Steve knew her, but not well. Their paths crossed in idle chat, odd bits of gossip. The block had turned over in the time he’d been there, townies giving way to the up and comers, pharmaceuticals, yappy guys going places. The men Steve could take or leave. The women were another story. Adele was the best of the new bunch, blonde, busty, half his age. She’d caught him ogling one day and gave him playful slap on the wrist.
“Sorry,” he smiled.
“You get used to it.”
“Well … they are lovely.”
“It’s a consolation.”
A consolation, her words, which he took to mean “they” were worth the bother. And what that meant was the subject had been broached. There was danger in this; they were both aware. It was the kind of exchange that can turn things, sometimes for the better, but hardly ever. Not that they were so inclined. Both married, both faithful, neither looking to take that plunge.
And yet …
Weeks since he’d seen her last, but that night he had a dream, somehow they were alone, Adele took his hand and before he knew it they were making love. Not fucking so much as melting together, steamy soft and all consuming. It was total surrender, body and soul, and when he awoke he’d fallen in love. Steve knew it was foolish, but his heart wouldn’t listen.
“What’s wrong, Steve?” Irene sensed the change.
“I, uh, must be coming down with something.”
“Do you want an aspirin?”
“No, that’s OK.”
“Really, I’m fine.”
“You look like you just lost your best friend.”
“My best friend is fine.”
“I’ll get you some aspirin.”
“Or maybe Actifed. Are you achy?”
Thirty-six years married. He’d known Irene since he was sixteen. They’d been through it all together, the 60’s and the Village, the 70’s and the Haight, twenty years bouncing from Key West to Mexico. She was so much a part of Steve it stunned him to think of her as separate and distinct, the one who made him whole but could live on without him. There was no Steve without Irene.
And yet …
He kept finding himself at the window waiting for Adele to pass. At night when his troubles circled he’d think of her to ease the strain. When next they met she was with her husband, good-looking guy, Jeff or Jerry. They were on their way for drinks at the Swan. The top she was wearing strained to contain her.
“Adele tells me you played some hoops, Steve.” Jerry/Jeff squinted up from the pavement.
“No honey, that was Larry,” she corrected him. “In the liquor store? With the beard?”
“THAT guy?” Jeff squealed.
“Back in high school!” Adele nudged him.
Steve couldn’t picture it either, fat Larry Muncey knocking down a jumper? Not in this lifetime, any chapter.
“You play often?” Steve asked.
“Not as much as I should,” Jeff patted an imaginary belly. “Maybe once a week with friends.”
“Right. We play over at the high school. You interested?”
“I might be,” before Steve could stop himself.
“Give me your number and I’ll give you a ring. Better yet,” Jeff fed him his card. “Send me an e-mail so I’ll
have your address. Then I can keep you posted.”
“Great,” Steve slid the card in his pocket. The effort to keep his eyes off Adele was proving too much for him.
“Why can’t I play?” she pouted.
“No girls allowed,” hubby wagged a finger.
Steve could picture her jiggling all over.
“I’ll bet the guys wouldn’t mind,” she read his mind.
“Sorry honey,” Jeff shrugged. “Rules are rules.”
First time out Steve broke his big toe. If not, the heart and lungs might have failed him. It was OK at first, the ball so familiar, the shot still smooth, but soon enough the legs turned to rubber and his toe hit the heel of his other foot. Happened all the time the doctor told him, a freak thing, but no less painful.
And that was that for Steve’s basketball comeback, six weeks in a cast and summer settling in. He was on the front porch, leg propped on the rail when Adele happened by.
“I feel like it’s my fault,” she tapped his cast.
“I think osteoporosis was the deciding factor.”
“Can I sign it?”
And then there she was, across the wrought iron table, perched in Irene’s chair, leaning in, pen in hand.
“Jeff said you were pretty good.”
“Jeff was being kind.”
“No really, he said you were a sharpshooter.”
“There was a time.”
“Jeff’s a real jock,” she poised with the pen. “All sports, all the time.”
“How nice for you.”
“Yeah, right?” she gazed off. “I could march around naked and he wouldn’t miss a three frow. Is that what they’re called?”
Naked? As much thought as he’d given her bust, Steve had yet to picture Adele fully naked. Now that he had it was easy to arrange her in positions he favored. The sudden flood of images took his breath away.
She bent to write then looked up, so close he felt his heart flutter.
“This won’t hurt you, will it?”
Steve let himself fall into those eyes, headfirst, in slow motion. Down, down, to the warm, tingly core of her being. And he knew he would feel the plunge for the rest of his life, and beyond, through the centuries, to the final crumbly molecule of his being. He really was thinking like that.
“What does your husband do?” he had to ask.
“Drug rep,” Adele tapped his cast with the pen. “Jeff’s a Merk man.”
“Sounds …” he paused for effect, “ … lucrative.”
“He gets to make a pile. I get to be by myself. You’re always home, Steve. What do you do?”
“I’m in publishing.” His stock answer, the one that begged the question,
“Only when I have to.”
Why was he doing this? These half-assed comebacks he’d agonize over for the rest of the day. Steve looked at his fingers then looked to Adele.
“Did anyone ever tell you you look like Merle Oberon?”
She scrunched her eyes. “Isn’t she an actress?”
“Movie star. There’s a difference. Or there was once.”
Adele plopped back in Irene’s chair and whispered the name.
“Irish Indian,” he added. “Originally O’Brien.”
“She was beautiful?”
Steve nodded. “She was that.”
Silence stretched, warm and sweet and Steve wished they could sit there forever. He was fooling himself, he knew, but nothing had felt this right in years. A minute later Irene pulled up with a car full of groceries.
“Here, let me help with those,” Adele pushed from the chair and Steve felt the air go out of him.
Only when I have to? Jesus, just what sort of image was he trying to project here? He didn’t give enough thought to his image anymore. But then he didn’t give enough thought to women anymore. Sex, sure, but not real women and what they might offer.
Steve tossed and turned and tortured himself. Irene’s timing, Christ! Driving up like the cavalry before Adele could sign his cast, blindsiding them before he could dazzle her with tales of the writer’s life, artist in residence. She’d probably forgotten all about it, Irene sneaking up on them like that. Damn her!
And Steve really was a writer. With an agent and a by-God Google blurb buried in there somewhere. So he hadn’t been published in a while. He’d dropped out of the game to write a novel. In three years he’d written three. And yeah, it took nine months to draw a pass on all three. And OK, the rejections were effusive, but you’ve probably made your literary mark when your agent tells you to give it a break. Steve tried not to be bitter, but five years was a chunk at this late stage. Irene came into some money but not enough to coast to the finish. He’d be sixty soon with no job skills and all the bad habits. He spent his nights thinking about it, but not in the way of solving a problem, more an exercise in numbing dread.
Of course Adele knew none of this. Steve convinced himself she would recall their conversation, if not right away the next time she noticed he was always home. She might even Google him, though good luck with that. No one had reached those cyber depths except Steve himself. A shame, too, the entry took you to a magazine website, his picture and bio. Not a bad picture either. His hair was longer then.
“I keep thinking about … that little cabin we used to rent in Tahoe. Remember?”
“Umm,” Irene turned into him. “You could see the whitecaps on the lake.”
“We hadn’t seen snow in years.”
Irene burrowed under his arm. “What were you really thinking about?”
She was wearing a Notre Dame t-shirt and a baseball cap, trailing an overweight Lab on a leash.
“Hey Adele. Who’s your friend?”
“This is Schlomo,” she pulled up. “Jeff’s brother came down from Boston.”
“Great dog,” Steve bobbed his head. In fact, he loathed Labs. And yet they were everywhere, fat and slobbery or scabbed in allergies.
“If he doesn’t get his walk he shits in the fireplace,” Adele wrinkled her nose. Her breezy way threw him.
He would never have gotten near the subject.
“Where do you walk him?”
“Down the towpath. I’d ask you to join us, but, …” she eyed the cast and Steve couldn’t help wishing he’d broken his arm.
“I’ll take a rain check.”
“How’s the writing going?”
“It piles up.”
“I’d love to read something,” Adele touched a finger to her lip. “I’ve never known a writer before.”
“I might have a story lying around inside,” every one, two of most.
Steve soaked in the thrill. “I’d like that.”
He was about to usher her into the house when he heard the hairdryer shut down, meaning Irene would be coming down to screw it up again.
“Wait here, I’ll dig something up,” he hobbled off.
Once inside he didn’t want to pop right back out like he kept his stories handy. Even though he knew right where they were, on the shelf reserved for his works, a thin row filled out by portraits of the cat. He studied the spindly spines. Then Irene came clomping down and the next thing he knew the two of them were huddled on the porch, laughing and talking in low tones. And he knew he’d look foolish coming out now with his stupid story, which Adele would never read, even though it was one of Steve’s best.
For the longest time he stood midway to the door, looking at his reflection in the mirror above the fireplace. The sight so unnerved him he gripped the mantel and heaved a groan.
“Hey Steve,” Irene called through the window. “Give Adele the one about the dog.”
His mouth opened but nothing came out.
He heard a chair scrape.
“You know, ’Tracer’? Get her that one.”
Right! “Tracer”, his last published story. So they were talking about him, his stories! Irene describing “Tracer”, gushing, God love her. It would all come out now, Steve’s offbeat style and oddball characters, his brushes with success. Let her go on, flesh him out a bit. Freezing up like that, Christ, what was wrong with him? His stunned reflection, as love struck as a teenager.
“Do we have a copy?” he slipped it from the shelf.
“In the bookcase.”
“Tracer”, a weeper he’d penned in a flu-ridden fever. Steve pictured Adele reading the opening line. What was it? … Oh yeah, “It was raining the first time they saw the dog.” Adele turned as he pushed through the door. He felt himself tremble.
Schlomo shuffles alongside them, something Labs do only in a dream. Adele is asking about the scar on his arm, the one that stands out on a deep tan. And since it’s his dream, the arm and the scar are considerably bigger.
“A guy in a bar,” Steve shrugs. “We had a disagreement.”
“My God, you could have been killed!”
“Not likely. We were both pretty drunk.”
Adele traces it with her fingertip. “You know, I’ve never met anyone like you. What I mean is … I mean your story …”
“I cry every time I think about it. A lost dog,” Adele looks away. “What he must think, the confusion, the way you described it, like a writer.”
“My single talent.”
He stares straight ahead. “Don’t Adele.”
“But I can’t stop thinking about you. And me, stuck with stupid Jeff.”
“Don’t be hard on him. He’s a kid.”
“Yes,” she blinks a tear. “I’m so tired of kids. I need-”
His eyes snapped open. Staring up into darkness Steve could still feel her touch. Was that what woke him, or was it his conscience taking exception? Fantasy was one thing, but this was delusional. And yet it felt so real, the afterglow still glowing. So long since he’d fallen in love, so different from being in love. The heart’s secret shading everything, throwing off heat, keeping him up all night.
His small infatuation, his cheap thrill, not quite pathetic, but semi creepy and borderline obsessive, but wouldn’t that mean it wasn’t so small? And that tug of attraction, was it merely one sided? She seemed to go out of her way to see him. The feeling was mutual, he was almost certain. And every day it was getting worse, or better, if he looked at it that way, which he did sometimes when he was too tired to resist. And he’d drift off and just let it flow.
They were at a party when the word went around. Adele had called the cops on Jeff. No charges filed but she was living elsewhere now. You could have knocked Steve over with a feather. And yet, stunned as he was, he couldn’t be sure how he felt about it. She was free, that seemed important. But she was also gone. She lived somewhere else and he’d never see her. Already that Merle Oberon face was fading into the real Merle Oberon and he was powerless to stop it. And it was silly to get worked up, but Steve felt a sudden, sharp stab of regret.
“Was he abusing her?” Irene posed the question.
Maggie Wells grimaced, “No one’s really sure. She was kind of wifty.”
“Wifty?” Steve blurted.
“You know, flirty?” Maggie waved a hand. ”She was always coming on to the men.”
“How is that wifty?” Steve pinned her. “I thought wifty meant dizzy, or obtuse.”
Maggie’s eyes went wide. “I never said she was fat, I just said she was flirty.”
“You said wifty.”
Steve’s little snit dampened the subject, but later, at home.
“So what’s with you and Maggie?”
“Come on, Irene, she was talking out her ass, as usual.”
“It was in the papers, Steve. Police blotter. What’s the difference?”
“The difference is I liked those people. Her.”
“Oh stop it. How come I didn’t know about this?”
“Because you never talk to anyone,” Irene yelped. “You float around in your own little world and nobody knows how to get there from here.”
“You’re supposed to keep me apprised.”
“And don’t forget we’re meeting Sam and Elaine at the Candlewick tomorrow.”
“Just keeping you apprised.”
“She’s living over on Delevan Street.”
Clam Night, all you can eat with the TVs flashing NASCAR and the whoopers settled in. They had to wait a while for a booth, twenty minutes, in fact, long enough for the small talk to sputter, between Sam and Steve anyway, the women blabbing just to spite them. Steve was too distracted to socialize. He wanted to get away, think about what had happened, the love light going out like that. Was there something he could do? If so, would he do it?
And later that night, wide-awake in bed, feeling Adele’s absence as he felt her presence, Steve tried to reason with himself. The girl was trouble. Her marriage was a wreck and the women had their claws out. Flirty? The notion stung him. Was he in her heart or just on the list? What killed him was he’d always wonder. There was no way to know without calling down a shit storm.
Flirty? Hard to believe he’d never noticed. He noticed everything about Adele. He felt they were in tune, aware of the others but in their own league. The men on the block were a sad mix, younger, sure, but pasty and overfed. To be lumped in was a blow, if it was true.
He burned to find out, yet he couldn’t without risking it all. And he wasn’t willing, or hoped he wasn’t, as he could see from this distance and at every turn, what a monstrous mistake it would be. The sort of witless compulsion that makes men his age look ridiculous and he couldn’t take that.
A week passed with no word of Adele. It annoyed him no end, the juiciest scandal in years and no way to follow it without being obvious. There was some truth to Irene’s claim that he didn’t talk to people, but Irene talked to everyone and her half of the running phone calls kept him in touch with the daily dirt. He knew more than he wanted to about the Weisman’s burglary and the stray cat problem, but nothing of Adele because he wanted to. If he didn’t care they’d be blue in the face with it.
Steve was in line in the post office when he heard it distinctly.
“Adele Skerrit? You’re kidding!”
Maggie Wells and Gladys Glover two spots behind him. He strained to listen.
“She’s living over on Delevan Street.”
“How is she?”
“We didn’t actually speak, but she looked well.”
He pictured the street, tree lined, little houses side by side. He pictured Merle Oberon in a hooped skirt and wondered why.
“Whatever happened to her husband? Jeff?”
“You didn’t hear? He’s in rehab. Somebody found him passed out in the house. By the time the ambulance got there he was barely breathing. Oh, and you’ll never guess-”
“Hey buddy,” someone poked him. “You’re up.”
He sat with the motor running, staring at the pigeons, the scraps of paper, the wide gaps of parking lot. None of it registered. It took months for the dust to settle now here it was stirred up again. Why would she come back? Crazy to think it was for him, but try as he might Steve couldn’t help thinking it. If not consciously, by instinct, wherever she’d been had failed to measure up. And he took it even further, adding touches, making it perfect. She had come not to claim, but just to be near him, to fit in his life anyway he could arrange it.
“STOP!” he barked, drawing a look from a passing cart boy. And on the drive home, thinking about what he’d been thinking about, scaring himself with what he might do. Steve had never questioned his intentions, but he’d never had a reason to. He still didn’t, so why did he feel like this? Like a doomed man going through the motions, lost in thought, driving too slow.
“You forgot the shallots and paper towels.”
“Why so much parsley?” Irene held up the bagful.
“And no lemons! How do you make scampi with no lemons?”
“I’ll go back.
Via Delevan, though he tried to fight it, actually wrestled with the wheel at the intersection. He knew the street from his summer bike rounds, narrow and cozy, old folks mostly. Empty now as he made the turn and the sameness of it startled him. He drove slowly checking each house, trying to picture Adele in it. And he saw so clearly every detail, the houses themselves, porches and front doors, the curbs, for Christ sake! He drove around the block and down again, slower this time, pausing to take it in, then left at the light and halfway home before he remembered the scampi.
He couldn’t help himself. At least once a day he made the pass around Delevan. The street was always empty, the houses, inscrutable. Maggie Wells was a nasty gossip but she usually had her stories straight, unless she was playing a game, baiting him. Not likely, but certainly not beyond her. He was at the corner ready to turn when he caught a flash in the mirror, a leg swinging out of a car, jeans from the waist down. He gave the mirror a tilt and there she was, turning away, crossing the street in that breezy stride, Adele, at last. He watched her take the steps to a mid-block brownstone and fiddle with the row of mailboxes.
“Looking for someone?”
The church bells chimed 2 AM. Steve listened to them snoring, Irene deep and lazy, the cat tailing off in a chirp. He saw the hours ahead as rows to hoe, a steamy slog through the scenarios, Adele, their reunion, cut to Irene, the guilt and so forth.
Shortly before dawn he came to a decision. Now that he knew she was back he would wait, let Adele come to him. Sooner or later she would find her way over he was certain, if just out of curiosity. He had no reason to be on Delevan, but she once lived on his block. They knew each other. He broke his freaking toe for her!
So he lounged on his front porch. Not all day but more than usual, late most evening, sometimes into the wee hours. When inside he was at the windows, scanning the sidewalks, pacing from room to room.
“I’m restless, Irene. Maybe I’ll take a walk.”
“Just to clear my head. I won’t be long.”
“Put a jacket on. And take your keys.”
“I don’t need a jacket, Irene.”
“And bring a flashlight.”
A flashlight, like he was some half-blind old gomer, Jesus. Though now he was out there it was hard to see. And he’d had a few drinks, shots in fact. And he swore he’d never do this, but here he was doing it, heading right on Union, waiting out the signal, four wobbly blocks north to Delevan. He saw soft lights through lace curtains on the top floor. It would be so like her, a garret lair. Night breeze carried the scent of the river. The first raindrops felt like ice and Steve stepped under the nearest tree, recalling a movie where a guy stands in the rain watching his lover’s house. Only that guy was a slasher and he didn’t have a tree, and the girl in the house was only six. But what really spooked Steve was the old guy out walking his dog, passing behind him, leering from the shadows.
“Looking for someone?” came the voice.
“OK, yeah, I am,” Steve heaved a sigh. “And I suppose it looks a little strange, but I assure you it’s an empty gesture.”
“It’s just someone I can’t get out of my head. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s all I can think about. Ever happen to you?”
“More than once, I’m afraid.”
“I worry it’s a symptom of something.”
“Or a sign of life.”
“You don’t understand. I have a lot to lose.”
“I understand completely.”
“… his muse without a clue”
Summer slipped by and she didn’t show. In October Steve finished a story, his first in years, about a middle-aged man seduced by a younger woman. All of it true, except for the seduction, which sharpened Steve’s longing, but freed him to indulge himself. The story opened on Christmas Eve, a light snow turning heavy as evening approaches. A few stores still open, a scatter of last minute shoppers bundled against the cold. Bud Decker is trudging home, a pair of gold earrings in his pocket, when he hears someone calling his name. He turns to see former neighbor and secret heart throb, Nina Varinsky, coming out of a gift shop. Startled to find themselves alone at this hour, on this evening, they share a few minutes. Nina looks radiant and Bud sees them as they might appear, lovers on a snowy corner, voices muffled in the stillness.
Sure the names had been changed and the events were fictional, but Steve knew Irene would see right through it. There was no fooling her. She could read his thoughts by the look on his face, by what he didn’t say. So he never mentioned the story. And of course it was accepted by one of the tonier reviews, one he’d tried for years to crack. And though Steve knew no one really read those things, it chilled him to hide it, making real what was make believe.
But that’s what he did.
When a year-end anthology picked up the story it worried him a little. Irene was a reader and bookstore browser. By that time telling her would mean having to explain why he hadn’t told her before. And there could be only one explanation, even if it wasn’t true. And he had to at least consider the possibility that the story would launch him and that his big break would threaten his marriage.
But he needn’t have worried on that score. As much as his story stood out (in his mind) not a single door was opened to him. No e-mail or phone call from, well, he didn’t really know, some higher power, a behind the scenes player. Instead it passed into spring to nary a nibble. And though this filled him with a bitterness he could taste, he consoled himself with thoughts of Adele, his muse without a clue, his very own Nina Varinsky.
Still she stayed away. And though he tried to see meaning in this, a test of wills, it was more likely she’d simply forgotten him. The flicker of interest buried in the blur of living. He’d been kidding himself. The attraction was strictly one-sided. His story was more fiction than he knew.
“Back at it, I see”
The third floor was dark. The curtains were gone. Steve stood under the same stupid tree holding the book to his chest, trying to think what it could mean, aside from the obvious. That she’d moved out. That he’d muffed a second chance and would never get a third. Only last week they’d been there, the curtains, the soft light. If he’d done it then the next move would be up to her. Now there would be no next move. She’d never read it, never know his story … their story. No one would. Until he died and someone, probably Irene, put his works together, and that thought made him wince.
“Back at it, I see,” the voice called from the shadows.
“It’s too late. She’s gone.”
“He who hesitates …”
“Thing is, I can’t explain my actions to myself. I hardly knew her.”
Steve heard the rattle of tags and tiny claws click into the night. He turned to go, but something tugged at him and he crossed the street instead. Peering through the door he saw a cardboard free box under the mailboxes, the slim volume with “Tracer” tucked inside.
About the writer:
Tom Larsen has been a fiction writer for ten years and his work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Newsday, New Millennium Writings, and Puerto del Sol. His novels FLAWED and INTO THE FIRE are available through Amazon.
Image: Untitled photograph by Cyril Larvor, Paris, France.