Friends who knew us back in the day called us Mutt and Jeff. We had buddy tattoos on our biceps, cartoon characters: Jeff tall in an orange striped suit and fedora, with a mustache like mine, Mutt short, with mutton chops, dark suit and top hat. I never told Tina, my second wife, why I had the tattoo because I got into bad habits with Mick a year into my first marriage. I wanted him nowhere near me and Tina, until the bad times hit.
We had funny hours, Tina and I. She sold real estate, I worked from home, free-lancing web sites, buying and selling, investing. We made decent money, unpredictable, sure, but we talked about having a kid. That dropped off when things cooled in the bedroom. One Saturday, I drove by an open house to say hello when I saw her on the porch, talking with a younger guy in dark slacks, blue shirt. He had dark hair, styled, real regular white teeth.
I put it out of my mind overnight. We had a nice dinner, and off she went to the second day of the open house, Sunday. Or so she said. I turned on the ball game, the Indians taking off this year, had a couple of beers, thought about the blue shirt guy and got a little agitated. I tried not to let it take over my mind, but what harm if I stopped by the open house to say hello and took her lunch?
I made a killer sandwich, got a diet pop, and ran it over as a surprise. I imagined a nice hello, a thank you for thinking of me, a peck on the cheek, but guess what—no open house. My eyes watered when I saw an old guy mowing the lawn, wife on her knees in the flower bed with trowel. The guy pushing the mower gave me the eye, so I figured I would drive by her office.
I parked and stepped in at the office with the sandwich and pop, but no one was around, until her co-worker Mary poked her head out of an office and said, “I thought I heard someone come in.” I held up the brown paper bag and the pop.
“Dropping off lunch for Tina.”
“Haven’t seen her,” she said.
“I thought she had an open house, so I stopped by there.”
“Maybe it’s a different house,” she said. “Let me check.”
I waited while she went behind the counter in the central office and checked the schedule, nervous as a cat, not to mention embarrassed as hell. “No open house on the schedule,” she said. She gave me a blank look that had a little bit of a question mark in it as well.
“Thanks for checking.”
“No problem,” she said, still giving me the blank expression. I took a drink at the water fountain to give her time to get in her office. Then I opened the glass door and let it swing shut, waiting inside to listen if she made a quick call. When nothing happened, I had to open and shut the door quietly so she wouldn’t know I’d hung around.
Last stop, the coffee shop where she took clients. Nada. I got a coffee, sat down and ate the sandwich I made—her favorite kind. This great ham we get at Honey Baked, Havarti, lettuce and tomato, slathered with honey-mustard. When she didn’t show, I tossed the pop in the trash and headed home.
Her car was not in the driveway, but I figured Mary waited until I left the office to call, because Tina pulled up, huffing and puffing like she was hurrying. She gave me this story about meeting a married couple interested in the Rose property. They couldn’t afford it or commit, one or the other, time wasted. I wanted to ask about the blue-shirt guy, but I had nothing but a feeling to go on and didn’t want to hear the answer.
That night she took a long shower and came to bed in pajamas, tired from running around the past couple days. Obvious avoidance of the opportunity for sex put me on edge. Once she was snoring, I got up, poured a glass of scotch, and got maudlin about a framed photograph of me and Tina on the patio of a bar at Put-In-Bay, my arm on the back of her chair, both of us laughing, satisfied with everything.
I felt bad next day. Tina took off early, so I gave Mick a call and told him I’d buy lunch at a bar where we used to hang out if he’d meet up. He seemed glad I called. He told me that he’d spent a few months in jail, easy time, but his girlfriend moved out. I told him about Tina, how we’d been happy these past three years, though I had a worry I couldn’t confirm.
So, we met for a couple beers. He had on this blue baseball cap with Chief Wahoo on the front, bill bent like a roof. He has light brown eyes, almost yellow, and lost most of his hair since I saw him, or shaved his head. Thin lips, pointy jaw, cool patch under his lower lip, a T-shirt that said Plumbing Woes? Call Joe’s! An open toilet gushed water like a fountain under the legend, with a phone number, though he no longer worked for Joe.
When I handed him a picture of Tina, he tilted back in his chair a few minutes to study it. I jumped when he slammed the front legs on the floor and leaned toward me on elbows, gave the bill of his cap a yank. He set the photo between us, tapping it, his finger on the small woman with short, dark hair, pixie-type cut, green shorts, white top that showed off her arms and legs.
“If it’s nothing,” I told him, “I’ll get back to the good times.”
“I think I can help,” he said. “I’ve done a little snooping for a couple sources along the way. I know how to stay out of the line of sight.”
He’d been an informant for the cops once he got sprung. If there were others who hired his services, I didn’t know, but I did know he could make himself invisible. He looked like half the guys you see on the street in Akron.
“Give me details, I’ll check her out. She’ll never know.”
“I could front minimal expenses,” I told him,
“Pro bono, dude. Glad to help.”
I gave addresses: real estate office, open house that hadn’t opened, coffee shop. He kept the photo, and I forced a fifty on him. When we left, I got in my Civic and watched him walk up to a motorcycle at the curb, swing a leg over it, and roar off in the street.
When I was with my first wife, I stuck out college a couple of years and got what I wanted. I had aptitude and time. I’d put on a little jazz and spend time learning the needful. I became proficient setting up web sites for businesses. I get the site up, explain how it works, they’re on board but don’t want to spend time to learn. I keep the ball rolling.
That’s what I was doing Wednesday, a couple days after Tina went missing a few hours, web sites and social media. Tina hadn’t given me more cause for worry I knew of. It was raining lightly, so I put on Mr. Tommy Flanagan at the piano, and sat back with a mug of coffee when I heard a text coming through my phone, a photo I did not want to see.
Pretty Boy had on a yellow shirt, tan pants, blue umbrella overhead, one hand on Tina’s back, both hurrying through the rain, ducking into the coffee shop where I ate her sandwich on Sunday. She had on the London Fog trench coat I got her at Christmas.
Another, them leaning close over paper cups of coffee, smiling at each other. My vision palpitated as I looked at a third, him holding the door for her to get in the passenger side of the blue BMW. I checked metadata—sure enough, real time. Five, ten minutes ago, she climbed into his car. My phone burst out a riff from Coltrane. Mick was sorry, pictures said it better than he could.
I thanked him for being a buddy, told him I’d get back to him. It came on in waves, one wave telling me calm down, think it through, the next pulsating images of bloody mayhem, me pounding Pretty Boy. So, I called Mutt back, asked him to meet at the same bar. The drive is a total wash, but I do remember dashing from the car to the darkened bar to avoid the rain, which pelted me all the way. He came in wearing black leathers, a black helmet under one arm, rain sparkling over the surface.
“I’m sorry, man,” he said. “I hoped I could show you better.”
“My life ended when I saw those pictures.”
“Hell no,” he said. “There’s a whole lot of life waiting for you.”
“But I’m caught in an ending right now.”
He leaned toward me. “What do you want to do about it?”
“What do you mean?”
“What does do mean to you?”
I watched the bartender, a heavy fellow in a white shirt, wiping the bar, pulling a beer or pouring a shot for a few lonely souls. “Like to see him dead, for sure, but I have to admit, it’s not him doing it. She wants to do him. I’m not even an afterthought.”
He clamped onto my forearms. “She disrespected you the worst way a woman can.”
I didn’t trust myself. “Look,” I said, “I’ll call tomorrow.”
“Do what you have to,” he called after me. “I always do.”
I had to turn on my lights on the road. I felt dead inside, and it fit the weather and twilight perfectly. When I turned on music, Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” came up, Seamus Blake on the sax. I entered the music, lived there all the way home, where I sat in the driveway, behind Tina’s car. I got out in the dark, not knowing what to expect.
When I peeked into the living room, I saw her sitting on the couch in sweat pants and t-shirt, her feet bare. She glanced at me and said, “Pizza in the kitchen.” I nodded and went in the kitchen, where I found a large white box on the counter. When I lifted the top, the pizza opened up to me as the commonest thing I could imagine. Pepperoni and banana peppers, one slice gone. Also: a bottle of chianti, loose change, two wrinkled ones.
She’d been home long enough to shower and slip into comfortable clothes. I didn’t know what to do next, to tell the truth. So, I grabbed a plate, tossed a slice on it, poured a glass of wine, and carried it into the living room where she watched a popular singing competition.
“This guy is so good,” she said.
I saw a fat guy with a red beard singing his heart out. I set pizza and wine on the coffee table and sat back. She chewed the last piece of crust and said, “So, where were you?”
“Me?” I said.
“You weren’t here.”
I nodded. “Met an old friend for a beer.”
“A guy I knew years ago, got in trouble together. We caught up.”
“Does he have a name?”
I nodded. “He does.”
“What is it?”
“Maybe you’ll meet him some time.”
“Where were you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what was going on?”
I picked up my slice and took a bite. “You know,” I mumbled, “before you got home.”
“Meetings with clients, Hal Sterns. Conversations, paper work.”
“What did Hal have to say?”
“Market is slow. We have to be inventive. Go-getters. He told us about a contest, grand prize a trip to Hawaii.”
“You going to win?”
“It’s more than regional, so chances are slim to none.”
She had the straightest nose I’ve ever seen, but it perfectly fit in her face. Her green eyes reflected light, and she had a dimple on the side toward me. Her teeth would be perfect, she told me, if not for the space between her two front teeth. Cute and sweet and unfaithful.
“This girl’s voice sounds so fake. Watch, she’ll probably win.”
A perfectly normal evening at home, for a married couple who lost what kept them alive, what made them special. I thought maybe I can forget for one night, sit back and remember what we’ve had together a few years.
“She doesn’t sound too bad. What’s her story?”
“Father had a heart attack a few months ago, then a stroke. He went down but wanted her to sing. She’s been working as a teacher’s assistant. Kids in the school are behind her. Sang in church and played the zither at a coffee shop near home.”
“No reason she shouldn’t win.”
“Except they have a younger girl, blonde, whose husband died in a plane crash. At the exact moment she gave birth to two babies in a hospital ten miles from the wreckage.”
“Twins, no less.”
“Siamese, separated at birth. One died, one lived. He has an extra eyeball in the middle of his forehead, with which he can see the future.”
“Cheers,” I said. We touched our wine glasses. “Here’s to the future.”
We coasted a few days. I talked with Mick a couple of times. He was all for breaking the guy’s leg. “Just the left,” he said. I laughed it off.
Tina came home at a decent time, like nothing changed, except we used to hug. Now she held her body back, so her breasts didn’t touch. If she saw Pretty Boy those three days, I didn’t know. I had work. My office set-up in the second bedroom had a desktop computer with a huge monitor and a printer-scanner on a table. Also, a laptop, as it doesn’t do to create a website on a desktop if you don’t see what it looks like on a laptop or a hand-held.
I plugged my phone in the desktop for a close look at the photos Mutt sent. I got to like the umbrella shot. You only saw them from the back, but they looked youthful and cool. If I had been in it, I would have towered over her awkwardly. I never had an umbrella didn’t get sprung in the wind. His was huge, navy blue, a gold line at the edge.
He didn’t have a coat, she had the London Fog open, belt loose and the front left corner blown up slightly, visible around one side. Entering the coffee shop, they looked good together, just from the rear. The photos were gorgeous. Maybe that was the basis of our relationship. Me watching her. Big, awkward, bony guy with graying temples who never tired of watching her.
On Friday, Tina came home rattled. She had been at the ER with a co-worker, a new guy. He’d had this accident, right in front of her. She followed the ambulance in her car.
“Who is this guy? I never heard of him.”
“You haven’t met him. From St. Louis. His daughter lives in town, with his ex-wife.”
“We were in the parking lot. He was heading out to meet a client. A guy on a motorcycle pulled in the lot and turned into a spot we’re standing beside. Twenty others available. He turned his front wheel at the last moment and hit John’s leg. When I looked again, the guy was pushing his bike backwards with his boots and roared off.”
“Did you get a look at him?”
“Black helmet, tinted visor. I forgot to look at his license plate. I called the police. An ambulance showed up in a couple minutes. John was crying and holding his leg.”
She wiped her eyes with a wrinkled tissue. “Broke his leg. They took him in the ER and I gave all the information. Police called it hit and run.”
“Which leg got broken?”
She thought a while, her eyes going back and forth. “I think the left. Definitely the left.”
“You need to sit down. I think there’s some wine left.”
“I’ll change first, then call the hospital. If I can help, I’m going back.”
She hurried down the hall. I stood watching until she disappeared in our bedroom. I heard the shower running and wondered if she was washing John off. Then, I heard a text come to my phone. I had left it in my office, hooked to the computer. I went back past the bathroom, where I heard her talking on her phone.
The desktop gave me a shock. There on the monitor was the photograph of him and Tina getting in his car. I sat down, pulled up a new text photo: John on the pavement, obviously in pain, holding his leg, Tina kneeling by him, grief-stricken. Then she was in the doorway, in a towel. I tried to turn it off but the image remained.
When she fled, I was paralyzed, waiting to see if she would return. I heard her dressing, then she rushed past my office. I stumbled after her to stand in the front door, watching her pull away. It was over with Tina at that moment, all but the screaming.
Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack’s Universe, as well as a collection of stories, Private Acts. He has also published many stories and personal essays in journals, including The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International, and anthologies, including Pushcart Prize and Dark Lane Anthology. This is his first feature on The Fictional Café.
Excellent story with credible characters and snappy dialogue