I prop one boot on the Mustang’s running board. The car creaks as I lean staring across its soiled white roof at the honey. Freezing November winds off Lake Michigan blast our faces, fluttering her yellow hair like a pennant. She hasn’t looked at me since I paid for her shoes. She isn’t reaching for the passenger door again.
Hands buried in my jacket pockets, I try not to let too much hope crimp my asking, “What about after?”
“Can’t,” she repeats, already turning away. “I have to work.”
“No, after,” I urge, inviting, not desperate. “Can we?”
“May we?” she murmurs, walking off. Or else, “Maybe,” and me too chickenshit to holler after her, hear it the wrong way again.
She takes careful, even steps because her shoes are new—brown patent leather that’s stiff, unblemished, her toes already blistering just from wearing them out of the store, she’d said. In the paper bag dangling at the end of her pink-sweatered arm, in the box with the freshly cancelled price tag, she carries her stilettos with the broken heel from last night. Whipping her wild hair back, swaying her pearl skirt, she takes careful, even steps away across the parking lot, avoiding puddles of this morning’s rainwater and matted clumps of autumn leaves.
My watch must be lying wherever I dropped it, probably beside the bed. A bank clock across the mall lot reads 12:08. I can’t believe I just spent half a morning watching a woman try on shoes, or that she picked the most expensive ones just to walk home in, or that I’m still not ready for last night to be over. I yank the car door open. Lukewarm air gasps out. Kicking to life with a snarl and a burst of exhaust, the red Mustang lurches onto the boulevard, shouldering aside two lanes of traffic in a clamor of horns. She might see it go. Her head doesn’t turn.
Through the first stoplight I grind the gears a little, ease off. More flow, less fight. Schopenhauer. Plus maybe Jay-Z.
Preppy bitch—but no, not actually . . . though she’d rather walk all the way back to campus alone, under threatening skies (or catch a bus, or summon a cab to pluck her from some innocuous corner), than have me see which Greek-lettered house she cribs in or chance any venomous sister checking scary-ass me dropping her off. Me without her number, her e-mail, her last name . . .
But no, can’t be pissed at her for what I don’t get: Is one not supposed to trip the shops after a one-nighter or drop half a G on blister-inducing shoes? Is it logical to get coldshouldered after that? What delimits the etiquette of a newfound sexual relationship? And what says it has to stay purely physical? Or one night? How the fuck else does anything get started?
Honks from behind prompt fresh gear-grinding. Creases from her thighs and back still dimple the red vinyl passenger seat.
Quicksilver drops flash across the windshield, corroborating a voice giving wet-weather reports over the crackling radio. I flip stations. No music anywhere, only voices, do this, go there, don’t have unprotected sex, buy Pepsi.
I sling my unprotected Mustang through the rain to the Jif-E-Mart for a pop.
“ ’Sup, Bigs,” drawls Al behind the counter. “Shit ain’t free, man.”
I suck a long time on my straw, staring at Al’s cadaverous face, his lank hair dangling unwashed around black-circled eyes. Al shivers nervously, dings up a customer’s purchase on the loud cash register, glances back at me, his dusted eyes sliding sidewise. When my straw broaches air under naked ice, I belch, grinning. “Want it back?”
“Shit,” he mutters, his swollen, pustulated fingers pawing his Jif-E-Mart apron. The zombie clerk from hell, doing his little court-ordered employment. So stupid. But at least it keeps his caseworker happy, and it does make the best damn cover for touting deals with our real customers, most of whom are too young white suburban to venture readily into our haunts, so who am I to complain? Smear a little Vaseline on the security cam, and we can bank more in an hour than the fricking store does all day. American convenience at its one-stop shopping finest: get your gas, biggie gulp, and a party’s worth of high right on your way from school, work, or home. We’re positively patriotic.
Legit spenders ring up, so I fade back to the soda fountain, refilling my cup, hanging till Al’s clear again. He asks, “Tap that honey last night?”
I nod, drawing on my straw again. “Sweet.”
“Yeah?” Al eyes me for truth. “You don’t figure her type, Chief.” His weepy fingers tweak the overhead smokes, popping me down a couple packs of Marlboros when the other clerk, some dumb Abdul, isn’t looking. I slip the packs in my pocket, tip my chin.
“Know what they say. Love is blind.”
“Shit ain’t cheap though,” he leers, rubbing his nostrils fitfully.
Thinking of stiff new Jimmy Choos, I raise my cup and mutter, “Amen to that.”
Softer I add, “We up yet?”
“Little left,” Al says, looking out at the gas pumps, as if we’re not even talking to each other now, just moving our lips absently.
“Tonight?” I wonder. Waggling his hand equivocally, he nods, still facing away.
Another customer comes. I go, Al hollering after me, “Check you, bro! Hey—least it came cheap last night, huh?”
In the doorway I shake my head, then step, drawing softly on my straw. The Mustang peels out on the wet cement.
No, it wasn’t a payoff. She needed the damn shoes. But was it the way she said she liked them, giving me the look over her fuzzy pink shoulder, that bare leg extended in the hands of the suited sales guy kneeling at her feet . . . was that wistfulness in her eyes? A pout?
Are all desires so cheap in her world? Is she? How far apart are we then, really?
Fuck, I think, trying to find a clearer station on the rain-smeared radio. Fuck analyzing this shit to death.
Don’t figure her type. Pissant Al, bringing that honky crap up. Didn’t matter to her last night. She looked right in my big face and didn’t make any Kemo Sabe jokes. Maybe it never occurred to her.
Anyway, the load sells out, the crew gets paid. Shoot a little stick, roll a few numbers, get fucked up before the next batch is cooked and cut and it’s heigh-ho, heigh-ho, back to work we go. Could be a nice meet-up, I muse, slamming the gearshift into fourth, flooring the pedal, watching the rev needle spike. Could be time for a change. Could be . . .
Home, the Mustang slips into its ruts worn in the gravel lot backing the apartment house. Stepping out into bitter wind, I lock the car, pitch my wadded fountain cup trailing its melted ice like a comet, and take the wooden stairs behind the old building—the shoe-heel-turning stairs of last night—two at a time to my dead-bolted door.
Dark inside. I kick my boots off. I can smell her on my pillow as I lie down. Something on the sheet crumples under my hand. I have to think for a moment before turning a lamp on.
A note, on pink paper. Her handwriting has flair, like she writes party invitations for a living. Bullfeathers 12:30?
Rainy afternoon becomes night. I sleep a while, fitfully, dreaming of her. Wakes me hard as old ivory, the luminous clock showing six. Jerking off would only make me feel more alone.
Six-fifteen, Al calls like always. He’s a prick but a damned regular little prick.
“Bullfeathers,” I insist. “I buy first.”
Enough for Al. I order a pizza, wash it down with a two-liter of Pepsi and another chapter of Kierkegaard. Do it or don’t do it—either way you’ll regret it. I ponder that over a few hours of Mario Kart. Then I strip and shower and dress again with care. My last girlfriend, Robin, moved back up to the rez a year ago after she found out I wasn’t enrolled in any of the philosophy classes I kept dragging her to. I haven’t been with anyone since. Until last night. Outside, evening wind messes my thick black hair. Time enough to straighten up before I’m seen again.
At the frat bar down on the lakefront, the men’s room mirror is greasy, but I clean up good even in stale light. I stake one of the green tables for our board meeting: Big Chief (aka yours truly), supply & delivery; Doc, production; Al, sales; and Jack-Tar, accounting, the collection man.
At a quarter of twelve, Al and Doc haven’t shown. J-T racks while I get pitchers. Just off campus, the bar has a Saturday crowd awash in animal musk, pierced with laughter.
“Lose any?” I ask while J-T goes ahead and breaks, too, the bastard.
Blond and buff, a beardless Viking, J-T lines up his shot, muttering into his chin, “Al’s pals—fuckers shorted the usual.”
He sinks a yellow stripe, misses the follow-up. I ease around, eyeing my chances.
“What was that honey’s name from back when?” I ask over the clack of balls. “The redhead.”
“Who?” J-T inquires, drinking leisurely, waiting for me to shoot again.
“That Greek Row chick. The money honey.”
“You mean Deb?” he murmurs, moving in for his shot.
I stand aside, toying with my beer. “What’d you do with her?”
He glances up. “Like, did I chain her in my basement? What do you think? We jacked a while.”
I grimace, checking the lay of the table.
“Assed her and passed her,” says J-T, sighing. “What else? Fucking waste.”
“That all she want?” I shoot abruptly, get a lucky carom off the rail.
“Why?” asks J-T. “You got her on the pipe now?”
“Not that,” I sniff, lining up a combination solid in the side. “Just, y’know, this honey last night . . .”
“You’re poking ’em again,” he says, shaking his head as the combo goes awry.
J-T lines his pale cheek up with his ebony stick, the shining white cue, and a blood-red stripe, his golden hair tumbling down over his purple-jerseyed shoulder so it brushes the green felt. Nordic eyes squinting, he says, “Listen, Bigs—it don’t mean nothing. Nothing means nothing.”
He runs the rest of the table. I rack again.
“What means nothing?” I finally ask, watching him break. The balls flee, falling down into dark corners, giving him his choice of which to go after.
J-T looks up with a hysterical, wheezy giggle. “Nothing, dammit! No harm no foul—bip, bam, what the fuck, Ma’am?”
I shrug and lean back against scuffed paneling, peering through the reflection in a windowpane half hidden under the gigantic, creepy shadow of a stuffed moose head. A black expanse where the streetlights end marks the open lake, fringed with tiny lights moving up and down the college drive. Twenty after twelve on my radiant Indiglo.
“What are you?” she asked me at the club last night, her beery breath pressing into my ear to be heard over the noise the DJ was mixing.
“Oneida-Menominee,” I said. “What are you?”
She laughed and downed more of her drink, then smiled with her whole flushed face. “An anthropology major,” she shouted. “We like getting close to natives.”
“You’re in the right place,” I said.
“I just did a paper on the Menominee. It got an A. What’s your name?” she asked, brushing bright hair back from her ear in an effort to hear better.
“Charles,” I told her. I could have drunk the sweat from her hair, her neck.
“Kalie,” she said, offering her slim, soft hand. It disappeared in my paw. She didn’t let go.
“Let’s dance,” she cried, tugging me off my barstool and out onto the floor where the mob and the beat crushed our bodies together.
I kick my heel to the old Eminem joint spitting from the Bullfeathers juke. Dumb to bring the crew here. Better I’d cut out early from someplace else, leave them wondering, than have them all watch my play. J-T stalks the table, scratching at his temple and chalking his cue. Where the fuck is Al with the roll? My steel-toes hammer impatiently, out of time with the thumping bass.
J-T, poised for a killer combo, barks, “Re-fucking-lax!”
I shrug. Thankfully, Doc sidles up to me with Al twitching in tow. Doc wears tennis shoes so white they hurt to look at, baggy black pants, an oversized Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. T-shirt, and a fat gold watch. His mocha arms are so much lighter than mine that next to him I look like the black one. The lugubrious way he blinks through his granny glasses means he and Al have downed a few shots of their own somewhere else. “Big Chief,” he murmurs. “Who’s what?”
“Solids,” I grumble.
Doc chuckles. “You’re losing.”
“No shit,” I snarl, sizing up the table and leaning in.
Doc grabs the butt of my stick and yanks me lower by the seat of my jeans. He warns, “Get your ass down where you can see the angles, then take your shot. You always got to be looking.”
I put my chin to the table and loose the cue, dancing the orange five into the side.
J-T eyes the dark-paneled ceiling. He says, “Guess there’s room for improvement, huh?”
“You tell me, Jack,” I challenge. “Deb called lately?”
“Hey, what?” asks Al, lowering his beer.
The ceiling fan turns lazily, its shadow crossing Jack’s gleaming hair as he leans over the table for a left-handed shot. “You putting something down?” he answers Al instead of me, so Al counts out four piles of bills, and from then on we’re playing for stakes, a much more banal illegality than allegedly accepting shares in sales of narcotics.
“Where’d you learn pool?” I ask Doc, pouring him a beer. Accepting the cup with a grave nod, Doc says seriously, “Crystals.”
J-T and I exchange glances. Doc’s a motherfucking genius at labs, but someday his nattering will get his ass indicted, and it had better be his ass alone.
“Law of nature,” he declares, hiccupping. “When crystals grow, the angles inside always stay the same, dig? Once they’re set, that’s it; the ratios don’t change, only the mass multiplies.”
Seeing me frown, Doc apologizes, “I forgot, you’re a metaphysics dude.”
“Epistemology,” I mumble.
“Who’s pissed?” asks Al.
Doc nudges him. “You, ugly fuck!”
“Law of nature?” I repeat.
Doc blinks. “It’s a well-documented phenomenon,” he says, his voice lazy as syrup. “Outside of non-chemical circumstances, the tricky part is crystallizing right in the first place.”
“Damn, non-chemical circumstances,” laughs Al, slapping Doc on the back, sloshing his beer. “What’re those?”
J-T sinks the eight; I rack, and he breaks hard again. I peer out the window. Quarter of one. I swallow my beer.
The frat boys bellow at ESPN on the bigscreen; their honeys line the barstools. Al, scoping the row of tight skirts, cries, “Holler up some booty, Doc!”
Doc moves aside, cell to ear. He knows the sickest women.
“What?” demands Al, catching J-T’s smirk.
“Booty,” scoffs J-T as he shoots.
Al gets defensive. “ ’Sup, then? Huh? You on that Deb freak again?”
“Nothing’s about it. That’s the goddamn point! She don’t call cause I ain’t hearing it.”
“Who?” offers Doc, off his call, gazing at the constellations on the green felt.
“Some careless twat,” J-T snaps. “A liability. Like you dumb shits.” He makes the cue ball jump a barricade, sending its victim spinning into the hole.
I line up my shot, bending low.
“Ain’t too dumb to make good bank, now, are we?” Al’s voice loses its terseness as he nuzzles his beer.
“More?” asks Doc, draining the last of the pitchers.
“Nah,” I say. By the bigscreen, a honey’s voice flutters up in anger, bawling, “Fuck! Off!”
Grabbing her coat from the bar, she starts for the door, but some gel-haired dude catches her to make nice. The frat and sorority quorum joins in cajoling her till she relents, tipsily.
I’m turning back for my shot when a flash of blonde and pink at the door freezes me like a stroke, like a heart attack in slow motion. She’s obscured for an instant by the big Greek brother holding her elbow as they squeeze into the crowd, more couples pushing in behind them.
Through the press of shadowy, moving bodies, her eyes find me, her teeth flash in surprise, setting me in motion like a well-aimed cue. I take one bounce off the green table, fisting my bills over J-T’s complaint, cross to the burnished bar for two full glasses, and roll right into the hard-faced, laughing crowd. Is she smiling at me or that college fuck? I have trouble keeping her in sight, but I see other things so much better now. The pastel paper fluttering unnoticed from her bag while she got her makeup this morning, a reminder to herself from yesterday—someone else’s invitation—except she and I came together at midnight on another dance floor, leaving which frat boy wondering at the very sensation I feel growing in my chest I can just guess. It doesn’t matter. All that counts is now. No sweater this time, but her blouse and skirt and towering heels are shatteringly pink, screamingly pink, pink as the earliest morning light and the curve of her ear and the pocket I’m aimed straight for, not about to allow myself to miss.
“Hey,” I hear Al around the corner behind me, from a direction I can’t alter, “what about Deb?”
Either way, I think, as I hand Kalie a glass, her fingers touching mine, and everything freezes around us.
Jason Newport recently received an MFA in creative writing (fiction) from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His short fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction have appeared in many fine journals, including Chautauqua, where he is a contributing editor. He is currently revising his novel manuscript with a terrific agent and working on a short story collection.