©Copyright 2017 Drew Banton
All Rights reserved
Also by Drew Banton:
A Dangerous Job
The Gurry Room
The Printer’s Apprentice
e-mail: [email protected]
Authors Note: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual people or events is purely coincidental.
I walk my dog every morning. I doubt the woman watching me from across the street knew that. She just saw this guy who looked somewhat respectable doing the everyday, ordinary activity of walking a dog. She must’ve thought, “Hmmm, there’s a person who I can walk right up to and ask a question and he probably won’t yell or call the cops or try to hurt me.”
So she started to cross the street. At first, I did not consider this to be particularly unusual. I live in a part of the city where the traffic isn’t so bad that you risk death every time you step off the curb. Serious injury maybe, but not death. And I walk my dog at six thirty in the morning. The traffic is really pretty light around then. But it was a little unusual that the woman had been staring at me from across the street and was continuing to watch me as she let a bus chug by and then reached my side of the street. Not that there’s anything wrong with my looks, a few otherwise quite sane women have liked them just fine, but I don’t have the kind of looks that usually draws stares. I have more the kind of looks that grow on you as you gradually discover what a wonderful person I am.
She looked pretty good herself. I don’t get stared at very much, but I do a lot of staring. The various women who’ve passed through my life are always wanting to slap me on the head because of this habit. No amount of explanation seems to make them understand that it’s no threat to them. Women are one of the glories of the universe. Do I want to waste my few precious minutes on earth pretending not to be looking? Let them go ahead and stare at men. I don’t mind. This particular woman was worth a stare. The raw material was good. She was tall, a few inches shorter than me and slim. A good stretch of nice legs showed beneath a blue dress. She had on low high heel shoes. No doubt there is a name for that kind of shoe. Women’s shoes are not one of my specialties. She wore a leather or, more likely, fake leather brown jacket that was probably too thin for the morning because she was hugging it around herself with both arms. She had straight brown hair that just reached her shoulders. She had light brown skin that could have been a good tan but was a little too even, a little too smooth and a little too far into fall for that. So she was a woman of color, a woman of uncertain ethnic origins, a woman with ancestors from every damn part of the globe as far as I knew. Did I care? Well, yeah, it’s part of who you are, and it matters to everyone in this backward part of the world. But most of us take it into account and then get past it. By the way, my ancestors scraped the manure off their boots in various parts of Eastern Europe before they got on the boat. If you care. I have a color, too. It’s called five o’clock shadow. One other thing. She was wearing too much makeup for six thirty in the morning. Not that I know what the correct amount is, but she had heavy blue paint on her upper eyelids and black lines around her eyes. Other than that she was fine.
“Excuse me,” she said. “You look like a nice enough man with your dog and everything. I wonder if I could ask you a question?”
There are woman muggers. I’ve read about them. I hadn’t even brought my wallet. Never having run into a woman mugger before, I couldn’t be sure, but she didn’t seem the type. The dog might have protected me. At the moment, he was more interested in some piece of trash on the ground. “Yeah, OK. Shoot.” I didn’t mean that literally, of course.
“Well, I hate to bother you like this, but do you think I could borrow seven dollars and sixty-eight cents?”
I think she sensed that I was a little confused. Or felt that a request for a certain sum required a certain amount of explanation. “Well, you see, I’ve been walking around for quite a few hours now and I need to get some rest, but I need seven dollars and sixty-eight cents. I can’t think of anything else to do.”
“Seven dollars and sixty-eight cents?”
Apparently, I had heard seven dollars and sixty-eight cents worth of explanation. “Well, you know, if I had it on me, I’d probably give it to you, but I don’t even have pocket change.” I started thinking about how much I had back at the apartment. Tomorrow was pay day. Some muggers just don’t have any luck. Maybe Ronnie had some. She’s my daughter. She stays with me Monday and Wednesday and every other weekend. What would she think about this? That I’d finally and completely lost my mind, no doubt. She was most likely dressed by now. “Well, listen, I live just around the corner and I think I have a little money there. You could come in for a few minutes, warm up a little. I gotta go to work at seven but you could stay until then.”
She stared at me, mouth slightly open. She was wary. This wasn’t the best morning of her life. There was a chance it was going to get better. She didn’t want it to get worse. The nice man with the dog but who knew?
“My daughter’s home. She’s getting ready for school. She’ll think it’s pretty weird me bringing a stranger home from walking the dog, but she thinks I’m weird anyway. I don’t think she’ll mind too much.”
“What about your wife?”
“Well, she’s my ex-wife and she lives down at the other end of the street.”
“How old is your daughter?”
“Ooh. Tough age.”
“Tell me about it.”
“It’s a very kind offer. Are you sure it’s OK?”
I shrugged. Was I supposed to reassure her? I didn’t go up to people on the street and ask for bizarre sums of money. “Yeah, it’s OK. Let’s go.”
This part of the city has a reputation for being a pretty tough section, but really it goes street by street. Jefferson Avenue, where I was walking the dog when Miss Exact Change came up to me, is not the greatest street. I don’t like to walk there at night. But you go around the corner onto Hawthorne Street and you find these big, old well-taken-care-of Victorian Houses with wide lawns and giant beech trees, smooth gray bark, reddish leaves, even in summer. It was fall and they were redder. My apartment is on the third floor of one of them, the attic actually. It costs too much and it’s melt-down hot in the summer but I was lucky to get it when I split up with my wife a few years ago. A kid and a dog? This should be a requirement, not a disqualifier. The people who owned the house were liberal artistic types. They owned two dogs themselves. Still they hesitated. I mean, what’s the kid going to do besides play deafening bad music and break things? And what’s the dog going to do besides shit and throw up everywhere and break things? In the end, their essential liberal goodness and my willingness to pay extortion level rent won out.
As I rounded the corner with the mystery woman, I asked her name.
“My name’s Elizabeth. Liz.”
“Pleased to meet ya, Liz. I’m Tom.”
I extended my non-leash-holding hand.
She smiled faintly and gripped my fingers lightly and briefly. Her hand was cold.
She was still hugging herself. Her jaw was tight. Maybe tense, maybe exhausted. Maybe trying to keep her teeth from chattering.
“The dog’s name is Crank.”
Crank looked up briefly, then went back to sniffing. He knew the walk was almost over and he wanted to cram in a few last good smells.
“Short for Crankshaft. I’m a mechanic. Well, here we are.”
I turned into the driveway which led to the front porch.
“You live here?”
“I rent. Top floor. It’s a climb.”
“Yeah, nice house.”
I was looking forward to the reaction we were going to get from Ronnie. You remember fourteen? Of course you don’t. We all blot that out as fast as we can. But I won’t ever forget Ronnie’s fourteen. Hormones on parade. Legs growing out of armpits. Braces ripping mouth flesh. Identity of the Week Club. Wonderful, beautiful, insane, a power line down on the ground, whipping around, shooting sparks in the wind. On certain days she is, how shall we say, tightly wound. Maybe I’m not quite the “world’s only walking coma victim” as my ex-wife liked to call me in her more affectionate moments, but let’s say, for sake of comparison, I’m wound loose. Sometimes Ronnie will search long enough that she finally finds a button to push that gets me going, but usually I just watch the show and enjoy, realizing how hopelessly over-matched I am.
She looked up from her Cheerios, looked at me, looked over my shoulder at Liz, and back at me. She paused. Impeccable timing, this lass.
“You’re not going to tell me this is something the dog found.”
“That’s not a very nice way to greet a guest.”
“I didn’t invite in any guests.”
“Well, I did.”
“Then I guess you have a guest and I have a strange person standing there watching me eat my breakfast.”
“This is Liz.” I turned a bit and nodded at Liz. She was still hugging herself, but didn’t look any worse than she had on the street. Maybe even a little better. Maybe she had an idea what to expect from fourteen. Or maybe she didn’t find fourteen all that bad in the scheme of things.
“Liz had a bit of a tough time this morning and last night and it’s early and things weren’t open yet and it’s cold out so I invited her in to warm up for a little while. Think you can handle that?”
“Just like that?”
“Yeah. Crank introduced us.”
She snorted and shook her head. “Yeah, right.”
But I had her. I’d hear about it later for sure, but she always came through once she’d made her statement. She carried her bowl to the sink and then walked over to us.
She nodded past me. “Nice to meet you, Liz.’
She poked me in the ribs with a sharp finger and walked past us into her room. She emerged with coat and backpack.
“Bye Dad, bye Liz, bye dog.”
She was loping down the stairs.
“Call me tonight,” I said.
She slammed the door with only slightly more force than necessary.
I squatted and unhooked the dog’s leash. That gave me something to do for a couple of seconds. It’s not like I’ve never been alone with a woman I didn’t know very well before. There have been a number of come home with me from the bar type events, but of course they were always helped along by the usual chemical aids. This was the first time I’d ever brought someone right in off the street, in the morning, sober and I had to leave for work in twenty minutes.
I stood and attempted a smile with not a hint of leer in it. This is not always easy for me to do. “Well Liz, why don’t you have a seat and I’ll put some hot water on. Coffee or tea?”
Liz scanned the place, sizing up the seating choices, no doubt. Two wicker bottom, steel frame chairs at the eating table, breakfast, lunch, dinner, one size fits all. One green three-legged arm chair, the fourth corner held up by a short stack of books. And the couch, really the mattress and box spring from a twin bed with no frame, covered with a blue throw kind of thing they sell for throwing over furniture you’re trying to hide. Crank was settling himself comfortably onto this item but he never minded if people chose to sit next to him, rather liked it in fact. Liz moved over and sat at the table, good choice in the morning for having coffee. I would’ve done the same.
“Coffee, please, if it’s not too much trouble,” she said.
“OK, coffee on the way. Take about five minutes. I gotta go to work in about twenty but that’ll give you a little time to warm up.”
I filled up the coffee maker enough for two cups, I’d already had my dose but I’d start another to be sociable.
“Nice apartment,” Liz said as I did the domestic thing. “Does that ladder go up to the roof?”
“Yeah, little flat space up there to hang out. Helps a lot in the summer ‘cause it gets hot as hell up here.”
She nodded and looked around. She looked to me like she was shivering. That happens sometimes. You don’t start shivering until you start warming up.
“I can get you a blanket.” I could also hug her, my protect-the-wounded-bird instincts kicking in, but I didn’t want to test the reaction to that.
“No, that’s OK, I’ll warm up in a minute or two. Or with the coffee.”
I walked over to my desk and opened the dictionary there to “M”. I pulled out my emergency twenty. “Before I forget. Pay me back when you can. No hurry.”
She looked a little surprised as if she’d forgotten her request. “Oh, thank you. I had a feeling when I saw you that you’d be a good person. I get paid tomorrow and I can pay you back then.”
“Tomorrow’s fine. Whenever. Where do you work?” Make it be somewhere you won’t be embarrassed to answer. Lie if you want. I’m just making conversation.
“I’m a hostess at The Top Hat Lounge. Do you know it?”
“Oh yeah. I was even in there once. With some of the brothers from when I worked at the shipyard. Got some funny looks, but everyone was cool.”
The clientele at the Top Hat was black. If a white person went in with no black friends as an escort, they might be left alone or someone might give them a hard time, but I guess that could happen in any bar no matter what your color. Some flashy druggy types went there, but my buddies were working stiffs like me who didn’t want trouble any more than I did. But to be honest, they were maybe a little less afraid of trouble than I am. I don’t think they would’ve minded all that much getting into a fight to protect my white ass. But they also knew the chances of having to do that were a lot less than if I had been foolish enough to bring them to Finneran’s, for example. The people in The Top Hat had looked at the curiously colorless individual and went back to their amusements.
“I work late most nights,” she said. “ Then I go to UMass days. I don’t know about today. With your money I can get back into my room. After the night I had, maybe I’ll just go back there and sleep.”
Of course I wanted to know the details. I suppose I’d ask if necessary but maybe they’d come out on their own. More polite that way. The coffee maker was making its mucus in the throat noises indicating the coffee was more or less drinkable.
“Is that where you work, the shipyard?” she asked.
“No, got laid off from there years ago. I’m not sure it’s even still open. Hardly anybody there if it is.” I can talk and pour coffee at the same time. “Anything with it?”
“If you have some sugar.”
“Right there on the table.” I gave her the cup with one of my four spoons. Two were clean at the moment so I didn’t have to wash one. She got the “Far Side” mug, the one with the math professors chasing the ice cream truck, compliments of my daughter. I took my faithful blue Neighborhood Bank mug. Dark blue, doesn’t show the coffee stains. “I’m working as a mechanic now. Sunoco station over on Morrissey. The work isn’t much fun but at least the pay is lousy.”
I sat down across from her at the table. I leaned back in the chair so as to not seem like I was crowding her. This kind of chair is great for leaning back in, nice springy action. I’ve rarely fallen over in them, never sober. She was cradling the cup in her hands as it sat on the table. She leaned over and let the coffee vapor drift up towards her face.
“I don’t get too many compliments on my coffee. I like the high test kind. A little too much like rocket fuel for most people.”
“Well, I didn’t taste it yet.”
Ah, a spark of humor. She was reviving, at least a little. She gave a shudder and then was still, having shaken off the last of the shivers.
She shook her head. “Some night.”
Maybe I was going to hear the story. I waited.
“I was going to borrow some money from my boyfriend to pay my rent, but we got into an argument when he was driving me back to my place, and he just left me on the curb and took off. One of the people at The Top Hat might have lent me enough, but it was too late, they were closed. And my bitch of a landlady had the chain lock on the door and that was that. I argued with her, but I knew that wasn’t going to do any good. Pleading either. Money is the only argument that lady hears. About three A.M. standing on the sidewalk, not one idea what to do. Think about it. Where do you go at three A.M. if you can’t go home?”
There was a pause. I wasn’t sure if she expected an answer to that question, but just in case I picked up the reins. “That’s a pretty good question. I’m not sure what I’d do. In New York you can ride the subways all night but they shut them down here so that’s out. There’s the cop station I suppose.”
“Would you go there?”
“Well, I was an invited guest for a night once, and I don’t think I’d go back again without another invitation.”
She was nodding over her cup. “Yes, that’s about right. My idea for the night was how could I make it through without ending up in the police station. You always get the feeling they’re trying to figure out a way to get you to stay for a long visit.”
“Sociable guys. Like lots of company. OK, not cop station. Airport is open all night, some people miss planes and stuff, have to spend the night.”
“Woman alone with no luggage? I think that’d just be a longer way to get to the police station.”
She didn’t say “Black Woman” but I knew what she meant. “Probably right on that one. Church? Any of the big churches open all night?” She was shaking her head. “I don’t have a clue either. Wouldn’t know where to begin. There’s Store 24 but that’d be good for about five minutes before you had to buy something or get the hell out.”
“More like three minutes,” she said.
“OK. Some 24 hour diners, pancake houses and such, cab drivers eat at all hours but I don’t know of any within walking distance. This is not an easy one. Oh, one other place, not quite as bad as the cop station, but similar idea. The hospital.”
She looked up and smiled, something approaching a real smile, not quite there but it had potential. “That’s pretty good, actually. I wish you’d been standing there with me at three A.M. We would’ve come up with something. I didn’t think of the hospital. They always make you wait forever and ignore you, so that might’ve been good for a rest. A long walk over there, but I might’ve tried it.”
“If I’d been there with you at three A.M. you could’ve just come back here.”
“Well, of course, but that would’ve been too easy.”
There it was. A real smile. Easily worth 20 bucks. Keep the money.
Oh yes, money. “Sorry Liz, but I have to get to work now. My boss is a good shit, he’d let you sit in our office for a while. Smells like grease and oil and stuff, but it’s warm. Or I can drop you at the hospital.”
“No, it’s a short walk to my room. This will get me back in the door. I can’t thank you enough. I can’t believe how lucky I am.”
Oh sure, out on the street all night. How lucky can you get?
The best way to make money fixing cars is to be in a kind of barely controlled maniacal rage. You don’t want to be completely out of your mind because you fix the things with your brain as much as your hands, at least if you want to fix it right, but you have to understand that the car is your sworn mortal enemy that will do everything in its power to defy and frustrate you, and you can’t be intimidated or back down or you’re dead. This is especially true if you’re working flat rate. Flat rate is the bookmaker’s approach to auto repair. The odds are lists of every repair you can dream up and how long some god-like figure has decided it should take you to do it. The mechanic is betting he can do it faster. The customer, even if he or she doesn’t realize it, is betting it takes longer. A place that cares most about the quality of repairs will pay their mechanics a good hourly wage and tell them to fix it right. A place that wants to make as much money as possible will pay their mechanics flat rate. Paul, proprietor of Paul’s Sun Service, was somewhere in between. Most jobs he charged flat rate, but he was pretty good at sizing up the ones he knew were going to be bad, and he’d tell the customer by the hour. Either way I got half. This Ford valve job I was finishing up was flat rate. I attacked the miserable hunk of metal like it was trying to steal food from my baby. And I was winning the bet. I had inspected the head bolts like I always do. No signs of necking down or corrosion, if the things are gonna break they almost always do it on the way out. One of the bastards let go when I was tightening it with the final grunt and a half of torque. I didn’t even notice until later that I had split the skin open on my knuckle because I was so mad. The head had to come back off to get the busted bolt out. Paul would pad the bill so I wouldn’t take too much of a beating, but the customer had won this one.
I park out on the street in front of the house. That way the fine young citizens in our neighborhood can spend their time trying to figure out why they can’t pop the hood on my truck to borrow the battery (it’s chained shut) or screw with the door locks until they notice the radio is long gone. I trudged up the slope to the broad front porch, up four steps, then to the side of the porch and down four steps, around to the back, and then a long climb up wooden stairs to the door to my apartment. Liz was sitting on the top step. This was the week after I’d loaned her the twenty. I’d thought about her every day, but not in that painful, longing sort of way I get myself into every now and then. Just wondering if I’d ever run into her again around the neighborhood. Wondering if I could work up the grit to go over to The Top Hat one night. I didn’t care about the twenty.
She was wearing jeans and sneakers. Her hair was tied back in a pony tail. She had some make up on but not much. She looked like a college girl. A pretty college girl.
“Your poor dog has been crying on the other side of this door for half an hour. I’d pick the lock to let him out, but I left my tools at home.”
“Oh, he’s just crying because he heard you come up, and he can’t believe you’re so cruel to tease him like that. Usually, I see him looking out the window waiting for me.”
She stood up as I reached the top of the stairs. She moved to one side of the small landing so I could get at the door.
I put the key in the lock. “Watch out now. We could both end up at the bottom of the stairs.”
The door opened in. It always took Crank a moment to figure out that what he wanted most in all the world, for me to enter and share his joy at our reunion after oh so many hours, was made impossible by him crowding the door in his frenzy. At some point in his delirium, he’d run half way up the inside stairs, and I would be able to enter. This got me in the door, but also allowed him a good run at me from chest height. He’d slobber me up a bit, figure out the door was open and make a break for it. But he realized he had another potential slobberee today and went for Liz. I grabbed him to hold him down, not an easy thing to do. She pushed back against the wall. It was not necessarily clear that it was good nature and high spirits motivating Crank at this moment. If you didn’t know him as well as I did, you might simply think he’d gone mad.
“God, how many days has he been locked up in there?”
“You won’t believe me, but if I’d been gone ten minutes, he’d act the same way.” I more or less shoved him down the outside stairs. When he got to the bottom, he jumped up, danced in a circle, ran halfway up again, ran down, and danced some more. Free at last.
“I always drive him down to Miller’s Pond, and we take a walk around. You wanna come?”
She looked at her watch. Thin brown wrist. “Can you get me back by six?”
“Oh yeah, easy. Short drive, short walk.”
Crank bounded on ahead, smelling the smells, keeping the ducks honest.
“Before I forget,” she said, “here’s twenty with much thanks.”
“Well now, I’ve been thinking about that twenty. I’ve already put another bill away in its place. Why don’t you do the same with that? Stash it, pretend you don’t have it, but if you ever really need it, it’s there.”
She thought about it. “That would take some self control I’m not sure I have.”
“All you really need is a bad memory. You put it away and forget about it. But if you really need it, something clicks and you remember.”
“OK. You’re nice. I’m not used to that.” She stuffed the money back in her jeans.
The “nice” stung a bit, but I decided to let it sit there. Nice didn’t get you very far, but I didn’t do a convincing mean and my mysterious was a total flop.
She gave me a smile. What a nice thing to ask. “Pretty tough. I got a Psych mid-term that I want to study for before I go to work. That’s what I need to get back for.”
“Now I feel guilty, keeping you from studying and all.”
“No, this is good. I need to chill once in a while, too. I don’t have enough of that.”
The early evening was shirt-no-jacket mild. A few of the trees around the pond had started to turn yellow, but green still held the majority. There were other strollers and dog walkers but never too many. One determined young woman passed us striding purposefully in the other direction. I saw her there most evenings. She’d make three circuits of the mile or so around the pond to my one. She never made eye contact. Who could blame her? I was undoubtedly violent or a pervert or both and so was my dog. I was sure I detected a flicker of surprise as she noticed Liz.
“Back on better terms with your landlady?”
“Oh yeah, the bitch. She sees the money, she’s your best friend.”
“Learning anything in Psychology that would help you deal with a person like that?”
She laughed. “That would be some Psychology course.”
“Something like, if you cover her left eye she remembers numeric amounts of money better, but if you cover her right eye, she remembers pictures of bills better. Or is it the other way around?”
“And if you cover both eyes, she can smell the stuff.”
“Oh yes. The sense of smell. Very powerful at evoking strong memories.”
“Did you take Psychology?”
“No, but some World Class scientists did experiments on me.”
She laughed again. The nice man who could make her laugh.
Crank ran up with a small tree in his mouth. He dropped it at my feet.
“Geesh Crank, couldn’t you have found something bigger?”
I looked around for a stick I could lift. I picked one up, and he began to back towards the water and hunker down, muscles quivering, coiled, the anticipation so intense you could almost see steam rising from his fur. He tried to bark, but his throat muscles were too tense and he could only manage a strangled sort of yelp. If his brain were only just that least little bit bigger or better organized, he could have levitated that stick right out of my hand, I’m sure of it, but as it was he needed me to throw it, oh please god of dogs, please throw it, please throw it now, please oh please, before I explode.
I swung my arm and the stick arced end over end out over the pond. Crank leaped into the water and was heading towards point of touch down while it was still flying. All the tension was released as he pushed a bow wave along.
Liz clapped her hands and bent over in delight. “Good lord, that dog can swim. But you’re so mean to wait so long before throwing that stick. I thought he was going to die. I thought I was going to die.”
“Oh, it’s all part of the game. The anticipation makes it that much sweeter when the payoff finally comes.”
Liz studied me over that remark. Maybe she was thinking that the “nice” had melted away, and I was now commencing with the suggestive remarks. But apparently my idiotic demeanor reassured her that I was still the man walking his dog who could be trusted. Crank emerged from the pond, did his head to toe dog shake thing that I admire so much, and dropped the stick at my feet.
I picked up the stick and offered it to Liz. “You throw it.”
“Oh no. He wants you to.”
“Believe me when I tell you that he wouldn’t care if Attila the Hun was holding the stick, as long as he threw it.”
She looked a little skeptical but took the stick from me. Crank began to hunker down and move towards the edge of the pond as before. Liz made him wait and tremble and yelp, understanding at once that this really was part of the pleasure, and then threw it far and long, a strong and graceful throw, and she hopped and followed through and then clapped and laughed as Crank stroked towards the prize. She looked back at me with a joyful smile and I only hope I managed to reflect some small part of it.
“Well, I can cook five things and dinner is going to be one of them, I haven’t figured out which yet, none of them are that good, but you’re welcome to come up and have some, whatever it is.”
“Thanks for the offer, but I wasn’t kidding about studying. And I work tonight. But I would like to take you up on that sometime. Out of five things, there must be at least one I would eat.”
“Oh yeah, definitely, maybe even two.”
She stood next to the truck, hand resting on the door. “You should come to the Top Hat some night. Early in the week usually isn’t too busy. We could hang out a little. Cheap drinks.”
An invitation. “Sure it would be OK?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Well, me being of the Paleface persuasion and all.”
“Oh, Pierre loves it when white folk come in. Thinks it makes it more like a club instead of the dive bar it really is.”
Her smile was gone. Mouth turned down, eyes focused on an unseen distant object. “My boyfriend.”
I nodded as if I understood. All I understood was that this was a fellow who could leave his girlfriend at the curb at 3 A.M. short on the rent.
“Well, OK. Can’t tonight, got this thing at my daughter’s school, Open House, but I will, soon.”
She nodded, put a hand on my elbow, kissed my cheek lightly and walked off.
I tried to think of the five things I can cook as she walked off, but I could only remember four.
I didn’t see Liz as I entered, but none of the other people in the place seemed to take exception to me standing there, so I took a seat at the bar. Oh, they let their eyes travel across that portion of the room that included the person standing near the door (me,) but that’s what you do in a bar when someone comes in, check them out without being obvious, unless you’re making some kind of point, and no one seemed to be doing that. Just another guy come in off the street to have a drink. Dressed worse than most, maybe, but still just another guy. The bartender could’ve ignored me for a while, the way they do when you’re well below the desired cool level of the particular establishment, but he didn’t.
“How you doing tonight?” Tall and wide, gray around the edges, his white shirt stretching a bit tight across the expanse of his mid-section..
“Fine, just fine. Thank you for asking.”
Was that the hint of a suggestion of a notion that it was not totally unthinkable that one might smile?
“This is where I ask, ‘What’ll it be?’”
“Glad to see you studied your lines. This is where I answer, ‘Double Jack Daniels on the rocks.’”
“Ah, old friend Jack. I think we had some of that around here somewhere. Black bottle, wasn’t it?”
I nodded with what I thought might be a convincing whiskey drinker nod. “Yep. Black. And square.”
Someone was at my elbow. “Joe giving you a hard time?”
I didn’t turn right away. I looked at Joe instead. “No, in fact, Joe has been providing me with prompt, efficient, extremely professional service.”
Joe snorted, but it was almost a laugh, and he turned to pull the square black bottle off the shelf behind him.
Now I allowed myself to look. It was yet another Liz. Hair brushed out, straight, black, over her shoulders, eye shadow blue, red lips, outlined eyes and quite a bit of soft brown skin that I struggled not to stare at as is all too often my drooling, bumbling foolish custom, but I could glimpse enough of the slim, tight black dress to know that it was first class staring material. But this wasn’t really a completely other Liz, but a fresh version of the one I had met that first morning. No college girl, a woman in her element, commanding her element, no not that, a woman way, way above her element. The Top Hat had no business being the element of a woman such as this. The Top Hat could not imagine in its wildest dive bar dreams that it could be the natural element of this woman in this dress.
“Glad you made it over.”
“Well you invited me. It’d be impolite to pass on that.”
“Impolite? What a nice, old-fashioned word. Jane Austen kind of word, you know?”
“Jane Austen? I read something by Jane Austen once. Pretty damn sharp if you ask me.”
She leaned in, hand on my arm and spoke low. “I know, but let’s keep it between us.”
Joe put my drink down in front of me. “Friend of yours, missy?”
“Very good friend. Joe, this is Tom. Tom, Joe.”
We shook hands. His was about twice the size of mine.
“Tom is the owner of that great dog I was telling you about, remember?”
Joe nodded, examining me anew. “The man with the dog.”
People often identify me by my dog. I should have his picture next to mine on my driver’s license. I pulled a twenty out and put it on the bar.
Liz covered it with her hand. “Joe, I think Tom qualifies for the new customer complimentary first drink, don’t you?”
“The who?” But he moved down the bar to serve someone else, leaving the twenty where it was.
A man and a woman stood in the entryway. They both wore long coats of fine material, stylish shoes, were well groomed from top to bottom, made me feel like I was wearing trash bags, used ones.
“’Scuse me,” said Liz, “I have to go host for a minute.”
It was more or less acceptable to stare for a moment, person you were just talking to walks away so your eyes follow them as they oh so gracefully glide across the room, long legs shifting under sheer fabric, the interplay of shoulder muscles across a smooth coffee with cream back, you know, nothing special. The space to my right had been filled again, but if I snapped around too fast it would’ve been even more obvious how I’d been staring to my left. So I had to swing back slowly no matter how curious I was.
It was a man this time, a tall, lean man, hair combed back with some kind of shiny stuff in it, a pencil thin mustache, sharp gray suit, pin stripes, maroon tie with specks that were probably supposed to be there.
“I can see you have an eye for the finer things in life,” he said. Little bit of an accent, not much. “Haf en eye fer de finer tings,” something like that, but not sounding too far off to a native speaker such as myself.
“Huh?” I quipped. I can be such a dazzling wit sometimes.
“The lady, my friend, the lady. A fine example of woman. I was watching you, my friend, I could see.”
“Oh, yeah, well, Liz, she is pretty nice looking and all you know, if you like that type, not that I don’t like that type, it’s just that I mean, well, you know…”
No telling how long this sort of thing would have kept spewing out of my mouth, I can keep it up as long as might be necessary, lull my opponent into a sense of intense boredom and then make a break for the door, but Liz was walking towards us so I used that as my excuse to shut up.
“Ah,” said Liz, “I see you’ve now met the Master of the House. Check your pockets, make sure your wallet’s still there.”
The tall man laughed. It was not the most jovial laugh I’ve ever heard. Beer bottles smashing in the street are more jovial.
“Liz has such a fine sense of humor. Sometimes only those that know her best can tell she is joking.”
“Tom, this is Pierre. Tom is the nice man that helped me out last week.”
“The Good Samaritan. Allow me to thank you.”
He extended his hand. My hand was wider than his but his fingers were about twice as long as mine. Nice nails.
“It was unfortunate, of course. I would never have left her alone if I knew her landlady would be such a difficult person. But then she was lucky enough to meet a kind man walking his dog. Liz tells me that you have a very interesting dog.”
“Yeah, next time I’ll send the dog over, and I’ll stay home licking my balls.”
Liz laughed which I was my intention all along.
Pierre looked at me sideways. “You can do that?”
“Well, no, not really. Damn dog has all the fun.”
“I’m glad to see you have a fine sense of humor. It is a very valuable thing to have.”
“Be right back.” Liz put her hand on my elbow for an instant and walked off to greet some more new arrivals.
Pierre and I looked together. No attempt to be subtle. We stared.
“For you my friend, a special deal.”
I looked at him. I would rather have looked at Liz but the man was talking to me.
“Seven hundred fifty dollars.”
“Ah, you want to bargain. The men in the big hotels will pay one thousand, sometimes even one thousand five hundred. I have never heard a single one complain that they didn’t receive good value.”
“I’m not following you here, Pierre.”
“A very stubborn fellow. But a good bargainer. Things are a little slow now and you’ve done us a good favor so I will name my final price and when I say final price, it always is, ask anyone. Six hundred dollars. But please I ask you not to tell anyone else.”
I suppose by now it had dawned on even one so dense as myself, but I still had to hear him say it to be sure.
“I’m slow tonight, Pierre. Must be because my dog isn’t here to explain things to me. What exactly do you want to sell me for six hundred dollars?”
“Ah, so you agree to the price?”
“Please Pierre, spell it out. Six hundred for what?”
“The fine lady, of course. Liz.”
At least once a week and sometimes twice, Tuesday and or Thursday, she’d be there waiting at the top of the steps, Crank whining and crying on the other side of the door like his owner had been run over while chasing a mailman. I was thinking about hiding a key so she could let him out, but we hadn’t quite progressed to that stage yet. There really wasn’t much worth stealing inside, even if she’d been so inclined, but I had some vague notion of not being too free with access because I had a kid to think about. I think I trusted Liz, but I wasn’t so sure about who it was Liz trusted. We’d ride to the pond and take our walk, talk about what had happened that day, classes, camshafts, wacky customers at the Top Hat, wacked knuckles, whatever. It felt sort of like being a couple for that hour or so, but she would always decline my invitations to have dinner. Crank now brought her his sticks. She was obviously more enthusiastic about throwing them than I was and she had a better arm. But I didn’t begrudge him. I would’ve brought her my sticks, too.
Crank was up ahead, carefully examining any smells that were new from the day before. The weather was getting colder as weather does in the fall around here. Liz had a navy blue coat with the collar turned up. I’m a hat kind of person, blue knit type at this time of year, but Liz didn’t seem to be, hair blowing a bit in the cool breeze.
She’d been telling me about her Psychology class, psychoses of various sorts, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t directed at me personally, and then she was quiet for a bit as we shuffled along. This was fine with me. I will babble on pointlessly on many occasions, but I don’t feel a compulsion to fill all dead air with noise. Companionable silence can be good.
“Does Pierre talk business with you?”
I wasn’t quite as surprised as when Pierre had named his final price a few weeks earlier, but it took me a moment or two to compose an answer. “Well, he talks to me a lot about what various cars are worth, that kind of stuff.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
She was looking straight ahead as we walked. I was trying to decide whether to play dumb or not. Avoidance is not the worst tactic in the world. I have used it often with some success. I got a sense it wasn’t going to work in this case.
“Well, yeah, Pierre made me a business proposition a while back.”
If I had been able to guess what a good lie would have been here, I would’ve used it, but I was totally in over my head. Were we dealing with an ego thing here? Or money management? Or unknown agendas I couldn’t begin to guess at? No use, you have to know more than I did to lie successfully.
“Six hundred, that cocksucker! I’d like to grind him up and feed him to Crank.”
“Well, he started at seven-fifty which he said was less than usual to begin with, but then he thought I was bargaining when really, I was just being dense, so he lowered it some more.”
“Six hundred is a bargain. Why didn’t you take him up on it?” She was still looking straight ahead. I took some side glances, but we weren’t having any eye contact here. Delicate ground.
I had given it some thought afterwards. I had politely declined Pierre’s offer at the time, citing acute lack of funds, not wanting to piss him off in case it should somehow come back on Liz. But I could have paid six hundred. In fact, I could have paid seven-fifty, although we might have been a little short on dog food the following week. But I had finally decided that I wouldn’t.
“Well, let’s see. It’s not that I have any moral scruples against this particular sort of thing, and it’s certainly not that I don’t think it would be the bargain of the century.” I glanced to see if any lightening of the mood was creeping in. Nope. Tight jaw all the way.
“Well, let’s say for example, while we’re walking around the pond here, some guy comes up to me and says, ‘Hey man, I really like your dog. I’m Barry Sanders, filthy rich grandson of Colonel Sanders, so money means nothing to me. I’ll give you 10 grand for your dog.’ So what would I say to that? I’d say, ‘Well Barry, I think it’s really cool you like my dog so much, he is a really great dog, but he’s not for sale.’ So then he says, ‘OK, 100 grand.’ I’m having a little trouble breathing now, but I manage to say, ‘Wow, that’s an incredible offer Barry, but, really, he’s not for sale. And he says, ‘My final price, 1 million.’ I’m ill now and faint and there’s little specks in front of my eyes, but I manage to gasp out, ‘Not for sale.’ So Barry shakes his head and says, ‘I was just testing you on the million, I really wouldn’t have gone higher than 100 grand, but I think that’s still pretty cool you wouldn’t sell your dog for that. Have a nice day.’ So what’s my point here? I was enjoying my story so much I think I forgot. No, OK. The point is, some things are just not subject to business negotiations. Now, if I had never met you, I might have felt differently, but knowing you, let’s say knowing you a little on a personal basis before I got introduced to the business aspect, well, that put it in a different light, and at that point the price really had nothing to do with it, it just wasn’t subject to negotiation. Does that make any sense at all?”
Crank, bless his canine heart, had chosen that moment to deliver a fine stick at Liz’s feet. She picked it up, ran three strides towards the water and heaved it far and high. Crank leapt with ecstasy into the water after it. He’d be swimming for a while after this one.
Liz came up to me while Crank was still swimming, wrapped her arms around me, buried her face in my jacket and hugged me good and hard. She gave a little shudder, but when she pulled her face back, I could see she wasn’t crying.
“Ronnie is very lucky to have such a good man for a father.”
“What about Crank?”
“Crank is very lucky Mr. Sanders didn’t offer two million.”
“I want to get out.”
“Hmm. Not to point out anything too obvious, but you are out.” I swept my arm across the vista of Miller’s Pond. Quite nice, still, even with most of the leaves down.
“It’s this thing you do, pretend not to understand when you really do.”
“Sorry. Bad habit.”
“Actually, it is annoying sometimes, but it’s also kind of sweet. You respond but you give the other person the option of being serious or kidding around. It’s a clever little tactic.”
“You’re getting an ‘A’ in Psychology, right?”
She looked at me with something approaching a scowl. I was glad she didn’t have a stick in her hand. But it turned into a kind of smile. Rueful smile. I always liked that word. Never got much of a chance to use it before.
“I want to get away from Pierre. Stop being a working girl. And you know what I mean. That kind of a working girl.”
I gave her some time in case there was more. She was quiet.
“Well, why not just stop?”
“You don’t just stop with Pierre.”
“It’s not like he owns you, is it? I mean, you don’t sign contracts in that field, do you? I know I’m totally ignorant on the protocol here, but it seems to me you could just stop. What’s he gonna do?”
She exhaled. “Pierre has hurt people. I don’t mean hurt their feelings, either.”
“He could get hurt himself. I didn’t notice any red ‘S’ on his chest.”
She smiled, less ruefully. “Don’t try to talk tough. I know you’re not.”
“Listen, Miss A Psychology student, you don’t know everything.”
“OK, OK, I didn’t mean to insult you. I know you would stand up to him, but it’s not like that. He’s sneaky mean. He’d let me walk, wait until I thought I was clear, and then he’d do something bad. I know him. He won’t just let go. He’d only listen to one thing, money. Everything is business to him, everything has a price. That’s how he thinks.”
We walked along.
“Why don’t you ask him how much?”
“Ask him how much to let you go.”
“You crazy? That would be like telling the warden you’re planning to go over the wall at midnight.”
“It’s telling him you want to go, that true, but you’re keeping it on his terms. Making it a business proposition.”
“But he’ll just come up with some crazy number I could never get together.”
“That’s OK. You always start negotiations high. The idea is to get him to give you a number. Then we’ll see what we can do from there.”
It was my turn to smile. “Think of me as your agent.”
She was shaking her head as Crank approached ready for fun. “Oh, yeah, I really got a good chance now.” The ring of conviction was somehow lacking.
“See, I told you it would be some ridiculous number.”
“No, no, that’s great. He could’ve said twenty million, or he could’ve threatened you or worse.”
“He did threaten me.”
“What’d he say?”
“He said if I walked without paying him, he’d get me.”
“Yeah, but you knew that anyway. No, I think this is good. That’s a real number.”
“It might as well be twenty million for all the chance I have of getting it.”
“Tell him you’ll give him five grand cash by the end of the week.”
“Now I know you’re crazy. I couldn’t raise five hundred by the end of the week.”
“Don’t worry, he won’t take it. But this makes it a real negotiation, offer, counter-offer.”
“I’m scared. What if he says OK? Then what do I do?”
“I don’t think he will but if he does, you let your agent handle it.”
She turned on me. She was fierce. “This is my life you’re playing games with, asshole. You already have me advertising to him I want out, now you want me to offer him money I don’t have? You want to get me killed?”
I held out my hands. “Easy there, easy. I know it’s not a game. If it really came down to it, I could scrape together five grand if he said yes, sell shit, beg, borrow, whatever, I think I have a net worth of five grand anyway. But I really don’t think he’s gonna take the first counter-offer. That’s not how you do it.”
“But what if he says yes just to call my bluff?”
“Then we call his bluff, come up with the money and you’re gone.”
“But you don’t think he will?”
“No, I don’t”
“I’ll have to think about it.”
“You were right, he said no. And he didn’t get mad like I expected. He laughed. He could tell how nervous I was. I tried to be cool, but I just couldn’t, my voice was all shaky. But he just said twenty grand, not a penny less.”
“His ‘final price’?”
“He didn’t say that. Just said, ‘When you can show me twenty grand, then we talk.’”
“Hm. I think he really would negotiate if he thought you could actually come up with the money. He can’t know for sure you won’t just walk anyway and he gets nothing. So if he knew he’d really get a stack of bills instead of nothing, he’s gonna take the bills.”
“But he knows I’m scared of him.”
“Maybe he does, but he can’t be sure. Now don’t get mad at me, but I think this is going pretty good. Just let it sit for a while now. If he brings it up just say something like you’re working on another offer, just something to let him know you haven’t given up and dropped the idea.”
“OK, Mr. Agent Man. And what do I do in the meantime. Buy lottery tickets?”
“Really bad odds on that. If you really have to gamble, try blackjack at the casino. You’ll still lose, but you might have some fun doing it. But I wouldn’t recommend that either. You wouldn’t want to lose your rent money or anything. Getting really cold at night now in case you didn’t notice.”
“Well, I’m OK as long as I don’t bet my emergency twenty.”
“What is the fastest production car ever sold?”
“Acceleration or top speed?”
“1967 Ford GT-40. Roll it out of the showroom and onto the track at Le Mans, you’re doing 220 down the Mulsanne Straight.”
“They did not sell those to the public.”
“Did too. Not too many for shit sure, but they had to sell ‘em to homolgate them, whatever the fuck that word is.” One of those words I’d seen but never heard anybody I could trust pronounce.
“There must have been Ferraris or Lamborghinis faster than that.”
“Tell you what, you go get your Italian noodle rocket and I’ll get my GT-40 and we’ll roll ‘em out onto Blue Hill Ave. and see which one of us gets to Mattapan first.”
Pierre leaned back in the booth smiling. When we were talking cars, Pierre’s smile was for real. The man loved automobiles and not just as a way to flaunt his wealth and coolness. He really loved cars. If Liz had four wheels and a V8 she would have had no problems with this guy.
“If you could have one car in all the world, what would it be?”
“1966 427 Cobra, the real 427 not the 428. I saw one once in a dealer’s showroom window at night, and I stood there watching it for I don’t know how long. I should’ve sold everything I owned, hocked, begged, borrowed, sold my soul to the devil, sold my ass, whatever it would’ve taken to buy that car. My life would’ve been different, I know it. I would not be the sorry good for nothing you see sitting before you now, I guarantee you that.”
“Yes, your life would have been different because you would have been dead. And I do not wish to disappoint you, but selling your ass would not have covered the cost of two lug nuts.”
Oh, Pierre was enjoying himself tonight. He could go on for hours with this car shit.
“What about you? One car in all the world. Which one?”
“Ah, my friend, I will surprise you. I already own that car. A 1972 Buick Electra Two Two Five. This is the car with the power and the smoothness and the looks that no other car can have.”
“Deuce and a quarter? Well, I gotta say, it is the ultimate of something or other. Big American iron, big American V8, year before the gas crisis, the pollution stuff was just getting started, not my style exactly, but I can see the appeal. And you’re right about smooth. You get one of those water buffalos tuned just right and at idle you’d have to stick your hand in the fan to know if it was running or not.”
“Ah, but here is the problem. The body and the interior are perfect but the motor, ah the poor motor, it has things sticking out the sides which should not be.”
“Things like connecting rods, for instance?”
Pierre waved his hand dismissively and looked away. As much as he loved cars, he was not one for the technical details of what went on inside.
I sat looking down into my glass, deciding whether it was worth tipping it up one more time for the last few amber drops.
Pierre waved at Liz and pointed to my glass. She was busy hostessing, but she made a remark to the paying customers she was settling into a booth, went to the bar where Joe had already poured and, without stopping, delivered the glass with one hand while she ever so briefly rested the other on my shoulder.
“I wonder what this one will really cost you,” she said softly, but not that softly. And she was gone again.
“Her mouth is too fresh for its good health.”
I ignored his rumbling. A thought that had been gestating for a while was about to come screaming and kicking into the world.
“How would like to own the sweetest running two-two-five in the whole state of Massa-two-shits?”
He gazed at me calmly. Whatever this bit was Pierre had chosen to play, he did it pretty well. He knew that was just the introduction. He’d give me as much time as I needed to spin it out.
“Maybe the best on the whole Eastern seaboard. Shit, who knows, maybe the best one anywhere.”
I sipped. He waited. He was interested, of course, I knew that and he knew I knew, but he still wasn’t giving anything away. This might turn into a negotiation and you never gave away anything right at the start.
“I could do it, you know. I got the connections. I got the experience. I got the place to work. Start with a short block, over-bored say o-thirty, Keith Black pistons, shot-peened rods and crank, everything blueprinted and balanced, Stage I valves, Crane cam, Holley carb, performance intake, ceramic-coated headers, dual exhaust. Do some mild porting on the heads, nothing too radical, make it a little bit angry, but you don’t want to lose that smoothness. We’re talking one sweet motor, my friend. All’s you’d have to worry about is how to pay for all the rear tires you’ll be shredding.”
Now it was my turn to sit and wait. It helped to have a drink in front of me. I didn’t want to drain it too fast.
“But what would I need you for? Many people could get a motor from the scrap yard and rebuild it, and I would have a very good running car.”
“Oh, you’d probably have a running car, sure, no telling how long it would run, but probably for a while. Maybe even put out two hundred horses on a good day. Maybe. If that’s what you want, fine.”
“And how much would this motor you speak of produce?”
“Well, I don’t want to tell you any wild tales so I’ll be conservative. Say four-fifty. Maybe even more, four-eighty, who knows, but four-fifty easy. I’ve seen motors with less than I described dynoed at more than that. Listen man, I know the real guys, the guys who do the NASCAR motors, they wouldn’t even look at your stuff no matter how much money you offered them. You’d be lucky if they just asked you to leave instead of chasing you out waving a breaker bar. But I know guys who know guys, all I got to do is ask.”
Pierre sighed. “You are not so simple as you pretend to be, my friend Thomas. You know of course I am very interested in this motor you speak of. But of course, I also know that you will not build this motor for me simply because we are friends. So now, we must begin to speak about the amount of money you will require to build such a motor for me.”
Another sip of Jack. I’ve negotiated a fair number of deals, but I’ve never really considered it my best thing. I get impatient, want to get it over with. I give in too soon. You really want the other guy to get impatient. I knew Pierre was going to be better at this than me. So I made myself take another sip. He shifted in his seat. Good.
He leaned back and smiled. He was totally, thoroughly enjoying this. I was nervous as hell. But he had to be the one to speak next, no matter what it cost me.
He waited a while, decided that was all that was coming out for the moment and leaned forward. “I know you don’t really mean ‘Nothing’ so perhaps you will give me some more details about what it is you have in mind.”
“Well, by nothing I mean no money. You won’t have to give me any money at all for me to build this motor for you.”
He nodded slowly. “No money. But of course there will be some exchange, no money, but something else of value.”
He spread his palms and raised an eyebrow. My serve.
“I build you the motor, you let Liz walk.”
A very cool customer, our Pierre. I’m not even sure just how I could tell he was surprised, maybe by the mere fact that he was controlling his reaction, not enough of a reaction to be genuine. But then he leaned further forward, put one hand flat on the table, pointed the index finger of the other hand at me and stared intently. This was, at last, the real Pierre, at the heart of the deal.
“So there is no mistake, you want to trade the girl for a car?”
“That motor’s worth twenty g’s easy, if you could get anybody to take your money for it, which you couldn’t.”
He leaned back and laughed. “Never in my life did I ever imagine I would hear such a thing. He wants to trade the girl for a car!” He laughed for a while.
Pierre was standing on the corner in front of the Top Hat when I pulled up. Pierre is not the sort of person who waits on corners. That sort of activity is beneath him. You wait on the corner for Pierre, not the other way around. But I had called him to tell him I was coming over with the car. I’m sure he tried to sit inside and wait for me to show, but his overwhelming Christmas morning what’s under the tree feeling got the best of him. He had on a long leather coat and cool dude sunglasses. He leaned into the passenger side window when I lowered it and said, “May I see under the hood, please?”
I left the engine idling, got out and popped the hood. To most people, the main thing you would notice was that the engine compartment was extraordinarily clean for an old car. The rocker covers were painted red and the engine block was black. The air cleaner cover was chrome. If you looked for a while and knew what you were looking at, you’d start to notice other details, but Pierre was not one who knew. He simply wanted to bask in the presence of his new motor, feel the heat coming off it, sense the latent power. At idle, it was damn near as quiet as stock. If you walked around towards the rear, you heard the muted bass rumble that promised something more than stock, but only as a suggestion.
“Well, you want to drool on it or drive it?”
He walked over to the driver’s side door, and I slid into the passenger’s side. There was room for several medium size people in between us.
“OK, I’ll give you my little Mr. Mechanic speech now. I drove it around some this week breaking in the motor and gave it an oil change, so the first part of the break-in is done. You want to spend another 1000 miles or so varying the speed and load, don’t flog it for too long, don’t drone on the highway for hours. Then get the oil changed again. You do that, it’ll last a long time. You don’t do that, it’ll still last a long time, only not as long. That’s my speech. It’s your car. Do whatever the hell you want with it.”
He nodded once, put it in drive and pulled away from the curb. He headed down wide Blue Hill Avenue at a moderate pace, taxis and an assortment of grandmothers and teenagers passing him. It drove like any big old Buick Two Two Five, sailing on the asphalt ocean.
There was a clear stretch of traffic-free road ahead. “Now let us see.” He pushed his shiny leather shoe down hard.
We had been doing thirty, then we were doing eighty, Pierre had to get on the brakes to keep from wrecking his prize car against the rear bumpers of the cars that had passed us a while ago. It seemed to take a few seconds for the sound and smoke to catch up with us.
“Oh,” he said. “Oh, oh.”
I went to the Top Hat once more. Pierre had hired a very attractive young woman to act as hostess. She didn’t know quite what to make of me as I stood in the entranceway. It wasn’t that I was white, the novelty of that had worn off, but I was still in my work clothes. She was not used to the combination. “It’s OK, I’m a friend of Pierre’s.”
She was far too polite to call me a liar, but I wasn’t sure if her doubt was because of it being unlikely Pierre would have a friend like me or that Pierre would have a friend, period.
“I’ll just sit at the bar.”
Joe had my drink already poured as I eased onto a stool. Undoubtedly, the young hostess had noticed this act of confirmation that I was a recognized presence here.
“It’s the Master Mechanic,” he said. I noticed that the tone of his voice was not unlike a tuned Buick Two Two Five at idle.
“Hey, pardner. Missed me?”
We both laughed. True and not true. Joe was at work, and if we ever saw each other outside this place, it would only be by accident, so we could not really be considered friends. But customers who were undemanding, left good tips and contributed an occasional wise-crack made a work shift slide by more easily. This was something to be recognized with approval. And I was a friend of someone who genuinely was his friend so that counted as well.
“Seen Missy lately?” he asked.
“You know, I was gonna ask you the exact same question. Haven’t seen or heard from her for a while.”
“Well, she sure hasn’t shown her face around these parts for a good long time. Pierre gets his car, Missy stops showing up for work. Funny thing.”
“Anybody thought to check in the trunk?”
We both laughed again. Just like old times.
“Not a bad idea. Think Pierre’ll lend us the keys?”
“No problem. You didn’t think I’d give him the car back without having a spare set made, did you?”
Pierre was there by my elbow, I knew that, and Joe moved away to do bartender things, but I took a sip and waited. I wasn’t going to assume anything. Let Pierre be however he was going to be.
“Drink up my friend. You will not pay for a drink tonight.”
I swiveled around to look at him. He wore a gray suit with dark pin-stripes and a blue tie. No matter how much I spent on clothes, I would still look like a pile of rags next to this man.
“I guess that means you like your new motor all right.”
He waved the new hostess over. He put a proprietary arm around her. She made thigh contact.
“Michelle, I would like to introduce you to my good friend, Thomas. Thomas is an artist. A true Master.”
“What. like with paint and stuff?”
“No, no, not that kind. An artist of … an artist of the wrench. Yes, an artist of the wrench, that is our friend Thomas. He can make machines into things of beauty. Whenever he comes here, you are to treat him with the utmost respect. But if he makes you any kind of an offer, do not listen to him. Come tell me at once. Because, although he is an artist, he is not entirely to be trusted. Now, go greet those people standing in the entranceway before they die of old age.”
She looked at me, puzzled beyond reckoning, the poor girl, and went off to do her work.
“What’s this not to be trusted shit, Pierre? We made a deal. I kept my part of it. How do I even know you kept your part of it?”
“Surely, the young lady has informed you that I have indeed kept my part of our bargain.”
I tried to keep it out of my face, but I was no match for Pierre.
“Oh, my poor friend. The young lady has not even shown her appreciation of your assistance. The day you delivered the car, when she came to work. I told her to go, that she no longer owed me anything, nor did I owe her. I said ‘Go to your Thomas now, your white knight, you will make him very happy, no doubt.’ When I make a deal, I keep a deal. I have learned it can be dangerous any other way, something you too should always remember. But it never came to my mind that she would not honor her deal with you. For this I am sorry, but it is your problem, not mine.”
“We never had a deal of any kind.”
Pierre nodded his head. He waved for Joe to refresh my drink. Joe did this efficiently and silently.
“Of course, I was not quite ready to let her go her own way, not without the offer you made to me, but I was going to have to do something about the situation within a year or two in any case. The merchandise was still of a very high quality, but not perhaps any longer of the very highest. When this begins to occur, the wise businessman begins to look for other investment opportunities. So you did me two favors in a way, and it is unfortunate that you did not receive your expected compensation. I am surprised. She is, after all, a professional.”
I suppose I should’ve thanked him. This really made it a lot easier. Some part of me always hated him, but the car talk and the free drinks and even the “artist of the wrench” bullshit made me forget how much. I slugged down the rest of my drink and waved Joe off as he advanced for a refill.
“Thanks for the drinks, Pierre. Enjoy the car. Don’t call me if it breaks. Our deal is done.”
He raised an eyebrow. Maybe he had expected me to take a swing. Maybe he even wanted me to, his way of wrapping up a business relationship. But I’m a non-violent fellow, usually, anyway.
“One more thing, Thomas, before you go. How long do you recommend between oil changes?”
One day after work, I trudged up the front walk and onto the porch. The mailbox was to one side of the porch next to the four stairs that I would soon trudge down to walk around back for my long climb up to the third floor and my daily reunion with Crank. Some people may dread opening their mailbox, but for me it is always the most hopeful part of the day. You never know what might be in there. This day there was a postcard with a picture of an institutional looking building, yellowish brick, flagpoles outside, sunny day. Not exactly your typical vacation spot. On the back, in the upper left hand corner where they tell you what the picture is, it said “Our Sister of Mercy Hospital, San Diego, California.” Below that, in a girlish hand were written three words: “Open all night.”
About the Author:
Drew Banton has published novels, novellas and stories. He has had pieces appear in Event Horizon Online magazine and Bicycling Magazine. He has worked as a printer, welder, auto mechanic, bicycle frame builder, industrial mechanic and manufacturing engineer.
He lives in Newton, Massachusetts with his wife and dog. When not writing he can usually be found walking the dog or working in his garage on one of his motorcycles.
e-mail: [email protected]