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Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right by D.E. Fredd

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right by D.E. Fredd

Fiction, Vol. 1.3, Dec. 2007

September 1-3, Labor Day Weekend

Tina says she’ll drive me the round trip to work in Auburn until school lets out next summer. I’m due to get my license back by then anyway. Lenny’s okay with me and his wife hooking up every morning even though we went out for a few months after high school, which was nearly fifteen years ago. Aside from gas and ten bucks each way for the trouble, I told them I’d baby-sit on weekends if they wanted to party or shoot pool. I’m dead if they take me up on it because they’ve got two boys, three and five, who are wacko. Little Justin locked everyone out of their trailer and lit the gas burners last January. Tina had to get Earl Horford to break down the door, which cost three hundred to fix. Sometimes Lenny Jr. sits in the road and will not move. The pre-school makes them take pills so the teachers don’t go nuts worrying if they’ll hurt the other kids.

I was working tire installation at the Biggie-Mart. When I had my third DUI they switched me inside to selling appliances. Bernie Biggs owns three stores, and the one I’m at just north of Auburn is the best in Maine. He and his wife are as friendly in person as they are on their TV commercials. When Bernie wants tires put on the company cars, he always asks for me. He hired me fourteen years ago even though I’d just done thirty days in prison. He also didn’t fire me when I was convicted of driving drunk two weeks ago. They are my family so I’m trying like hell to shape up. I will miss tires. Of course the only driving I’d be doing is moving a car off the rack into a parking space, but Craig Bevins, my section manager, thinks it might come back on him if I scraped a side panel.

Appliances is a better career move anyway. There’s so much to learn. I don’t mind dressing up either, and I’ll be working inside and not dealing with Maine winters. The downside is that Lenny and Tina have already been hinting they could use a microwave. Maybe one of the new 400 series GE makes could slip out of the stockroom into the back of their van. That’s all I need —no license, no car or job and another stay at the Cumberland County Correction Facility.

September 16, Sunday

The parole people are making me attend a drunken driving class for six weeks and go to AA meetings, but how am I to get the twelve miles from Wilton to Livermore Falls if I can’t drive? My probation officer said, “Ask family or friends.” It sounds simple, but I’ve got no family and my friends are drunks too. They have the driving classes on Tuesday and Thursday in the courthouse basement. Lucky for me the AA meetings are in the Livermore Methodist Church just down the street on Thursday nights so I can kill two birds. I’ve hitched a ride twice and barely made it each time. Old Sam Rossi, who lives in the trailer behind mine, has offered me his grandson’s mountain bike. I’m taking him up on that. I can pedal my way until the weather turns fearsome, which can happen as early as November. After that I’m cooked.

September 28, Friday Afternoon Heading into the Weekend

Tina makes me uneasy. She’s showering, washing her hair and paying attention to her clothes when she runs me to and from work. She was a slob when we went out many moons ago. She tells me things aren’t working out that well with Lenny. For one thing the kids are screwed up because he made her do all sorts of drugs when she was pregnant; that and the fact that everyone in his family is really perverted. Because she has to stay home in case the school calls, she doesn’t have any women friends to tell her troubles to. There are only six units out of fifteen in our mobile home park that are filled. Aside from mine and hers, it’s all old people who are mostly batty so she’s lonely.

She is very touchy feely, and I think she’s coming on to me. I’m really not tempted because she’s let herself go since the kids. Besides, I’ve got my eye on a woman who works in the credit office. Most of them treat us floor people like dirt, but the two times I brought a customer over to her window she was very polite. She’s not married so I wonder what’s wrong with someone like her who’s over thirty, looks pretty and is nice. If I could drive, I’d follow her around but that’s out right now.

September 29, Saturday Night

Lenny and Tina invite me over to play Texas poker. Sam Rossi hobbles over too, but he has to be back home by nine to watch America’s Most Wanted, even though it’s a repeat. After he leaves things get very raunchy. Lenny keeps pushing beers at me. “What’s one stupid beer? If you get drunk it’s a two hundred foot walk home.”

I finally take one to shut him up.  Then he starts betting crazy stuff. He’ll let Tina “do me” if I throw a microwave into the pot. When I won’t go for it, he says I’m insulting him. By this time he’s gone through a few six packs and, if it weren’t for him having to piss every three minutes, he’d be dangerous. He starts feeling up Tina in front of me and pulls down her tank top to show me the merchandise. She’s had plenty of beer as well, not that she needs it to come on to any man. Lenny gets the video camera out and wants me to tape them while they go at it on the couch. I tell him I’m dizzy because I haven’t had a drink in so long. There’s some truth to this because after three beers the room is a bit out of focus. While they’re screwing on the couch, I say I’m going to be sick and go outside. I stick my finger down my throat and puke up a mess of beer and cheese nachos. When I get to the dry heave stage, I see a naked Lenny and Tina backlit in the doorway laughing their bare asses off. At least I’ll have something to contribute to the next AA meeting.

October 1, Monday at Work

Even though I’m in sales I don’t get commission. A customer comes and asks me or Bobby Bowman questions. The tricky part is when they want my opinion. I’ve read Consumer Reports and other magazines plus, on my off-time, I use the computer in the town library to see what others have to say about it. But there are some brands that offer a bigger rebate to the store so I’m torn between being truthful and turning a better profit. Fortunately, most of the things we sell are decent. What they really want me to push are the service plans; I get a small commission on those.

On an average day, for example, a couple comes in and decides they want the Maytag washer that’s on sale. I check out back to see if we have it, then write up a slip and escort them over to what used to be called the Credit Department, but got changed to Customer Service. That’s where they pay by credit card, write a check or whatever. While they’re at the window paying, the washer comes out on a dolly ready to be loaded into their vehicle.  I don’t handle money.

There are three windows for the cashiers. Paula Foley is the senior one. Since she’s nearest the sales floor, she handles most of the action. We get along fine. She’s in charge of the personnel files as well so, when I first got hired, she interviewed me and wanted to know about my record. I was straight with her. I’d broken into my high school a few weeks before graduation and trashed the place along with Eddie Hogan and the Kilroy brothers. The cops showed up because we were too stupid to think the place had an alarm system. I’d led them on a merry rooftop chase which they defined as resisting arrest. They took my diploma away. I couldn’t pay the fine so I got forty-five days but only had to serve thirty because of good behavior. I got my GED in jail. Paula said Mr. Biggs was all for giving people chances, but to keep my nose clean. That was twelve years ago. I think it helped that I asked her to take twenty-five bucks a week out of my check, sending it to the school scholarship fund as a way of making up for the damage I’d caused. Anyway, she’s been like a mother-figure to me, including yelling at me for my latest trouble. It’s the first time I ever heard her swear when she called me a “goddamn asshole moron,” but I deserved it.

The second window is a relative of Mr. Biggs. It might be his grand-niece.  Sandy came three years ago as a temporary summer replacement while she was on her college break. The person she was filling in for never came back, and she never went back to school. I think she hates her job. She hasn’t said two words to me and, when I have to go to her, she takes my paperwork as if it came from the bathroom floor.

The last window is manned by Mildred Fraley; everyone calls her Dilly. Although it says “cashier” on the sign, she is the store accountant so we try not to bother her unless it is very busy. She’s in her mid-thirties, which is a few years older than me. She always wears bright colors. Paula says she was very close to her parents. She lost them a few years back and is having trouble coping. She belongs to the Methodist church my AA meetings are in, and I see her name on quite a few of the committees pinned up on the bulletin board in the vestibule. It’s a good bet Paula has told her about my troubles both now and from way back. When I was in tires, I figured I never had a shot with her because she went to college, and I was grubby most of the time. Now that I’m indoors and wear a necktie (even though I don’t have to) I’ve been thinking of asking if she wants to have coffee during her break.

October 4, Thursday

My drunk-driving class is a farce. There are ten of us, and I’m the only one who has made all the meetings so far. There are two high school girls who sit in the back, poke one another and giggle at some inside joke. One class that dealt with traffic statistics was interesting, and we had a state trooper who spoke about the accidents he’d seen and how he had to notify the parents or loved ones. After that we watched videos and wrote an essay about the times we drove while intoxicated. We have two more two-hour classes next week, but the teacher clearly has nothing to fill up the class time with. We can’t leave early so we just sit or sometimes talk about stupid stuff. By now everyone knows I used to be in tires, and I give advice about appliances, what to look out for and the fact that most stuff is made in China by the same factory so it almost doesn’t make a difference.

At nine when I head up to my AA meeting, that’s when things get interesting. Frank Foster runs the group. He jokes that he’s an alcoholic because they named an Australian beer after him. When I mentioned at my first meeting that everyone I know drinks beer, that it’s practically a way of life, it really got the discussion off with a bang. I said it was like being horny with everyone else naked. Pete Collins likened it to not drinking coffee in a Starbucks world. Some people talk about why they drink, but Frank says he doesn’t care what caused you to do it in the past, quit each day is his motto. He also leaves God out of it. “If Jesus helps you get through the day, then go for it, but there’s also the Red Sox and Patriots to fill the void.” I agree with him because I had enough of the Jesus squad in jail to last me a lifetime.

When I told the group about my poker episode with Tina and Lenny, people laid out scenarios of how I could have handled it. I defended myself by saying that I need their help until I can drive again; plus there is the Lenny Stark mobile home code of justice. Mess with your neighbors and bad things will happen to your unit. I told them about Mrs. McCarren and her husband, Virgil, who had a stroke. She found some marijuana plants Lenny was growing and called the cops. Her tires got slashed; the handicap ramp made a nice bonfire. She finally left when their dog had its right front paw hacked off.

I didn’t tell the meeting, but I inherited my mobile home from my Uncle Nelson. I visited every now and then and we went fishing once. Before he went to the hospital for a bypass operation two years ago, he said I could have it if he didn’t make it. I had to promise to bury him in New Hampshire. He died a week later and I moved in right away. The only bills I get are the propane and electric plus taxes which still come in his name. I’m afraid to check at town hall to see what the legal status is, so everything is very fluid, as they say.

I’ve met some good people at the meetings. I’ve got several phone numbers to call when things get rough. No one’s volunteered to drive me places as they all live south of Livermore Falls, but a couple of times Frank has driven me home when it was pouring.  He just dumped the bicycle in the back of his truck and that was that. Booze cost him his family and now he’s got diabetes to boot. He’s been sober for nine years and still goes to bed each night wanting a drink to help him sleep. He quit cigarettes because they reminded him of booze so he smokes a pipe now. He reminds me a bit of my uncle and wants to set up a fishing expedition over on Great Pond come spring.

October 9-13, Tuesday through Saturday

Now I make it a point to take all my big sales to Mildred. She is good about interrupting what she is doing. Towards the end of the day on Tuesday she asks me to call her Dilly or Dill as most people do. She does it in such a pleasant way. On Friday we get to chatting about the Columbus Day weekend, complaining that we both have to work on Saturday. She mentions that her church is having a ham and bean supper and wonders if I might like to go. I say sure. Later she tells me she has to help set up between five and six. If I get there about 6:15, the line will be down to a minimum, and she’ll save a seat for me.

After work on Friday I trot over to Sears in the mall. I blow big bucks in the Land’s End section getting stylish stuff for work and something sporty to wear to the supper. Uncle Nelly always told me it costs nothing to look neat, and I take him at his word, even though a bigger slob never existed. I can see the way customers trust my opinion because I have a decent haircut and wear clean clothes. A nice lady clerk helps me pick out colors that go together. I wonder if she’s on commission.

When my shift is up at five on Saturday I change in the men’s room then start thumbing a ride up to Livermore. I get there by 6:15, pay the seven bucks and see that Dilly is part of the serving crew that is dishing out the dinner. When I go through the line she tells me that Mrs. Shattuck took sick and she had to step into the breach, but maybe we can have dessert together. I don’t know anybody and most of the tables are already taken, then I spy Frank Foster sitting at a small table over on the far side. In two seconds I’m there keeping him company. He makes a joke that vodka would spice up the fruit punch and asks why I’m here. I admit I like a certain woman and point her out. He says she’s one of the best lookers in the house and thinks he may have known her father, Frank Fraley, who was a Livermore volunteer firefighter and EMT for many years before he got Alzheimer’s. I’m actually enjoying myself, listening to Frank tell his booze stories from the Army when Dilly comes over carrying three brownie sundaes.

She is very pretty; not cute or anything, just pretty. She has some whipped cream on the side of her nose. It’s a shame when Frank tells her about it. She blushes while rubbing it off. She points out a couple, sisters, sitting by the side door that sneak in every year without paying. At first she was appalled that anyone would cheat their way into a charity church supper, and was all for having them arrested, but her heart softened after her parents died and now she feels sorry for them. Frank excuses himself, winking at me on the sly, saying he needs to get home and check the dog that sometimes gets so jealous of his going out that she chews up the furniture. “It’s almost like being married,” he laughs.

There’s an awkward silence when he leaves, but Dilly asks me if I have pets. I’ve learned that the right answer to this question from women is an enthusiastic “yes” followed by cute pet stories of your own. Quite honestly I can’t stand cats and most of the dogs in the park where I live stink and bark incessantly. I lie, saying the tenant association doesn’t allow them. She touches my hand in sympathy and tells me about her two cats, Mutt and Jeff, named after two old cartoon characters. I never heard of them but gather that one was big and the other small. We talk about the store and workers we know. She wonders if I found the church alright, and I tell her about the Thursday AA meetings, Frank Foster and my driver’s license issues. She pats my shoulder this time, and says Paula told her about my struggles. There are some words of how accepting Jesus into my life would help me through my trials. She had a life-changing experience when she took the Lord into her heart while she was caring for her parents.

I want to tell her that the religious talk is bunk and doesn’t enter into my recovery. I also want to add that I’m really not an alcoholic. I never drink at home; it was only when I was with other people, often in bars, where I got into trouble by driving after having had a few. I don’t say any of this; instead, I let her talk about her folks, how they were the greatest parents anyone could ever have, but the last five years of their lives was a living hell for her. She hated them for keeping her from a last year of college, dating and maybe starting a family. She wanted to have a job in a big city like Portland, but all that was denied her while she nursed the two of them day and night. When they died two months apart she cried for joy at her freedom. She’d devoured a biography of the poet John Milton who forced his daughters to read to him, take his dictation — enslaved them — so she’d learned all she could about the Milton girls. They were her heroes.

Before I know it the lights are dimmed, and it is after nine. We walk out to the parking lot, and I help her into her car, which has several Christian bumper stickers on it. She starts it up before rolling down the window to ask how I am getting home. I hesitate and she motions me to get in. She admonishes me never to be too proud to ask for help. It isn’t that I am too proud, but more the sheer embarrassment of having her see the junk-encrusted hovel I live in. It is the best- maintained hovel in the park but a damn hovel nonetheless.

October 14, The Sunday Before Columbus Day

I wish I’d taken day shift. I want to see Dilly again. She’d shaken my hand after thanking me for coming to the supper and held it a long time. I wanted to kiss her, but decided against it, although I was quick to suggest we should get together again real soon. She said she’d like that. When she left I wondered if I should have invited her in and kicked myself for not doing so. The other reason for wanting to work was Tina. She’d evidently seen me pull in the drive last night so she was banging at my door by ten looking for details, mostly sexual. I explained that Dill was someone I worked with. Tina allowed that if all I wanted was a quick lay then she was more than willing, no strings. She added that it would be refreshing to screw someone who wasn’t high or obsessed with sticking it up the back door as she so delicately put it. There was a veiled threat that, if I wanted our transportation routine to continue, then I might think about being a little more appreciative.

Soon after her visit, Lenny, cradling a six pack and what he describes as “great weed,” darkens my door. I pass on the beer but do fall victim to a joint. We sit on two plastic lawn chairs enjoying the fall air while Lenny elaborates on some great pussy he is getting at work. The one thing I’ll concede about Lenny is that he always has a job. He’s with the Keating Company this year, driving a truck which hauls gravel, stone and anything else that deals with construction. Evidently an office girl just out of high school is enamored by his gear-shifting prowess and spends her breaks giving him head, among other pleasurable acts, in the cab of the dump truck.

After the obligatory male bonding, he gets down to business; to hell with the microwave. He has his eyes on one of those honking, big plasma TV sets. If I were to help him in his quest for this visual Holy Grail, a few bucks, drugs and/or a couple nights with Tina could be arranged. Could I leave the warehouse door unlocked? Do they have an alarm system that I have the code for? Or could the set walk out the front door by using fake paperwork? All options are explored, and I shoot them down one by one. Exasperated, he throws his beer can towards Sam Rossi’s chained beagle with the opinion that I’m making the store sound like fucking Fort Knox. He leaves, staggering towards his trailer, with the admonition that if I want “to get a little in life I have to give a little.” I go back inside and take inventory of the stuff I would really hate to see go up in smoke. Then I measure off, if I had a fifty inch TV, just where the hell would I put it.

October 16, Tuesday.

I have lunch with Dilly at the Biggie snack bar. She has a chef salad. I go with my usual double dog special, no extra charge for chili and a free coke refill. She’s wearing a V-neck blouse which partially reveals her breasts when she leans forward. Her jewelry —earrings, necklace and bracelet — when you look closely, are either crosses or the fish symbol.

I allude to my “do nothing” weekend and the possibility that my ride to and from work is in jeopardy. I don’t mention the reason, just that I’m being pressured to do things I don’t want to.  She immediately says she’d be happy to come and get me as well as run me home most days, although there might be times when we won’t be on the same schedule.  “Remember that pride goeth before the fall.” I also accept her gesture of a home cooked meal on Saturday. She won’t tell me what she’ll be making except that it will be healthier than my chips and twin chili dogs slathered with yellow cheese.

That afternoon, between customers, I daydream, rehearsing all the possibilities that could come up after the meal Dilly prepares. I cannot place the last time I had sex. It had to be in August before I lost my driving privilege. Maybe it was that Mary Jo lady at the Emperor’s Palace bar in Auburn. She wasn’t bad looking, worked in housekeeping at the Econo-Lodge across the street where we got an unoccupied room and spent a few hours. I remember she wanted to keep her bra on for reasons she never explained. Other than that she was up for most anything.

When I get home I call Frank and ask what I should bring to Dill’s dinner. I have no problem with wine. I hate the stuff, but he suggests that flowers for the table would work.

October 20, Saturday Night Date Night

When she picks me up around six, I see the curtains in Tina’s kitchen window flutter. There is part of me that wants Dilly to get out of the car so I can show her off. “This is what real class is, my fellow Atwood Acre residents. Here is a lady without tattoos (I suspect as much anyway), who reads long novels and doesn’t show off by opening a beer bottle with her teeth.

Dill’s home is an old farmhouse located on several sprawling acres. She leases out the hayfields and pasture, and a neighbor grows corn on the ten acres next to his. The apple orchards have grown over. The outside of the house is in decent shape, but she admits it would cost a fortune as everything inside is outdated. She’s had the plumbing redone and is hoping to update the wiring this year. We sit out on the porch drinking lemonade, and I feel very relaxed. There is a sweet smell of decay coming from the last of the maple leaves. The furniture and appliances inside are from the 1970s which is strange considering the Biggie discount she’s entitled to. She prepared most of the meal ahead of time, and it just needs heating up. She’d gone all out with the table settings, fresh flowers and what she called the Sunday china.

The only time in my life I’d ever been at a meal where grace was said was when I was a little kid in one of the first foster homes I’d been assigned to. It had been a mumbled, three-second affair. Dill’s grace is a monologue which expresses gratitude for our food then widens in scope to the starving African nations, safety for our boys in the Middle East and ends by blessing all the people she knows, in particular Emily Hopkins in her church who is battling ovarian cancer.

There is easy conversation between us. I tell some funny customer stories about when I worked in tires. When she asks what I had read lately I don’t lie except to say that I’d been meaning to start a reading program. She thinks I might like Stephen King and asks me to remind her before I leave as she might have one or two lying around.

We let the dishes soak and head into the living room. She points out her dad’s favorite chair and where she and her mother always sat while they watched TV. The furniture is dilapidated. One can almost see the fossilized imprints in the head and arm rests which lace doilies barely hide now. She speaks about nursing her parents, then apologizes for going on and wants to know about my situation. I try to explain Tina and Lenny as best I can without getting too graphic. They’re always out to beat the system. For a few months they collected welfare checks using false social security numbers. In high school Lenny took off his baby toe with pruning shears to get out of gym class and was now the area junkies’ main source for Adderal, prescribed for his kids’ conditions, but they had never seen the drug as far as I knew. I mentioned that Tina was not above offering herself to the elder male residents of Atwood Acres in return for part of their social security check, leaving out the time that I once baby-sat her kids for twenty bucks an hour while she “visited” Sam Rossi. Watching the Stark clan was like looking at a vehicle of pure evil with the hood up. You could see all the inner workings, the wheels and belts of scams turning, the gentle purring of their plots as they were hatched, then the slight fuel or air adjustments made to speed up the engine toward greater profits.

After I tell my Lenny and Tina stories, she suggests that we should pray. As with grace, praying is a new experience for me. I figure it will be done on our knees, but since we are sitting next to each other on the couch, she just turns towards me and we hold hands. She closes her eyes and, with her head slightly lowered and leaning towards me, she begins. It’s a quote from the Bible about righteous men getting into heaven. This leads to a fervent wish that I not be caught up in their web of iniquity. As she prays I can smell her. It’s a fresh smell, not layer upon layer of soap and perfume. Her light brown hair is graying at the roots, and I can peek down her top and see that her chest is freckled as if she were a red-head. The more fervently she prays the more turned on I am. Electricity flows into me as I support her soft hands. When she finally says amen and opens her eyes, I want to kiss her, then throw her onto the braided rug that covers most of the room and have at it. I hold her hands as long as I dare and whisper “amen” as well.

She thinks it would be nice to watch TV. She offers to make popcorn, a family viewing tradition, but I’m still full from dinner. She admits that she doesn’t watch many network shows; instead, she enjoys old movies checked out from the library. She’s a Loretta Young fan; The Bishop’s Wife was a Christmas tradition growing up. There’s a whole shelf of Young’s films and a personal viewing history behind each one. Finally I select The Stranger which she says she never watched alone as Loretta’s unsuspecting involvement with the escaped Nazi war criminal and the final clock tower scene are too scary.

She starts the movie up and it is quite interesting, especially when she snuggles closer to me and rests her head on my shoulder. When I finally decide to kiss her, she is cuddled up fast asleep as Orson Welles finally gets the poetic justice he deserves. I put my arm around her, pull a hideously-colored afghan over us both and doze off as well.

We wake up near dawn. I’m sure she was as uncomfortable as I was during the night. She has to be at church by eight to set up for a Sunday school class she teaches. She takes a quick shower while I make coffee. We have toast and devise a plan, since I don’t want to go church, where she’ll zip me back to my trailer and then spend most of the day with her fellow Methodists.

On the ride up to Wilton she jokes about what people at Biggie’s would say if she told them she slept with a man all last night. We have a laugh about that and then she asks me if I like kids. I was going to say, having been around Lenny’s crew, that I’d rather raise cobras, but keep my mouth shut and say “yes.”

October 21, Sunday at Atwood Acres

When Dill drops me off we kiss goodbye. I am so aroused I want to ask her to forget church and come inside my trailer. But I don’t. She suggests that maybe next week I could come to dinner on Friday night and then we’d have Saturday to ourselves. She squeezes my hand and kisses me again when she says it.

In my unit I clean up the kitchenette, then flop down on the bed and fall asleep, only to be awakened around noon by Tina who just waltzes right in. She claims she’d knocked, but I must have been so exhausted from screwing last night that I didn’t hear. She makes herself at home and informs me that Lenny is down at The Blind Pig watching Patriot football on the big screen. But this is the last weekend for that. Tomorrow they’re coming down to Biggie’s for a shopping spree. I tell her I want nothing to do with anything illegal. All I have to do, she says, is keep my mouth shut. She hands me a video tape.

“Lenny and I made this the other night. You and your new love boat might learn a few things. I’m available right now if you’re not too fagged out.”

She does a clumsy pirouette and flashes her breasts at me. Seeing that I’m not up for an encounter, she turns and stomps out. “Remember, play dumb tomorrow. That’s all Lenny wants from you.”

I watch her from the front door as she makes her way back to the trailer. I look at the tape. Someone had scrawled “Love Fist” on the label. I wonder if it should be “Fest,” but knowing them it could go either way.

October 22, Monday Late Afternoon

I’d spend most of the day with my gut and jaw clenched. I mentioned to Dill that something is up, so she’s keeping her eyes open for anything peculiar. We have lunch together. We sit on the same side of the bench, share onion rings and I enjoy being close to her. When we finish the afternoon break, she pulls me into the little alcove by the time clock and kisses me.

We close at six on Monday. At 5:45 PM, just when I think I am home free, Lenny, Tina and the pre-school spawns of Satan parade through the automatic doors. Tina has each kid on one of those restraining halters and leashes. Even though it is late October she’s wearing a revealing sun dress which shows plenty of her ample cleavage. Lenny marches right up to me and declares it my lucky day. I’m quizzed on which is better, the plasma or LCD TVs. He seems like a normal customer, and Tina acts all motherly by inquiring about channel blocking and the dangers of sitting too close. He takes a minute and decides the High Def Sony 50-inch Bravo is what they want.

“Give me four of them,” he says without blinking an eye.

I’m stunned, but before I can say anything he’s added four Sony surround sound systems and an equal number of DirecTV HD receivers and recorders. Then Tina steps forward and says, “Toss in the best vacuum cleaner you’ve got.” She flips her hair defiantly, daring Lenny to cross her in public on this venture.

It takes me a few minutes to see what we have in inventory and then print up the sales slip. It comes to $23,589.67 with tax. Tina has a quick conference with Lenny then says, “We can go up to $25,000 so toss in a few microwaves and maybe an iPod; whatever takes us to just under the limit.”

I do what she says and get within two bucks. Lenny slaps me on the back and declares to the few left in the store that I’m the best salesman ever and deserve a raise. He hands me a credit card. I’m about to tell him I don’t handle that end of the transaction when I glance at it out of habit. The name embossed on the bottom right is Samuel Rossi. So that’s their game. Whether Tina’s conned Sam out of it for services rendered, swiped it outright or intercepted it when it came in the mail, I doubt any of the loot is destined for his use.

“I’m sorry Lenny, I don’t handle the payments. You have to go over to Customer Service.”

The warehouse guys, eager to get home, already have his loot piled on a big cart ready to roll. But there is a serious bump in Lenny’s road. Evidently he thought I would be ringing up the sales. He plays it cool though, slips the card into his shirt pocket and follows the signs to the back of the store. Tina trails her man to the same counter, the two kids, like dogs out for a walk who had found a great smelling lamppost, dragged along behind her.

I duck out of the way, grab a store phone and punch in Dill’s extension. She answers in a gentle, soothing voice, “Payments and Accounts, Ms. Fraley speaking. How may I help you?’

“It’s Lenny with $25,000 worth of merchandise. He’s using our neighbor Sam Rossi’s card. Sam is seventy-five and gets $800 a month SSI. Whatever’s going on, it’s not right.”

“We’re open until nine on Thursday and Friday, sir, but if you have a complaint you can call Mr. Kravitz at extension 441.”

There is a click and she hangs up. Carl Kravitz is our all-around guy. He helps out in the warehouse, checks packages at the door when he has time and sets up displays. The main point is that he is six feet six, over three hundred pounds and played Arena League football down in Manchester, New Hampshire. I need to find him, but it’s just six and I suspect he is long gone. I sprint back to the stockroom and snake my way through to the warehouse giving a “Kravitz” yell as I go. I might as well be on the dark side of the moon. I am probably the only male employee left.

I retrace my steps back into the store. Lenny is giving Dilly a hard time. She’d asked for two forms of ID, and he is explaining for the third time that he left his wallet at home while pointing out that the credit card approval had gone through fine and dandy. Tina sees me and pipes up that I’ll vouch for them. Lenny turns and stares expectantly, hands on hips. I shake my head “no.” Lenny, sensing that his bluff is deteriorating, accelerates into bluster mode.

“Fuck this shit,” he says. “I paid for it fair and square.”

He grabs the cart and lowers his shoulder to get its momentum going. Tina takes over the battle with Dill but not before unleashing the boys upon the store. They sprint for the TVs on display and begin pushing buttons.

“Listen,” she says, “that shit-for-brains salesman has it in for us because one time, out of the goodness of my heart, I gave him a blow job. He still has the “hots” for me but I’m married, you know what I’m saying. So he just wants to get me and my husband Sam in trouble. He sure as hell knows us. How else would I know he’s a drunk?”

I can’t hear Dilly’s response except that she isn’t giving in. Then all hell breaks loose. The kids are attacking the TVs with a set of keys, poking the screens as high up as they can reach and watching the gel ooze out as the picture deflates like a hot air balloon. Tina goes on the attack, making a grab for any part of Dill she can reach. Like a plow horse trying to jump a stone wall, she gets hung up on the counter, flailing away until she overbalances and topples onto the other side. I race over to protect Dilly knowing that Lenny is pushing the dolly with ever-increasing speed towards the front doors. I get to the service counter and peek over. The bottom of Tina’s sun dress has flipped over her head like a sun bonnet. I doubt the world is ready for the sight of her pitted, white-as-paste buttocks evenly divided by a skimpy red thong. Blinded as she is by her dress, she still has hold of Dill’s ankle and is attempting to twist it, wrenching off a low-heeled shoe for her first effort. Then, from out of nowhere, Paula appears with a push broom and begins tattooing Tina to the degree that she curls up in the fetal position. I reach over, grab Dill by the waist and lift her across to my side of the counter. In the distance I hear sirens and guess that someone had the good sense to call 911. Together we run to the door. Lenny has made it out to the parking lot and, with the aid of a young, chunky blonde, possibly his sex buddy from work, is trying to put his loot into the high back of a Keating gravel truck. When Auburn’s finest block the vehicle and draw their weapons, he stops and assumes the position from force of habit.

***

It’s over by 7:30PM.  Ed Harding, the store manager, has been called in. The cops take Lenny and Tina away, the latter complaining about how tight the plastic cuffs are before switching to a plaintive cry of “My babies, my babies!”

DSS arrives and deals with the kids. I pity the foster family that has them for the evening. I am interviewed twice, as are Dilly and Paula, who’d been in the toilet battling a case of the trots as she puts it when she heard the commotion out front. The merchandise is brought back into the store, photographed and placed off to the side with yellow “police evidence” tape strung around the pallet. I call Sam just to give him a heads up that a cop will be out there the next morning, but the minute I mention a credit card he thinks I am a telemarketer and hangs up.

Dill and I hold hands as we walk out to her car. I can kiss my trailer good bye when Lenny gets out. “Buy plenty of marshmallows” was the euphemism we used to describe the torching of property that resulted from defying Lenny Stark. As Dill drives us to her home she thanks me for saving her from Tina.

“Jesus was in your heart tonight when you alerted me about the credit card and again when you saw her leap the counter.”

“That stuff Tina said about me and her being together sexually . . . ,” she cut me off before I could finish.

“I know. I know. She was trying to discredit you.  She has such a filthy mind; she wanted to bring you down to her level.”

She reaches out for my hand, squeezes it and then brings it up to her lips. “You have such soft hands for someone who’s worked with them all his life. My dad’s were the same way.”

She kisses my hand again and presses it to the top of her chest where a large, silver crucifix hangs on a chain. My fingertips are on the cross but the bulk of my palm is on her right breast. She looks over at me and smiles. I look ahead at the winding road. Here I am stuck between the salvation of Christ and the ecstasy of terrific sex. Perhaps, later this evening, after a supper of yesterday’s leftovers, I will experience both simultaneously. It’s worth a try.

Orphan by Brady Golden

What the Peacock Knows by Rebekah L. Cowell

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