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Here you can read my serial novel mix ix and learn about other writings. Presently introducing my young adult espionage novel Shibboleth.

Chapter Seven: Enemy Action

Chapter Seven: Enemy Action

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

                                                                                           T.S. Eliot

 

     So Rayne was gone, out my door as fast as her bare feet would carry her.

     As a kid I had these reassuring platitudes I’d always rehearse like mantras while walking to school, while daydreaming in class, while falling asleep. They enabled me to keep going, get through the next week, deal with obstacles, cope with feelings of hopelessness.

     They were my orphan survival skills and they now were playing in the background.

        Always expect the worst case scenario, then you won’t be disappointed.

        Count your blessings, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

        Be thankful: a lot of people have it much worse.  

        It’s never the thing you’re worrying about that gets you, but rather something you never saw coming and then it’s too late.

        You have a home to go to, food to eat, people who care for you. What else could you want?

        Do well in school, don’t do drugs or drink, treat others like you’d like to be treated.

        And whatever you do, don’t be a Jed.    

     Jed was my model of what not to be. He was a kid the Salzmans took in to live with us, but he didn’t work out. Jed was pissed off at the world, had a lip sneer like a punk rocker, sabotaged everything. I knew he was a total psycho, one of those kids everyone says will wind up in jail. Within a day of living there he said fuck this, and walked out the front door, started down the busy pike we lived on, the one we were always told not to walk along. My dad, Mr. Salzman, drove out looking for him but came back empty-handed. The cops brought Jed back that night. He was busted trying to get people to buy him alcohol outside the liquor store. Dad was cool about it, had a talk with him.

     The week after that Jed stole money from one of the little kids in the house and bought cigarettes. When confronted about it he called Mrs. Salzman—the nicest lady you’d ever meet—a bitch. That did it. He was returned like a defective dog to wherever he came from and we never heard anything about him again. The Salzman’s house was clearly only another layover for Jed, another bridge to burn before burning up or burning out. So see, I always told myself, you could have ended up like Jed who didn’t learn to appreciate the good things life had to offer.

     And so it was easy for me to look on the bright side of that Rayne fiasco. The worst I could say is I was back where I had started out, with the benefit of having one nice day and a wild night with Rayne, the kind of thing I’ll look back on years later as almost unreal, more like an old dream than a life-changing experience. Our encounters at the microwave will probably not be as bad as I thought. Everything would even out and return to the status quo. Maybe I was more comfortable living in low-level desperation.

     An hour after Rayne had left I still sat preoccupied with it all. I made myself oatmeal for breakfast, ate it in silence, still brooding about Rayne and the whole situation. I washed my dish, put it on the drying rack, then I picked up Moby Dick and tried to get into its nineteenth century mindset. I was hardly successful, still distracted by thoughts of Rayne, of our sex; whiffs of her were coming off my unwashed body. I’d find myself staring at a spot on the page, couldn’t stop thinking about the way she woke up and left, how it contrasted her sensuality of the previous night.

     I hadn’t read a page, but got up and decided to shower, to cleanse myself of her and move on. In the shower the thoughts continued. I had to make myself think of something completely unrelated, some consuming mental distraction. I chose Leuschner, the subject of my All But Dissertation. I reviewed the facts as I knew them, tallied off the places he lived or worked, tried to remember the dates of the letters. It worked, I successfully forgot about Rayne for five or ten minutes and even thought about unpacking my laptop and doing some Leuschner work.

     I was toweling off when I heard her voice coming up the stairwell sing-songing flirtatiously, “If you’re getting dressed, don’t bother.”

     She stepped into my bedroom doorway looking fresh in a change of clothes, her hair brushed.

     I stood bare naked, held the towel in front of me strategically, feeling exposed, the abandoned orphan before the clothed seductress.

     Then she unbuttoned her pants, pulled them down.

     That time there were no guidance counselor games, no riddles to solve. It was slow and deliberate love-making that was in ways better than the previous night because we had gone passed the shock of discovery, the frenzied mindset of familiarizing ourselves with one another’s bodies and the ways we got pleasure and could receive it.

     When it was over we said nothing for a few minutes.

     Then she turned her head toward me,“I’m really sorry about this morning.”

     “It’s alright. Are you feeling better?”

     “Yes. I didn’t want you thinking it was you.”

     “I didn’t.” (I did.)

     “Good.”

     We lay there for a while longer with only the energy of our private thoughts filling the room.

     Then whatever she was pondering came out in words: “There’s something I wanted to ask you.”

     “Sure, what?”

     It sounded like a big thing, but I couldn’t imagine what she was going to say. For all my obsessing, conjecturing, theorizing, I couldn’t guess what words were about to come out of her mouth.

     “I know this is kind of soon, but….”

     I was dying of suspense, all the while presenting a cool countenance of relaxed patience.

     She was cringing slightly as the words came out, “Could I stay with you for a little while?”

     I frowned like it was ridiculous that she should have been worried about asking, “Of course.”

     She relaxed, smiled, “Thanks. I hope it doesn’t seem weird.”

     “Not at all.”

     “My sister and I...we’re fighting. Our living arrangements have gotten awkward.”

     “I’d love to have you here.”

     “It’s not going to be long-term, only until I figure out what’s happening this summer.”

     In truth I had some ambiguity about it. Once again I wasn’t thrilled--when by all accounts, I should have been ecstatic. Maybe I didn’t like my ordered life being disrupted suddenly, even if she was the fulfillment of all my longings and dreams. It made me wonder if something in me was permanently broken, something that precluded me from ever being happy.

     We got dressed and went downstairs. Inside the front door on the floor was her one large suitcase. We both looked at it like it wasn’t supposed to be there.

     “I was presumptuous,” she said.

     I was still looking at it, “No…”

     She put her arm around me, kissed my cheek, ran her fingers through my hair. “I really had nowhere else to go.”

     I picked up her suitcase which weighed about a hundred pounds, got it up the stairs and put it down in the hallway. Where should it go? I had another empty bedroom. To be safe and not insult her I wheeled it into my bedroom. She came up and we discussed the logistics of where her stuff would go. Then I went down to the kitchen and made myself busy tidying up.

     She finished putting away her things  and came down.

     “You have a veritable bachelor pad here. I think it might be sub-bachelor pad.”

     “I like to think of it as roughing it. Minimalism.”

     “Okay, you can do the Henry David Thoreau thing, but I need some basics: shampoo, my brand of toothpaste. I was using my sister’s things. And no offense, but I wouldn’t use your crusty old towels to dry off my car. I have to go out and buy stuff.”

     “Closest place is the CVS.”

     “But you don’t have a car.”

     I suspected she didn’t want to walk along the highway which was not especially pedestrian friendly. “I normally ride my bike, but…”

     She saw I wasn’t coming up with any solutions, got out her phone, “I’ll call an Uber.”

     “I’m sorry.”

     She was typing into her phone, “You’re going to have to explain this lack of a car thing.”

     She was right, I owed her the bicycling down the shore story, so she heard it as we waited for the driver. By the time we were pulling in to the CVS, she said, “The fact that you do that doesn’t surprise me at all. It sounds like the kind of thing you would do.”

     I took that as a compliment.

     In the CVS I marveled at the prices of some of the things, but Rayne didn’t care, filling a basket with two dozen basic household items and throwing some beach towels on top of the pile. She got playful and touchy feely in the oral hygiene aisle and we kissed some more in the Uber.

     When we got back we had sex on my sofa in the sun room. In the lazy lying-about afterwards she reached for a random book on my bookshelf and started flipping through it. Was that how we were going to spend the day? Sex and books again? Were they for her some kind of aphrodisiac? What would the term be for that? Wasn’t bibliophilia already taken?

     We lay and I watched her read, took much pleasure in watching her read, but wondered what we would do for the rest of the day. Idleness allowed a worm of worry to creep into my brain, one of the neurotic arguments with myself in which my insecurities form theories and my rational mind shoots them down. Was she doing all this—the romance, the frequent and earnest sex—all because she needed a place to stay? Was it all part of her greater plan? But that’s ridiculous, right? She had to have other options. No, I told myself, she likes me and I like her and shacking up is just more of a good thing.

 

~~

 

      I suggested dinner at the hot spot along the water called the Calvary Restaurant and Marina. It was better to get there early because it was Saturday and the place was always packed. We walked the more scenic route along the water and chose to sit outside on the deck overlooking the water with its boat traffic. The great view and the spectacle of expensive boats coming and going are supposed to compensate for their invasive engine noise and diesel fumes.

     Ever since we sat down Rayne kept looking at her phone, reading texts, texting back. She must have known it was getting a bit much and finally explained herself, “I’m sorry, it’s my sister. Now she’s all worried about me.”

     “What are you two fighting about?”

     I could tell she’d rather not go into it, but I also felt she owed me a little more explanation considering we were suddenly living together over this sister business. I suspected she thought the same way because she powered off the phone and tossed it aside, took a breath and explained, “So my sister brings me down here after losing her job. She knew this guy here, but she doesn’t bother telling me that he’s married. So when I’m out she’s screwing this guy in our room because they can’t go to his place obviously.”

     I was barely keeping a straight face and she saw that.

     She held up a hand, palm upward, to my reaction as if it were confirmation, “Right. Isn’t this lurid?”

     I laughed a little and shrugged as if it were no big deal.

     She didn’t smile, stabbed her salad with her fork, “The married man part is bad enough, but then having sex with him where we’re staying? It’s like I’m in a college dorm.”

     “Where were you staying?”

     She hesitated. Again, that resistance to share information when it came to her sister and their circumstances. She forced herself to let it out, but quietly, “The Bobby Pin.”

     Where had I heard that? Oh. “That’s the place above the Hairpin. The B&B.”

     She nodded, but didn’t look up at me. She was feeling guilty.

     Why hadn’t she said that earlier? Something wasn’t adding up. All the times we had mentioned it, passed it, the fact that it was down the street from my place—the thoughts log-jammed and left me staring at her speechless. She sensed my stare, finally looked up. “Yeah…I walked down your street wheeling my suitcase.”

     “Surprised you didn’t mention you were staying there.”

     “Right, I’m sorry.” She leaned in slightly, even looked around for eavesdroppers, “I’m supposed to be keeping her presence there a secret.”

     I leaned forward more than I had to and whispered, “Because of the married man.” It was more a statement than a question.

     She acted as if I said nothing, forked the last of her salad. I took that as tacit confirmation.

     I was going to ask her what the B&B was like out of curiosity, but clearly the topic was verboten, or at least not while we were out in public.

     After dinner we sat at the upstairs bar. It wasn’t big, positioned near the entrance more for people waiting for a table than to hang out at all night. The dinner rush had begun and we only got seats by chance. The drink menu listed tasty and colorful concoctions named after local places and historical personages: The Salty Sailor, The Canal Crush, Point Punch, The Captain Williams. They were all fruity and over-priced.   

     After we had settled and gotten our drinks Rayne said, “This stuff with my sister makes me want to get drunk.” She laughed at herself. “Don’t worry though, I don’t want you to think you’re dating a lush.”

     “Teachers drink.”

     She sucked on her straw, then pretended to scowl, “We’re not teachers. We’re free spirits, a man and a woman of leisure, denizens of,” and again that Thurston Howell voice, “Fowl’s Point Proper.”

     She laughed at herself and went back to sucking her umbrellaed drink looking down at it intensely. That’s when I looked past her, over her shoulder, and met eyes with a blond guy I knew I’d seen before. He was seated around the corner of the bar facing us, only three people between him and Rayne. It wasn’t like I knew him, but had maybe run into him recently. He looked away, up to the baseball game on the TV.

     Rayne said, “Mmm, this is good. How’s yours?”

     “Dangerously tasty.”

     I thought: maybe he’s a celebrity and that’s why he looks familiar. A sports figure? He looked athletic, muscle-bound. He clawed at the dish of nuts in front of him, threw them from his fist into his mouth. When he chewed, the muscles popped and pulsed in his temple and up into his head where his hair was cut really short, military short. He kept his eyes fixated on the game. Where the hell did I know him from? I was going over the places I’d been recently.

     Approaching the end of her drink already, Rayne was looking at the drink menu. “So when we open up our used bookstore coffee bar, we’ll have to call all the drinks something cutesy like this place does. Maybe the Fowl’s Frappuccino.”

     “The Al Pacino Cappuccino.”

     “What? It’s a bookstore, not a movie theater. They should have literary names.”

     “The Dante Latte.”

     “Ha. You’re good at this.”

     “The Hemingway Nescafé.”

     She crinkled her nose laughing. My drink had gone to my head and must have done the same to her.  

     She thought about it, then said, “The Espresso Manifesto.”

     “Good one.”

     “Oh my gosh, we have to remember these.”

     “I’ll keep notes. We’ll call them Cliff’s Notes.”

     That killed her. She fell back laughing and bumped into the lady sitting next to her. Rayne apologized, but the woman didn’t respond, just sat stiffly. Rayne rolled her eyes. Fun and games were over; now it had gotten awkward so she signaled that we should leave.

     On our way out I looked back at the blond guy. Maybe one last glance would help me recall. He had decided to pay up himself and leave. That’s what made me remember. He was the one that left the Hairpin when I left it a couple nights before. Okay. No big coincidence. He was a drinker, hangs out in bars. There aren’t that many to choose from so it’s inevitable to see the same people. After figuring out who he was I forgot all about him by the time we got outside.

     We walked around that area of town, went into some shops, got ice cream cones. Finally we agreed to head home. Rayne insisted on walking and not calling an Uber. She said she wanted to try my minimalism thing, get into the small town spirit. This time she had worn sensible footwear.

     At some point I had told her about the town’s divisions: the natives versus the development people, the residents versus the tourists. Now she made it a game in which we had to correctly identify passersby according to their labels. It was fun, especially because we both saw the same telltale signs and were laughing about our conclusions before we even shared them.

     We had gone across the bridge and entered into South Fowl’s Point.

     After a weighty silence she asked, “Is there any way we can not pass The Hairpin?”

     “Easily. These back streets lead even more directly to my place. But they’re not lit well and there are some creeps living back there so I wouldn’t advise a girl to walk this way alone at night.”

     It was dusk. Those back streets—the ‘numbered streets’ as I think of them—were lined with small homes filled with grumpy natives and high school dropouts. Cars sat in driveways with cinder blocks as wheels. We didn’t say much as Rayne took in the dismal anti-scenic route. No sidewalks, so we were walking in the middle of the street. I was staying alert for cars. You never know if a Camaro or one of those pimped rides might speed down the street suddenly. We were about a block down Fourth Street when something caught my attention. I turned just in time to see a car going down Chandler toward the Hairpin. It passed Fourth then backed up slowly. It was as if the driver had seen us and backed up to follow us.

     Rayne read my face and looked back, “What is it?”

      I was convinced its driver was scoping us out, but figured they were looking for somebody else. We had come the intersection of White Oak Street. I pointed down it and said, “Let’s go that way.”

     “Why, what’s going on?”

     I didn’t want to worry her so I said, “I just want to get out of the way. Some of these local kids floor it down these streets.”

     We had only gone about twenty feet when the car came to the stop sign at the intersection. It was a red Chevy Malibu and driving it was that blond guy from the bar. From both bars. We looked right at each other. He had been caught, hadn’t meant to be pegged. He looked forward and accelerated through the intersection.

     “Cliff, what’s going on?”

     I was trying to see his license number, but missed it. “I saw that guy a couple nights ago at the Hairpin. Then tonight at the bar. Now a back street in South Fowl’s Point?”

     “Who was it?”

     “I don’t know. Does your sister’s boyfriend have blond hair?”

     “No.”

     “A wise man once said, ‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it's enemy action.’”

     “Who said that?”

     “Goldfinger.”

     “Isn’t that a candy bar?”

     “No, that’s Butterfinger.”

Next Chapter: The Sister




 

Chapter Eight: The Sister

Chapter Eight: The Sister

Chapter Six: The Date

Chapter Six: The Date