He stood on the sidewalk in front of the Chinese restaurant watching Ziptie doing something in the parking lot across the street. Ziptie shoved a large cardboard box under a car, lit a pack of matches, threw it into the box, and walked away – his dark twin, his alter ego, the part of himself from which he tried to keep a safe distance. He looked over his shoulder through the window of the restaurant. Everybody was minding their own business, unlike in the pharmacy next door, where everybody minded everybody else’s business. Not that they were bad people. In fact, they were good people, had always treated him well; but they were townies, born and raised. They had spent their entire lives (disregarding pharmacy school) in this small village where you couldn’t breathe without reading about it in the weekly paper. The Chinese were from the city, where seeing too much could get you killed. They had learned to not look.
Well, it didn’t matter. Whatever Ziptie had tried to do didn’t seem to be working. There was a puff of smoke, a few licks of flame; then nothing. He crossed the street – the main street in his town – turned right, and followed Ziptie past the art gallery and the music store, the bar with its upstairs performance space, and then the print shop and the cellphone outlet. There, he turned left onto the street that ran beside the lake.
The first thing he saw after rounding the corner was not the receding figure of Ziptie but three people approaching, Americans by the look of them – an unremarkable couple on his side of the street and a perfectly extraordinary woman walking alone along the lakeshore. He would learn later that they had decided to escape the self-contained world of the resort hotel and take a walk into town to mix with the locals. They’d started off as a trio; but, five minutes into it, Michelle and Randy had crossed to the other sidewalk because Michelle had said Becky’s chances would be better if she walked solo.
Before he’d made a conscious decision, his legs were taking him across the street on a diagonal trajectory. When he stepped onto the curb and strode toward her, Becky thought, Okay. Here we go. The three of them had agreed: the first one who isn’t ugly.
She had believed she was ready for this, but now realized she was not. He could be a murderer. She slowed her pace as he increased his. He looked about five-nine, slender, balding, and not ugly. She figured she topped him by twenty pounds. Her resolve abandoned her, replaced by annoyance. Should I detour around him, or should I just knock him over?
They stopped about eighteen inches apart. She was wearing red leggings, a black pleated skirt, and a red boiled-wool jacket tailored to show her shape. The top button was unfastened, allowing a glimpse of black cashmere beneath.
“Hello, nice lady,” he said. Allow me please to welcome you to my town.”
“You’re town? You own all this?”
“No. I do not own; but is mine in my heart. Is unworthy, but is all I have.”
He was nervous enough to be surprised that the words had come so easily.
“I bet you say that to all the women,” Becky quipped, thinking, Is this guy for real, or is this just a con?
“No, no. You the first.”
It was true. He had never encountered anyone like her. She stood six feet tall in her high-heeled black suede boots. She was round-faced and ruddy-skinned with pale blue eyes and hair like ravens’ feathers. A long, thin scar creased her left cheek from ear to chin.
“What is this?” he said, pointing to the scar.
“A gift from my boyfriend…my ex-boyfriend.”
He touched it with the tips of his fingers. She stiffened but only momentarily, remembering why she had come to this country. He traced the angry line with an almost imperceptible pressure.
“Someone should give him equal gift.”
“Someone gave him one better,” she replied.
“What is your name?”
She did not answer. She both wondered and knew where this was going and was reluctant to make it easy for him. Michelle and Randy took it all in from the opposite side of the street.
“Tell him your name,” Randy called out.
“Yeah,” Michelle added. “Don’t be rude, Becky.”
But traffic noise obliterated Michelle’s first words, and the wind from the lake smeared the last two into one, so that what he heard was rudebecky; but that didn’t make sense, and he concluded that her name was Rudbeckia.
“Ah, Rudbeckia. Yes, yes. Beautiful name. Beautiful flower.”
“No. My name is Becky.”
“Yes. I understand. Becky nickname. Short for Rudbeckia.”
Michelle and Randy were laughing now.
“Okay, Rudbeckia,” Michelle said. “We’ll see you back at the hotel. Take your time.”
“Enjoy,” Randy chimed in.
More laughter as Becky’s companions continued toward the main street, leaving her alone with this foreign man, though she was well aware that it was she who was the foreigner. She decided not to correct him.
“And who are you?” Becky asked.
“I am your man.”
“You’re my man? That’s rich.”
“No. Not my man. Your man.”
“Oh. I get it. You’re name’s Yourman.”
It wasn’t what he meant, but he thought it unwise for them to begin by arguing.
“Okay. Whatever make you happy.”
He put his arm around her waist. Again, she stiffened; then relaxed.
“Come. We walk along lake.”
“I already did that.”
“Yes. But from wrong direction…and not with me.”
Becky took her time considering this before allowing him to turn her around. He gave her a bright smile. It struck her as strange. Such perfect teeth in this moth-eaten, dog-eared town in this mountainous and forgotten country.
One thing that was better about going back the way she had come was that the wind no longer assaulted her with stinging bits of broken snowcrust and the odors of bad cooking. Far ahead of them, now, Ziptie made a left onto the Avenue of Shepherds. Yourman said, “See that fellow? He is my shadow.”
“If he’s your shadow, shouldn’t he be behind you?”
“Disobedient shadow. He go to my house. He live above me.”
“Shouldn’t your shadow live below you?”
“Disobedient, arrogant shadow!”
“You’re a funny man, you know that?”
“Yes. Ha ha. Funny man. Is choice, yes? You can laugh, you can cry. I choose laugh. But sometimes, I cry anyway. Not every joke funny.”
They followed Ziptie and stopped in front of a house that he had entered: a small, tattered two-story box with a hipped roof. It began to rain – fat, icy drops from a sky the color of mole’s fur.
“Come. We go inside. We have good time.”
“I’m not so sure I should go in there.”
“Why? Is safe. Is just me and my shadow. My shadow upstairs. Me downstairs.”
“Your shadow, does he have a name?” She really didn’t care whether he had a name or not or what the name might be. It was strictly a stalling tactic.
“That’s just weird. I mean, what kind of a name is Ziptie?”
“Is cheap imitation desperate substitute name, but it make sense. He deal drugs in Ziploc® bags, so we want to call him Ziploc®; but Ziploc® trademark, so we cannot call him that. When he get in fight, he close wound with Zipstitch®, but we cannot call him Zipstitch® because Zipstitch® trademark, too. When cops arrest him, they zip-tie his wrists; so we call him Ziptie, and hope lawyers do not come. But someday they will be here, just like in every other little country. They will patent our water and copyright our air and trademark our trees and make it a crime to speak our own names without paying them a fee.”
The rain increased in intensity, driven by a quickening wind.
“Come, please,” Yourman said, moving toward the house. Becky frowned, then followed.
The front door opened onto a narrow hallway dimly lit by a single bulb. The floor was carpeted, but the carpet was heavily worn and pocked with small holes. Halfway down the hall, a stairway to the right provided access to the second floor. They had almost reached it when they heard a loud bang accompanied by a small mushroom cloud of dust erupting from the carpet at Yourman’s feet. Yourman pulled a snub-nosed revolver from his coat and fired in the direction of a shadow at the top of the stairs.
“Jesus Christ!” Becky yelped. “Are you people crazy?”
“Not worry. No one get hurt. Is just game.”
Yourman dropped to a squat, his left shoulder against the wall. Becky crouched behind him, leaned in close. He smelled like spinach. What a strange thing to notice in the middle of a gun battle, she thought.
A prolonged volley of shots ensued. The noise was deafening. Splinters of molding flew through the air. Chips of plaster rained down. Dust mushrooms continued to rise from the carpet in rapid succession.
“Please, Yourman. This is scaring me.”
“Stop, Ziptie. I am with Rudbeckia, beautiful flower. She frightened, now.”
One more shot rang out from the top of the stairs. A final mushroom bloomed from the battered carpet. A single shell casing dribbled down the steps, rolled, and came to rest on the floor in front of Yourman. He picked it up and swiveled on the balls of his feet to face Becky.
“Here. Is yours. A gift from Ziptie.”
“I don’t want it.”
“But is gift.”
“I don’t care. I don’t like it. I don’t want it.”
She was trembling. He could see it, could see her face drained of color.
He said softly, “You fear what you do not like, you never master it. Is gift.”
“Put it in here. I don’t want to touch it.” She held her jacket pocket open, and he placed the shell inside.
“Come. Party over. We go to apartment.”
It didn’t matter to her where they went at that point as long as it was out of the hallway. He led her by the hand to his door, unlocked it, and they entered. She could see the whole place at a glance: a fairly spacious kitchen, a tiny bathroom with no bathing facility – just a water closet (the bathtub was in the kitchen) – and another room that served as bedroom and living room combined. The apartment, though cluttered with what looked like salvaged motel furnishings, was spotless.
“It’s so….” She was going to say “small” but caught herself. “So efficient!” Is my voice too loud? she wondered. She was still rattled by the hallway showdown.
“I do not understand.”
“Efficient. You can reach everything with a minimum of effort. And it’s easy to keep clean. In America, efficiency is highly valued. (And soul killing, she thought.) There is even a whole class of apartments called efficiencies.”
She was no longer trembling. To the contrary, she was beginning to perspire.
They stood in the kitchen.
“Is hot in here, no?” Yourman said, removing his coat and hanging it on a rack by the door. He wore nothing beneath it but a tee shirt. It was blood red, nearly the same shade as Becky’s jacket; and it bore a quotation from Aldous Huxley: “Facts don’t cease to exist because they are ignored.”
“Please, sit,” Yourman implored. He pulled a chair away from the table, and Becky sat.
He moved to her side. Her face was inches from his chest.
“Nice T-shirt,” she said, because she didn’t know what else to say.
“Yes. Is good.”
“But what does it mean?”
He stepped back a pace. “What you mean, what it mean? It mean what it mean!”
“I just meant…I just wondered if you had something else to say about it…some comments….”
“I say it funny world. I get this from Amazon. Is words of English philosopher – he write “Brave New World,” you read that? – on American tee shirt, made in China. That my comment.”
He walked to the sink, washed his hands. When he came back to the table, he seemed in better humor, calmer.
“You like glass of tea, maybe, after tee shirt comment?”
“Yes. That would be nice. Do you have green tea?”
“All colors. I have green, yellow, white, black, blue, pink.”
Becky smiled. Is he trying to put me at ease, or is he congenitally a goofball?
They sat at the table, Becky’s hands clasping the warm glass, the small talk having faded to silence; but she didn’t mind that. If anything, she was more comfortable this way, without having to pretend anything. She had never been good at small talk, preferred nothing to mindless chatter; and he seemed satisfied with the quiet.
The heat was stifling. Becky started to remove her jacket, but Yourman stood up. He said, “Wait. Allow me. I help.”
So old world, she thought. Or maybe just a move to get closer to me, to have some contact.
“Alright,” she said. “It does require a little squirming to get out of it.”
He took the jacket from behind as she stood. She dropped her arms to ease the removal; but something went wrong. The left sleeve resisted. He tugged at it. She tilted left, waggled the arm. He tugged again. The garment fell free, out of his grasp, onto the floor. The shell casing rolled out of its pocket.
“I am sorry,” he said.
She picked the jacket up from the floor, placed it across the back of the chair, and sat down. Yourman retrieved the shell.
“I really don’t want that thing.”
“I know, and I don’t mean to be rude, but I really don’t want it.”
“I told you. I don’t like it.”
“Why? Because it scare you?”
“Because I hate guns. They make killing easy. They make life trivial. They make people stupid. I hate what people do with guns. I want nothing to do with guns or anything that has anything to do with guns.”
“They are not you, guns.”
“Yes. They are absolutely not me.”
“I tell you about what is not you. What is not you is all you have when you forget who you are. The things you are – the things you like…the things you love, even –they not help, because they are you; and you do not know you, anymore. But the things that are not you, they are clues, like crumbs in the forest. They show you path back.”
He returned the shell to her jacket pocket.
“Always carry something you do not like to remind you when you forget who you are. Is like amulet. It give you power over fear.”
Becky did not protest, even though she thought what Yourman said was nonsense and that a brass casing in her pocket would give her precious little power over her fear – or anything else – if someone started shooting at her from the top of a stairwell. She felt if she said anything at this point, she might burst into tears. She was trembling again. Yourman took his seat opposite her.
“Drink tea slowly. It soothe nerves.”
Becky nodded her head and sipped her tea, slowly, as instructed. When she was done, they sat several minutes more without speaking. She was surprised when she realized that she had been staring at him, looking directly into his eyes, and that he had been looking back. She rose from the table, collected the empty glasses, and took them to the sink, feeling as though she had done this many times in this bathtub kitchen in this tiny apartment in a country no one remembered, like a scene from a dream. On the counter, she spotted a blue plastic box and a container of denture cleaner. She remembered the bright smile.
“You wear dentures.” She had delivered it as a declaration, leaving no room for denial.
He nodded and looked away.
“Is joke, but not funny.”
“Not your fault. And dentures, they not full, just partial. Bridge, they call it. Uppers. You want to see?”
He opened his mouth, put his fingers inside. She heard a clicking sound. He held the bridge out to her and smiled – a hole where the six teeth in his hand belonged.
“Oh, I am sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry because of teeth. That is not from where the pain comes.”
“My girlfriend and me – my ex-girlfriend, as you say – we have argument. Argument become fight. Fight become damage. Her gift to me, as you say.”
He held the bridge up like a glass of wine, then snapped it back in place.
“Did you give her an equal gift?”
“What happened to her?”
“Just scrape knuckles. She big lady, like you; but not so beautiful. She walk out, go upstairs. Then I hear bed springs: squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak. I put hands over my ears, but I still hear. After that, I not see her again.”
He was staring at the floor. She pulled her chair close to his, put her hand under his chin, lifted his face to hers.
“You are an honorable man.”
“You are kind lady.”
“I’m not saying it to be kind. I’m saying it because it is a fact…and it should not be ignored.”
“Yes. Thank you. But now I have problem. Because I tell you what happen, I have problem. I should have asked you right away. I should have asked you before the walk, before the rain and Ziptie and the guns. I should have asked you before this story I tell that I would not have told; but you ask, so I tell. Now, if you say yes, now it will seem like – how is it they say in “Sex and the City?” – like mercy fuck.
She thought, If anybody needs mercy, it’s me. But she said, “Maybe you should forget about what it will seem like and just ask what you want to ask.”
“You want to make love with me?”
“What do you think?”
“I think I want to make love with you.”
Am I being played, she wondered. Should I care? Isn’t this why I’m here?
“Will you make love with me, Rudbeckia?”
She did not say, “No.” She did not say anything. He wondered if he had offended her. But why would she be offended? He believed he had paid her a compliment. Becky could see the beginnings of dismay spreading across Yourman’s face, sadness seeping into his eyes. She wanted to tell him it would be fine…they would-be fine. All she had to do was say, “Yes.”
But part of her was uncertain. Part of her was certain yet stubbornly detached – as though there were something wrong with her, something she couldn’t identify, but for which this could be therapy. It wasn’t something she wanted. She felt no desire. It wasn’t something she was sure she even needed, but someone – her mother, of all people – had told her it might help. It was all as gray as the sky outside.
She inhaled deeply; exhaled as though doing so would banish her indecision. She looked around her. The word for it was “simple.” Here was a man living simply in this simple place. She wished she could take some of the spirit of that home with her. But the man himself was not simple. He was sensitive, she believed. Maybe even wise. Yet she could not say that what he possessed was simple wisdom. And as for his sensitivity, she mused, is sensitivity ever simple?
She nodded “yes” to him but could not bring herself to say the word. She stood from the table, reached across it, took his hand, and led him toward the bed.
They stood at the foot of it. What to do? How to begin? Each looked to the other for a signal. He attempted to kiss her, but she interposed her hand, pressing her fingers against his lips.
“No, Yourman. I can’t.”
“But not that.”
She sat on the bed and pulled off her boots; then stood again, slipped out of her skirt, grasped the hem of her sweater and drew it up. When the garment cleared her eyes, Yourman was unlacing his shoes. His tee shirt was already on the floor. By the time Becky had rolled her leggings to her feet, Yourman was naked. She kicked the leggings aside, unclasped her brassier, pulled down one of the straps, and stopped.
She was gazing at this man whom she had known for less than two hours, this man whom she had allowed to accost her on the street understanding it would lead to this place, yet hoping it would not, contrary to her own intention. He was speaking to her, now, about beauty, about a flower; but she was hearing her mother’s voice.
“Something in you is broken, Becky. You need to find out what that is. You need to open yourself up. Open your mind. Open your heart. Open your legs, for Chrissake. When was the last time you got laid? Bob left how long ago? Two years? You think he’s not getting his? You need to go someplace where the men aren’t afraid of women and get that mental chastity belt of yours unlocked. And don’t stay in the U.S. Get out of this country for a while. And not to England or Italy or France. Go to some little country that hasn’t forgotten how to be itself, someplace that nobody thinks about, like Lichtenstein or Slovakia, Moldova, Andorra. Go someplace where America is still a dream and not a nightmare.”
At least she hadn’t added her favorite remark: “Why you love that low-life sonofabitch will always be beyond me.”
Becky didn’t think she needed to go anywhere. She would get over Bob in her own way in her own time. They would work it out together, or she would work it out alone. She didn’t need to run away from that. But when Bob was found cut up and bled-out in an alley back in Baltimore, there was nothing left to work out and nothing that could be gotten over, nothing to run from but the absence of everything. She knew then that she had to go or be sucked into that vacuum, and she agreed fatalistically to this tour of small countries with Michelle and Randy, who didn’t want her to go alone yet seemed all too eager to facilitate her mother’s more salacious advice.
Becky shrugged out of the bra. It fell to the floor to join the rest of her clothing. She inserted her thumbs between the flesh of her hips and the black elastic of her thong, began to slip it slowly downward, then stopped again. She considered before her a man past his prime but still attractive in a weather-worn way, though she knew that was not what mattered. Yet what does matter? she asked herself. Is it love? Is it honor? Is it respect? Or is it simply warmth –the warmth of another body against mine, the warmth of another heart beating in time with mine? Did I have to travel halfway around the world for that? And why am I hesitating again? Am I buying time or am I prolonging his anticipation? She decided that time could not be bought, and that his anticipation was quite evident.
Yourman thought, This woman, she give me boner the size of Nebraska! He’d never been to Nebraska, but he’d heard it was big.
Becky thought, Looks more like a Vienna sausage then a pepperoni, but at least I won’t feel like I’ve been through a war when we’re done.
She shimmied the thong to her ankles and stepped out of it.
They made love on the bed. The springs did not squeak, and it was over quicker than either of them expected. Afterwards, they lay on their sides. He held her from behind and grazed her neck with slow, caressing kisses. She was surprised by the sweetness of it after the blandness of their coupling, and she began to feel desire surfacing from some hidden place like a diver returning to the light after being lost inside a submerged shipwreck.
“Will you go down on me?”
“What?” He sounded confused.
She unwrapped herself from him and rolled onto her back, drew up her legs, and pantomimed what she wanted.
It lasted longer than either of them had imagined; and every time she felt she had been sated, another wave engulfed her. When the final surge receded, she knew what was broken was what needed to be broken, and what needed to be open was opened. She could go home now. But she didn’t want to leave. Not yet.
Yourman sat on the edge of the bed, his feet flat on the floor. Becky sat in the middle of the mattress, cross-legged like a yogini. Neither had made a move toward their clothes. Yourman turned, reached back, touched her knee.
“You most beautiful flower, Rudbeckia.”
“You are a kind man.”
“I am not saying to be kind. I am saying because it is fact, and it should not be ignored.”
She smiled. “Seems like I’ve heard that somewhere, not so long ago.”
“Are you hungry?”
“No. Not anymore.”
He felt the warmth rising in his face and turned away.
“You’re blushing, again.”
He said nothing.
“I thought you might be a Lothario, you know; but I was wrong.”
“I am not Lothario. I am Yourman.”
“Yes. Yes, you are.”
She moved to the foot of the bed, and they sat side-by-side, saying nothing, their hands touching, fingers interlaced, as the minutes passed unnoticed. Beyond the one window, the rain had turned to snow, then briefly back to rain before ending with a shift in the wind that pushed the clouds away.
“It will be cold night,” Yourman said. “Freeze hard.”
The thought of going out sent a shiver through Becky, though it was still hot as ever in the apartment.
“Maybe I’m hungry, now,” she said.
“Yes? You like Chinese food?”
“We get takeout. Chinese deliver. Very good.”
Yourman stood and took the telephone from the nightstand. It was a heavy, black, rotary dial model that had been built before either of them were born. He dialed a number. Becky heard the word Chinese over the receiver just as the apartment door flew open and slammed against the kitchen wall.
Ziptie crossed the space to the bed in four strides. His right arm rose from his side, his hand clenched around the grip of a pistol. It was the kind, Becky thought, that she had seen many times in movies about the Nazis – a Luger…an ugly weapon. Yourman returned the telephone receiver to its cradle.
“Put gun away, Ziptie. This joke not funny.” His voice was soft, unhurried, almost bored.
“This not joke,” Ziptie said, pointing the gun at Yourman’s chest. Becky closed her eyes.
She opened her eyes. Yourman was gone, as though he had never existed, only the idea of him remaining in the room.
Ziptie pointed the gun at Becky. She closed her eyes, held her breath, too terrified to tremble.
When Becky heard herself exhale, she knew she was not dead. She opened her eyes. Ziptie was gone. The gun lay on the bed beside her. She picked it up, closed her eyes.
Becky opened her eyes, threw off the covers. The room was like an oven. She got out of bed, shuffled to the window, opened it. Outside, the light was almost blinding; the tiny, duplicate, rowhouse yards shining like milk-glass beneath a blanket of snow glazed with ice, as so often happens in Baltimore. Her ears seemed to awaken in stages, as though her hearing had suffered some overwhelming insult, the sounds returning in order of loudness: first the roar of traffic on the Jones Falls Expressway five blocks distant; then the horn of the light-rail as it approached Woodberry Station; then the chittering of house sparrows annoyed by a thwarted spring.
She was hungry. She went to the kitchen. An omelet would be good. A spinach omelet. But there was no spinach in the refrigerator. She would have to get some. There was plenty of other food, but the irrationality of her craving overrode all alternative considerations like the blast of a gunshot or the need to be loved. She got dressed: picked from the floor the bra and thong that she had shed the night before, donned again the red leggings and the black skirt, the black sweater and the boiled wool jacket the color of blood. She pulled on the high-heeled boots and walked out into the American morning, ten minutes to the supermarket, where no one looked at her, no one touched her cheek, and everybody minded their own business.
She stood in front of the spinach display not knowing what to do, feeling her eyes well up, then the tears running down her cheeks. She reached into her jacket pocket where she usually kept tissues but felt something else instead. Something small, hard, cylindrical. She pulled it out, opened her hand to see what nestled in the palm of it. She recoiled.
“Jesus,” she said aloud. “Where the hell did this come from?”
Becky stared at the bright brass object for several minutes. Then, without questioning why, she slipped it back into her pocket.
Phil Gallos has been a newspaper reporter and columnist, a researcher/writer in the historic preservation field, and has spent 30 years working in academic libraries (which is more interesting than it sounds). Most recently, his writing has been published in The MacGuffin, Carbon Culture Review, The Writing Disorder, Cagibi, and Foliate Oak, among others, and is forthcoming in Dark Ink Magazine. He lives and writes in Saranac Lake, NY.
If you enjoyed ‘Rude Becky and Your Man’ leave a comment and let Phil know.
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