Richard Sanders had decided not to go through with it.
Then he saw the curve of her leg. Light from the shop’s security lamp caught her, ankle to upper thigh, the slender leg, sheathed in silk, tender white. She wore a delicate silver chain around her ankle, and though fragile, the links held him more tightly than twenty-four years of marital fidelity. He would approach the woman, and he would pay to own her for a while. The rest of her outfit told him he could. He had been walking the streets, imagining that he might do this thing on his last two trips into the city. But most of the corner girls were worn out, and they offered him nothing beyond the sheer thrill of doing wrong. This young girl, half his age at best, was different. Her long blond hair swept over her eyes, blocking his view of her face, but one glimpse was enough. She was lovely.
He had never been with a hooker before, and his imagined approaches were models of what he took to be sophistication. The actual approach was different. He wandered past her, stopping to stare at the dress shop behind her while he spoke, lest someone spot him—recognize him and know what he intended. The words shriveled in his dry mouth. “Are you a cop?” He’d watched a lot of television, and believed that if asked directly, a cop could not lie to him, though he was unsure enough to be petrified. The thought of his wife or family finding out about this little diversion chilled him.
She laughed. “No, silly,” she said. “What do you have in mind?” Her voice was all smoke and whispers, and Richard took a deep breath.
“How much?” he winced.
She laughed again, like the low trill of a flute. “It’s my time of the month,” she explained. “I could only go oral. Or I could use my hand…”
He had really wanted those legs wrapped around his waist, encircling him. Still, he could watch her legs, and touch them, and the other thing would be nice. His wife had never done that one thing—not once in twenty-four years. “Oral would be nice,” he growled. “The oral, I mean.”
Another laugh, and then she whisked him away, clutching his arm and leaning into his chest. They walked past the hotel where Richard was staying, into a dark street full of stone houses squatting in the cold. She pulled the collar of her leather jacket tight around her neck while she walked. The wind blew her hair back in his face, and it tickled his nose.
It occurred to him that she might be setting up a robbery. She might have a friend waiting with a gun, and they might beat him or worse. He could not report a robbery or explain a beating. His wife would never understand. Though they did not talk much anymore, they had achieved a quiet balance in their marriage. She made eggs, and he read the paper. He mowed the lawn, and she sipped iced tea. She would not want the agitation of an embarrassing incident any more than he would.
Just my luck to be robbed or killed, he thought. He was the sort of person who couldn’t get away with anything. He had been reminded of that earlier in the month when an audit of his expense records revealed a phony receipt, his sole attempt at padding his account in two decades with the same company. The incident gave a sense of urgency to this sales trip. He was still in hot water with the downtown office, and he needed a success. A big sale wasn’t going to happen, though. His daylong efforts had been wasted. Perhaps if he hadn’t been trying so hard to redeem himself, he wouldn’t have failed so completely, and he wouldn’t be out on the street, hoping to wash the stench of failure away with a pathetic little adventure.
The girl clutched him tighter and shivered a little in the wind. Her shoes were fashionably tall—the kind that made it difficult to walk. She stumbled over the broken sidewalks, tufts of grass pushed up through the cracks by lack of repair and an occasional tree. She kept her balance with his arm. He held his elbow cocked, as if escorting royalty.
Perhaps she was with the police after all. She seemed nervous. She could say he’d never asked if she was a cop, and no one would believe him. The charges alone would do him damage. The fines never mattered, did they? It would be enough to reveal him for who he was.
And who, exactly, was he? He was a husband, but he cheated on his wife, just like her mother said he would. “No man ever stays faithful,” the hag had declared, her thin, flat lips pressed into a sneer. He was a father, but Matt, his youngest son, had left home two years earlier, never calling to say if he was dead or alive. And Dixon, his firstborn, hated him. Why? He couldn’t say, nor did it matter. The feeling was mutual.
He was a provider, but heavy machinery sales would never offer any satisfaction beyond knowing that most of the bills were paid.
And late at night, when his wife was in her room asleep, he was a poet. A miserable poet, the kind that pushed words back and forth out of stubbornness, hoping to accidentally stack a few lines of verse so that it would sound like Tennyson, not Richard Sanders.
The girl pointed to the side entrance of an old brick house. Steps led down to a basement apartment. Trash bags lay stacked against the side of the house, and a dog or cat had pulled tissue and chicken bones out, leaving them strewn in the driveway. She stopped to kick some of the trash back against the side of the house, and then apologized. He stepped down to hold the door for her. “Such a gentleman!” she cooed. She worked the key for a moment, and then slipped inside.
He flinched when he stepped through the doorway, waiting for a blow to the head, or some other signal of betrayal. None came. She pointed to a couch and waited while he took his raincoat off. The apartment was one large room, kitchenette at the far end. A dresser, complete with framed photos was tucked against a side wall, along with a small bed. The comforter at the foot of the bed was a splash of reds and browns, but the rest of the apartment remained in the dark. “Would you like some light?” she whispered, as if reading his mind.
“No, this is nice,” he answered. His voice caught, quavering like a teenager. He cleared his throat. “How much?” He was not aware that he was still whispering.
“Oh, that,” she laughed. “Is thirty too much?”
Richard stared, and then pulled his wallet out. He’d have paid ten times that. He was beginning to suspect that the girl was no more experienced at this game than he was, and the thought calmed him. He grabbed two twenties from the wallet, and handed them to her. She leaned forward, and light from the window lit her hair, turning it nearly silver. He reached out to touch it, and then stopped, embarrassed.
“Go ahead,” she whispered.
He ran his fingers through the locks, marveling at the touch. She rocked her head back and sighed. She said something else, but he couldn’t hear it, not with the blood pounding in his ears. After a moment, she took his hand and, lifting her blouse, slipped it underneath, to her small breast. He felt the thrust of her nipple, and his hand shook.
She sat him down on the couch, and kneeling, unzipped him. A patch of moonlight lit the apartment floor, slicing across her legs. He leaned to the side, staring at her legs while she worked. There was a moment of surprise, when she took him in, and then—much too quickly—it was over. He leaned back and groaned.
She wrapped her arms around his thighs, hugged him for a moment, and then stood up. “I need you to go now,” she explained. “I rent here, and I’m not supposed to have guests.”
She was no hooker. He was certain of that, now. Surely, she was just lonely. He had heard of beautiful women being lonely, no one daring to ask them out. He stood up, reaching, but she turned away.
“I want to please you,” he whispered, reaching up under her blouse, cupping her from behind with his palms. It had been so long since he had tried to please a woman. He was afraid he’d forgotten how. Pleasing his wife meant not interrupting her television. She pulled away for just a moment, and then melted back against his chest.
He slid his hand down. He thought, I want to touch those legs, and then his hand brushed against the erection.
Richard stiffened, stepping back. The young blond whirled and hissed, “You have to go now!”
“You’re a man,” Richard said, the pit of his stomach suddenly sour. He balled his fists, and the blond stepped back, panicked. Richard raised his right hand, but even as it went up, he knew he would not swing. He was not a violent man. He had a temper—his wife and sons had often trembled in his presence. But he’d learned to swallow what anger he had, allowing them to express their rage (or disdain) without a response.
He swallowed. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, lowering his hand. “I’m sorry, you surprised me. I don’t know what to say. I never do this sort of thing. I’ve never been with any woman but my wife before tonight.” He stopped and laughed. “Hell, I still haven’t been with another woman.”
The blond began to shake convulsively, and pitched back on the bed. She slid down, legs extended in front, until she sat flat on the floor, her head cradled in her arms, crying hysterically.
“Your breasts felt so real. I guess your having some operations, huh?” The sobbing got louder. “Hey, miss, mister…” He shook his head. “I’m not going to hurt you. It’s just…you’re not the only one shook up here. You should have told me, you know.”
The girl curled up into a ball, and let out one gasping sob. Then, though her shoulders continued to shake, she was silent. Richard stared, unwilling to leave. He had hurt her feelings, but there was no reason to go into spasms over it. He looked around, and spotted the comforter. He unwrapped it, and draped it over her. “You don’t need to carry on like that,” he said. “I’m not mad.” He stepped to the side, and glanced at the dresser.
The feeling slipped over him like a shroud. His skin went cold, wet to the touch, and his stomach slid into his throat, as if he were voiding his insides. He felt himself start to fall. He held himself up by gripping the edge of the dresser. The picture in the frame was a family shot—Richard, his wife, Dixon, and young Matt, slender and blond.
He turned to the slumped figure on the floor, and started to say a name, but it died on his tongue. He sat down on the edge of the bed, and closed his eyes. The little apartment was Hell, and he could feel it smother him and take him in whole.
The taste of bile in his mouth made him want to spit, but he had no saliva. He was dry. He wanted a drink, a bottle. He wanted a gun. He looked down at the huddled blanket, shuddering in the dark, and he had an urge to strike for the second time that evening.
“No,” he said, the word out of his lips before he knew he was speaking. “No.” He stood. He needed a shower. He needed a hundred showers. He would never feel clean again. But his child! Could someone so frail bear the weight of what had happened?
He touched the comforter. “It’s not your fault,” he said. The pile shrank.
“It’s not your fault,” he repeated. “I did this to us. I went where I shouldn’t have gone, and you were just lonely.” He looked around the little room, more like a cell than a home. “You were lonely, weren’t you? Christ, Matty.”
“No!” The comforter shrieked, like metal siding torn from a mobile home. A single leg slid out from under the uneven blanket. Richard stared at the ankle bracelet and began to cry.