George loved to buy drinks for Beth, he loved to be around her when she drank, because when she drank, she became so relaxed and so much kinder, and she almost never lost control by becoming too drunk, at least not for the first several years. She just became happy, when normally she was guarded and dour.
It was a dark and stormy night. There was something they'd been talking about that George couldn't stop turning over in his mind as he sat in his car in the bar's parking lot, watching the neon light of the sign catch on the rain drops and turn them red on his windshield, while he waited for the car's engine to warm up. He'd told Beth about driving Molly to Josie's house, not worrying about betraying Molly's whereabouts on a school night, because it never occurred to Beth to worry about her daughter.
"Josie's probably having more problems with this man she used to see. I overheard the two of them talking about it," -- and Beth explained that an older man who'd been involved with Josie was following her around now, or so it seemed.
Things should matter more. Bad guys should be brought to justice. Men who say disturbing things to women who don't want to speak with them should be humiliated, the woman should scream at the top of her lungs, or cry, instead of holding it in, until everyone turns around to look at them and then sees, knows that the man has been doing something wrong. Normal people, who don't like novels and cats, who are outwardly aggressive, deserved to be made to feel embarrassed in turn when they embarrassed a weird person by responding to a question in an exasperated tone, or feigning superiority in any way. Human frailties should be protected, not teased out and diminished through crass, unrelenting humor. These things George believed. Sometimes it was truly unbelievable to him, the way things didn't seem to matter enough to other people, and he was unsure whether this was bravery or desensitization on the part of these people. For instance, when Beth had been telling him about the man who was after Josie (and by proxy, Molly), she was speaking of a grown man taking advantage of a young woman, but the words she used were so vague, she could have been talking about anything as benign as the girls being in trouble for shoplifting, and George had to remind himself: this man had fucked the child Josie and now wouldn't leave her alone -- this act was evil.
Now, as he backed out of the parking lot, lamenting Beth's parental negligence, he decided it was necessary to check up on Molly, or else something awful might happen, some new cruel or perverse incident that wouldn't register as unacceptable to anyone but himself. So he drove to Josie's family's house, mentally replaying the best parts of the evening he'd just spent with Beth, surprised when, pulling up to the house, he saw a man dressed in a bulky black parka and black pants standing with his back to the street, the binoculars he held to his eyes trained on the house. The man turned to face George as George got out of the car, slamming the door behind him. So this evil man really did exist.
"Hey old man, what do you want?"
The best George could compose himself was to reply, “This isn’t your house. What are you doing here?”
"How do you know I don't live here? I know you don’t live here.” The man was obviously enjoying the confrontation. “My wife is inside fucking our neighbor right now, old man. I'm just spying on her, just wracking up evidence for the divorce."
"That’s a lie. I know the people who live here."
“So do I.”
The man didn't smell like alcohol or weed, but there was something definitely wrong with him. He smelled like sweat. Pugnacious a moment ago, he became almost shy now.
“Are you Josie’s grandpa?”
George answered, “Yes, I’m Josie’s grandfather. What are you doing here? It’s not proper to be standing outside like this, no one knowing you’re out here.” But at the moment, he could not recall even what Josie looked like, he was thinking only of Molly, his smart, funny little friend, who he'd driven over here to save, because she’d intended, somehow, to protect Josie from this disgusting man who stood before him. George had a stooped posture and a slow gait caused by deformed toes on both his feet, and a lazy eye. He looked vulnerable and years older than he was, but goddammit, he thought to himself, goddammit, he was still a man, and his anger drove his basically fragile hand to Calvin's Adam's Apple, hard. Quickly, he punched the man next in the balls, and before the man could get more than one punch in, the punch that broke George's nose so that from now on his face would look different than it had the first 48 years of his life, George grabbed the man's ponytail and used it to pull him down to the mud. "I'll kill you," Calvin said, doubled over and rocking on the trash-speckled, muddy gravel that filled in the walkway in front of the gate. “No you won’t,” George said. He remembered what Josie looked like, all of sudden; she was like a foal walking unsteadily on legs that were too long, and when she spoke, it was so painfully evident that she was afraid the things she was saying were incorrect. And Molly, Molly meanwhile was a feminist; she prided herself on having hairy legs and hairy armpits, and arguing with grown men in a loud quivering voice whenever she spotted an injustice. But, just like Josie, she was a child. They needed protecting. Molly would live forever, George would make it so that Molly lived forever.
George kneeled on the gravel and watched the man writhing. He punched him again in the balls. "Goddamn it, she should have just called the cops on you,” he said out loud to himself through half-hysterical, soundless tears. “Stay away from them.”
The main thing that plagued him as he drove, first scared of himself, then exhilarated, sensing a rare clarity of action, to his apartment, was the fear that he'd somehow accidentally attacked the wrong man, that the lurker had not been Calvin. He would consider his soul irreparably doomed to hell if he'd made such a mistake.
So he called Molly, though he felt guilty calling so late.
"He's a kind of big guy with long brown hair and big eyebrows. I think he has a moustache sometimes. He's totally ugly and scary-looking, like with Charles Manson eyes, like, this gross, creepy stare," she told him. "Why, George? Did you see him?"
"Oh thank goodness, thank goodness," George said, never having felt more relieved in his life -- he'd done something right. "Molly, please don't get upset. I just beat him up. I drove by because I got really worried after your mom told me about Josie's problems with him. I really lost control when I drove by and saw standing outside the house. It's okay now though, he’ll leave you girls alone. But I, you know, I pulverized him, I think; I’m not very strong, but I played dirty. I – you know I don't believe in violence, but -- what do you make of all this, Molly? Are you mad at me? Maybe you should call the cops and say there’s a strange man knocked out in front of your friends’ house, and they’ll take him away. I didn’t stay to see if he was going to try to stand up…” George trailed off, and then he began another string of worried non-sequiturs. She knew she should interrupt him, and she grasped for some sentence to say out loud that would make sense of what he’d done, but she couldn’t think of what to say; she felt so full of gratitude it made her dizzy, like a wave of fever.
The next morning, she’d go to school, though the night before, she'd been planning on playing hooky with Josie. She called Josie as soon as she got home, and when she asked how Josie’s day had been, Josie responded, “Really amazing actually, but I did something that might upset you.”
“What did you do?”
“Well, I – you know how I have caller ID, and how Calvin calls sometimes and I don’t pick up when I see his telephone number on the caller ID screen.”
“Of course. You don’t want to talk to him.”
“Right. But this morning the phone rang, and I saw that it was him calling, and I was planning on answering and just screaming at him to leave me alone, telling him I was going to call the police or that I have a stun gun I’m going to use on him if I ever see him again or something, but before I could say any of this, he begged me just to listen to him before I hang up. He told me he only spies on me because he knows how vulnerable I am, and he wants to protect me. When I brought up some of the gross things he did to me when we were dating, like by way of saying ‘How can you wanna protect me when you’ve done bad things to me yourself?,’ he started to cry, he begged me to forgive him, and promised he’d never bother me again. He confessed to being outside the window last night, like we knew he was, and he said that he got beaten up really bad and mugged in front of the house. I actually feel bad for him, his voice sounded awful, like all raggedy and weak, like he’d been choked. I told him I forgive him, Molly, and I don’t think he’s going to stalk me anymore, I think he meant what he said. But I feel bad, because I know I have you all riled up to hate him on my behalf, and I really don’t hate him anymore. Are you mad at me?”
She would never tell her so, but Molly was mad at Josie; it seemed unforgivably wishy-washy of Josie to forgive Calvin, and she also felt foolish for having gotten so swept up in a melodrama that she’d thought had been a matter of life or death.
Now, why would Josie want to forgive Calvin? This, Molly couldn’t understand. She’d been molested by a babysitter’s teenaged son when she was three, and now she believed in there being bad guys, bad guys like in movies, like the irredeemably evil Lex Luther, like the Joker in Batman. She didn’t respect people who could maintain a position of ambivalence. Ambivalence was borne of an acceptance of most people’s moral ambiguity.
Not that Molly was ever very normal, but she became that much more uncommon the day after the rainy night on which George beat up a bad guy for her benefit. Vomit rising to her throat from a visceral sickness caused by what felt like Josie's betrayal, Josie who at different times had loved her maternally, sisterly and romantically, Molly ached to sink back into the comfort of her adults, her George and her Richard.
“Uh, I don’t really know what to say right now, Josie. I feel like you’re letting him trick you, you know? Or, I feel, like, bummed. I don’t know. Can I call you back later?” She never did.