Hunting for Duck (2)
So the day comes and they pull up in this big purple Olds, Nate driving. And here was a team. Bonnie and Clyde gone crazy as fuck. Marlene – skirt up her ass, knee-high red suede boots, motorcycle jacket, all that eye-liner, hair up in spikes. 27, but the face told you things. The stuff had been done, wasn’t too far behind, might still be there at the edge. But Jesus… she was something. She had a body and knew it. It caught me with my guard down. She looked straight at me as she came around the car and I held her eye. Sal let go my arm, went to her, looked at her. And then they hugged. They stood there like dancers. The straight guy and the clown - Marlene still looking at me.
And then there was Nate. My age probably, but holding it better. He’d go 15 rounds okay – not like most guys who spend their days at the wheel. He was a picture, too. Pink shirt, white shoes, white trousers, chrome shades, gold – even in his smile, which seemed to be stuck there. Didn’t I know why. It shone from him. He lit up the street.
“How’s it going, my man?” he said, like he’d known me since school.
“Pretty good. You?”
He looked at Marlene, then at me again. Yeah.
We left Sal and Marlene to catch up and I took Nate to Stacey’s Lounge for a beer. He told me some things through that smile. He told me how one day on his bus this old lady had a stroke, so he drove straight to the hospital – skipping the route, jumping the lights, never stopping, all the way. Some guy on the bus complained because it made him late for work. Nate said he saw the guy later and evened things out.
“Man, you should of seen that mother go,” he said, slicing his arm down on the bar like a turnpike barrier. “Over and fuckin’ out! ”
That killed me. I rocked on my stool.
“I couldn’a surprised him more I opened my fly and put my fuckin' pecker in his hand, know what I'm sayin'? I mean, anyone else would of done the same. You’d of done the same, wouldn’t you?”
“Sure, Nate,” I said. I probably would, too. Though maybe not so much now. I’d had too much of that trouble. And I didn’t have quite Nate’s trim, either.
Nate bought us another beer and a cigar each. As he held up his lighter for me, he asked me what I thought of Marlene.
“I guess,” I said, “If she’s anything like her sister, then you’re money in.”
That gold-glint smile spread across his face. Then he drew his head in closer, as if he was afraid of being overhead.
“Man,” he said – his voice lower, almost reverential. “That woman does things for me you wouldn’t believe.”
He looked me solid in the eye, quiet for the first time since I’d met him. Then he took a deep pull on his cigar. “She blows my mind, you know?”
We sat for a moment, thinking on that one. Then Nate soft-punched me on the arm and showed me the gold again.
“Which makes us a pair of lucky motherfucks, eh?”
“Right,” I said.
Later, after we’d eaten, Sal and I stood at the door as they drove off up the street in that crazy car – Nate’s arm waving out the window like a pink carnival streamer. When they turned at the intersection, Sal left my side and I followed her in. She picked up Marlene’s glass and sniffed it, wrinkling her nose. She took it to the sink and rinsed it out. She needn’t have bothered. You could smell Marlene everywhere. The whole place smelt like a ladie’s room on prom night.
“What about those two?” I said, picking the glass out of the drainer to wipe it.
Sal went to the table to get the dishes, piling them up into a heap, clattering the knives and forks on top. She shook her head
“I don't know,” she said. “It's the straightest I've seen her. But him? I haven't a clue what that's all about. I don't know if I want to think about it too much.”
She put the stuff in the sink. I went up behind her and put my hands on her hips.
“He seems alright to me," I said. "They look happy enough."
She shrugged. Then she turned towards me.
“Yeah. Maybe. Why should I worry, anyway?”
But I could see it there. Something had happened. Whatever Marlene was, she was Sal’s kid sister. Anyone else could have gone to hell. But Marlene was family. Marlene was family again.
Which is why, when I picked up the phone one Saturday a few months later to hear Marlene sobbing and asking for Sal, I could pretty much tell what was coming. I passed the phone to Sal and went through to the kitchen for a beer. I heard her say some things between long gaps of listening. It wasn’t hard to pick out the drift: Nate had gone and she didn’t know where, and she had no money and was being evicted and didn’t know what to do. As I listened, I gazed out of the window, watching the kids in the street running to catch the leaves as they fell off the trees in the fall sunshine. They were having a hell of a time out there – which is what Sal and I had had, for a while. Just like kids playing. Getting the game right.
Lately, though, a few leaves had started to fall. I’d been writing plenty, but hadn’t sold any more stories. Sal still helped me with them, but with less enthusiasm as time went on. She said the next couple I did were too much like the first – that I needed to spread myself a bit, as she put it. Which was easy enough to say. So, I lost some confidence, began drinking too much to compensate, then started finding other things to do. The TV. The horses. I never told her about the gambling, using some money I’d put by in a savings account. I had nothing else to spend it on. I didn’t make anything out of it, that’s for sure. Then one night, over dinner, she’d said that if the writing wasn’t working, maybe I should get myself a job again. Maybe having all that time was putting the wrong sort of pressure on. Of course, she was trying to tell me something, and I knew she had a point. I knew there was something else behind it, too. Off and on, she’d mentioned wanting a kid some day, before it was too late. She didn’t have too many more years. She was testing me out. She needed to know that I was the right one. She didn’t say so much, of course. But it was there: this thing that had come into our lives and was standing between us – not big, but taking up space that should have been ours.
When she finished on the phone, she came through to the kitchen and got a beer herself. She pulled the tab and sat on the table.
“What did I say about him?” she said. “The lousy son of a bitch. Just ups and goes. Takes everything. Doesn’t even leave her enough to pay the rent.”
She took a mouthful of beer.
“She needs help, Ed. What the hell am I supposed to do?”
She looked up at me. She knew I was thinking the same as she was. The apartment had a spare room – the one I used to write in. That’s all it had: a small table, a chair, a lamp, a typewriter. And an old couch that converted to a bed.
“She’s been trying,” Sal said. “She can’t lose it now. I have to give her the chance. There’s no one else.”
“So, you want her to come and stay?”
She shook her head. “No, I don’t. But I can’t do nothing.”
She closed her eyes and dropped her head back. Then she looked at me again.
“What would you do, Ed? What would you do if it was your brother rang up, out on the streets?”
“He wouldn’t. He doesn’t even know where I live. He probably doesn’t know if I’m still alive.”
“But if he did?”
Through the window, I could see the kids still playing. For some reason, I half expected to see Nate’s Olds come surfing along through those leaves and draw up outside – see the glint of that smile, the arm hanging out of the window, waiting.
“I’d tell him to come,” I lied. It wasn’t the first time.
She came over and put her arms around me. She squeezed me hard, like she was afraid of falling. Or afraid I’d fall. Like the holding together was the only thing that kept us both safe.
“It won’t be for long,” she said. “A few days, that’s all. Just ‘til she’s straight.” She pressed her head against my chest. “Not long.”