“You look kinda pale, Sugar,” Mr. Bailey said on his way out of the office. “What the heck … soon’s you finish sending out those orders go on home. And that’s an order.”
“I hate going home to an empty house in the middle of the day,” said Luci. “No husband – no kid.”
“If it’s a kid you want, Sugar, there’s plenty guys out there willing to oblige.”
When he had closed the door Luci folded her arms across the desk and put her head down. Am I really all that desperate? She had given up trying to meet a decent husband type man and started thinking about adopting as a single parent or getting pregnant by some guy – like Mr. Bailey said. She raised her head and searched around the desk for the orders. I’ll do these up … then go to the park for a walk and think.
She was so preoccupied when she got to the walking course that she headed in the opposite direction from the arrow. It didn’t matter since at that late morning hour there weren’t many walkers. It was too hot for the retired folks and most of the younger ones were at work or school.
The blue sky was spattered here and there with splats of clouds like the white paint on the black T-shirt she wore when cleaning. The noonday sun was directly overhead, ringing the clouds like neon lights on a movie house marquee. Sunlight filtered through a spreading fichus tree, painting its trunk starlight yellow. Splotches of it dropped onto the grass below and turned it chartreuse green. A fallen, wounded air plant lay on a pile of mulch, gasping for air. From the distant west, thunder grumbled faintly. Luci looked up and noticed a big black cloud peering over the horizon.
I hear you, Cloud. I feel the same way.
Luci had come to the park to think, but she could not get beyond fantasizing how nice it would be to have a husband and family.
Engrossed in her thoughts, she rounded a sharp hairpin curve and bumped smack into a walker coming from the other direction.
“Excuse me,” she said without looking.
“I am happy to see you again,” said Becka – the Caribbean girl she’d met here before. “As you say in this country, ‘I am glad I bumped into you.’”
“Becka! I didn’t even notice it was you.”
“You looked like those people who walk with earphones – listening to something deep inside. It’s not your usual time to walk. I hope nothing bad has happened.”
“Not yet. I was trying to figure out how to avoid it. You know – how to meet a decent guy.”
“Some of my classmates have invited me to go with them to a Happy Hour tonight. Why don’t you join us? Perhaps you will meet someone suitable.”
“Happy Hour? Where?”
“The Bimini Boat Yard. They say it is a good place to meet people. And they have a lovely free buffet.”
“I’m not too good at handling alcohol.”
“I’m sure they serve soft drinks, too.”
“I hate going places alone … but if you’re going … maybe I will come, too. What time?”
“Around five o’clock.” Becka looked at her watch. “I have to go now. I have a class at two. I do hope you will join us.”
Luci finished her walk and went home for a little rest. I might as well meet Becka and have some fun for a change, she thought as the time approached. It had been so long since she’d gone out anywhere, she didn’t have the slightest idea what to wear to a Happy Hour. In the end she chose a simple pair of tight black pants with a loose black top that hid her stomach roll. She scrounged through her dresser drawer looking for a piece of jewelry to go with it and found that old gold cross of her mother’s. It wasn’t the usual shape, but had stubby bars surrounded by a circle. It looked like a museum piece to Luci.
She looked at herself in the mirror and laughed. “That’s me. A thirty-year-old museum piece. Past my prime.”
The parking lot was jammed by the time she arrived, so she followed a white-haired couple to their car and waited until they backed out. Early Birds. She waved and gave a little toot of thanks as she pulled into the empty spot. By now Luci was wishing that she never came. What if I can’t find Becka?
Loud strains of some unfamiliar tune met her as she neared the entrance. I’m so out of it, I don’t even recognize the music. Much to her relief she spotted Becka sitting on a bench outside the door. “Luci,” she cried. “I’m so glad you came.”
Luci gave her a hug in greeting. “I almost didn’t. I’ve been feeling kind of rotten lately.”
“A night out is just what the doctor ordered. The others are inside. Come on. They have a table in the patio.”
Luci followed Becka through the thick crowd. Guys were lined along the wall, each holding a glass in their hands and the passing women with their eyes. Every seat was taken at both bars, with people standing three deep behind. A crowd was circling the free snack bar – as intent on gleaning a meal as hyenas circling a lion’s kill. Small groups idled in the passageways, forcing Becka and Luci to dodge in and out.
“Sorry,” Luci said to a fellow she bumped into.
He raised his thick red eyebrows. “What’s your hurry, Honey?”
Luci took a deeper look at him and realized he was just her height.
Kind of short, went through her mind at the same time she replied, “Meeting some friends outside.”
“Are you going to be nice and share them with me?”
“It never hurts to try.”
He tipped his glass at Luci. “See you around.”
Becka led the way to a high table surrounded by five high stools. Three of them were occupied by young women.
“Thought you’d never get here. We’re one ahead of you already,” one said, indicating a tall glass filled with an exotic looking pink drink. The waitress placed paper coasters in front of the two latecomers.
“Coca~Cola, please,” Becka said.
Luci couldn’t get her eyes off that tall pink drink. “What do you call that?”
“It’s a Chambord Pina Colada,” the girl replied. “Try it. It’ll make you forget your troubles.”
“Why not?” Luci said. “Bring me one of those things, too.”
Becka made the introductions, then her face lit into a smile. “Luci here is a fast worker. She already has a fellow after her.”
“Hey, Luci. Tell us your secret formula,” one of the girls said.
“I think he likes ‘em short … like himself. But he has gorgeous red hair. I’ve always liked red hair. I was thinking of dying mine that color.”
“I bet you’d look cute with red hair. What say? Is that him coming over?”
Luci looked in the direction the girl had indicated.
“Oh, no! It’s him. You’ve got to help me, Becka. You got me into this.” The fellow came right up to Luci.
“So we meet again. And I don’t even know your name.” Becka took control and introduced him around.
“Very glad to meet you all,” he said, extending his hand to Luci.
“Brian, here. Brian Mackey.”
“Would you care to join us?” Becka asked.
“Thought you’d never ask.”
He looked around for an empty stool and brought it to the table. The waitress brought the drinks and took second orders. With each swallow conversation quickened. Quips and smart remarks about people in the passing scene were bantered back and forth.
Luci pointed to a man standing in an empty space in the center of the patio, talking into his beeper phone. “Who’s he trying to impress?”
“Probably his own answering machine,” one of the girls replied.
“Get a load of those two.” Brian pointed to two gals heading for the outside bar. One, dressed in a tight short dress with red polka dots, was tripping along on white high heel pumps. Her partner was decked out in a white tie-died shirt.
Luci took a second look. “How can you tell?”
“Simple. Protruding Adam’s apple. Gives them away every time. Women don’t have them.”
“I thought they looked kind of sexy,” Luci said.
“I wouldn’t touch ‘em,” Brian said. “Even if they were women. They look too much like … you know what.”
Luci glanced down at her cross and black outfit. I guess I did all right. After another round of drinks, she looked at her watch.
“Time to eat?” Brian asked. “I know a quieter place nearby. Want to meet me there?” The girls all stopped talking and looked at Luci.
“Why don’t you go,” Becka said. “Tomorrow is Saturday. You can sleep in.”
“If I can get there,” Luci said as she arose and tottered off balance.
“Those drinks were pretty powerful.”
Brian took her arm. “You’ll do fine.” He walked her to her pick-up and explained where to meet him. “That’s my car over there. The grey Honda. You can follow me.”
The L & N Seafood Restaurant was indeed quieter than the Bimini Boat Yard. Luci refused any more fancy drinks, but succumbed to a glass of wine. After the second glass she found it hard to focus her eyes.
When they rose to leave, she felt the room begin to spin. She held onto the table trying to get her balance.
“You all right?” Brian asked.
“I’m not used to drinking. I don’t know if I can make it home.”
“Just drive slow. I’ll follow you and make sure you get there safe.”
When they arrived at Luci’s place, Brian pulled into the empty parking spot beside hers and got out of his car. “How are you with coffee? I think we both could use some.”
Luci hesitated. Remembering how hard it had been for her to drive in her condition, she relented. “I used to work at Jack’s Café. I know all there is to know about coffee. Come on in.”
She led the way into her apartment, stopping to put a CD into the machine before going into the kitchen.
“What you got there?” Brian asked.
“Just some oldies I copied from Pop’s LP’s before I moved here.”
Brian sat at the kitchen counter while Luci prepared the coffee. She measured some whole coffee beans and put them in the grinder. “If you’re going to have coffee … it’s got to be fresh.”
“Fresh. That’s what you are,” said Brian. “You’re not like other women I now.” Luci looked at him and blushed. “See what I mean? Gals today don’t even know the meaning of the word blush.”
Strains of, “The Great Pretender,” by the Platters drifted through the silence that ensued.
“That’s me,” Brian said. “A great pretender. I come on all sure of myself, but inside I’m a powder puff. Like now. I’m scared to death to ask you if you’d like to dance.”
“Why? Think I’ll fall?”
“Come on. I’ll hold you up.” He took her by the arm and led her to the living room. Then he held her close, moving in synchrony with the slow, half-mournful tune until the song was over.
“I can’t pretend any longer,” Brian said. “I’d like to make love to you.”
Luci stiffened and pulled back from his embrace.
“Come on, Luci.” He brought her close again and kissed her hard on her lips. “You want it just as much as me.”
Luci tried to release herself. “Cool it,” she said, pushing him away.
They tumbled back and forth – ending in a heap on the floor. Luci extracted herself from their crumpled pile. “I think you’d better leave.”
Brian got up and smoothed his messed up hair. Staring hard at Luci, he tucked his shirt back into his pants. “Yeah. I guess I better.” He headed toward the doorway, then turned. His cheeks were the color of his hair and a wet spot had appeared in the front of his pants. “I’ll see you around.” Then he closed the door and was gone.
Luci plopped into her pushback chair and stared straight ahead. She sat in silence for a while in a daze. Did I really think I could have a fling … just to get pregnant? What kind of monster would come out of that? Another try … down the drain. Nothing but a happy hour.
Cherise Wyneken is a freelance writer of prose and poetry. Selections of her work have appeared in a variety of publications, as well as in two books of poetry, two chapbooks, a memoir, and a novel. She lives with her husband in Albany, CA where she participates in readings at various venues in the San Francisco East Bay Area.