Mostly this is a piece of fluff, and unquestionably a shaggy (or snarling) dog story--so don't look for an important message here--just enjoy the ride!
Many thanks to Janet Kinzer for her excellent suggestions, which help give the story humor, nuance, and some edge.
PS--this story has real roots--the conceit derives from a wire service report I saw in the NYT last autumn--here's a link to the story:
LIMITS OF DISTURBANCE
By Alan Abrams
THE FLASH OF THE CAMERA brought him back into the moment. His mind had drifted, back to the last time he got busted, with that girl in the woods behind the arboretum. Got off easy that time, misdemeanors. A hundred each, for “being naked in his person.” Fifty for the pot. Or was it the other way around?
“Ditch it!” she’d hissed at him, when the searchlight interrupted them. But by the time he wriggled back into his jeans, and fidgeted the bag out of his pocket, the two cops had crashed through the brush, playing their five cell lamps on them all the way. All he could do was hand over the bag, grinning lamely. Wonder how long they were watching...
“Give me your right hand,” ordered the little blonde. Her hands were warm and moist, as she applied his fingers to the inkpad. His were cold. “Now the left.” He could smell her perfume. In her earlobe was a gold stud in the shape of a heart. Maybe she’s not a dyke. Maybe it’s the Kevlar vest, the blocky blue trousers, the dorky shoes—take all that away and maybe she's kind of cute.
He gave her a wellpracticed smile, one that he knew forced out a dimple. She screwed up her face, trying not to smile back, but two quick snorts erupted from her nostrils. Smiling, she shook her head and said, “Please take a seat on the bench, Mr. Wolfe.”
He sat down. He could hear the buzz from the fluorescent lights over his head. Damn. This time it’s serious. Car theft. With that stupid prior, looking at some time, for sure. What time is it? 7:45. Damn, it all happened so fast. How did things get so out of whack?
He met her at the coop, where she worked a register. Occasionally, he’d stop in to pick up something for lunch—a tray of
rolls, or a turkey sandwich, since they started carrying meat. He’d fiddle around at the power bar display until her line was the shortest, and chat with her while she rung him up. California
Her name was Shelly. She was putting in her time there to get the discount on groceries. Her massage practice brought in some cash; once in a while, she earned a little more giving yoga lessons.
It wasn’t that he was hitting on her—clearly, she was older. But there was an openness, a childish innocence about her, that attracted him and put him at ease. Still, he did not give her much thought until one morning last week when his back went out.
A day prior, the old man had sent him to pick up a load of sheetrock, and deliver it to one of their projects in Kensington. Wolfe flipped down the tailgate, and told the fork lift operator down at Galliher’s to keep loading the truck until the rubber cushions under the truckbed sat just touched the rear axel—hopefully, he could haul the entire load in one trip.
The truck was only a half ton, and it wallowed in the ruts and potholes of the unpaved yard. The rock hung over two feet out beyond the tailgate, and the edge of the bottom sheets dragged when he cleared the apron and moved out, headed north on Blair Road. He prayed no cops would see him like that, ass dragging and front end floating. He prayed harder that the tires would hold out, because there was no way the jack would lift the back end with that load, and the spare—if it had any air in it at all—was worn to the cords.
But suddenly, after he’d made it all the way up to
Georgia Avenue, he remembered the CD’s he’s been carrying for three days. Damn. More frigging late fees. So he swerved into the left lane, and barely making the light, hung a u-turn. The truck yawed sickeningly, but finally straightened out without anything slipping off, and he drove back the two miles to the video store on . Laurel
He pulled up to the curb under a sign that said No Parking. He was going to shove the tapes into the slot and run, but peering through the glare on the storefront, he got a glimpse of the girl behind the counter. He pulled open the door, jangling a thong of sleigh bells. “Yo, Don,” he said to the girl.
“It’s Donna to you, buster,” she replied, wrinkling her nose at him.
Donna was more than a head shorter than Wolfe, with raven black hair except for a crimson streak that fell across her forehead. Indian, or Filipina, or something. How do you tell? Those mixed girls are always a knockout. She was wearing skin tight elastic pants trimmed to look like jeans, and an embroidered peasant blouse that stopped just short of her waist. A tantalizing ring of flesh bulged over the top of the jeans. Man would I like to...
She noticed him gawking. “Hey, creep, don’t drool on my counter.”
He shoved his right fist under his T-shirt and bumpbumped it over his heart. “Kathump, kathump, kathump,” he said, rolling his eyes. "Hey, remember that Eastwood flick you recommended? Where he plays the old bounty hunter?”
“Yeah, it's in. Been holding it for you forever, for crissake.” As she leaned to reach under the counter, the top of her blouse fell away from her chest. He tried not to look, but his eyes tumbled down her décolletage. Oh my. All real. She retrieved the disc and passed it across to him. Did she notice?
“Thanks,” he said. “You want to come over and watch it with me?”
“No thanks. Seen it, twice. Anyway, aren’t you back together with Cortney?”
“Man, I tried. All we did was drink and fight. I had to get out of there—I’m crazy enough on my own, without that...” He started to say bitch, but then paused.
“You know, Don, it’s not like I hate her or anything. We just set each other off. I wanted it to work out, but maybe I’m not cut out for being married.”
“I never understood why you got hitched in the first place. You were the brainy one, bound for college and all.”
“Yeah, guess I wasn’t as smart as I seemed. Everyone wanted her to get an abortion—even Cortney—but I talked her out of it.”
“Jeez, I never knew. Hey, how old is
now, six, seven?” Willow
“No, she just turned five, but she’s smart as hell. A smart aleck, too. I guess in the long run, I’m glad it turned out the way it did. She’s totally cool. Started kindergarten this week.”
“Hey, is that your truck? The meter maid just parked across the street.”
“Shit! Gotta go. But hey, why don’t come over tonight; we’ll get a pizza.”
“I’d really like to, but I’m sorta seeing someone.”
“Oh. Oh well, lucky guy, I guess.”
“You better go, looks like she’s gonna write you up.”
A short, heavy set, grey haired woman in a uniform was waddling across the street toward his truck. He grabbed the CD and dashed out the door. The grey haired woman was already jotting down his tag number.
“Sorry—I didn’t mean to go in. I was just going to put some CD’s in the slot. I’ll move it right now. Please don’t give me a ticket.”
He smiled down at her. She was not impressed, and looked up at him with a haggard face. “Once I write down a number, son, I have to issue a ticket.”
“Ok, but please don’t cite me for a no parking zone. That’s fifty bucks, right? Please! Just make a meter offense. Please!” He folded his hands like he was praying and rolled his eyes upward. “Oh please!” he repeated, holding his pose.
“All right, son, just this once. If I see that truck parked illegally again, I’m going call for a boot. She smiled back at him and shook her head. On the form, she checked off Expired Meter. Then she signed it and ripped it off the clipboard, and handed it over.
“Now move it quick, before someone sees us,” she said.
“Thankyouthankyou.” He wanted to lean over and kiss her on her head, but had enough sense to quit while he was ahead. Instead, he jumped into the truck and rolled down the window. He shouted to her as she walked back across the street, “Thankyouthankyou, I won’t forget it.” Then he started the engine, shoved it in gear, and pulled away, slipping the clutch like crazy so as not to leave a pile of sheetrock on the pavement.
By the time he arrived at the site, the chiroqueros were piling into their beat up Corolla. He got out of his truck and trotted up to their car. He looked in and saw the guy in the back pulling six Dos Equis out of a cooler. The driver rolled down the window, but did not kill the engine. “Pasa,” he said.
“Yo, Carlos, give me a hand unloading this rock.”
“No way, dude. I waited for two hours for you. I gotta pay these guys for nothing, sitting around waiting for your sorry ass. Unload it yourself.” Carlos rolled up the window and pulled away, blown muffler spluttering.
He walked back to his truck and kicked the bulging rear tire. He could drive back home, and return in the morning when there would be someone to help unload. But the old man would be expecting him at the office in the morning. How could he explain being so late? Then a big raindrop plopped on the hood, then another.
Shhhhit. He got back into the truck once again, and backed it up the driveway, and across the lawn, right up to the stoop. Fuck them goddam azaleas.
Then he got out of the truck, and started unloading the rock, at first tearing the tabs that bound the books, and carrying in the sheets one by one. The rain gradually intensified. Halfway through the load, it was pouring. His shirt was drenched. So he began carrying in unbroken books, two sheets at a time. Instead of distributing the sheets throughout the house, he stacked them just inside the front door. As the pile grew, the floor sagged.
At last he was done. His shoulders ached, and there was a dull pain in his back, just below his belt. He fired up the truck and started to pull out. The tires spun in the wet grass, but he feathered off the throttle until the truck slowly caught enough traction to ease back to the driveway. As he turned into the driveway, the tire on the pavement caught some traction, but the wheel still on the lawn spun wildly, slinging mud across the front of the house. Bloody fucking hell. I’m outta here. On his way home, he picked up two six packs of Bud, a big bag of Doritos, and a tub of bean dip. He fell asleep somewhere into the second six, while Hackman worked over Eastwood with his pointed toe boots, as Eastwood lay helpless in the dirt.
Next morning he woke with a full bladder. As he swung his legs over the bed to get up, there was a sudden stab of pain in his lower back, like a jolt from a cattle prod. Any movement produced sheer agony. He could not stand. But he had to pee, urgently now.
He managed to roll himself onto the floor, prone, and slither along, grasping at furniture and door jambs, and creeping on his elbows, until he made it to the bathroom. He paused next to the tub and laid his cheek on the cold tile. His bladder now nearly bursting, he raised his knee over the rim of the tub, and heaved himself over. The pain was so intense he saw flashes of light before his eyes, but at least he was able to release himself.
Then he just lay there in the tub, concentrating on his breathing. After a few moments, he groped for the shower valve, and turned on the shower as hot as he could stand it. Slowly he worked himself up on his knees, and let the water work on the spasm. Finally he was able to stand.
He found the bottle of Tylenol 3 left over the bike accident, when he broke his collar bone. Two tabs left. Down the hatch. He went back to his room and found the three left over Buds, and popped one open. It was warm, but not too bad under the circumstances.
Then he called the boss and begged off for the day. All the old man cared about was whether he was going to make a worker’s comp claim.
The Tylenol started taking hold, and his back began to relax a little. He opened another Bud and restarted the CD. Then he fast forwarded back to where he left off. But once again sleep overtook him before he reached the end.
It was nearly 3 when he awoke. The pain had returned. That’s when he remembered Shelly. Her card was in his wallet. It had two blue handprints on it, like a child would leave on a finger painting. The card read:
A Nurturing Blend of Swedish Massage, Caring Touch,
Deep Tissue Massage, and Intuitive Energy Work
He dialed the number, and she answered the phone.
“This is she.”
“Shelly, hi. This is Terry.”
“Terry Wolfe, you know, the guy, uh, the guy with the
“Oh yeah. Hi Terry, what’s up?”
“Uh…” He paused. His head was spinning. He flashed on Eastwood cringing in the dirt.
She could hear his heavy breathing. “Are you ok?”
“It’s my back,” he croaked. “I can barely move. Can you help me?”
“I’ve got someone coming in at three thirty. Can you make it over here at five?”
“Yeah. If I don’t blow my brains out first.”
He sighed a deep sigh. “I’m sorry. Thanks for letting me come in. I’ll be there at five.”
The drive to the address she gave him was hell. Pushing in the heavy clutch pedal caused him jolts of pain so sharp that it seemed like arcs of light were flashing before his eyes. He faked it through stop signs, coasting in third, and when he had to come to a complete stop, he’d just mash on the brakes and let the engine stall. Then he’d shift into granny gear without clutching, and hit the ignition switch, letting the starter motor get him rolling again. Then just bang it into third. Pure brutality. On top of his back spasm, he sensed the agony he was causing to the gear train. It was close to six when turned down her street.
The address led him to a trim little bungalow. Attached to a porch column was a brightly colored flag with some cartoon character on it. He limped up the walk, which ran along a chain link fence on the side of the property. His T shirt snagged the branch of a rose bush that grew from the other side. As he tugged to free it, a german shepherd came flying across the neighbor’s yard, barking furiously, and reared up with its front legs against the top of the fence. It barked at him savagely, making sucking sounds when it inhaled.
He lurched back at first, but then approached the dog and said soothingly, “Cool, baby, be cooool.” The dog paused, and he offered it his hand to sniff. The dog calmly studied the hand for a moment, and then suddenly snapped at it. He drew it back quickly.
“Alright, alright now, you be cool, and I’ll be cool. Just be cooool.” He slowly, very slowly, offered his hand once more, and this time the dog sniffed it.
“There, there, now, baby, it’s cool, reeeeal cool.” He extended his hand and stroked the dog’s head, and then worked the soft flesh behind its ear. The dog licked at his hand.
“Alright, baby, gotta go now. You be good now.” He turned and walked up to the porch steps. He ascended a step with his right foot, and swung the left up to meet the right on the same step, and so hobbled to the top.
To one side of the porch was a small pink bicycle with training wheels and streamers attached to the end of the hand grips. On the other side was a three wheeled baby buggy, the kind joggers use.
He gently rapped on the screen door, and a man wearing a loosened tie and a plastic ID badge on a lanyard answered.
“Yes, may I help you?” he asked. A young woman carrying an infant on her hip peered around an interior doorway.
“I’m here for a massage, but maybe I have the wrong place.”
“Oh, you want Shelly. She lives in the basement. Go around to your left—she’s all the way round back. Watch out for that dog next door; she’s vicious.”
He thanked him and hobbled back down. As he walked down the sloping side yard, muddy from the last night’s rain, the dog walked parallel to him, across the fence, making a high pitched whining sound.
Around the back there was a garden patch, maybe six by six. He could smell a rosemary plant at the corner of it, and saw some other herbs he couldn’t identify. A few neatly staked plants bore tiny bright green tomatoes.
Under a deck that served the main floor were some concrete steps that led to the basement door. A cat was sleeping on the brick wall flanking the steps, where some slanting sun had penetrated. He did his best not to wake it as he one stepped it down to the door.
She was waiting by the door, and held it for him as he entered. At the same time, the cat jumped down and darted past him, into the basement. They were standing in a narrow hallway, barely enough room for the two of them.
“I had given up on you. I’ve got to be at practice at seven. We’re doing a drum-vigil at city hall tomorrow. It’s just too late to do anything…oh, but look at you! Turn around.”
He turned, and she ran two fingers of each hand down the sides of his spine, and then back up again. She stopped just above his waist and circled a point with her fingers. He grimaced and tensed up. She lifted his shirt and put her palm over the spot. “Right here, isn’t it. I can feel the heat.”
Her hand was soothing. “That’s it,” he said softly. “It’s like a dagger that someone keeps twisting.”
“You know I should charge you for a no-show. Never mind, come on in. I usually do ninety minutes, but all I can give you now is an hour. OK?”
“Anything, I’ll take anything. Thank you.”
She led him through a small kitchen that smelled of curry, and then through an interior room with a boiler and water heater on one side, and a toilet, sink, and stall shower on the other. He had to duck under radiator pipes to make it through, into a small room with a massage table. There was one window with a sill about five feet above the floor, with a silk scarf for a curtain. Under the window was a small stand with a lamp and a small statue of a man with an elephant head sitting in a yoga pose. A boom box and some containers of oil sat on a shelf at the bottom of the stand. On the opposite wall was a print of a Hindu looking man and woman, flying on the back of a half-man, half-bird creature. The man had blue skin. A thin, colorfully patterned carpet covered the middle of the concrete floor. Otherwise the room was bare.
He turned around and once again they were face to face. He couldn’t decide if she was attractive or not. She was tall and slender, and carried her head high. Her face was thin, and her cheek bones and chin were prominent, almost manly. Her hair, just beginning to grey, was pulled straight back and fastened with a leather clip. She had wide-set, soft grey eyes, but they were distorted by the thick lenses of her metal framed glasses. A crack ran through the corner of on lens.
She was wearing a black sleeveless tank top and billowy, almost translucent pants cut like pajama bottoms. Her feet were bare. The muscles of her arms and shoulders were well defined. He could smell a trace of garlic in her breath.
“Thanks again,” he said. “I’m really sorry…”
She cut him off. “Never mind, Terry. I’m going to step outside so you can undress. If you want, you can leave your underpants on. There’s a hanger on that pipe for your clothes. When you’re undressed, you can lie face up on the table, and pull the blanked over yourself.”
Then she handed him a glass of water. “I want you to drink this before we begin. It’s to carry away the toxins. I’ll be back in a minute.” She left the room and closed the door.
He downed the water, not realizing how thirsty he was until the first gulp. Then he took off his clothes, stopping at his shorts. How many girls have seen me buck naked? None of them complained, either. But he didn't want to embarrass her, so he left them on.
She returned carrying a CD, walked across the room to the little stand, and then put the disc into the boombox. It played the alien sounds of a sitar and some sort of handstruck drums. “I hope you like ragas,” she said. “It helps me to listen to your body.” She went back to the little stand, and applied some oil to her hands. As she stood in front of the lamp, he could see the silhouette of her thighs through her gauzy pants. His eyes ached to see more.
Then she started the massage, beginning with his upper body. Looking up at her as she worked on his temples and scalp, he noticed the hair in her arm pits. Thick, black and curly, like a man’s. Then he saw that her eyes were closed. Was there something about him that turned her off, too? That silly tattoo? He got it that night he took Cortney to get the morning glory vine up her back, around the back of her neck. How ugly it got, when the colors faded and the blue ink smudged beneath her skin.
“Your eyes are closed,” he remarked.
She laughed softly. “I think I see better with my hands sometimes.”
Yeah, I’m OK with all that. I’d like to take a really good look at you, too. He tried to unwind. The bending notes of the sitar sounded weird; he could not pick up a rhythm or a melody. The ceiling above was unfinished—bare joists, some electrical cables, some pipes. Above the joists was a diagonal pattern of rough sawn boards. It’s eerie to think all those guys are dead--the carpenter who nailed all those boards down, the plumber and electrician, dead.
“Try and concentrate on your breathing,” she said, working his legs and feet. “I want you to relax. Imagine the toxins flushing out of your muscles.”
When she started working on his arms, she noticed the bump in his collar bone, and gently traced with her fingers where the halves of the bone had overlapped and knit back together. “That must have hurt,” she said.
“I guess. I was high at the time. Riding my bike and hit a patch of wet leaves. Going way too fast, as usual.”
“I like bicycling,” she replied.
“I had to bicycle because my license was suspended. I haven’t ridden much since they reinstated it, though. Maybe I should take it up again and break the other collar bone. The shoulder on the broken side doesn’t stick out near as far as my good shoulder. It makes me look deformed.”
She gripped his upper arm, and pulled her oiled hands down to his wrist. She smiled and said, “You have a beautiful body.” Then she closed her eyes and worked silently.
The music began to take on a shimmering quality, and as she worked, he discovered an underlying rhythm that guided his breathing. He watched her work, her own muscles tautening and relaxing with each stroke. He noticed droplets of perspiration in the hair under her arms.
“I like your body, too,” he told her.
“OK, I need you to turn over. Let’s get to work on this knot.” He turned and she worked his shoulders, his spine, his buttocks. He gazed across at the woman on the poster, with her gold headdress, and bare midriff. She had those almond eyes, that sly smile, like Donna. The notes of the sitar became the woman’s lips, her darting tongue; the drum beats the tireless driving force of the blue skinned man. His breathing animated the wings of the bird-man creature. All the while her hands worked, in long continuous strokes, or pausing at intervals up his spine, silently whirling, drilling, pulsing.
After the massage, his back still hurt, but the pain felt somehow in proportion to the rest of his body. After he dressed, she handed him another glass of water, and invited him to sit down at a little table by the back door. She sat down in the other chair, and for a while they chatted about odd stuff. He told her a little about his job, but when she asked more personal questions, he changed the subject. The she launched into a monologue about his diet, how he was functioning in a state of semidehydration, how growth hormones in mass produced meat could be causing stresses that leave him vulnerable to injury. He liked her voice, and the way she emphasized her points by pulling her shoulders back and thrusting out her chest.
While she was speaking, the cat leapt into his lap—so softly, he almost didn’t notice—more like it just materialized there. He stroked it gently and half listened to her. His core muscles needed to be strengthened. He should stretch before exerting himself. The cat kneaded his thigh and then snuggled its head against his belly. He expressed agreement with her from time to time, mostly just a silent nodding. Sometimes he’d catch her eye and smile, but otherwise he watched her hands gesture as she spoke, once in a while gazing around the room at the glass canisters of rice, beans, and grain. A pair of drum sticks with padded balls hung on one wall. The last slanting rays of sun came through the window, falling on the side of her face. It illuminated the down on her cheek, and highlighted the line of her nose, lips, and chin.
Then she fell silent, and caught his eye. After a moment, she asked, “Would you mind...would you like...may I...kiss you? If you don’t...”
“Me?” he sputtered. “Yes, please, I think I would like...I mean, yes, please.” Then he too fell silent, waiting, and then she leaned forward, still looking into his eyes. Oh my. He leaned toward her, across the little table, just until their lips met. Just barely brushing together—still, it warmed his mouth like the first sip of a strong red wine. Momentarily she broke away and softly sighed, ohhhh, then with her eyes closed this time, kissed him again. Easy boy. Don't push it. This time her lips parted slightly, and she tilted her head to gain better purchase with his lips. Her tongue began to probe, and he welcomed it with his own. A familiar sensation stirred him. Oh my, here and now. Oh my. He reached under the table and put his hand gently on her thigh, just above the knee. Ohhh, she sighed again, parting her legs. Oh my, oh my. He began to slide his hand slowly up the inside of her thigh, but as he shifted his weight in his chair the cat sprang from his lap and landed on the floor. Thu-thud. She pulled back abruptly and said, “You have to go now.”
He stammered, “But I thought...”
“No, really, I mean it.”
Damn. DAMN. He rose up and said, “I’m sorry. I thought...I didn’t mean to...I mean...how much do I owe…”
“Please…GO!” She stood up and faced him, her arms at her side, fists clenched. Her cheeks were red.
He backed away, knocking his chair over. The seatback hit the floor with a crash.
“I’m sorry, pleases let me pay you for…”
“Just…GO!” The last syllable broke into falsetto. She covered her face and said something he didn’t understand, her words distorted with sobs. Holy shit, I’m outta here.
He turned and bolted out the screen door. It slammed shut behind him. As he passed by the little garden, he saw the man from upstairs leaning over the back porch. The man’s wife was behind him. He turned and said to the man, “Nothing happened. Nothing!” Sobbing came through her kitchen window. As he rounded the corner and started walking up the side yard, the german shepherd flung itself against the fence, barking and snarling at him all the way to the front yard. The dog continued to bark even as he got back into the truck and pulled away.
At the sound of the sleigh bells smacking the door, she looked up and saw him come in. “Boy, do you look rugged. That life in the fast lane is catching up with you.”
His gait was still stiff, and his shoulders were hunched. “Hey Don. It’s not what you think, it’s my back. Had to hump a load of sheetrock by myself.” Not to mention, feeling like I was worked over with a crowbar, after that scene at Shelly’s.
“What, that tightwad you work for too cheap to hire enough help?”
“Naw, it’s my own fault. Long story. I’d tell you about it over a beer sometime.”
“Sorry, no can do. I told you I’m kinda going with someone.”
Damn she looks good today. Those soft brown shoulders. "Give me hope," he said.
"I hope you put a quarter in the meter."
“Shit, thanks for reminding me. Anyway, here’s that Eastwood disc back. Never did finish it, though.” He set the jacket on the counter. “So who is this lucky dude.?”
“Nobody you’d know. Someone from that class I’m taking.”
“Moving on up in the world…”
She cut him off. “Dammit, Terry, cut the crap. You should be taking classes yourself. Do you honestly want to be unloading trucks the rest of your life?”
A spasm grabbed his back. He winced, and turned away from the counter and walked back into the stacks. He flashed on the image of the blue skinned man and the woman with almond shaped eyes. What would it be like, to do it with that sitar music? Just then, her cell phone rang. He eased closer to the counter, concealed behind the shelves, and overheard her say, “Yeah, I get off at nine. Great, I’ll meet you in front of the shop.”
That's a relief. At least she didn't make it up just to blow me off. He pulled another jacket off the shelf and walked back to the counter. “You know, it’s not all that bad. The old man let me build a set of bookshelves for that big house over on Holly. Laid it all out myself; came out real nice. He even said so.” He slid the jacket over to her.
“Dead Man Walking. Good choice for you, dude. Hey, isn’t that your girlfriend out there?”
It was the meter maid. The bells slapped the door again as he vanished.
When he got back to the office, the old man handed him a small envelope. It was addressed to him, care of the office. The handwriting was tiny, fashioned in rounded, upright strokes. Shelly’s name and address was on the flap.
He was stunned. “Looks like you have an admirer,” said the old man.
“Yeah, right,” he replied. Must be a bill for the massage. He took the envelope back into the shop, and tore it open. Inside was a card dated a few days earlier, it read:
I wasn’t sure of your address, so I sent this to your office.
I’m so sorry about how I behaved this evening. I hope your back is better.
Maybe this is crazy, but I thought we could have dinner together some time. I know a great Indian restaurant,
Annapurna's, not too weird, they even serve some chicken dishes. Please give me a call any time. And remember to stretch out every morning, and drink plenty of water.
What’s with this namaste business. Have to look it up sometime. Anyway, is she loopy or what. Screaming at me one minute like I was raping her, and now this. Like I need another nut case on my hands, anyway. He shoved the card in his shirt pocket and went back to work.
He was at his mom’s house, watching an Orioles game on TV in the living room. She had made him dinner, and had just come up from the basement with a basket of his laundry, clean and folded.
“Terry, you said you’d take care of that toilet down there. I got tired of jiggling the handle, so I finally just shut the valve. But sometimes I need it…”
“Ma, I’m sorry, I keep forgetting to pickup the part.”
“Sweetheart, I’ll pay you…”
“Ma, it’s not like that, I just keep forgetting, that’s all. I promise I’ll take care of it soon. Just quit nag…”
“Terry, darling, please stop. I’ll just call a plumber.”
“Ma-aa, for crissakes, I said I’ll take care of it.”
She walked over to where he was sitting and picked up his beer can and gave it a wiggle. It was empty.
“Want another one, darling?”
“By the way, I found this note in your shirt.” She reached into her apron pocket and pulled it out. “From a ‘Shelly.’ Who’s this? I thought you and Cortney were getting back together.”
“Oh, Terry, Terry, Terry. You were crazy about that girl. But you were so young. Maybe your father was right about her—but even he liked her, too.”
“Yeah, when he’d had a few.” The inning was over and a commercial had started up. He picked up the remote and flipped through some stations.
“Oh Terry, sometimes I’m glad he’s not around anymore, to see you like this. Anyway, who’s this Shelly? Is she nice?
“I dunno, she’s just some girl I met.”
“Well I hope it works out. Anyway, please bring
by sometime, I never get to see her. You have her on weekends, right?” Willow
“Every other, Ma, every other. Yeah, I’ll bring her over.” He flipped back to the game.
“And remember that part for the toilet.”
“All right, Ma, all right,” he said. She turned and walked toward the kitchen to get him his beer.
“Shelly—hi, it’s Terry.”
“Oh, hi Terry. How are you? Are we still on for tonight?”
“Oh yeah—but I can’t pick you up this evening. I left some construction adhesive on the seat of my truck—you know, in those big tubes—and I parked in the sun this afternoon. The cab got so hot that some of the tubes burst, and there’s this smelly crud all over the seat.”
“Oooohh, sorry about your truck. I’m working at the coop this afternoon--why don’t I pick you up after I get off, and I can drive us to the restaurant.”
“Hey, thanks, that’s a great idea. I’m really looking forward to this.”
“Me, too. I get off at four. So I'll pick you up at four thirty--we can get the early bird special--it's half price.”
“OK then, see you at four thirty. I promise I won’t be late this time. But just in case, give me your cell number.”
“Terry, I don’t have one. Please be on time, OK.”
“No problem; I’ll be ready. I’ll be waiting out in front of my building.”
He took off an hour early so he’d have plenty of time before she picked him up, but after showering and shaving (close, you know, in case things went all right), and trying on each of his three good shirts, it was getting late. Checking the time, he grabbed a sport jacket, and looked in the mirror again, double checking for dandruff and crap between his teeth.
He noticed how the jacket was fitting better, since he began working construction. It used to hang off his shoulders, scarecrow like. It was an ancient, battered tweed—his father’s. A coarse weave, in greens and tans, with flecks of blue and red. The suede elbow patches, worn shiny, were starting to come unstitched. Way too warm for the weather, but even so, he felt like wearing it. He recalled the lanolin smell, from when he was a boy, and the old man in one of his rare gentle moods, put his arm around him. How scratchy it was at his neck, even while it comforted him. And when he was older, doing his homework at the kitchen table, and the old man would come home in that manic gay mood, that three beer bonhomie, that morphed seamlessly into criticism after Ma poured him a few more, and then into invective, fierce and fluent, and then, worst of all, into that blubbering self pity. Silent through the whole episode, he’d finally get up and flip the old man’s big arm over his skinny shoulder, that same scratchy sleeve. Come on Dad, time for bed.
Shit! It’s getting late. He grabbed his phone and his keys and his wallet and shoved it all in the jacket pocket, and made for the door. I’ll sort it all out later, don’t want to keep the lady waiting.
Emerging into the afternoon sun, he paused a moment for his eyes to get used to the light. From the stoop, he made out the shape of a car slowing down, stopping for a moment at the empty space at the curb, and then pulling up beside the next parked car. It was a station wagon, faded maroon. A Volvo, maybe. No, it can’t be, listen to it clattering—it’s a diesel—an old bomb of a Mercedes. He watched as the driver struggled to park—first, backing in too sharp, hitting the curb with the jolt, then pulling all the way out, and back in again, this time winding up two feet away from the curb.
He walked toward the car to see if it was her. But the side window was obscured by glare. As he approached, the clattering quit, and the window rolled down. He leaned over and peered in. There she was, in a bright print sun dress.
“Hi,” he said. “Nice to see you again.”
She leaned over toward him and said, “Nice to see you, too. Hop on in.”
She leaned even farther to unlatch the door. As he got in, he tried not to stare down the top of her dress. “Thanks again for picking me up,” he said as he slid in.
“No problem. I’m glad to do it. I hope your truck will be ok.”
He laughed. “It’s not a big deal. The seat was shot anyway. I’ll just get a cover for it…”
As he spoke, she swung around in her seat, drawing her right knee up toward him. It pulled up the hem of her dress, revealing the entirety of her thigh. Again he tried not to stare, but that glimpse of flesh sent a shaft of heat up through the core of his body. She’s got to be aware of what she’s doing. Sheesh…
“Terry,” she interrupted.
“I’m so sorry for losing my cool that night. I just got scared.”
“I don’t know. Maybe—maybe I was afraid of myself. But I’m not, now.” She drew closer to him; the dress riding even higher, hiding nothing now. Oh my. She’s gotta know. He felt like reaching over and pulling it back down. He forced himself to look up at her face. Then, with her eyes closed, she placed her hands on his temples, fingers spread wide, and let them flow down over the contours of his face, slowly, gently, in a continuous gesture that ended with two fingers stroking his lips. Waves of heat flowed up and down inside him. But before he could respond, she turned forward, jerked down her dress and said, “We better get going, or we’ll miss the early bird. Are you getting hungry?”
“Oh yeah, I sure am,” he replied enthusiastically. His thoughts were swirling. Hungry all right, for you. Oh my. Say something, anything.
Hey, great car,” he blurted.
“Oh, this is Steely.” She patted the dash affectionately.
“Steely? Hi Steely, pleased to meetcha.”
“I love this car. It belonged to an old man I knew—a client. I do some geriatric work, you know. He’d call me once a week for a massage, and when I’d visit, he’d come out and help me wrestle my table out of the back seat of the car—I had one of those eensie little Civics, you know. He was such a nice man, tall and trim—you could even say handsome, in that old man sort of way.
“Then he got cancer. It spread so fast—soon he was just wasting away. Still he kept calling me. I’d do what I could do—which really wasn’t really much—it seemed like his elbows would tear right through his skin. At the end, he just wanted me to sit and hold his hand.” Her voice quivered—just on the last syllable--and a tear spilled out of her eye. “Sorry.”
“After he died, I got a call from his daughter. He’d left me his car. She told me he thought it make it easier for me to carry my table around in it." She made a tiny snuffle, and he felt his own eyes moistening.
“Frederick Steele. That was his name. That’s why I call him Steely.” She reached out to pat the dash again, but pulled back her hand, and wiped her cheek.
“Steely,” he repeated, patting his side of the dash. Man it was hot. The breeze through the open windows had already dried his hair. He wriggled out of the jacket, and laid it neatly on the back seat. Then he just sat there in silence—after the story about the old guy, he just couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound dumb.
Finally, they approached the restaurant. There were no parking spaces out front, so they turned onto Bonifant and prowled down the street until they found a spot, all the way down the block. Then they walked back, toward the west, into the evening sun. She put on a pair of huge sunglasses, way too big for her narrow face. He groped for his in his breast pocket, but he’d left them in the jacket. Damn, he muttered to himself. Otherwise, he stayed silent as they walked on, hoping she would find something to say.
They reached the corner and entered the restaurant. The mix of aromas put him on guard. He paused inside the door, as his sundazzled eyes adjusted to the dim interior. Not noticing that he’d stopped, she continued to an empty table. Loopy chick, all alone in her own world. Then, missing him, she turned. He lurched onward, cutting off a waiter carrying a big tray balanced on his upturned hand. The waiter pirouetted and swung the tray around, tilting it into its arc, to keep from spilling the contents. “I’m sorry,” he said, but the waiter had already scurried around behind him. Across the room, she covered her eyes and shook her head, but he could make out her lips pulling back into a smile.
He made his way over and sat down. She smiled at him and shook her head again, like his mother did sometimes. He smiled back, trying to work up a dimple, but he was worried she’d think he was grimacing, so he quit. Please say something. It was a small table, with a candle between them. Even in the dimness he could see some fine wrinkles at the corners of her mouth. But those thighs, oh my. Jesus, just don’t blow it this time. Please say something. Think of something to say, dammit. He gazed around the room. On the wall was a poster, similar to the one in her basement massage room,
“What’s with those guys?” he blurted, pointing toward the poster. “You know, the girl and the guy with blue skin, on the back of the big bird. You’ve got those same characters on the wall in your apartment.”
“Oh, them. That’s Lakshmi and Vishnu. They’re riding on Garuda. They’re Hindu gods and goddesses.”
The same waiter came by and asked for their order. She ordered for him, explaining what everything was, and what it was made from. He said OK to everything, but if you were to have asked him what he was about to get, he would not have been able to repeat a single item. Then she started to tell him about the Hindu pantheon. But it was too much, was Ganesha the man with the elephant’s trunk or the curry with split peas. The food came, and she chattered away, about a yoga retreat in
Himalaya she was planning to go to some day. The names of the foods, the gods, the towns and the rivers were tumbling around in his head. The dishes were tastier than he expected, and soon they were finished eating.
After the dishes were cleared, she got up and went to the rest room. When she returned, he noticed she had taken the clip from her hair, which now fell free around her shoulders. She sat down again and took his hand, and with her eyes closed, ran the fingers of her other hand up and down the inside of his forearm. A smile formed on her lips. She opened her eyes and asked, “Are you ready to go?”
Before he could say yes, the waiter came with the check. She reached for it, but before she could take it, he slammed his hand over it and said, “This one’s mine.”
“It’s my treat, really. I invited you.”
“But after that massage and all, I’ll get the check…” He smiled his smile again, and this time it worked. She smiled back at him, softly. He reached to his back pocket, but his wallet was not there.
“Damn, I’m sorry. I left my wallet in my jacket pocket. It’s in Steely. Hang on, I’ll be back in a flash.”
“Hey, wait, you’re going to need these.” She fished out her keys from her purse. He took them and dashed out the door.
Then he remembered. Holy fucking shit! The check. I was supposed to drop off the support check this afternoon. He ran to the car and got his phone out of his pocket, and called Cortney.
“It’s me,” he said when she answered.
“Where in the fuck are you? You said you were going to drop off the check. If I don’t deposit it tomorrow, my rent check’s going to bounce. AGAIN, dammit, you lame ass son of a bitch.”
“I know, I know, I’m sorry. I meant to do it. Don’t worry, I’ll drop it off—it’ll be in your mailbox by morning—I promise.”
“No way, mister. I trust your lame ass about as far I can throw it, and right about now, I’d like to throw into the middle lane of the Beltway.”
“I swear, by morning!”
“Look, if that check is not here by six o’clock today, I’m calling the sheriff.”
“Jeeze, it’s twenty til, and anyway, the bank’s not even open…”
“Read my lips, buddy boy. Six or the sheriff. I’ll get your ass so garnished you won’t have coffee money.”
“Hey, come on, let’s be fair…” he said, but the screen on the phone was reading Call Ended.
He stood there in the street and realized sweat was soaking his armpits. I could get over there in ten minutes, if I catch the lights, fifteen at the most. I’ll call the restaurant on the fly and explain.
He got in and fired up Steely. 230,000 miles on the odometer, and it lights right up. Not too shabby. Then he pulled into traffic and gunned it. Damn. I knew these things were slugs, but man, this thing can’t get out of its own way. Come on, baby, let’s move!
He caught a light and dialed information. What was the name of that restaurant? Anna Putna? Anna Gishnu? I’m sorry sir, we have no listing under that name. Dammit, what was that name. It’s on
Georgia Avenue—or is it Bonifant Street—it’s right on the corner…I’m sorry, sir, I can’t find it by address. Shit, no turning back now, I’m halfway there.
He pulled up at her house at 5:56. She was at the door, with
beside her. The little girl had her hands hooked in the woman’s belt, and was leaning sideways. When she saw her father, she released her grip and ran down the walk toward him. “DaaaaDEEEEEEE!” she cried, breaking off into a pure, unrestrained scream. She leaped at him and he caught her on the fly, and lifted her high over his head. This little sliver of ribs and skinny hips, flailing stick arms and legs. A mop of brunette curls, a cherub’s mouth. Out from it came another DaaaaDEEEEEEEEEEE that was so loud and high pitched it shredded space. “I’m getting rocky road, wocky woad, wocky toad,” she sang. He tossed her in the air and caught her, causing more squealing. Willow
“She said you promised to take her to Lickety Split. Remember, for starting kindergarten, you promised.”
“Cortney, I’m sorry, something came up.”
“You bastard, you promised her. Are you going to let her down again?”
I did promise her. But, SHIT, I gotta get this car back. He lifted the child on his shoulders with her legs around his neck, fished out his wallet, and handed her the check. The little girl wrapped her arms around his head and beat her heels against his chest. “Wocky woad, wocky toad,” she sang.
What the fuck. “OK, OK, I’ll take her. I gotta run, though. Let’s go, Sweetie.”
“Hey, what time are you going to get her back? She’s got school tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll just be a little while. OK, Sweetie, we’re on our way.” He swung her down from his shoulders and carried her on his arm to the car, her little arms locked around his neck.
When they got in, she asked, “What car is this, Daddy?”
“This is Steely, Sweetie. It belongs to a friend of mine.”
“But where is the car seat?”
“Don’t worry, Sweetie, this is a very safe car. It’s big and strong and made of steel. That’s why it’s named Steely.” Damn, I can’t take her with me—I better drop her off at Ma’s; it’s just across
Dale Drive. She’s got a phone book, and I can call the restaurant from there.
“Daddy, are we really getting ice cream?”
“We will, Sweetie, just not right now. Daddy screwed up again. I’ve got to take you to Gramma’s for a little while. Then maybe we can go get something good.”
“Rocky road, right, Daddy?”
“Rocky road, Sweetie. With great big chunks of chocolate.”
“And marshmallows, too, Daddy!”
“And boulders of chocolate.”
“And marshboulders!” She paused, and her brow changed from sunshine to stormcloud. “Daddy, what did you screw up this time?”
“I think I might be making a very nice person angry at me.”
“You mean Mommy?”
“Well, I always make your Mommy angry. I don’t mean to, you know. But right now I think I might be making someone else very angry.”
“I don’t know, Sweetie, I don’t know. I was trying hard to be nice, but I guess I made some bad decisions along the way.”
“What’s a decision?”
“A decision is like a choice, Sweetie, something you choose, like rocky road instead of strawberry.”
“I hate strawberry. Daddy, did you choose to have me?”
“That’s what Mommy said.”
“She’s right, Sweetie, I did choose to have you.”
“Was that a bad choice, too?”
“No, Sweetie, having you was the best choice I ever made.”
“But you make me angry sometimes. Like when you say we’re getting ice cream and then we don’t.”
“I’m sorry, Sweetie. I don’t mean to make you angry. I don’t mean to disappoint you.”
“Mommy says you never grew up.”
“Mommy’s right, Sweetie. Daddy needs to grow up.”
They pulled into the driveway at his mother’s house and went inside. The woman was in the kitchen, putting a frozen dinner in the microwave. She heard his footsteps in the hall, and without pausing in her task, called out, “Is that you, Terry? Your things are in the drier, but I couldn’t get that greasy stuff out of the seat of your jeans. I’m afraid they’re ru…”
She stopped her sentence when she finally turned and saw her granddaughter.
“Oh my god, you brought her. Oh,
, come here, darling, give me a hug.” Willow
The girl walked over and gave the woman a dutiful hug.
“We’re going to get some ice cream, Gramma.”
“Ma, can you watch her for a little while? I’ve got to run an errand.”
“Of course, darling. But have you had dinner yet?”
“Ma, I already ate, and anyway, I gotta get this car back to the owner, before someone gets really
“Alright, then. Oh! You didn’t bring the part for the toilet, did you?”
“No, Ma, it’s in my truck.”
“Darling, it’s getting worse. Now the valve is leaking too. Water was all over the floor. I put a bucket under it, but if fills up in a half hour. Will you take a look at it before you go?”
“Ma, I told you, I really gotta go now.”
“Please, darling, just take a look at it. Maybe there’s something you can do.”
“Please! Just take a look.”
“Alright Ma, alright.”
He spun around and flew down the basement stairs. The packing nut on the toilet shutoff valve was leaking in a steady trickle. The bucket was brimming. He went back to the ancient workbench, to look for a wrench, but couldn’t find anything.
He hollered up the stairs, “Ma, where’s Dad’s toolbox?”
“Darling, I think you took it after he died. You took all his tools, remember.”
Shit, I did. But damn, there’s got to be some pliers here somewhere.
Somewhere. He rooted around some more, but found nothing. Hey, maybe there’s something in the trunk of Steely. He dashed up the stairs and opened the truck, and there, in a little compartment was a plasticized canvas pouch with some tools in it. He admired the wrenches, lightweight, but well machined. All metric, though, dammit. But there, laying in the spare tire well was a rusty pair of pliers. That’ll do. May ruin the valve with it, but maybe I can stop the leak, or at least slow it down.
Then he ran back into the house and down the basement. The bucket was overflowing, and water was running across the floor. He poured the bucket into the toilet, and grabbed the nut with the pliers and turned. Just enough pressure, just enough twist. Too much and the nut will deform. Easy, easy…then the pliers slipped and the handles snapped together, pinching the heel of his hand. DAMMIT that hurt. That’s worth a nice blood blister. But the leak had almost stopped, just a drip every few seconds.
At last, he dashed back up stairs, kissed his mother, and once more lifted his daughter over his head. “I’ll be back real soon, Sweetie. You keep Gramma company for a little while, OK.”
“OK, Daddy. Hurry back.” He set her down and flew out the door and into Steely, and took off for the restaurant.
It was ten after seven when he got back to the restaurant. There was an empty spot outside the door, and he whipped into it. Then he went into the restaurant and found their waiter, the same guy he almost collided with before dinner.
“What happened to the girl I was with?” he asked.
“She’s gone, pretty sore, too. She paid the bill, and then the police showed up. I think she went home in a cab.”
Damn. I guess I’ll run back to her house. As he started back toward the door, he saw a patrol car with its dome lights flashing. Shit. What now? He walked out and saw two cops standing in front of the car. One was bent over the windshield, trying to read the VIN number, and the other was on a portable radio. The waiter had come out behind him.
“That’s him, that’s the one who took the car,” he said to the cops, pointing at him.
The two cops looked up. The one with the radio asked, “Is your name Terrence Wolfe?”
“Did you take this car?”
“Well, I sort of borrowed it, but I’m bringing it back now.” He held out the keys.
“I see that, but a complaint has already been filed.”
“But I didn’t really steal it—I just needed it for a little while. I tried to call, but I couldn’t remember the name of the restaurant. You’re not going to bust me, are you?”
The waiter interrupted, “He stuck her with the check, too, Officer.”
“Sorry son, you’re coming with us,” said the cop. Then he cuffed him and said, “And by the way, that’s a handicapped space you parked in. That’s gonna cost you another two-fifty. Let’s go, Mr. Wolfe. Watch your head.”
The smack of the bells against the door gave her a start. When she looked up and saw who it was, she folded her arms across her chest.
“Hi, Donna,” he said cheerfully.
She scowled and replied, “Yeah, so what’s up? I heard you hit a rough spot.”
Her attitude surprised him. He smiled lamely and said, “I wouldn’t know. I’m still waiting for a smooth stretch.”
She relaxed her arms and cocked her head. “Did you really steal a car?” she asked.
“Where did you hear about that?”
“In the paper. My dad showed it to me when it came out a few days ago. He saw your name, and remembered you from high school. I saved the article, but it doesn’t say a whole lot. Here, take a look.”
She reached under the counter and pulled out a copy of the Gazette, and passed it across to him. He turned it around and leaned over it, with his elbows on the counter and his head in his hands. He read aloud from the crime report:
man was convicted of unauthorized use of a woman's car after skipping out on the check during their first date. The man, Terrence Wolfe, 24, pleaded no contest last week to unlawfully driving away a vehicle. The police say Mr. Wolfe had dinner with the woman in September at a restaurant in downtown Takoma Park Silver Spring. She told investigators that Mr. Wolfe had said he forgot his wallet in her car and so she offered him the keys. The police said Mr. Wolfe then took off in the car. Gerri Daley, a defense lawyer, said Mr. Wolfe was a ‘very nice man who made some bad decisions.’'
“It’s true, then, isn’t it.”
“A man who made some bad decisions. That’s just what I said to Willow, the night it happened.” He looked up at her, into her big dark eyes, which became distorted as his own eyes began to well up.
He said nothing at first. She reached out and put her hand over his. Then he told her all about how it happened, and how she refused to withdraw the complaint. How his mother had to come to the station with
to bail him out. And how Cortney was petitioning to change the joint custody arrangement to supervised visitation—even though the charge was reduced from car theft to use without consent. In the end, it was a five hundred dollar fine, plus the two fifty for parking in a handicap space. At least the sixty day sentence was suspended. Willow
“But I decided to go back to school, Don. I signed up for a night class in computer drafting at
. The old man said he’d pay my tuition—if I pass the course. He said he needs a good draftsman. And if I do OK, they’ll let me into the pre-architecture program.” Montgomery College
“Oh, Terry, that’s really great. It’s crazy to say this, after all that’s happened, but I’m happy for you.” She took his hand in both of hers and squeezed.
“I’m kinda happy, too. My mother’s going to help me with a lawyer, to fight the visitation suit. And I’m really looking forward to school again.” He looked into her eyes again, and it was hers, now, that were watery. With his free hand he stroked her cheek. “Hey, Don, what about Friday night? Let’s go to the movies—there’s that new Eastwood flick out now,
, or something like that.” Riviera
“It’s ‘Grand Torino.’”
“Yeah, that’s it. So how’s about Fri...” He stopped short. A glint of light had flashed from her hand. Looking down, he saw the ring. She noticed what he saw and pulled her hand away from his, and fingered the ring self consciously.
“Terry, I told you I was seeing someone.”
“I know, but I didn’t think it was that serious.”
“Well, it is serious. This is for keeps.”
He looked down at the ring again. “Son of a gun. Lucky guy.”
“Terry, it ain’t a guy.”
“What? You mean...”
“I’m lesbian, dude. I’m going to marry a woman. I’m sorry, man—I should have been up front about it. Please don’t think I was jerking you around.”
“Holy shit! I never saw that one coming. Never in a million years.” He looked up at her again, at her lovely dark eyes, the beautiful brown skin of her face, neck, and arms. Damn, a lesbian. A smile formed, and his dimples blossomed, without even trying.
“Well, congratulations, Don. I guess I knew I never had a chance with you, but I never realized how slim that chance really was. Still, it was nice to hope.” He sighed audibly and shook his head.
“Dude, don’t be too weirded out about it. You know, if I wasn’t the way I am, I could go for you. Hey! There’s the meter maid—is she heading for your truck?”
“Oh shit—gotta go.”
She dashed around from behind the counter, and threw her arms around his neck, and kissed him on the cheek. He hugged her back and whispered, “Wow, holding you makes me wish I were a woman.” She pulled back and gave him a shove that startled him with its force.
“Get outta my store, creep!” she said, trying to conceal a smile.
“I love you, Donna,” he said, turning toward the door.
“I love you, too, Terry. But you better get outta here quick, before I start bawling.”
“I’m going, I’m going,” he said. And the bells jangled as he flew out the door.