by Elle Cyre
A man encounters his secret crush.
“Maybe I should get a dog.”
The man, seated alone on a park bench, twisted his mouth and nose.
“But they’re so energetic and--and messy.”
The eyes blinked behind the thick glasses and dark brows. After a few minutes, he straightened and ran long fingers through his black hair.
“What’s the use? She wouldn’t notice.”
Rising, he turned up his coat collar and thrust pale hands into his pockets. The long black garment extenuated his gaunt frame as did his high-watered gray pants. The crisp fall wind stirred the fallen leaves at the sides of the trail and rustled the orange canopy above his head. A single leaf fluttered by, swayed back and forth, and twirled to the ground.
He shivered involuntarily as the breeze chilled his ears. His thoughts drifted to the corner coffee shop where he worked. She came in twice a week, a sweet-faced redhead with green, cat-eyed glasses. He didn’t know her name, but she always greeted him by name when he served her. Then again she did the same to his coworkers and he always caught the quick glance of her blue-green eyes at his name-tag as she said "Thank you, Roger.”
Every Wednesday and Friday. Today was the latter which meant that he wouldn’t see her for another four days, unless she happened to walk her dog down this trail again. Last Thursday, while on break, he happened to glance up at she passed by with a cream-colored corgi trotting beside her.
Roger lifted his eyes down the path to his right, toward 2nd Ave. He imagined her walking towards him as she had looked that day, enshrined in the glow of sunshine, her bouncy curls matching the aura of the autumn leaves. She’d be wearing her little green stocking hat with the fuzzy ball on top, her khaki coat with the belt about the waist and the finger-less gloves that were always half-hidden in her sleeves. Or maybe her slim hands would be wrapped around a coffee mug, hugging it for warmth.
A sigh sagged his chest and he twisted his wrist to check the time. Five-thirty; he had been here two hours without a sign of her. He shrugged.
“She’s probably at work right now.”
He strolled along the leaf-strewn path, head down and hands in pockets, feet crunching the creamy gravel.
"Would she recognize you without your name-tag and uniform?"
He slipped a finger out to readjust his glasses before tucking it back into his warm pocket.
"Besides, she’s a dog person." He grinned at recollection of his earlier idea. Then the frown returned to his brow; so far he lacked the courage to interrupt her morning routine with any casual chatter.
Roger crossed a beam of sunlight. The shadows danced and swayed on the path before his feet and he kicked at a passing leaf. He exhaled again and lifted his head. Nature’s beauty surrounded him on all sides, the red, purple, yellow and orange trees mingling with the dark greens and lighter shade of the lawn. A squirrel darted among the leaves, shuffled them, buried its nose and bounced away to a tree trunk. Birds fluttered about and pecked at the red berries that clung to the low bushes. Already he felt better.
Turning the corner underneath the golden maples, Roger stopped short. In the nook of the pathway, beneath a trellis with a red vine laced through it, sat his idol. Her brown boots with creamy fur tops lay crossed over each other on one side of the metal bench, her slim frame settled back against the other arm rail, her nose buried in a book. The little corgi lay under the bench, eyes and tongue rolling, and barked a sharp warning.
The eyes didn’t lift from the pages but Roger froze, blinking, drinking in the sight of her. She wore the khaki coat but not the green hat, instead blue mufflers keeping her ears warm against the wind. They also served as a headband to contain the mess of kinky, carrot-red curls that lay against her collar.
The dog barked again and scrambled to his feet, pulling against his leash.
“Oh hush! Haven’t you chased enough squirrels today?”
This time the girl straightened, glancing over her book and the yapping animal. Her mouth opened at the sight of the tall black figure looming over her and for a fleeting moment, Roger cursed himself. But the startled look vanished as quickly as it came and the sweet smile spread over her lips.
“Sorry! He won’t bite--just doesn’t like strangers.”
Roger’s back stiffened at the word and a rush of heat flooded his face. She hadn’t recognized him; she had no idea who he was and didn’t care. He ducked his head and twisted away with sudden hurried resolve. Better that he disappeared and pretended they were strangers.
Before he could take three steps, the girl’s voice halted him. “Say, don’t I know you?”
Hands in pockets, face half-buried in his collar, Roger turned back. The blue-green eyes surveyed him, head to toe, and sparkled into a smile.
“Sure, from the corner of Main and 2nd. “
Roger’s heart beat twenty times, eyes darting back and forth between hers, as he tried to think of the best response. Then one of his raised eyebrows twitched and he drew a hand from his pocket.
“Large skinny latte with one stevia?”
She leaned forward, eyes laughing, and bounced her curls with a nod. “That’s me. Let me see,” and the eyes unconsciously sought his right breast pocket, “it’s Roger, isn’t it?”
He pretended to bow and lift an imaginary hat from his bare head. “And you might be?”
“Claire.” She slapped her book shut with an orange leaf marking her place, swung her boots to the gravel and adjusted her glasses.
A hundred possible questions flooded Roger, what she was reading, why she was in the park, how often she came here, what she did for a living, whether she liked the weather, etc. But a movement from the dog made him blurt out:
“What’s his name?”
Claire tugged the leash and brought the animal over, ruffling his head. “George--or Georgie Corgi as I like to call him.”
The dog leaped to lick her face and her eyes and mouth scrunched shut. She laughed again as he yipped, spun in a circle and faced Roger with a flurry of sharp barks.
Roger eyed the dog. “George doesn’t approve of me.”
“Oh he’s all right. Here boy, quit that. Georgie! Come! Sit! That’s a good boy.”
Roger glanced from one to the other, feeling an ocean of space separated him from them. He didn’t hate dogs but he didn’t like them invading his personal bubble and slobbering all over his face.
“How long have you had him?”
Claire glanced up. “He’s not mine; I just watch him a couple days a week for a friend. She has work and class most of the day.”
“Oh, I see.” Roger relaxed his shoulders and let out a long breath.
“My apartment doesn’t allow dogs so I can’t bring him home, and anyway, if I could, Fitz would throw a fit. He hates dogs.”
Roger’s eyebrows jumped back up. “Fitz?”
“Mr. Fitz Simmons; he’s quite particular as to the sort of friends I bring to our apartment, but,” and her eyes ran up and down him again, “he might approve of you.”
A red flush crept up Roger’s neck and he evaded her eyes, feeling suddenly a fool and chiding his wild hopes. So she had a boyfriend--and a jealous one at that! Or maybe they were already engaged or married; she hadn’t given her last name.
“Well,” he said, “it’s getting chilly out here. I’d better be going home.”
Claire jumped to her feet. “Let me walk along with you. It’s time I got George back.”
She slipped the book under her arm, unwound the purple leash from the bench arm rail and stepped beside him. Roger couldn’t refuse. He matched the active stride of her little brown boots and lifted his chin to the sights around him. The low angle of the sun played in the golden maples that lined the path and the wind swirled fallen leaves beneath their feet.
They wound through the park, left the glory of autumn behind and emerged on the city street lined with a black iron fence. Roger dared a sideways glance at his companion as they walked, her fiery head bobbing along at his shoulder, her right hand extended with George trotting ahead at the end of his leash. His deep blue eyes sank back to the pavement and his shoulders sagged with a different sort of sigh from his previous one.
They reached a corner, crossed at the light, and headed north. Roger halted on their left at the entrance of the five-story brick building that stretched the length of the block and held out his hand.
“Here’s my place. It was nice to meet you, Claire.”
The girl glanced up at the apartment building and back to his face, eyes widening in a smile. “You live here too? Why, we’re neighbors!”
Roger’s cheeks loosened. “What floor are you on?”
“Second, corner room. You?”
“Top story right in the middle.” Roger craned his neck, pointing. “See that window with the blue curtain? That’s mine.”
“You must have quite the view from up there. Can you see the park?”
He nodded. “And the sunrise, every morning, between those taller building to the east.”
Claire’s gaze swept down along the street and back to his face. “I’ve got to take George home now, but could I stop by sometime? I’ve always been jealous of the people on the top floor and I’d love a peek out their windows.”
“Sure! I can step inside and wait for you if you’d like to come now.”
Her eyes sparkled. “I’ll be just a minute. Tracey lives on the next block over.”
Roger’s eyes followed her the length of the street until she disappeared around the next corner. Then he slipped in his key and entered the building. He paused at the mailbox out of habit, and then curiosity got the better of him and his eyes scanned the typed names inserted in each one. There were over a hundred of them, but at last he found hers, Ms. Claire Simmons, and his heart dropped. So she was married.
His promise kept him in the entrance way until she returned, but his mood dropped lower and lower until his pacing feet sought to kick himself. He wished he hadn’t offered to show her his apartment right now; he hadn’t cleaned up after last night’s attempt at painting.
Claire returned within fifteen minutes, breathless and smelling of the crisp fall air. Roger couldn’t help the smile that creased his face at sight of her.
“Just a minute.” Her hand stopped his in the elevator and pushed the second floor button instead of the fifth. “I want you to see mine first and meet Mr. Fitz Simmons.”
Roger walked with her in silence down the carpeted corridor until reaching her door and swallowed the dryness in his throat as she fumbled in her jacket pocket for her keys. She swung the door inward and flicked on the light. An orange tabby cat, the same color as her hair, came bounding toward her with a loud meow.
“Hi there, ol’ Fitzy boy! How was your day?”