HERMAN GROOME first heard the sounds as he chipped old paint from around his window frames: the scrape of metal dragged across the ground and the clang when it fell. A whooshing followed, and sometimes voices, but he did not hear these every time.
He stepped down the ladder to get a better angle on the apron. Casement, Muntin. Stool. Stile. Before he began painting, Herman had looked up the name of each part of the window.
The scrape-clang, scrape-clang continued, and Herman found himself working in rhythm with it, moving the blade along with the scrape, on the clang dropping each curl of ivory paint into a bucket hanging from the back of the ladder.
Herman’s watch beeped. Every day at 3:45, he jogged around the neighborhood and up to the high school. As he returned the tools and ladder to the garage, he imagined his neighbors pulling aside their curtains to watch him, admiring his dedication, setting their watches by him. They’d squeeze the roll of fat along their stomachs and feel inspired by his example to start exercising themselves.
Herman changed into a navy track suit with silver stripes down the side. He jogged in place a little, threw a jab at nothing. “Steady, big man,” said a voice behind him. Two boys wearing sagging pants brushed past on skateboards. One boy’s boxers showed, with what looked like a piece of duct tape holding them together. Herman wanted to see if it really was duct tape, but he didn’t want to seem to be staring at the boy’s behind.
Herman continued down the sidewalk, admiring the rhythm of his feet slapping the concrete. He’d put in an application to teach at the high school but had not been hired. He might be called to substitute, but hadn’t yet. After teaching middle school for a few years, Herman was laid off just before he could get tenure. The students had puzzled him – their limbs sprouting inches overnight, until they didn’t know where their bodies began and ended, or knew too well. Some girls had complained that he stared at them. He admired the ease with which they moved through the school, navigating the hallways and each other. High school students would give him a change he needed, he had decided.
He barely thought of his own high school days. He had gotten good enough grades, had a few friends to go to the movies and play video games with, and to talk to about girls. None of it amounted to much. On weekends he bagged groceries and ran carts at a local store. He watched his classmates come in as couples, the boy’s hand resting on the girl’s lower back, and looked away as they stuffed candy or sodas or condoms into their pockets. When he got his first box of condoms his hand hovered for a moment, and when he went up to the register and paid, it felt like his greatest act of defiance.
Herman hoped the school would call. He hadn’t had a steady job in over a year. The headlines said education was a growing field, with good job prospects, but Herman hadn’t found it that way. Before his first hiring he’d substituted for two years, and then they had moved him around from building to building, grade to grade, and he never felt settled, never felt like he was given the chance to get the hang of it. Lately, he’d noticed grown men like himself delivering pizzas, stocking shelves, doing what they could to earn money. Even the baggers at the grocery store were older, he thought, as he ran past.
Three days after he’d finished the windows, he got the call. The phone rang at 5:30 a.m., and Herman answered it with a sleep-sodden voice. Yes, he could sub at the high school that day. He hung up the phone and turned onto his back, waiting for his eyes to focus. He had been awakened earlier by the strange scraping sounds. They rang in the night air for a few minutes, enough to rouse him, and then ceased. Sometimes he heard the low voices of men, their words indistinct. After a moment he rolled from the bed, twisted his feet into his slippers, and dressed.
Herman left early. He rode the bus and brought his track suit, planning to jog home at the end of the day. He was a vigorous man, still full of energy after riding herd on bunch of adolescents all day. He’d prove his value. They’d be begging him to sub for them all of the time, but he’d hold out for a permanent job.
The first two classes were study halls, and Herman paced the front of the room, eager to actually interact with students, to let them see what he was made of. He knew he looked soft, with his round face and receding hairline. His short and pudgy fingers. I’ll surprise them, he thought.
The third class was history. Herman gave them the prepared quiz and began to discuss the answers. He turned his back to write on the board and felt a small tap on his shoulder. A wad of paper rested against his shoe. Saying nothing, Herman returned to writing on the board. Another tap, a larger wad of paper. He scooped it up and tossed it overhand towards the waste basket. The paper bounced off the rim onto the floor. He walked over, bent to pick it up, and another wad hit him. He turned, aware that his face was reddening, that his pulse beat faster, and he forced himself to count to ten. Then he turned and threw the paper at the boy in the second row, the far end, because he had the biggest smirk on his face.
The boy caught the paper in one hand and whipped it at the boy in the next seat. Soon paper was being thrown and batted around the room. Herman watched eagerly for another piece to come his way, and when none did, he crumpled up papers on the desk and added them to the fray. It wasn’t until the bell had rung and the students gone that he realized all the quizzes he’d collected were missing, and a few other things that had been on the desk when he arrived. As the next class filed in, Herman collected papers from the floor and tried to smooth the crumpled sheets. He found only 17 of the 30 quizzes. Worthless quizzes, he thought, shaking his head. He tipped the remaining papers into the trash.
After school he changed into his track suit in the locker room. He jogged a few laps around the track and tried to see if anyone was watching, hoping no one would notice him looking. He heard a faint scrape-clang, scrape-clang. Shouting and laughing, the boys’ cross country team ran out from the building. They rounded the corner and headed away from the school. It wasn’t his way home, but Herman thought he could catch up and run with them for a while. The boys would marvel at his stamina, slap him on the back, and hope that when they got to his age they might be like him.
They headed out through the schoolyard and into the neighborhood behind the school Herman heard only his breathing and the slap of feet on the sidewalk. A few of the boys looked back and saw him, and jabbed their neighbors in the side. More heads turned, and Herman could see a ripple of awareness pass through the pack.
The boys paused at an intersection, jogging in place, waiting for the signal to turn, and Herman nearly caught up to them. He followed the arrows on the soles of the slowest boy’s shoes. Herman arrived as the light turned yellow, but he dashed across anyway, ignoring the horns of the waiting cars. The boys looked back. Herman followed.
Head down, breathing hard, Herman missed seeing the boys round a building. As he passed they surrounded him in a swirling, jostling circle. Herman dropped his hands, stopped, and smiled out at them. Wet, crumpled newspapers struck Herman’s head. The group laughed and ran off again, spiraling away from him.
Still Herman followed. The boys ran through an industrial park, circling buildings and jumping off loading docks, dodging behind graffiti-splattered semis, running up railings and leaping over parking blocks. Always further away. At last Herman came to a stop, panting, and bent over with his hands on his knees. He straightened up slowly, leaning to his left, and then his right, a hand at the small of his back. Herman wiped a sleeve across his forehead, rubbed his fogged glasses on his shirt. He hobbled to a picnic bench outside one of the buildings and sat on its crumbling green paint. Small puddles filled the uneven surface, and Herman considered his thirst. He laid his head on his arms in a posture of weariness and, confident no one could see him, lapped his tongue across the wet surface. Street lights came on around the buildings, and a group of crows settled into spindly trees dotting the berms. They unsettled Herman with their strange voices and constant discontent, the way they would perch for a moment, and then take to the sky again in big wheeling arcs. And the noises they made, the screeching noises.
It was full dark when Herman roused himself and started out again. He had hoped the boys would return, that he would hear their happy voices and pounding feet from a distance as they came back down the route they had taken out. He would be ready for them, would fall in behind as if he’d never left the group. Herman could hear cars passing on the main road, and headed that way.
Herman found a bus stop and waited. When the bus came he discovered his wallet was gone. He appealed to the driver, and the other riders, but they stared mutely at his short fingers, at his mud-streaked clothes and face. “Pay or get off,” the driver said. Herman returned to the curb and watched the bus pull away. Everything unfamiliar to him, he started walking,
When metallic scrapings and tappings rose out of the night, Herman headed towards the sound. Beneath a streetlight a large man strummed a washboard. A stack of mismatched bibles, their covers creased and worn, waited at his feet. The tips of his yellow gloves were cut off, and silver thimbles topped his fingers. The man’s hands stroked the folded metal from the bottom to the top, and then tapped their way back down. Every third or fourth trip the man rattled his fingers against the wooden frame.
Herman staggered up to the man. “I’m lost. I’m lost.”
The man pattered his fingers on the washboard, and looked up at Herman. “I believe you are, brother. But you can find your way.”
Herman nodded. “Which way do I go?”
“Why, the way of righteousness,” the man said, and laughed. The laugh ended in a coughing fit, and when the man spoke again his voice was raspy. “Now, I hope you don’t mind my saying so, but it looks like your path hasn’t been easy.” He smiled and shook his head. “No sir, the path can be rough. I could tell you, my own path has not been easy.” He chose a book from the stack at his feet and offered it to Herman.
Herman’s hand trembled as he reached out towards the man. They both watched it approach, and neither could say whether Herman had been reaching for the bible, or the man’s arm, or his throat. It never quite got wherever it was headed; Herman stopped and cocked his head. Faintly, as if whispering to him, Herman heard the scrape-clang, scrape-clang that had awoken him that morning.
“Do you hear that?” he asked the man.
“That… that sound. The scraping. The clanging. The voices. I don’t hear the voices now, but I did before.”
“Voices.” The man shook his head, and thrust the bible at Herman. “God bless you, sir. Take this. I know about them voices.”
Herman tucked the bible under his arm and stood with his head cocked, listening in the night. He limped off toward the sound.
The scrape-clang, scrape-clang drew him on. He had never felt so alone. Even in his house, by himself, he felt the pressure of his neighbors weighing the cut of his lawn and the lie of his roof shingles and the trim of his shrubbery. Even when they were away, he felt the inevitability of their return. Herman had wondered if they felt his absence, if they sat at old wooden tables in dim kitchens listening for his return, and finally knew they did not.
Herman shuffled down the street following the sound, the only direction he could find in the darkness. Freshly painted lane dividers and arrows and crosswalks shimmered before him. The scrape-clang, scrape-clang was very close, very loud. He turned the corner and saw a truck in the road, lights flashing, surrounded by men in orange and yellow reflective vests. Paint hissed from the truck in a white line. When it stopped, a man dragged over a metal stencil of an arrow, dropped it. He stood back, considered, and then flipped it over so that it pointed to the left. He lifted it again, turned it back and forth. Herman peered through the opening, a different perspective revealed with each movement: a line of parked cars, a white house with large windows, a dark and empty road. The arrow would point to one of them. Herman stood trembling, waiting.
“For God’s sake man,” shouted Herman. “Paint it. Paint it!”
Nancy Gold lives and works on the south shore of Lake Superior. She is currently working on a series of essays about traumatic brain injury. Her writing has appeared in Edify, The Quiet Circle, Swamp Ape Review, Moon city Review, A cappella Zoo, and other journals.