She hadn’t lost a kitten, but she called the number anyway. Two rings before a man picked up.
Music played in the background. “Hotel California.”
“Hi,” she said. “I’m calling about the kitten?”
“Oh wow, great. Hold on a sec . . .”
The music faded. A sound like a dish clinking in a sink, then a cigarette being lit close to the phone.
“Yeah, hi,” said the man. “Sorry about that.”
“So, I guess I have your kitten, eh?”
“Um, I hope so.”
“Well, I’d be surprised if there were more than one kitten missing in this complex, but just for laughs, can you describe her?”
She studied the poster taken from the lobby of her building. A crude line drawing of a cat face; no indication of colouring. These things usually included a photocopied snapshot. “Well, she’s very tiny and very sweet.”
The man laughed. “Most kittens are.”
“And she’s, um, kind of a mix of colours.”
“Yeah, exactly. Calico.”
“I guess this is her,” said the man.
They made arrangements for her to collect the kitten that evening at seven-thirty. She plucked her eyebrows and gave her hair a VO5 hot oil treatment. He went to the mall to purchase a calico kitten.
The complex in which she and the man lived contained five twelve-storey high-rises positioned at various angles around a large and elaborate series of fountains. It was constructed in the nineteen-fifties, and it had a breezy, space-age look to it, one that exuded planning and optimism. The fountains now were dry and crumbling, but she remembered when they flowed. When she was a little girl, in the nineteen-sixties, her mother would bring her to see the swans that lived in the fountains, from June until September. Her mother said the swans were a secret only they and the residents of the surrounding apartments knew about. Other people had to go to the Riverdale Zoo or Centre Island if they wanted to see swans, but they knew about these secret, private ones, and could visit whenever they liked without having to pay admission. Whenever her mother felt a mood indigo coming on, they would get in the putt-putt—the rusting, ’58 Renault that Morris had given them—and drive to Moishe’s on Bathurst Street. They would get two buttered bagels, one plain bagel, and a double-double coffee to go. Then they would head downtown to the fountains, where they would eat their buttered bagels and feed the plain one to the swans. The buttered bagels were wrapped neatly in wax paper. Her mother would give her sips from the coffee, and always saved the last and most sugary sip for her to dip her bagel into. It would soak up the sweetness, and turn brown and wonderfully soggy. They would watch the swans in the space-age fountains, and they would feel good.
“Someday we’ll get an apartment here,” her mother would say, “with a balcony that overlooks the fountain, and a bedroom for each of us.” She’d say, “All it takes is dough, kiddo.” She’d say it again on their way out of the complex, as they admired the cars in the parking lot—big Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Fords, and Chryslers that were rust-free and didn’t have cigarette burns or splits in the seats with foam sticking out. Sometimes they’d pretend they were shopping for a new car. She would pick the red Thunderbird with the black interior. Her mother would take the Cadillac convertible, if it happened to be in the visitor parking that day. Once, they got right into the white Cadillac and pretended to drive it. Her mother was unafraid, even lit her Craven A with the car’s cigarette lighter.
“All it takes is dough, kiddo,” she said, blowing smoke and adjusting her sunglasses in the rear-view mirror.
They never did get an apartment there. Not together. She’d moved in five months after Morris had his heart attack, which was just over a year after her mother died, nearly five years ago. She didn’t want to move out of the apartment she had shared with her mother for as long as she could remember, but the two men said she had to leave. They came to the door and said they were Morris’s sons and that they owned the building now that he was dead. They called her Geraldine—her mother’s name—and wanted to know why she hadn’t paid a cent of rent for the past forty years. She told them she wasn’t her mother, and that she didn’t know why they hadn’t paid rent, but guessed it was probably because they were friends with Morris.
“Friends, eh?” said the skinny one. “What kind of friends?”
“Good friends,” she said. “He gave us cars.”
“He gave you cars?” The fat one looked at his brother.
“I knew it,” said the skinny one.
“And he’d come see us once a week. And bring Turtles, or kielbasa, sometimes Tia Maria.”
“What kind of cars?” said the skinny one.
“Well, first there was the putt-putt. That was a Renault. Then there was a Cutlass Supreme—we liked that one ’cause it was big, and it lasted a long time. Then there was the Pontiac. And after that was the—”
“Honda Accord, right?
“And then, let me take a wild guess: a Toyota Camry?”
“How did you know?”
The brothers looked at each other and laughed.
“Unbelievable,” said the fat one.
“I guess it was a trade-in of sorts,” said the skinny one.
She didn’t understand the joke, but she laughed to be polite.
“The Toyota was the last one,” she said. “It’s still in the parking lot. I don’t know how to drive, but I like to go sit in it. I like to listen to the radio. Sometimes I pretend to drive.”
Again the brothers exchanged a look.
“Maybe we should talk to your mother,” said the fat one. “Is your mother here?”
“No,” she said, instantly having to fight back tears. “My mother is in heaven now.”
They were nice to her after that. The fat one told her that everything was going to be O.K., and to stop crying and not worry about the rent she owed. He said they’d figure something out. The skinny one asked if she happened to have a picture of her mother. She couldn’t help laughing at that. She had thousands of pictures of her mother. That was one of their favourite things to do, take Polaroids of each other. She invited the brothers in for a cup of Taster’s Choice and to look at photos. Not any naked ones, of course, those were private—just the ones that were on display on the walls, shelves, windowsills, and fridge. The brothers seemed impressed by the images. They kept saying “wow,” and calling each other over to look at this one or that one. They lingered long in front of the brass étagère, checking out the series in which she had done her mother as different nationalities—in a beret and trench coat for French, fur hat and muff for Russian, bathrobe with a bolster pillow fastened with a sash around the waist for Japanese, a towel turban and lots of beaded necklaces for Ethiopian. Her mother would make the costumes and set up the shots. She would take the pictures.
“This is really something,” said the fat one.
“Yeah,” said the skinny one. “I think I see a lot of therapy in my future.”
She offered them another cup of Taster’s Choice, but they said they had to go.
“You mind if I take one of these?” The skinny one pointed to one in a group of photos of her mother, wearing cut-off shorts and a bathing-suit top. She was stretched out on the hood of the Cutlass Supreme, reclining on the windshield with a Craven A burning in her hand. Her nails were long and red. Her blond hair was done up in pigtails.
“What the hell for?” said the fat one.
“Just to have. It’s Dad’s history after all.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” said the fat one.
“’Cause certain people can never find out about Dad’s little history.”
“How would she find out?” The skinny one raised his voice. “Even if she found this—which she won’t, I mean, how the hell would she—she wouldn’t know who it was or what the hell it meant.”
“She’d recognize the car.”
“Oh that’s rich. Half the time she doesn’t even recognize us.”
“Yeah, but it’s the old stuff she remembers.”
“But she’s not going to see it!”
“Uch,” said the fat one. “Why don’t you just leave it alone?”
“Are you sure you don’t want another Taster’s Choice?”
“No!” they said in unison.
She hated when people raised their voices.
“So, can I borrow this?” said the skinny one, softening his tone.
“I guess . . .” Even though she had half a dozen variations of the same shot, she didn’t want to part with it.
“Actually,” said the fat one, “do you mind if I quickly use your bathroom before we go?”
She said she didn’t mind, but in truth she already wanted them out. Except for their brown hair and green eyes, they were nothing like Morris. Morris never raised his voice. He was always gentle and nice.
After the brothers left, she went into the bathroom to make sure the fat one hadn’t stolen any of the Polaroids in there. He hadn’t, but he had cleaned out her brush. She looked for the rectangle of hair in the wastebasket, but found nothing except used tissues and sanitary pads. He must have flushed it down the toilet. Why would he do that, she wondered. Was he trying to send a message that she wasn’t tidy enough, that she should empty her brush more often? That was no way for a guest to behave. And she had just been thinking the fat one wasn’t as bad as the skinny one, and that she could probably get used to him being the new Morris. She hoped she had seen the last of the brothers. Unfortunately, a couple of weeks later, they returned. That’s when they told her she owed two hundred thousand dollars in back rent, not including interest payments. She said it sounded like a lot, and that she would have to phone her friend Mr. Pantalone, at the bank. But the brothers said no, that she didn’t have to call Mr. Pantalone, that they were prepared to forget about the debt if she signed some papers and moved out by the end of the following month. They told her they would help make the necessary arrangements.
There was only one place she could think of to go.
She stepped out onto the balcony and stared across the crumbling fountains to the high-rises at the back of the complex, wondering in which of the two the man with the kitten resided. She had lived in the complex for more than three years now, but had never been into any of the other buildings. Once, about eight months after she moved in, she’d attended a tenants’ association meeting in an apartment on the twelfth floor of her high-rise, the one marked PH in the elevator. She had seen notices in the lobby and the laundry room for weeks before the meeting. All the residents were invited. Refreshments were going to be served. After she decided to attend, she began to grow increasingly excited about the meeting. On a typical night, she would have dinner, either at home or at McDonald’s, and then go see a movie or watch television until it was time for bed. The tenants’ association meeting was something out of the ordinary, something to look forward to. In the week leading up to the event, she spent hours each day co-ordinating and trying on different outfits. Using one of her mother’s old Redbook magazines as a guide, she experimented with a number of fresh looks for hair and makeup. She imagined there would be a lot of people at the meeting, and that after the official business was dealt with, the hostess would turn on music and everyone would mingle around a banquet table, eating ridged potato chips with onion dip, and crustless party sandwiches with spirals of salmon and cream cheese. She thought someone might bring a batch of homemade cookies, and even though she had never had it or seen any outside of a movie, she hoped there would be punch—ruby red in a cut-glass bowl—and somebody nice to ladle out a glass for her. The apartments on the penthouse level were probably large and fancy. She envisioned an expanse of white broadloom.
The night before the meeting, she was unable to relax. She went to bed early, but proceeded to flip and flop in a kind of half-sleep until the sun showed up. After breakfast, she took a long bath and a short nap. At ten-thirty, she began to get ready for the six-fifteen meeting. She plucked her eyebrows and gave herself a manicure and pedicure. After lunch, she took a shower and did her hair—pigtails with the ends curled with a curling iron. She made sure to use a lot of Arid extra dry before donning her selected outfit—the brown and pink rayon dress that used to be her mother’s. It was snug around the belly and loose in the chest, but she still liked it, especially paired with her mother’s wooden beads. And she had used her mother’s trick of matching her fingernail polish with the brown in the material, and her toenail polish with the pink. Finally, she put on some Egyptian-inspired eye makeup—heavy black liner that swooped up at the corners to accentuate the thick mascara lashes—and some brown lipstick, pink rouge, and a triple spritz of Jean Naté. She half-watched TV for just over two hours until it was time to climb onto her platform sandals and head to the elevator, where she would have the pleasure of pushing the PH button for the first time.
There were three people at the meeting—all of them old women, wearing sweaters too warm for the weather. Two of them were crocheting. The apartment was exactly the same size and layout as hers, just reversed—bedroom and bathroom on the right instead of the left. And the refreshments were just tea and coffee. There wasn’t even any sugar, only crinkly packets of saccharin that looked as if they had gotten wet at some point and then been left to dry out instead of being thrown away. The worst part was that one of the women—the non-crocheting one—was the Scary Lady, the one with the buzz cut and the cracked orange lipstick and the terrible bugged-out eyes who was always in the lobby, scolding the superintendent and his wife, or the mailman, or anyone who didn’t wipe their feet before stepping onto the carpeted area. The cracked orange mouth told her to sit down already, and so she had to. She perched on the edge of a wingback chair, in a cloud of Jean Naté, until she felt warm tears pulling eyeliner and mascara down her cheeks, at which point she jumped up and lurched out of the Scary Lady’s apartment.
She would not make the same mistake twice. She was not going to over-prepare for the kitten man.
He hoped she would be pretty, but not too pretty. Brunette would be good. And young. The younger the better, he thought, as he piled dirty plates inside the oven and used a stiff dish towel to flick macaroni remnants off the counter into the sink. His roommate, Glen, had refused to clean up his dinner mess, and now he was stuck with the task if he wanted the place to look halfway presentable. It was ten minutes to seven. He didn’t have time to do a proper tidying.
“Why don’t you get her to clean up if it’s so freakin’ important?” Glen said, punctuating his question with a loud fart. He didn’t understand the concept of guests, particularly female ones, and seemed, in fact, to resent them.
“We need a woman to clean up after us.” Glen pounded his fist on the counter. “And to make us steaks.”
“Look, why don’t you just disappear for a while? Go to your room or something.”
“No way, Jose. I want to check out this kitten chick. I want to see if she turns out to be a dirty slut or some kind of feminazi.”
“And what if she’s a sweet little old lady? Huh? What if she’s a nice, innocent girl?”
“If she’s a sweet little old lady, you’re not going to invite her in, are you, pal?”
He didn’t answer.
“You’re going to jam kitty through the door and call it a night. But, hey, if she happens to be a nice, innocent girl—a young one like you like—I’ll leave you alone, buddy. I’ll go crash for a while. Hell, you know that. But first I gotta see what shows up at our door, O.K.? ’Cause if it’s one of those braless man-eaters with her lesbo tits hanging out, or her legs all hairy and gross, I might have something to say to the gal.”
“Oh really, like what?”
“Um . . . like, ‘Your ugly-ass unshaven legs aren’t gonna make you equal to me and aren’t proving anything except that you’re a stupid bitch who needs to become acquainted with a razor.’”
He sighed. Sometimes he just wished Glen would shut the hell up.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, shut that cat up, why don’t ya,” Glen said.
The kitten had been meowing for a while, so he scooped it out of its cardboard carton and cuddled it under his chin. He’d held kittens before, but never one as tiny as this. He brushed its fur against his lips and inhaled the warm kitteny fragrance. It reminded him of something and made him feel sad, but before he could remember what it was, Glen said, “Think how easy it’d be to just open your mouth and bite its little head off. Chomp.”
“Oh leave me alone for Christ’s sake!” There was a knock at the door then, and he knew for certain that his outburst had been heard in the hall. “Thanks a lot, Glen,” he hissed, as he leaned down to check his reflection in the kettle.
“Such a handsome devil,” Glen said, with a fake gay accent. Then he blew a big kiss to the reflection.
It was exactly 7 p.m.
Through the peephole he discerned the following: old—late thirties, or even older—but pretty. A brunette, like he liked. And something soft about her. Something meek in the posture. He opened the door wide.
“Hi,” he said. “Sorry about that. My roommate is being a jerk.”
“Oh,” she said. “It’s O.K., um . . .”
“Kitten,” said the man, stepping back and aside. “Come on in. I’ll just get her for you.”
She hesitated on the threshold, peeking into the apartment, which looked both familiar and strange. It had the same layout as her own, and the same parquet flooring, which is how she knew it was the same size (three squares by four squares for the vestibule) even though it looked much smaller. The man had a couch and a chair and a TV in the same spots where she had a couch and a chair and a TV, but his were twice the size of hers and took up a lot more space. Also, the man had covered the large picture window and the window on the balcony door with green garbage bags and duct tape, instead of blinds or curtains. The total lack of view made the suite seem shorter, stubbier.
“It’s O.K.,” he said, smiling, gesturing for her to enter. “Glen’s gone to his room.”
The apartment smelled like cigarette smoke, which she liked. She stepped inside and closed the door behind her, as the man disappeared into the kitchen.
Flags over windows she had seen before, but never garbage bags. The only indication that it wasn’t totally dark outside were tiny cracks of light peeking through here and there where a bag sagged or the silver tape had peeled back a smidgen. She noticed the faint sound of TV coming from behind a closed door down the hall. Laugh track. And the exaggerated voices of sitcom characters.
“Here she is!” said the man, returning with the kitten.
“Oh,” she said. “So cute!”
As he handed it over, he noticed that the woman wasn’t wearing a wedding or engagement ring, or any jewellery for that matter. She had nail polish on, but it was a soft pink, practically transparent. Nothing garish about that. Even Glen, who despised nail polish, couldn’t call it trampy. Her nails weren’t too long either. She seemed clean and well-groomed.
“Hello, sweet thing,” said the woman, nuzzling the kitten. “Hello, sweetie pie.”
“Is that her name? Sweetie Pie?”
“Her name? Oh, no. It’s not Sweetie Pie. It’s, um, Geraldine.”
“Geraldine.” The man laughed. “That’s a funny name for a cat.”
“I guess,” said the woman, blushing and looking away.
He liked that she blushed and looked away. It made her seem young, even though she was old, at least ten years older than him, at least thirty-eight, maybe older. He had the urge to erase some of those years by switching off the overhead light, but decided not to even dim it just yet. No point in scaring her off.
“Listen,” he said. “I was just about to give kitty—I mean, Geraldine—a dish of milk. Would you like to come in for a minute? Maybe have a cold beverage?”
“Oh,” she said. “O.K.”
“Don’t worry about Glen. He’s not going to bother us, I don’t think. Have a seat,” said the man. “What would you like to drink?”
“Um, do you have any Tia Maria?”
“Oh jeez. I don’t think so.” Tia Maria? “Um, I have some airplane bottles of Baileys in my room. You know, I might even have a Kahlúa,” said the man. “That’s pretty much the same, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Want me to check?”
“Be right back.”
Of course, he wasn’t even halfway down the hall before Glen was on his case about the girl and her drink of choice.
“Tia Maria?” Glen whispered. “Tia fuckin’ Maria?”
“So it looks like the lady is a lush, my friend. Too bad, buddy, ’cause she doesn’t look too skanky on the surface, does she?”
He ignored Glen and slipped into his room.
“Come on, guy, think about it. What kind of woman waltzes into a strange man’s apartment, then demands booze even though she was just offered a cold beverage, which, in my book, clearly means a glass of pop or juice?”
“Tia Maria is a girlie drink,” he said, balancing on a chair to retrieve the miniature bottles of liquor from atop the bookshelf. “I don’t think you can conclude she’s a lush ’cause she asked for an ounce of Tia Maria. She probably just has a sweet tooth.”
“Speaking of which, that tooth, sweet or not, is kind of long, don’t you think?”
“She looks all right to me.” He used a T-shirt from the laundry basket to wipe the thick pad of dust off the bottles. “These are still fine, don’t you think?”
“Sure. Bottoms up. If the lush gets ptomaine poisoning it’s her own damn fault.”
“We don’t know she’s a lush, O.K.? So butt out. Piss off.”
“Yeah, yeah. We’ll see how things go. If she gets drunk and starts whoring it up, I’m coming out.”
“Don’t start, O.K.? Please.” He pressed a hand to his left temple and sighed deeply. “And can you turn off that TV?”
“Sure, Sigh Sperling, Mr. Sigh Master. Better run along. You know how nosy these bitches can get. Don’t want her poking through your things while you’re gone. Don’t want her straightening the sofa pillows, now do you?
She touched the kitten’s nose to her own. “Don’t worry,” she whispered. “You’re going to come live with me. It’ll be fun.” She hoped that whoever had really lost the kitten wouldn’t be too sad about it. She wondered why it hadn’t occurred to her to get a pet before now.
“Here we go,” said the man, entering with a drink in one hand and a saucer of milk in the other. “Hey, what happened to your shirt?”
She glanced at her tank top.
“You took your shirt off.”
“I took my cardigan off,” she said. “It’s really warm in here.”
The man sighed and set the saucer of milk down on the floor. Glen was going to have a field day with this development. Now she was not just a lush, she was also a tramp. At least she was wearing a bra, he noted, as he handed her her drink. Thank God for that.
“Thank you very much.” She set the kitten down in front of the saucer and watched it tongue up the milk. Little flicks of pink. So sweet.
The man sat at the opposite end of the brown sofa. One large vinyl seat cushion separated them. The faux leather was covered in strips of criss-crossing duct tape.
“You’re not having one?” she said, swirling the ice in her glass.
“I’m not really thirsty. But I’ll smoke, if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind.”
He lit a cigarette, then offered her the pack.
“No, thanks.” She took a sip of her drink. “Mmm. Yummy. What did you say this was?”
“Baileys Irish Cream.”
“Baileys Irish Cream?”
“Glad you like it.” With dismay, he watched her drain the rest of the drink. Now he would have to offer her another, with Glen, no doubt, listening in the hallway. Great. At least she didn’t smoke. Glen disapproved of women who smoked. He thought it was unladylike. He said it wrecked their eggs and made their babies feeble. If she’d smoked, Glen would probably be out here already, stirring up the shit, making his life difficult.
She set her glass on the upside-down milk carton that served as a side table. She licked her lips.
“Would you like another?” he asked, telepathically willing her to decline.
“Yes, please. Thanks.”
“How about some food with that? I’ve got Bits & Bites. Or some Bugles?”
“No, thank you. Just Baileys Irish Cream, please.”
As he poured out another mini bottle, he noticed that the largest butcher knife, the one they called Ralph, was missing from the block. He checked the cutlery drawer. No go. Earlier, he had transferred the dirty dishes from the sink into the oven, so he knew it wasn’t in there. From the kitchen doorway he looked down the hall. Sure enough, there was Glen, squatting on his heels, rocking and smirking, smirking and rocking, with his hands behind his back. Time for some damage control. He returned quickly to the living room.
“Here you go. Cheers.”
“Thank you. Mmm, yum.”
“It’s funny,” he said, lighting another cigarette. “You don’t strike me as a drinker.”
She giggled. “I’m not a drinker. I mean, ever since Morris died, I don’t drink at all. Except for right now.”
“You see, I knew you weren’t a drinker.”
“How did you know?”
“Well . . . your complexion, the way you’re dressed. I’m really glad you’re not a drinker.”
“So who’s this Morris?”
“My mom’s friend.”
“And my friend. He used to bring us Tia Maria.”
“He died about four years ago.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Yeah. He brought Tia Maria even after my mom died.”
“That was nice of him—hey, are you O.K.?”
“Yeah. I just . . . I just miss my mom sometimes.” She wiped tears from her eyes and turned her face away from the man. That’s when he noticed Glen, sneaking a peek at the woman, or more specifically, at her breasts, which were not too large, but had depressingly prominent nipples pressing against an insufficiently padded bra and tank top.
No words for half a minute, just the sound of the woman sniffling and the man smoking. Then he coughed and said, “What’s this?” He rubbed his thumb and index finger together.
“I don’t know.”
“The world’s smallest violin.” He laughed.
She laughed too. She thought it was nice of him to try to cheer her up with a funny joke.
“Morris had brown hair and green eyes like you,” she said.
“Is that right?”
“Yeah.” She picked up the kitten, which had finished the milk and had started to meow.
“Anyway . . . I guess I could go and buy my own Tia Maria. I just never think of it, you know.”
“Well, that’s good.”
“Yeah . . . I mean, sometimes drinking can be very bad for your health.” The man laughed loud. He tried to stop, but couldn’t.
“Shut up,” he said, finally stifling the fit with a hand over his mouth.
She didn’t get the joke, but smiled anyway. This man had a good sense of humour. In the magazines she read, women were always saying that was the most important thing. They were always looking for a man with a good sense of humour. And now she had found one. The weird thing was, she had seen this man before, walking down the street toward the corner where the stores were, or walking back with grocery bags. She’d passed him at least three or four times, but never thought anything about it. She didn’t know then that he had a good sense of humour.
“I’ve seen you before,” she said.
“Oh really?” The man wiped tears from his eyes.
“Walking down Lawton.”
“I guess that makes sense. How long have you lived here?”
“Three and a half years.”
“Hmm. And what is it that you do?”
“Um. I go to the movies, or stay home and watch TV, or I go to restaurants or the park. . . .”
“No, I mean what do you for a living? Where do you work?”
“Oh, I don’t work. Work is for suckers.”
“Work is for suckers. My mom used to say that.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah. She said life is too short to waste on work or worrying.”
“So she never worked?”
“But your dad worked.”
“I never had a dad.”
“Well, I guess some people have all the luck.”
She shrugged. “I guess.”
“So your mom never worked, and you’ve never worked.”
“Must be nice.”
“Yeah, it’s nice.”
“Well, it’s not like I’m a big fan of it or anything. I mean, my job totally bites, actually. But what if everybody felt that way? What if everyone thought work was for suckers?”
“I don’t know . . .”
“What if the garbageman didn’t pick up your garbage? Huh? What if the firemen were kicking back, having a beer while your house burned to the ground? Hmm? What if there was no doctor to sew your ear back on if a dog bit it off?”
“That would be bad.”
“Certainly it would bad. It would be worse than bad.” The man stubbed out his cigarette, then lit another. He inhaled deeply and blew smoke through his nostrils. “What, are you rich or something?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t know?”
“Mr. Pantalone, at the bank, takes care of things.”
“Where’d you grow up?”
“Bathurst and Wilson.”
“No. We lived in an apartment.”
“Doesn’t sound rich. So if your mom never worked, how did she pay the rent?”
“We didn’t pay rent. Morris owned the building.”
“Oh. I see. Shit.” The man hunched forward and closed his eyes.
“Nothing.” He pressed the palm of his hand hard against his left temple.
“Are you O.K.?”
The man didn’t answer. He sat hunched for a moment, then relaxed back on the couch and smiled.
“I think your mom worked,” he said. “I think she worked for buddy who brought the Tia Maria. Maybe you worked for him too, huh?”
“Morris was our friend.” She set her empty glass down on the side table. She licked her lips.
The man looked as if he were going to start laughing again. He slid his hand into the crack between the sofa pillows.
“No,” he said. “Please.”
“Please . . . have another drink.”
“Oh . . .”
“How about some more Baileys Irish Cream?”
“Um, I don’t know.” She was already feeling warm and dizzy from the first two. It was awfully nice stuff though.
“Come on, one more won’t kill you,” the man said, heading for the kitchen. “Hey, you mind if I turn off the overhead light? My eyes are kind of sensitive to light.”
“I don’t mind. Can I use your bathroom?”
“End of the hall. Excuse the mess. My roommate is a slob.”
As he poured the last bottle of Baileys into her glass, he could feel the dread rising from his solar plexus into his throat.
“Please,” he whispered. “Just go back to your room. You’ve got it all wrong.”
“You think?” Glen smirked in the warped reflection of the kettle. “You figure Miss Guzzle Liquor in a Strange Man’s Apartment is a forty-year-old virgin or something?”
“It’s possible. I mean, she seems . . . I don’t know. Don’t you think there’s something off about her?”
“Off? I’ll tell you what’s off. Her shirt, O.K., after about five minutes in a strange man’s apartment. She’s all, ‘Doopsy-doo, check out the headlights, boys!’ You think she’s expecting to leave here without a good fucking? Huh? You think the slag’s not expecting a cock up her hole?” Glen adjusted his penis, which was stiffening in his pants. “Why do you think she’s getting so lubricated? She’s getting ready to take it up the ass.”
When Glen got excited, he was difficult to control.
“Just calm down, O.K.?”
“Oh I’m calm, don’t you worry.”
“Where’s Ralph?” He gestured to the knife holder.
“You know damn well,” Glen snapped. “And you know exactly when to introduce him to our guest.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I think so!”
“But what if she’s—”
“What? Nice? Sweet? I’ll tell you what, pal, if you put the moves on her and she tries to stop you, I mean, eally tries to stop you, then we’ll call it a night, O.K.? We’ll send her and her calico pussy back into the world. Hell, maybe we’ll call her up sometime. Take her to a Renée Zellweger movie.” Glen laughed. “Bring her some Tia frickin’ Maria.”
“O.K., quiet! I think she’s coming.”
She flushed the toilet and washed her hands, drying them on her pant legs. She didn’t want to touch the filthy towel hanging from a hook on the back of the door. The bathroom was a mess, and smelled awful—sharp, like ammonia. Why would such a nice man live with such a dirty roommate? Maybe the man was dirty too. She wondered which one of them owned the toothbrush in the cup on the sink. It was caked with dried, yellowing toothpaste, and the bristles were all grey and bent back. It had to be at least two years old. Or maybe it looked that way because they both used it. There was only one toothbrush in the bathroom. Did roommates share toothbrushes? She hoped not. She wanted to kiss the man, but not if he shared a toothbrush with his roommate. Was that the kind of thing she could ask about if he started to kiss her? Probably he would think she was rude. She would just have to kiss him back that’s all. A man with a good sense of humour was worth it. And then maybe, after the kissing and everything, he would visit her once or twice a week, and get into bed with her, and bring her things. Maybe he would give her a car and teach her how to drive it. She opened the medicine cabinet, but there was nothing there except toenail clippers and prescription pills. She checked behind the shower curtain. One bar of soap. One dirty razor.
She wondered, as she returned to the living room, if the man and his roommate shared more than just a toothbrush.