"This is KOOL, St. Cloud, Minnesota, 14:30 on your radio dial, and it’s time for Sports Trivia. The first caller with the correct answer will score a $10 gift certificate from Hardware Hank’s. Get ready now. Exercise those dialing fingers. Here we go. Whose record did Joltin’ Joe break when he hit in fifty-six games in a row?"
Warren Warren sprang out of his recliner, barking his chin on the coffee table; on one leg, he hopped toward the kitchen, clawed the phone off of the wall, trying to punch the speed dial. "This is KOOL. Do you have a guess?"
"Guess, schmesh. ‘Wee Willie’ Keeler hit safely in forty-four games in a row, later matched by Pete Rose."
"You are correct, sir. If you’ll leave your name and number, you can claim your Handware Hank certificate anytime within the next week."
Warren jumped high in the air. "Yahoo," he howled, leaping around the room, doing his victory dance. He was so happy he forgot to listen to his name being mentioned on the radio. Not that he hadn’t heard it before. Just last week he’d named the Four Horseman of Notre Dame, and before that, he’d identified Babe Didrikson as the first woman to play in a man’s professional golf tournament.
He calmed down long enough to switch off the radio and turn on the TV. Today was a big day for Warren. The NFL draft was on in a couple of minutes, and later the Wild would be playing Vancouver in the second round of the hockey playoffs. At two the Houston Open would begin and at six the Twins would take on the hated White Sox. What he really needed was another TV. God knows he could afford one; he wasn’t married, his house was paid for; computer programmers made good money. Yet he still made due with a pitiful "25" Magnavox.
Warren was settling down with a bag of popcorn and a Coke when the doorbell rang. A little girl–-no more than eight years old with stringy mouse-colored hair, her features pinched together in the middle of her face--was collecting pledges for a Muscular Dystrophy walkathon. "How much can I put you down for?" she said.
Warren glanced over his shoulder; the first selection had been announced, but because he wasn’t wearing his glasses, he couldn’t see who it was. He felt like shoving the little girl off of his stoop and slamming the door, but instead he said, "How many miles are you walking?"
"Most people are pledging ten dollars," she said.
"Put me down for twenty," he said, chuckling. He always chuckled when he bested somebody.
She just stood there looking up at him, her little eyes like
pinholes. Then she held out her hand. "We have to collect in advance."
"Oh for Pete’s sake," he growled. "I left my billfold in the bedroom, I’ll be right back." Of course he stopped to check the scroll bar at the bottom of the screen. He couldn’t wait any longer to find out whom the Bengals had picked.
He only had fifteen dollars, so he had to write a check. She gave the check the once over as he handed it to her. "Don’t you have any cash?" she said.
"Not twenty dollars," he said. "You know where to find me if it bounces, not that it’s going to."
Perhaps it was all that salt from the popcorn or the sugar from his soda, but by about the tenth selection, depression began to rain down on Warren like napalm on the jungle. He felt dizzy and the ceiling light stung his eyes. No, he wasn’t sick. He always felt this way in church when he let the collection plate pass without contributing a dollar. What was he doing in his recliner, wasting a beautiful Saturday watching meaningless sports when he could be out doing something to help his fellow man like the pinch-faced girl? What had he been doing when he was eight years old? Probably swapping baseball cards with his friend Sammy. He’d spent hours on the phone arguing about how many Barry Bonds he’d trade for George Brett, who for some reason never came with the bales of bubble gum cards he’d begged his mother for.
Warren shut the TV off and went to sit on the toilet where he did most of his best thinking. There was nothing to read in there but the TV Guide. What a bunch of garbage. Reality shows up the wazoo. The Bachelor, the Bachelorette, Mr. Personality. Bunch of shallow women looking for a rich husband. Or were they frustrated actresses trying to get on TV? It made him kind of sick to think there were people out there that obsessed with good looks and money. Then again . . . they’d probably be less than thrilled about his nothing-happening lifestyle.
He shifted his weight from one cheek to the other, chewing on the inside of his lip. What’s important to you, big shot? Besides sports, I mean? You go to a movie once a week, usually by yourself. You play the occasional round of golf with your boss. You go to alumni bashes. But you haven’t dated in . . . How long had it been? Carol Anfenson. Had it really been five years? He’d dumped her because she never wanted to go to a Viking game with him. Wouldn’t life be grand if he could find a girl like the one in "The Diner" who’d been willing to take a sports trivia test to prove she was worthy. He’d gone to a Singles Party a couple of months back, but the people there seemed so gray and desperate. He’d left after an hour or so.
He was going on thirty; maybe it was time to start looking in earnest. But did he really want to get married? He was so set in his ways. He didn’t think he could handle the pregnancy thing, the morning sickness, the mood swings, the diapers. No, I’ll never be able to do diapers. Wouldn’t it be perfect if I could find a ready-made family?
He bolted from the toilet seat like a rat had crawled up the toilet and bit him in the ass. He had an idea. He’d read about this confirmed bachelor whose friends had started a media campaign to find him a mate. The friends chose from thousands of women. The two got married at the Mall of America. Every year the dude was in the news again and he was still married with a couple of rugrats. The dude was a geeky-looking with a ponytail and glasses. If he could do it, why not Warren? Only Warren would be smart about it; he’d skip the publicity. He’d take out an ad in the Gazette saying, "Single mothers wanted. Must have two children, a boy and a girl under the age of . . . What would be a good age? Seven, yeah that would be perfect. No toddlers wanted. Must be potty trained. Object, matrimony.
Linda had long dark hair with heavy eyebrows like that nurse on ER, the one who’d tried to commit suicide; she was a full-figured woman, maybe twenty pounds overweight. No sweat, he rather liked Rubenesque women. He couldn’t stop staring at her feet; she was wearing sandals and must have recently had them pedicured because they were fabulous.
"What do you do for a living, Linda?" he said.
"I used to be a stewardess. Got laid off; Northwest Airlines, you know."
Hmmm, was this a welfare mother? "How about you?" she said.
"Computer programming. Kind of boring, but I can work from home if I want, and it pays well."
"I don’t want to sound mercenary but much would that be?"
Strike one, but he’d give her another couple of whacks at the old horsehide; she was definitely hot; she was giving him a boner already. "Look, Linda. We’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Did you bring along the pictures of the kids I asked for?"
She showed him snapshots of Lexie, 4, and Truman, 2. Lexie was so cute she could have doubled for Darla Hood. Truman looked like Dennis the Menace. A different father? "They’re perfect," he said. "When do I get to meet them?"
"Why don’t we go out on a couple of dates first. I don’t want them traumatized if we don’t hit it off. How about dinner?"
He hadn’t been to a restaurant since Carol Anfenson, unless you counted Kentucky Fried Chicken and Mac and Don. "I guess that would be okay. Where would you like to go?"
"How about Richard’s?" she said.
Richard’s was the most expensive place in town. Strike two.
She ordered Filet Mignon, hundred-dollar wine, and chocolate mousse for desert. When he took her home, a pick-up, one of those big ones with the humongous wheels, followed them to her apartment. When he let her off, she gave him a peck on the lips and said. "I’d invite you up, but I don’t want you thinking I’m loose or something." When she got out, the guy in the pick-up pulled up behind Warren’s car. Warren witnessed a screaming domestic dispute. Shortly thereafter a squad pulled up, its bubbletop flashing blue. Strike three.
The next morning he was catching up on the late baseball scores on ESPN when the doorbell rang. It was the little pinch-faced girl again. "Do you have any yardwork I could do, sir?" she said. He’d been putting off raking the lawn for weeks so he found a rake in the garage and put her to work. "How much is this going to cost me?" he said.
"Whatever you want to pay."
Couldn’t beat that. She’d been at it for about an hour, having traversed only about a quarter of his half-acre lawn, when his conscience got to him and he went out to help. "I didn’t catch your name?" he said, as they worked side by side.
"Penny," she said. "Penny Truman. I live two blocks that way." They pointed east toward a grove of birch trees.
Warren didn’t know what else to say to an eight-year-old. Finally he said, "What grade are you in school?"
"Third. I have Miss Weeks. Do you know her?"
"Can’t say as I do. Is she nice?"
"Nice enough. She gives me all A’s and that’s what counts."
"You should get yourself a dog," she said. "Ma says it’s not good to live alone. You can borrow Buster if you want. He’s just a mutt." Either she’d been spying on him or else the neighbors were talking, which would be worse. Everybody thought you were gay if you lived alone.
When they finished raking, Penny’s hands were blistered. Like a ninny, he’d forgotten to give her gloves. He took her in the house, put Mercurochrome on her blisters, and bandaged her hands. Then he gave her another twenty.
"That’s too much," she said, handing him back a ten.
He met Melanie, a blonde with the feathered Dorothy Hamill look so popular of late, at Starbucks. She was young, very young. He was tempted to check her license to make sure she was legal. She told him all about her husband; she’d married when she was seventeen, shotgun she called it. Her ex drank and had trouble keeping a job. She was twenty-two now and had three children. "I hope you don’t mind," she cooed. "I’m sure you’ll love them as much as I do."
She was a hairdresser. She asked about his interests but didn’t stop blathering long enough for him to tell her. She seemed set on telling him everything about herself in record time. She liked soap operas–-did he watch?–-she read movie magazines, she liked to cuddle, she liked to walk in the rain, Nashville was her favorite place, that and Orlando. Didn’t he just adore Mickey and the other Disney characters? By the time the session was over his I.Q. had taken a dive.
Warren was having his coffee one morning when he looked out the window and saw Penny at the bus stop on the verge of his lawn. About a dozen kids were milling around, but Penny was off by herself, her shoulders slumped, her book bag a millstone around her neck. Then she turned, looked at his house and waved. He spilled his coffee all over his Timberwolves T-shirt.
Tammy was a redhead who wore her hair in a nonchalant ponytail; she also sported hoop earrings. He’d always wondered how women who wore the dangerous things kept from hurting themselves. He couldn’t even wear a watch; when he did it was always snagging on something. Tammy was around his age; they’d have more in common than the other women he’d met so far. But she seemed to have her own agenda. "Do you read?" she demanded. She belonged to two book clubs and would not know what to say to a man who didn’t like books.
He’d seen The Natural and knew that Bernard Malamud had written the novel it was based on, but she was wise to him and asked if he’d read The Fixer. "No, I haven’t gotten around to that one yet," he said. "I’ll put it on my summer reading list."
"I make Georgia and Max read a book a week."
"That’s pretty good for kids under seven," he said.
"They’re a little older than that," she said. "Georgia is ten; Max is eight. Their father was a philistine. All he cared about was sports. NASCAR, Australian football. He’d rather watch Ping-Pong than talk to me."
Warren was losing heart when Penny came to his door with a woman in tow. "This is my mother," she said.
He shook the woman’s hand. "She isn’t bothering you too much, is she?" the woman said. "She gets attached; her father is deceased, you know."
"Nah, she’s a real darling. When I tried to give her a twenty for raking my lawn, she wouldn’t take it. Said I did half the work. Ever hear of a kid doing something like that?"
Her mother’s name was Naomi. She reminded Warren of one of those women in the Dust Bowl pictures. He got Naomi some coffee and Penny a Pepsi and they settled in front of the TV, which was tuned to a Twins game.
"They’re not doing so well this year, are they?" Naomi said. "I think it’s cause of the big contracts."
"You’re baseball fans then?" Warren said.
"Penny’s a pitcher for her Little League team," Naomi said. "And she’s hitting at a .450 clip."
"There’s a game at the Dome Saturday," Penny added. "Would you like to take us?"
Warren said he’d love to. "Yah," Penny said, slapping hands with her mother.
The Twins were playing the Yanks. Penny knew all of the players and their statistics. She even knew the Yankees’ stats and her favorite was Matsui the Japanese left fielder.
"No way he hits fifty homers in the majors," Warren said. "They play in bandboxes over there."
"They don’t need him to," Penny said. "They haven’t had a decent left fielder for the past ten years, and they still won three World Series."
The mother was almost as knowledgeable. "I think it’s Joe Torre," she said. "He’s a stable element. Doesn’t get too excited when Steinbrenner goes nuts."
Warren bought everybody expensive ballpark hotdogs and Cokes. When he returned to their seats, he snuck a closer look at the mother. The more he looked at her the more she looked like a young Bette Davis. If only she’d do something with her hair; it was stringier than Penny’s and he could actually see her scalp. She had about as much sex appeal as Joan Rivers.
That night in bed he could not get to sleep thinking about what a good time he’d had with Penny and her mother. They’d gone down on the field after the game and got Corey Koskie’s autograph. He was Penny’s favorite. "He’s from Canada," she chirped. "Did you know he used to be a goalie on a hockey team?"
"He looks like a working stiff," Naomi said.
On the way home, the woman clammed up. When he asked her how her husband had died, she looked at him as though he had the manners of a boatswain’s mate. "Construction accident," Penny said. "He was a heavy equipment operator."
The woman seemed schizophrenic. After a while she started rocking and picking at the hairs on her arms. Warren was scared, but they made it home all right after what seemed like an eternity.
The next Sunday Penny and Naomi showed up with two big bags of groceries. Naomi’s mood was vastly improved; she made dinner for Warren and Penny. Best damn pot roast he’d ever tasted. That and Betty Crocker rolls, corn on the cob and the creamiest mash potatoes he’d ever tasted. She’d even brought flowers for the centerpiece. While they ate, Penny asked if he’d like to come to her band concert that Friday. What could he say? He really liked Penny and what else did he have to do? But he kept thinking about Naomi’s schizophrenic rock. He couldn’t think of an excuse not to go.
The band played John Phillips Sousa march music, Penny on the flute; Warren had a good time, Naomi managing to avoid rocking too much.
That afternoon, when he forgot to watch the Houston Open golf tournament, he realized he was getting too involved. He was crazy about Penny but he’d never be able to see the mother as anything but a possible ax murderer.
When Naomi asked if he’d like to come along to Penny’s parent teacher conference, Warren was pretty sure she didn’t see herself as a Dust Bowl type. But he went because he was a lily-livered coward who didn’t know how to say, "God, lady! You have to be at least ten years older than I am!"
Dorothy Weems’s auburn hair was piled on top on her head in fetching coils that would cascade down her back in Lady Godiva ringlets if she took out the pins. She had a killer smile with Pepsodent teeth that glittered when she talked. She was the kind of woman he wouldn’t mind going to a shoe sale with. He managed to sneak a look at her ring finger while she went over the grade book with Naomi.
"How long have you been teaching?" he said.
"This is my third year."
"Are you from here?"
"Originally from Ypsilanti, Michigan," she said. "There were no jobs when I graduated, so I took the first position that I could find. Love it here now, though. So many lakes, so much to do."
"How about your husband?" he asked.
"No such animal yet. Just about all the male faculty members are married."
He hung back afterwards, explaining that he and Mrs. Truman were just friends. Then he asked her to have dinner and see a movie. She said that would be nice.
Penny had intuited as much and would not say a word to him on the way home. The next morning she woke him up at six o’clock.
He sat with her at the kitchen table, bleary-eyed and unshaven, feeling like the biggest heel since Errol Flynn. And she spilled out her heart to him, telling him that she’d seen his ad in the Gazette and that if he didn’t marry her mother they’d lose their house. They didn’t have enough money to make their next payment and they were already three payments behind.
"Penny, I can’t marry your mother," he said. "People should be in love before they marry. But you and I are friends, good friends I’d like to think, and I’ll loan your mom the money. I’ll also help her find a job so this doesn’t happen again."
Obviously this solution did not fit Penny’s fantasy. The pinpoint eyes bored into his soul and the little face remained as unsmiling as a World Series of Poker participant. He thought she might cry for a minute there. "Okay," she finally said. "I’ll have her call you. I don’t like you flirting with my teacher, though. You’ll have to stop that."
But he didn’t stop flirting with Dorothy Weems. They went to see X-Men together and Dorothy was just as into the movie as he was. She did other guy stuff, too; she was a scratch golfer and she had her own motorcycle.
One night, after they’d been going together for a few weeks he rented "The Diner," just to see how she’d react to the scene where the fiancé fails the trivia test.
"I don’t really see anything wrong with it," she said. "I’m a big fan of modern art and I’d expect any man I married to know who Jackson Pollock was." He didn’t know a damn thing about modern art, and he’d thought he was in a world of hurt until she winked. He finally caught the irony.
Meanwhile he’d been getting phone calls just about every night. Nobody on the other end, just someone breathing heavily. "Penny?" he said. "Is that you?" He didn’t know what to do about it; he could hardly call the police.
One day he found a skunk on his front lawn. What the hell did you do with a dead skunk?
That summer he went with Dorothy to Ypsilanti to meet her folks and since he could satisfy his job requirements via computer they stayed on for another month. When school started in the fall, Penny was not on the fourth grade class list.
"What do you think happened to them?" Dorothy said.
"It’s pretty obvious her mother missed another payment," he said. "I wish she’d asked me for the money."
"Did you know Penny let the air out of my tires one night after school?"
"How do you know it was her?"
"That’s just it; I don’t. Had to be her, though; the rest of the little darlings love me like their mamas."
Warren and Dorothy had been married for a couple of months when he saw the wedding announcement in the paper. Usually he just skimmed over those, not paying too much attention to people he didn’t know, but one of them was noticeably different. There was a child in the picture with the prospective bride and groom. Little Penny Truman with- an "I told you so," expression on her pinched face. The groom was a nerdish sort who looked awfully familiar for some reason. Horn-rimmed glasses like Elvis Costello, kinky-looking hair unused to a comb, huge horse-like teeth. "Aha!" he said to himself. "It’s one of the gray people I met at that Singles Club meeting!"
Warren felt hurt that he could so easily be replaced.