What He Came For
a short story by Danella
For a half-hour each week she was vivid. During that time
her characteristic scowl was replaced by a mezzaluna of teeth—a grin the color
of weak rum but toothy nonetheless.
She was a retired music teacher, a flutist and harpist with
three degrees to her name. Her name: Maxie Stroller, a shortened version of a
much longer title. Unmarried, the only child of parents long dead, Maxie was,
for going on thirty years, the landlady of a converted Victorian in Croton
Falls, and had lived for that many years on the first floor.
She kept anonymous in the building; let a realtor handle
her affairs. Didn’t borrow spices and gossip on the stairway or ask favors of
the neighbors the way the neighbors themselves did. Her shades were drawn from
four in the afternoon on, and within this large, dim space her door stayed
unopened, unanswered—unless of course, someone was expected, which hardly
happened except for on Thursdays, the day she shipped a package to her only
living relative, a first cousin living at an Ashram upstate. Nothing much: an
out-of-print volume; a knick-knack from a tag sale; a pair of long johns from
SmartMart. This guaranteed a pickup from the UPS man, who always came on
Thursday and always came on time.
In a high, luxurious chair by the window, Maxie sat
watching as three boys, rude and happy, combed the snow while a pooch yapped at
their heels. To Maxie, pets were superfluous and children a nuisance; however,
it was Thursday, Christmas Eve, and the wine she’d drunk at lunch had softened
her position enough to make her smile for them. But enough was enough; she drew
the curtains and went to prepare the wassail.
The house was cloaked in festivity: a dozen or so oranges,
spiked with fresh cloves, hung by ribbon on the feathery limbs of a freshly cut
fir. The scent of green was thick as haze, and an old recording of Perry Como in
Winter Wonderland popped and groaned under a faulty tone arm. It had been ages—years—since
Maxie had engaged her senses in this way, long since before the war that had
claimed her sweetheart.
There’d never been another. There really hadn’t been
him, but because she and he’d held hands on occasion and found themselves from
time to time locked in compromised gropes, he qualified as the soldier she’d
remain true to forever and ever. That is until God stole her heart. She liked to
say that He was now her Steady Beau, and a Jealous one at that, and so the life
she led with Him was spare and strict, pacific by default.
Yeasty by nature but cowed by the violence of her inner
passions, Maxie chose a cloistered life of celibacy early on. Celibacy
with fantasy, of course. Naughty, naughty, and because she feared she might not
make Heaven for this, she curbed these fictions to a strict weekly rite.
Thursday. It was the day Maxie became completely unhinged.
On Thursdays she let her hair down, literally, a thick mane of gray that trailed
her spine. She allowed herself to “sleep in.” Ate randomly and voraciously.
All through the house sweet incense effused, candles flickered and be-bop riffed
on the hi-fi. All through the day, Maxie glided round in bare feet, clad in
loose, loud caftans, smoking cigarettes, kiss-prints on the rim of her wine
glass. It was the only day she took a peek into the mirror. The day she touched
And for this, the remaining six days were given over to
Fridays especially, down on her knees, her back arching and
collapsing, Maxie would scour the floors like a mad char, and buff them to a
gloss. Dust was vacuumed with aardvark efficiency. Windows and mirrors, wiped to
a screech. In the bathroom, while on her knees and scrunched up portable, she’d
scrub Thursday night’s clothes against the steely pecs of a washboard.
Those dirty, dirty clothes.
Saturdays. Maxie fasted, prayed, read verse from the Bible,
and rinsed her soul with inspirational videos. She deeply cleansed her body,
scrubbing until she blushed all over.
On Sundays, she stayed in church all day to wash away her
The rest of her days were given over to service. She fed
the hungry at the homeless shelter. She nursed the ailing at the Senior Home and
read classics to the sightless.
For six days Maxie ate oats for breakfast and a lunch of
bread and soup. Her dinner card was limited to seven items: sausages, beans,
minced meat, corn, potatoes and peas, with applesauce for dessert. She mixed and
matched every so often, for a twist. It was quite a curious existence and Maxie
had been content to ride the rest of her life out in this state, that is, until
she met the UPS man.
The UPS man: an average-looking man near sixty-five,
widowed and of Southern lineage. Not a wise man necessarily, but stern and
disciplined. There was a remoteness about him, an undigested rage that had
congealed around his heart, and this was what might have made one think twice
before calling him a friend. He lived alone in a small house in Peekskill and in
his cellar kept a dog with rickets named Yippee, a dog he’d long stopped
walking—though he changed Yippee’s soiled papers dutifully as if parakeet
turf in a birdcage. His two grown sons lived out of state and never called, and
there hadn’t been a woman in his life for over five years. Once, in 1952, he
winked at a young girl down south. Once. His dentures were a souvenir of the
He had seniority on his job.
Maxie’s apartment was the final stop of his weekly
rounds, and Thursday was also the day he was paid. Therefore, she received a
more dashing play of his character, which she took as something she’d
inspired. And in the two years since he’d started this run, he’d never
failed a weekly showing.
It had begun simply:
He first delivered a package to her, a set of
Fingerhut knives Maxie’d been waiting on. Thursday, she’d just had a lunch
of rare steak and red wine, and was warming a glass of brandy between cupped
palms. As usual, she’d taken a plush seat by the fireplace and had sunken deep
into lusty thought. Lust, it was the fabric of her Thursday allowance, and so
she was flushed and crackling when the doorbell rang.
There at the door with his face as finely chiseled as a
mask and a big, bouldered build, the man seemed unable to look into her eyes
when he spoke, and she took that for restraint. “Er-uh, hello, uh—ma’am?”
said the man. “I have a package for Miss, uh—Maxine Stroller?”
“Why, yes—why, that’s me,” said Maxie, stroking her
collarbone. A practical man, Maxie determined. No-nonsense. There was an air of
efficiency about him, a sense of organization and this, given her already
headlong state, made her blush crimson.
“Would you sign right here? Ma’am?” he said.
As he handed her the pen, his thick finger skimmed her pinky, kindling a spark
within her. The rest of that day Maxie nursed his touch, which ran through her
like fingers through hair. Finally, carrying it to bed with her, lights off,
beneath the sheets, she downloaded the memory onto the tip of her finger.
Thursday, and, Oh! she cried out, as if she’d been
saved. She didn’t yet know his name, but breathlessly chanted the letters
U-P-S until a sigh of relief bailed from her lips.
Maxie fell fast asleep, with the comfort that Friday would
soon wash ashore.
There was now much more to atone for. In the beginning
there was fantasy, and from this fantasy, possibility was begotten. Soon after
meeting the UPS man, Maxie’s eyes began to stray from her Steady Beau. Each
Thursday, Maxie would extract vital bits of information from the UPS man, but
subtly. She’d weave both his manner and opinion together and spend the rest of
that evening taroting him into a man she longed for: a man of nobility and
depth, of sobriety, a man who carried the shadow of grief in his eyes: the death
of his wife? On Thursdays she’d have fresh lemonade and gingerbread on hand,
and offer it as redress; a man of such virtue should not suffer so inside.
The UPS man thought highly of her too, but a man never
forgets his teeth. Though he’d park his truck in her back lot, so that they
might chat without interruption, he never once stepped beyond Maxie’s
threshold. No matter the weather, he just stood at the door. He always said no
thank you to her offers of food and drink. Maxie was Miss Maxie to him, and
he, in turn, was called Mr. Dove. In time he’d worked up enough courage to
linger for a half hour after each visit.
This was the half hour she was vivid.
So was he.
They smiled a lot.
Over the course of these two years, their exchange had
mellowed into a more physical dialogue, a favor of sorts to define their
parting. It first took form as a friendly pat on the shoulder or a tweak of the
elbow; next, a sensual handshake, in which the moist meat of their palms touched
and loitered; soon, a kiss of the hand. Then one day he kissed her.
A brotherly peck on the cheek, but that did it.
Throughout that week, as Maxie left streaks on her windows
and her socks unmended, she began to draw her life into a frame. She challenged
her piety and justified her appetites. Desire was now a holiday, and on its eve
Maxie sought Mr. Dove’s hand in place of her own. And thus it was decided by
Maxie that sin was sin, which was precisely what Thursdays were for.
Concurrently, Mr. Dove had been thinking less about his
teeth and more about putting his antique fears to rest. Miss Maxie had proven
herself a friend to him, and he would respond in kind. And so finally, to Maxie’s
surprise and glee, he accepted her invitation to share a Christmas Eve toast
The freshly-made wassail was centered on the maple
breakfront, lit candles on either side. Baked apples bobbed and glistened in the
bowl, each ringed with the spume of erratically poured beer. Toast was sliced
into diamonds and placed on a saucer nearby. It was Thursday, Christmas Eve, and
he was on his way.
At four o’clock, Maxie showered and searched for
something to wear. In her bedroom, the sun had already slipped into a pocket of
the sky and so a dim bulb had to take it from there. Posed in her underwear in a
full-length mirror, Maxie rolled an r and raked her stubby nails across
the air. He was coming at last! She scripted the two of them sitting on the
sofa, their hands interlaced while listening to Handel’s Messiah. After a few
cups of wassail, he’d whisper warm enticements into her ear, and she’d
respond demurely, but encouragingly—though not too encouragingly. He’d kiss
her as they did in those Doris Day movies, and like Doris, she’d lift one foot
from the floor. And then the unthinkable would happen, and she would extend the
pleasure for as long as possible without allowing it to actually happen, lest
she, in her weakened state, should regrettably yield to its advances.
Maxie corked Jealy Beau’s ears with cotton and gagged his
eyes, then looked at herself through the eyes of mortal man. What was she
offering? The unlatching of her brassiere produced an avalanche of breast down
her ribs; spaghetti of veins ran from her thighs to her rose-ringed knees. Gray
whiskers in between. Maxie despaired a moment then drew a rusty compact from her
dresser drawer. Dipping and swirling into the balding cake, she swatted layers
of powder onto her face. With hairpins and a band, she rolled her hair into a
twist. A track of rich matte red was applied to her lips and slightly outside
the rim. Rouge, earrings, a green velvet dress. And yes, a spritz of something
Four forty-five; ding-dong: Mr. Dove. Maxie flipped on the
porchlight. Through the sheer door panels she saw him standing erect, handsome
as ever in his dress browns, his cap cocked ever to the side. His nostrils were
alert, and his ears pricked as if tuned to a special frequency. Maxie swallowed
“Why, hallo, Mr. Dove,” she said, opening the door. Her
voice issued dryly from her throat. “Merry Christmas!”
“Uh-huhn, Merry Christmas to you too, Miss Maxie,” said
Mr. Dove. “How’re we doin’ today?”
“Lovely, just . . . shwell,” she said, shrugging. She
wondered if he’d forgotten.
“Whatcha got for me today?” he asked. He reeked of bay
“Why, it’s a big one this time,” she apologized. “You
know, a last minute gift.” Maxie tittered. Mr. Dove’s head bobbed in
agreement as he drew a pen from his jacket. What impressed Maxie most was that
all throughout their acquaintance he’d never degenerated into a casual state
of mind, always took care of business first; his current handling of her
packages was just as crisp as when they’d first set eyes upon each other. She
sighed as he wrote something on her shipping document, tore off a receipt and
handed it to her. Mr. Dove stood by the door and folded his arms. Maxie coughed
“Being it’s the season to be jolly,” she reminded,
“I made some wassail.”
“Well, now!” cried Mr. Dove. “Wassail.” He tied his
hands behind his back. “You know, Miss Maxie, I ain’t gonna stand here and
lie—I don’t have the foggiest idea what wassail is.”
“Oh, why, it’s something of a toddy, made with hot beer
and cider and spicy baked apples.”
“You made it yourself?” he asked.
Maxie blushed. “Yes, well,” she said, “it was an old
recipe passed down from my grandmother—the one on my mother’s side. Er, do
come in and try some.”
“Well alright then,” said Mr. Dove.
Maxie released her breath and signaled the way. Mr. Dove,
quickly looking to either side of him, crept behind her, rubbing his cold hands
Maxie had reserved the golden angel for Mr. Dove, who
eventually crowned the tree with it. When the lights were lit Maxie felt a low
purr escape her throat. Memories washed over her, remembrances of all the gifts
wrapped in colorful paper and tied with felt ribbon and bows, neatly circled
round the family tree, the smell of steaming pudding, young carolers come a’calling
on Christmas Eve. She felt close to Mr. Dove in that minute. In her mind’s
eye, he was her last true friend.
As the tree lights blinked and “Jingle Bells” jingled
on the juke, Mr. Dove sat nursing his drink with characteristic control. His
legs were veed and he cradled the cup in a fork of that vee. There was nothing
left for him to say, for he’d already spilled a bit of gossip about his most
unruly customers, mainly the weight thieves, the snobs and the unprepareds.
Maxie was astonished by such inconsideration on the part of the UPS patrons.
Pleased at her indignation, Mr. Dove offered Maxie a tidbit he’d heard about
her landlord, specifically that the cheap bastard was planning a rent hike in
January, in order to buy himself a condominium in Lake Worth, Florida. He looked
so authoritative with this information, that Maxie almost believed the cheap
bastard existed. She cleared her throat to skip the subject. Already having
played “Silent Night” on the flute for him, Maxie didn’t know where next
to turn. Eyeing her harp, she thought about “O Little Town of Bethlehem,”
but had a better idea of how to proceed.
“Have you ever listened to Handel’s Messiah in
its entirety?” she asked. Mr. Dove looked at her as if she’d spoken in
tongues, then wobbled his head no. Tap-tap went his finger on the glass.
“Would you like another?” she asked.
“Er-uh, do you have anything else, Miss Maxie?” asked
Mr. Dove, tom-tomming his chest with a clenched fist. “I like these sweet
drinks, but they don’t seem to like me. I’m diabetic, you see. This
stuff, I suspect, don’t mix well with the insulin.”
“I’ve got bourbon,” she replied, clasping her hands
together. Her voice took on the barren trill of falsetto. “And please—call
Mr. Dove raised her one with a sound similar to that of a
bray, only deeper and more guttural. He watched her draw a bottle of Maker’s
Mark from the cabinet and a lewd and delicious thought stole home in his head.
Maxie plucked a short, intricately carved glass from the shelf and puffed it
clean. Hmmm . . . he thought, as she filled the glass halfway.
“Here you are, Mr. Dove,” she said, handing him the
“Oh.” Maxie squeezed her fists together at her side.
“You want more?”
“No,” said Mr. Dove, taking a swig from his glass. “Bigger’s
“Oh, ho my goodness gracious,” she said, “and what a
lovely name it is.”
“By the way,” said Bigger in a husky tone, “you look
mighty sharp tonight.”
“Oh dear—sharp!” Maxie felt she had to pee. She went
to the tree and lifted the lone package from its skirt.
“For you,” she said to Mr. Dove. Bigger.
“Aww, Miss . . . Maxie—you didn’t have to get me
anything.” He stripped the box of its frill and dangled its contents: three
crisp white handkerchiefs “You know,” he said, “this here’s the nicest
thing anybody’s done for me in a long while.” Bigger refolded the hankies
and tucked them in as he’d found them.
“For two years of good service,” said Maxie with a
Bigger smiled and for the first time looked directly into
Maxie’s tiny gray eyes. They skirted round in their sockets, not quite letting
themselves be caught by his gaze. Her naiveté pierced his heart. Tossing back
the rest of his bourbon, Bigger made a face of significant pain. Maxie poured
him another and then another, and he belted them down until the buzz was strong
enough to lift him and carry him to the end of the sofa, where Maxie sat perched
like a stuffed bird. She seemed both guarded and detached, her hands rosetted on
her lap, as if seated in a public place. Bigger’s stare became bolder. Maxie
wasn’t much to look at, but then neither was his reflection. As he felt his
lower man become charged and specific, a shot of bile rose high in his throat.
Bigger had a wash of memory but nothing too savory. He
placed a sweaty palm on Maxie’s knee and, upon squeezing it, felt a foot crash
into his mouth, a size fourteen army boot that felt as if it were shot from a
revolver. 1952. He gulped, recalling the salt of his blood, teeth loosening from
their homes and clogging his throat like Chiclets swallowed whole. Shaking the
image from his head, Bigger yanked the light chain on the nearby table and
kissed Maxie hard on the mouth. This sent her tummy tumbling, a feeling she
couldn’t determine whether she liked or not. Bigger’s large hand,capped over
one of her breasts, led her downwards on the sofa. She shuddered, but again,
wasn’t sure why.
Lying prostrate on the sofa, Maxie licked her matte red
lips and wondered, what next? Beneath her, a couch spring poked at her
spine, making her think much more than true passion should allow for. The
verdict was finally in: this was Actual Romance. Too intense, she decided, and
so removed her soul from its clumsy grasp. Once removed, she became both
spectator and critic.
Dumbed down by the bourbon, Bigger pushed away from the
sofa and lowered his pants. He stood before her, beaming like he’d earned
something, then stepped back from the puddle of brown cloth. Ta-da! he
seemed to say, but Maxie thought otherwise.
As he dropped to his knees and crawled towards her, it
occurred to Maxie that she’d made a gross miscalculation, that that . . . thing!
bolting from the center of his groin was not peace-loving matter. She clamped
her eyes shut and from the inside, her Steady’s taunting head rose before her.
A gasp escaped her throat. Bigger put on a smug smile. His face was drawn back
on its bones, his breath hot and tart. Maxie pressed her lips against her teeth.
For the moment, she pondered the mundane: taxes, traffic and tomorrow’s dirty
laundry. She sought to be sprung from this hell, and called on Beau for a
solution. As she felt Bigger’s fingers spidering toward the waistband of her
bloomers, Maxie thought quickly and spoke.
“I’m just not ready for this,” she whispered, her
jaws locking behind her words. He smiled a knowing smile, but he’d
“Need a li’l warming up, hmm?” Bigger’s voice
sounded strained and set upon. His elbow was propped up like a bow, and he
grinned down at her, a feral night-creature baring a cage of straight white
teeth. With a quick hand he began rubbing her through the cloth of her garment,
genie-lamp style. Before she could cry out, Bigger snuffed her mouth with a
sloppy kiss. This made Maxie buck, which he also misunderstood. Her thrashing
and high pitched vocals worked through his system, and in his excitement, the
memories of that wretched day became nearly tangible.
Flash! he was tied to a tree with a rope of sisal cutting
rings into his wrists. A crowd gathered round like a murder of crows—close,
closer. They threw their prized cat-eye marbles at him; they jabbed him with
sharp objects. The town idiot tried to impale him with the branch of an oak but
fortunately the twig broke. And the music: kill him, kill him! was the
refrain, all to a chorus of giggles and phlegm-hulking. First came the boot, a
high kick that landed between his lips, scraping the runway of his tongue. Then
a man in baseball stripes walked towards him with a large bat in his hand. He
watched the man’s chest pump out wide when he drew his bat way back. The man’s
freckled face was red as raw beef, his small eyes stained with rage. With
dancelike finesse, he twisted his torso around, taking the bat so far back it
disappeared behind him, then released it full force on Bigger’s face.
Crack! A white-hotness unimaginable. Crack! Death was near, Bigger
was sure. Crack! What was Death waiting for? Crack! Bigger watched
the girl he’d winked at wink back at him, he watched her smirking face till
his eyelids puffed up like yeast biscuits, until the blood obscured his vision.
And then he saw nothing.
By this point Bigger understood Maxie’s No! to
mean no, and had abandoned all hope of entry. This didn’t stop him from
wanting, however, and the wanting made him unreal. With swift strokes, he began
waxing his endowment with his free hand, waxing it quietly but furiously, like
men do in the privacy of their showers or at the movies way in back. He was
vaguely aware of the woman beneath him, and remained a dead weight on top of
her, panting and rubbing himself as if the world depended on it. His humid mouth
was cupped over her lips and every so often a rill of his saliva fed into hers.
Repulsed, Maxie tried to push Bigger away; she pulled at his ears and bounced
punches off his back but this only pimped his fury. It occurred to her that she
could scream, but decided she’d rather be taken by his violence than to expose
her secret life. There was nothing to do but shrink and cry no.
All was lost for Bigger; time meant nothing, he was
nowhere, and didn’t even know where that was. As far as he knew, it was
1952 and he was being overtaken by that swarm of hostility.
“So now they trying to get me from behind!” he
began muttering. “They done already beat my head to a pulp and now they
trying to stab me in the back! Well, I ain’t gonna let ‘em see me cry. Uh-uhn,
they’ll see tears of blood first.”
From either side of his head, Bigger’s ears were being
tugged at, and this further stoked his anger. He was so inflamed that he should
have exploded—imploded at least, but through strict will kept it all
intact. His anger mounted until it became too much to discipline, and so soon
let go of him. As he released this outrage, Bigger cried out,
“I’ll wink at whoever the fuck I want to!” then
slumped over Maxie like a dead man.
Maxie lay there, afraid to move. The blinking tree lights
lent a strobe effect to the otherwise dark room. She was of two minds about
this, but only had the nerve to claim the less conflicting option, the one that
condemned her to burn with shame in complete silence. This didn’t stop her
from wishing a terrific scene, one where she clawed Mr. Dove’s face for
becoming so familiar with her, for ruining her beautiful green dress, for
treating her like a common . . . oh! Nor did it stop her from wanting to
shout Fuck you, you creep! or sob loudly until dawn, or to drip blood
from slit wrists onto the newly waxed floor, just so that he could understand
how deeply she’d been damaged. But all she could do was lie beneath his salty,
sweaty body lamenting the cost of those goddamned hankies.
“Ahem,” she volunteered.
His panting now having died down, Bigger lifted himself
from the sofa and stared down at Maxie, as sheepish as rickety Yippee on a
missed paper day. He had no idea that his lips and chin were smeared with red
matte lipstick. He also had no idea of what to say so he opted to say nothing.
No longer enraged, Bigger rose from the sofa and tucked himself in. Shattered,
he stumbled to the door and let himself out. A moment later his disappearance
was made formal by the whinnying of an engine and the crunch of snow and gravel
beneath thick, impatient tires.
It was only eight o’ clock. Maxie, feeling bloodless and
spent, dragged herself onto her rocker. The rocker creaked like old joints. Her
hair had become undone and cascaded down her shoulders like water from a broken
dam. The rosy taste of lipstick was on her tongue and the scent of bay rum
aftershave mingled with her spritz of something floral. She rocked in the dark,
the Christmas tree lights flashing: twinkle, twinkle, like a cheap sign begging
for business. The pendulum of the clock swung and tsked as Maxie contemplated
her reduction. She rocked and continued to rock until the clock struck its last
gong at twelve. Then she dropped to her knees and spewed a hundred Hail Marys.
From the highest floor in her head, she begged forgiveness. She also gave
thanks, though she wasn’t quite sure why.
She gave thanks once more. And as a bonus she surrendered
her Thursdays to Him.
© 2004 Danella Carter
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