by George L. Chieffet
Fred Glower has the bad habit of rubbernecking beautiful women, but tonight he limits himself to one quick glance when his buddy Phil introduces Frankie Serrano-Sanchez. Fred appreciates Frankie’s polite smile and responds with bland friendliness. In Maple Corners informality and friendliness are the preferred style. Indulging in long polite conversations with strangers is admired as tact. So Fred laughs earnestly when Phil announces that Frankie works at the local television station. Fred hesitates to say he teaches fourth grade civics. Then Fred and Frankie smile for no particular reason, and Jeannette, Fred’s long suffering wife, an angular woman who fancies herself an astute observer of the human condition settles onto the couch.
Last Christmas Phil’s wife, Sandy, a two-pack-a-,day smoker became a casualty of cancer, and Jeannette, her close friend, spoke at the funeral lauding Sandy’s dedication to marriage and friendship. Fred didn’t quite agree with Jeannette’s view, but he never offered his opinion to Phil. Privately, Fred believes Sandy was a pushy bitch who meddled with everyone’s life, and remembered that when her three kids hid her smokes, Sandy drove to the Seven/ Eleven in a snow storm and bought a new carton. In private Fred has told Jeannette that Sandy was a crooked gambler who thought she could swindle the house.
It is well known that since his wife’s passing “The Swami” has experienced a run of incredible luck. In the last year Phil’s real estate has tripled in value; his law practice has expanded. Recently he paid cash for an eighty-five-thousand-dollar white Mercedes convertible. He runs three miles every day. He paces himself well; he breaths through his great prow of a nose. The Swami takes long easy strides, and, as he glides around the track, he reminds Fred of a sailboat cutting through the ocean. And now he ends his daily run sipping imported water beside the Mercedes’s polished fenders. Then of course he met Frankie. Frankie is Phil’s sweetheart. Her body is lean and tan. Her high fashion makeup and gold wrist bangles are calculated to turn heads; her gorgeous black hair in a French twist appears to have taken hours to arrange.
The host, Lou Sardow, his red-faced friend, enjoys the company. Portly Lou wears his hair long like the hippies of old, but selling plumbing supplies and plastic tubing has made him quite rich. Business is good, and Lou, slapping his belly, appreciates being the king in his one family castle, and Fred, in response, makes an effort to appear affable, grinning as Lou sets out a table of chocolate candies, big cigars and fancy label bourbon. Lou jokes and pours bourbon into squat crystal glass. He offers an array of Cuban cigars. Anita and Jeanette, ignoring his off-color quips, are quick to unfold the card table and break out two decks of cards.
“Are we playing some cards?” Frankie says sidling up to Phil who sits at the table shuffling the deck.
They play Gin Rummy, and Phil and Frankie win most hands. Phil loves to win and flashes a conceited smile as he shows his cards. When he gloats, he slicks back his shiny unnaturally blond hair and reveals his straight teeth. Then he shrugs off winning like he’s used to it. “You always win with good cards,” he says.
Lou, a fierce competitor hates to lose. He has a cigar clamped in his jaw. He scowls.
“Don’t chew your cigar,” Anita says. “It stains your teeth.”
“Jesus,” Lou says, tossing his hair. “Can’t we just have a good time?”
“No we can’t,” she says. “Not if you’re going to chew that cigar. I‘m the one who has to get up every morning and look at those teeth of yours.”
“Don’t look then,” Lou says getting red in the face.
Phil goes to his car for “the goods” and Lou tags along. “The goods” a special marijuana, called Panama Red, comes in a manila envelope. Fred arranges the livingroom carrying the straight back chairs into the foyer and pushing the couch and the big lounge chair against the wall leaving an open space on the rug.
Phil shows off the envelope stuffed with marijuana, and Lou shows off his pipe. The Panama Red resembles nothing more than long curly strands of reddish tobacco. The pipe resembles a souvenir Indian peace pipe. Phil seats himself cross- legged on the carpet and makes like he’s the Swami.
“The Swami will meet all the chick’s needs.”
“Swami, my friend, I would lay off the chick thing,” Fred says, “Jeanette doesn’t like it.”
“I can speak for myself,” Jeanette is scowling on the couch. Jeanette is a tall woman with broad shoulders a long face and a supercilious bearing. Once she had shiny black hair and a compact body. Now her hair has faded to a dusty gray and her body though still lean has slackened in the strategic places.
“What the hell, are you married to a woman’s libber,” Lou says, forcing a tight little smile. Soon the whole room fills with smoke.
“How about Jeannette?” Fred asks.
“How about Frankie,” Jeannette says in her superior voice as she stretches over the couch cushions like a sleepy cat. ”She’s the guest.”
Fred inhales and belches up a smoke cloud. The tiny cloud floats around the room and breaks into fragments.
Frankie behaves like a sport, laughing along with the rest of them, but when Phil brags about her job at the television station, she looks away and her cheeks color. Phil goes on about her fans and claims that Frankie’s television people mistake him, too, for a celebrity. Everyone laughs at this pomposity even Frankie finds his claim ridiculous—but he’s serious. “They make me for Chris Mathews,” he says loudly in his own defense. “The Swami has a Chris Mathews sort of cool.”
The pipe goes around so many times Fred loses count. He sits there refusing another turn.
“You become a Republican?” Phil says.
“No I’m just not a big time user anymore. Quit the drugs long ago. Took a few drags for old time sake, but I can’t say I’m turned on.”
“Shit, man, you’re getting old.”
“Not a user,” Jeanette says in her put-off way. “Who the fuck am I married to? You should see him at home he buries his face in the TV!” She rests her elbow on the couch pillow and inhales on the pipe; then, offering the room an exasperated look, says. “Do what you want. Wish you still possessed a sense of adventure.”
For once Fred Glower doesn’t take the bait.
So Jeannette holds the pipe for Lou and he smokes the dregs.
“The Swami has a sense of cool,” Lou grunts. With smoke trapped in his lungs Lou unleashes a barrage of harsh coughs.
“We need some more, oh Swami,” Lou says hoarsely. “Who’s got a mitch?”
“What’s a mitch?” Frankie says.
“He means his face and my ass,” Jeanette comments.
“You’re another bitch,” Lou says, rasping. “I need a glass of water.”
“Keep it civil, old man,” Jeannette says.
Without looking at him, Anita hands Lou his drink and he slugs it down.
“I know you’re only joking but show some respect,” Fred says.
“Of course, I was only making a feeble attempt at light-hearted humor.”
“Who’s got a match?”
“That’s the word I’m looking for.”
After cards and a light meal of small sandwiches, Fred tunes in the twenty-four hour cable news and falls in love with the beautiful news reader. The news reader has fawn eyes, high cheekbones, and a wavy blonde hairdo. Her blonde curls remind Fred of his college sweetheart, a blonde who dumped him. After being jilted Fred went into a tail spin and flunked out of college. Drafted into the army like every fuck up in America, for thirteen months he carried a field radio on his back. Fortunately, the officers had him man the command post radio. They needed, as they put it, “someone with college”.
The party whirls around, and Fred daydreams—he’s dreaming that he is the news reader’s husband; her career impacts on their alone time; he imagines her in bed without clothes and make up. He invents dialogues; apologizing for hurt feelings, imagining he’s sitting beside her in bed watching the Emmys. And she, in turn, prepares to sacrifice her career for the sake of love and is begging Fred to screw her.
Suddenly, Lou and Anita stand up. “What they Hell!” they scream. On the ceiling a huge spindly mosquito hangs off the light fixture like a wire paper clip come alive spinning circles buzzing the light bulbs throwing a long flickering shadow against the wall. The bulbs seem like rain clouds ready to burst and the mosquito seems frantic. Anita and Lou are saucer-eyed and fascinated. “We’re done,” Lou says. He plunks his fat ass on the couch beside Jeannette. His butt lands smack on the seat cushion with a heavy bounce; the springs creak like arthritic bones, shaking Jeannette’s whole body. “I’ll just sit here,” Lou says loudly. He offers everyone a cigar and holds a big silver chunk of a lighter. As he draws down on the cigar, the mosquito flies off, and Fred, his daydream shattered, watches the lighter’s gas blue flame dance the Hula.
“We’re going to need a new couch,”Anita says.
“That’s okay,” Lou says. “Hubby can afford it. Don’t worry about the furniture folks. We’re having a party.”
He passes the pipe to Jeannette who wrinkles up her nose.
“Over here, “Frankie says. Her dark eyes beckon.
She’s so pretty she can just sit there holding her breath and gather in everyone’s stare. When she inhales her tits swell up; she reminds Fred of a greedy little slut.
“Don’t watch me,” she says. “I don’t want you to look at me.”
“I wouldn’t watch,” Fred says. But he does.
Fred loves her dreamy expression the way her gold locket on a chain slides into her cleavage.
Fred imagines he is peering through a keyhole into her bedroom.
“You make me anxious when you stare,” she says.
To woozy Fred, her nipples seem like flower buds pressing against the silky dress. Fred’s stare is head on and obvious, and his friend Phil puts a hand on his shoulder. “The Swami has not forgotten what a horny bastard you can be,” Phil says. He hugs her bare shoulders. Frankie slips deftly from Phil’s embrace to straighten her skirt but when she ducks down to fix her hem she elbows over the standing lamp. The skinny lamp with its big shade shaped like a bell crashes to the floor, and the bulb goes out with a pop.
“Just put it anywhere for now. The whole place is a trash bin,” Anita says.
Fred, sighing deeply, collects the pieces of the broken lamp and sets them on a closet shelf.
The Swami, snickers and staggers down the hall to the bathroom.
“Don’t honey me, bebe,” Frankie teases.
“I didn’t mean nothing,” Fred answers teasing back.
“You like the way I talk, sweetheart?”
“What are you saying?” Jeanette says from the couch.
Fred smiles to seem harmless, and Frankie with a flirtatious smirk puts him off just as her Swami, his hair watered and combed flat, returns. Unconscious of people watching, he is zipping his fly. “I’m still the one Swami,” he says, after finishing the task. “No one has taken the Swami’s place?”
“No one, bebe,” Frankie says. Tears like little silver threads glide down her cheeks.
Later, somebody puts slow music on the CD player. Fred slouches in one of the upholstered chairs working up the courage to ask Frankie to dance. When the moment comes, he straightens the pleats in his slacks and fidgets with his collar. He forces himself out of the chair and walks pigeon toed toward her. She is sitting in a sultry way on the sofa arm with her legs crossed so that everyone can see the black seam of her nylons and the long slender shape of her legs. Of course she’ll dance, she says, and although Fred is a lousy dancer, he leads her to the center of the room. Scraping across the carpet he performs a clumsy little step out of time, but she seems to glide along with him perfectly. As she follows his jerky movement, her whole body sways. What excites him most is that she looks trustingly up at his face.
Frankie has on strong perfume; it is the scent of a flower Fred wouldn’t know by name. He imagines sitting in a garden.
“What are you thinking?” she says over his shoulder.
“I was thinking of flowers,” he speaks into her ear.
“Very Latin,” she says with a quiver of her lips. On a wobbly turn her hair brushes Fred’s cheek.
Fred thinks there is something about a woman in black seamed nylons. He never forgot the B girls in the Saigon dives who wore them with high heels and slit dresses. They had beautiful faces, long legs, and rice-paper ribbons tied to little spit curls, and silky hair down their backs.
They’d cruise the boulevard in open cars soliciting GI’s.
Fred watches Frankie’s slim delicate ankles, and when she takes any little dance step she swings her hips.
“Give it a ride,” he says stumbling into a ballroom spin. He twirls her once and catches hold of her waist.
He would say something more but he’s winded.
Instead he watches her in her black seamed stockings. He watches her move.
He thinks Frankie is stunning close up, but under her powder she is innocent as a child, and for some reason this makes him sad. Sure, Fred feels her wet breath on his cheek, and his heart is hammering as if he is running a hard five miles in hot weather. But he knows she’s so young she still takes people at face value. She’s somebody’s sweet daughter somebody’s baby girl.
He takes a breath and lets out a deep sigh.
Then Phil all puffed up like a bullfrog steps in front him. “Cut it out,” he says.
“We’re just dancing,” Fred says. “What’s the big deal?”
“Big deal?” Phil says. He sticks out his formidable chin.
“She’s yours,” Fred says. “I just wanted a dance.”
He loses his balance, stepping over Frankie’s suede pumps. She stops swaying when Fred mashes her toes. Then she cries like a baby. Fred makes several efforts to apologize but she ignores him hobbles toward a chair. She collapses in it removes her pump to massage her damaged toes.
“Are you alright?” Phil asks her.
“He crushes my toes.”
“I’m sorry, I lost my step.” Fred explains.
“Don’t jou apologize, bebe, I’m okay.”
She raises her foot onto the cushion and rubs her instep. Fred standing there across the room observes her sturdy little feet, a high curved arch and cherry red toenails. The sexy little pump Fred just stepped on has a nasty scuff across the toe. The skinny heel is broken. ”What a dumb thing,” she says to nobody in particular.
“What the hell got into you?” Fred says.
“You damn sneak. If you try that again I’ll bust your face.”
“Don’t get so hot under the collar…If you want to fight we can take it outside.“
“You’re all mouth,” The Swami says.
“That’s enough,” Jeannette says. She stands between the two red-faced men who grit their teeth and glare. She holds them away like a pair of swinging doors. Fred feels her fingernails digging into the fabric of his shirt. He feels the nails cut his skin. “You behave yourselves,” she says. “Fred, you’re acting like a child.”
“What about him?”
“Calm down folks,” Anita says. “Cool it please. I’ve got a lot of breakables in the house.”
“I wasn’t going to,” Fred says.
“We should go a few rounds,” Phil says. “The Swami hits hard.”
“This is giving me the munchies,” Anita says.
“Let’s put the whole thing on the shelf,” Lou says. “Put the whole thing away—how about it boys. Ditch the sweet science. Spareribs, pizza? What the hell—have a drink or a cigar?”
“People used to say the Swami had a quick right hand. We should box sometime.”
Frankie pulls herself together. “Don’t be macho, bebe. I can’t stand macho. Spoiling the evening for people. Fighting. You know my country everybody dances with everybody, sexy too—he nothing to me, bebe. Come sit.” She gestures with a flick of her gold bracelet, and Phil slides in next to her and slips his arm around her waist.
“Screw your country and its customs. I don’t want you to dance with other men!”
“If that’s what you want bebe then I want it too.”
“I love you sweetheart. You’re my thing!”
In her bare feet, they get up to dance, and Fred stands in the corner out of their way and turns his gaze to the ceiling, noticing it is discolored by water stains. He realizes the mosquito came through the roof, and he feels giddy realizing the misery Lou must feel.
Later Fred sits back in a lounge chair sipping bourbon. Frankie draws on the pipe with tiny little breaths. She has a smile no bigger than a button. Phil glowers when Fred glances her way.
“The Swami remembers when life was young,” Phil says.
Perhaps they all pause and remember that time. Everyone is serious for a moment. Fred feels a longing for something intangible. It tugs at his heart so that he feels momentarily weak enough to cry . The feeling is so strong he can barely tolerate it. It irks him that Phil seems unaffected by the moment. Phil’s yawn stretches down to his shoes. In the lamp light his gold hair looks painted on.
Fred’s woozy and can’t see much past his white hand. The livingroom feels fogged over; wreathes of smoke like weeds climb his eyelids. Last year he ran the car off the road into a field. Mud up to the axles. Now he staggers out the doorway into the dark front yard leaving the party behind. For a moment he breathes the fresh air and relishes being alone. Then he hears voices and noise and thinks of moonlight streaming into darkened windows where families are going through their routines of eating watching TV or sleeping—his neighbors and their routines. The thought makes him feel suddenly desolate as if trapped among strangers. The night sky itself with its vast dark spaces and distant stars, seems even more desolate and to shake off the feeling he decides to run through the neighborhood.
He begins his run and feels a surge of energy that becomes exhilaration until he hears his heart thumping in his chest. His sudden confrontation with mortality frightens him and he slows his pace savoring the simple homes and the sedate lawns and the warm lights shining in the large windows. He catches his breath gulping down the cool sweet night air. Suddenly, he is desperate for normalcy. He peers into the windows attracted by the warm orange light. In one large picture window where the drapes hang open, he sees a burly man hunched over on a long couch staring at a big screen television and on a nearby chair a woman basking in the screen’s orange glow staring blankly out through the window and into the dark. So caught up in her own thoughts, she does not see Fred passing by. She is an ordinary woman with a pretty face and small features but she is thin and worn and her expression is pained and lonely. Her mouth drawn down at the corners is scored with deep lines. The man so intent on the TV screen seems unaware of her presence. Fred glances in and then turns away, relieved to be alone as being alone feels more like who he was meant to be. He often feels trapped by his circumstance but now the world seems more pleasant being in his neighborhood observing the lives that go on about him in their simple routines and their small tragedies and he realizes, that safely inside their houses, not one of his neighbors ever notices a universe spinning above or the shape of the moon slinking through the clouds or Fred fleeing past their driveway.