Quiet Desperation

By Joe Giordano

Clifford woke when the baby coughed. His wife, Betty, snored like a chainsaw. He padded across their studio apartment and took Clifford Jr. from his crib, clutching the child to his chest, patting the baby’s back, to loosen phlegm allowing him to breathe. The baby fell asleep, and Clifford returned to bed.

Betty’s eyes opened.

Clifford said, “He needs a specialist.”

Betty sighed. “With what money?”

“What if we have a crisis?”

“Emergency Room,” she said.

“That’s crazy.”

“Find a better job.” Betty rolled away.

The next morning, Betty warmed the baby’s bottle while preparing a tuna fish sandwich for Clifford’s lunchbox. Clifford gulped coffee with the Philadelphia Inquirer opened on the table.

Clifford said, “Ninety-seven million people won’t vote in the Presidential Election.” He shrugged at Betty. “I haven’t registered. What’s the point?”

On a moderate fall afternoon; the sun hung on a blue canvass with wispy, white streaks like drippings from a Pollack paint bucket. Clifford sat on a bench above Crum Creek eating his lunch.

A black man wearing a tattered cardigan approached. “Have any spare change?”

Clifford reached into his lunchbox. “How about an apple instead?”

The black man smiled. He was missing two incisors. “Much obliged.”

Swarthmore wasn’t the worst place to be on the street, but Clifford thought, better to be homeless in Hawaii. He watched “Hawaii Five-O” regularly, and the weather was always perfect. Fresh pineapple rather than Macintosh handouts would be a plus. How would a poor guy get to Hawaii? There were days that Clifford wanted to escape. Leave Betty. Now, with the baby’s illness, how could he? What if his son succumbed? Too scary. Still, someplace idyllic, away from worry and drudge, drew him.

The distant chant didn’t disturb Clifford’s contemplation until a crowd of students with Swarthmore sweatshirt insignias approached. “Make racists afraid again.”

Clifford’s eyebrows rose. He munched his tuna sandwich.

A professorial-aged woman, with half her head shaved and the other half with shoulder-length purple dreadlocks, carried a sign, “Nasty women against Trump.” She spotted Clifford’s gaze and strode to him.

“What are you looking at?”

Clifford stirred as if awoken.

She continued. “You look like a white-privileged misogynist. I bet you’ll vote for Trump?”

Clifford swallowed a mouthful of tuna, but didn’t respond.

“Won’t admit it? You probably lack the education of a toad.”

Clifford stiffened. “I finished high school.”

“Figures.”

Clifford averted his eyes.

The woman rejoined the other marchers.

That evening, when Clifford entered his apartment, Betty was at the stove. “Clifford, you look troubled. Something happened at work?”

“No.”

Betty wiped her hands on a dish towel. “I’m sorry what I said about your job. I’ll go back to work as soon as I feel safe leaving Clifford Jr. with daycare. We’ll afford the specialist. We’ll be all right.”

Clifford nodded. The couple hugged.

Betty said, “You still look sad. Is there something else?”

“Not really. Do you know if I can still register to vote?”

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Joe Giordano was born in Brooklyn. He and his wife, Jane, now live in Texas. Joe’s stories have appeared in more than 100 magazines including The Saturday Evening Post and Shenandoah. His novel, “Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story,” was published by Harvard Square Editions October 2015. His second novel, “Appointment with ISIL,” an Anthony Provati thriller, was published by HSE in June 2017. Read the first chapters of Joe’s novels and sign up for his blog at http://joe-giordano.com/

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