Good, Gone Wrong
Jill Lynn Anderson
Six more hours. I can do this. Pauline lengthens her stride, stretching her legs far enough for her hamstrings to pull. A dull ache spreads across her hipbone and she regrets her decision to leave the car at home. Visible from her apartment window, the building that sits in the center of the park appeared closer than it is. Too late now, she thinks, and keeps her current pace. She just wants this over with.
The door to the administrative building is of heavy oak, warped from months of oppressive humidity that, thank God, has finally dispersed with the coming of fall. She tugs at the metal handle, but the windowless door only budges a crack. Someone from inside exits and the swinging door nearly clips her chin. A teenage boy about the same age as Kyle mumbles an apology. He rushes off before Pauline can acknowledge him.
She steels her posture as she steps inside and joins the line comprised of six. She fingers the tortoiseshell headband, worn to keep her highlighted brown hair from flopping into her eyes. Will she be recognized? Finger-pointing and sniggering from others will intensify her discomfort. She knows this from experience.
The gentleman manning the desk has a full head of graying brown hair that conflicts with a red beard. She guesses he´s mid-forties. The organizational skills he displays are impressive as he signs people in and hands them their supplies: smock, canvas trash bag, gloves, litter stick. He´s much more efficient than anyone on the library staff, and it takes only minutes for Pauline to reach the desk.
"Name?" the bearded man asks without looking at her.
"Pauline Cl— " He looks at her then and recognition twinkles in his eyes.
"Clark," he finishes for her. "The good, gone wrong Samaritan."
She tongues her lower lip. "Yes."
“I´m Ron. Pleasure to have you." He shakes his head and chuckles.
Heat spreads up Pauline´s neck. She´s yet to see the humor in her situation that others do. Nevertheless, she reminds herself this will soon be all behind her and indulges him with a plastic smile. "Do I have to sign something?"
"Yes, ma´am. But were you scheduled in advance?"
The ma´am catches Pauline off guard. For goodness sakes, she´s younger than he is. Has the past three months aged her face as much as it´s aged her spirit? ´"Yes. Why? Is there a problem?"
"Normally the court schedules an even number of folks since it´s easier to work in pairs, especially if you need to move something heavy," he says. "Oh, wait. Here comes Stella. You can partner with her." He points to a spot behind Pauline.
Pauline´s first impression of the woman is tiny. She´s lithe, less than five feet tall with pixie-cut hair surrounding a small, pointy face. Pauline throws her the fake smile, but Stella´s eyes dart all over and her gaze doesn´t meet Pauline´s.
"She doesn´t speak English very well." Ron´s voice softens, showing he´d caught Pauline´s humiliation when he laughed after recognizing her. "On the plus side, I don´t think she owns a television."
Bubbles of gratitude spread through Pauline. Without a television, Stella likely doesn´t know who she is.
"Stella." Ron speaks with a ridiculous, phony Italian accent, as if using it will help Stella understand English. "This is Pauline. You show her ropes?"
Stella´s focus finally lands on Pauline. Her dark eyes soften, but no recognition enters them when she nods. "Va bene."
Pauline gives her a genuine smile, certain Stella doesn´t know Pauline jumped on the back of a man she witnessed accosting a woman on the street corner. Pauline socked him twice before the dumbstruck film crew finally pulled her off him. They´d been shooting a movie, the man and woman actors. How was Pauline supposed to know? This was Ohio, not New York, after all. The police were called and Pauline arrested. Considering the whole incident was captured on film, it was futile to plead anything but guilty to the criminal trespassing charge. The video of Pauline in action became available on YouTube, which Kyle thought cool until he realized six of her Saturdays would be spent fulfilling her community service obligation instead of teaching him how to drive. Then she´d been mentioned on a national talk show where the host bestowed her the good, gone wrong Samaritan moniker, and any remaining anonymity vanished.
She finally reached the end of her sentence though. After today, bliss.
Pauline and Stella grab their cleaning supplies and head outside.
"Today I plan clean pond--how you say--banks?" Stella looks at Pauline as if seeking her approval.
"Sure," Pauline says. Who is she to argue? Most of her community service hours have been spent at the public library, dusting books and knocking cobwebs off the rafters. She would have finished her last six hour doing the same had the library not closed for repairs this week before the school year starts. If Stella´s quick steps are any indication, she´s spent the majority of her sentenced hours at the park.
Pauline rushes to keep up with her. For such a small woman, she moves fast. She´s wearing stiff blue jeans Kyle would label mom-jeans that Pauline--dressed in plaid Bermuda shorts--envies once she sees the amount of thicket surrounding the pond.
Stella pokes her trash stick into a plastic soft-drink cup and places it into the canvas bag in one fluid motion. Pauline´s effort to do the same falls short, and the paper napkin she pulls up with the stick falls back to the ground before she can get it into the bag. Stella stabs the same napkin and discards it easily.
"Show off," Pauline teases.
An impish grin lights Stella´s face. "You watch. Learn," she says and shows Pauline how to twist the stick a bit once the offending object is pierced.
"Ah," Pauline says. "It´s all in the wrist."
Stella grins, though Pauline´s uncertain she understands the reference.
"You raised America?" Stella makes quick work of picking up discarded chewing gum wrappers stuck in the brush.
"Yes." Pauline adjusts the shoulder strap of her canvas trash bag. "You?"
Stella shakes her head. "Sicily."
"I bet it´s beautiful there," Pauline says.
"Yes, but beauty here too." She waves her arms in an expansive gesture.
Pauline eyes the area with new appreciation. Teenage lovebirds walk hand in hand around the pond while munching orange-colored popsicles. Water sprinklers cascade on a grassy slope to the right. Where the slope flattens, a woman pushes a little girl on a swing. As close to the park as Pauline lives, she´s never walked the grounds or smelled the honeysuckle-laced breezes that rustle the leaves of giant elms. Of course, she´d only moved to the region after her divorce when Kyle was well past the age of play dates in the park.
"We make beautiful more today," Stella says.
"Whether we like it or not," Pauline quips.
Stella tilts her head in an inquisitive manner.
Pauline shakes her head. "Never mind."
Pauline and Stella separate to tackle different sections of the bank. Pauline becomes quite adept at handling the litter stick. This gives her an odd sense of accomplishment and, beaming, she turns to share her pride with Stella.
Stella´s down on hands and knees now, using her gloved hands to shovel aluminum cans from a pile of large rocks. Pauline nears her and Stella pick up a slice of white bread from the mucky earth. Pauline´s hand flutters to her mouth when instead of throwing the bread into the trash bag, Stella shoves it into the over-sized pocket of her smock.
Pauline´s heart floods with compassion. Is Stella so financially strapped, she can´t afford food? So hungry, a stale piece of bread appears appetizing? Could whatever circumstance that brought Stella here today be responsible for putting her into an impoverished state?
Pauline shakes her head hard. None of my business. If Pauline learned anything from her arrest, it´s not to get involved.
Stella stands from her kneeling position and looks at Pauline. "I need leave."
"Oh, okay." Pauline looks at her watch. "I have another hour and a half to go."
"Come. Feed ducks before leave." Stella pulls the bread out of her pocket.
Oh, thank God. Ducks.
Stella tears the bread in half and gives a portion to Pauline. They walk to the edge of the pond and the ducks sound their approval. Stella aims a piece of bread to a duck who´s less aggressive than the others. Looking out for the underdog.
"You hard worker," Stella says.
Pauline shrugs. "It´s not like I have a choice."
"Always have choice to be good woman or bad. You good."
"So are you." Pauline smiles. "Working with you made the time fly. And thanks for teaching me how to use the pokey stick." Pauline stabs a fallen tree leaf for good measure.
Stella smiles and waves a farewell.
Pauline´s continued work leads her back to where she started, and she frowns when she sees debris in an area she´d already cleaned. Her poke at the litter is met with a crunch. She bends over, examines the white chips and realizes they´re egg shells. She laughs when a small duckling emerges from a spot she thankfully didn´t poke. He makes a chirping sound, and Pauline wishes Stella had been able to see the cute little guy. She watches him for a few minutes before taking her leave.
She struggles with the door to the administrative building again, and once inside Ron greets her with a smile.
She sets the cleaning supplies on his desk. "What do I do with this?" She pulls the canvas bag off her shoulder.
"Pour it into a dumpster in the back. But I´ll take care of it."
She hands over the bag, and presents her community service card for him to sign.
He squiggles his signature. "All done, I see."
"Yes. My sentence is served." She resists the urge to bow.
He smiles. "For what it´s worth, I think what you did was righteous. Everybody does."
Pauline shakes her head. No, what she´d done was foolish. She´d been so focused on what was happening in front of her she´d missed the bigger picture of an entire film crew. She changes the subject. "It was good working with Stella."
"She said the same about you. At least, I think that´s what she said." He grins. "Looks like you made a second friend today."
Pauline creases her forehead. "A second?"
Much as he´d done earlier, Ron points to a spot behind her.
Pauline turns and sees the duckling has followed her.
"Did he just hatch?" Ron laughs. "If you´re the first thing he saw, he thinks you´re his Mama.
"Oh, no no," she tells the duckling. "You go back to the pond where you belong." She opens the door and tries to shoo him outside. When that doesn´t work, she goes outside with him.
She heads toward the path that will lead her home. The duckling follows her. Surely he won´t follow her all the way home, but the chirping behind her confirms otherwise. She spins around to it when she nears a busy street she must cross. His webbed feet slap against the concrete. Cars whiz by. No way will the duckling get across the street without being run over. Abandoning him would be heartless.
"Come on," she says and leads him another way. It will take longer to get home, but the street they´ll cross will be less hazardous. She slows her pace so he can keep up. Pauline sighs. Whether she likes it or not, she´s involved again.
She arrives home and walks him into the powder room. She rushes out the door and quickly shuts him inside. She presses her ear against the closed door, listens for his chirp and is assured he´s all right.
Pauline paces the hall, thinking it unfortunate she´d never dusted the section of the library where the books about waterfowl are shelved. She hits the computer and spends hours researching ducks on the internet. A heating pad is added to the powder room floor, and a bit of watermelon becomes his first meal.
Kyle comes home before curfew, greets her with a nod and heads to the powder room.
She calls out. "There´s a duck in there."
He grumbles something unintelligible and opens the door. He´s back out in seconds, his expression priceless. "There´s a duck in there!"
She gives him a told-you-so look. "He followed me home from the park. I think I figured out a way to get him back in the pond tomorrow though."
By morning, the duckling´s chirp has developed into a full-fledged quack. Pauline walks him the same safe route she used the day before.
She arrives at the park, surprised to see Ron hauling trash to the dumpster.
“You´re working on a Sunday?"
"Just long enough to give Stella her supplies." He points to a distant spot where Stella´s working her litter stick around the swings.
"How many more hours of community service does she have?" Pauline asks.
"Oh, Stella´s service isn´t court appointed. She does this on her own."
If Pauline wasn´t in public, she´d smack herself in the forehead. Once again, she´d missed the bigger picture. Community service. All this time she´d been viewing it as punishment instead of the noble deed it can be.
She chews the inside of her mouth and gives Ron a sideways glance. "Got another stick?"
His smile grows wide. "Told you you´re righteous." He gets her the supplies. "We´d love to have you helping out on a regular basis."
"I will." Pauline smiles. Face it. She likes to get involved.
Besides, there´s a certain duckling she wants to watch grow up.