Authors: Robert Ward
His nerves were so ragged, he’d started matching drinks with Dave again, in the warm afternoons at American Joe’s.
“Christ, David,” he said as they downed their shots. “I’m crazy about her. What the hell am I going to do?”
Dave laughed and shook his head. “It’s going to be all right, Bob. I think she just wants to be sure. She’s letting you chase her until she catches you.”
“But what’s the point of that?” Bob said. “She already knows how I feel about her. Maybe I’m just wrong about the whole deal.”
“No way,” Dave said, grabbing a handful of peanuts. “I’m telling you, she’s crazy about you. Lou Anne says so, too.”
Bob managed a tortured smile. He was jealous of Dave’s relationship with Lou Anne, which seemed perfect in every way. The lucky bastard.
“That’s great about you two,” Bob said, as his stomach twisted and turned. “It’s really working?”
“Oh yeah,” Dave said. “So far, I mean. We stay up late watching old movies, and she makes these great waffles. You have to bring Jesse over one morning and have breakfast with us. Maybe this weekend.”
“That would be great,” Bob said.
Except maybe he’d ask her and she wouldn’t want to. The past two days she hadn’t even returned his phone calls. It made him sick … dizzy … being in love … it was awful. And all the insight he brought to other people’s love affairs did him absolutely no good at all.
“You know what, Bobby,” Dave said, grabbing another handful of peanuts. “I’m thinking about asking Lou to move in with me.”
“You’re kidding?” Bob said. “Isn’t it a little soon?”
“Maybe,” Dave said. “But what the hell, when you know, you know, right?”
“I guess so,” Bob said, feeling his stomach flip again.
He felt like he knew. He wanted her but she kept saying he’d get tired of her, that she needed time, time for what? To find some other guy?
“I mean, none of us are getting any younger,” Dave said. “If not now, when?”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Bob said. “It’s just that I’d be careful. You don’t want to make a wrong move.”
Dave smiled and ran his hand through his hair.
“The only wrong move, as far as I’m concerned, is losing Lou Anne to some other guy because I didn’t move fast enough. Some guy with a lot of money, like one of those D.C. lawyers who like to hang out at the Lodge when they come over to check on their rental properties. You know the guys … fucking speculators from over in D.C. I see them eyeing her. Guys with money, man, that’s my enemy.”
The words stuck in Bob’s craw. Everything Dave said about Lou Anne was twice as true for Jesse. Rich lawyers from Fells Point were always falling into Bertha’s Mussels. He’d been in there a couple of times and seen them talking to her.
“Jesse, you look great today.”
that perfume? Doesn’t she smell terrific?”
“Jesse, baby, those high heels are really sexy.”
Christ, if he didn’t make a move soon … he’d lose her. The thought made him sick to his stomach. He couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t stand it. He had to have her. What the hell was he going to do without her? That was the roughest part of all. Having deadened himself to the world for so long, now that he was feeling alive again, he couldn’t imagine going back to the same old daily routine.
No, he couldn’t, he really couldn’t bear it.
What the hell was he going to do?
It was four in the morning and Bob walked around his house in a loop, by the bed, into the hall, down the end of the hall to the bathroom, around the bathroom, and back down the hall to his bedroom again. He made this loop seven times, then put on his sweater and leather jacket and walked down the steps and out the front door.
He stood outside her apartment, looking up at the dark second floor. She was up there sleeping, he was sure of it. This was madness, standing out here like an adolescent, but that was how he felt now, like a crazed kid who was just getting his first shot of hormones.
What should he do? Throw pebbles at the window? Start singing a love song? Christ, he had no idea how to act. He was like a zombie brought back to life but with no memory of what it was like to be human.
What would be a cool and subtle move?
He walked around in a circle trying to come up with it.
But it was no use. No good. He had not one idea.
Finally, afraid that he might chicken out entirely, he walked up the marble steps and saw her name on the buzzer: REARDON, J.
There was nothing else to do or say.
He started to push the button but the light came on in the hall.
Amazingly, she was standing there, dressed in a black nightgown that flowed dramatically to the floor.
She opened the door and smiled at him in a curious way.
“Bob, I happened to look out the window a minute ago and you were out here walking around in circles. Is something wrong?”
“Can I come in?”
“All right. But just for a while.”
He looked down at the floor as he brushed past her. Slowly, he walked up the stairs to her apartment.
Her place was funny, he thought. Though it was an apartment in the city, it might as well have been a rustic cabin in the West Virginia hills. There were pictures on the fireplace mantel of a glen somewhere in the mountains. There was an old rocker, obviously carved by some backwoods furniture maker. There was a couch with a handmade quilt thrown over it.
Bob felt swept away by the simple beauty of it all. He looked at her as she sat on the couch across from him. She was barefoot, and suddenly Bob had an intense desire to kiss her feet. The thought unnerved him even more.
“What’s wrong, honey?” she said, in her smoky voice.
“What’s wrong?” Bob said. “You barely talked to me tonight.”
“I had to go home. I had to think,” she said.
“And?” he said.
“Bobby, I do care for you … but I don’t know … I don’t know if I can go through it.”
Bob moved to the edge of his seat. He felt as though he might fall off into space.
“Go through what?” he said.
“You’ll hate me if I tell you,” she said.
“Never,” Bob said. “For God’s sake, tell me what it is.”
“If I was a little younger,” she said. “It really wouldn’t matter. But the way things are now … I’m almost forty, and I can’t see myself …”
She faltered and a tear rolled down her cheek. Bob started to move toward her but she put up her hands, palms out, and shook her head.
“No, stay there,” she said. “I can’t trust myself to be honest if you hold me.”
“All right,” Bob said, feeling his arms trembling. “But tell me. Now.”
“Okay,” Jesse said. She wiped away her tears and began.
“I heard … I heard around town … God, this is so hard for me, I just hate confronting people …”
“It’s all right,” Bob said, falling back on his professional manner. “We have to be honest with each other.”
“Okay, then,” she said. “I heard from a lot of people that you … you lost all your money playing cards with Ray Wade and some other guys. That your practice had fallen off and that you’re in a lot of trouble financially … and Bobby, I know you’ll think I’m a gold digger, but I can’t put myself through that kind of pressure again. ‘Cause I know what it will do to you. And to me. Nothing good can come out of being poor.”
Bob was stunned. He sat back in his chair in a self-consciously slow way so as not to fall backward. People had told her that he was a loser. He wanted to scream out, “Who? Who said it? I’ll find the sons of bitches and kick their asses.”
But what would that accomplish? He had to suspend his anger and dismay at the public humiliation he’d suffered (though it was hard … Christ, everyone knew … everyone knew he was broke, oh Jesus, the humiliation of it), and deal with the situation at hand.
He smiled, a big generous smile, and looked across the room.
“That’s the problem with rumors,” he said. “They’re usually based on half truths. Here’s the real story. Yes, when my wife left me I did go through a wild period where I lost quite a bit of money gambling. I think, honestly, that it was my own way of paying for my sins. I’d been careless with Meredith’s love. I’d grown to take her for granted. I didn’t listen when she told me that she was lonely, that she needed contact with me … and when she left me for Rudy Runyon I was devastated. I went through a period of real self-hatred. How could I have become such an uncaring and unfeeling person? I felt that I had to pay somehow for screwing up, so I played cards and I lost. Quite a bit of money, I admit. But nowhere near all of it. Fortunately, my mother and father left me a good-size inheritance. That part of my savings was never touched. So, you can tell your friends at the Lodge, or whoever they are, that they’re dead wrong about my financial situation.”
He looked at her directly and she winced at his words.
“You’re mad at me,” she said. “I knew you would be.”
Bob got up from the chair and joined her on the couch. He took her hand and looked into her eyes. The same look he gave his troubled patients.
“I’m not at all upset that you questioned my financial situation. I don’t think any woman should get involved with a guy who’s broke. It’s a recipe for disaster. What upsets me is you didn’t come to me as soon as you heard all that bullshit.”
She put her head on his chest and wept.
“I didn’t feel … like I had the right. I was afraid you’d hate me and never see me again. I’m sorry I doubted you, Bobby. I mean it.”
Bob put his right hand under her chin and gently lifted it toward his face.
“Jesse,” he said. “You should know better. I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she said. “I do. But I can’t stand being broke. I don’t know what I’d do if I had to be poor again.”
“You don’t have a thing to worry about,” Bob said. “Not one thing.”
They kissed and Bob was flooded by a warm bath of emotion. God, he was in love, and he was loved back. Could there be anything better than this? No, of course not.
He slipped his hand under her nightgown, felt her warm, soft breast and was swept away by tenderness. Oh God, she was so beautiful, lovely, and now she was falling down on her knees in front of him.
And then he was holding her head in his hands as she unzipped his pants, and Bob felt as though he would never die. But even as he said her name again and again, he had a terrible foreboding. He had lied, and she had believed him, and even as he was swept away by the romance of it all, he knew that he had to make that lie come true. She was dead right. Nothing good could come for either of them if they were both poor.
She loved him. It was amazing, as though it had been ordained, as though it were fate. He had almost lost himself in despair, ended up like so many other guys, hanging in the bars, talking about the lost days of youth, bitter and alone.
But she loved him and that changed everything.
Now, when he awoke in the morning, he looked out into his narrow, wire-fenced backyard and saw the first tendrils of spring blooming in the world. There was real greenery in his backyard. The idea made him laugh with joy. Hell, even the word “greenery” was fantastic. “Greenery,” what a marvelous word, so simple and yet so descriptive. What wonderful, inventive human being had first come up with the word “greenery”? People were inventive, endlessly so. They could invent language. Art, music. And best of all, they could reinvent themselves.
On the suddenly Technicolor street, Bob noticed his neighbors. There was Maria Chacón, and her two beautiful babies. He found himself stopping and admiring the children. “Look at those two cool guys,” he said. Maria reminded him gently that the kids were
and Bob found this fantastic, as well.
All last year he’d assumed that Maria’s kids were boys. Why? Because he had never bothered to ask her. Because in his depression he had assumed that he hated them all. Damn foreign assholes moving into the neighborhood, probably into some kind of drug-running bullshit. He’d told himself this negative crap all last year, every single time he saw them.
Or, to be more precise, every time he failed to see them. Because now it was obvious that he hadn’t really seen them at all. Never seen the kids, or Maria, or her handsome young husband, Javier, who worked down at Harborplace and was so obviously devoted to his family.
Bob was stunned by his new vision, by how human, vulnerable, hopeful, and kind they were. Hey, he bet they’d like Jesse. Well, of course they’d like Jesse. Who wouldn’t? Hell, they’d
Jesse. He told them to make sure they came down to the Lodge to hear the Rockaholics. He told them that his girlfriend was the lead singer and Maria was so happy for him. She said to him, “You know what, Bob, you look like you had a miracle,” and Bob thought, Yeah, that’s right. It really is that, a real honest-to-God miracle.
And when he dropped in down at Pop Ikehorn’s corner store, he was stunned that the old guy smiled at him. Granted, it was a toothless, yellow gum smile, and the guy still looked like a two-hundred-year-old corpse, but how many times had old Pop
smiled at anyone over the years? Like none, zero. The old guy with the curling yellow fingernails and the hair sprouting out of his ears, the old guy who sat hunched behind his cash register with his spit-mottled cardigan with one shiny silver button from the Sample Store, left over from say 1958, and he half dared you to say hello to him but even grumpy old Ikehorn couldn’t hang in there with his loser’s attitude against the new-and-improved Bob. No way, Jose. Now he smiled at Bob and even asked him to …
… reach into a bag of ancient pork rinds, which he had been eating since maybe 1945, and Bob, happy, goofy, mood-enhanced, did just that. He reached into the horrific bag and he grabbed hold of one, half convinced that at any second maggots were going to squirm onto his fingers, and he picked the weird, green, moldy thing out and took a big unhealthy bite out of it. It tasted like somebody’s science project and he could barely manage to keep it down. But when he was done gagging, he smiled and said, “Mmmm-mmmm, tasty,” and old Pop smiled and said, “That’ll keep you young, young man,” which may have been the first time he’d said anything but “Fucking niggers are taking over the city” since Bob had first met him fourteen years ago.