Compassion by Tim Conley


Tim Conley

She had been the first to come home and found him, she told her husband half an hour later, when he too returned from a fairly depressing day of work, the kind of day when nothing goes wrong or badly, exactly, but there is a vague bite of disappointment with each passing hour. She had found the trussed man just as he was, right there on the front step. Was there a note, her husband asked, looking at the gagged man tied to the chair, trying to see past the bruises and burns and dirt to see someone he might identify. If there had been a note, she replied, I would have told you, I would have shown it to you, but as I have already said I found him just like this, no explanation. Her hands clapped together in front of her and held each other tightly, a habit she had assumed since quitting smoking in the winter, and she told him again that she had looked up and down the street of houses to see if anyone was about, pranking kids or someone who made a mistake, perhaps the wrong address, or even whether any of the other houses likewise had this sort of thing on their doorstep.

He’s not a thing, her husband said sharply, but she answered, I don’t know what he is, there must be a reason he’s like this, beaten and tied up. They were both silent a moment, first wondering whether the bound man was conscious or not, because it was not immediately ascertainable though sure enough he was breathing, and next wondering whether they ought to take him inside. It was a sunny day, gradually eliminating the last small clumps of snow on various lawns and corners, and the three of them were fairly visible where they were. The husband asked his wife if he had been moved at all and, misunderstanding the question, she said that his head may have lolled when she went inside with the mail but she wasn’t sure. I mean did you yourself move him at all, he said, and with a short glance that seemed to say, you should know better than to ask such a thing, she merely answered, I have been trying to think who we should call.

The husband set his coffee thermos and briefcase down on the cobblestone path to the house’s front door and bent down to examine both the man and the chair to which he was tied. The latter looked to be of cherrywood, perhaps part of a very old office, actually the kind of quality furniture you don’t see much of anymore, though its condition was nothing to boast about, for those scratches had really devalued the craftsmanship and it would take a lot of work to restore that chair, though, as the husband reflected, it would not be worse than the kind of pointless day of work he’d had at the office, in fact it would be much more meaningful, because after all of those hours of work you would have something to show for it, something solid that you could sit on. There was a smell of oil, at first he had thought it was furniture polish but of course that was just his fancy, this chair had not been near furniture polish for a good long time. Oil and also sweat, old sweat. One of the man’s eyes was so swollen that it probably could not open and there was a long streak of purple down the opposite jawline. His hair had been very roughly cut but not washed for some time and his clothes, a much-torn, no longer white or perhaps beige shirt and what might have once been grey trousers, were filthy. Some of the stains were probably blood: his ribs were visible through a wide tear in the shirt and the sores there were raw. His bare ankles were deeply cut by the rounds of wire that strapped them to the legs of the chair.

Who should we call, his wife repeated, and her husband said, I’m thinking.

The wrists were firmly and repeatedly knotted behind with a thick and blackly stained rope, the kind of rope the husband supposed one would find in the rough hands of dockworkers and longshoremen, shoring up dinghies and the like. When he pointed this out to her, his wife wondered aloud what experience he had with such things, he had never been on a working dock in his life, she had never known him to swim, even. He knew she was thinking of a vacation at the lake the two of them had promised each other for a few successive summers, years ago, but always something had come up to prevent their going. He used to like swimming, really like it in fact, but that was before he had taken to wearing glasses, and now the thought of being underwater unable to see perfectly clearly made him uneasy in a way he could not readily articulate.

He said, I don’t know, are you sure you don’t know who he is, I mean have you taken a good look at him.

I don’t want to take a good look at him, she answered, and now she was definitely thinking of a cigarette, but then she tried not to think of it because it had occurred to her when she had first arrived at the house and taken a good look at the bound man that the marks on his forearms could have been burns, burns made by cigarettes. Of course she had never before heard the sound of a cigarette being put out against flesh but suddenly thought she could hear it now, slowly repeating, a satisfying sound, a calming sound. She asked again who should be called, and suggested the police, but in a voice that let her husband know that it was not a strong suggestion.

Do you really want to do that, he asked without looking at her, now thinking about how difficult it would be to swim with one’s hands tied, especially tied from behind.

We should at least bring him inside, his wife said, this time with more confidence, which she always had whenever her first suggestion was challenged or rejected, but she had no idea why she made this suggestion, unless it was out of worry that they must look extraordinary to anyone watching. Perhaps someone had already called the police, perhaps the authorities were already on their way, perhaps they should leave things as they found them.

They are calling for heavy rain, her husband surprised her by saying, by way of mild agreement. And they looked at each other for a moment, exchanging by weary marital telepathy concerns about how to lift the man and chair into the house and what difficulties might be involved, where in the house to place him, what to do with him after that, how long the rain might last, if indeed it were to fall. There were few clouds in the sky and none of them at all dark. The wife was about to remark on this fact when the sound of a siren made them both turn their heads, but it quickly faded away and they found themselves looking again at the man in the chair.

Why did you ask me if I knew him, the wife asked suddenly.

I thought you might, her husband shrugged, you know lots of people, I wondered if he was from around here.

Maybe I should ask you if you knew him, she said.

Know him, he corrected, not knew him, he’s not dead yet, and why should I know him, I’ve never seen him before in my life.

Then why should I know him, she asked, why should I and not you, and don’t give me that about my knowing lots of people, at least the people I know don’t come home to this sort of thing.

He’s not a thing, he repeated with emotion.

Attracted by the rising volume of the conversation, the large-eared girl who lived down the street, known as someone whose curiosity often led her to being led home again by concerned adults, skipped into view and, when the husband and wife fell silent and stared at her, she advanced on them, brandishing a pair of safety scissors. She carefully looked at the man in the chair, then the couple, with many inscrutable blinks, and then gave her attention back to the scissors in her hand, whose action she demonstrated by cutting the air into strips.

Melissa, said the wife, unsure what else to say.

Scissor, scissor, scissor, came the reply, ess see eye ess ess oh ar.

When neither of them said anything for over a full minute, the girl became uncharacteristically bored and went skipping the way she had come. The husband had thought for sure that his wife would correct the girl, he was sure that she was fonder of children than she let on, and the wife was surprised that her husband had not told the girl that scissors was right and scissor was wrong, for she had little doubt that such errors grated on him. Both of them briefly wondered whether the girl had been testing them.

We should take him away from here, the husband said. He was again studying how hurt the man was and found himself trying to imagine what it would be like to punch a man like that, a man firmly tied to seat. It was hard not to imagine it once he had begun. He was not a violent man, had not thrown a punch since high school, but his imagination was generous now, entirely tactile in its offerings, so that his arm seemed to vibrate with the excitement, the pleasure of unprovoked fury, the revulsion.

That’s a better idea, said his wife, than taking him into the house. There was no enthusiasm in her words, however. Both of them saw right away that there would be no way of getting him into either of their small cars, at least not without untying him from the chair, and the husband nearly said that if they had a pickup truck they would have no problem, they could just lift him up and put him, chair and all, just as he was, in the back, and though he did not say this his wife could tell even without looking at him that he was thinking exactly this, for he had long wanted a truck but she had not seen how it would be practical.

The phone rang inside the house and they both went in to get it. The wife was there first and said, Hello, and the husband stood near her, looking around the house, their house, the same as it had been when he had left for work that morning. Yes, they’ve been saying it’s going to rain, but it hardly looks likely, she said, glancing at her husband, trying to read in his face what he was thinking as he looked around the house. He could tell from the voice she was using that it was neither her mother nor his on the phone but his concentration was elsewhere. His wife was saying that they sometimes get it wrong, who can predict the weather, while her husband was looking at the furniture and the carpets and the framed pictures and the appliances and thinking about how strange it is that none of them had changed, that they were all just as they had been when he had left for work that morning. That sounds very nice, but the thing is, no, I simply mean we can’t this evening, his wife was saying, and he recognized that the voice she was using on the phone, a voice she used with certain friends and people from work, was strained but only strained enough that he would recognize it, not the person on the other end.

When she managed to say goodbye and hung up a few moments later, she found her husband sitting on the couch in the living room, lost in thought. She sat down in the armchair across from him, an old armchair they had both long ago agreed to replace, and waited for him to say something. There was no sound of rain outside. There was no sound at all.

He said, Let’s have a child.

About the Author

Tim Conley’s last book was Whatever Happens (Insomniac Press, 2006), which was shortlisted for the Re Lit Award. This story is part of the next collection he’s putting together. For better or worse, he lives in St. Catharines, Ontario (Canada).