“Passerby” by Samuel Hasler


So, I decided to stretch my legs. I told my friends, Ahab and Poe and Omar, I would be back in a few, to finish their beers. All three of them wanted to know where I was going. I didn’t want to tell them my curiosity was itching, or they would have tagged along to make sure I didn’t get into trouble. They knew my history with Muncie. Thing was, now that I was back here, I wanted to see what was left of my history- for all its sordidness. I told them I just needed a little fresh air. I didn’t know Poe was following until I was out the bar’s door. There I was, scanning the street and taking in the changes since my incarceration. How, in the Indiana sunlight, the town gave off the aura of prosperity restored- of no longer being a Rust Belt poster child. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Poe looking up at me with disapproval in his dark eyes.

“You should not lie to your friends,” he told me.

I started to protest, to again lie, but by now I knew Poe well enough to know when not to argue with him. I told him what I had in mind.

I also explained my motivation. “I just want to see if any of the people I knew might still be around. I didn’t want a posse trailing along with me. Too many people might not be a good idea. I just want to take a short walk and I wanted to make it a quick one. Okay?”

Poe shook his head, pursed his lips, and in his eyes, there was more than his usual sadness.

“You want to locate your friends with whom you engaged in criminal activities.” 

Close. Too close for comfort. So, I felt the need for further explanation.

“Well, not for the criminal activities part. I wonder what became of them… one in particular. That’s all.”

“Then let us go forth,” he said. “I am curious about your old, secret life.”

He smiled and I knew he was either going with me or we were staying here. I started moving eastward and he walked beside me. He said nothing. His silence prodded at me and loosened my tongue.

“You know how it is,” I said, “wanting to know the end of the story. That’s all I want.”

Poe replied, “I always knew the endings of my fiction and built the story to the effect I ended to produce. With life, that story we tell ourselves and to others, we all know the ending consists of disease, decay, death, and disappointment.”

I nodded without looking at him. I had formed my own opinions over my ten years of imprisonment.

I said, “I expect death and I guess that might be a bit of a disappointment.” 

“Are you looking for the woman?” he asked.

You’d think a genius would have a little more tact or discretion.

“I thought I told you I couldn’t be around known felons and I know she’s a felon. Not that I wouldn’t mind knowing if she’s still alive. I know she’s not been in prison for ten years and I’ve got no clue how she did that without being dead. She wasn’t that good of a criminal. You’re being too much of a Romantic, Poe. It’s not like we had a love that was more than a love. She was just a woman who was in my life for a long time.”

Poe said something that I almost couldn’t hear, but I am pretty sure was, “No one has a love that is more than a love; we just keep hoping for one.”

We said nothing more as we left downtown for what the locals call the Low End. Here, the city had what passed for them as their housing projects. Better that we were doing this in the daylight, at night two white men walking about would have been probable cause for a police stop, and for the residents a cause for mistrust that might not end well for us. The walk took all of maybe ten minutes. We saw no one else walking about.

I stopped across the street from had been Molly and Saul’s place. Actually, it belonged to

Saul’s family and Molly had just moved in with him. Except nothing was there but green grass. Ten years ago, there had been a brick, two-story house. Also gone were the house next to it on the west side, and the building that had been across the street to the east. I know the house needed a new roof over the kitchen and they had lived without water or sewage, but it seemed a solid enough building. I thought then and there that the city had gotten on a clean-up kick- but where had the crackheads gone? Poe kept turning to me just enough that I knew I remained steadfastly in the corner of his eye.

“That’s where it was,” I said.

“I should have mentioned destruction,” he said.

“I expected to find the house,” I said before I started telling him about the place and the people who had lived there. How I had met Molly through the woman Poe feared I was on the hunt for… How through her I had met Saul… How I had spent time with them smoking crack, hoping my ex-girlfriend would show up and tell me she had left the guy she had moved in with. How I had gotten the idea that if I got caught by the cops in this place, then I would have an excuse for suicide… How the cops never came in and she never showed up and the federal government had taken me away from all this, including suicide… How I had no idea of how to find them- which now looked like it was fated, and for my benefit.

“You think I do not know about the poor,” he said. “That I have no sympathy for the unfortunate. I was poor and I cannot say I was overly fortunate. I can understand your attachment to such people.”

Poe surprised me. I expected hard, sarcastic words, and no one tops Poe for sarcasm. Instead, he spoke with the mildness of a September morning.

I said, “That’s that. We had better head on back.”

Which we did. About halfway back down the block was a blonde female. She wore one of those puffy parka coats and what I still think of as flannel pajama pants. The pants were this reddish, pinkish design on white that no one puts on any kind of clothes but pajamas. The style of clothes I thought of as a uniform for the homeless. She walked stiffly as if her knees were locked. On her face was a blue mask. I thought it interesting that even the homeless were afraid of COVID.

She had not gotten far when we passed her. I gave her a glance. After all, she was a blonde – even if I didn’t think she could be my blonde. My blonde wouldn’t be out here in the daylight, not on foot, not walking like that, and never in that get-up. Then I saw the blonde’s eyes and what I could see of her face. I stopped and called out my ex’s name.

The blonde stopped, too.

I got closer and she looked up at me. It was then I truly saw her eyes.

They were pinpricks. I have seen those eyes mischievous and laughing and excited and sad and crying and shocked and withdrawn and conniving and eager and angry. Never had I seen them looking without seeing. Never had they lacked life. My brain grasped at the straw of this wasn’t her. I spoke her name again.

I felt the lack of recognition. We’d been in each other’s lives for almost twenty years. We had torn-up sheets and desecrated desktops. We had seen each other so high on crack that we embarrassed ourselves. We had been as intimate as two people can be without having a joint bank account. Her not knowing me was a kick to the crotch of my ego.

Before my brain could kick in, I said, “You’re alive.”

I couldn’t make out what she said to that, maybe because of the mask. Maybe.

What I heard was a croaking mumble. The voice wasn’t what I remembered. What it had been was a reedy soprano- that could mock and tease and inflame and argue.

I kept on blurting out questions. This time I asked where she was living. Now, I understood her answer.

“Nowhere in particular.”

Still no recall in her eyes, so I pronounced my name. She stared at me, through me. I’m pretty sure she didn’t see me. Nothing changed in her eyes or her face. I had seen her high on crack cocaine way too many times to give a number. Never had I seen her dull, withdrawn, listless like I saw her on that sidewalk. Whatever she had running around her brain was some new drug. She didn’t know me. I didn’t understand who it was standing there. This was her face, her body, without anything else recognizable.

My brain caught up with me. My probation officer promised me a polygraph in my future, and if I mentioned even talking to a former felon, he might send me back to prison.

I told her I was just out of prison and couldn’t be talking to a felon and all she did was stare at me. I am not even sure she actually saw me for all of her looking at me.

Then she said, “Okay. I got to go meet someone. What was your name?” I told her again and saw again nothing registering on her face.

She mumbled, “Take it easy.”

I turned to Poe. His eyes were on her. They were studying her.

I told him we should go. All of a sudden, I had this urge to get away from her.

“We certainly should,” he said. We had some distance between her and us when he spoke again.

“That was your former lady friend.”

“What’s left of her,” was my answer. “She was never like that in the old days. It’s like she’s empty. Like she’s a ventriloquist’s dummy.”

“I have seen her like,” he said. “I confess to alcohol having put me in similar states when I was younger. My diagnosis would be laudanum.”

My own brain felt more than a little numb. I didn’t quickly answer Poe. His clearing his throat reminded me he had spoken,

“I heard this town has gotten hit hard by the opioid crisis. It’s just I cannot figure it out…. Cocaine was always her thing. She didn’t like to slow down. It was like she was trying to get away from something, and now she’s like stuck at zero.”

Poe’s voice was soft, “My own complaint against opium. I never understood how Coleridge managed to work under its influence and but then he was Coleridge and even his art could not be denied under an opiate stupor.”

“Well, she’s no Coleridge, is she?” I said and immediately didn’t like the tone of my voice or how Poe reacted.

“So, you then did love her,” he said with the flatness of a pronouncement from a hanging judge.

I answered quickly enough for him to find himself justified in his conclusion.

“I never really knew what love was all about, except I wasn’t good at it. Poe, I owe her a debt.”

“What sort of debt?” he asked.

“Thanks to her I survived prison and… and… I backhanded her once.”

That stopped him in his tracks. What I saw on his face must have been what the old books meant by aghast. I felt myself blush under his stare. “Why the devil would you do such a thing to a woman?”

“We were out in my car smoking crack. She said that she loved me, and I lost control. There wasn’t any thought to it. She had moved Tommy in with her when she’d told me she wasn’t going to do it, and I was just infuriated she thought she could con me. That’s when I knew I was losing my sanity.”

Then, it was shock and hurt and fear and resentment that filled her eyes. Not the numbness I had just seen.

He nodded but his eyes bore into me. I knew he could never conceive of any reason to strike a woman. He had said so to me. I was thinking- he’s thinking how I never confessed to having done so before now. I looked away. It’s a hell of a thing when a friend discovers you are a coward.

“But she’s not there,” I said. “How do I pay a debt to someone who doesn’t really exist anymore?”

Poe spoke evenly, slowly, “The body still lives but the mind seems blank since she did not know you. I suggest you do whatever you can to redeem yourself to your memory of the woman that was- and let that woman go her chosen way.”

Which made sense to one part of my mind while another thought there had to be something I could do to help her escape whatever addiction that now had its grip on her. Poe had forgotten to mention doom when he was outlining the story of life. Yet another part of me wanted me to get far away from her.

I turned back to her, thinking there was something I should do. A voice in my head asked when had I ever done her any good- had I not given her money to feed her crack habit?

She’d once said something about men trying to control her life. Had I not been just another of those men? Would I not be one of those men if I went back to her? I saw her tottering on the sidewalk, failing to light her cigarette. Again, there was this urge to get away. Self-preservation told me to leave her — or go back to prison. Poe pulled on my arm. I listened to the voice of self-preservation. We continued walking. This time I did not look back.

Samuel C. Hasler is a former lawyer, a lifelong resident of Indiana, and currently resides in Muncie, Indiana. He took up writing again after he retired from practicing law. This is his first published story. He publishes a blog, Still Educating Sam Hasler.