Neutral Territory


Zara Wilder

 

 

 

Catherine and Elliot walked slowly along West 67th Street, a couple blocks away from Catherine’s apartment building, carefully not touching one another. The day was brisk and moist, although the air felt warmer than it had earlier in the week. Weather forecasters predicted a pleasant Easter Sunday for the morrow. 

“If the Dutton Foundation needs a consult,” Elliot was saying, continuing their luncheon conversation, “I can put them in touch with Merilyn Cox. She’s got a fantastic instinct for communal facilities. Her last project was designing a Sangha hall for a Buddhist monastery in the Catskills. Really beautiful work.”

 

Catherine smiled. If Elliot called a building beautiful, it probably was. “Well, my connection with the Foundation doesn’t really involve me in any advisory capacity,” she said. “I’m simply keeping an eye on this project out of respect for Margaret. I feel I owe it to her to watch over the process.”

 

“And you want to make sure they interfere with Margaret’s intentions as little as possible?” Elliot asked.

 

“Exactly.”

 

“Sounds like the Chase Shelter for the Homeless is finally off to a great start.”

 

“The start it deserves,” Catherine replied. “The beginning that Margaret’s memory deserves.”

 

“I’m glad, Cathy.”

 

She glanced up at him. His magnetic green eyes invited deeper gazing.

 

“And I think I’ll give Merilyn a call on Monday. See if she’s interested,” he said.

 

“I’d appreciate that,” Catherine murmured.

 

From behind them came the sudden sharp click of a camera shutter and the minute creak of a reel advancing film. Catherine and Elliot looked back. A sallow, wiry, white-sneakered man wearing jeans and a black windbreaker stood on the sidewalk, hunched in that peculiar manner of a harried photojournalist selecting the perfect angle for his next image capture. Now that their faces had turned toward him, the man hurriedly snapped another photo.

 

“Oh, hell,” Catherine growled under her breath. “He must have followed us from the café.”

 

Elliot turned his back on the man and kept walking. Catherine stayed beside him, frowning at the sounds the camera made in their wake. She loathed tabloids and gossip columns. Somehow, though, her life kept supplying delicious grist for the city’s vast rumor-mill empire to grind.

 

“I’ll leave, if you want me to,” Elliot offered. “Cross the street at the next corner.”

 

“No,” Catherine sighed. “Don’t do that. It’s still a very nice afternoon, and I’m determined to enjoy it with you.”

 

Elliot smiled.

 

“I only hope this jerk makes a pittance of what he’s expecting for those pictures,” Catherine added distractedly, uncomfortable with the warmth of Elliot’s smile. “Can’t he find any actors or rock stars to harass?”

 

“We’re local highlights,” Elliot replied. “We provide a valuable change of pace for the gossipmongers.”

 

“You make it sound like voluntary public service.”

 

He shrugged. “Maybe it is. Or could be. The high life comes pre-packaged with high visibility. Shun the cameras too much, and people get suspicious. They start wondering what you’re trying to hide from the glare of the public eye. Give them just enough of what they expect—just a handsome on-again-off-again couple walking out of Café des Artistes on a fine spring day, say—and we blend right in with the domestic scenery. Nothing fancy, nothing much to obsess over.”

 

“Make a ripple, not a wave,” Catherine said, quoting her Grandmother Heathcott, “and certainly not a splash.”

 

Elliot nodded soberly. “Ripples reassure people.”

 

Click. Wind, wind, wind. Click.

 

Catherine squared her shoulders and did her best to ignore the nuisance that continued to follow them.

 

Vincent could send him packing easily enough, she thought, privately vengeful. Then she returned her attention to Elliot alone. She knew from bitter past experience that thoughts of Vincent and thoughts of Elliot did not mingle well in her mind.

 

“We’re not any kind of couple, by the way,” she told him. “No matter what the papers end up saying about us. I want to be very clear about that.”

 

“Clear as glass,” he said. “It’s just good to talk with you, Cathy. One human being to another.”

 

He sounded calm and sincere. Trusting. Trustworthy.

 

Catherine let down her guard a little more. “So where were we? Before the freedom of the press so rudely interrupted us?”

 

“The homeless,” Elliot answered.

 

“Right.”

 

“You know, I read in the Times this morning that there’s an architect in San Francisco who says he’s found the solution to the homeless problem.”

 

“Really,” Catherine said, raising one eyebrow.

 

“His name is Donald MacDonald,” said Elliot.

 

Both eyebrows went up.

 

“True story,” Elliot went on. “His master plan? Four-by-eight-by-four-foot plywood boxes with a door and windows. Room inside for one occupant, a mattress, a shelf, and a footlocker. He calls them ‘City Sleepers’ and he’s got homeless men living outside his office in the parking lot. Apparently it’s supposed to be a more secure upgrade from the traditional alleyway cardboard domiciles.”

 

“That’s...that’s absurd!” Catherine retorted, appalled. “That’s a dog kennel.”

 

“That’s his idea of low-cost dignity.”

 

Catherine imagined street kids living in a shanty town of plywood boxes in some vacant city lot. She imagined her friends from the Tunnels having to crawl into a box for the night. Dainty Rebecca, matronly Mary, or poor Mouse with no room for his gizmos. She doubted whether Winslow would even fit inside so tiny a construction. And poor Father, an aged man, Margaret Chase’s one true love, with his walking stick or crutch and his sore leg and hip—

 

“Maybe Donald MacDonald should try living for a week in his office parking lot,” she said, her voice cold. “I wonder how dignified he’d feel then.”

 

“I think you and the San Francisco city officials share the same opinion on the matter,” Elliot said gently.

 

They turned the corner onto Columbus Avenue, went on a few paces, then paused and looked back. The photographer did not appear. He must have gotten what he came for, Catherine thought.

 

And standing beside Elliot on the sidewalk, beneath the open sky, a brief walk away from home, Catherine found herself remembering the sickening sight of Vincent, lying trapped inside a steel cage, its dimensions similar to an upended City Sleeper. The only dignity in that situation had emerged from Vincent’s own gracious nature and personal integrity. Her imagination utterly rejected the image of her beloved Vincent humbly creeping inside such a space to try to sleep.

 

A cage. A kennel. A deluxe-sized coffin.

 

Catherine shivered inside her coat.

 

“We’ve really got to do better for people,” she said. “Somehow.”

 

“It’s the somehow that’s the hard part,” Elliot replied.

 

Catherine brushed her gloved fingers across the shape of the crystal pendant she wore beneath her blouse, drawing strength and comfort from its presence. Vincent’s anniversary gift to her last Sunday. Her priceless keepsake.

 

It reminded her that Vincent and his people were not homeless. They had a safe place, a place they had created for themselves. They had each other, and she had them. She had Vincent. That was home enough and plenty.

 

Elliot was watching her think.

 

“Sorry,” Catherine said with a sheepish grin. She lowered her hand to her side. “Urban poverty is just...such a complex issue.”

 

“One you’re passionate about, though.” Elliot stood with his hands in his overcoat pockets, waiting patiently for her.

 

“It’s a newly acquired passion,” Catherine said. She began to walk once more. Elliot joined her.

 

“New like your job with the District Attorney?” Elliot asked.

 

Catherine nodded. “Yes, it’s just about that recent.”

 

“It’s been a hell of a year for you, hasn’t it?”

 

Catherine looked up at him. “Actually, no. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’d call it closer to heavenly.”

 

This time his gaze was decidedly admiring.

 

“So,” Catherine ventured, before his admiration could progress into anything regrettably verbal. “Any homeless shelter projects in your near future?”

 

Elliot chuckled. “No. I’ve got something much bigger in mind.”

 

“Bigger?”

 

“Mm. The new tower. We’re only haggling over the permitting at this point. The property is shovel-ready.”

 

“Sounds like you’ll be busy.”

 

He smiled a bright, cheerful smile. Elliot loved being busy more than anything. “Let’s just say I’d like to be very busy, very soon.”

 

“I wish you luck,” Catherine said. “I hope everything goes smoothly for you.”

 

“Me too.”

 

They walked in silence for a time, still not quite comfortable with each other, but also no longer estranged from each other. Amiable allies, Catherine hoped. Elliot would always be a man with whom she shared a spark of—something. An affection indefinable and undeniable. Could that spark settle into a warming flame of friendship? Could she accept that kind of ambient radiance and be content with it? Could Elliot? Catherine had no definite answers. She knew only that it felt good to walk with him, forgiven for her prior hasty condemnation of his motives, at peace with a man she cared for. It all felt very good to her.

 

They neared her block. Catherine let him cross the street, then stopped on the corner, not wanting him to come any further with her. They were leaving neutral territory now. Catherine did not feel ready for anything more today. Cars rolled past them. The breeze tousled Catherine’s hair.

 

“Elliot, thank you for lunch.”

 

“Thank you for taking my call,” he replied.

 

She lowered her eyes, remembering the torrent of phone calls she had ignored after she broke off her budding romance with him. She now regretted refusing to give him any chance to explain himself. He really had deserved better.

 

“Cathy?” Elliot asked, and he bent close to her, still without touching her.

 

Catherine looked up. He was handsome and charming as ever. There was kindness in his face.

 

“And thank you for trusting me,” he said.

 

She smiled at him again. “I owe you that much.”

 

He shook his head. “This is not supposed to be a transaction, Cathy. Not a debt.”

 

“This?” she asked.

 

“Our...friendship.”

 

Friendship. The word spoken aloud at last. A definition she could work with.

 

“Okay,” she said.

 

Elliot sighed, satisfied.

 

They said nothing more to each other. An exchange of smiles, a nod from Elliot, and he walked on down the sidewalk.

 

Catherine turned and continued toward the entrance to her apartment building. It was complicated, this friendship she was attempting to revive. Maybe dangerous. Elliot was a dangerous man in more ways than one. But danger did not deter her. Not anymore. She wouldn’t let it. To gain much, one had to risk much. And Catherine was willing to risk everything for the chance to make things right with him. Today, they’d shared a good beginning. A fresh start they both deserved.

 

~

 

{ back to Monthly Creative Challenges }

 

Return to B&Bland home