Roomers Ch. 06

bysatyricon.21©

'So you don't brag, even to blondes.'

'Nothin' wrong with blondes. They just get a bad press from dark-haired girls.' Her lips twitched.

'You're smart, aren't you?' Click.

'Better than the alternatives. If you think it's turning into smart-ass, tell me. The charge has been leveled a coupla times.' Her mouth quirked again.

'Molly and Amelia will be here in a minute. I'll show you your desk, give you some passwords, set you up. Mr. McCarthy's planning to have you work some figures, come up with a first conclusion.'

'Figures for real or a theoretical job?' Now she smiled properly.

'My lips are sealed.' I sure knew what I'd like to unseal them with.

'Lead on, Ms. Macduff.' She raised an eyebrow.

'I think that's "lay on", if it's Shakespeare you're quoting.' I shrugged.

'We only just met, Kelly. You want me to be suggestive already?'

'Smart-ass,' she said, but her eyes didn't look annoyed.

That first day went alright. The figures I'd been given were a crock of shit, didn't match with external data. Even I could see that, so I jigged with the program a little more; when I showed McCarthy the results he looked at the hard copy and then at me.

'Well?'

'Mr. McCarthy, if this business existed and had results like this, we'd be in a different universe.' He was looking at the print-out again.

'What's this stuff?' I craned my neck to see.

'Uh, dollar weighting against a currency basket, Fed forecasts against actual figures, election cycle, housing starts...' He stopped me.

'Whyd'ya put that stuff in?.' Click.

'Lemme sound like a smart-ass for one minute, Mr. McCarthy. I don't know anything about this business, about money, about making money, only what I see in the financial pages. But I guess it wouldn't be there if it wasn't useful. The program's got all that stuff in it now, asks to be updated monthly. I didn't put them in there with superglue, and I can sure take them out again, but when I saw the figures you gave me I needed to test values, and it don't work. I don't know the answer but with the extra stuff I can for sure see the question was wrong.' He half-smiled.

'Can you show me how to do that?'

'Sure.' He thought for a while and I stood awkwardly, wondering if I'd blown it. Shit, the clicks hadn't been wrong before. He came to a decision.

'You show me this afternoon and I'll see if your goddam fiddling about is smart or smart-ass. And Doug, don't push it too much till I've done with that. You got more learning than teaching to do here.' He nodded and I went out. Shit, he was right about that. Knowing what to do with the figures you got is one thing. Choosing the figures, that's something else. I went out and sat at my desk and dived into old files.

Jeez, I never used my brain like that before, and I don't fuckin' plan on doing it again. The technical stuff, the nuts and bolts of betting millions of bucks is a ball-buster. No wonder the guys who do it full-time are so dam' weird. I stayed quiet and worked at it. Molly and Amelia didn't like me much, Kelly was neutral, McCarthy didn't look like he paid attention, but I didn't spot him missing anything. Kelly didn't miss much either: she thought the sun shone outa McCarthy's ass and he trusted her judgment some. One more thing to step round carefully. The two old biddies just did filing, tax returns, gossip, stuff like that. Charity work, it seemed to me.

By December I'd learned a little but not enough. I was keeping myself on a real tight rein, not even peekin' at the extra-extra stuff I'd slid into the program. Day at a time. I hadta start spending an hour at the fuckin' gym on Saturdays though. Hated it, but it kept me from getting too antsy. Saturday before Christmas I was on my way back, looking forward to a shower and a beer. I wasn't paying a lotta attention and she had to practically jump in front of me before I reacted.

'Doug, where's your head? I've been waving at you for a full minute.'

'Uh, Kelly. I'm sorry, I was on another planet. Whatcha doin'? You live round here?' She shook her head.

'Just shopping and wondering where to have lunch. I don't know why I came up this end of town. My feet are like meatballs and my arms are going to fall off. Where's good round here?'

'There's the usual fast food stuff, and a tavern, or there's Mrs. Fellini's home-made meatloaf she gave me yesterday because she thought I looked kinda peaky. She lives downstairs from me.' Her brow wrinkled.

'What's the catch?'

'You make a salad while I shower. You think I wanna eat like lookin like this?' She still looked dubious. 'Kelly, I got testimonials and besides, if I'm eating Mrs. Fellini's meatloaf and thinkin' of you with a Big Mac and fries, I'll choke to death and you'll hafta apologize to my Mom.' The half-smile again, and I could see her decide.

'Terrifying thought. OK, where do you live?'

'Hundred yards down the street, corner of seventeenth. Gimme some of those parcels.'

When we got to the apartment I showed her the kitchen

'Meatloaf goes in a medium oven, salad stuff's in the fridge; if you do that, I'll go shower: what I can smell must be me.' She looked round.

'At least the kitchen's clean.'

'You live alone you gotta treat yourself right or it all goes south and you end up eating pizza from the box every night. My Mom kicked my butt twice a day till I believed that. Funny, but I've never seen keeping a clean home as a chore. You need to be shown stuff?' I was tellin' the truth apart from the stuff about my Mom. She snorted.

'Kitchens aren't too complicated.' I went and showered. Left the doors ajar just in case, but no luck. Day at a time. Thought about shavin' but didn't. Casual Doug. When I came out the apartment smelt of meatloaf and she was setting out place-mats and stuff. Her eyes flicked over me and her shoulders relaxed a fraction.

'You hungry?' I asked. She nodded and I hauled out the meatloaf, turned it onto a platter and put it on the table. 'Salad?' She opened the fridge and produced it. Real girly, crown cut tomatoes and stuff, so I admired it, said it looked too good to eat. She made a good dressing though. Eat your heart out, Paul Newman.

'Whoops. What you wanna drink?' I got up and looked in the fridge. 'I got coke, beer, wine, juice in a carton...' She put up a hand

'What's the wine?'

'California paint stripper, guaranteed ten minutes old, medium dry.' She almost choked on a mouthful of meatloaf.

'I'll risk it. This meatloaf is a dream. Wish I had neighbors like yours.'

'Mrs. Fellini thinks she's my grandma.' We carried on eating, not saying much. She was the kinda person, silence isn't uncomfortable. When we'd finished I shooed her into the front room while I made coffee and when I got back with the tray she was lookin' at the bookshelves, head bent so she could read the spines.

'You've got hardly any fiction here, Doug.' I shook my head.

'Didn't enjoy reading much till my sophomore year, then History kinda snuck up on me and that was it. Haven't had that much time recently though.' She sat down and grinned.

'Mr. McCarthy is a hard taskmaster. Are you enjoying the work?' Click. Outa nowhere.

'I enjoy learning stuff, but I never been too sure about big money. When you get over... over a million, I guess, it's just another way of keeping score, and all you really got is a more expensive set of worries.' I watched her take that on board.

'You said you lived by yourself. Don't you get lonely? I shrugged.

'Don't have enough time for that either. I got friends here, people I value, but I never been one for the social whirl: lotta noise, lotta stress, not much fun. I'm better with one on one.'

'I saw you with someone a month ago, in town, and Amelia told me your girlfriend ran that hippy shop. I always imagined you as being with a college-type person, more your age.' Click, and my voice came out a little harder than I expected.

'Annie's the best friend I got in this town, Kelly. She runs that shop so her Dad's got somewhere to dream about the Summer of Love, and she don't have a great time doing it. She's helped me through some hard times, been a good shoulder to cry on, and I owe her plenty.' Her hand had flown to her mouth and she looked embarrassed. I wasn't just a smart kid: I was a loyal friend too. You want them to think you're a goddam prince, play that loyalty card. I was real glad Annie hadn't heard me.

'Oh, Doug, I'm so sorry,. I shouldn't have said what I did and I shouldn't have pried.' Weird fuckin' conversation. Click.

'Don't sweat it. Annie and I aren't a couple; not the way you mean, anyway. We're friends with privileges, kinda. Don't tell that to the two gossips though. They don't like me much, and I sure don't want them discussin' my private life. What does your boyfriend do?' Her eyes dropped.

'I'm not, uh, seeing anyone right now. We broke up around Thanksgiving.' She looked miserable.

'Hell, I'm sorry I pried too.' She peeped up and our eyes met. That could have been thanks for lunch, Doug, now I gotta get on with my shopping, but there were no clicks so I went on asking stuff. She perked up some and seemed kinda happy to talk. Lonely maybe, since her dumb-ass boyfriend let her go. I never went wrong listening to women yakkin' on, and the clicks felt like groundwork.

Turned out she was pretty normal, except she'd majored in math. Then when she realized that the job market for math majors isn't that fuckin' enormous she dropped her sights. Agency sent her to McCarthy when Amelia needed sick leave to have her fuckin' piles cauterized, serve her dam' well right, and McCarthy had seen what she could do with figures, held onto her, turned her into an analyst.

'So that's why they don't like ya much,' I said. 'Came and took him away from them; same reason they don't like me I guess. They been with him so long they think he's theirs.' That caught her fuckin' attention.

'You're very perceptive, Doug. That's part of it, and they hate that Mr. McCarthy lets me make decisions.'

'Same coin, other side,' I said wisely, and she nodded as if I'd invented the fuckin' wheel.

One thing I know, clicks or no fuckin' clicks, is to let a woman go at her own pace. No use hustling, and the smarter she is, the slower you gotta go. Less they're one wing down, of course, but that's a whole different deal. Now Kelly, who was smart as hell, was a call for trustworthy Doug. The more they all trusted me, the fuckin' better.

'You need to be anywhere, Kelly, or you wanna another coffee, coke, somethin'? I'm gonna have one. I gotta theory that caffeine puts back what the gym takes out. Seems to work.' She looked at her watch and sighed.

'I should go really, Doug. It's getting late. Thank you for lunch, and thank you for listening. You're a nice person to be with.' Click

'Knowin' ya better is a privilege, Kelly. Where's your car? I'll help ya take the stuff down. You got enough parcels there to need FedEx.' Her eyes suddenly looked panicky and when she spoke it was as if somethin' was squeezing the words out of her.

'No car right now, Doug. Uh, Carl took it when he left and I haven't got round to replacing it.'

'You fuckin' serious? Uh, excuse me, Kelly, you mean he stole it?' She nodded. 'Why didn'tcha go to the cops? Auto theft ain't like litterin' ya know.' She shook her head, and her face began to crumple.

'Three years together and then I got home one day and the apartment was empty. Just the bed, one table, one chair, one of everything.' Her voice was tight and strained. 'Just one pillow.' Holy shit, I thought; the guy musta known her real well to risk that: nine women outa ten woulda been onto the cops in half a goddam second.

'Why the hell didn'tcha say anything, Kelly? Hell, your apartment's stripped, your car's stolen, and you stay quiet? Mr. McCarthy know?'

'No-one knows,' she mumbled, 'and I don't know why I told you. And please don't say anything about it at work.' She seemed to be in a state of total fuckin' collapse. I looked at her for a full minute. No clicks

'I really don't know why I told you,' she said again, tears comin' hard now, rolling quietly down her cheeks like they'd overflowed from a deep well. 'It was as if suddenly I had to tell someone or I'd explode. Maybe it was the wine.' Shit, I knew why. This was like Judy not knowing why she climbed into bed with Mr. Doctor; hell, whatever was fuckin' happening, better to go with it: I can do trustworthy real good. Like I said, one wing down is a different story, but Kelly's wing was fuckin' shot clean away.

'You can't untell me, Kelly. I wanna take a look.' She protested but let me put her coat over her shoulders and lead her to my car. She gave me directions automatically, and when I pulled up outside the place she didn't move; just gave me her house key.

'You go in, Doug. I don't want to be with you when you see it.' I shrugged and got out.

Jeez, she hadn't been kiddin'. The apartment was almost empty. One of everything, just like she said. It was clean, fuckin' spotless, but seein' a cupboard with just one cup and one plate sitting all alone on a shelf is kinda unsettling. She'd been sleepin' on one side of the bed, it looked like, not in the middle, and the furniture that was left was all against one wall, like she only wanted to be in half the apartment. There were piles of unopened retail therapy stacked neatly in the second bedroom. Kinda spooky. I went and looked out the window; she was still in the car, not movin'. I thought some, then went lookin'.

When I came out with the cases she got kinda agitated.

'What are you doing, Doug? What are you taking away now?' I popped the trunk and heaved the bags in, climbed into the car.

'You can stay here, Kelly, live like that till you have a full-scale breakdown, or you can use my other room for a while, rest up while you think what you wanna do. You're gonna do that this weekend whatever you decide. Monday, you wanna come back here, tell me so without cryin', then fine: we'll haul this stuff back, but I ain't leavin' you alone right now though, not if I have to handcuff you to the fuckin' radiator. Uh, excuse me. I just put some clothes in here for now. You gonna do as you're told for two days?' She didn't answer, so I started the car and we rolled.

Back at the flat she was like a zombie, let herself be settled on the couch while I hauled her stuff in and got Gary's old room ready. I looked through the cases, then put her bathrobe, clean underwear, a pair of sweats, socks too, on the bed, and put her bathroom stuff where it was gonna belong. Then I went back to the lounge.

'OK, Kelly. Here's what's gonna happen. Come see.' I led her through, showed her the room, how the heat worked and stuff, then sat her on the bed and squatted in front of her.

'Go take a shower and change. I ain't a dam' therapist, so you don't need to talk. I'll fix somethin' light, mebbe one real drink, you get an early night. Room key's in the door. You use it, I won't be offended. Talk tomorrow if you wanna do that.'

'But, Doug, what about your privacy, your...'

Jeez, Kelly, will ya give it a rest? You gonna do as I say?' She stared at me for the longest time, then gave a tiny nod. 'OK. Start now. Hot water never hurt anyone.' I left her to it, heard her moving about some, footsteps, bathroom door shutting. The pipes began to gurgle and I knew the water was runnin'.

Twenty minutes later it was still running and when I checked the kitchen tap it was runnin' stone cold. I went and listened at the bathroom door. Just the noise of the shower. Shit, if she'd cut her fuckin' wrists or something, that'd screw everythin' up royally. When I tried the door it was locked, so I put my shoulder against it, hard.

It was kinda pitiful. She was sitting in the shower stall, head resting on her knees ice-cold water pouring over her, shivering like a bastard. She didn't look up and I felt a stab of worry. I reached in and turned the water off but she didn't move. Shit.

'C'mon, Kelly, lemme give you a hand.'

She was a rag doll, like everythin' was too hard for her, but she let me lift her up, put her robe on, walk her through to her room, dry her like a good friend should I put a T-shirt and a pair of running shorts on her, helped her into bed. Trustworthy Doug. Even blue with cold and with full-body goosebumps, she was something to see. Everything where it should be, perfectly groomed, muscles toned, pale nipples shriveled up like raisins on her firm breasts. Natural blonde, I noticed. She lay lookin' at the ceiling and I left her, went and heated some milk, put a big shot of Mr. Walker's famous Scottish medicine in it, fed it to her sip by fuckin' sip, one arm proppin' her up, laid her down again. I left her curled up under the covers, eyes closed. Door ajar, hall light on. I found the toolbox and fixed the bathroom door where I'd torn it up. She'd appreciate that if she remembered anything. I had a drink myself and wondered what was gonna happen next. It wasn't the way I expected, but I was learnin' to live with that. I decided that I'd read something a little taxing, keep my head in shape for tomorrow. Slackers have feelings too.

I was in bed and almost asleep when I heard her cryin'. When I went and looked she was curled up in a ball, shoulders heaving, funny little sounds comin' from her. I sat on top of the covers, pulled her head round, settled it on my lap and put my hand on her shoulder. No brotherly fuckin' cuddling: that stuff is pure cliché and anyway, way too soon. After a little while her breathing smoothed and she seemed to be asleep again. I didn't think I could move without disturbing her, so I sighed and leaned back. I fuckin' hate being uncomfortable.

Comfort break, Go grab a beer, take a leak, check on the kids, whatever you usually do. .

PART TWO

When I woke up I was cold and stiff and my neck felt as if it would never move again. I could hear sounds from the kitchen so I hauled myself upright and went to check. She was makin' coffee, wearing the sweats I'd put out the evening before, looking pale and a little nervous. Her hair was wet, hanging round her face like curtains and I could see that she was goin' commando. Nice sight.

'Mornin', Kelly, is that coffee I smell?' She nodded, didn't say anything, and I went and fetched her hairdryer from her case. 'Uncle Doug forgets nothing. Go use it. Don't want you to catch pneumonia, start bein' a burden.' Her eyes filled up again but she took the hairdryer and went. I poured juice and coffee, took it through to her, then sat on the couch with mine, feeling kinda smug. I remembered that I hated being pitied and that she was a smart and independent person, just like me. When she came in she sat in an armchair opposite me and looked at me kinda shy.

'Uh, I don't really know what to say.'

'That's because you don't need to say anything. Shit happens, shit hurts, recovery takes time. Have a slack day, Kelly. I'm gonna go to the gym, go to the store, come back and fix somethin' to eat. You sit quiet, think a little if you wanna.' When I got back she looked as if she hadn't moved a fuckin' inch. Didn't seem to want to say anything so I went and took a shower, then made a BLT and took it through to her on a tray.

'Eat it, girl, or I'll paddle you good.' Tiny half-smile. She managed about half and I took the rest away without comment then picked up my book. After mebbe two hours she stirred and went to the bathroom, spent a long time there. When she came back she had the nervous look again.

'You sat there all night holding me, didn't you? I slept and woke up, and slept and woke up, and you were still there.' I shrugged.

'Someone needs to be, Kelly. I been where you are and it's way too hard to do by yourself.' She was silent again, then got up and went to her room. I took a bathroom trip I didn't need and glanced through the door as I passed. She had her cases open and was hanging stuff up, folding things and putting them in drawers. Way to go. I went back and picked up my book again.

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