An excerpt from Lady in the Room, now FREE at Amazon.com and many other fine online retailers.
After a quick stop by our kitchen to carefully arrange the pastries in one of my wife’s dessert trays, I was back in front of the Walton’s door banging again. I could sense the doorbell via my peripheral vision, but I wasn’t going to give in. A man knocks on the door, and so I did, a second, and a third time. When no one came, I twisted the knob and walked in. One invitation was enough, I reckoned.
The din of the party was coming from my right. The crowd was jam-packed in the living room standing around a young tanned Mitch Jr. who was recounting some story about him doing hand-to-hand combat. His crew-cut looked the part, but he never really seemed the type that could climb out of a ditch by himself much less take on two members of Al-Qaida at one time.
Mrs. Walton came to my rescue, guiding me and the pastries to the kitchen for a quick deposit. She looked at me with worried eyes as she took the plate from me. She pointed me back out toward the living room, nodding politely. In our thirty-four seconds of interaction, she hadn’t opened her mouth to say a word, but then again, I didn’t care. I didn’t like the Waltons.
The small crowd roared at some line he had just delivered, and my wife was deep in the middle of them – she hadn’t noticed that I’d returned. A few got up to hit the refreshments about the same time as I found my way into the room. Brooklyn passed me with a nervous smile. Mitch Jr. got up and twisted a little bit, flexing his torso to stretch out muscles that really didn’t exist. I couldn’t help but walk up and shake his hand. He seemed just too good to be true. His face beamed when he recognized mine.
“Mr. Donka!” he said, reaching out for my hand.
“Mitch.” His hand felt soft, though the shake was firm. These were not the hands of a man that carried heavy ammunition around in the desert. It didn’t mean he wasn’t in the service of country, but it certainly explained the absence of medals which Mrs. Walton would have most assuredly been passing around if any of it were true. My family hadn’t been raised like that: my grandfather lost a toe in Germany and never bragged about it. I never knew about the Purple Heart until his funeral.
“You still runnin’ the bank up the street?” His eyes were ecstatic, as if I had stayed all the same just for him.
I nodded, but kept my mouth shut on purpose. I was tempted to ask what he was running, or running from, but Mrs. Walton’s eyes were boring in me – I could feel them from the kitchen where she stood. She didn’t trust me, and she probably could tell that I didn’t care for a single word coming out of her son’s mouth.
Something caught my eye from the corner of the room, and this time it wasn’t a Walton. The faint hue of dull brown centered with a slight smear of red got my head to turn on an impulse. There she was … sitting on a piano bench. The lady from the market before. Her happy eyes were on mine; her red-lined smile forcing mine to appear. I turned to Mitch and excused myself. I couldn’t hold back my own surprise and giddy smile when I walked over, and reached out to shake her hand.
“Small world!” I exclaimed.
“Indeed it is.” She declined my hand. “Sorry – I’m one of those weird people who don’t shake.”
“Ahh,” I said, still grinning ear to ear. “Germ-a-phobe?”
“Is that the word?” she laughed, patting the open side of the bench beside her. I sat without hesitation.
“Want something to drink?” I asked. There was just something about her that was too easy, too plain. Brooklyn was always such an amorphous Rorschach every time she opened her mouth; but with Supermarket Lady, someone I had known for less than five minutes, I could read her like a book. Her expression was completely honest and open.
“I shouldn’t. Can’t really hold liquor, but the company is appreciated.”
I smiled as she spoke and could feel my cheeks blushing.
“So much hot air in this room, I’m doing my part by providing ballast,” she said, gripping the ends of the bench.
I laughed. “Friend or family?”
“I know them more than I care to.”
I nodded. “Still weird though; seeing you in the store, and then …” I finished the statement with a really dopey version of my surprise face.
“Not really,” she laughed, dismissing my concern with a shake of her head. “Might be a big city, but Zingo’s is still the closest shop around.”
I shrugged. “Guess I just never saw you in the hood.”
Mrs. Walton came around with a tray full of beer; I swiped one just as she gave me her glare again. I nodded at Supermarket Lady. “Sure you don’t want one?”
She shook her head; her face was now a little hesitant, pensive even. “It’s really not my thing.”
The crowd starting coming back around Junior: my wife, a little closer to him than she had been before, nearly under his arm. She must have noticed how overly familiar she was allowing herself to be, and she pulled back away on the couch a few inches. It seemed weird that so many people could fit into such a small space, but there they were, all circled around him like they were about to pose for the cover of one of those old Saturday Evening Post’s my grandmother used to show me. It just seemed so weird, so old-fashioned.
I shook my head, and looked back at Supermarket Lady as she pulled out a long cigarette and lit up, blowing smoke in their direction. I think I must have coughed and laughed at the same time; she turned and cocked an eyebrow at me. “What’s so funny?”
“You …,” I said, pointing at her cigarette as I smiled sheepishly. “That … in here. It’s kind of impolite to smoke in other people’s houses.”
She looked at the crowd, focused back on the young veteran. “Really? They don’t seem to mind.”
“What’s your name, by the way?” I asked, pushing in a little closer.
“Don’t you think that’s kind of impolite to ask a lady? Especially one you’ve only just met?”
I laughed again as she blew smoke in my face; I waved it away, and reached out as if I might take a drag from her smoke. “Touché.”
“Not your flavor,” she said, smirking.
“What is it about you? I can’t put my finger on it …”
She stopped reacting to me and stared straight ahead; all emotion left her face.
“You seem … I don’t know … like you belong in a movie from the 1950’s …”
She seemed slightly alarmed, looking at the entourage, then back at me.
“… like a mix of Greta Garbo, Kate Hepburn, and … I dunno … Lauren Bacall, except …”
She reached out to touch my thigh, but didn’t; her cigarette hand was slowly moving toward soldier boy and his posse.
“… Except … you’re in full techno-color.” Laughter bubbled out of me like a kid.
“Darrell … stop …”
I smirked a bit. “Now, you got me talking like Gramps …”
“You‘ve got to stop talking … look …”
“He turned me into a total dork, you know – watching those old black and whites every Saturday afternoon…”
“They’re looking at you, Darrell!” She was hissing now.
I shook my head, “Seriously?” I turned toward buzz-cut; it was true. The whole room was looking at me. Most of them were white as sheets; all except Brooklyn. Her face looked like a tomato. Mrs. Walton came up to me first; my wife in her wake.
“I think you’d better leave,” she said in a tone that matched the glare she’d been giving me all night. I didn’t have a chance to respond; Brooklyn had me by the arm in two seconds flat, practically dragging me out of the house. Once the door slammed behind us, she was pounding my arm and back with her clenched fists, growling like a puma. The fists really hurt.
“I told you!!!”
“Told me what?!?” I protested, trying to run ahead of her onslaught.
“None of that crazy shit!”
“What are you talking about? I was just having a …”
“Oh really!!” she screamed, her voice bubbling over with poisonous brew.
“What? So, maybe a little flirting … is … is that what this is all about? At least I wasn’t preparing myself for a docking by Captain Jack Sparrow!”
The slap was surprising. It was easy to forget how violent she could become.
“This isn’t about flirting,” I said, doing the math rather quickly. We were standing in the middle of the street. A few lights popped on around the neighborhood; not the ones with the open living display, but the ones behind curtains and shades.
“Okay; I was just talking to her! Honest!”
“To who, Darrell, who were you talking to?!?”
“Ruth! The lady from the supermarket! She was sitting right next to me!”
“Ruth?” she asked contemptuously. “Ruth from the supermarket?” Another slap. I don’t know why they always seemed unexpected.
“What the hell, Brooklyn? It was just a friendly conversation! I don’t know why you’re blowing this out of proportion!” I yelled back, rubbing my aching cheek.
“Just talking, huh?” She walked up, jabbed me in the chest. “Anything particularly unusual about your little Supermarket buddy?”
“I said fucking tell me!!!” She was screaming again. A few more lights popped on; a couple of doors opened.
I walked up to her, whispering. “We need to take this inside.”
“Tell me, you son-of-a-bitch, or so help me God, I will beat the living SHIT out of you until someone calls the fucking cops!!!”
I whispered. “She seemed … I don’t know … a little out of place. A little old-fashioned.”
“More,” she said, hissing through her teeth, walking backwards ahead of me, like a street-fighter trying to coax me into an ambush.
“She reminded me of my grandma a lot – a younger version, I guess. Except she was really beautiful …”
“You know what’s really strange, Darrell? About this old-fashioned Ruth girl you were chatting up?”
I sighed. The house was up ahead, and I was glad to see it. This whole thing would be over, at least for the night. It would give the neighbors something to talk about for a month, of that, I was sure, and whatever embarrassing thing Brooklyn was about to tell me would be the new reason Kayla would pretend to be have trouble going to school for the rest of the year.