Fiction - The Grey Area, Absinthe Literary Review
 

What He Came For
a short story by Danella Carter
 

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 herself.

And for this, the remaining six days were given over to penance:

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 sins.

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 event.

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 with her.

~

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.

Thursday.

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 floral.

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 deeply.

“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 rum aftershave.

“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 vaguely.

“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 together.

~

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 me Maxie.”

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 drink.

“Bigger.”

“Oh.” Maxie squeezed her fists together at her side. “You want more?”

“No,” said Mr. Dove, taking a swig from his glass. “Bigger’s m’name.”

“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 shrug.

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.

“Excuse me.”

“Uhhh?”

“I’m just not ready for this,” she whispered, her jaws locking behind her words. He smiled a knowing smile, but he’d misunderstood.

“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.

Silence.

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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