The Blue Grotto

 

                It was Friday night.  The street lights were winking on block by block as Barry drove past them.  They seemed to be switched on by the pleasant rumble of the V8 in his battered, baby-blue ’53 Ford pickup truck as it headed east on Main Street toward The Blue Grotto.  In his rear-view mirror was what remained of a pale pink sunset squeezed under the low clouds.  He was preoccupied and didn’t notice, wondering if he would pass the criminology test he’d taken this morning.  He swung left into the old two-story Victorian house, now a seafood restaurant, as the neon sign over the door flickered into life, more purple than blue.  There was an empty De Soto in one space and a new, bright-gold Oldsmobile in another space in the customer parking lot that had once been the front lawn.  All four of the Old’s doors were open as a family of four clambered out as Barry rolled slowly by. 

                The employee parking lot was an asphalt slab that had replaced the backyard.  He rolled into a space between Eugene’s ’58 Chevy Impala on the left and Molly’s ’59 Ford Fairlane.  Barry carefully opened his door to avoid putting a door ding in the Impala.  Eugene was fanatical about keeping it in showroom condition.  Barry got out of his truck, jealous of the Impala’s glistening maroon finish, which made the oxidizing paint on his old pickup look all the more shabby.  Daylight savings time had just ended, and he was a few minutes late.  He hadn’t yet gotten used to dark coming so early. 

                He was wearing the same navy-blue tanker jacket with the quilted lining, now frayed a bit at the cuffs and collar, he’d worn since junior high school.  The air was cool for early November in Santa Ana.  He knew that when his shift ended at ten it would be chilly, and his pickup’s heater didn’t work.  By quitting time his shirt would be damp from sweating over the grill in the kitchen, where the temperature hovered around  eighty-five even on the coldest nights.  He took off the jacket and laid it on the seat, leaving him in a white Penny’s T-shirt and his button-fly Levi’s with a hard pack of Marlboros in the back pocket.

                Mounting the wooden steps at the back of the house, he threw open the screen door to the porch and walked in through what was now the stock room, full of everything the restaurant needed, from gallon cans of tomatoes to powdered soap for the dishwasher.  It was lit by a single bare bulb swinging from a chain.  Barry pulled a white apron out of a pile wrapped in blue paper and passed on into the kitchen without stopping.  Eugene was in the walk-in freezer, pulling out a big bag of French fries for the deep fryer.  Barry could smell fresh-cut lemon and oil heating in the deep fryer.  

                “Hey, Eugene,” Barry called.  “Sorry I’m late.  Ready for a big Friday night?”  Eugene was technically the chef.  Barry was his assistant.  Eugene was of average height, beefy, with a wide, thin-lipped mouth set in a flat face, wearing a cook’s whites.  He was pushing thirty, an unwilling bachelor who carried himself with a swagger that suggested it would be unwise to mess with him.  Barry liked him. 

                Eugene came out with the bag of fries cradled in his arms.  “No sweat.  I gave your job to a wetback I caught diggin’ in the dumpster.  Maybe I can make you assistant dishwasher.” 

  “Bullshit.  We don’t stock beans and tortillas.”

  “You’ll like Pedro, and you can have his sister for ten dollars.”  Barry snorted in response.  “There was a party of four waiting at the door when Molly opened up.  Looks like it could get busy.”

  Barry said, “There were four more just getting out of their car when I pulled in.”

 “You’d better start loading the steam table soon as you can.”  Eugene filled the fryer basket with French fries and put the bag on a counter nearby.

             Barry pulled the top loop of the apron over his head and wrapped the long apron strings clear around his waist and tied them at the front.  He was nineteen, tall and lean, with longish, black hair combed straight back, and five-o’clock shadow darkening his face.  The veins in his arms stood out noticeably.  His eyebrows were straight and heavy over blue eyes separated by a long, straight nose. Girls thought he had that wounded look like James Dean.  Rarely did a liquor store clerk ask for his I.D.

                Barry set about moving the mashed potatoes and rice pilaf from the big range into the stainless steel pots on the steam table.  About that time Ramon came in through the back door, grabbing an apron on the run.  He was the night dishwasher, a short little Mexican man who worked like a machine and spoke little.  “Sorry I late,” he said, “The baby, she  is…como se dice…enferma.” 

    “Enferma es “sick” en Ingles, Ramon.  Hay no problema.  Estas cinco minutos tarde solamente.”  Eugene liked to use his high-school Spanish.  His accent was atrocious. 

    After putting on his apron, Ramon silently began rinsing the dishes under the high-pressure hose that hung over the sink and putting them into the rack to slide into the dishwasher.  

    On Ramon’s heels was Andy, the busboy, already wearing his red bus jacket.  He was big, blonde, brash, friendly and a Swedish exchange student. 

                Andy boomed, “Howdy, boys!” without offering any apology for being late.  He was proud of his idiomatic English. He went out through the swinging door into the dining room.  Before it closed, Gwen hurried in, already looking harassed.

                Over her shoulder she said to Andy, “There are four more coming in.  Put water on table three.”   Then turning to Eugene, she said, “Order up,” and clipped an order slip to the rotating ring over the butcher-block table in the center of the kitchen.  She noticed Barry at the steam table.  “Oh, hi, Barry.”  Her face softened.  She was two or three inches over five feet tall, pretty in a mousey way, almost too thin, with barely-noticeable breasts and a shapely butt.  “How are you?” 

   “Good.  I’m good,” he said, over his shoulder.  “How you doin’?”  He spoke too casually, trying to hide his attraction to her.  Though she was at least five years older, she could have passed for his age.  Her air of fragility brought out his protective instincts

   “Okay, I guess.  Hey, could you…”

   She was cut off by Eugene.  “Chowder or salad?”

  “Oh.  Uh, one green salad, one cole slaw, two Manhattan chowder.  I’ll get them.”

  Eugene shrugged and read the order, then began pulling seafood out of the reefer.  Gwen went to the steam table.  Barry ladled the red chowder from the pot into cups that she took from a stack in a spring-loaded well.  A look passed between them.  She put the cups of chowder on a tray she pulled from a shelf behind her.  Then Barry went to the cold table and used tongs to transfer pre-mixed green salad from a large stainless-steel bowl onto salad plates, which he added to the tray.  They stood close together as Barry helped Gwen dress the salads and add croutons.  Gwen picked up the tray and backed out through the swinging door, saying “Gonna be busy tonight.”

  Ramon finished rinsing the dishes over the garbage disposer and pushed the rack of dishes along a track into the dishwasher.  He slid down the stainless-steel door and pressed the button that started the dishwasher with a roar.  Then he wiped down the drain-board and turned around.  By then Eugene had salmon and sole on the grill.  He had a large black-iron pan over a burner and was sautéing shrimp and scallops with a satisfying sizzle.  Barry finished loading the steam table with a pot of potatoes au gratin and a pot of baked potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil, then turned to Eugene.

“Anything you want me to do?” Barry asked. 

“Yeah.  Be careful.”

“Of what?” Barry was truly mystified.

“Of that one,” Eugene said, nodding toward the dining room.

“Why?”

“Because she’s married and her husband outweighs you by at least thirty pounds.  And because he’s got a temper.”

“I’ve got a girlfriend.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?  She’s giving you the come-on and you’ve got the hots for her. “ 

“You’re nuts.  She barely speaks to me.”

Molly burst through the swinging door.  “Howdy, boys.” 

She reminded Barry of Ma Joad from the film of The Grapes of Wrath; large and good-hearted, but willing to take charge.  Molly was always in charge.  Dressed now in a frilly white blouse with a long black skirt, she said, “We just seated two more tables, and a car just pulled in.  Barry, you work on soups and salads so Eugene can stay ahead of the entrees.”

“Got it, Moll,” Barry said to her back as she whirled and went out again. 

“And don’t call me Moll,” she said over her shoulder.  Barry knew she liked it.  She had no kids of her own, and she liked him.  His friends’ mothers always liked him.  He didn’t get why.

Eugene said, “She don’t seem to realize that there’s a delay before we get the orders.  Anyway, why don’t you drop the basket into the fryer.  Then get the plates ready with the sides for the orders we’ve got.  The fish don’t take long.  Remember, kid, never let fish dry out.  Always start your chicken or meat before you start fish or your orders won’t come off at the same time and the fish will be dry.”

“Yowzuh, Bwana,” Barry said, already moving.

Barry’s apron and the shirt beneath were soon soiled and damp.  Andy and Gwen flew in and out looking harassed, pinning up orders, checking on others, getting bread baskets, soup and salads.  Ramon never budged from his sink and dishwasher.  The evening went by in a blur. 

When the kitchen closed at nine, Eugene put some leftover fish Barry had saved back on the grill just long enough to sterilize it.  Then he and Barry stood and wolfed it down with chowder, bread, and rice pilaf.  Barry finished first.  While Eugene finished his meal, Barry took a break and went out back to have a smoke under the porch light that hung above the steps from a gooseneck.

He had just lit up when he heard the screen door open and Gwen came through.  She was holding a cigarette.

“Mind if I join you?” she asked, holding up the cigarette.

“Be my guest.” 

He held the lighter for her.  She lit up and took a long, deep drag on it. 

“Jeez, I’m beat,” she said.  “There’s one table left.  Taking their sweet time.”

Barry grinned at her.   “Want me and Eugene to throw them out?”

She looked up at him and smiled, not showing any teeth.  It was oddly sexy.  “God, I wish you could,” she whispered.  “My feet are killing me.” 

“It won’t be long.”

“So you’ve been here a week now.  How do you like it?”

Barry grimaced.  “I hate working nights.  But it pays the bills and lets me carry a full load at so I don’t get drafted.  Can’t bitch, really.  Eugene’s cool.  Molly’s nice.  I guess I’ll hang in there.  You?”

“Eh!  It’s a job.  Like you, I guess.  We need the money.  Eddie’s trying to get a fencing business going and making a profit.”

They nodded at each other self-consciously.  Gwen looked at the ground.  Barry watched the smoke from his cigarette drift upward toward the porch light.

“Where do you go to school?” she asked.

“Santa Ana J.C.”

”What’s your major?” Gwen asked.

“Haven’t decided.  Just doing some required stuff to get it out of the way.  I’m thinking of going into law enforcement, so I’m taking a criminology class.”

“Really.  That’s kind of cool.  I can picture you as a cop.  You live alone?”

“I wish.  I’ve got two roommates in an apartment.”

“Where at?”

“Off South Bristol.  Descanso Gardens.  Really classy.  They haven’t had a murder in a couple of months now.” 

Gwen smiled ruefully.  “Oh, say, could you drop me off at my house on your way home?  It’s barely out of your way.”

“No prob.  You be ready in half an hour?”

“Should be.  Thanks.”  They both nodded again, dragging on their smokes.  Gwen said, “Well, I should get back to my station”

“Yeah, me too.”

They flicked their cigarettes out onto the asphalt parking lot, where they produced little showers of sparks, and went back inside.  Eugene was finishing his food.    Barry picked up their dishes and set them on the drainboard.  Gwen went to the dining room to check on her last table.  Barry and Eugene set about refrigerating the leftover items on the hot and cold tables.  Then Barry cleaned the grill with a pumice stone while Eugene sharpened his knives.  As the flow of dishes slowed, Ramon hand-washed the pots and pans, dried them, and put them away.  Eugene told him not to wait for the last dishes.  “Go home and see your nina,” he said.  Ramon took off his apron, thanked Eugene, and left.

When the kitchen was set for the night, Eugene pulled a fresh uniform from the supply room.  He said, “I’m outa here, buddy.  You comin’?”

For some reason Barry didn’t want to say he was waiting for Gwen.  He said, “I gotta use the bathroom.  I’ll lock up.”

“See you tomorrow then.”  Eugene winked conspiratorially and went out the back door.  Barry took off his apron and did a quick wash-up in the sink.  Then he stuck his head out through the swinging door.  He saw the last of the diners shambling toward the front door.  Gwen and Andy were bussing the table.

 “Thanks, folks.  Come again,” Gwen said to their backs. One of the men waved without turning around.

“Almost ready?” Barry said to Gwen. 

“Another couple of minutes,” Gwen said. 

They heard Molly saying good night from the foyer, and then she came around the dividing wall, carrying a money bag.   “I’ve already cleared the till and locked the front,” Molly said.  “I think I’ll go on up.  Just lock the back door when you go.  See you tomorrow.” 

They all said good night.  Molly waddled through the swinging door.   A widow, she lived on the second floor, accessible by stairs through a door off the kitchen.  They finished clearing the table.  Andy picked up the bus tray and took it to the kitchen. 

Gwen said, “I’ll turn out the lights and get my purse.”

Barry watched as she collected her purse and a sweater from her station.  “I wondered where your car was when I pulled in.”

She turned off the lights and joined him. They went into the kitchen.  “The engine spun a bearing, Eddie thinks.  We can’t afford to fix it right now.”

“So, you’re going to need a ride for a while.”

“Yes.  I can give you gas money.”

“No need.  You said it’s not far out of my way.  Can you get to work okay?”

“Eddie can drop me off.  That’s how I got here today.”

“Cool.”

Andy had dropped the bus tray on the drainboard and gotten a fresh bus jacket out of the stock room.  He waved, said “See you tomorrow,” and walked out the back door.  

Gwen put on her sweater, a white cardigan, over her black uniform.  The sweater made her look smaller.  She took off her little waitress’ apron.  Barry picked up his apron from the table where he’d dropped it.

“Ready?” he said, gesturing toward the back door.

She dropped her apron in the hamper as she walked through the supply room.  Barry did the same.  He flicked off the kitchen lights with the switch by the back door.  They went out the screen door and stood under the porch light.  Gwen held the screen door open while Barry pulled the wooden door toward him, reaching around to push the knob that locked it when he closed the door.  He tested it to be sure, and then followed Gwen down the steps.  He watched her butt all the way to the pickup.  Just something about her waif-life demeanor…

Gwen reached for the passenger door handle.  Barry reached around her and opened the door for her.  She glanced at him and seemed to blush, but it was too dark to tell.  He stood there awkwardly while she climbed onto the aging brown Naugahyde-covered seat some former owner had installed.  She put her purse on the floor, pulled her skirt in and tucked it under her thighs.  He closed the door and went around to the driver’s side. 

Getting in, he picked up his tanker jacket and held it out to Gwen. 

“The heater doesn’t work.  You can wear this if you want.”

“I’ll be all right.  I have my sweater.”

“Well, if you need it, I’ll just leave it here.”  He laid it over the seat back. 

Barry got the truck headed south on Main.  It was nearly ten-thirty, and traffic was light.  There was an uncomfortable silence.  The cool air made Barry shiver slightly.  He hoped Gwen wouldn’t notice.

“I go west on 17th, right?”

“Right,” Gwen said.  After a pause she asked, “So, what’s your girlfriend like, Barry?”

“Liz?  She’s smart.  Smarter than me.  Almost as small as you are.  And pretty.  Like you.”

Now he was sure she blushed, and felt stupid for saying it.

“That’s sweet of you to say, but I’m not.  I know I’m mousey.”

“You’re not mousey,” Barry said, trying to keep the lie out of his voice. 

They were both embarrassed, but somehow the topic had a life of its own.  She glanced at him, then looked at her lap.

“Yes, I am.  It’s all right.”

“Okay, you’re a tiny bit mousey,” Barry said, grinning.  “But on you, it looks good.  Being a little bit mousey doesn’t keep you from being pretty.”

She managed a smile for him.  “Thank you, Barry.  You’re being nice.”

“Nobody’s perfect, Gwen.  Look at me.  I’m skinny.  It’s just something I have to live with.”

“You’re not skinny!”

“Yes, I am.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Am.”

“Not.”

“Am!”

“Not!”

Then they were looking at each other and laughing.

“Oh!  I forgot!  Turn left on Flower!” Gwen said. 

Barry had to change lanes quickly and make a sharp left.  The tires squealed in protest.  Gwen was thrown against the door panel.  That set them laughing again. 

When the laughter died, Gwen said, “Turn right on Cubbon.”  She went silent for a moment, then said, “I wish Eddie still thought I was pretty.”

Barry was momentarily lost for a response.  “What makes you say that?”

“It’s kind of obvious.  He’s asleep when I get home, and he’s gone to work by the time I get up.  We hardly see each other.  We don’t go out.  All he does is work and worry about money.  When I’m home evenings he drinks beer and falls asleep in front of the TV.  We don’t ever…you know…anymore.”

Barry’s mind reeled with the implications of this information.  Why was she telling him this?  Despite what Eugene had said, his mind could not accept the idea that Gwen could be coming on to him.  Did she simply need a confidante?  Why would she pick him?  He was just a broke college student.  Or could Eugene be right?

Before he could form a reply, she said, “Cubbon’s the next street.”

Barry dutifully turned right, glad to have something to do to avoid a reply.

“It’s just a few houses down on the right.”  He crawled along at ten miles an hour until she said, “This one.”

He stopped.  It was a little bungalow from the 1920’s, neat and nondescript, with a red Dodge pickup in the driveway behind the ’56 Plymouth he recognized as Gwen’s car.  The house was dark as a tomb.

“See?” she said.   

He looked at her, then looked away, a little embarrassed. 

“Oh, I’m sorry I said anything, Barry.  It’s just that I don’t have anyone to talk to.”

He twisted in the seat to face her.  “It’s okay for you to talk to me, Gwen.  I’m just not sure what to say.”

She turned to him, their knees nearly touching, and put her hand over his.

“You’re really sweet, Barry.  It helps that you listen.”

She impulsively leaned over and kissed him on the lips, a brief kiss, but warm and with her lips slightly parted.  Then she turned, opened her door, and hopped out.

“Thanks for the lift, Barry.  See you at work tomorrow.”

She closed the door and went up the walk without looking back.  Barry noticed that Eddie hadn’t even left the porch light on for her.  He watched and pulled on his jacket as she fumbled for her keys, found the key slot, and let herself in.  Then he swung a U-turn and pulled away, wondering what had just happened.   

"You took her home last night, didn’t you?”  Eugene was putting the big pots of chowder into the hot table, getting ready for the Saturday night crowd.

 “How’d you know that?” Barry was breaking up and washing lettuce in the big stainless steel sink.

“Her car wasn’t in the lot, and her husband wasn’t here to pick her up when I left.  You hung around.  Bein’ ugly don’t make me stupid.”

“So I took her home.  So what?”

“She asked you, not me.  Nothin’ personal, but which car would you rather ride in?  She’s worked longer with Andy than you.  Why not him?  I’m tellin’ ya, Ace.  It’s the ones that look like school teachers you gotta watch out for.”

Barry shrugged.  “Her place is on my way home.  She doesn’t want to put anyone to any trouble.”

Eugene snorted.  “Yeah, that’s it.”  He went to the ice machine with a bucket to get ice for the cold table.  “Take my advice, kid.  Don’t let the little head do the thinking for the big head.”

“With all due respect, Eugene, you’re full of shit.”

“Just don’t learn the hard way, kid.”

Eugene opened the door to the ice bin and dug in the bucket with a crunching sound. 

Half an hour before the kitchen was set to close, orders stopped coming in.  Eugene was giving Barry a lesson in using the steel to hone knives when Gwen came into the kitchen.  She stood waiting.  Eugene cocked an eye at her.  She asked Barry if he had a cigarette.

“You mind if I take a break?” Barry asked Eugene.

Eugene shrugged.  “Nah.  Why should I mind?”

Barry pulled a hard pack out of his back pocket and joined Gwen out on the porch.  The night was cool and clear, and felt good after the heat of the kitchen.  He could feel the sweat evaporating from his shirt, and knew he’d be chilly by the time he was done with his smoke

Her fingers shook slightly as she cupped her hands around the light he held out for her.  After they lit up she asked, “Are you still okay to take me home tonight?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Are you seeing your girlfriend later?”

“Yeah, for a while.”

“It won’t mess up things with her?”

“No.  It doesn’t take that long to drop you off.”

“You’re sure?  I don’t want her mad at me.”

He smiled up at her.  “She won’t even know.”

“You’re not going to lie to her, are you?”

“Relax, Gwen.  I just won’t mention it.”

“Why?  Is she jealous?”

“No.  But there’s no reason to mention it.  I’m just giving you a ride home.”

Gwen seemed dissatisfied.  “Oh.”  They smoked for a moment.  “Are you mad at me?” she asked.

He was puzzled.  “No.  Why would I be mad at you?”

“For being a worry-wart.  I can’t help it.  I just don’t want to cause problems.”

He smiled.  “I’ll let you know if there’s a problem.”

“The last table is about to leave.  Maybe we could get off a little early if no one else comes in.”

“Great.  Eugene’s got a hot date and he’s ready to haul ass on the dot of nine if we don’t get any more orders.”

She gave him a shy smile, twisting back and forth like little girls do when they’re asking for something.  “Cool.  See you in a few.”

Gwen went back inside.  Barry smiled at the thought of her twisting and smiling, took a last drag on his cigarette, and flicked it onto the asphalt, enjoying the shower of sparks.  He went back into the kitchen and washed up, then began honing knives.  Eugene sat on a stool and read a paperback novel he kept handy, and Ramon cleaned bus trays with 409. 

At eight forty-five, Andy came in with a bus tray.  “The place is dead as a doorknob,” he said.  “Did I say it right?”

“Perfect,” Barry said.

“Goot,” Andy said, grinning.  “Last of the dishes.”

He handed the bus tray to Ramon and went out front again.  Ramon quickly rinsed the dishes, put them in a rack, and shoved it into the dishwasher.  Eugene looked at Barry.

“Let’s take a chance and button it up,” he said. 

They refrigerated everything on the steam table and the cold table, and used the pumice stone on the grill.  No new orders came in.  Five minutes before nine Molly stuck her head into the kitchen and told them they could all go home. 

She’d hardly finished before Andy had crowded around her, said good-night, and headed for the back door.  Gwen wasn’t far behind him, carrying her purse and her sweater. She said good-night to Molly and Eugene.  Molly returned to the foyer to count out the cash register.  Eugene had already begun removing his cook’s whites.  He had hung a fresh shirt in the supply room. 

“You guys go on,” he said to Barry and Gwen.  “I’ll lock up and be right behind you.”

“Okay by me,” Barry said. 

He and Gwen tossed their aprons, and headed for the door, Gwen leading. 

“Barry,” Eugene called, just as Barry was going out the door.  “Remember what we talked about, okay?”

Barry rolled his eyes, let go of the screen door, and was gone. 

“What was that about?” Gwen asked as she got in the pickup.

“Eugene being a know-it-all,” Barry said.

As they drove away from The Blue Grotto, Gwen told Barry a funny story about a young man and a girl all dressed up on their first dinner date.  As he was squeezing lemon onto his fillet of sole, the lemon wedge slipped from his fingers and shot across the table, landing in the scoop neck of his girlfriend’s dress and then sliding down into her bra.  The shock caused her to drop her fork onto her plate, startling the other diners and drawing attention to the couple’s embarrassment.  Molly helped the poor girl into the women’s room to fish it out while Gwen consoled the distraught boy.  Barry wished he’d seen it.

Gwen declared she was hungry and asked Barry if he might have time to stop at the Snack Shop on the corner of 17th and Flower for a piece of pie. 

“I guess so,” Barry said.  “Liz doesn’t expect me for at least half an hour.”

He pulled into the parking lot behind the restaurant.  It was nearly empty.  He swung into an empty space, cut the engine, and set the brake.  He had turned to open his door when Gwen put her hand on his arm.

“Wait, Barry,” she said.  “I need to ask you something.”

He turned back toward her.  “Sure.  What?”

She withdrew her hand and looked down at her lap, then back up into his eyes.

“Did you mean it last night when you’d said I’m pretty?”

“Of course I did, Gwen.  You are pretty.  Didn’t you believe me?”

“I…I just don’t feel pretty anymore.”

“Why?”

“Eddie used to be so sweet, always telling me how nice I looked.  He’d tickle me and wrestle with me and we’d end up kissing.  You’ve got a girlfriend, so you know how men act.  The kind of things men do when they like you a lot.  Now he never touches me.  He’s grouchy all the time.  He acts like I’m ugly.”

Barry was clearly uncomfortable with this subject.  He was suddenly aware of her scent in the closed car.  It made him think of Audrey Hepburn.  “Well, you know, I’m sure it’s not your fault.  You said he’s always worrying about the business and money.  It’s a lot of pressure.  That’s probably all it is.”

“But isn’t a wife supposed to be able to help with all that pressure by being there for him?”

“Well, yeah, I guess.  I ain’t much of an expert on marriage.  My parents probably hated each other even when they were doin’ it.”

“Our church has a marriage counselor, but he won’t go.  He says there’s nothing wrong, he’s just tired.  That kind of thing.”

Her hands were in her lap and she was picking at her cuticles.  She looked so lost and forlorn that Barry felt miserable for her.   

He said, “Jeez, Gwen, I wish there was something I could do or say to help, but…”

“Could you just hold me for a second?  That’s all.  Just put your arms around me and tell me it’s going to be all right?  Then you can take me home and go see your girlfriend.”

“Sure.  Sure, I can do that.”

Barry shifted in his seat, turning slightly toward her and opening his arms.  She slid over toward him, not looking at him, and leaned into him as his arms slid around her.  He held her gingerly, as if afraid he might crush her.  She felt rigid and cold; she shivered and pressed against him, her cheek resting on his chest. 

“Things will be better when his business gets going.  It’ll be okay.  You’re pretty and sweet.  He must love you like he always did.  You just have to hang in there.” 

After a moment, she let out her breath in a sigh and relaxed.  He inhaled the scent of her hair and stroked her shoulder gently.  She seemed so peaceful that he wondered if she’d fallen asleep.  Then he felt her hand coming to rest on his thigh.  Her touch was light, barely there.  The next moment, her hand had moved to his inner thigh.  He held his breath, not believing what was happening, until the hand moved again to cover the bulge in his pants that had begun the instant she first touched his thigh. 

He took in a breath to speak, but before he could form a word, she had turned her face toward his and strained upward to cover his mouth with hers and begun kissing him with an urgency Liz had never shown.   Her grip tightened on his crotch.  The confusion he’d felt about why she was confiding in him instantly dissolved into the inevitable. 

“Make love to me, Barry!  Right here.  Right now!” she gasped with her mouth on his. 

He said nothing.  Somehow they moved to the passenger side of the seat.  Within seconds, it seemed, she was astride him, her blouse open, his mouth all over her breasts.  Some part of his brain conjured an image of Eddie beating the living shit out of him if he ever knew, but the fear only drove him harder. 

They heard nothing but their own moaning and gasping and the words lovers utter in passion until minutes later, when they shuddered at once and she fell against him, arms around his neck, both of them panting.   Neither spoke until their breathing subsided.  Then she whispered, “Oh, God, Barry,” into his ear. 

They were startled by the sound of a car’s doors slamming nearby.  Barry turned his head to the sound, and saw a middle-aged couple emerging from Mercury two spaces over.  They looked at Barry’s Ford disapprovingly.  The man made a comment to the woman that Barry could not make out. 

Gwen suddenly seemed to panic.  “We’ve got to go!” she said, twisting off and away from Barry.

Barry slid back under the steering wheel.  Gwen arranged her clothing as best she could while Barry did likewise.  Then she twisted the mirror toward her face and found her purse.

“Do you have a dome light?” she asked.

Barry cleared his throat.  “Yeah.”  He switched it on.  It glared in the darkness. 

Gwen fixed her makeup quickly.  She took a tissue from her purse and wiped lipstick off Barry’s face.  He was lost for something to say.

“Do I look all right?” she asked.

“You look fine.”

“Then I’m ready, I guess.”

Barry turned off the dome light, adjusted his mirror, started the car, and pulled out of the parking lot.  The car smelled like sex.  Gwen rolled down her window.  The chilly air suddenly felt good. After a block or two, they both opened their mouths to speak at the same time.

Barry said, “You go first.”

She seemed to have calmed down some.  “I don’t want you to think…”

“No.  I don’t,” he said, glancing at her.

“What?”

“That this was like, normal for you.”

“No, because it’s not.”  She was looking at him in the dim, orange glow of the dashboard lights of the old truck.  “You’re just so nice and understanding, and you make me feel…desirable, I guess.”

He glanced away from the road at her.  “You are.  I really like you a lot.”

“I don’t want you to think I’m cheap or anything.”

“I would never, Gwen.  I know you’re not like that.

“I don’t want to mess things up between you and your girlfriend.”

Barry only nodded, not trusting what he might say.  It had been a straight shot down Flower, and then he was turning onto Cubbon, her house half a block away.

“It just happened,” Gwen said.  “I don’t want you to think I planned it or something.”

“Oh, no,” he said.  “I didn’t mean for it to happen either.”

“I just need to be wanted.  You understand that, don’t you?”

“Sure I do.  Everyone does.”

“Well, then.”  She glanced at her house.  “We’re here.  I’ll see you at work Monday, huh?”

“Yeah.  I’ll see you Monday.”

She leaned over.  He turned toward her.  She kissed him on the lips, softly, lingering long enough to let him know she had no regrets.  Then she popped open the door and bounced out as if in a hurry to be home.

Driving away, his thoughts racing, he decided it would be too risky to see Liz tonight.  There would be traces of Gwen on him, her lipstick somewhere he’d missed, the scent of her perfume, the scent of the sex they’d had.  He would go straight to his apartment, call Liz, and tell her he wasn’t feeling well.  The Blue Grotto was closed Sunday; he would see her tomorrow evening. 

The decision having been made, it occurred to him that Gwen hadn’t been wearing panties.

 Barry sweated out Sunday, doing his best to act normal on his date that night with Liz.  He couldn’t stop thinking about Gwen’s erect nipples and their tongues intertwining.  She was no prettier and definitely not as smart as Liz, but there was power in her need to be desired and taken, and something about her seeming fragility that kept him thinking about her.  The little crinkles at the corners of her eyes when she smiled without showing her teeth drove him crazy.  Her voice was always soft, with no hard edge in it like sometimes came out when Liz acted bossy.  Perhaps as powerful an aphrodisiac was the illicit nature of their relationship, and the danger in it, enticing him, offering escape from his dreary life.

On Monday, he arrived at The Blue Grotto before the daylight had faded entirely, just in time to see Gwen getting out of Eddie’s Dodge pickup.  She looked very unhappy.  Eddie had backed into a space, so the Dodge was facing Barry’s pickup as he idled along the driveway into the employee lot.  He could see Eddie’s face clearly.  He, too, looked unhappy, staring straight ahead, seeming not even to notice Barry as he waited for the Ford truck to pass. 

By the time Barry had parked and was getting out of his truck, Gwen was coming down the back steps and walking toward him.  She looked more cheerful already.

“Hi!” she said, loud and clear.  “Just wanted to make sure you could still drop me off tonight after work before it gets busy and I forget.”  She winked at him as she said it. 

“Yeah, sure.”

She came right up to him and palmed him a note.  “Good.  I figured if I needed to make other arrangements, I should do it before it gets busy.”

“No, I’m good.”

They walked together through the back door, Gwen in the lead.

“Okay, then.  I’ll talk to you later.  Thanks.” She grabbed a little apron from a stack, went through the kitchen and through the swinging door into the dining room.

Barry pulled an apron and put it on as he walked into the kitchen.  Eugene hadn’t come in yet.  He always worked the lunch shift as well, and usually made enough sides to last through dinner.  Barry began double-checking to be sure there was plenty of everything as he started transferring pots from the refrigerator to the cold table, and heating the pots that would go in the steam table.

Eugene arrived to find things well under control.

“How’s business at Barry’s Taxi Service?” he asked, grinning.

“Not much money in it, but the company’s good.”

“I bet it is,” Eugene countered.

“Aw, Eugene, ease up on me,” Barry pleaded.  “I’m just tryin’ to be a nice guy.”

“Uh-huh.  Check and make sure I turned on the deep fryer, okay?”

During a lull before the first orders of the night came in, Barry went out to the parking lot to have a smoke, looked around for prying eyes, and opened Gwen’s note.  It read:  “Barry:  I think we should talk about this.  Could you get away tonight?  I asked my sister Janet if we could use her apartment.  She said fine, she’ll go to her boyfriend’s place.  We can trust her because she doesn’t like Eddie.  She wants me to leave him.  I can tell him that she asked me to come over and hang out with her after work.  He won’t be suspicious ‘cause we do that once in a while.  Say you can.  Please?  XO—Gwen.”

 “Holy shit,” Barry muttered under his breath.  “This is gettin’ serious.”  

He took the note over to a dumpster, lit it with his lighter, and dropped it in.  He had purposely planned nothing with Liz after work.  He went back in the kitchen.  The first time Gwen came through, he caught her eye and nodded.  She went out on a break a little later and made a couple of calls from the pay phone a few doors down.  She gave Barry a wink the next chance she got. 

For the rest of his shift Barry was a bundle of nerves.  He could feel his heart beating in his chest when he stood still.  He concentrated on his job only with difficulty.  Even so, a diner complained that he had gotten cod instead of sole on an order that Barry had filled.  Gwen, trying to avert suspicion, had Andy take most of her orders into the kitchen, and paid so little attention to Barry when she came in that Eugene noticed and asked Barry if she was pissed at him for some reason.  Barry’s sharp retort, “How would I know?” only heightened Eugene’s interest. 

It was a typical Monday; there were empty tables, but diners lingered over their dinners.  The kitchen closed at eight-thirty on weeknights.  The crew was done by nine and shut off the kitchen lights.  Eugene walked out the back door, followed by Barry and Gwen.  The pair seemed stiff and uneasy walking out to the pickup.  As Barry held Gwen’s door, Eugene looked over the roof of his Impala and asked, “You two okay?”

Gwen ignored the question.  Barry had anticipated questioning from Eugene.  He took a few steps over to Eugene’s car and spoke in a low, man-to-man tone.  “My girlfriend’s a little jealous of me taking Gwen home, is all.  I shouldn’t have said anything to Gwen, ‘cause she thinks Liz is being childish.  I’m in the middle.  I just want to get Gwen home and get to my girl’s house before she has a fit.  You know how women are.” 

Eugene winked, seemingly satisfied.  “Boy, do I.”  He flicked a wave at Barry and said, “See you tomorrow.”

Barry walked back to his truck, congratulating himself on defusing Eugene’s suspicions.

“What’d you tell him?” Gwen asked as he slid into the driver’s seat.

“Told him my girlfriend’s a little mad at me.  That threw him off.”

“Good,” she said.  “I’m so nervous I was having trouble acting normal tonight.”

“Same here.  We’ve gotta do a better job of acting natural.  Where am I going?”

Ten minutes later they were in Janet’s apartment, tearing each other’s clothes off and talking very little.  An hour after that, they were lying naked together on the floor of Janet’s bedroom.  Janet had warned her not to dare use her bed.  Gwen had taken a clean sheet from the linen closet and spread it over the carpet.  Her cheek was nestled against the black hair spread over Barry’s chest; there was just enough to be sexy, she thought.  She traced with her fingertips the ropey veins in his arms resting on the sheet.  They made her think of electrical cables on a concrete floor.  She turned her face up to him.  His lips were slightly parted as his breathing slowed down.  The little overlap in his teeth made his canines stand out just a little and gave him an aggressive look.  He wasn’t really, she thought.  He was strong and masculine, but always a gentleman.

“What’re we going to do, Barry?”

“What?  Right now?”

“No, I mean about seeing each other.  I don’t want this to stop.”

“Jesus, Gwen.  I don’t know.  I don’t want it to stop either.”

“What about your girlfriend?”

Barry was a little irritated.  “Liz isn’t our problem.  Eddie is our problem.  The guy’s big enough to rip my arms off.”

“I meant, are you still going to see her?”

“This whole thing only started three days ago.  You expect me to figure it out just like that?”

“I didn’t mean to make you mad.”

“I’m not mad.  I’m…I don’t know what I am.  Confused, I guess.”

She looked hurt.  He pulled her tight against him. 

“Could we just think about this a few days before we go planning anything?”

“I just want to know if you really care about me, that’s all.  That I’m not just some little piece on the side.”

“Oh, God no, Gwen.  Don’t think that.  I do care about you.  A lot.”  He kissed her forehead, and then her lips, and felt himself growing rigid again.  “I’ve never wanted anyone so much.”

“Oh, sweetie, me too.”  She wrapped herself around him, and then it was all physical again for another hour.

Afterward, they fell asleep in a stupor.  Around midnight, there was a soft knock at the front door that startled them awake.  Then there was the sound of a key in the lock, a shaft of light through the crack in the bedroom door, and a woman’s voice saying, “Gwen, honey?  You here?”

“Mmmph,” was all that would come out until Gwen cleared her throat.  Then, “Yes!  We’re here.  Give us a minute, okay?”

“Sure, sweetie.  You know it’s after midnight?”

“Yeah.  Just a minute.”  To Barry she said.  “You better get dressed.”

Barry was already sitting up and searching for his clothes.  Gwen crawled over to the bedside table lamp and turned it on, then pulled the sheet around herself and stood up. 

“Janet!” Gwen called.  “I’m going to take a quick shower, okay?”

“Okay.  You need a ride home?”

“Yeah.  Gimme ten minutes.”  To Barry Gwen said, “Let me introduce you quick and then you’d better go.”

“Right.  Lemme just get my shoes on.”

When he had his clothes on and had combed his hair with his fingers, Gwen, still wrapped in the sheet, took his hand and led him out of the bedroom.  Janet was sitting in the dining area, reading a magazine at the table.  She looked up when they came out, and her face showed her surprise.  She was older than Gwen by a few years, taller and heavier, with stronger features.  She was wearing a dress and heels, like she’d been on a date. 

“Who do we have here?” Janet asked, getting up and approaching the couple.

“Barry,” he said, without waiting for an introduction. 

He extended his hand.  Janet took it, a wry smile on her face, and shook it slowly. 

“You’re Eddie’s replacement, I hope.”

“God, Janet,” Gwen said, blushing.  “We practically just met.”

“Looks like you’re pretty well acquainted though, honey.”

Embarrassed, Gwen wrapped the sheet tighter about her.  “I’ve got to shower.  Can you wait, Barry?”

“I should go.  I’ve got an eight o’clock class and I’ve got to read a chapter first.”

“All right.”  She stood up on tiptoes and kissed him lightly on the lips.  “See you at work tomorrow.”

Their fingers came together momentarily as she turned away and left him with Janet.  She smiled at him as she closed the bedroom door.

“So,” said Janet.  “I suppose this is a huge secret?”

“Yeah,” Barry said.  “I’m not suicidal.”

“Eddie does have a temper.  You guys have any plans?”

Barry shook his head slowly.  “We’re working on that.”

“Looks to me like you were busy with something else, honey.”

Barry looked embarrassed, but said nothing.

“It’s okay, Barry.  I’m just teasing.  I though you’d be older, but I’m glad to see her with someone besides Grumpy.  I don’t much like the way he treats her.  You be nice to her or you’ll hear from me.”

“Don’t worry.  I like her a lot.”

“She’s a sweet girl.  She needs to be appreciated more.”

“I do.  I just don’t know what happens next.  I mean, it’s kind of a weird situation.”

“Look.  I’ll help if I can.  Within reason.  Just don’t do anything stupid.  Gwen is really needy right now.  You two be careful.”

“We will.  Look, Janet, thanks.  It was good to meet you.  I gotta run.”

“You go on,” she said, patting his shoulder.  “I’ll get her home.”

“Thanks again.  See you.”

Barry let himself out.  Janet was already halfway through the bedroom door.  She went to the bathroom door and knocked loud to be heard over the running water.

“Gwen?  Sweetheart, we’ve gotta talk.”

 

Barry couldn’t turn off his thoughts.  All the way to his apartment he thought about Gwen and tried to make sense of what was going on between them, but couldn’t.  His thoughts were too jumbled, and kept getting interrupted by images of their lovemaking: her tightly closed eyes, her small mouth with its thin lips and darting tongue, her low moans as she thrashed over or under him, her firm flesh and the dusky scent of her sweat. 

He was on autopilot all the way to his door.  The living room and kitchen windows looked out onto the open second-floor walkway of the apartment building.  The curtains were drawn on the living room window and the light was off, but the kitchen curtains were open and a light was on, illuminating the walkway.  Barry unlocked the door and went in. 

The living room spilled into the kitchen of their three-bedroom-one-bath apartment.  The kitchen was a mess, as usual, of dirty dishes and empty beer cans.  The living room was cluttered with textbooks, full ashtrays, and various articles of clothing.  From the living room a narrow hall ran to the back wall, with two small bedrooms on the left side and Barry’s bedroom, a linen closet, and the bathroom on the other.  Barry’s was the biggest of the three.  No light came from under the doors of any of them.  His roommates, Bill and Leon, were apparently asleep.

They were squares, which is why Barry picked them.  He hardly knew them.  They studied hard, didn’t have girlfriends, and didn’t party a lot, which meant they went to bed at a reasonable hour.  They also had parents who footed their bills, so they didn’t work.  Barry needed to be able to sleep in what little time he had left over from school, studying, work, and a girlfriend.  They thought Barry was a cool guy; went out their way to please him.  That was fine with Barry.  All he wanted was quiet roommates who paid their share and left him alone.  He’d have liked them to be neater, but you can’t have everything.  At least they kept the bathroom and kitchen reasonably clean, if only at Barry’s insistence.

Barry went on through to his room and flicked on the overhead light.  It was strictly off limits to his roommates.  He kept it meticulously neat and clean, although there was little he could do about the dowdy carpeting.  The curtains were old, but the window was clean.  The room was as spare as a monk’s cell.  There was a double bed with a light blue chenille bedspread.  A hand-me-down bureau stood alongside it, with a partly-burned, decorative candle, a picture of Liz, and a picture of his mother on the top.  His socks, underwear, sweaters and T-shirts were neatly folded and arranged in the bureau’s drawers. His shirts, pants, a light jacket, and a heavy coat hung in a small closet, with two pairs of shoes on the closet floor.  A small desk and chair were squeezed in on the wall nearest the door, with a small trash can alongside.  There was a transistor radio on the desk, an old black phone, and a cup with pens and pencils.  The papers and books atop the desk were the only things in the room that were not precisely arranged.  Over the desk was a campaign poster for John F. Kennedy.  A cheap acoustic guitar from Sears hung from pegs by the window.  All was as he had left it; the bed made up without a wrinkle, clothing put away.  He was satisfied that his roomies had respected his space.   

He shrugged off his jacket and hung it over the back of his chair.  Then he went to the bathroom, brushed his teeth, washed his hands and face, and looked at himself in the mirror.   “What the fuck am I doing?” he said in a low voice.  Then he went to bed and laid awake for an hour before he fell asleep.

 

"Do you love her, Barry?"

They were in Barry’s pickup truck the next night, on their way to Gwen’s house. 

“I thought I did.  But since we started, you know, seeing each other, I don’t know.”

“Are you doing it with her?”

“Yeah.  Well, we were.  We haven’t since you and I…you know.”

“Is she…?  I mean, am I…?

“It’s different with her.  She’s not as…intense about it as you are.”

“Are you still going to sleep with her?”

“God, Gwen, I don’t know.  I’m half crazy about you already, but I don’t know what we’re doing, or how it’s going to end.”

She leaned over and put her hand on his thigh.  “I’m crazy about you too.  I don’t know what comes over me, but when I see you, my knees get weak and I want you touching me.”  She was rubbing him between his legs now.

“Jeez, Gwen.  I have to drive.”

“I’ll stop.”

“I don’t want you to stop.  Do you want me to pull over somewhere?   Do you have time?”

Again the parking lot of the Snack Shop became their bedroom for fifteen minutes.  It was a temporary respite for their escalating desires; a little only made them want the brief freedom they had known in Janet’s apartment.  Their thoughts were raging, but they said little as they straightened their clothing and drove to her house, holding hands whenever he was not shifting gears or steering. 

Twice she asked, “What are we going to do, Barry?”  Twice he said, “I don’t know.” 

When he stopped in front of her darkened house, she kissed him hard and squeezed his crotch.  “I think I love you,” she said, then turned to open the door. 

He grabbed her arm and held her back.  She looked over her shoulder at him.  “I think I love you too.”

She smiled brightly and was gone, walking up the sidewalk with as normal a pace as she could muster.  Dazed by her announcement, he could only stare after her, the scents of their lovemaking hanging in the air.  He waited until the door closed behind her, then drove away. 

Ecstatic when they were together, they descended into misery when they had to part.  Barry put off saying anything to Liz.  He cared deeply for her and did not want to hurt her.  At first he thought Gwen would be temporary, but instead it was consuming him.  Had he been asked before he’d become intimate with Gwen, he’d have said he loved Liz, though words like lust and passion had never come into his mind when he thought of her.  They had sex, and he enjoyed it, but it was an entirely different thing with Gwen.  His need for her was like what he imagined a junkie must feel for the needle.  It was becoming clear that love was a much more complex subject than he’d ever imagined. 

His couldn’t concentrate on his coursework, despite knowing that his grades would fall off this semester.  He kept telling himself he didn’t really know Gwen.  His rational mind argued that whatever was between them was driven by animal magnetism, perhaps aided by desperation on her part.  This line of thinking did nothing to mitigate his nearly uncontrollable desire to possess her completely and constantly.   It will pass, he thought, I’ll come to my senses. 

Weeks went by.  The light poles on Main Street were hung with silver bells, red ribbon, and tinsel.  Barry had not come to his senses.  His relationship with Liz suffered.  He was moody when they were together, and lost interest in her.  She sensed the change in him and asked him to talk to her.  He kept making excuses.  She kept after him until he admitted he was seeing someone else.  After he told her he couldn’t bring himself to end it with Gwen, Liz told him there was no point in them keeping up a sham relationship.  They broke up.  Meanwhile, their coworkers at The Blue Grotto were becoming convinced that Gwen and Barry were up to something. 

In the time they could steal, when they were not engaged in trying to satisfy their craving for each other, they kept talking about what to do.

It was just after Thanksgiving.  They were huddled in Barry’s car after work, listening to the radio at low volume.  Buddy Holly was singing “Every Day.”  The temperature had dipped into the forties.  They had just made love.  Their hands were freezing, and their breath came out in clouds.  Barry stared at the orange glow of the radio dial. 

“I can’t believe he’s gone,” Barry said. 

“Yeah.  It’s sad,” Gwen said. 

“Ritchie Valens’ death was sad.  The Big Bopper’s death was sad.  They were fads.  Buddy Holly would have still been around when we’re old.  He was that talented.  The greatest loss to music in history.”

He stared at the radio dial until the song ended, and then sighed.  Gwen held his hand.  He looked like he could cry.  She waited until Maurice Williams began singing “Stay.”

“Maybe we could just run away,” Gwen offered.

Barry emerged from his reverie.  “Where would we run to?  We’ve got no money, we’d have no jobs, your car is broken and my car could die on us any time.  The odds are a thousand to one against us.”  He was staring out the windshield of his car into the dark street they were parked on.  “What would he do if you just told him you want out?”

“He would put it all together.  The nights I’ve been late.  Seeing Janet more than usual.  He’d force it out of me.  I think he’s already getting suspicious.  He’s so mean, Barry, and he’s jealous of me even if he doesn’t want me anymore.  He really scares me sometimes.  Once in high school a boy kept asking me to dance until Eddie started beating on him.  The coach and two of his best friends could barely pull him off the guy.  Eddie broke his nose.  The guy needed stitches to put his lip back together.  Eddie got kicked out of school and off the football team, but he kept saying he’d do it again if the guy didn’t leave me alone.  I don’t know what he’d do to me, but I couldn’t stand what he might do to you.  We can’t just tell him I want a divorce.” 

“Jesus.  He’s just too big.  I wouldn’t stand a chance if he came at me.”

Gwen drew herself closer to Barry, hugging his arm.  “I wish he’d just get himself killed in a car accident or something.”

Barry was leaning over the steering wheel, resting his chin on his hands.  “I think we need a better plan than that.”

She was silent for a moment.  “You mean we need a better plan to get rid of him?”

Barry lifted his chin and turned to look at her.  She was looking up at him.

 “That’s not exactly what I meant.”

“What did you mean then, Barry?”

“I don’t know what I meant.”

“We can’t just keep saying ‘I don’t know.’  He’ll catch us sooner or later, and when he does it will be bad.  Do you want to just quit this?”

“I don’t think I can.  Can you?”

“No.  I know I can’t.  So we have to think of something.  When he catches us, he’ll beat up on you and probably me, if he doesn’t kill one of us.  If we can’t break this off, we have to get rid of him.”

Barry stared straight ahead and shook his head.  “We don’t know that he’d hurt us.  I mean, couldn’t we find a place to stay that he doesn’t know about?  You could move your things while he’s at work.  Then you could call him and tell him you’ve left him.  He couldn’t stay mad forever.”

“Just think about that for a second.  He knows where I work.  He’d be waiting for me the first time I came to work.  Waiting for us, I mean, since we’d have to ride together.”

“Well, couldn’t you find a new job before you moved out?”

“Even if I found one, how would I get there?  My car’s dead, remember?”

“Oh.  Yeah.”

“If he sees us together, he might snap.  He has guns, Barry.  We could both be dead.”

“He doesn’t carry a gun, does he?”

“Sometimes.”

Barry was hunched behind the wheel as if he could hide from the thought.  “You don’t really think he could…”

“Look at me, Barry.”  He reluctantly turned toward her.  “You’ve never seen him mad.  He could do it.”

“Jesus, Gwen.  Are we really thinking about killing him?”

“We’ve been talking for weeks and we haven’t had any other ideas.  And the longer we wait, the more certain we’ll get caught.  Eugene knows something is up.  Andy’s made a couple of cracks about us leaving together.  Molly gives me those looks.  Even Ramon gives me funny looks.  We can’t keep this a secret forever.”

Barry wrung his hands.  “I don’t know if I could do it.” 

“Look at me, Barry.”  He complied.  “Do you love me?”

“God, Gwen, you know I do.”

“Then we have to do it.”

“How could we get away with it?  We can’t do it unless we’re sure.  How could we be sure?”

Now Gwen stared out the windshield.  “It would have to look like an accident with a gun.  Or suicide.  Otherwise, you and I would be the first suspects.”

“There’s this thing called a paraffin test where they can tell if you’ve fired a gun.  They could tell he didn’t shoot himself.  They could also tell that one of us did unless we had time to really wash our hands well before we talked to the cops, and it might still be on our clothes.” 

““Then we’d have to figure out how to do it, or think of another way.”

Barry rolled his head in anguish.  “God, Gwen, I don’t know.  I don’t know.”

“There’s no other way for us to be together.  Either we work out how to do it, or we stop seeing each other.”

“Jesus, Gwen, it isn’t something you just do!  Making something look like an accident is harder than you think!  You don’t understand all the ways you can screw up.  You need a solid alibi, and there are a million details that have to be right.  Don’t you get it?”

“All right.  All right.  No reason to get worked up.  We haven’t done anything yet.”  She stared into the darkness.  “Isn’t there something you’ve learned in that criminology class that helps?”

“Listen, Gwen, people who have a motive to kill are the easiest to catch.  The hardest killers to catch are the random ones who do it for some kind of weird, kinky fun.  Guys who kill strangers, guys with no connection to their victims.”

A light was dawning on Gwen.  “So….let’s say Eddie was shot while he was out somewhere alone working on a fence.  Wouldn’t that look random?  If we both had alibis, why would they suspect us?”

“Huh.”  Barry silently stared ahead for a moment.  “They’d suspect, but proving it might be hard.  Plenty of time to take a shower, wash the clothes, and get rid of the gun.  Speaking of which, where would we get a gun?  We’d need a thirty-caliber rifle, at least.  Something definitely deadly.”

“Eddie has hunting rifles.  He has one his dad brought home from the war that hasn’t been registered.”

“Wouldn’t his dad wonder what happened to it?  Afterwards, I mean?”

“His dad’s dead.”

“That helps.  Well, we’d have to get it done before Eddie noticed it missing.  And we’d both need air-tight alibis.  That would be the hard part.  People who lie for you can get scared and change their minds.  I don’t know, Gwen.  Even if we had it all together, I don’t know if I could actually do it.”

“You know how to shoot a rifle, don’t you?”

“Oh, sure.  My dad and I went hunting a few times.  I’m a decent shot.”

“Then let’s just think about it, okay?”

Barry was relieved to be off the hook, if only temporarily.  “Okay.  We’ll think about it.”

 

A week later they were in Barry’s room, getting dressed.  It was during a weekday when his roomies had classes.  Gwen had Eddie’s Dodge pickup for the day.  Eddie’s sole employee, Raul, had picked him up in the company’s big flatbed truck.  Raul was allowed to drive it to back and forth to work as part of his wages.  He worked off the books and was paid in cash.  Gwen had said she needed the pickup for grocery shopping, which was true. 

She had been to Barry’s room a few times now, and it was always the same, like a motel room awaiting a guest.  He always made the bed and straightened up the room before they left, while Gwen got dressed and fixed her makeup. 

“I’ve never met a guy who kept his room so neat and clean before,” Gwen said, hooking her bra straps.

“Yeah, well, I like it that way.”  Barry fluffed the pillows, pulled up the bedspread, and tucked it under and over the pillows.

“Nothing wrong with it.  I just like my house a little more lived-in, that’s all.”

“I can’t live in a mess.  Everything has its place.”

Sensing that he was a little touchy on the subject, she switched gears.

“Eddie commented a couple of days ago about how come I was spending so much time with Janet lately,” she remarked, pulling on her skirt.

“Oh, yeah?”   Barry had seated himself on the desk chair and was tying his shoes, trying to treat it lightly.

“Yeah, and how come I come home later than I used to.”

“I thought he was always asleep.”

“Sometimes he wakes up if I’m not real quiet,” Gwen said, putting on earrings.

Barry said nothing.

“We’ve got to do something before he does.”

“You really want to do it?  You’re really serious?”

Now Gwen was buttoning her blouse.  “I’m really scared of what he’ll do when he catches us.  He will, you know.  Sooner or later.”

Barry nodded.  “I know.  I am too.”

She came up close and wrapped her arms around him.  “Do you really love me, Barry?  Really?”

He held her and stroked her hair.  The smell of her drove him nuts.  “I’m totally loony about you.”

“Then we have to do it.  If we don’t do it, we have to stop seeing each other.  I can’t stand the worrying much longer.”

Barry said, “I was thinking about it.  I have a lecture class on Wednesday mornings at ten for two hours.  It’s in the auditorium.  There are about two hundred people in it.  We sign in and take a handout before class starts.  After that, it’s easy to duck out.  If I didn’t have too far to go, I could leave and get back before class ended and make sure somebody sees me right after class.  That would be a pretty good alibi.  If I’m called on or missed for any reason, I can always say I felt sick and was in the bathroom a while.”

She leaned back in his arms and smiled up at him.  “That’s perfect, baby!”  She slapped his arm.  “I’m proud of you.”  Then she pulled away and began pacing.  “He doesn’t know what you sound like.  You could call his office, give him a phony name, and tell him you want a bid on a fencing job.  You tell him to meet you at some empty lot where there’s not much traffic.  You’re waiting in your pickup or behind a tree.  When he gets out of his car, bang!  It’s done.  You get rid of the gun somewhere and get back to class.  I’ll make sure I’m at work.  It will look random.  We can do this.”

“I’m pretty sure I can do it,” Barry said.  “I think I can.”

Gwen embraced him again.  “You can.  We can.  So we can be together forever.  It’s going to be wonderful to wake up together.”

 

Within a week they’d worked out the details.  On Saturday, Barry found a place that would work.  It was off Skyline Drive in a swanky residential area known as Lemon Heights, in the foothills under Saddleback Mountain, where Barry and his dates had often come to make out in his high school days.  He knew it well.  The houses were large and secluded.  The population density was very low, and thus there was very little traffic.  Lemon Heights was a straight shot from the college out 17th Street, a quick right on Newport Boulevard, and then a left.  A mile later, the road got twisty.  Many winding side streets branched off Skyline.  One of these, Jacaranda Court, consisted of only vacant lots offered for sale by a developer.  Wooden stakes waving orange flags marked the corners of the lots.  One lot had an old oak tree at the rear.  

Jacaranda Court was on a fairly steep hillside.  There were no houses visible above it.  Fifteen feet behind the oak tree, the land dropped sharply down to Magnolia Court, a nearly identical street.  Stationed behind the oak tree, Barry was in a perfect position to fire down on anyone standing on one of the lots on Magnolia Court.  Seconds later, he could be back in his pickup, driving away, and probably  back in class before anyone even noticed Eddie’s body.  It was perfect.

Barry announced his find to Gwen in a low voice that night as they stood in the back lot of The Blue Grotto on a smoke break. 

“That’s great!” she said, puffing nervously.  “We can do it next Wednesday.  We’ll work out the details on the way home tonight.”

Barry kept looking around to be sure they were alone.  “How do you know for sure that he’ll be able to make it at the right time?”

“He’s so hurting for business that he wouldn’t miss a chance to make a bid if you told him to be there at two a.m.  Even if he’s on a job, he’ll take time away to meet you.  Believe me, he’ll be there at whatever time you say, probably early so he’ll have a pitch all worked out before he expects you.  So if you tell him two o’clock, you need to be set up twenty minutes early.  Believe, he might already be there.”

“Jesus.  I just hope I have the guts to do this.”

“You will, sweetheart.  It’s too important not to.”  She gave him her sweetest smile. 

Barry nodded, lips pursed, wishing he were as sure as Gwen that he would not fail.  “So how will I get the rifle?”

“Easy.  I’ll tell Eddie I need the pickup Tuesday morning.  Raul can pick him up or I can take him.  It doesn’t matter.  I’ll bring it to your place and park next to your pickup so we can switch it.  He keeps all his guns in a cabinet and he never opens it unless he’s going hunting, so he won’t notice it gone.  Do you know where you can dispose of it?”

“Yeah.  There’s a storm drain on the way back to the college I checked out.  I’ll wipe the rifle clean and drop it in there.  Even if it’s ever found, there’s no way to trace it.  You’ll be sure to take the  trophy rifle his dad gave him, right?”

“Oh, yeah.  I’m sure which one it is.  It’s a Mauser bolt-action.”

“And it’ll be loaded, right?”

She gave him the what?-am-I-stupid? look.  “Of course.”

“I just hope it works.  I won’t be able to try it out first.”

“It will work.  Eddie keeps all his guns in perfect condition.”

“All right then.  I’ll call him Tuesday right after you drop it off, and set it up.  How is he listed?”

“He has a little ad in the yellow pages under fencing contractors.  Fence Works is the name of the business.  I could just write down the number for you.”

“No, I don’t want anything in writing.  You can tell me the number Tuesday or I’ll just look it up.”

Gwen dropped her cigarette and ground it out with her shoe.  “We’d better go in.”

Barry followed suit.  “Yeah.  I’ll be so fuckin’ glad when this is done.”

 

The plan seemed to be working perfectly by the time Barry got to the lot on Jacaranda Court Wednesday morning at ten-forty.  Barry was relieved that nothing had changed there.  There was no one on the street before it curved off around the hill in either direction.  He had called Eddie Tuesday morning and given him directions to the lot on Magnolia Court.  Eddie had agreed to meet Barry there at eleven.  Barry made a U-turn before parking his pickup facing the direction he intended to go afterward, when he would take a different route that wound through Lemon Heights and came out the back way on Tustin Ranch Road.  It would add only a few minutes to his trip back to school.  If his truck were noticed in connection with the shooting, it would be going in a direction away from Santa Ana.  He had also done a crude job of altering his license plate number with poster paint that he would wipe off with a damp rag on his way back to the college.  

In the school parking lot, he had pulled blue coveralls, from a prior job as a janitor, over his street clothes.  He hoped they would make him look like a workman and also look heavier.  From beneath the seat he pulled an orange hard hat and put it on to conceal his hair and distract any witnesses from his facial features.  He wanted a cigarette badly, but knew from his criminology class that a cigarette butt can be a useful clue and was afraid he’d forget to pocket it.  Instead of his usual sneakers, which had a chevron pattern on the soles, he wore flat-soled leather shoes, knowing he’d leave tracks in the soft dirt of the lot.  He couldn’t think of any other precautions to take, other than ditching the rifle afterward.

He got out of his truck and took the rifle from behind the seat, holding it vertically along his leg to make it less conspicuous.  If a car approached, he could keep his body between the rifle and the car.  He walked to the rear of the lot and leaned the rifle against the tree.  He had jacked a round into the chamber and set the safety before leaving his apartment.  He walked from the tree closer to the drop-off above Magnolia Court, going slowly until he could see the street below without exposing his body to view.  Eddie had not yet arrived at the lot.  From a pocket of his coveralls he pulled a Stanley thirty-foot tape measure.  Extending it, he began pretending to take measurements from the tree to the corner of the lot to stay in character as a workman and be in a position to see Eddie arriving below.   

A Chrysler Imperial came around the downhill curve on Jacaranda, cruising slowly, a middle-aged couple inside apparently looking at the lots.  Barry glanced at it and looked away, praying it would not stop.  He kept his back toward it until it had gone around another curve.  His heart was thumping in his chest, and he was sweating through the clothes under his coveralls.  It was all he could do not to chuck the whole plan and drive away.  The plan seemed flawed; it couldn’t possibly work.  He could not imagine why they hadn’t arranged to somehow do it under cover of darkness.  He felt naked and exposed, even though not another human was in sight.  He imagined the report of the rifle instantly drawing a crowd.

Then Eddie’s red Dodge pickup came around a curve on the street below, going left to right, and it was now or never.  In that moment, Barry fervently wished he’d never agreed to this crazy idea. 

Barry took one last look around.  Seeing no one, he took the rifle and went into a prone position.  He cradled the rifle between his elbows and low-crawled until he could see over the drop and down to Eddie’s car.  He had parked directly across from the realtor’s sign, which dangled facing him from the arm of a wooden post sunk into the dirt.  It swayed gently in a mild breeze not strong enough to require any compensation at a range this short.  Eddie was no more than seventy-five yards away, an easy shot. 

Barry brought the Mauser into position, flipped off the safety, and sighted down the barrel to the place Eddie would be when he got out of the car.  Given the car’s position, he could see only the top and passenger side of the car.  His pulse must have been over one-twenty, and he was breathing raggedly.  Sweat was pouring into his eyes.  He had to fire the moment he had a clear shot and get the hell away before someone came by. 

There!  He could see the driver’s door swing open and Eddie’s head emerge from the car looking toward the realtor’s sign, then his shoulders, and then his whole body came into view as he started across the street, leaving his door open and carrying a clipboard in his right hand.  Barry took a quick look over his shoulder, saw nothing, and drew a bead on a spot slightly to the right of Eddie’s left shoulder blade.  When Eddie stopped a few feet from the sign, probably reading it, it framed his head from Barry’s perspective.  Barry took a breath, held it, and squeezed off a shot.  The report seemed deafening.  Eddie crouched a split second after the round punched a hole in the realtor’s sign and set it swinging. 

Instantly realizing he had missed, Barry drew back the Mauser’s bolt and jacked in another round, but by then Eddie had spun and was dashing for his pickup, his head turned up toward Barry’s position.  Barry thought, “Jesus, this has already gone to shit!”  Before he could draw a bead, Eddie had made it to the Dodge.  Killing him now would require a lucky shot through the roof.  The engine roared to life.  Barry decided that taking two or three potshots could only draw attention and bring someone running.  If he was lucky enough to fatally hit Eddie, the pickup would crash and attract more attention.  Getting the hell away seemed like the best thing to do.

Barry scrambled to his feet.  He would have forgotten to pick up the spent shell, but his hand fell on it while he was getting up.  He put it in his pocket, and, holding the rifle against his pants leg, walked rapidly toward his pickup, scanning the area for activity, praying he would see none.  There was nothing.  He flipped on the safety, opened his door, and laid the gun behind the seat.  Flipping his hard hat onto the floor, he jumped behind the wheel, fired the engine, and got moving.  He hoped against hope that Eddie would run for help rather than come up the hill to find him.  For all he knew, Eddie carried a handgun under his seat and would now have a terrific advantage.  Fortunately, Eddie had headed uphill and Barry was pointed downhill. 

He took off as fast as the old truck could handle the curving streets, heading the way he had planned.  When he finally came to an occupied street, he forced himself to slow down to the speed limit, his hands gripping the steering wheel so tight his knuckles were white.  He passed no one, and there was no sign of Barry.  All the way to Tustin Ranch Road, he passed only a couple of cars.  No one so much as glanced at him.  He swung a right on Tustin Ranch and followed his preset route until he came to an Alpha Beta Market.

He turned into the parking lot and pulled in beside a bread truck that would block the view from the street.  The driver of the truck was pushing a car loaded with bread toward the market.  Barry  unsnapped his dusty coveralls and frantically squirmed out of them.  He stuffed them under the passenger seat.  He wanted to be rid of the rifle as soon as possible, but then realized that if found by a kid, someone innocent might be hurt.  Looking around to be sure the bread truck driver was not returning, he got out, pushed the driver’s seatback forward, and kept a wary eye open while he removed the four remaining bullets in the rifle.  With a damp rag he’d brought for the purpose, he wiped the four live rounds and the empty shell to remove any prints.  Then he reached into the front, tore out a sheet of notebook paper from a three-ringer binder, crumpled it, and wrapped the bullets in the paper, being careful not to leave prints.

He replaced the rifle behind the seat.  Then as casually as he could, he walked toward the market carrying the crumpled paper with the bullets.  On the way he passed the bread truck driver returning with his cart empty.  Both said ‘good morning’ simultaneously.  He found a trash can near the door, and dropped in the paper containing the bullets.  It clunked inappropriately, but he doubted the driver was close enough to hear.

Barry walked into the store, pulled a soda from the soft drink cooler, went to the cash register, and handed the checker a dime.  The checker, a chubby lady, looked at him oddly, as if recognizing him.  He instantly began sweating.  She pointed to her own cheek.

“D’ya know you’ve got a big streak of dirt on your cheek?” she asked.

“Do I?” Barry asked, and foolishly felt his cheek.

The checker reached under her counter and pulled out a roll of paper towels.  She tore one off, put the roll back, came up with a bottle of Windex, gave the towel a quick spray, and handed it to him, smiling sweetly. 

“Here you go, honey,” she said.  “This ought to get it.”

“Thanks,” he muttered, and went out wiping his face.

Outside, he paused, drinking from the soda and listening for the sound of sirens.  Nothing.  He looked at the paper towel; it was smeared with dirt.  Closing his eyes, he rubbed the paper towel over his entire face, then chucked it into the trash can.  By the time he got to his pickup, the bread truck had gone and his pickup was visible from the street.  Despite the unlikelihood that anyone had even noticed it, to him it looked like a baby-blue billboard saying “Here I am!”  He needed to get rid of the rifle, and he needed to get back to school. 

The culvert in which he had planned to drop the rifle now seemed unnecessarily exposed.  He would have to stop his pickup with traffic going by, open the passenger door, remove the rifle, and go down an embankment.  It seemed like folly.  The market would have at least one trash dumpster in back.  The rifle was unregistered.  Once wiped clean, it was untraceable.  He decided to look. 

On the way to the truck he finished the soda.  He tossed the empty bottle onto the passenger floorboard.  He reached behind driver’s seat, wiped the rifle clean and wrapped the rag around the middle, then started the truck.  The alley behind the market was empty except for two dumpsters.  He quickly stopped, took out the rifle, stuffed it into the dumpster under some cardboard boxes of rotting vegetables, left the rag, and was turning out of the alley within half a minute, satisfied that all evidence was gone.  Then he remembered the paraffin test.

He stopped at a gas station and used the restroom to wash his hands thoroughly with borax.  He checked his face in the mirror and decided to wash it too, just to be sure.  He kept the damp paper towel he’d used to dry his hands.  When he got to his truck, he glanced around.  No one was looking.  He used the paper towel to remove the poster paint from his license plate and threw it in a trash can.  Running down a mental checklist, he decided that there was nothing left to do.  He drove back to the college in time for the last half hour of the lecture and got next week’s assignment.

 

Barry knew that Gwen would be frantic to know what happened, but there was no way to contact her before going to The Blue Grotto that night.  If he called her house, Eddie might be there and answer.  He had no choice but to go about his day as if nothing had happened.  After class he went to his apartment and bullshitted with one of his roomies while he ate a tuna sandwich and potato chips.  He was too antsy to sit still, so went downstairs to the laundry room and washed the coveralls along with some other things while he tried to read his assignments.  Nothing registered. 

At two o’clock one of his roomies came down to the laundry room and said a girl was on the phone and would wait.  As calmly as possible, he went upstairs to his room and picked up the extension phone.  It was Gwen, of course. 

“What happened?” she asked, sounding frightened.

“I missed.”  He was speaking as quietly as possible, worried about the thin walls of his room.

“You missed?  You missed?”

“It wasn’t sighted in.  I told you I wouldn’t be able to try it out.  You told me he takes really good care of his things.  I had to take what I got.”

“Oh, God.  Oh, God.”

“Have you seen him?”

“No!  I went shopping with Janet.  For an alibi.  I just got home.”

“You can’t tell if he’s been there?”

“No.  I’m not sure.”

“Can you check and see whether any other guns are missing?”

“Wait,” she said.  The phone clunked down.  A minute later she was back.  “I think maybe a pistol is missing.  A little one.  I’m not sure.  I never paid attention to them.  Oh, God, I’m scared of what he’ll do.  Does he know you shot at him?”

“Well, yeah, of course he knows someone did.  But I don’t think he saw me or my truck.  I don’t think anyone did, except for two people who drove by looking at lots before it happened.  I think I’m in the clear.”

“What about the rifle?”

“I ditched it in a dumpster.”

“Oh, God, why did we use his own gun?”

“Because we had no choice and we didn’t expect him to be around to miss it.  Listen, Gwen, you have to act like you don’t have a clue what happened.  Couldn’t someone else have taken it?”

“Who?”

“I don’t know.  A brother?  A friend who knows he has guns in the house?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Any strangers in the house recently?”

“I don’t think…wait!  We had a clogged drain a couple of months ago.  I called Eddie at his office and he told me to call Roto Rooter or one of those places.  But I don’t think the plumber guy could have done it with me there.”

“Eddie doesn’t know that.  Tell him you stayed out of his way and he could have done it.”

Gwen was silent a moment.  “Maybe that would work.  I don’t remember the last time Eddie was in his gun cabinet.  He hasn’t been hunting since he started the fencing business.”

“It’ll work.  It has to.”

“So what should I do?”

“Just act normal.  If he tells you what happened, you’ve got to act shocked.  If he’s noticed the rifle missing, give him the story, but act like you had to think about it first, like with me.  It’s the best we can do.  If we run, we might as well admit it.  We can’t do that.  Deny it, no matter what.”

“I’m just so scared.”

“Look, Gwen.  If he tells the cops, there’s not enough evidence for them to do anything.  And what’s Eddie going to do?  Shoot us?  Do you think he’s that crazy?”

“No.  I’m not sure.  I don’t know…”

“When he comes home, play innocent.  Don’t mention it unless he does.  If he does and he gets rough with you, call the cops and then call me if you can.  All we can do is hope he doesn’t suspect us.”

“I guess.”

“I’ll see you at work. If you’re not there, Molly will call you and find out what’s going on.  Remember, deny everything.  No one can prove anything.”

“Okay.  Are you sure there’s nothing else to do?”

“It’s all I can think of.  Call me if you think of anything.”

Reluctantly:  “Okay.”

“I love you, Gwen.”

“I love you, too.”

He hung up, scared shitless.  It didn’t sound right.  If Eddie hadn’t said anything to her yet, then he probably hadn’t called the cops either.  The silence worried him.  He’d rather see the cops knocking on his door than Eddie.  There was nothing to do but kill time and go to work.

 

Barry got to The Blue Grotto a few minutes early.  Gwen hadn’t arrived yet.  He was too tense to concentrate, and went about his work in a fog of worries.  Then, fifteen minutes late, Gwen arrived.  There was a look of concern on her face, but she seemed unharmed.  The first chance they got to take a smoke break was after seven.  She went through the kitchen, the strain showing on her face, with a cigarette in her hand.  Eugene raised his eyebrows at her.  Barry followed her outside, where she was standing by his pickup.  Her hands were shaking.

“He told me about it,” she said, not looking directly at him.

“And…?”

“I acted as shocked as I could, you know, ‘are you all right, did you get hurt?’ that kind of stuff.  I asked if he’d called the cops.  He said ‘Why bother?  I wasn’t hurt, they’re busy, they wouldn’t do a damned thing anyway.’”

“So, how did he seem?  Mad?  Scared?  What?”

“Weird.  Just kinda cold, like it was no big deal.  I asked him did he think he knew who might have done it or was it just some nut case.  He just said, ‘I don’t know.  Could’a been anybody.  They missed.  That’s all that counts.’  I asked him did the guy he was supposed to meet out there show up, and he said ‘You think I’d wait around to see?  He’ll call me or he won’t.’  I said ‘Maybe you were set up,’ and he said, ‘Maybe I was.’  And then he just clammed up about it and said it would only be guessing.”

Barry leaned on his fender and took a long drag on his cigarette.  “Hmph.  Not sure what to make of that.  He didn’t say anything about the missing rifle?”

“No, and obviously I wasn’t going to bring it up.”

“Yeah.  Obviously.  So we don’t really know what he’s thinking.”

“I’m so worried.”

“Did he say he’d pick you up tonight?”

“No.  Just like usual.”

“Hmph.”

“But there was one thing different, and it was kind of creepy.”

“What?”

She looked miserable.  “Tonight, when I was getting ready for work, he wanted to…you know…do it.”

Barry’s face took on a look of extreme pain.  “He what?

“It’s been months since he…wanted it.  I tried to tell him I’d be late to work.  He said ‘This won’t take long.’  I tried to make him stop, but he’s so big.”

Barry’s jaw muscles were twisted into knots.  “Why couldn’t I have killed that bastard today?”

“I’m sorry, Barry.”

“Not your fault.  Are you okay?”

“I’m all right.”

“Maybe I’ll get another chance.”

 

That night they went straight to her house without stopping.  The house looked like it did every other night.  Barry pulled over to the curb and left his lights on, engine running. 

“I’ll stay home from class tomorrow,” he said.  “Call me the first chance you get and tell me what’s going on.”

She said, “Okay,” turned, and opened her door.  As cheerfully as she could, she said, “See you at work tomorrow.”

As she stepped out of the car, Eddie was there, a pistol in his hand.  He grabbed Gwen’s wrist to restrain her and stuck his head and gun hand into the car.

“Turn off your lights and kill the engine, lover-boy.” Eddie said.  “Don’t forget to set the brake.”

Barry complied warily, his mind working at light speed while he wondered if he was about to die.  Without his headlights, the street was almost dark, but for an ancient street light two doors away.  The windows were dark in most of the homes.  It was an early-to-bed, working-class neighborhood.  No one was on the street, though it was only a quarter to ten.

“Slide over and get out, but do it slow, kid.”

Barry followed orders.  While he was bent over getting out of the car, Eddie’s pistol came around in an arc and slammed against the side of Barry’s head.  He went down, landing on the strip of grass at the curb. 

Gwen shrieked, “Barry!” then, “What are you doing?”  She kneeled over Barry and gingerly touched his scraped cheek.  There wasn’t much blood but it was already swelling.  Barry groaned. 

“Keep your voice down, you little slut.  I figured out your little scheme.  You dumb shits didn’t stop to think what would happen if lover-boy missed, did you?”

“What are you talking about?” Gwen begged.

“The Mauser, Gwen.  It was there two weeks ago.  Why would anyone take it instead of a new Remington deer rifle worth twice as much and more accurate?  You took it, because it’s not registered.  Where is it now, lover-boy?”

Barry said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Eddie kicked Barry hard in the thigh.  Barry grunted in pain.  Eddie bent down, teeth clenched in a grimace, and said almost into Barry’s face, menace dripping from his voice.

“That was a fuckin’ family heirloom, you dick.”

Gwen said, “Stop it or I swear I’ll scream bloody murder!”

“You’re not gonna scream, bitch, and I’ll tell you why[LS1] [LS2] .  Now stay put or I’ll kick him in the face.”

He let go of her wrist, then grabbed Barry by the front of his shirt and pulled him to his feet.    Barry considered kicking him in the balls, hard, but something in Eddie’s manner told him to listen to what he had to say.  Gwen got to her feet and helped support Barry, who was wobbling.  Eddie switched his attention back and forth between Gwen and Barry while he talked.

“I was startin’ to wonder if somethin’ was goin’ on with you and lover-boy, but I was too busy worryin’ about keepin’ a roof over our heads to give it much thought.  I thought you were too mousey to actually screw the guy.  Guess I was wrong.  After lover-boy missed his shot, I came home to pick up a pistol in case he tried somethin’ else, and lo and behold, the Mauser was gone and there’s a note sayin’ you’re out shoppin’ with your sister.  Great alibi.  I don’t believe in coincidences like that.  So I go back to work.  When I come home to take you to work, you’re nervous as a constipated cat and chain-smokin’.  You think I’m an idiot?”

Gwen desperately cut in, “Eddie, we would never…”

Eddie said “Just shut the fuck up, Gwen.  It had to be a setup.  Who else would do it?”

Barry said, “Look, Eddie, you’re wrong.”

Eddie slapped the other side of Barry’s face hard with his free hand.  “You shut the fuck up too, lover-boy.”  He stuck the pistol against Barry’s temple.  Barry grimaced.  Eddie shoved Barry’s head with the barrel of the gun and laughed.  “It’s your lucky day, shithead.  I ain’t gonna kill you because I’m smart enough to know I’d get caught.  Not like you.  I’m just gonna bust a couple of ribs and call it even, because there ain’t enough evidence for the cops to do a thing about your little murder plot.  You’re gonna take what you got comin’ and keep your mouth shut, after which I’m gonna give you what you want.”

Stunned, Barry’s jaw dropped.  “What?”

“That’s right, dickhead.  You can have this rented dump and the house-mouse to go with it.  Keep the broken car too.  I only stayed as long as I did because I felt sorry for her.”  He laughed bitterly.  “You got no idea how fucked up she is.  I can’t wait to leave this shithole.  My junk’s all packed in my car out back and my brother said he’d leave the light on.  Soon as we can do it, you can bring Gwennie down to Tijuana, and we’ll get a Mexican divorce.  Then we’ll all live happily ever after.”

Barry attempted to smile, blood running down his face now.  “That’s great, Eddie.”

Eddie smiled, put the safety on, and stuffed the pistol under his belt.  He said, “I told you to shut the fuck up, didn’t I?”

He punched Barry hard in the guts.  Barry doubled over, retching.  Eddie’s other fist slammed into his ribs.  He went down again, this time clenching his hands over his crotch as if he knew what was coming. 

Gwen shrieked “Stop it, Eddie!” and got between them. 

Eddie pushed her aside and kicked Barry in the crotch, hitting his hands.  Gwen shoved Eddie and began scratching and slapping him as hard and fast as she could.  He caught her hands and threw her down on top of Barry.  A porch light came on across the street and the front door opened.  A man looked out into the dark, but Eddie’s car was between him and the commotion.  Another porch light came on next door.  Eddie pointed at the two on the ground. 

“We’re all done.  You two make up any story you like, but leave me out of it.”  He looked at Gwen.  “You’re lucky I don’t knock out a few of your pretty teeth.  If either of you say a goddamned word about this, or if you don’t show up in TJ when I tell you to, I guarantee you’ll be real sorry.” 

He backed away a few paces.  “Good luck, sucker,” he said to Barry.  Then he turned and walked away, past the house and toward the alley.

Across the street the man had stepped onto his porch.  “Everything okay over there?”

Gwen had gotten to her feet.  She went to the front of the pickup and looked over the hood.  “Yes.  It’s all right.  My friend got sick.  I’m taking him inside.  It’s all right.”

The man craned his neck but could see nothing.  The next-door neighbor was peering out but saw little in the dim light.  Both men seemed reassured and slowly closed their doors.  Gwen returned to Barry and helped him to stand up enough to lean back and put his weight on the passenger seat. 

“It hurts to breath.  I wonder if he broke anything,” Barry said.  He looked at the fingers of the hand that was covering his crotch when Eddie kicked him.  He wasn’t sure whether a finger was broken. 

Gwen was frightened.  “Should I take you to the emergency room?”

Blood was still trickling down from the scrape on his cheek.  His other cheek was red from being slapped.  He was wincing in pain from every breath.  Gwen gently took his face between her hands, looking in his eyes.   

“Not yet.  I just need to sit for a minute.”

“Did you hear him, sweetheart?  He’s going to leave us alone!  It’s okay.  We’re okay!”

“Well, you’re okay.”  He tried to laugh, but winced from pain.  I’m not feeling so hot right now.”

“Oh, sweetie, I’m so sorry!  I didn’t mean…”

He reached out and patted her shoulder.  “I know.  I know.  It’s okay.  I’d be relieved too if I didn’t hurt so much.”

“Why don’t we go in the house?  You can lie down and we can decide if you need a doctor.”

“Yeah, we should get off the street.”

Gwen retrieved her purse from where it had fallen on the ground, and fished her keys out.  By leaning on Gwen, Barry stood up.  They managed to get the car door closed.  With his arm around her shoulders, Barry limped alongside her up the walk.  She got the door open.  They went into the darkened house.  Gwen closed the door behind them and turned on the light. 

Barry looked around, and could not hide his astonishment.  They were in a tiny entryway, with the living room to the right and the dining room to the left.  Every available horizontal space, floor included, was buried in…junk.  There was no other word for it.  Stacks and stacks of newspapers.  Paperback books.  Umbrellas.  Christmas ornaments in boxes.  Chairs with broken legs and torn cushions.  Several bicycles of various sizes.  Lawn ornaments.  Pottery.  Sealed cardboard boxes.  Pots and pans.  Dishes.  Fireplace tools.  Dozens of framed prints leaning against walls.  Vases.  Floor lamps.  Table lamps.  Vacuum cleaners.  More newspapers.  The only empty spaces were the aisles left between stacks of stuff, and a couple of spaces at the dining table.

He couldn’t make words come out.  “Wha-wha-what….”

Gwen smiled sheepishly.  “Oh, I know it’s a little messy, but it’s all stuff we’ll need.  Let’s get you into bed.”

Barry’s head swung side to side, trying to take it all in, as she helped him down the hall, flipping on lights as she went, and into a bedroom as stuffed as the other rooms.  It was awkward for the two of them to make it through the narrow aisles, but she helped him lie down on a rumpled bed with dirty, grey sheets and filthy blankets.  His eyes were rolling around trying to absorb what he was seeing and fit it into his image of Gwen, who was so neat and clean in her person.  He caught a glimpse of the bathroom off the bedroom through the half-open door.  It appeared to have survived a cyclone, but just barely. 

Gwen made him sit on the bed and then lie back.  She got his shoes off and put his legs up, beginning to prattle. 

“It’s so wonderful, Barry.  I was so scared it wouldn’t happen at all, or we’d get hurt or caught, and then he just handed it to us.”

He didn’t reply, just kept staring at his surroundings.  Gwen sat next to him on the bed, took one of his hands, and began examining it for injury. 

“You poor baby,” she cooed.  “Oh, I hope there’s nothing broken.  Are you breathing better?”

“A little,” he managed to reply. 

“Good.”  She was gently flexing his fingers.  “I don’t think any are broken.”

“Gwen, I…”

“You just hush and rest for now.  I’m going to get some alcohol and paper towels to clean up your cheek.”

She got up and went out.  Barry appeared to be in shock.   He was noticing that the bedroom contained, besides the newspapers and other junk, many large baby dolls that were staring at him with their glass eyes from shelves and the tops of dressers.  He thought he could never sleep under their gaze.  Gwen came rushing back in with a bottle of alcohol, some damp paper towels, and some dry ones.  She sat again on the bed and began gently cleaning him up and pushing his hair back into place. 

“Oh, you poor thing.  I’m so sorry this happened to you,” she said.

Barry finally managed to speak.  “No.  I’ll be all right.  Maybe I should just go home.  My roommates are gonna be worried.”

He tried to straighten up.  Gwen softly pushed him back down.  “They’re big boys and they know you have a girlfriend.  You’ll see them tomorrow.  You’re not going anywhere unless you need to go to the ER.  Do you want to go?”

Barry relaxed a bit.  “I don’t think so.  It doesn’t hurt so much to breathe now.”

“Good.  This is your home now.  You just relax.”  She finished cleaning him up and put the alcohol and towels on the floor.  “Would some aspirin help?”

“Yeah, maybe,” Barry gasped.

“I’ll get you some.  Just lie back.”

She went into the bathroom and came back with three aspirin and water in a dirty glass.  She handed these to Barry.  He made a face at the glass, tossed the aspirin into his mouth, and drank enough water to choke them down.

“Thanks,” he said.

“You’ll feel better soon.”  She stroked his brow and gazed sweetly into his eyes.  He looked back, the stunned expression still on his face.  He couldn’t square her face with the images of this house.  Could Eddie have been the hoarder?  No, she’d said, “It’s a bit messy, but it’s all stuff we’ll need.”

“How could he do this to your pretty face?” she said now, smiling that smile he loved. 

“He’s a jerk,” is all he could think to say. 

“Well, you’ll heal soon.  And we’re free now.”

“Yeah,” he said ruefully.  “Free.”  He could not imagine ever living here.

“I know you’re hurting, baby, and it’s hard to see the future, but it’ll be so bright now.”

He could only muster a nod, wishing the aspirin would take effect.

“I know something that’ll cheer you up,” she said, beaming now.

“Really?” he said, thinking, “Please, God, let her tell me all this shit is Eddie’s and she’s going to clear it all out of here.

“Uh-huh.”  She leaned over him and laid her head on his chest, holding him close, squeezing until it hurt, and whispered into his ear, “I think we’re going to have a baby.”

 

                                                                                                                                                                                          

 

 

 

 


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