BY ANDREW KELLY
STRAY CAT BLUES
After fifth period, when all the students are in band or gym or art, Kirk meets me in the janitors' room to smoke away our planning period. On the tobacco-free campus of St. Augustine High School, this is the only tobacco-friendly zone. The room is gray and low and rectangular. Tools hang from pegboard hooks, and furniture too ratty for the school lobby-a chair, an end table, a green vinyl couch-is clustered in one corner. Seventh period junior English, my favorite class, is coming up, and after almost a full semester's service, I feel like a member of the St. Al family. Needed, perhaps loved.* * *
Kirk swaggers in, pops a chunk of Skoal into his lip, and slaps me on the knee. "Josh. So how's it going?" he asks, happily.
"Good," I say, looking forward to seventh period, to Nikki Nizuryn and friends.
We talk while the janitors make occasional passes through. They call him Coach Kirk and me Mr. Collins. Kirk looks like a coach. Big and loud, he forces his way through the halls barking out orders and warnings, smelling like grass. I'm more of a skulker in the halls, a path-of-least-resistance guy who smells of cigarettes. I don't want to be Mr. Collins to the janitors, just Josh, but they insist on the title even though I've asked them not to. And I keep getting the feeling that there's some kind of sarcastic twist to it. That they know I'm a sham even if the principal doesn't.
After our usual pleasantries I ask Kirk if he knows Nikki Nizuryn.
"Sure," he says. "What a stump."
I leap to her defense. "She's smart in English."
"Terrible in science," he says, spitting a long brown squirt into a filthy St. Augustine Hippos stadium cup. "Why do you ask?"
"I was just wondering what her story was," I say. "Pretty hot."
"Not bad. Not bad at all."
"She reminds me of Stacy," I say, thinking of my girlfriend from college.
"Stacy? You're still hung up on her?" he asks, a black fleck of dip stuck to one of his front teeth.
"I didn't say that," I tell him, although it is true. Kirk slept with her, too, but he didn't fall for her.
You didn't really know Stacy, I sometimes want to say to him. You didn't know her like I did. Kirk certainly hadn't been in Vicksburg when I took Stacy there to celebrate our exclusivity.
Granted, our little trip had not started off well. In a small theater a Battlefield Park employee dressed in Confederate infantryman regalia had insisted on recounting the Fall of Vicksburg in the present tense. He had discussed the fear of the women and children, the indifference to Union artillery. A garden party with fried rat parts as hors doerves. No food, he told us, Grant had cut the supply lines. Somewhere around June 26 (the "Gibraltar of the South" fell on July 4, 1863), Stacy got bored and produced a Tootsie-Pop from her purse which she sucked briefly, then chomped down on, the sugary crackle echoing in the deserted auditorium.
The poor Confederate soldier, into his performance, his diet of rats and bats, had stared longingly at the gooey candy as he segued into the final act in which starvation and Grant's overwhelming numbers finally ground the brave Rebels down. I'm sure he was staring at the candy.
Later out in the park, Stacy sat astride a cannon overlooking the bluffs, her eyes shining. "Imagine it," she said. "The grief. The loss." My gaze moved from the tears in her eyes across the smooth, green hills of the park, and I could almost see the craters and destruction, the death and encroaching infantry, and our brave, doomed army holding them off.
Stacy had courage, courage someone like Kirk can't understand.
"Nikki reminds you of Stacy," Kirk says, "because she is a world-class punchboard. Biggest slut in the school. Last year she had some kind of threesome with two of the senior football players. Fucked 'em both in the back of a van."
"That's terrible," I say. "Did they force her? Who told you that?"
"I don't know. It was just something I heard," he says.
"You must have told someone, someone with authority?" I can see myself championing her cause, the police hauling two assholes out of a frat house at Ole Miss.
Kirk peeks out the window into the sunny December day and spits into the cup again. It's still months before baseball practice starts, but he's already working out with the team, as anxious as his players are to get outside, to run drills and take batting practice. "Come on, Josh," he finally says. "It was just a stupid rumor. You ought to know by now that you can't believe ninety percent of the shit they say."
He sighs loudly, still staring out the dirty window. "She's not Mary Magdalene, Josh," he says. "You'd think going to jail for your burnout friends would've taken care of this. You're like a kid bringing home strays. Nikki Nizuryn doesn't want or need salvation."
Kirk and I went to college together, he was a year ahead of me, and he helped me get this job a few months after my release from prison. While I spent two years waiting tables in Jackson and New Orleans, he was here at St. Augustine, teaching science and working as assistant football and baseball coach.
He was here, making an honest-to-God adult life for himself and his wife when Jeff and Robert and I got pulled over on the way to Memphis to see a Widespread Panic concert. The cops searched the car and found a sheet of acid (a hundred hits of Spider-man) in the glove compartment that we had intended to sell at the show. I took the fall, possession with intent to distribute, and Jeff and Robert got off because I said they didn't know about it.
When I got out, I couldn't believe how easily I slipped back into my old life, how quickly it stopped mattering. It couldn't be a good thing, I figured, if your status as ex-con does not affect your social standing one bit. I still had the same jobs, the same money, the same shitty stuff that I had had before. So when Kirk came into the restaurant and told me about the opening here, I let myself be persuaded.
It was a small school, he assured me. They're desperate, he said. The English teacher had split for a job in a bank, and they needed a warm body. I could get emergency certification. With a recommendation from him, the school wouldn't even check my background. And if they did, so what? But he was right, they didn't and here I am.
* * *
The large-breasted Nikki Nizuryn swans into class a few minutes late, as is her custom. She doesn't even bother to apologize anymore, just shuttles lazily across the room in her platform mules and plops down next to Lisa Sullivan, her best friend. Lisa is pulling a bluff by hanging out with Nikki. She receives the reflected light of Nikki's trampiness, but according to the student grapevine, no one can think of a single guy who's gotten anything off of Lisa. She's thin, plain, but with one of the best asses I've ever seen. Steve and Lance (my only two complaints with this class) call Lisa and Nikki "butt-n-boobs" and speculate about the possibility of combining them to create a sort of uberwoman.
Nikki is Lisa's opposite. Where Lisa is a skinny little thing composed almost entirely of sharp angles and points, Nikki is a study in circles and curves. Her face is round, her full lips set in a near-perpetual pout. She wears purple Liz Taylor contacts that contrast in a strangely pleasant way with her year-round tan. By the end of college, she'll probably be fat, by the time she's thirty-five, she'll have skin like beef jerky, but right now her laziness and metabolism combine to give her the sexual ripeness of a slutty grapefruit.
Once Nikki gets settled, I announce that they should feel free to talk among themselves if they "keep it down." It's the last week before Christmas break and I don't want to teach any more than they want to learn. If they're loud, I tell them, it's back to study hall, and detentions will be handed out. The students mill around the room and finally cluster into four or five small groups. I keep an ear out for the insults of Steve and Lance, the jackasses, but for the most part I let the students do their thing.
* * *
Nikki looks a little like Stacy, but that's not what reminds me of her. I sense that Nikki, like Stacy, is a girl with appetites. At Ole Miss, Stacy had taken a few classes, had visited the same bars my friends and I did. She was older than we were, divorced. Kirk introduced us, and I was smitten. I ditched everyone else and immersed myself in Stacy's world of high drama and multiple orgasms. I lasted about a year, then she started dating the drummer for a local rock band.
Kirk thinks I'm some sort of pathetic pervert, and he may be right. But he doesn't get it. I want the throng of predecessors, the sexual hunger. I want to show Stacy and Nikki and all of the others like them that my heart can hold their angers and their sadnesses. I want them to understand that in their fallenness they possess a purity mere virginity cannot match.
* * *
"Do you have everybody's grades memorized by now?" I ask Nikki who stands beside me examining my grade book.
"I was only looking at mine," she protests. "Will you figure my average for me, Mr. Collins?"
"Look around in my briefcase and find my calculator," I say. Nikki roots through my things happily for a few seconds, and each item she touches sends a small, electrical shiver through me-confiscated hakky sack, cigarettes, last month's Esquire
-each one keeps Nikki with me for an instant longer. She finally produces the calculator, a small black solar, and stands next to me. As she slides closer to read the grades out while I punch them in, one of her breasts rests heavily on my arm. That "B" could easily turn into an "A."
Finished with that, Nikki crooks a French-manicured nail at me and whispers, "Come here." I lean in closer, into watermelon Bubble Yum and Ralph Lauren Safari. This is her smell, I think, my vision blurring with pleasure. "I'm worried about Lisa, Mr. Collins," she says, her voice quiet and husky. Both of us glance at Lisa who is working on her makeup, compact held up in front of her face.
"Why is that?" I ask. She rarely tells me anything important, and I trust whatever Kirk hears in the locker room much more than I do Nikki's shit. Although he's less patched in, he has a certain objectivity about whatever he hears. Nikki, the subject of a many of the tales being told, practices spin control and disinformation. Feints within feints aimed at deflecting interest away from some of her regrettable choices.
"Do you think Lisa might be gay?" Nikki says.
* * *
Nikki leading Lisa into her bedroom by the hand. It has frilly pink curtains, posters on the wall of Dave Matthews and Leonardo DiCaprio. The girls fall onto Nikki's big, canopied four-poster coiled around one another. Flashing teeth, satin sheets, pillow-muffled girl-groans.
* * *
I manage to croak out, "No, not Lisa," and Nikki and I look at Lisa who is still occupied with her mirror.
Nikki continues, "Well, she's never had a boyfriend, and it's not like-"
"What's she saying about me?" Lisa shouts.
"Not so loud, Lisa," I say.
"She lies, Mr. Collins. Don't believe anything Nikki says." Lisa narrows her eyes at Nikki who has already put on her mask of innocence. "I hate you, Nikki," Lisa says.
Nikki taps me lightly on the forearm and says, "I'll
talk to you
later," then moves across the room toward Lisa. Halfway there she stops, looks over her shoulder, and blows a wet smack of a kiss at me. Nikki knows as well as I do that Lisa's acting. They're tough girls, high school style, and it would take a hell of a lot more than what Nikki said to scratch Lisa. Soon Nikki has soothed her friend's hurt feelings and has begun to work Lisa's hair into a bunch of complicated little braids.
By the end of the period, Lance and Steve have started in on Nikki and Lisa. I can't really hear what they're saying.
"Steve, Lance, other side of the room. Now," I say, pointing to two desks in the opposite corner.
"Yes, Sir Collins," Steve says with an English accent and a military salute, and Lance snickers as they relocate.
When the bell finally rings and the students gather their things and dash for the door, I say, "Nikki, I need to see you for a second."
She stops, clearly put out. She's no longer flirty or confidential, just impatient. I hadn't expected this.
"I didn't do anything," she says.
"I know. Just . . . listen," I start. "You don't have to be who they say you are," I finally offer.
"Who?" she asks.
"Steve and Lance. Anybody. You just be yourself. You're smart and strong." I'm careful not to add beautiful. "You don't have to take shit from guys like them. Remember that."
"Thanks, Oprah," she says. "Can I go now?"
* * *
On the drive home I parse my flirtation with Nikki, replaying each word, each gesture in my mind, probing for some sort of meaning. I scroll out the story the way I'll tell it to my friends: "The second she touched me, I could hear Sting's voice: 'Young teach-er, the sub-ject of schoolgirl fantasy.'" But I know that's not exactly true. I know that I am not the subject of any of Nikki's fantasies. At least I think I know.
I live in a duplex on the edge of Belhaven, Jackson's swanky historic neighborhood. It's an island of gentility near decaying downtown and periodically there's talk of walling it in. The wall would be fine with me, but I worry that my little house might be walled out, across the street as it is from the Royale Crowne Arms.
As I pull into my driveway, a steep concrete slab that slopes down toward the garage beneath my side of the duplex, I notice one of the wooden garage doors hanging slightly open. I get out of the car and check the heavy padlock I bought right after I moved in. Still in place but someone unscrewed the latch and forced his way in. The door screeches across the driveway as I pull it open.
My feet crunch on the crumbling concrete of the floor near the entrance. Further in the room tilts dangerously for a second as I slip in the oil patch left by the previous tenant's car. After my eyes adjust to the barnish light I examine the small room, just barely big enough for a car, and try to remember when I last came down here. The last time I cut the grass, maybe two months ago. The lawnmower sits in the corner under the stairs, a small red gas can beside it, still a little fuel in it. Picking up the gas can brings the emptiness into focus for me, and I recall that my bike used to hang on the opposite wall. Now there is only a blank space of unpainted brown two-by-fours. Rusty nails poke out of the wall at random intervals with my few tools-weed-eater, rusty hedge clippers, extension cord-hanging on them. The black tubular metal of the bike rack is out of place, compared to the homey unfinished boards and red, decomposing nails, the bike hook's black, rubber-coated arms look like something from The Jetsons
. But the bike is gone.
"Shit," I mutter and walk back to my car to get my briefcase, wondering if Jeff and Robert could have taken it as a prank. I don't think they would do that to me. Maybe before, but not now.
* * *
The day after I got out of Parchman, Robert and Jeff, to thank me for taking the blame for the acid, swore that that they would bring me a gift every day for one calendar year, the amount of time I had been in. Surprisingly even after almost seven months, longer than either of them has held a job, they have not missed a day. Usually the gift is something inexpensive, a comic book, a T-Shirt, but sometimes it's a video game or concert tickets. Last week Jeff put a half-ounce of marijuana in an envelope and stuck it in the mailbox and couldn't understand why that wasn't a good idea. Today when I open the storm door, a green hugger comes rolling out onto my small porch. I pick it up and read it: "I'd Rather Be Golfing."
* * *
After I talk to my insurance company ( I estimate the value of the bike, a fancy Trek a couple of years old, at four hundred dollars. My deductible is exactly four hundred), I consider calling the police but don't because most of the pot Jeff gave me is in my underwear drawer. And they won't do anything.
I did call the police once, I'm not afraid of them.
One night I saw a woman with long, blonde hair come screaming out of the shitty apartment complex across the street, a huge man right behind her. She had a good jump on him, and I silently cheered her on. "Come on," I urged her. "You can make it." I pressed my hands to the glass of the window. The guy was shirtless and angry, his face red above his beard, teeth clenched together tightly. If she makes it to my curb, I told myself, I'll open the door. I'll let her in and we'll fight him off. He tracked her down in the middle of the road, caught her by the hair, grabbed her around the neck, and dragged her back to the apartments.
I told the 911 operator what I had seen, but said I would rather not identify myself.
Ten minutes later, four white JPD cruisers showed up on my corner, lights swirling, strange nightclub shadows dancing on the walls of the Royale Crowne Arms, flashing off the rows of windows. Several of the cops got out and wandered around in the road until a couple of them finally walked into the building. I peeked through the blinds of my bedroom.
When someone knocked loudly on my door, I jumped. I opened the door, all innocence, and found a policeman with short brush-cut hair, not quite as tall as I, a little younger.
"I'm Officer Kent. You reported a domestic disturbance?" he asked, thick redneck accent.
"Um, yeah. I guess so." I stepped out on the porch with him. I didn't do anything wrong after all, and I didn't want him inside.
"You don't know what unit they were in, do you?" he asked. We didn't look at each other, he held a pad in his hand, ready to write. I stared at the cars, the lights.
"No. I told them that."
"Can you describe the perpetrators?" he asked. His forehead greasy with sweat shone beneath the porch light.
I told him what I had seen, big white male with long hair and a beard, no shirt, blonde female, hair extensions maybe. When I finished, feeling as if I had established some sort of rapport with him, I said, "Hey, can I ask you question?"
He finished writing on his pad and nodded.
"On Cops, why are those guys, the bad guys, always shirtless?" When he didn't respond, I smiled and continued, "You never see one of them with a shirt on, you know?"
He spit a squib of tobacco off the porch, then looked at me disgustedly. I thought he wasn't going to answer at all, but he finally said angrily, "It's because they're all a buncha thugs, sitting up in places with no air conditioning'. They know we're coming and they don't want to be wearing anything we can grab onto."
Unsure what to do with his strong feeling I said, "Thanks. I always wondered."
Two policemen emerged from the complex and waved to him
"Thank you for your cooperation, sir. You have a good evening. And if you see anything else, let us know."
Despite his impatience with me, with my question, I felt absolved. I had been deputized.
* * *
As I cook dinner, I think of Nikki. I will quit my job when she graduates, I decide. I take the plate out of the microwave and smear sour cream across the tops of the burritos. I'll quit my job and enroll in graduate school wherever she goes to college. I'm what, nine, ten years older than she is? Nothing scandalous about that. I'll give her her space but she'll always know I'm there for her.
I try not to dwell on the countless men with whom she'll couple during her first two years of college. When some guy dumps her in her junior year, she'll come to me.
Nikki will be slightly less crazy than Stacy-no divorce, fewer bad experiences with men. More manageable. And I will save her, forgive her all her past indiscretions. I have skeletons of my own, I will tell her. Regrettably never two girls at once, but I won't tell her that. We all make bad choices, I will say.
You are not a bad person.
I love you.
* * *
The nights stretch out before me. I don't know what to do with myself. I used to work at night, waiting tables, looking forward to getting fucked up at after-hours clubs or apartments. The long evenings remind me of my first six months in jail when they held us at the Rankin County Correctional Facility in Pearl. Aside from the guards who were hoping for excuses to crack heads, the biggest enemy there was the boredom. A state program for first-time drug offenders kept my group separate from the general population, and we had two common areas occupied by a bunch of guys like me, suburban boys. We had a TV that got three channels, we had a weight pile and basketball in the afternoons, we had the Bible to read (Kings I and II were my favorite books). The food was okay, much better than the jail in Batesville where Robert, Jeff, and I had been stopped. When I was finally moved to Parchman the regimented days there were almost a relief.
The first three months at Parchman, I had seventeen-hour days full of work and drills; the second three, drills and AA meetings and some time to ourselves. We had access to the library, too, and I started in on the Big Books I had missed along the way. I remember an intense pleasure as I lay on my stomach in my bunk at the end of the day, a dog-eared copy of Madame Bovary
or The Scarlet Letter
propped in front of me. Anticipating what might become of Hester or the Pequod
, I was as happy as I had ever been
Now I'm at loose ends. The city hums around me, but I have to be at work early. How did my parents do it, the long nights at home? I rattle around my duplex picking up things and putting them down. The teaching profession demands self-restraint, priestliness. I switch to VH1 and load up a bong hit.
Behind the Music
is on, and over the ominous score, the narrator intones, "But for the Go-Gos, success and drugs would prove a fatal combination."
That combination hasn't worked out for anyone.
* * *
First suppose it happened. That the student rumor mill got it right.
Now imagine it was consensual. Ignore what they say on Loveline and Oprah; she doesn't have self-esteem problems or an unhappy home life. Nikki wanted more than just one boy could give her.
Did she enjoy herself?
Does she have any regrets?
Does she think about it while I blather on about the American Renaissance or the Gilded Age, pen in her mouth, strong tan legs slightly spread beneath her desk?
* * *
I page through the phone book trying to find Stacy's name. A few weeks ago Robert told me she was divorced again. The thing with the band guy hadn't worked out. I find him, but she's not listed. Just as well.
* * *
Nikki emerging from the back of a red minivan. A Honda Odyssey, a Dodge Caravan. She's naked and in the moonlight her skin glows white. Behind her, two anonymous males are silhouetted by the green light of the dashboard. The smooth asphalt of the new streets of a subdivision warms her bare feet, and a light wind catches her hair. Her body is still damp, sweaty, and she rubs her hands across her hips, her breasts-a semen-soaked Venus.
* * *
Friday's a half-day-no Nikki. I go through the motions, checking role, talking about vacation plans. We'll have faculty stuff the first part of next week, but the principal has decided to let us all, students and teachers, leave early today.
I bump into Kirk in the hall. "Hey, Hey, Josh! You getting out of here soon?" he asks.
"As soon as I can," I say.
After telling me he's going to lift weights, Kirk says, "Let's get together in about thirty minutes. Drink some beer and hang out."
I agree, thinking I should be in the weight room, too, trying to do something with myself. Maybe in the spring.
* * *
At Kirk's house, we sit on his big front porch-I in a rocking chair, he in the swing. We drink beer and tell college stories, and we go inside only to get another drink or go to the bathroom. I wonder what his life with Carol is like. The yard is immaculate and he's building a deck in the back. He tells me that she is pregnant, but I shouldn't tell anyone. It's too early, he says.
All of this normality seems desirable to me suddenly, and I wonder if I could have a house like this with things like this. With a wife and a baby on the way. I cannot imagine crossing the gulf that separates my current "lifestyle" from Kirk's.
When the conversation shifts to St. Augustine, I ask him, "Do you ever think about it?"
"What?" he says, smiling.
"You know." I wave my hand at the house, the porch. "Banging a student."
"Sure," he says. "You can't help it."
"That's a relief," I say. "I've been worrying."
"No, it's no big deal. Hell, they make you think about it," he says and takes a big, audible swig of beer. "At the start of the year, the ninth grade classes are a peep show. All these girls with this new equipment they don't know how to keep covered. Then the older ones throw it in your face. It's just part of it. They're learning. You have to remember how high school was, though. Even if you wanted to, how do you get around their parents? Mom and Dad aren't likely to see the poignancy. And you know they'll talk. That's all they fucking do."
"What do you mean, throw it in your face?" I ask.
"God, let me think of an example." Kirk stares at the ceiling fan on his porch for a couple of beats, then says, "Well, take your Nikki . . . She's never given you 'the treatment?'"
"I don't know," I say.
Kirk gets up from the swing and sidles across the porch, looking at me from beneath his lashes. He puts his hand on my back and begins to trace his finger in small, light circles. He presses his chest against my shoulder and whispers in my ear in a husky voice, "Will you figure my average for me, Mr. Collins? Do you think Lisa's a lesbian, Mr. Collins? Would you like to touch my monkey, Mr. Collins?" He pulls away and walks back to his seat. "She's never done that to you?"
* * *
After Stacy and I broke up, I was devastated. The relationship had lurched along for weeks, but I didn't get it even when she told me about the drummer. Finally she told me it was over.
That night Kirk took me out, telling me, "You've been sulking long enough. Let's get wasted." I'd been sulking for four hours. We went to a nasty little pool hall close to his apartment building and sat in a dark booth in the corner, drinking pitcher after pitcher, elbows resting on the sticky table.
As we drank, I talked about my feelings
. On and on about how special and misunderstood Stacy was.
Late in the evening he finally got fed up and said, "The only person who misunderstands her is you. Listen to me. Half the guys in here have fucked her." He gestured to include the people playing pool and foosball. "Hell, I fucked her. Tell me you didn't think you would be the last."
Of course, I knew that. Knew it without ever having actually said it to myself. The way he talked to her, the vehemence of her dislike for him. I knew, but it took my breath away when he said it. I fucked her. But that didn't matter so much. What mattered was that I had thought I would be the last.
So on Kirk's porch, I don't say anything.
"Come on," he says, grinning at me. "You're turning red. She's done the same thing to you, hasn't she?"
I smile and stare at my beer, nodding slightly, telling myself that with me it is different, hurt beyond reason.
Once the boy has settled in the passenger seat of Mr. Collins's car, his skateboard propped on his knees, he holds up a mix CD, asking if he can put it into the stereo. Dan Collins nods and seconds later, Marilyn Manson growls, Sweet dreams are made of this. The song throws him back to his own youth, to a time before he taught ninth grade English, to a time when the only person he had been expected to save was himself. In a transparent bid for teenage approval, he turns it up louder. Dan is proud that he knows this one, and he imagines girls in swimsuits and their suntan oil. Brown shoulders and cocoanut. He had had a season pass to Waterland when he was fifteen, and the song, blaring from loudspeakers, had surrounded him and his friends, promising them crew-cut Annie Lennox women they didn't know they wanted yet. Everybody's looking for something. * * *
Dan has been sent to rescue the boy, Leonard, lily-white St. Andrews High School's version of an at-risk-kid, from delinquency. In the faculty meeting on Wednesday, the other teachers had bitched about Leonard because he wore a T-shirt that said, "Kiss it with Rector Protectors," and Dan had leapt to his defense. "It's not an ad for condoms," Dan had said, "Rector Protectors are kneepads." Snickers from the coaches' table made Dan add, "For skateboarding." By the end of the meeting, the principal had convinced Dan, who was twenty-seven and the youngest teacher on staff, that his experience was a valuable resource, that he could show Leonard and boys like him "that we understand them."
* * *
The loud music saves Dan the trouble of having to talk to Leonard. He likes Leonard in class, with his weird wedge haircut and baggy jeans, but out of that context, Dan realizes, he doesn't know him. He knows that Leonard is an indifferent student and that he skateboards and that they like some of the same bands. Beyond that nothing. As an adult and his teacher, Dan has some authority over him, but he doesn't know how much, at least not here in his car on Saturday morning (Where does Mr. Collins stop and Dan start?). Luckily, the volume confines them to short bursts of conversation.
Dan drives and thinks of Mrs. Ricks, one of his high school teachers. Mrs. Ricks felt that God had charged her to seek out the broken toys-the druggies, the disenfranchised-and bring them to the Lord. At lunch one day she caught Dan alone, reading a book as he ate.
"Mind if I sit here?" Mrs. Ricks, who had small eyes rat-like teeth, had asked as she set her tray down next to Dan's. She had talked about loneliness and the Lord. To Dan, she was a vampire trying to sink her big front teeth into him and suck out his feelings. Desperate and creepy.
He turns the stereo down and says, "Listen, Leonard . . . I don't want anything from you, right?"
Leonard parts his bangs with his hands and peers out at Dan. "Huh?"
"I'm not waiting to talk to you about Jesus or not doing drugs. I wanted to go skateboarding. That's all."
"Whatever," Leonard says. Testing Dan, he pulls a pack of Marlboro Lights and a red Bic from the front pocket of his jeans. He sticks a cigarette in his mouth and lights it.
Dan turns the stereo back up, and Leonard rolls down his window a crack.
* * *
They start in Smith Park, where wide sidewalks stretch over shallow, empty pools with oddly shaped cement humps in them. There's an amphitheater and a stage and concrete picnic tables scattered here and there.
Leonard watches Dan at first, to see if he's any good. Dan jumps to the edge of a wooden bench and pivots off. He doesn't quite land it, but Leonard says, "Dude! What the hell was that?"
"270 Boneless to 50-50," Dan says.
"That is so old school," Leonard tells him. Satisfied that Mr. Collins is cool enough to be seen with, Leonard spends a few minutes warming up, then jumps his board off of the sidewalk into the shallow pool.
Dan follows Leonard over the edge. The drop isn't far, two or three feet, but Dan is utterly unprepared for the jolt he takes when he hits bottom, the change six years of beer and microwave dinners and indolence have wrought on his center of gravity. The board shoots out from under him, and he lands hard on his shoulder and ribs. He imagines his internal organs caroming off of one another. This pain is new, much worse than memory, and he lies on his back in the empty pool, warm concrete beneath him, staring into the blue sky. As he rubs his side, the buzz kicks in, the small goal accomplished, the first level of sublimity he seeks.
He limps across the pool to retrieve his board, and he feels something he had forgotten: driven by youth or testosterone or self-loathing, the grim satisfaction he took in the pain of fucking up something simple. Lap your tail over the lip of the halfpipe, smash it down hard, but the tail slips off. You're looking back, checking the distance, so when you fall, you land on your front teeth. Bang. Helmet wouldn't have mattered, even if you'd been wearing one. As you wiggle your teeth with your thumbs, there's worry, sure, but there's also a certain clarity. I hope I haven't broken my teeth, you think. Other concerns recede.
Blood, of course, is what you're after. The lack of blood on this fall, considering the pain, is disappointing. He'll have a bruise for sure, but that doesn't really count. He wants to pay in blood, scab, scar, memory.
He had hoped that the pain of his first bail would wake him up somehow, but it leaves him rattled. He leads Leonard from Smith Park to One Jackson Place to the Federal Building to the art museum, and watches Leonard shake off apparently calamitous falls while every misstep leaves Dan groaning.
* * *
Dan catches sight of his reflection in the tall dark windows of the City Auditorium. His white scalp shows through his wet, thinning hair, his sweaty T-shirt sticks to his round belly and love handles. Long shorts and Converse All-Stars bought especially for this day (Leonard had told him that the shoes, like his board and his moves, were "old school). A grown man pretending to be a kid. Sad, desperate, creepy.
"Are you alright, Mr. Collins?" Leonard asks, standing next to him in front of the window.
"Yeah, why?" Dan says and smiles at the boy, whose long, black hair is stuck to his forehead in streaks.
"You looked like, I don't know, man. Like you were about to cry."
"You ready to get out of here?" Dan aks him.
* * *
Spring trees arch over the concrete drainage ditch, which has been washed clean of graffiti. "There used to be a skull painted there," Dan says, pointing to the tongue of Quickrete jutting above the ditch. "We used bricks to build that up. We called it Mr. Scary."
"You did this?" Leonard asks, staring at the concrete. With its rounded transitions, it looks as if it was made for skateboarding. Stolen parking blocks from Wal-mart and Citgo flecked with yellow paint sit atop the banks. A thin blanket of fall leaves covers the flat.
Dan says, "When we read The Deerslayer in class-the line that says, 'this temple of nature'-this is what I was thinking of."
Leonard rushes up to Mr. Scary. He props his board on the lip and drops in. He wipes out and skids up the far wall on his elbow.
"Are you okay?" Dan asks.
Leonard whips off his shirt and wraps it around his arm before Dan can see how badly he has hurt himself.
"Let's see what you got left, Mr. Collins," Leonard says. He climbs to the top of the bank and cradles his elbow in his lap.
Dan sets his board up and closes his eyes, imagining worst-case scenarios-broken arms, paralysis-and steps away. Conscious of Leonard watching him, waiting for him to puss out, he leans into it again and steps down. Then it's all wheel-rumble and wind, and the timing tattooed into his brain from when he skated here every day takes over. Without thinking, he's into his standard run-his muscles remember even if his mind doesn't-ollie to caveman slide, and spin back in.
From somewhere, Leonard shouts, "Hell, yeah!" but Dan is already headed for a bean plant on the other side, the board a part of his body and maybe the ditch, too.
He has transcended Leonard and students and the present. No thinking, pure motion, he plants his foot on the concrete and turns. He hangs in the air for a second, wheels spinning silently beneath him, and he feels close to God.
THE POMERANIAN DREAM
I stand atop the ladder in the contemporary fiction section watching Treasure like a sniper. Over the top of the shelves, I can see her sitting on the floor Indian-style, idly flipping through some kind of big home design book, Shabby Chic, it looks like. She pushes her curly brown hair back out of her face, then digs briefly in her nose. For a second she examines her finger, then wipes whatever she found on the book, closes it, and shelves it. Her white peasant blouse hangs open a little, offering me a peek of lacy white bra. I don't want to love her, but I do.* * *
After I finish straightening the anthologies, I move on to Movies and Film, where I find a gift for Treasure, a slim trade paperback called Baked Potatoes: A Pot Smoker's Guide to Film and Video. I go to the checkout desk and charge it to my account. Eight more dollars doesn't make any difference at this point. I present it to her as I leave for lunch, saying, "I found this while I was straightening and thought you might like it."
Still sitting in Cooking and Home Improvement, she takes it from me. She reads the title and laughs her loud guffaw. "That is so fucking funny," she says. "I'm going to buy it, right now."
"No," I say, standing over her, hoping for another glimpse down her shirt. "I already bought it. It's a gift."
"Aww, Jay." She stands up and gives me a quick little A-frame hug. "That is sooo sweet. Thank you."
"Thank you. I mean, you're welcome. I've got to go to lunch." I hurry out of the store, still feeling the warm pressure of her hands on my shoulder blades.
It's only recently that I started coming home for lunch. As the manager of Book 'Em, I felt it was my duty to be there in case something came up. It sounds silly, I mean there are no "book emergencies." It's not as if people are screaming, "I've got a customer pissed at her mother-I need a Ya-Ya Sisterhood
pronto," but things happen. Since Leon, the owner, sometimes hires girls more for their physical charms rather than actual qualifications, orders get fucked up, feathers have to be smoothed.
For the last week or so, however, my dog has not been herself, and I need to go home at lunch to check on her. Spanky mopes around; she hardly eats or drinks and kicks and scratches in the bed all night. I hesitate to take her to the vet, where I have a reputation as an over-protective parent.
She jumps into my arms from the third step as I open the door, although she doesn't jump as high as she did recently. Still, I catch her and carry her up the stairs exchanging kisses. I bend down and she jumps out of my arms and races to the kitchen for her "Welcome home" treat. I'm not sure about Spanky's provenance. Jack Russell and something, border collie maybe, but her parts don't seem to fit together right. While her legs are too short for her body, her head, with one brown ear and one black one, is too big. I follow her to the kitchen and give her a snack from the bag in the cabinet beneath the sink. A couple of months ago, I switched her to Science Diet Light because she was getting pudgy.
After checking her food and water (not much gone, not good), I fix myself a peanut butter sandwich and eat it standing next to the counter while Spanky bounces on the floor beside me barking for the last bite. One of the reasons I had wanted a mutt was that I had read that they were hardier and less prone to weird allergies and nervous disorders. While those things might be true in general, they are not true of Spanky. She has always been skittish. She's allergic to fleas and I can't board her because she has anxiety attacks. I drop a corner of my sandwich to her and she snaps it out the air.
* * *
Besides Spanky, I worry about my apartment. It's the top floor of a two-story house that was built in 1905, and the landlord, a strange older man who lives alone on the bottom floor of the house, takes good care of the place. In the seven years I've lived here I've seen a parade of electricians and carpenters, roofers and painters. But I have become concerned that the combined weight of my books could cause the house to collapse.
Finished with my lunch I sit on the couch and call Spanky to me. Accustomed to the idea of my being home, she has gone back to moping, and she walks across the room slowly with her head hanging down. She springs up next to me, barely making the jump.
One of the selling points of the apartment was the bookshelves. One wall of the guest bedroom was lined with them, as was one side of the long hall, long 1 X 8s on metal brackets screwed into the walls. According to the landlord, Jo Haxton lived here when she wrote Can't Quit You, Baby, and I asked her about it when she was in the store one day. "Oh, I loved that place," she said. "It was like living in a tree house."
I pull Spanky into my lap and massage her, looking for telltale lumps or scabs. As I rub her fur, a small sprig comes out in my hand, a little hunk that springs from a spot of skin. Does this mean something? She gets squirmy as I get near her hips, and I let her go. She jumps down, shakes herself, and trots into the bedroom.
The row of shelving I've added on the other side of the hall makes it narrow, hard to get the laundry to and from the utility room in back. I also put in floor-to-ceiling, wall-mounted shelves like the ones in the hall on three walls of the extra bedroom. The fourth wall is on the outside of the house and has windows in it, so it's a mold threat. Then there are the bookshelves that have crept into my living room. I have gotten into the habit of cruising flea markets and antique shops for cheap bookshelves, and now unmatched banks of shelving are out-flanking me. If I keep going the way I have been (and if the House of Usher scenario doesn't play out), the imaginary lives and loves of people who died before I was born will wall me off from the world.
I turn on the TV and flip to Headline News, and there's a lot of talk about Florida and the election and Puff Daddy. Bored, I go to the kitchen and get a dishtowel. I pick up the phone and put the towel over the mouthpiece the way people do in the movies, then I dial the Book 'Em number.
I did the first interview with Treasure and told Leon we shouldn't hire her. Not to pick on her, but on her application, she listed "Shakespear" and "Emily Dickens" as her favorite authors. Leon had already gotten a look at her, though, and he set up another interview, and the day after that she showed up for work.
At the store the phone rings three times before someone answers it. In a fruity, Indian voice, I say, "Yes, may I please be speaking to Treasure."
I don't think she's necessarily dumb. It's just that this whole book world that she's fallen into is foreign to her. As a junior in high school, she has told me, she was a model. Local stuff mostly-Dillard's, the mall in Greenwood. She was even on a cover of Seventeen
eight or nine years ago. When she discovered she didn't have the half-meal-a-day drive to make a go of modeling, she went to Delta State and majored in fashion merchandising. She still looks great, maybe a little heavy through the hips and thighs, but I'm not exactly buff. Even taking the extra pounds into consideration, she's probably out of my league. She worked at McRae's until six months ago, when she came to us.
"Yes this is Treasure, may I help you?" she says, sounding happy. She has the best phone manners of anyone who's ever worked here. I shouldn't keep crank calling her. It started out as a mean spirited test. I'm looking for a signed first edition of Beowulf
. Let me check the computer, she said. I need to know the last name of the author of The Iliad
. Let me check the computer. Now I do it just to hear her voice in my home.
"Yes, I am looking for a book which is called Drinking, Smoking, and Screwing: Great Writers on Good Times
," I say, knowing that I'm pushing it, but I thought of this call last night and it can't wait.
"Let me check and see if we have it." In the background, her fingers click away on the computer. "We have one copy. Would you like me to hold it for you?"
"Perhaps, but I must ask of you one question," I say.
"Shoot," she tells me. Shoot?
"Can you tell me whether it is more about the drinking?" I say. "Or is it more about the screwing. The screwing is my area of interest."
"Maybe you should come in and take a look at it," she says sounding faintly amused. "Jay."
"No, thank you thank you very much," I say quickly and hang up the phone.
* * *
In the afternoon as I check the latest shipment into the computer in the back room, Treasure walks by, headed to the loading dock for a cigarette. I follow her out and bum one off of her. While we lean on the rail, I tell her about Spanky and how she's been acting.
"She's probably depressed," she says. Her brown eyes are warm and moist, there's something animal and inviting about them as she stares at the green dumpster at the back of the parking lot. Strange smells waft up from the back door of the hair salon on the first floor.
"If she's depressed, what can I do?"
"Maybe she's lonely," she says. "It's just you and her, right? They're pack animals, you know." She flicks her cigarette out into the parking lot and exhales a cloud of smoke. "Hey, guess what I got yesterday." Usually this means she's bought a new bong or scored some especially good weed.
Before I have a chance to answer, she blurts out, "The dildo I ordered from Cosmo came. It's green."
Weak-kneed, I stub out my cigarette in the ashtray on the dock and say, "Good. Do you, um, like it?"
"I fucking love it," she says.
* * *
I go to talk to Phyllis about getting a new dog. She's our resident wise woman, has been here forever and worked in every section. She tells me about the Jackson Animal Shelter's semiannual adoption day this coming Saturday. Phyllis sees the confluence of my decision and the event as a good sign. "A Higher Power wants you to have a dog," she says.
* * *
I spend the evening drinking bourbon and reading the new Richard Powers book. It's hard to see what terrorism and virtual reality have to do with one another, and it gets harder as I drink more.
When I go to bed, I dream that I am in an undefined location with a white Pomeranian on my lap. I pet the dog, its thick fur running between my fingers, its skin warm beneath my hands. I feel a quiet joy, a warm sense of bliss that stays with me through waking and showering and driving to work.
* * *
Book 'Em in one of the biggest independent bookstores in the southeast. We have signings fairly often, several big names every month. Leon, the owner, still laments the poor showing for Robert Olen Butler's Good Scent From Strange Mountain
and implies that the low turnout was due to some staff problem. Tim O'Brien came through a year or so ago and chatted up a pretty Japanese fan who left with him. James Lee Burke told me he didn't consider Cimarron Rose
a mystery, but it went on to win the Edgar Award. Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney were pretty cool, but not nearly as cool as I had hoped they would be, and I found myself wishing I had worked here in the eighties.
With all of that said, we usually don't have two heavy hitters in one week, but it has finally happened and Leon has called a staff meeting so that he can make us understand the gravity of the situation.
At the meeting, Leon sits at the head of a long folding table and talks. What I've come to think of as his "maniac smile" bisects his woolly beard at random intervals. The smile comes with no warning and, as far as I can tell, has nothing to do with whatever he's saying. When someone makes a comment that Leon agrees with, he shakes his head in what looks like violent disapproval and says, "Yes! That's it exactly!"
The meeting is nominally devoted to game planning for the Chris Kaye signing today and the John Grisham one tomorrow. The Knopf rep. has told Leon that the Kaye book (his first) is going to be big, a contender for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. I'll have to buy a couple of them. Leon says we'll use the Kaye signing as a dry run for Grisham. "The paper's doing a feature and a review," he tells us, "WLBT wants to interview him for the news. Lot of people. Get your feet wet." He gives us our assignments-Treasure and I will be working with Kay. Together. He does some rah-rah stuff but soon falls back into his standard refrain: "Too much Confusion in the System."
Leon loves the System, and from standing in long lines at the Gap or Blockbuster, anywhere that the clerks look like they don't know what the fuck they're doing, I have come to love the System, too.
According to Leon, the greatest threat to the System is Confusion, and Confusion comes in many forms. The bony woman who writes reviews for the paper and always wants to trade in her reader's copies for store credit is "Walking Confusion." The box of unclaimed, signed first editions reserved by customers who never came to get them is a "Box of Confusion." The Single Title Order Program (STOP), one of my responsibilities, is "Never-ending Confusion" since most of the STOP customers are kooks and hard to deal with.
I've heard this speech so many times that it has become a sort of song to me, and while Leon talks and grins, I stare at the framed headshots on the wall. Eudora Welty. Walker Percy with a dog. Shelby Foote looking crabby. Richard Ford staring smokily at the camera. Soon I'm reading the spines of the big art and architecture books, glad I'm not in charge of this section. There's not even close to enough room for these books and they're all funny sizes. Some are too tall for any shelf in the store. I might want that one with pictures of the manhole covers of New York, though.
"Confusion is a disease!" Leon shouts.
My attention snaps back to him, and he pins me with a maniac smile.
Some Tourrettic compulsion forces me to say, "And I'm the cure!"
Leon sighs and looks at his feet, his head shaking sadly, and I sit in my chair horrified. Inside my shirt, a cold rivulet of sweat runs down my ribs.
Quietly Leon says, "I know you are, Jay. I know you are." He looks up, smiling again. "Who else wants to be the cure?"
* * *
The Kaye signing is scheduled to last from four to six, but he arrives at three. He's a nice guy, about thirty-five and tall with a salt and pepper beard and a long Mississippi drawl. I hand him the books opened to the title page, and Treasure takes them from him to stack beside the signing area. People from the checkout desk occasionally come to cart them off. We also have to make chitchat with Kaye if there's not much of a crowd. Treasure's much better at it than I am. He talks quietly when he talks and she and I have to lean in to hear, and I catch brief whiffs of whatever she puts in her hair.
We try to get through as many of the stock copies as we can before the crowd gets there. As I shove books at him, Kaye says, "This reminds me of sorting tomatoes." When she asks him how it feels to have his first book doing so well, he says, "I'm just glad it got published. My in-laws thought I was sittin' up in the spare bedroom watchin' Days of Our Lives
Compared to some of the asshole writers who have come through here, he is downright saintly, but he is slow, slow, slow, forming each letter of Christopher Kaye
as if his grade-school handwriting teacher were staring over his shoulder. It gets worse when people start showing up, old ladies from his hometown mostly. Each of them has a story to tell, and instead of simply signing and nodding and smiling, he draws them out, his pen poised just above the books he supposed to be signing. Working with Treasure, I had hoped there would be times when our hands "accidentally" brushed, but Kaye handles the books so carefully that it doesn't happen.
At seven when the store is supposed to close, she and I cease all chitchat since we have noticed that he stops signing even to talk to us. An hour later, he's done.
On the way out of the store, we pass Grisham fans sitting on folding canvas captain's chairs, lining up for the appearance tomorrow.
"Jesus," Treasure says. "You want to smoke a bowl?"
* * *
I pick up some beer on the way to her place. It turns out to be a small apartment above the garage of one of the houses in the historic district. She leads me up an outside staircase and opens the door and says, "Mi casa su casa." I walk into the living room where the walls are a tasteful hunter green with white trim. She has funked up the place with a big subway-size poster of the cover of David Bowie's Aladdin Sane
, his eyes closed, eyebrows shaved, a red and blue thunderbolt painted on his face. There's a tie-dyed hanging over the couch.
She heads for the kitchen with the beer saying, "Sit down, get comfortable." I sit in the middle of a lumpy futon that faces a small entertainment center containing an even smaller television. Above the TV is another poster, Kurt Cobain, his eyes impossibly blue, staring down at me. Her coffee table is two knee-high stacks of art and photography books. A bong shaped liked The Joker from Batman smiles at me amidst a cluster of candles.
She hands me a beer, then goes over to her stereo. She flips through some CD wallets, then puts on an REM album. She sits down and stretches out, digging for the bag in her pocket while she presses against me.
"That's cool," I say, pointing at the bong.
"I'm scared the guy who left it here is going to call for it," she says, busy. "But it's been like six months, so I guess it's mine now."
I tap the stacks of books in front of us. "You must be using your charge account."
She takes a hit and holds it, then hands me the bong and the hot lighter. "Yeah, I'm into Leon for like nine hundred bucks."
"Try four thousand," I say and take a hit.
Her eyes go wide.
"I've pretty much got to work for Leon forever," I say, voice muffled by the smoke. In the candlelight her skin looks as smooth and poreless as a Barbie doll's. We pass the Joker between us as we make fun of Chris Kaye and talk about our Grisham dread, and then I'm rambling about Spanky and how worried I am about her. I tell her about the Pomeranian dream, putting my left arm around her shoulders.
She lets me keep it there and says, "Did you drink last night?"
"I had some bourbon," I say.
"Sounds to me like you need to lay off the booze. That's not dreaming about the future or something. That's like a Mice and Men
Lenny dream. You're drinking yourself retarded." Then she laughs and rests her head on my shoulder. "You ask me, you need to relax with all of this dog stuff."
She sits quietly for a second, as if she's thinking, her hair tickling the side of my face. "What do you know about Leon?" she asks, playing with the fingers of my left hand.
I tell her the little I know, that he started the store twenty-five years ago. That his background's more business than literature. That he likes man books-hard-boiled detectives and Hemingway and James Dickey. "Have you ever been to his house? He has Ross Macdonald's master's thesis on Eudora Welty and it's signed by both of them."
"He also has a Jacuzzi and a pool table and a huge TV," Treasure says. "And a wife that he keeps saying is going to move out but doesn't."
"You and Leon?" I ask, amazed. "How long?" I stare at one of the flickering candles, wondering how this soap opera could have been going in the store on without my knowing a thing about it.
"About four months. I broke it off last week." She yawns and arches her back and says, "I'm getting sleepy."
"I guess I should go," I say and stand to leave. She takes my hand and I pull her up from the couch, but she doesn't let go.
"You don't have to leave," she says and leads me into the bedroom, where we fall on the bed together. The beer and pot have got me feeling kind of numb, so even though it's been awhile, I make a decent showing, nothing to be embarrassed about, at least. Later, I fall asleep beside her thinking, "I have wooed and won."
* * *
"Wake up, dumbass," a voice says and something hits me hard in the ribs. "It's Grisham day and we're supposed to be there early."
Dressed for work, Treasure stands over me while I try to figure out where I am.
"I need to run by the house," I say, but there's no time. "Do you have deodorant?"
She points me to the bathroom. After I've put on some Secret, I bum a Book 'Em T-shirt from Treasure. At the store the parking lot is full of fans, and a long line of them stretches around the building. Treasure and I park our cars at the church across the street and go in through the back door.
* * *
I spend the morning feeding books to Grisham. He's a signing machine and doesn't talk at all, just holds out his hand for the next one. Occasionally, I try to catch Treasure's eye, but she avoids me. The signing is over by one.
When I get home for lunch, Spanky is not waiting to greet me on the steps. Worried, I hurry upstairs calling her name, but she doesn't come. I find her in my bedroom on the floor between the bed and the wall. Her breathing is shallow and she snaps at me when I reach down to touch her. I pick her up as gently as I can, but she still whines.
* * *
After a vet tech in raspberry colored scrubs takes Spanky from me, I call the store to tell them what has happened and that I'll be back as soon as I can. Leon says, "I understand. Do what you think you need to do," which is nice of him. Then I pace around the waiting room, wishing I had a book or a magazine or something to take my mind off of Spanky. There's a little statue of a poodle on a wood base. A brass plaque on the base reads, "Puffer 1989-2000." I take on of the brochures stacked next to it and learn about customized pet memorials, wondering if I'll have to get one for Spanky. There are no prices listed in the little pamphlet.
Dr. Allen, a tall, youngish guy with a big nose, comes out to talk to me after an hour or so. "She'll be fine," he tells me quickly. "She broke her toe and shoulder, but in a couple of weeks she'll be good as new. You said you think she fell off the bed?"
"I wasn't there, so I'm not sure," I say, ashamed.
"Has she been acting strange lately? Lethargic?"
"Yeah, I thought she was lonely. I was going to go get another dog this weekend."
"I can't tell you whether she's lonely or not. What I can tell you is that she has arthritis. Mostly in her hips. If she's been acting funny, it probably has more to do with the pain from that than anything else." He begins telling me about an arthritis medication that works really well and listing its virtues, but I'm not listening. How long did she lie there, scared and in pain, waiting for me to come home? It could've been yesterday afternoon or last night. Tears well up in my eyes, and I slip my sunglasses on. Dr. Allen claps me on the shoulder and shakes my hand. After I've paid at the desk, someone brings Spanky to me. She's in a hot pink immobilizer, a big rubber bandage to keep her from reinjuring her leg. I take Spanky from them and walk out to my car, thinking about all of the books I have read, wondering how I have learned so little about love.
* * *
In my driveway, Treasure stands beside her red VW Beetle smoking. I park behind her and carefully take groggy Spanky from the passenger seat.
Treasure grinds her cigarette on the concrete with her heel and smiles at me. "Is he okay?"
"She's fine," I say. "What are you doing here?"
She scratches Spanky's head and apologizes to her in baby talk, then says, "It was dead after the signing, so I asked Leon if I could come check on you and Spanky."
"That's really nice, Treasure. Thank you."
We stand in silence, toeing at the gravel in the driveway, looking furtively at one another, until she says, "So what are you doing tonight."
"I hadn't thought about it," I say. "Too much Confusion in the System." She giggles a little. Enough to make me risk, "Would you like to see my place?"
"That would be great," she says, smiling.
With Spanky cradled in my right arm, I lead Treasure toward the door while I struggle to pull my keys from my pocket with my left hand.
Treasure puts her hand on my shoulder and says, "Stop." Her warmth presses against my back. Quick as a fish, she reaches her right hand around and plucks my keys from my jeans, and I follow her into the house and up the stairs.