First published in Corvus Review, Spring/Summer 2015.
“Sometimes the goose crap is so thick on the sidewalk you think you’re ice skating.”
Hank looked up. The well-groomed bearded man standing in front of him wore a thick black wool overcoat, a dark red tartan scarf wrapped twice around his neck, and a black leather cowboy hat tipped at a rakish angle.
Hank nodded to the fifty-something stranger. “Walking on the grass is worse because of the dog crap.”
“Scylla and Charybdis. Odysseus’s choice.”
“Exactly so. Two possible courses of action, both bad.” Hank motioned to the empty spot on the park bench beside him. “Care to join me?”
“I wasn’t sure you wanted company.”
“Normally I keep my own counsel. This morning I could use a friend.” Hank slid over to make room. “I’m Hank. Hank Briggs.”
“Thomas Whellin. Tommy.” Neither man offered to shake hands. “Damned cold out here.”
“Not cold enough to freeze the lagoon.” Hank pointed to the geese swimming from the open water toward the shore. A young couple in matching yellow and black Columbia parkas had brought stale Sara Lee White Bread to feed them. Hank recognized the female as the daughter of one of his neighbors. “The geese aren’t complaining.”
“I’m not complaining either, just stating a fact.” Tommy looked out on the lagoon. It covered the area of a city block, ringed by a sidewalk with dark green park benches set at uniform intervals. All the benches faced the lagoon.
Copeland Creek defined the park’s eastern boundary. Beyond the creek the oaks in Pierpont Woods were dropping the last of their fall foliage. A cinderblock building at the far end of the lagoon provided restrooms in the summer when farmers’ markets, band concerts, and Frisbee golf tournaments populated the park. In the winter, when the lagoon froze, the building served as a warming house for Pee Wee Hockey and Middle School skating parties.
“I like your hat,” Hank said. “Don’t know that I’ve ever seen one exactly like it.”
“It’s a jackaroo hat, made from kangaroo leather. Jackaroos are Australian cowboys. I found it in an empty bathroom stall in Darwin. Been wearing it ever since. It’s my good luck hat.”
“Ever get this cold in Darwin?”
“Never. Certainly not in December. That’s summer there. Probably 32 degrees Celsius today—88 degrees Fahrenheit.” Tommy glanced over again at Hank. “I can’t help but notice that you didn’t dress for the cold.”
“The pajamas are flannel.”
Hank wore powder blue flannel pajamas, a black and orange Chicago Bears sweatshirt, brown slippers, white socks, and a Chicago Blackhawks stocking cap. He’d wrapped a brown striped sleeping bag around himself.
“Left the house in a hurry.” He motioned to a large two-story steel-gray Cape Cod style home down the block. A late model Ford Taurus was parked in the drive beside a gleaming new metallic red BMW X3. “Couldn’t find where I’d dropped my coat last night. I was distracted at the time.”
“Woman trouble,” Hank said as he buried himself deeper into the sleeping bag, tucking his legs up under him. “Thought the cold would clear my head.”
Hank looked back to the couple in the matching parkas. The man was dressed in faded Levis while the woman wore black tights and a black wool skirt. They had on matching Keen hiking boots. After she’d emptied her bag of bread, the girl kissed her companion. The young man returned the kiss and then pulled her into his body. “Oh my!” Hank said under his breath. He turned back to Tommy. “At least you’re dressed for the cold. Get that coat around here?”
“Hardly. I won it in a cribbage game from a rancher in Aukland. He claimed to have produced the wool for it, but I didn’t believe him. Inferior herds, from what I could see. But then I was only in New Zealand a few weeks.”
“And the scarf?”
“It’s a Whellin clan tartan from Wales. A gift from a parson’s wife I met in Tallinn.”
“Tallinn? Is that in Wales?”
“No. Estonia, lovely country, the twenty-first century nestled in medieval stone.”
“So, what are you doing in Iowa?”
“Visiting my daughter and her family.” Tommy pointed to a beige split-level bordering Copeland Creek. “Discovered this morning that they blame me for my wife’s death two years.” He hesitated. “A skiing accident in Nepal,” he told Hank as if that exonerated him. “I decided to take a walk with friends.”
The only other people in the park were the young couple, their lips locked, struggling to unzip each other’s parka. “Friends?”
Tommy tapped the left side of his overcoat. “Rum.” He tapped the right side. “Rye. Your choice.”
“Excellent.” Tommy unbuttoned three buttons and reached inside his overcoat. “Twenty-five-year-old Ron Zacapa.” He extracted the bottle and handed it to Hank. “World-class liquor deserves quality glassware.” He reached into the coat again and removed two glasses. “Waterford crystal.” He put his finger up to his lips. “Sh-h-h-h-h. My daughter’s glasses.”
Tommy held out the glasses while Hank poured the golden brown liquid. “Judged the world’s finest aged rum three years running.” He handed a glass to Hank. The rum smelled of caramel and spices, cocoa and smoked vanilla.
They clicked glasses. The Guatemalan rum had a syrupy consistency, but tasted like a well-aged cognac. Tommy finished his drink first and set the glass down on the bench. “So, tell me about your woman problems. I’m a bit of an expert.”
“First, you need to know I’m a jobber. I supply grocery stores with nonfood items. Got hooked on the grocery business in high school when I was a bagger at National Tea. Lost my virginity in the cooler to the deli manager, Olivia Townsend, who was in my mother’s canasta group.”
Hank set down his empty glass, and Tommy poured another round. “After that I couldn’t shake the allure of the food business even after six very profitable years in industrial linens.”
Hank began to sip again as he spoke. “I met my wife, Peg, in the express lane at Hy- Vee. We courted while she went through management training and married when she was transferred to the produce department on Devil’s Glenn Road. She left me when she discovered that our home freezer was filled with quality cuts of beef because I was having an affair with Denise Blouter, a butcher at the Fareway store on 53rd Street.”
“So, when did this happen?”
“We divorced three years ago. But then last Friday my ex- and I had a tryst on the loading dock of Garden Valley Produce before the day shift started. Peg’s the manager there now. She’s also dating one of the partners. He knows nothing about food. He’s just a money man.”
“So I take it that’s his new BMW parked in your drive? And that Peg is part of your woman problems?”
Hank was startled. “Why, yes, it is. How’d you know?”
“You don’t strike me as the BMW type. Too ostentatious.”
“Exactly right.” Hank felt the need to explain. “I drive a five-year-old Nissan Murano with 230,000 miles on it. Runs like a top.”
Tommy nodded as if he understood perfectly. “So, one part of your woman trouble equation is that your ex-wife borrowed her boyfriend’s Beamer to pop in, unannounced, for a quickie on a Sunday morning, and someone other than you met her at the door.” He swirled the aged rum gently in the crystal tumbler.
“Something like that,” Hank admitted sullenly. As he sipped the rum he tried to shake off the imagines of that confrontation in the living room.
Hank turned back to the young couple. The woman’s parka hood had slipped off her head exposing a mass of auburn curls. The young man whispered something in her ear. She stepped back and slapped him. They started arguing. She refused to let the man touch her.
“So, who met Peg at the door?” Tommy felt the effects of the second rum. He was drinking too quickly. Still, when the glasses were empty, he poured a third drink before putting the bottle back in his coat.
“As a jobber I go to a wide range of stores from the high end to the discounters,” Hank explained. “Six weeks ago I went to the Save-A-Lot down on River Drive. First thing I noticed was that they had a new checker: Madeline. Actually, she checks, does some stocking, and is the backup bookkeeper on weekends. She’s mid-forties and shows some wear, but we clicked right off.”
Tommy took another look at the man beside him. His hair was thinning, but even wrapped in a sleeping bag wearing blue flannel pajamas he was very handsome. “You seem to have a way with women.”
“I can see through the surface to the true woman below.” The quarreling lovers distracted Hank. “Probably comes from my years in sales.”
“So what drew you to the woman at the Save-A-Lot?”
“Yes, what attracted you to Madeline?”
“That’s just it, most guys wouldn’t give her a second look.” He shook his head to clear it from the cold and the rum. “She was in an old red Wisconsin Badgers sweatshirt, faded Wrangler jeans, and black yellow Converse high tops she found at the Salvation Army clothing center. But it’s Save-A-Lot, so nobody dresses up there.”
Hank observed that the voices of the arguing couple had softened, and the social distance between them had narrowed. A moment later, the young woman took the man’s hand and led him over to a park bench. For just a moment she looked in Hank’s direction and waved. The couple began kissing again.
Hank watched the young man respond to the woman’s advances. Perhaps he’d been too impatient before, or else felt uncomfortable because of the cold or the old men who stood watching them. He’d rushed things.
“Anyway, after I’d finished my business with the manager at the Save-A-Lot, I picked up a quart of 2%.”
“A conversation starter. I paid for it in coins to give more time to strike up a conversation. I found out that Madeline lived in an apartment over the Living Art Tattoo Gallery. She walked to work and everywhere else. She was in rehab. I think there were a couple DWIs and some jail time, although she hasn’t fully confided in me. But she’s very professional in the store.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, despite her obvious attraction to me she was hesitant to go out with a jobber. You know, someone who does business with the store. But I finally convinced her a couple weeks ago to go to a concert at the Redstone Room. Turns out that she loves Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers. I had to promise her AA sponsor not to let her buy beer, and I stuck by it. We made love in the back seat of my Nissan in the Third Street parking ramp. I think she was too embarrassed to let me see her tiny apartment and didn’t want to invite me in.”
“She had her pride,” Tommy said. The two young people were still not touching, but he noted that their body language had changed. She was leaning in toward him, her head slightly tilted. “So, then what’s your woman problem? Are you being forced to choose between Madeline and your ex-wife Peg?”
“Not really. Actually, it’s Rochelle that I’ve asked to marry me.” Hank picked up the third glass of rum and slipped again. “My this is smooth. Never had anything like it.”
“That’s just it. I met her the same day I met Madeline. I drove from the Save-A-Lot to Schnuck’s on Middle Road. Upscale. High- end service. Very difference from the West Side markets. Strictly suburban. I was setting up a new end cap display of imported Christmas ornaments, and I got the message that the new day manager, Rochelle, wanted to see me. I found her in the office wearing a red power suit, and black, sensible short- heeled Free Spirits. Turns out she came to the grocery game late in her career. She worked as a flight attendant for Delta until she saved enough to finish college. Got her degree in Business, and then was a pharmaceutical rep for Pfizer for six years. Went back and got her executive MBA at Wash U and wound up in Schnuck’s management training program by lying about her age. By the time they found out she was over forty, she’d won their hearts.”
“Rochelle sounds like an amazing woman.”
Hank downed the rest of the rum. “Yes, if it weren’t for her commitment problems.”
“Yes.” Hank shook his head. The young couple began kissing. He suspected that if it were after dark on a warm July night rather than 10:00 a.m. on a late November Sunday, they would soon be making love on the bench. He turned back to Tommy. “She told me she wasn’t ready to settle down.”
“But you just met her six weeks ago.” Hank shrugged off the criticism “And you’ve had sex with two other women during that time period.”
“Five other women actually. Not that it matters.”
“Oh, but it does matter.” Tommy had met men like Hank before. The last time was in Guatemala City nine months ago. It was at a party sponsored by Cervecería Centro “You’re the one with the commitment problem.” Tommy drained the tumbler of rum and motioned for Hank to do the same.
“I think I can help.” Tommy stood up and put his daughter’s crystal back safely into his coat pockets. “You need to introduce me to your houseguests before they leave.”
“I don’t understand.” Hank gathered up the sleeping bag he’d been wrapped in. He was unsteady, probably from the three shots of rum he’d rapidly ingested, but possibly from the prospect of facing the women waiting back at his house. “What do you plan to do?”
“I’m Tommy Whellin,” he said by way of explanation. “That name obviously means nothing to you. But if you were to approach that young woman over there,” he said motioning to the couple who were now repositioning themselves on the bench, “she would tell you all about me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m a consultant. Marriage and relationship counseling. I’ve published a dozen books. I have a syndicated column. I appear regularly on Dr. Oz, Ellen, and the Daily Show. I travel the world giving advice to troubled lovers with deep pockets and poor people skills.”
Hank listened to Tommy’s pitch, but he couldn’t stop staring at the young couple. They’d opened their parkas and the woman had climbed onto the man’s lap facing him, her legs spread, her knees pressed again the back of the bench. The young man looked nervously at the two men, but Hank gestured that they were leaving. Indeed Tommy had already turned toward Hank’s house.
Hank imagined the woman unbuckling her lover’s belt and unzipping his pants. He imagined her lifting her skirt and tearing at her black tights. He imagined her rising up and then thrusting down to impale herself on her lover. Forty years ago, that young man could have been Hank. Life was less complicated then.
Hank felt the cold through his flannel pajama bottoms. He hurried to catch up with Tommy. “What’s the plan?”
Tommy didn’t slow down. “I’ll just work my magic.”
“I can’t pay you,” he said dragging the sleeping bag behind him.
“Oh, I think you can.” Tommy stopped. He adjusted his jackaroo hat. “I’ll trade my expertise for yours. You know how to attract women. I know how to retain them.” Hank thought about that for a moment. It made a certain perverse sense.
“Hank, I am registered for the Million Dollar Texas Hold ‘Em Tournament at the casino this week. I fly out next Sunday. That’s all the time we’ll need.” He thrust out his right hand. “Deal?”
“Deal.” Hank said.
“So, when we step inside that door,” Tommy said, motioning to the front of the Cape Cod home, “who will we find there?”
“Madeline. We had a date Saturday night. She was embarrassed because she had no proper clothes to go out. So I cooked her a steak dinner on the grill, sautéed mushrooms, and my famous Caesar salad. Perrier, no alcohol. We planned to watch movies by the fire and pop popcorn over the dying embers.”
“How did you know there was a but?”
“People pay me to know these things,” he said, dismissing him. Then Tommy thought better of it. “It was your paralanguage. I can teach you the basics of reading it.”
“Unfortunately, earlier in the day, I had suggested to Rochelle that I would be spending Saturday night alone. She had to work late, but on a whim swung by after her shift.”
Tommy was amazed. “On a whim?”
“Well, that’s what she said.” They were almost to the door. “But she’d packed an overnight bag, an assortment of lingerie, three bottles of wine, and a six-pack of porn DVDs. From her years as a pharmaceutical rep, she’d learned a few things about pleasing men.”
“So what happened when she showed up unannounced?”
“Madeline wanted to leave, but she didn’t want me to drive her. She had no cab fair, and the busses had stopped running at six.” Tommy waited for the rest. “Rochelle suggested that I take a walk around the lagoon. She offered to help Madeline with the supper dishes before she gave her a ride home.”
Hank resisted the urge to glance back at the young couple on the park bench. “By the time I’d returned from the walk they’d uncorked a bottle of Burgundy, changed into lingerie, and started watching a chick flick on my 60” Sony.” He shook his head. “Rochelle is an amazing woman. When my ex-wife let herself in this morning, Peg found the three of us curled up by the fire.”
“Rochelle suggested that I take another walk while she made breakfast for the four of us.”
“I can see why you’d want to marry her.”
“She is definitely a problem solver.” Hank hesitated. “Since your wife died, do you like traveling alone, or would you prefer company?”
“Definitely company. I have great people skills, but I have a terrible time meeting women.” Tommy noted Hank’s body language. “Why do you ask?”
“It’s just that Madeline loves to travel, but never has any money because she’s always attracted to the wrong kind of men. She has a passport that she’s never used, but she’d need a new wardrobe.”
“You said she had a lot of miles.”
“Highway miles. She’s a classic. A collector’s edition in the hands of the right man.”
Tommy shrugged. “You’re the expert.” He motioned toward the door. “Lead the way.”
“What about your daughter? Won’t she wonder where you’ve gone?”
“My daughter will miss her crystal glasses before she misses me. Besides, my granddaughter will let her know.”
Tommy turned back to the lagoon. The lovers were zipping up their parkas. The woman looked over to where the two old men had gone. She hesitated and then she waved again.
“My granddaughter,” he pointed.
The front door to Hank’s house opened and a beautiful brunette stuck her head out. “It’s about time you got back. Breakfast is ready.” Rochelle recognized Tommy from his last appearance on Live with Kelly and Michael. “Just the person we need to work things out. There are plenty of scrambled eggs to go around, and I’ve uncorked a lovely Shiraz.”