Story: Vandalism

A short story [about 6,200 words] written to explore the process of character development. I’ve made a few changes and don’t know what to do with it now, so I’ll put it here.

Joe Gothbury opened the front door of his row house to get the morning paper, and found a beautiful Spring morning. The covered bus stop in front of his house caught his eye, specifically where someone had sprayed painted a four letter word for male genitalia.

He hated that bus stop ever since being installed seven years earlier. He complained to city hall when Transportation put the thing up. They had treated him like an idiot. Now it was an eyesore, right by his front steps. It was the first thing he had to see every morning, an ugly dark brown lump. That’s before the kids started to ‘tag’ it. Disgraceful.

“I’ve had enough!” Joe said.

He stepped all the way onto his stoop to look up and down the street. The sidewalks were empty, and the road was quiet. A single yellow taxi glided between cars parked on either side of the two-lane street. Across the street sat another eyesore, the park that had once been the centerpiece of the neighborhood. What had once been a tasteful brick wall in front of the playground was also sprayed with paint. Play equipment hung in disarray and trash scattered across patches of brown grass and weeds.

Joe snatched the newspaper off his stoop and twisted his arthritic knee. The aches had been almost constant for a number of years, but recently the pain was getting much worse. He winced and shuffled back into his house.

Tabitha the cat took the steps down from the second floor, traveling along narrow path she’d made the dust that gathered on the steps. She stopped near the bottom and meowed once up at Joe.

“Good morning to you, too,” Joe growled.

His slippers hissed against the worn hardwood floors of the hall as he shuffled to the kitchen. Setting down the paper, he picked up the phone and mashed the number for the department of parks and services, responsible for vandalism on city property.

“Hello. Parks and Services.” a man’s voice said over the receiver.

“I need to report vandalism,” Joe said.

“Is this you, Mr. Gothbury?” the man asked.

“Yes. It’s the bus stop, right in front of my house. It’s been spray painted. Again.” Joe said.

“The bus stop?” the man asked.

“Yes. The one that’s right—” Joe started, before he was interrupted.

“I’m sorry, sir, but we can’t handle bus stop vandalism any more. You need to call Transportation.”

“I need to call transportation? Unbelievable.” Joe rolled his eyes.

“Yes, sir,” the man said.

“I need to?” Joe stressed.

“Well, sir. You know the details and-” the man said.

Joe interrupted and said, “You guys are just trying to get out of doing any work! I pay too much taxes and where does it go? There’s been more and more vandalism recently, and you guys don’t do anything about it.”

“We are very busy, sir. And orders from up top are that we need to focus resources to more important matters. We can’t stop for every bit of vandalism that takes place in the city. Now, if there has been damage to your property you can try the police department,” the man said.

“That’s all you got?” Joe asked.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Gothbury. We can’t do any more at this time, the budget is getting cut and – -”

“Forget it!” Joe snarled, and slammed down the phone.

Tabitha curled around his legs, purring and meowing. Joe ignored her, took a breath and grumbled, “I need my coffee.”

He went to the small plastic coffee maker, poured a cup-a-black and went to the dining room that looked out the front window. The room had been turned into a TV-room years ago, which was also the prefect place to keep an eye on those hoodlums outside. He eased back into his comfy-chair then tossed his hands in the air.

“Ah! I left my paper in the kitchen,” he complained. “I’m so angry I can’t think straight.”

Joe pushed himself out of his chair and shuffled back to the kitchen where he found Tabitha meowing at the kitchen door, pushing against the door jamb, turning and rubbing again.

“All right. I’ll feed you,” Joe said, and he dumped too much cat-mix into a white bowl next to the half-sized fridge. Cat-mix scattered all over the floor, joining the dust and fur clinging around the bottom of the refrigerator. Tabitha purred, rubbing against his legs.

“There’s your food. Eat. Dumb cat,” Joe said and still she just rubbed against his leg.

“I’m going to have to do something about those spray paint kids myself,” he said to her.

He did his best to stalk to his make-shift bedroom behind the kitchen, careful of his knee. A small lamp on the nightstand lit the sparsely furnished room. It had been a utility room that he’d turned into a bedroom. A faded yellow, floral patterned wall paper peeled loose in places, dust-webs hung in clumps and strands along a wide crown molding.

He changed into his beige trousers, pulled on black socks and his thick-soled black shoes, the podiatrist had said would help his feet stop hurting. He put on a black windbreaker and donned a bright red baseball hat, with a logo for corn-dogs that he got for going along with some promotional campaign. He reached behind the wooden bedroom door and grabbed the old putt-putt golf club he kept there in case of intruder.

“It’s a matter of personal responsibility,” he said to himself. “People need to take care of the things they have in this world. If the city won’t stop the vandalism, someone has to do something.”

Tabitha worked at his legs some more, rubbing and purring.

“What’s wrong with you today?” Joe gave the cat a small shove off his shin.

Tabitha glared at him and ran out of the room. The sound of her angry howls and running up the stairs echoed through the empty house. Joe rolled his eyes and shook his head. At the front door, he set his jaw and pulled it open.

The bus stop was no longer dingy brown and spotted with grey cuss words. It was spray painted a cheerful white and yellow, and a lone spray paint can rolled on the quiet sidewalk, as if it had just been dropped. A person wearing a dark-blue jacket and hoodie hurried away from the stop.

“Hey!” Joe called out.

The person didn’t turn around.

“Hey! Stop!” Joe felt his neck stiffen with anger.

The person started running. Joe waved his golf club in the air and rushed down the cement steps in front of his house. His knee made a popping sound. Pain pierced his right leg and he cried out. He leaned against the wall at the bottom of the stair, panting, waiting for the pain to subside, when he could pull himself off the wall and looked around. The person in the hoodie had gone, leaving the abandoned can of spray paint on the ground.

Careful of his knee, he bent and picked the can up. It had fresh yellow paint oozing out the nozzle, and he noticed the design fit the hand really well. He gave it a shake, the marble inside rattling around. The nozzle melded with the tip of his finger so perfectly. He pointed it at nothing and pressed. It made a hiss noise and a fog of yellow sprayed out. He looked around to see if anyone had noticed this act, as he tucked it under his arm like a magazine.

His leg hurt, but he managed to climb the steps with minimal wincing. Back inside he limped down the hall while Tabitha meowed at him from the top stair. He went to the kitchen to throw the can away but found the trashcan overflowing. He set the spray paint can on the counter next to the trashcan.

“I gotta get this pain under control before I take out the trash,” he said, and he pulled popped an arthritis medicine, then let himself rest in the black-and-white cushioned metal chair next to the round, formica table. The newspaper still sat on the table with headlines about tax cuts being voted on in the general assembly. Below that was an article about budget cuts in the city, and a picture of the mayor smiling his famous smile for reporters. The city budget to parks and transportation were both being cut, too.

“Good. They’re cutting my taxes. Feels like I still pay too much, and for what? No-good services, that’s what. They’re all incompetent,” Joe grumbled as if the newspaper could hear him.

The article discussed how various parks around the city were set to be torn down. The park across the street from Joe’s house was slated for destruction. Demolition would begin today. An old memory stirred: him sitting in the sun, on a bench beside that playground.

Joe sighed and said, “Well, at least that’s one less eyesore we’ll have to deal with.”

He went to the fridge and pulled out a package of cream-filled chocolate cookies. There were only two left.

“Gah! Now, I have to go to the store,” Joe said.

He limped back outside and down the front stairs, trying not to wince in pain. The painted bus stop was painted so bright it looked out of place in the otherwise dreary street. Despite having huge patches of empty space, the painting also had attention to detail in subtle ways, transforming the bus stop into a thing of near beauty. It almost looked good. But, it was in front of Joe’s house.

“Who gave them the right?” he asked, limping past it.

An older couple dressed in well-pressed clothes, waited on the steps of a neighbors’ home. They held flowers and some sort of covered food dish. The door opened, and the woman living there came out and gave them hugs and invited her friends inside.

Passing the park, he noted the bad condition of the playground; the broken chains on the swing dangled from the frame; the merry-go-round was off its axis; the plants and flowers were all dead. He hobbled by two more houses and made it to the corner store that sold beer, smokes, candy, bread and sandwich meats. The air inside was cool, the lights fluorescent.

Sami, the store owner, greeted him from behind the counter, “Good morning.”

Joe had tried to ignore Sami for years, but the guy never stopped greeting him. Joe grumbled something he thought could be taken as a politeness. He took a package of cookies from a shelf and put it on the counter along with a five.

“Did you hear about them closing the park?” Sami’s accent was almost a song. “They’re tearing it down. Today.”

“Yeah. Good riddance to that mess.” Joe tapped the five on the counter: Tap-tap-tap.

“No. Not good riddance. We need that park.” Sami picked up the five and started counting change.

Joe said, “That place is broken and falling apart. We need that park like we need a road full of pot holes.”

“Ah. We need our roads to be maintained, and our park as well.” Sami dropped the change into Joe’s hand, pulled a plastic bag from behind the counter and started fiddling with the edges, to open it up.

“Nah. Those kids don’t care about anything,” Joe said. “They’ll just destroy it again, and then my tax dollars are wasted. That money is better used in my own pocket.”

Sami put the cream-stuffed cookies into the bag and said, “The park is broken because kids think we don’t care about them.” He handed the bag to Joe.

“Well, we don’t care. Not if they can’t show any respect for what they’ve got.” Joe turned and walked toward the door.

“For five years I’ve been selling you cookies. This is the longest conversation we’ve ever had,” Sami said.

“What’s your point?” Joe stopped and looked over his shoulder.

“When is the last time you had a conversation with one of those kids?”

“Bah!” Joe pushed himself out the door and onto the sidewalk.

“Have a good day,” Sami called out, as always.

Joe limped back up the street. City workers had shown up at the park, wearing orange vests and hardhats.

The person in the blue hoodie was back by the bus stop again, doing something to it. Joe got closer and realized the person was spray painting. He marveled at the daring, in broad daylight, with the no-good do-nothing city guys able to see it all, if they cared enough to turn around.

Joe formed a plan. Staying quiet, he eased up behind the painter. He got as close as he could and grabbed the neck of the person’s jacket.

The hood pulled down revealing a young woman with blond hair who twisted around and yelled, “Let me go.”

“No, you don’t! You’re going to pay for all those bad words you’re putting up,” Joe said.

“I don’t write bad words. I cover ‘em up.” She hit his arm and pulled away.

Joe’s grip broke its hold, and he tottered off balance. He brought his right leg forward to catch himself, but it ‘popped’ again. He cried out in pain and fell over, his bag of cookies sliding away.

“Oh, my God. Are you Okay?” The young woman put her hands out.

The pain in Joe’s leg was excruciating, he shoved his fist into his mouth.

“Don’t die on me, old man. I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said.

Joe clenched his jaw, “I’m not going to die! It’s my leg.”

“You want me to call an ambulance?” she asked.

“No! Don’t call anyone. Just, help me up.” He waved his arm for her to take hold.

She pulled him up, steadied him, gathered his grocery bag with the cookies and handed it to him.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

His forehead beaded with sweat, and his vision swirled. He tried going up the stairs. It took all his strength to tackle the first one.

“You sure I shouldn’t call an ambulance?” she asked.

“I don’t need your help.” He leaned on the brick wall and took the next step. Seven more to go. He paused to take a breath, panting.

The girl came up behind him, lifted his arm and wrapped it around her shoulder.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Helping. Isn’t that what neighbors do for each other?” she said.

She was strong, looked to be about 20 something. Her face tugged at old memories. She grabbed his waist and helped him up the next step, and the next. It was an awkward sensation to be helped by someone.

“I’m Joe.” He said, through the pain.

“SB,” she said. “But, you can call me Susan.”

At the top of the stairs they paused. He leaned against the wall to catch his breath.

“I know you,” Susan said. “You used to sit in the park and watch kids play. There was a pretty woman with you. What happened to her?”

Joe fumbled for the key in his pocket and said, “She died.”

“I’m really sorry,” Susan said.

He pointed at the bus stop. “You’re one of those kids that defaces everything.”

Susan gave a slow shake of her head. “My stuff isn’t that bad, is it?”

He looked at the painting. The yellow and white were now filled with bold streaks of red that blurred through the layers from the top right, as if a sunrise were breaking through. A pair of eyes occupied the space that had been left empty earlier. Something about the expression also portrayed intelligence, with a hint of sadness.

“No. It’s actually pretty good,” Joe said, “but it’s still vandalism. Go paint your stuff for the art galleries.”

Susan said, “I tried that, but they’re filled with people who are being told what to think, and they end up not thinking anything. They just repeat what they hear. They don’t realize they are all being told what to think and they all sound stupid. So, I try to make the world better the only way I know how. For a start, I paint over cuss words. And you know what I find? The cuss words don’t come back on top of my art. I think whoever does those is just waiting for someone to care.”

“Care? I care. They’re the one’s who don’t care.” Joe asked.

“Don’t be so arrogant. You don’t know what they think,” she said.

Joe startled at being talked to so frankly.

Susan continued, “This neighborhood used to be something special, made up of a lot of different people. When I was a kid I thought it was the best place in the world. We had everything. But now,” Susan shook her head, “Something went wrong. And you know what? I think the place just needs someone to take care of it. That’s what I’m trying to do. And at least then I feel like I’m doing something instead of just complaining.”

“That’s how I feel too,” Joe said. “I watch out for kids vandalizing everything, I’m gonna catch them at it, and make them pay. And it’s not your place to decided what the rest of us see every day. It’s not your place to look out for the world.”

“Who’s gonna look out for the world if not for me?” Susan asked. “The city isn’t doing anything to make this world a nicer place. It’s like no one wants to spend money, or time, or do anything. We all know it. And the kids know it, too. And you, what are you going to do? Send them to jail? Is that your idea of caring? Is that love?”

“They want me to care about them? They should do something useful. They should get a job. And stop painting things that don’t belong to them. You too. Look at that that park? It used to be nice. And now they’ve destroyed it.”

“No one destroyed that park,” Susan said, her anger rising. “Things got broken. It happens. Why are you so angry?”

“This isn’t about me,” Joe protested.

“I think it is,” Susan said.

Joe took a breath. “I am angry. I’m angry those kids were too thoughtless with stuff I paid for by my taxes,” Joe said.

“You just don’t get it. This isn’t stuff. It’s life. It’s home. It just needs someone to look out for it,”

Susan marched down the stairs and gathered her backpack, before turning back to face him.

“And, you’re welcome,” she said.

“For what?” Joe asked.

“For painting over those cuss words.” She stalked off down the street.

“Gah. It’s not your place,” Joe scoffed at her.

Inside, the cat still sat at the top of the stair and meowed down at him. Susan’s words resonated, ‘It just needs someone to look out for it.’ Those were the same words his wife had said about Tabitha, when as a kitten she had shown up at their door ten years ago. “It just needs someone to look out for it.”

Joe sighed and said, “Hey, Kitty.”

Tabitha meowed, but didn’t move from her spot on the second floor landing.

“Come here, Kitty.”

She crouched down to lay on her belly.

Joe set his bag of cookies on the small table in the hall, put his hand on the dark-wood banister, and lifted his good foot onto the first stair. The dust stirred and he lifted his other foot on the next step. His knee ached terribly.

“Come on, Tabitha,” he said. “Don’t make it so hard for me.”

The cat closed her eyes.

He paused, trying to prepare himself. He clenched his teeth and put weight on the step. He took the next step and the next. The pain shot up his leg, sweat beaded on his lip.

“There’s a reason I don’t use these stairs,” he grunted up to her.

The boards groaned under his weight and dust floated around his feet. The pain in his leg nagged him to rest. He stopped just short of the top step and reached out to pet the cat on the head. Before he could touch her she jumped up and darted into the front bedroom.

Joe cursed under his breath, completed the last two stairs and stood at the door to his old bedroom. The dim glow of daylight shown through a gap in the mostly closed door. The green-blue plush carpet beyond was coated in cat fur and dust.

He pushed the door open. Inside, the bed was still made, as it had been. His wife’s dress lay untouched on the bedspread, still awaiting her to slip it on for a party they’d never attended. The floor to ceiling curtain mostly covered the front window, letting in a stream of mid-day light. Nothing had changed in nine years.

Dust layered over trinkets and jewelry on the dresser. In the corner of it’s mirror a picture had been wedged between the glass and the thick brown frame, showing the happy couple smiling beside a large tree. He turned to the closet. It was filled with dresses and shoes. A woman had touched every corner of the room, and more.

“This is a home someone needs to take care of, isn’t it?” Joe said.

Tabitha jumped onto the bed and he gave the cat a gentle rub behind her ear. A beeping noise came from outside the window. He pushed the curtain back to look out. Across the street a bulldozer was backing off a flatbed trailer. City workers were talking with each other. A few people from the neighborhood began gathering. They were arguing with the workers. A policeman was trying to quiet them.

Tabitha purred from the bed. Joe limped back and sat down where he had slept for twenty years, before he moved downstairs. Tabitha walked into his lap and settled down. He rubbed her head and stroked her back.

“I’m sorry I’ve neglected you,” he said to her.

She purred and kneaded at his thighs. The rumble of the bulldozer took his attention from her. People shouting outside grew louder. Joe realized what was about to happen outside.

“They’re going to bulldoze the park? No. That isn’t right,” he said. “That’s our park. They can’t tear that down. We need to take care of it.”

The cat jumped off as Joe stood up. “Someone needs to do something.”

Joe limped back down the stairs and outside. People were yelling, some shaking their fists at the workers. A policewoman had joined the policeman, and both were working crowd control on the gathering neighbors. Joe spotted Susan in the group, yelling along with other people. A TV cameraman mingled with the crowd, capturing everything.

The bulldozer pushed into the broken merry-go-round. The metal groaned, and twisted as its cement base heaved out of the ground. Joe gimped down the steps and across the street. The pain in his leg seemed to egg him on, giving him a determination to move faster. He circled around to a place where the police could not see him and, using a dead bush as cover, he moved to the bulldozer as it backed up and pushed again at the merry-go-round.

The dozer’s engine was revving, smoke poured out of its stack, the metal treads slipped on the loose dirt and dried grass. Joe hobbled up to the bulldozer, grabbed a stick from the ground and banged on the cab door, trying to get the driver’s attention.

“Hey! Turn it off!” He shouted, and he banged again.

The driver wore hearing protection, and didn’t seem to take notice of Joe. Someone in the crowed pointed at him. The policeman turned and shouted something in his direction. Joe ignored it. One officer rushed forward and tried waving at the driver to get his attention. The other officer ran toeard Joe.

“Turn! It! Off!” Joe shouted.

The bulldozer backed up and shifted its position. The scoop rammed into Joe’s bad leg.
The pain exploded, and Joe cried out, falling over. His head hit a rock. The world washed between darkness and light. People gathered around him. They came in flashes; the police, the cameraman, Susan.

Upon seeing Susan, her face seemed to transform. Old memories rushed back and blended with reality. He could see her as she had been as a little girl. See her running and playing in the park. It was a fine park then, filled with children laughing, and Joe’s wife smiling on the bench next to him.

***
He woke up in a sterile hall of an ER ward, lined with beds that were filled with patients: people. People who were asleep, or moaning in pain, or just looking bored. A TV blared at a nearby nurses station.

An announcer on the TV said, “Dozens of angry protesters chanted for the city to stop destroying the park. One man bum-rushed the bulldozer and was sent to the hospital. That didn’t slow the workers, at all. Once the man was taken away by ambulance, they plowed the whole park under.”

The images on the TV showed Joe getting knocked over, him on the ground and an ambulance driving away. It switched to the bulldozer pushing the swings down and loading them into a truck. It cut to people shouting for them to stop, Susan was among the crowd, chanting and holding their fists in the air.

The announcer continued, “The residents were unhappy about the park being marked for destruction so quickly, and without a hearing, too.”

Sami, the store owner came on and said, “It isn’t right. The children of our neighborhood are needing a place to play. Right now they have nothing, and resort to misbehaving. If the city can do this to our park, they can do it to anyone’s park. Nothing is safe.”

The announcer came back on. “Some on city council are looking to sell the land to developers, to ease the city’s tight budget. One man in the hospital, and a park is sold to development. All for the good of the city? Back to you Roger.”

A doctor came to stand between Joe and the TV. He pulled a curtain around Joe’s bed.

“Ah, you’re awake, I’m Doctor Reiner,” the doctor said.

“Where am I?” Joe asked.

“University Hospital. ER. You took a hit to the head,” Dr. Reiner said.

“I’m fine now,” Joe said sitting up. He pulled at a wad of tape that wrapped around his hand, holding a blood pressure monitor in place.

“Now wait a sec. You need to stay for observation,” Doctor Reiner said.

“I need to do no such thing,” Joe said, and he stood up. A hospital gown hung around him, letting air in to all the places that should have been covered. “Where are my clothes?”

“You took a blow to the head and could have a serious concussion, internal bleeding. You need an overnight stay, at the least,” Dr. Reiner said.

“Are you saying I’m not free to go?” Joe asked.

The doctor paused. “No.”

“Then where are my clothes?”

The doctor pointed at a dresser. “In there.”

“If you need me to sign anything, you’d better make it quick. I’m leaving,” Joe said.

The doctor blinked, “I’ll have a nurse here with papers for you to sign.”

Joe pulled the curtain after the doctor, got his clothes from the dresser and changed. The nurse came in and asked him some questions, filling in a paper on a clipboard. She asked him to sign something and told him to call a number if he had any symptoms.

Outside, the late afternoon sun felt warm. He climbed on a city bus, transferred once and got off in front of the newly painted bus stop. He realized the face in the painting had a look of defiance. He turned and stared at the devastation that had once been the park.

Growing shadows from the sinking sun cast darkness over piles of pushed dirt and dozer tracks. All the broken play equipment had vanished. Where the benches had been were now empty, the merry-go-round, just a hole.

“It looks like a war zone,” Joe said. “This was our home, and no one took care of it. Now it’s gone.”

He shook his head and climbed the front steps to his house. Inside, Tabitha watched him from the upstairs landing. She gave a small chirp of a meow.

Joe said, “I’ve been neglecting you. I’ve been neglecting this house. The neighborhood. And, I’ve been neglecting myself.”

The staircase loomed like a mountain before him. He put his foot down and took the first step. His knee didn’t hurt. He took the next step, and still he felt fine. With each step his legs felt stronger. The pain was absent. He soon found himself marching up the stairs to the bedroom.

He pushed inside the door, crossed the room, and dragged a suitcase from the floor of the closet and slung it on the bed, popped the latch and lay it flat open. He pulled his wife’s dresses out of the closet, folding them into the suitcase. They all fit, so he piled her shoes on top. He leaned all his weight on the lid to push the suitcase closed. From under the bed he pulled out a rolling carry-on.

He scooped all the perfume bottles and trinkets from the dresser top, dumping them into the carry-on. He dumped the drawers filled with her personal things into the case. Her makeup, brushes, soaps and bottles were all dumped inside, too.

When everything had been loaded up, he zipped the carry-on closed and plopped it at the top of the stair. He dragged the larger suitcase off the bed and let it fall heavy to the floor. The dress she never got to wear to that party long ago had been covered by the suitcase, and it still rested on the bed.

He picked it up, put it to his face and breathed in deep, hoping for some small scent of her. He imagined her in it, smiling and dancing. With care, he hung it up on the closet rack.
Once Joe had gotten both suitcases to the bottom of the stairs he placed them by the door and went to the kitchen phone, where he dialed a number.

“Hello, Homeless Foundation,” a man’s voice said.

Joe said, “Yeah. I have some women’s clothes and stuff, in two suitcases. Do you pick up?”

“We do. What’s your address?” the man asked.

Joe gave the address, they set a time for pickup and he hung up.

Tabitha hunched over her bowl, eating amid the dirt and dried cat food.

“What a mess,” Joe said looking around kitchen.

He grabbed the broom and swept the floor, setting the dust pan next to the heaping pile in the trash can. Next he tackled the mass of dishes in the sink, and straightened up the T.V. room.
He wiped the table, then wiped the counters down and came across the can of spray paint. He picked it up and studied it. He shook his head and set it on top of the over flowing trash.

“Now for the garbage,” he said and pulled the trash bag out and tried to tie it closed, but the spray paint can still stuck out of the bag. He carried the bag out the front door and down the steps. Evening had settled in. A cool breeze mixed with the warm feeling of spring. Something was happening by the park. Neighbors had gathered, and news cameras were back, with lights on.

He set down the bag and the can of spray paint fell out of the trash can, bounced and rolled to the middle of the sidewalk. Joe picked it up, gave it a shake. The rattling sound was soothing, like he could do something.

A big black car pulled up in front of the park. The cameras pushed in close to the car. The mayor got out. His mouth seemed stuck in a perpetual smile. Waving at the reporters on the scene, he acted like everything was great. Joe set his jaw and crossed the street. He pushed past his neighbors, through the crowd toward the cameras.

The announcer had put a microphone in the mayor’s face. “Sir, what do you have to say about this devastating scene behind us?”

The mayor flapped his palms in a placating way. “The business of the city can be tricky to explain to every person. I assure you all, we have the interests of our citizens, and their potential for growth, as topmost priority.”

“Our growth?” Joe asked, a little surprised at how loud his voice sounded. He pressed on. “This city it’s our home, it’s not just a place to do business. Do you understand the difference? This is our home. Our kids need a place to play. We pay taxes, we elect people like you to make sure our home stays safe. But what do we get instead? A city that lets a playground go to waste, to justify tearing it down so the land sold to the highest bidder. Did someone slip you a campaign contribution to let this playground fall apart? Because it doesn’t sound like you are protecting our home.”

The mayor turned to an aid and muttered, “Who is this guy?”

“He’s the man run over by the bulldozer today,” the aid said.

“Is he dangerous?” the mayor asked.

“I don’t think so, sir,” his aid replied.

“Are you having trouble understanding me?” Joe asked, squinting from the camera lights. He continued, “Look at the spray paint all over this park wall. Cuss words, graphic pictures. At first I was angry about all the spray paint. I was angry at how kids could destroy such a great park. I wondered why they would do this. Then someone said something to me, and I realized it was the city that did this, not the kids.

“Why did the city stop coming here to keep the park looking nice? Why didn’t the city keep all the things working. I don’t know. But they didn’t. Of course the park fell into disrepair, it was like the city said it didn’t care about the people. It was like the city was interested in business, and told the kids that it didn’t care about them. When kids think no one cares, they stop caring too. I know you care about children, don’t you, Mr. Mayor?” Joe pointed his finger at the mayor.

It was the hand that still held the spray paint can. The mayor flinched, perhaps frightened of being sprayed. Without thinking Joe turned to a nearby wall and sprayed a jet of yellow. The can hissed. The air was filled with the smell of paint, and fine particles of drying overspray fogged in the camera lights.

He finished spraying and stepped back and said, “This should help you understand.”

Lit by the lights of the camera crews, the yellow paint seemed to glow against the dark brick wall. The words were uneven, wet paint ran in long drips.
The single word read, “Home.”

“Mr. Mayor,” Joe said, turning around. This is our home. It needs caring for. Don’t you think so?”

The crowd fell silent. The cameras and lights turned on the mayor, whose eyes grew wide, something of a frown pulled on the corners of his mouth. He hesitated just a moment before his big smile returned. He grabbed Joe and brought him close, wrapping his arm around Joe’s shoulder. But careful to push Joe’s spray paint can down and away.

“You have misunderstood me. Really, I couldn’t agree with you more,” the mayor said. “I came here to tell you how disappointed I am with what has happened to this park. Our children need this park. And, I will make sure that this is the best park our city can offer.”

The gathering of neighbors let out a cheer and they began clapping and dancing.

Joe held the mayor’s gaze and said, “We’re going to hold you to that, now.”

The mayor kept on smiling through big teeth and said, “I know you will.”

“How long before construction starts?” one reporter asked.

The mayor began explaining about processes and planning. Joe pulled out of the mayor’s grip and managed to push out of the crowd gathering around.

Susan was in the street, watching, and asked, “How are you doing?”

“I’m much better,” Joe said.

“That was pretty hardcore. Everything you did today.”

“Was it?”

“Yeah.” Susan nodded.

“I got some advice today. Someone said to try talking with one of the kids in the neighborhood. So I did, and I learned something,” Joe said. “I wasn’t doing anything for the neighborhood.”

Susan smiled.

Sami walked up. “I just saw you on the news. You are not hurt too bad?”

“I’ve been hit with worse,” Joe said.

“You are full of surprises today,” Sami said.

“I suppose I am. Say, would you both like to come inside for some cookies?”

Susan and Sami smiled. “Sure. Why not.”

Joe led them inside, past the suitcases by the door.

“Are you planning a vacation?” Sami asked.

“No. In fact, I’ve been absent too long.”

***
A warm Autumn sun shone on Joe, sitting on a new park bench. A squirrel climbed down a young tree, hopped across the fresh grass and took a peanut Joe had tossed onto the ground at his feet.

“Look at that squirrel, mommy,” said a little girl Joe knew as Julie. She ran over from a shiny play structure at the newly rebuilt park.

Her mother, a neighbor Joe knew as Kate, joined her daughter. “Hi Joe.”

“It’s a fantastic afternoon for feeding squirrels,” Joe said. “Would you like a try?”

Julie’s grin showed a new missing tooth. She took a peanut from his outstretched hand and tossed it on the ground near her feet. The squirrel hopped close and picked it up. Julie squealed in delight.

The squirrel chomped on the nut and hopped back up the tree.

“Mr. Joe?” Julie said. “One of the swings is loose.”

“Huh-oh,” Joe said.

He pulled out his cell phone and dialed a number.

“Hello. Parks and Services.” the voice said.

“Thomas. This is Joe Gothbury. How’re you doing?”

“Doing good, Joe. What’s up?”

“It seems one of the swings at our park needs mending.”

“Oh. Well, I can have a crew in that area to look at it today.”

“Thanks, Thomas.”

Julie and her mother’s smile glowed to make the day even brighter.

It felt like a neighborhood again. The spray paint around the park had all been cleaned up, kids were playing, and the sun was shining warm on Joe’s bench.