#11

FICTION

April 2021

jeannine burgdorf

cosmic scorecard

Hugo-de-Groot-Syntagma-Arateorum_MG_0627

Karl wanted to give Margaret a key to his house. She was the first woman he had dated since his divorce from Violet a year ago. He was afraid of moving too quickly but dismissed the thought as vanity. They hadn't celebrated each other's birthdays or even exchanged gifts as a sign of affection. He was unsure of her level of commitment until she hurried out of their favorite café to take a call from her father's doctor. Her father was doing it again, having an episode. Alone, Karl admired the wall of cultivated moss and finished his risotto. 

    The next day, Margaret called to say she had landed in Detroit. She was preparing to drive her father to his neurosurgeon. It was her way of explaining that they would not be seeing each other for some time. Maybe she was ending things permanently. 

    "Karl, I just can't focus on two men right now." 

    "I understand. I know he needs your help." 

    "I don't know when I'll be able to call again," her words trailed off. 

    "No pressure to check-in every day. Do what needs to be done." He felt his jaw solidify against her rejection. Karl hoped she wouldn't call when her father died. He didn't want to have to have to come up with a lie about why he couldn't go to the funeral. He didn't think she would put him in that position. But grief makes people act unpredictably. 

    Margaret and Karl met on an app for people over fifty. His divorce from Violet had been final for a year, time he had filled traveling to tourist beaches where he read spy novels. There was no tragedy in their ending. Karl didn't get to the point of saying outright, "I don't love you." He just stopped responding when Violet said she loved him. She never confronted him about his silence, just packed a bag one night. He was preoccupied with his work as a lead architect at a high profile firm. He came home to find her sitting on the couch in her coat. She told him a taxi was on its way and she would have the movers get the rest of her things later. He stood in front of her, his eyebrows pushing down his face in confusion. 

    His marriage provided a wall, some protection against the world. The ring on his left hand conferred legitimacy to his place among all the other men in grey suits among grey buildings on grey streets. Before Violet left he had designed the perfect life, one he could predict with regularity day after day. He understood the blueprint of marriage to be an intense beginning followed by a comfortable companionship. Karl missed companionship. That was why he joined the dating service. He needed someone to bring his days into focus, to make them more real by sharing them. 

    The morning after Margaret's call, he watched the drip coffee pot cough the last of the hot water out. Dawn was coming but the bleed of blue had not started along the horizon. Margaret had gotten in the habit of texting Karl every morning to see how he slept and how he was feeling, to ask if he was drinking another cup of coffee. He had been instructed by his doctor to cut back; it was tearing up his stomach. Sometimes she wrote to him about her dreams, of watching her father's hand slip from her grasp in a thick black night, or of being held underwater by an invisible hand. Karl grew to expect her messages, incorporated them into his schedule each day. His longing for them produced a pain in his stomach as sharp as drinking a second cup of coffee. 

    On their first date Margaret wore a perfume he couldn't identify, its spiciness aroused him from his introversion. He wanted to know more about her based solely on this feature: what kind of woman went to meet a stranger in a haze of blood orange and galbanum. She had no self-pity for the circumstances she had been dealt. Margaret told him she never married, that she had sacrificed a lot, as an only child, to move back to Detroit and take care of her sick mother. When she died Margaret was in shock in spite of decades of watching her disintegrate. Her father's first outburst happened in a grocery store shortly after her death. He had started screaming and throwing jars of applesauce at a woman who was trying to pass him with her cart. Ten minutes after, he had no idea how he ended up in the back office without his groceries. He carried an emergency identification card in his wallet and the store manager had called Margaret and left a message. She still had a Detroit phone number; they must have thought she was local even though she had moved back to Chicago. By the time she listened to the message, hours had passed and when she called her father he was at home making eggs. 

    Margaret's love for her father was the realest version Karl had ever heard. He watched her tell it waiting for her to conclude with some dismissive remark about burdens but she never did. He would not have given so much to his parents, and luckily because his brother was rich he didn't have to. In their final days they had every need attended to, whether they were aware of it or not. Karl did not know if they had an easy death, but they had every material comfort. His brother wasn't a saint, but he had told Karl he had a duty to repay the care they had given him growing up. The idea of a cosmic scorecard was laughable to Karl; the world was straight lines that made right angles.

    After drinking his single cup of coffee, Karl took the high-speed train downtown to his office. From the platform he looked down at the people pacing back and forth on the sidewalk. Some held paper coffee cups that were slowly dissolving in the rain. As the express train passed behind him, his back absorbing its fierce energy, a man came running down the sidewalk below for a second time, and a third, in a loop to what end only he knew. The man's frenetic energy was unnerving amid the dozens of people standing still staring into their phones on the platform. Karl turned just as the southbound train pulled into the station. The crowd pushed him against a window next to a woman who discharged the smell of a sinus infection and old alcohol.  Soon the tree shade dropped off and the city's skyscrapers came into view. The order of lines and geometry, overlapping in concrete and glass, made the discomfort of the crowd bearable.

    The office was dark when he got there, the hallway fluorescents untouched over the weekend. His hand moved the light switch next to the framed blueprint of his favorite Mies van der Rohe staircase, a gift from Violet. A model of the seventy-story office tower he had designed a decade ago sat on the table across from his wide, empty desk. His day proceeded just as his datebook predicted, meeting after meeting, the requests for updates on projects sitting unread in his inbox. He clenched his teeth at everyone's need to know the status of everything at all times.

    Karl's assistant often ordered lunch and had it waiting on his desk by the time he noticed his hunger. But she had booked a dentist appointment so round one he decided to walk around the block to a place that had pre-made salads he could scan and pay for himself without having to talk to a cashier. Among the skyscraper's shadows he breathed in a deep well of damp air, relieved to be briefly in a space where no one was asking him for anything. As he turned the corner he glanced at a small person wrapped in blankets sat on the concrete begging for change to feed their dog. It wasn't obvious if they were young or old or what their gender was. The blankets covered their entire face except for their eyes. The dog was under the blankets, too, awake but not watching people pass it. It seemed drugged in order to keep it from escaping. This scam worked on corners all over downtown. None of these people were homeless. On a different corner, the same woman sat next to a sign reading "Help me get something to eat. I'm pregnant," for the last year and a half, her belly flat day after day. It was a perversion of need and those who felt compelled to give, who understood their role as helpers, kept the circus going day in and day out. 

    Karl was cautious crossing the street, even waiting until after the signal had been white for a few seconds before moving from the curb. The throngs of regional transit riders went into traffic, assured that their size as a group would stop the oncoming cars. He had arrived at the station unconsciously and now that he was there, Karl wanted to get on a train now, any train. 

    Inside the train station, the arcade of vendors was empty. There were no scheduled routes over the lunch hour. The pharmacy and fruit stand lights were making an eerie glow that amplified the emptiness of the long hall. He couldn't make it to Detroit on the regional line. He wouldn't even know how to find Margaret, even if he knew what hospital her father was being treated at. In the arcade he paced back and forth passing the entries to the tracks: dark, greasy portals out of the city into the promise of a flourishing tree-lined street dream. Karl had his own dream come to life in the house he designed outside the city limits, but he had waited too long to give Margaret a key and now it was too late. He felt like a fool waiting for Margaret whose care would always be divided as long as her father was alive. He told himself he would rejoin the dating site when he got home from work. There were many attractive women who were looking for the same thing he was. He watched the track numbers turn on the digital reader and got up from the bench and walked back to his office. 

    That night walking home from the crowded train, Karl was cooled by a light drizzle. When he reached his door he heard a woman's voice from the covered entryway.

    "Excuse me, are you Karl Langen?" 

    "Yes. I am."

    "I'm sorry to bother you at home. I tried reaching you all day at your office. The woman who answered the phone said you were unavailable. Anyway, I have Elliott here for you." The hood of her rain jacket covered most of her face. He invited her inside to sort out whatever she was talking about. In the entryway, she continued, "Ms. Stanhope arranged everything," refering to Margaret.

    "Ms. Stanhope is out of town indefinitely, she won't be coming back." It wasn't until he had hung up his coat in the hall closet and turned around that he saw the dog that had come in with her.

    "Right, she did mention that. I'm happy to answer any questions you have about Elliott. His introduction packet is here. It has all the details about feeding and exercise. He's already house trained."

    "I'm sorry, what? Who is Elliott?"

    "This all seems to be a surprise to you. I'm sorry." The woman's apology made him even more tense. "Elliott is your new German Shepherd puppy. He was surrendered a few weeks ago and Ms. Stanhope adopted him. But since she can't get back to the area, she's transferred the adoption to you. She was scheduled to pick him up today." The last thing he wanted was a dog, much less Margaret's dog. This must be some sort of prank. Margaret had to be waiting in the rain to yell "surprise" at him when he opened the door to show the animal shelter worker out. She hadn't gone to Detroit. She would need a key now so she could walk the dog when he was downtown.

    "I can't adopt a dog. I'm sorry. You'll have to find someone else." He had a tremor in his voice from restraining the urge to scream at this innocent woman. She hadn't done anything. Margaret had made this mess by making the wild assumption that he would care for her dog. She had never told him she wanted to adopt a German Shepherd, though it made sense. She needed something to care for. He had enough responsibility, enough to care for and no time to feed and walk a dog until or if Margaret returned. 

    "Sir, I understand, but the paperwork's all here. Elliott's here. Look how much he likes you." The dog was indifferent to him. He focused on learning about his new surroundings, his long nose sniffing the baseboard and the hall rug. 

    Karl liked the name Elliott and wondered if Margaret had given him that name. He crouched down and extended his hand to the dog. Elliott made his way to Karl, licking at his feet before exploring his open palm. The sensation was pleasing to him, warm and soft. He had missed feeling warm and soft. His eyes welled up and he started laughing, bent his head down toward to the dog's head so the stranger wouldn't notice. The woman said she'd leave the paperwork on the hall table and closed the door behind her. Karl sat on the rug with the dog, spreading his fingers through the thickness of the double coat on his neck, stroking the velveteen of his ears and cried for the first time since he was a boy.

JEANNINE BURGDORF is a writer and storyteller on stage. Her fiction has appeared in New Reader Magazine, Orange Quarterly, and the anthology Writer Shed Vol. 2. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Chicago Review of Books.

(Image credit: Engraving by Jacob de Gheyn II (1600); photograph (cropped) taken of an image originating from an antiquarian book that is part of the Peace Palace Library collection in the Netherlands. The image has been digitized by Bert Mellink and Lilian Mellink-Dikker from the partnership "D-Vorm VOF".)