Ordinary Man

Glimpsing a familiar-looking man in her bookstore, on her rail car home, and then on TV that evening, Joyce feels compelled to identify and confront the potential stalker.

Woman reading a book

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Joyce looked up over her book as she took another sip of latte. She watched the man across the aisle rummaging through a table of books under a sign threatening Clearance: 60% Off. She wondered for a moment before she went back to her novel just where she had seen him before.

The browser was extraordinarily ordinary, would have been difficult to spot on a security camera playback. Although Joyce had the distinct impression their paths had crossed before today, if anyone had asked her, she could not have described the man without describing half the men in her office. Half a paragraph later, still wondering why he seemed so familiar, she looked up again. Ordinary Man was no longer there.

Even at 60 percent off, Breath of the Dragon wasn’t worth the price. Joyce put her cup and saucer into the bin, stuffed her crumpled napkin into the slot beneath, and dropped the novel back onto the clearance table on her way out. The bookstore latte proved a poor substitute for lunch, as her stomach reminded Joyce through the afternoon and three contentious clients.

Riding home on MARTA that evening, she saw Ordinary Man again, sitting near the opposite end of her car, seemingly engrossed in his tablet. Although Joyce stared at him for three minutes, he never looked up once to catch her gaze. It seemed to her unnatural. People on a train tend to keep tabs on their surroundings. She couldn’t believe he could be so oblivious to her scrutiny.

A stalker, maybe? Had some competitor or her ex-husband set someone to follow her? Joyce didn’t look the man’s way again until she reached her stop, then she stood suddenly and glared at the plump elderly woman with a shopping bag in her lap, sitting in the seat Ordinary Man had occupied.

After a long hot shower, Joyce made herself an omelet with lots of mushrooms, poured a glass of chardonnay, and sat down at her computer. While she harried her supper, she swiped through her news feed and, suddenly, there he was, Ordinary Man, wearing the same light gray jacket he’d had on in the bookstore and on the train. She stared at the screen, not hearing the reporter waxing eloquent about the shady politician indicted for mail fraud and conspiracy. The newsworthy Senator angrily raised his hand toward the camera, blocking his face from view. Everyone in the crowd behind him was gawking at him, except Ordinary Man, who stared straight at the photographer, straight at Joyce, as if he knew somehow that she would see him there.

 

Over her morning tea, Joyce formulated a vow that the next time she saw Ordinary Man, she would confront him, if the place were sufficiently public to be deemed safe. She would force him to speak to her, acknowledge his connection, confess why he was lurking in her space. Barring that, she hoped that having his cover blown, he would just disappear from her world.

Joyce watched for Ordinary Man on the train, in the street, crossing the lobby of her building, in the elevator, along the hall to her office. She didn’t see him all day, or during the week that followed. Every day, she passed hundreds of unremarkable human males, but Ordinary Man wasn’t among them. By the time a month had gone by, she’d completely forgotten him.

Over the next year, Joyce mollified numerous irate clients, rescued big deals for several of her colleagues, received a substantial and deserved raise, and decided she needed to look for a larger apartment. She was careful to eat a proper lunch every day and frequented the bookstore less and less.

On a sunny noon in October, hurrying down the street on her way back from a meeting in a client’s office three blocks from her own, she stopped short in front of the Latest Releases display in the bookstore window. There, on the jacket of Oft-told Secrets was the author’s headshot. Ordinary Man smiled up at her as if she’d just accepted his invitation to lunch. Joyce went in and bought a copy, just so she could read the blurb.

Ordinary Man, it turned out, had a name, Simon Catherwood. According to the book jacket, he lived here in the city with a cat named Naomi, and his book was a collection of short stories set mostly in a fictional village called Paces Crossing nestled among the mountains at the north end of the state. The author had, in real life, lived in the area during his childhood.

Joyce flipped through some pages, scanning what seemed to her rambling tales about mountain folk that only other mountain folk would want to read. She dropped the book into her bag. It might do for some late-night reading when she needed something to put her to sleep.

 

Oft-told Secrets wound up unread and out of mind on a shelf behind a box of tissue and a vase of roses more dead than red. Joyce, when not wrestling with her new responsibilities at work, spent her spare time exploring in search of a new apartment. She didn’t encounter Ordinary Man in the course of her inquiries. She had other things on her mind and soon ceased to wonder about him. Forgotten on the shelf behind the tissues, he gazed benevolently out of his book at nothing until a falling rose petal occluded his smile.

“Yes, it is an older building,” the rental agent said to Joyce during the fifth week of her search, “But the apartment is spacious, high ceiling, totally refurbished, updated appliances.” He raised the blinds in the big living room windows, revealing a motley mosaic of rooftops and a glint of river beyond. “Airy, too,” He went on. “Awesome view, good light. The previous tenant was a painter.”

Joyce nodded, tried to hide her enthusiasm. It seemed just the sort of space she’d been looking for.

“You’ll have good neighbors,” the agent kept talking as if she’d already signed the lease, “Most of the residents are artists, writers, academics. They appreciate the reasonable rents.”

Joyce continued her walk-through, flipping light switches, looking out windows, opening closets, peering into cabinets, as if she were still trying to make up her mind. The cleaners had been thorough. The rooms still smelled faintly of fresh paint.

Finally she allowed herself a smile. The agent wasn’t surprised when she said, “I’ll take it.”

The move went smoothly. Packing, sorting, discarding took a few days. When the relocation had been accomplished, Joyce could claim somewhat more space and somewhat less stuff to fill it. Ordinary Man narrowly escaped the cardboard boxes orphaned on the curb, and graduated to a bookcase among Joyce’s other mostly unread best sellers. She couldn’t see his smile sandwiched between other literary treasures. When she had more or less settled into her new digs, Joyce decided she needed to throw a party to celebrate her arrival.

The party, when it transpired, netted a small gathering. Joyce invited a dozen people, as many of her friends as she knew who could be counted on not to be loud or drunk by the end of the evening. Ten of them showed up. Her best friend Marcy was first to arrive and spent more time perusing Joyce’s excuse for a library than interacting with the other guests. Finally, Joyce tried to corral her into the general conversation.

“What’s this?” Marcy queried when Joyce stepped up beside her, holding a tray of figs and cheese. Marcy pointed to the back cover of Oft-told Secrets. “This doesn’t look like your usual fare.”

Joyce laughed, a little embarrassed by her admission, “I bought it because of the photo. I used to see the author occasionally wandering around the neighborhood near my office.”

“I think he lives in your building,” Marcy said with a sly grin.

“What?” Joyce took the book and handed the plate to Marcy.

“I’m sure it was him,” said Marcy, munching a fig, sensing gossip. “I saw him in the lobby, talking to some older woman when I came in. Do you know him?”

“You’re kidding,” said Joyce absently, staring at the photo. “I had no idea.” She thought she needed to read this book sooner rather than later. Marcy smiled conspiratorially, as if she knew more than she did.

Joyce retrieved the plate before Marcy could scarf up all the figs, handed back the book, and said, “I want you to meet somebody,” and steered her friend across the room to Barry Barnett, who, like Marcy, preferred the company of people in books to those loose in the wild. It turned out Barry had read Oft-told Secrets, and Joyce left her two friends merrily chatting on the subject while she tended to her party.

Marcy and Barry were the last to leave that evening. Joyce began gathering plates and glasses for the dishwasher. She didn’t want to face this mess in the morning. She found Ordinary Man lying face down on a chair.

“I’ll be watching for you,” she said aloud, as she put him back in his place.

 

Joyce watched for Ordinary Man for a week or so, coming in and out of her building, on the MARTA train, walking past the State University Campus. She’d seen an article in OurTown about a class he taught there. Joyce even suffered the bookstore latte more frequently during her lunch break, sitting every time across from the clearance table. Once or twice on the street, she thought she caught a glimpse of Ordinary Man. That she wasn’t sure, indicated in her mind that most likely she’d seen some other ordinary soul who looked like him.

A new male acquaintance named Brad distracted her for a whole month. Three dates convinced Joyce that Brad wasn’t worth cultivating. On the third date, he began recounting the same exploits, mostly involving football and auto racing, that he’d told her about on the first date. He was more than a free meal and concert ticket was worth. Post Brad, Joyce concentrated on work, redecorating her apartment, and confined her social outings to her women colleagues. Ordinary Man wasn’t even a memory any more, much less a curiosity.

One day, early in December, Joyce came home, sick already of hearing Christmas carols every waking moment, stood rummaging in her purse for her keys, as the tenant across the hall came out of his door behind her, set down his suitcase, locked his door, and said, “Hello, Neighbor.”

Joyce turned, and there he was, Ordinary Man, whose name she had forgotten for the moment, but whose face she instantly recognized. The voice. The smile. Mister Rogers, she thought. The eyes weren’t Mister Rogers, though. They were friendly eyes, pale gray, like washed slate. Not hostile or cold at all, just seeing. Looking into them, Joyce didn’t feel judged or weighed, just known.

“I like your book,” she blurted, disoriented, suddenly divested of all her conversational skills.

“Which one?” Ordinary Man said through his Mister Rogers smile.

Joyce couldn’t remember the title. “The one with the stories,” she said. She hoped he hadn’t written more than one short-story collection.

“Did you have a favorite?” Ordinary Man asked.

Joyce realized she had painted herself into a corner. “Actually,” she said, seeing confession as her quickest way out, “I haven’t read it yet.”

Ordinary Man laughed then, as if they were sharing a joke, “Well, read it, and when I’m back in town next week, maybe we can have lunch and you can tell me what you think.”

“I’d like that,” said Joyce.

They shook hands. Ordinary Man picked up his suitcase and started down the hall. Joyce opened her door, turned back just as he stepped into the elevator.

“I’ll read it.” She called.

Ordinary Man smiled his Mister Rogers smile again, waved. The elevator doors whispered shut, and Simon Catherwood disappeared one more time.

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