Merville handed her the alarm, a red wire and a yellow dangling at the top. “Your aunt will know how.”
Sandy nodded. They started down the stairs. Once or twice he thought she would offer help, but he was glad that she didn’t. Her hair fell out of its braid in long pieces, and they bobbed on her cheek with each step.
In the kitchen, she got him a glass of water; he was puffing despite himself. She moved around the kitchen quickly and clumsily, scraping the corner of the table whenever she passed it. He thought she must have bruises on her hips. “What kind of pie were you making?” he asked.
“Cherry. You can have some if you wait for it to bake.”
“How long will it take?”
“Not long. Another ten minutes. Or I could get you something else.”
“I can wait. If you don’t mind.”
“Not at all.”
She talked to him conscientiously while they waited. He had worked at the library for two years — his first job. She herself was from New York. She stayed with her aunt in the summertime, learning to bake. When she ran out of subjects, she turned on the radio. Merville drained his glass of water, and watched her dance in her chair. He wasn’t sure whether or not she meant him to look.
When Sandy took the pie out, the top was tawny and there was cherry bubbling from the holes. It reminded Merville of a day when he had walked in the woods, and found a spring coming out through a rusted pipe in a rock. There were forget-me-nots growing around the spring, and a deep watery smell. The cherries and the water twined together in his mind — red and blue, steaming and cold. He and Sandy waited, silently, for the pie to cool.
“Here you are,” said Sandy, too soon; he could tell it still burned her fingers. She cut the pie in half, and slid the left half onto a blue plate.
“You don’t have to give me all that.”
“It’s fine. Eliza and I won’t be able to finish, it’ll just go to waste.”
“Well, thanks. I appreciate it.”
“No problem. Thank you.” She put a sheet of saran wrap over the pie. “Sorry you had to wait so long.” Merville shook his head. “Well, goodbye.”
“‘Bye. See you around.”
He sat in the laundromat with the warm plate on his knees, watching the spinning machine.
In the heat of August, the library got more crowded. Sandy moved from the cannons and the lawn to a window seat in the children’s room. She smiled at Merville when she caught his eye. He had given her the plate back, clean.
One day Miss Carlson left a letter from the Board on the door of Merville’s closet. At the end of next month they wanted to hire another janitor. They thought the work was too much for one person. Leaning on the door frame, Merville knew it would appear, within a month or two, that the work was not too much for one person who didn’t drop books, one person who could bend down and straighten up again in less than ten seconds. But there was no reason to get mad. He said nothing about the letter to Miss Carlson, and she said nothing to him.
Merville didn’t go into work the day after, nor the day after that. He sat at home and whittled a small square box. The passing cars rattled his windows, and he watched the birds flying over the cars. On the third day, he went back in and got out a rag to polish the brass banisters.
“Where have you been?” asked Miss Carlson. Fluorescent light gleamed from her shoes and glanced off his eyes.
“I was sick,” said Merville.
“Why didn’t you call?”
“I don’t have a phone.”
“Did you get the letter I left on your door?”
“I did get it, yes.”
“They found someone more quickly than expected. He’ll be starting Monday.”
He rubbed his cheek. “Are you firing me, or not?”
“Well, you hadn’t been to work in three days. I didn’t know what was going on.”
“It was two,” said Merville. Miss Carlson looked down at the rug.
“We’ll see how it goes,” she said. Merville could tell she was afraid of him.
“Don’t bother. I’ll just quit.”
Already she was walking away.
He spent the day vacuuming carefully, dusting carefully. He saw a bird crap on the right-hand cannon, but didn’t clean it off. Kids talked loudly and ran between the three computer screens. He looked for Sandy, but she didn’t seem to have come that day. At six o’clock he folded up his rags and piled them on the shelf. He laid down a new bottle of polish beside them, and a couple of empty vacuum cleaner bags. The broom was standing upright in the corner; the stepladder was folded up and put away.
“A hunchback,” he imagined Miss Carlson saying to the Board. “Unstable.” He went to the main desk for some scrap paper and a permanent marker, and sat down at one of the wooden tables. “Don’t let kids sit on the cannons.” He folded the note in half and taped it onto the closet shelf. Then he walked out to his car and slammed the door.
The new janitor was an enormous man who wore blue T-shirts. He liked to be with kids. His first week he whirled around the library so quickly that his arms and legs seemed to extend to each corner, like a spider’s. He joked respectfully with Miss Carlson, who would laugh and touch her hair. If he saw people sitting on the cannons, he caught their eyes and jerked his head, and they got down. Sandy sat on her window seat and read. When he smiled at her, she pretended not to see.
One night near the end of the summer, Sandy’s aunt Eliza made soup with pasta and tomatoes from the garden. They ate before the window in the kitchen, staring out at the road. Sandy put her spoon down carefully on the table, and stood up.
“I’m going out,” she said.
“Where?” asked Eliza.
“I want to see Mr. Merville.”
“I have to give him something.” Sandy and Eliza looked at each other unhappily. Eliza was tired and fat, and Sandy was sunburned.
“Fine, go. Be back soon.”
She walked out in the silent road. In the windows, people had lit electric candles, or closed the white shutters so that no sound came through. Sandy walked with her head to the left, staring at yards. She heard the ring of a dog’s chain and the traffic on the highway. She walked on.
When she got to the highway, she stood at the top of the hill by the ramp, watching cars. She felt stunned, as though she had lost something she expected to find. The lives rushing by before her and the lives behind, going on in windows and doors, stretched away from the hill like the sides of a soap bubble.
On the way back she saw two kids playing basketball in the dark. She saw a man and a woman arguing inside their car, and she saw the blue light of a TV reflected on a brick wall. She had a feeling he would be sitting out in his yard, doing a crossword puzzle by the light from his open door. She walked with her head to the right, but no one was there.
In the kitchen, Eliza was drinking tea.
“Where does Mr. Merville live?” Sandy asked.
“Go to bed, Simone,” said Eliza. It was the first time since her arrival at Tunkhannock that anyone had called Sandy by her real name.
Asleep, Merville dreamed about rivers flowing to other places. Sometimes he could smell the water or hear it, but most of the time he only felt it, rushing over his hands and neck. At the end of a dream he might taste it, or else he might drown. Most mornings he couldn’t remember which had happened.
He was not asleep when Sandy came to the bank of the highway. He watched her out his small kitchen window. Was she hitching a ride somewhere, or just taking a walk? How still she stood! He wondered if he should open the window and call her over, or if she would be scared. The thick smell of cherries returned to him, blanketing his lips. Probably better not. He opened his book again and leaned his elbows on the table. But he looked up at every page to see her, until once he looked up and she was gone.