Leaving the bathoom, he cut the light, and with it the drone of the ceiling fan, and a voice, faint but certainly male, came from the hall. In a show of indifference to his departure, Lisa had probably turned on the news. Fine by him, especially if he lucked into a weather report for the drive north. But then, as the toilet’s gurgling stopped, wasn’t that her voice too?
Sounded like, though mainly the guy’s, and the speech tones didn’t have media polish. Besides, the whole place had gone dark, with no flicker of TV. Who the hell was that? And in the next round, unmistakably Lisa, her words not distinguishable, but straining to catch them made the wait for his eyes to adjust seem forever.
One table lamp, plus an overhead in the hall, had been lit when they’d come in. Now there was only a streetlight outside her living room window, filtered through bare-limbed trees and winter fog.
Out of courtesy, she had let him make a pit stop, and they’d had an OK time together until then, but he knew the pending good-byes would be permanent, and no regrets on either side. The kinds of diversions that could arise when an evening with a new woman fell into line this naturally just hadn’t materialized. But the game itself was fun, the sense of open-ended possibilities, and a casual adios meant he’d have less to rationalize later.
With his hand on the textured sheetrock, he started down the hall. In a shallow L at the end, he remembered, was the entry, the only way out or in, come to think of it. And finally, things among the shadows became visible. Facing away from him, Lisa was talking into the edge of the closed door, which had the chain set and a folding chair braced beneath the knob.
He inhaled, ready to ask what was up, but she wheeled around and in exaggerated mime, clapped one hand over her mouth and with the other made thrusting waves for him to stay back. He advanced a little anyway, but kept quiet. She again turned to the door.
"We’ve been through this too many times, Craig," she said, louder, conveying both sadness and conviction.
"You won’t let me in because you’re not alone," the male voice replied, coy and pleased with itself, like an attorney scoring a point.
"I won’t let you in because I don’t want to see you. How blunt can I be?"
"You and some guy went through the garage five minutes ago. I’m not blind, Lisie, or stupid, either."
And the guy they were talking about—James Norton was how he’d introduced himself, not the Jim or Jimmy he sometimes used—was inside, right enough, but if anyone had been stupid, it was him. Cornered like this, for a bladder call he could’ve postponed?
"Please, baby, don’t," she said. "He’s a neighbor I ran into on the sidewalk."
"Sure you did. He’ll be damn sorry when I catch him."
"Craig, I’m going to date. You should, too. Get used to it."
"You’re my wife."
"Not any more." Standing straighter, she held her foot against the bottom of the door.
"The law says we’re married," Craig went on.
"Another forty-six days…till the papers go through."
"The extra time’s for changing your mind."
"Except I won’t" she said.
"I could come in if I wanted," Craig answered. "You know that, don’t you?"
"No, I don’t know that."
"All I need is my good ladder. Second floor’s no sweat."
It was the guy inside, awkward and tense, who started to sweat.
"Go, Craig Doyle, this instant!" she said. "The phone’s in my hand." But her hands were free, and the nearest phone, a walk-around, was cradled on the breakfast counter.
"What’ll you, have them jail me?" Craig went on.
"They will. It’s your last chance. Don’t make me."
"I’m not making you anything."
"You are! Pulling this stuff? Check the restraining order. You’ll lose your job."
"Try 9-1-1," Craig mocked. "Compared to real emergencies, they won’t do a thing."
"Domestic hotline," she shot back. "I memorized it. 4--4--6..." she enunciated, in what was another bluff.
"OK, bitch, I’m gone. You’ll never prove it, and I have an alibi. Here’s betting Lover-Boy’s too chicken to back you up."
The squeak of athletic shoes receded on the walkway and reverberated down the stairs. But Craig wasn’t wrong. Lover-Boy wanted no part of police reports or court appearances.
"Thank god you shut up," she said to him, whispering now, her face drawn into hollows below the gleam of reflected streetlight in her eyes.
"Yeah, maybe," he said, also keeping his voice low and annoyed at feeling he had to. "Somebody should tell him he’s a jerk and to just shove off."
"Bad idea," she said. "He’s got you by three inches and fifty pounds. In Elk Grove, where we grew up, he was varsity fullback."
Christ! There was pride in her voice. Not just an ex who wasn’t really ex, but a former high-school sweetheart, and a jock to boot, probably the type who liked bullying the chess clubbers and computer geeks.
"What do we do?" he asked, still at almost a whisper.
"Make sure he leaves." She pushed past him in the dark and after a pause he followed. "When he does this," she explained over her shoulder, "he stays around, parked by the bedroom, where he knows it bugs me worst."
The words when he does this hung in the air. It was a pattern between them, and with that thought came a pulse of real fear. Craig knew what he looked like. What if the guy didn’t stay around, but was so wacked he’d drive up the block, maintain surveillance, then run lover-boy off the road? Some stuff in movies could really happen. In a heavy waft of her clove perfume, he continued along the hall.
It was pure chance that they’d met, and a welcome one. He’d been having kind of a dry spell, so even if she wasn’t a knockout, she was certainly decent looking, in well cut slacks and a cream blazer. Petite would be the word, with short dark hair, nice eyes and no wedding ring. He’d seen her check his hand too, along with the fit of his jeans and his faux-Armani jacket. With women, his rangy frame and blondish hair also seemed to help.
That part had occurred at a Sunday afternoon concert in the Crocker Museum, where the program, per the morning paper, featured two Bach cello suites he particularly liked. He made time for it by skipping out early from his software conference, and the performance had been good. Meeting a woman, though, was a bonus, not to mention meeting one who knew this part of Sacramento and had an apartment right across the street.
Not really by design, he’d taken the seat next to her, and during intermission, they had independently headed to a gallery displaying Persian miniatures that were barely four inches on a side, yet quite erotic. The Kama Sutra details—engorged phalluses, bare breasts and athletic positions of copulation—didn’t jump out against the intricate backgrounds of gardens and boudoirs, but were plainly evident. He hadn’t even had to look to know that he’d caught up with her, standing alone in one of the alcoves, because her perfume announced it from three feet away. She seemed to be waiting for him, in fact.
"You suppose these were like Penthouse mags or X-rated videos back then?" he said, with an off-hand smile.
"I was here last week too," she replied, compounding the challenge by seeking his eyes, "and thought the same thing."
Soon he’d gotten her name and learned that she worked in the personnel office of some state agency. In exchange he told her he was from Chico, 100 miles up the valley, where he was a systems programmer at Sci-Tech, and this was his last day before going back.
Later, at a dinner she quickly agreed to, they shared further details: she was divorced after eight years, was childless, and had earned a community college degree the past spring. She was also a museum regular, attending every lecture, exhibit and concert her schedule would allow, like a grab-bag humanities curriculum. Deferring to local knowledge, he let her choose their restaurant, a British pub in a redone brick warehouse that turned out to serve obscure beers and blandly hearty food. It was a place they could walk to, she said, because she liked walking under umbrellas in the rain.
And no problem arranging that. A storm had moved in, heavy rain interspersed with fog, that had made his drive down on Friday difficult, along with everything else he’d done. Tonight he would head home only if it cleared, a vague possibility according to the forecast. Even so, he’d booked an extra night at the conference hotel just in case. If you had to drive in this crap, better it be daylight.
To Lisa, however, he made it sound as though he’d leave regardless, hoping to spur matters if anything physical was on her mind. He also described his kids, a boy and a girl, and his demanding fifty-fifty custody arrangement with his frigid ex, leaving no doubt that he was a committed and involved father.
This information always had cachet with the kind of women he sought out, but a secondary advantage was to establish that he could be available to them only in a limited way, yet for an honorable reason. Equally helpful was that after years of making excuses for being a computer geek, his job itself had gained cachet.
He could tell Lisa picked up on this, but she didn’t seem that impressed, and they wrapped things up by comparing notes on movies and on the kinds of cars they drove, small talk that marked the breakdown of larger talk. In a final try, though, making a play on where and how they’d met, he let drop that he’d been at Berkeley with a major in both music and computer science. Still no reaction. Too esoteric, he guessed, or too pretentious. With women, you never really knew.
By then the storm had devolved into drizzle, along with broken fog at the rooftops, and walking back they took a different route, along blocks of disused railroad tracks and warehouses being rehabbed into offices or lofts. Pointing to his black Passat parked along the curb, he figured it was good-bye time, and that would be that, but she happened to mention that the adjoining garage entry was hers. With no thought they were being spied on, he promised he’d be quick and asked to use the john. Whether or not she let him in, nothing would change. Strangers meet, have dinner, drinks, and go their separate ways all the time.
Instead, he was in a dark hallway, caught in something so unpredictable it could veer into scandal or menace, and best case, would mean hours of anxious waiting. He reached her bedroom a few steps after she did, a place he’d given up on being, but at this point, who cared? Even her perfume, which he’d earlier made a point of complimenting, now had an acrid tinge of perspiration.
Ignoring him, she made it darker by shutting the hall door, then, in what he read as a practiced maneuver, eased the closed curtain away from the wall at eye level to create an inch-wide gap at the window’s edge.
"Shit," she said resignedly, "it’s there."
"What?" His stomach knotted tighter.
"The truck. He just crossed the sidewalk and got in." A stripe of washed-out light bisected her face.
"Don’t the courtyard units have more privacy?"
"Yeah, and there’s a waiting list."
"Still, how does he get right on your doorstep?"
She released the curtain. "Climbs over. The gates lock, but the fencing’s only five feet."
He could hardly see her now, just in the stray lumens at the curtain’s border. "You should’ve called the cops months ago," he said.
"I have. Next time’s a steep fall for him."
"Deserved, I’d say."
"We’re pretty much past it. He hasn’t been here in a month, and never done anything too bad. He’s ex-Mormon. Smokes sometimes, but still doesn’t drink."
"To be dogging you like this...and not drunk...sounds worse."
"Losing his job’s what scares him. He services air conditioning, and god, how he loves it. That and bowling."
"He’s not into guns, is he?"
"Just for duck hunting."
"Shotguns are guns," he said. And for large targets, like a person, say, or a car, you didn’t need great aim. He moved to where he thought she could see him. "Now what?"
"Wait till his engine starts," she said. "The magic sound. Then he squeals the tires. But tonight’ll be one of his stake-outs."
"I want to look."
Hesitantly, she stepped aside. "If you’re super careful. Sometimes he uses a flashlight. I saved you trouble, James, don’t mess me up."
His hand shook a little, but he followed her modus with the curtain and got a deep, narrow view up the sidewalk. He even recognized it as Third Street, one-way coming toward him, a forty-yard dash around the corner from his car. Exactly the distance used in football drills, he remembered hearing, or a standard wing-shot from a duck blind.
But closer, in one of the mostly unoccupied parking spots, centered between two large tree trunks that shielded it from the streetlights, sat a Dodge Ram pickup, not new, but shiny and well maintained. A bright orange cigarette tip glowed inside the dark cab. Craig was there and wanted anyone interested to know it. Still, no ladder was visible in the truck-bed, and in the rear window, no gun-rack.
"OK," he said grimly, "stake-out. Unless you call for help."
"Trust me," she said. "He’ll give up."
Turning away, she retrieved a bathrobe from the closet and draped it over the wall mirror above her dresser. "No reflected light, no nothing," she intoned quietly, adding as she rejoined him, "I’ve changed my mind."
"About how safe we are?"
In one short step, she was on tiptoes, breathing into his face and laying her mouth on his. She also squirmed against him, rubbing her tits across his chest and seeming soft, round and voluptuous far beyond her appearance.
Sex was by then the last thing on his mind. When dates went awry, he cultivated disdain for his companion, which had already kicked in at the restaurant. Then, at her place, with the sudden flip from boredom to red alert, desire didn’t exist.
His main thought had been of climbing the metal-runged fence himself in the next few minutes, skulking out the far side of the complex, taking an indirect route to his car, and driving into the night, or at least to his hotel, depending on the weather. With Craig's location known, why play into her sick little game of fending him off?
Within seconds, though, to his shock, he had a hard-on like a length of re-bar, and rather than push her away, as he’d meant to, the fantasy self from his horniest dreams took over. It was stupid, ridiculously risky, but impossible to resist.
During a kiss when neither could have known whose tongue was whose, she shouldered him onto the bed so he landed with his spine against the mattress. "Don’t move," she said, dropping to her knees and crawling to the window. Staying below the sill, she opened the curtain as wide as it would go. "Let that bastard shine his flashlight on the ceiling," she hissed, then crawled back over to unzip his fly.
In his opinion, he gave as good as he got, but what he got was amazingly good. Clothing seemed to scatter on the floor of its own accord and she had no apparent inhibitions. And that she begged him to be quiet, yet couldn’t control her own cries, lent further spice.
If truck tires squealed outside, he was oblivious, and if a flashlight had played across the room at some point, or if Craig’s ladder had scraped against the exterior wall while they were in the throes, he might have missed those too. But there’d definitely been no shotgun blast. He wouldn’t have missed that. Still, he didn’t remember sleeping after she disentangled from him under the covers, though he must have, because until she spoke into the bedside phone, he hadn’t heard it ring or any sound of dialing.
"Oh," she said, "you’re home. That’s a good boy." There was relief in her voice, and her seated silhouette, bulky in a cocoon of bedspread, came in and out of focus in the gloom.
"No," she went on after a pause, "I heard you leave, and I’m definitely not scared. What I am is determined." After another pause, she let her arms slide out of the cocoon.
"Those were mistakes. I felt sorry for you and I was weak." With each phrase, he saw her rock forward a little, as though physically placing the words in the mouthpiece, yet she did nothing to prevent his overhearing, or even to acknowledge his presence.
"I’ll always care for you, baby," she resumed, "but our life together is over." The buzz of an inaudible reply came over the line.
"Craig, stop. Jokes about phone sex aren’t funny anymore." A shorter pause, punctuated by an agitated lurch of her head and neck.
Observing this, and hearing it, made him feel creepy, like a peep-show masturbater, but he didn’t turn away.
"Promise you’ll stay home and sleep," she said. "We both have work tomorrow." There was another incoming buzz.
"Well, the cops can. Tonight I didn’t call, but next time for sure. The security guy at my office will, too. I gave him a photo." She jutted out her chin.
"You call me? No way. We’ve been all through that. "Her chin receded and she slumped a little. Craig’s indistinct reply lasted twice as long as the previous one.
Her tone grew more tender. "Maybe someday, a long time from now, if you show I can trust you." When no further buzz came through the line, she constricted her throat, swallowed, and held her breath.
Finally, she released it. "No, you’re not a wimp when you cry. I’ve cried plenty."
The renewed sound of her breathing metered the next pause. "I’m hanging up now, Craig. You’ll be OK, really."
He heard the receiver click down. "Time to roll," she said to him, but with all tenderness gone, as though instructing a wayward subordinate.
"Gim’me a sec," he answered, groping for his clothes and cowed by her rapid shift.
She got up, removed the bathrobe covering the mirror, donned it, shut the curtain, turned on a light in the closet, opened the hall door, and leaned against the frame to observe his progress with an unguarded, dispassionate stare.
No one had watched him dress that way since his mother when he was a child, like he might do it wrong, and he felt clumsy, daunted even by the routine of putting on socks and loafers. He stood to straighten his jacket, then closed the distance between them, smiling tolerantly at her smeared lipstick and extending his arms to cup his hands over the tops of her shoulders.
"That was fantastic," he said, and meant it.
In what could have been a martial arts move, she intercepted his wrists with her own, pushing them up and outward. "Don’t!" she said, voice sharp.
He was startled, but regrouped. "Whatever."
She walked into the hall and he kept pace as far as the living room, where she moved to the side. Approaching the door, which was still barricaded by a chair, he swung back around. "Why do I get the feeling you let him in when the mood is right?"
"Talk about none of your business," she shot back.
"Sorry, I only..."
"Only what?" she demanded. "Just because your date was a soap opera…and you got laid…doesn’t give any rights."
Two hours later, northbound on I-5 with the tachometer steady, his mind replayed the whole thing, scene-by-scene, to the soundtrack of a Bob Dylan CD. By its own inscrutable logic the fog had lifted along with the rain, and he was putting as much distance as he could between himself and Craig. Maybe that phone call he’d overheard hadn’t been the end of it. Probably was, but for the first hour he checked his mirror more for a silver and blue Dodge Ram than for the CHP.
She was a great fuck, and she hadn’t expressly told him not to come back, but no way was he going to. Nor would she ever find him, on the off chance she tried. For one thing, he wasn’t headed to Chico. He’d gone to school there, but he didn’t live there, though his degree was in music and computer science. Beyond that, his last name wasn’t Norton, his first wasn’t James, and he lived farther away, in Redding, where the programming he did was for a regional CPA firm, not the imaginary Sci-Tech.
But he did have a son and a daughter, and based on his progress so far, he’d be home about the time his wife Faye was putting out breakfast before school. It would be a surprise, because he’d told her during a call while Lisa was in the museum bathroom that he would call again before getting on the road next morning. As it was, he’d claim that he left the hotel the minute the weather cleared, and it had been far too early to wake anyone. He would also say he’d been eager to see her, which wasn’t really false.
Near the exit for Corning he pulled off at a rest stop to wash up, make sure his clothes were in order and slide on his wedding ring. Lisa Doyle might think she was the only one who savored risks she contrived to take, but she wasn’t. Then, back in the parking lot, he watched the snowy dollop of Mt. Lassen on the eastern horizon, cold and pure, catch the first light of a clear, new day.
Having restarted the engine, he remembered that his phone had been off since he and Lisa walked to the restaurant. "Ba-ba-bong," he heard, when he booted it up, signaling a message. Whoa, shit, six messages, and all from Faye. He played the last one first.
"Rick! This time I’ve had it! You promised and promised to stop. I even thought you had." Usually she cried if she confronted him about anything, but now barely an in-breath, with her tone growing more fervid, not less. "I believed you! I believed! It makes me sick! I called and called, and finally the hotel. Your room was never slept in! Anyway, nobody will be here, so who cares if you come home." The impact when she rang off was as though she had slammed the phone down on the table, which he could actually see her doing, right there among the cereal boxes and glasses of juice.
Ahead, as he left some rubber speed-shifting up the entrance ramp, the highway dipped into a broad hollow where ground fog still lingered and his crystalline view of Mt Lassen disappeared as though it had been a mirage.