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This was when I was out on Staten Island. Wintertime, nothing going on. I was still painting in those days, but not much. Nothing like now. But one day I woke up early, dark out, peed, then couldn’t get back to sleep. So I was sitting there in my flannel nightie, looking out my kitchen window, which I did a lot, watching the sun come up over my block and hit the playground across the street. And in the playground was this old piece of public art – a sculpture of a walrus leaping over a fountain. It had always been there, the walrus, and the fountain dry and full of trash, since I’d moved in. But that morning, for whatever reason, I was really looking at it. I was trying to do what they always told you in class – take a good look at the crap that surrounds you, right? I don’t know. Does anybody remember 25 years ago? Before everybody knew everything? Do you?
Anyway, I was looking at the walrus. And on his face was an expression of – joy, I guess. Actually, he was laughing. Laughing as he hung there, frozen in mid-leap over a dry, cracked shit heap of a fountain. As if what was below hadn’t caught up with him yet. And sitting there in my kitchen, just like that, I started to cry. I’d never been a weeper. But I sat there and did that. And when I finally stopped, I began to work. On paper – I didn’t have any canvasses ready. But I drew all day. Drew the walrus. Best stuff I’d done in a long time. And it felt good.
So that night, still feeling good, I get this call, and it’s this guy, right? Guy I used to know. Friend, not boyfriend. Sweet, but kind of a freak. And cocky, but off, you know? We used to make fun of him, me especially. Really, I was a shit to him. In a way though, we’d been tight, and at some point I’d just totally blown him off. I mean, it had been years since I’d even thought about him. I’d heard he moved to Idaho or Indiana, someplace small and empty, no place to me. And sitting there on the phone, hearing his voice, I started to cry again. One of those days.
I remember asking him —How long has it been? and him saying —Who cares? and laughing, like it was his backhanded way of forgiving me. That’s how it felt, anyway. But he seemed anxious too, edgy, he had something to say. So I’m sitting there trying to keep it together, and he starts telling me about this “project” of his, saying —It’s a mindfuck, Betty, so corny, like code we used to use for anything anybody actually thought about, right? Which for me wasn’t a whole lot.
He said —Betty, I’m doing this thing. This magazine.
And I said Shit because then I remembered. He used to talk all the time about being a writer. Talk about it. Only time I ever actually saw any of his writing we were down on the shore one summer. Early 80’s. Bunch of us rented a little place. At night we’d get high and he would pull out these pages and start reading to us. More like reciting, holding forth, you know? I mean, it was unbelievable – on and on about the ocean and passion and bliss. He’d be shouting this stuff, spit flying, waving his arms. And of course I’d lose it. I don’t think I ever laughed so hard in my life. I’d be like doubled over on the couch and I remember once peeking up and he was looking right back at me, very solemn and still, and I had to look away. Had to leave the room.
So here, years later, on the phone, feeling a little sick, I said —Shit, you’re a real writer now? and he said —Huh? and I asked him again, and – nothing, like he’d dropped the phone without a word. Or worse, like at least one of us had forgotten everything.
When he finally answered me his tone changed, he goes —Betty, listen, I’m into publishing now, alright? Getting impatient with me, one thing I definitely remembered about him, but now I blamed myself. And when I told him that was amazing he deflected of course, said —Sure it is.
So my throat got tight and I said —Listen, it’s good to hear from you, to hear your voice, right? I was starting to feel too much, more than I should have, more than I probably did, at least about him. I started to go into this thing about how I’d underestimated him, how I regretted this and that, bla bla bla, I didn’t know what I was saying. I was just trying not to cry anymore.
He did me a favor, cut me off. —Betty listen, we should get together, he said, and suddenly it hit me that he was really out there, not just a voice from oblivion. He said —Betty, I need your help.
So, like that. Turned out he wasn’t in Ohio or Wyoming or wherever I thought he was. He was in town – well, Sunnyside Queens, wherever the fuck that was. So I’d been in the city most of my life and didn’t know where Sunnyside was, but then I sure as fuck wouldn’t have known where New Dorp Staten Island was either, if I hadn’t had my ass kicked out there by the bullshit rents. I remember thinking —What, I can’t even live in Brooklyn anymore? I’m not allowed? I have to be put out, away from everybody else, and I mean way out, nowhere near the ferry, where nobody’d have to look at me?
Anyway, he said let’s have coffee and let’s have it at this place near a photographer friend’s studio in Sunnyside. Okay, no, I didn’t ask what friend or why there. I figured it was convenient for him, he knew this place and just mentioned in passing how it happened to be near his friend’s studio – like when people tell you something and they add these extraneous details for no reason, or dropping names, you know, “Jeremy” this and “Valerie” that, people you never met or even heard of, but there they were. To make it a likelier story, I guess.
I bundled up. February. Wind blowing off the water. Went down to the bus stop and ducked in behind the plexiglass, stomping my feet to keep warm, thinking about this guy, about the old days. How I’d been. Talking shit. Taking people down. Easy targets, like him. Anything for a laugh, to stay on top, hold the room. Like my tits gave me the right. Pride before the fall. Because here I was, a fat, aging, wannabe artist, my kitchen for a studio, all alone, not even a cat to ignore me. I hated myself, with reason. And here out of the blue, this guy, this old friend who I’d long ago left behind without a glance back, seemed to be giving me a chance for – what. Redemption? I never quite got what that is, exactly.
And while I’m waiting for the bus, this little old lady, red sauce Italian, waddles up to wait with me. Seems just dandy in her thin little headscarf, while I’m hugging myself in layers of wool and down. I wanted to ask her, Aren’t you fucking freezing, lady? But for what? An excruciating conversation about the weather and the neighborhood and her big ridiculous family and WHY YOU NOT MARRIED, YOU SO PRETTY, YOU GOTTA HAVE BAMBINI! BAMBINI! BAMBINI! the whole bus ride? I would’ve ground my teeth to powder by the time we got to the ferry. I pretended she wasn’t there. But I remember her. Because something can’t mean nothing, yeah? You tell me.
Whatever – blow-by-blow – bus, ferry, two trains and a couple hours later, I come back up into the cold in Sunnyside. I found the place, a diner on a street of old warehouses, and went in, late of course. And there he was by the Men’s, half turned away from me, talking on a payphone, smoking a cigarette – more like dancing with a cigarette, arms out, receiver squeezed between his ear and shoulder. I waited by the counter, watching him – short leather jacket, shrubby mustache, pork pie hat, not his style at all. But in fact, he looked very much at home, and a lot, lot older. Like he’d earned the benefit of the doubt, right? Then he noticed me and bang, his body sort of snapped, like a snake striking from ass to hat. On the phone he said —Here she is, and hung up.
—Betty, honey, he said and took me in his arms, you showed up. I squeezed him tight and closed my eyes, breathing in some noxious stink coming up out of his collar, like flop sweat under a layer of Paco Rabanne. Smelled sad. With a nod to the waiter, he led me to a back room and a corner booth. When I took off my coat he held me at arms-length and looked me up and down. Said —It’s so good to see you, Betty. And I was like, Jesus.
Finally, he let me sit. —Welcome, he said, like this was his place. I looked around, as if admiring the Greek crap decor, avoiding his eyes. We were alone back there. —Coffee? he said and before he got through saying it, there was a cup in front of me. I didn’t drink coffee but I’d drink this.
—Thanks, I said to the waiter but he was already gone.
Then, like some ritual, my old friend took off his hat and set it on the table. —Do you realize, he said, that within a mile radius, you’ll find some of the biggest movie studios on the entire East Coast? Right here in Queens.
—Wow. Queens. Who knew?
—I did, he said, or I do now anyway, and waved at somebody over my shoulder, but when I turned to look, there was nobody there. When I turned back, he was stirring his black coffee.
—So, I said, Idaho?
—Isn’t that where you went? Or Indiana someplace?
He scowled at me, but not like he meant it, then flicked his ash and looked at the coal end of his cig. —Fuck no, he said. I mean I thought about it.
—An idea. You know.
—So you’ve been here all along? I said, but he didn’t look up.
—When I was a kid, he said, I used to stick pins in my mother’s cigarettes. Take the pack from her purse, dump ’em out, put a little pinhole in the side of each one, near the filter, so they wouldn’t, you know, draw. Then put ’em all back in the pack.
—Really, I said. What did she do?
—Nothing. Not a thing.
—She ever quit smoking?
—No, he said. Then he looked up at me. —Betty, listen. I’m really glad to see you. I mean, right?
—Sure, I said. I mean, me too. He was nodding and smiling at me now. I was smiling and nodding back. We were like a couple of bobble-head dolls, our asses glued to old ass-molded leatherette.
—Betty, you’re an attractive woman, you know that?
—Shit, I said. I got old.
—Fuck old. You look terrific.
—Yeah, sure. You’re not so bad yourself.
We were saying about the lamest shit possible, but I was on automatic now, not having seen any of this coming.
—Sometimes I think about you, he said.
—No, I do. I remember you, Betty.
—I remember you too.
—Yeah, but I really remember you, he said. He dropped his eyes, blew smoke into his lap, scowled again. —Let me tell you something I’ve learned, Betty. Something about women and age and time.
—Alright. Some women, he said, have something special.
He looked sort of embarrassed so I reached out and put my hand on his. —Hey, so do some men.
—If you say so, he said, looking down at my hand. Then he put his other hand on top of mine and sort of lifted the whole thing up and down. —Mmm, got a nice hand sandwich here, he said and went to take a bite.
I pulled it away with a laugh. —You nutjob.
—You’re the nutjob, he said. You were fuckin’ nutty, you. You’d do anything.
—Me? What about you? I said, but I really didn’t know what we were talking about anymore. See, the thing was, he and I, we’d never slept together or anything, it hadn’t been like that. I mean, it never really came up, right? But laughing with him then, I realized he wasn’t an awful-looking guy, and I realized I’d always known that, without ever thinking about it. And it made me feel a little different sitting there, even with him smelling like he did.
—But like I was saying, he said, some women, and I’m not talking about girls, little teeny-whatnots, but women, mature considerable women, like you in a way, have something special. And what that something is, actually, I call power.
I waited for him to keep going, in case he said something that made sense, but he just stared at my coffee like he noticed something floating in it. —That’s nice, I said. So this magazine, for fuck’s sake, tell me about it.
—Yeah well, that’s exactly what I’m doing, what this is all about, why I wanted to meet with you, you in particular, Betty, to see if you’d be willing to help me with this thing.
This last sort of spilled out of him in a rush, like suddenly it was urgent. —Sure, I said, that’s why I came. What is it? Design work, illustrations? I told you I’d help if I could.
—Well, I wouldn’t want you coming all the way out here for nothing. I mean, if you didn’t want to help me, you could’ve just stayed home, right?
—Whoa, I said, what the fuck? You asked me to come, I came. I mean, once I knew you were in town I would’ve wanted to see you anyway, but here I am, you asked me to help you, and I fucking will. Just tell me what you need me to – oh, wait. I stopped, my heart sinking. —Is it money? You need money? Because I really don’t—
—Betty, what? he said. No. Fuck no. Please. I do not need money from you, Betty. No-no-no-no-no. He smirked and shook his head.
—Forget it. Drink your coffee. A moment passed, he wouldn’t look at me, then —So you really want to hear about this?
—Fucking A! Absolutely! Tell me already, will you? Practically begging him.
He gave me a look. —Betty, may I first say something to you?
—Yeah, of course. What?
—I have always thought of you as a very beautiful woman.
—I mean like model beautiful.
—I mean every word.
—Sure you do.
—You have a gorgeous body.
—Shit, guy. My head was swimming now, trying to think of the last time he would’ve seen me, what, in a bikini or something? Maybe ten, twelve years before at the shore? —The fuck are you talking about, Bradley Beach?
—Bradley Beach, he said under his breath, impatient again. —Bradley Beach, sure, but that was a long time ago. I’m looking at you right now, Betty.
I looked down at myself: old jeans, leg warmers, big baggy sweater over an old boyfriend’s flannel shirt, puffy down vest, knit scarf around my chunky neck hanging down in my splayed lap. I was about to turn 40 and almost quit caring. I dressed to hide my ass. —Are you fucking with me? I said.
—Betty, he said, I admire you. You know what that means? Admire? In the Latin language it means look at. I admire you, right?
—Admire. Like, Mira cholos! Yo, look at this! Right?
—Yeah well. I have admired you for a long time. More than I think you know. And what this is now is, I want to actualize that admiration, if you follow. I want to pay tribute to the beauty in you. And by chance, he said, lighting another cigarette – by happy coincidence… He took a long drag, then angled his head to blow the smoke, but held my eyes with his. No more bobble-heading.
—But let me finish what I was saying before, he said as the waiter came, topped off my coffee, and disappeared again. —What women have, certain mature, substantial women have, is power. That’s what I call it anyway. And I’m not talking about what kind of job they’ve got or how much money they have, that superficial shit, what kind of hair or shoes or clothes they wear, alright?
—What I’m talking about is how they are inside, underneath their nice clothes and shit, you understand?
—I think so, I said, though by this time I was fuzzier than ever.
—Good. That’s good, Betty.
—And where do I fit in with this?
—That’s the happy coincidence I was talking about.
—Well, I said, you haven’t really said what it is, though. I mean, you said you were starting a magazine—
—With several partners.
—With several partners, okay, you’re starting this magazine, but beyond that I’m not sure I get you. What is it, like a self-help thing?
—Not exactly, I said, rubbing my eyes. The heat or something was starting to get to me.
—Okay, so what exactly? I mean, I sort of get your idea about a power women have, you know, “inside” but—
He stopped me with a finger on the back of my hand. —Inside their clothes, Betty, he said. Inside what hides them. That’s where the power is. Because there are women out there, especially women of a certain age, who are very, very special, and what they can do, Betty, what they can do is they can choose to show everyone how special they are. That is power.
—Oh, I said.
—Ah, he said, but a lot of them, of a certain age, shit, maybe most of them, you’re thinking, Do I really want to see that?And the answer is Nuh-uh.
—But the ones you do want to see, you really really want to see, alright?
—So the question for me was: who, of these powerful women, do I really really want to see? And that’s when it hit me. Oh shit. Betty.
And looking at me, he smushed out his cigarette, then kept that hand moving. It came across the table, and the fingers opened, and very gently glided down my cheek and cupped my chin.
And that was that. I mean, what I said yes to was, I thought, something less – a lot less, okay? – than what’s out there now for everyone to see. The stuff with him, I swear, I did not know that was going to happen. And sure, maybe he slipped something in my coffee but I’ll be honest with you, okay? I liked the guy. I don’t know. He was who he was, as the kids say. It’s not like he forced me do those things, right? It was all just one thing, then another.
The magazine never came out. He stopped calling. I think he was embarrassed. I could’ve asked for everything, the proofs, negatives – he may have even offered. I didn’t take. I didn’t even look. It was my gift.
That’s it. That’s the story. You manage to laugh? Is it what you expected? Better than I was on the street, strung out, desperate for cash? Sure. Just try to remember when you look at those pictures you bothered to print out and throw all over the bedroom, that the story you’re telling yourself is not about me. You think you know me, and why wouldn’t you? You see me, talk to me, sleep with me – every day. I’m your lover, your partner, your wife. Remember?
Anyway, thanks for getting through this. Really, I’m grateful. Who reads, right? There’s just one more thing, since you’ve gotten this far, I’m asking you to do. But it’s big. I assume you’re alone now, that I’m not around while you’re reading this. What I want you to do – is quit jerking off and come find me. You know what time it is, what day it is, right now, as you hold this in your hand, I don’t. So you know where I am. At the studio, the coffee shop, the bar – you know me, you know where to find me. So do that, okay? Please. Either go, get out, leave me the fuck alone – or come take me home.
This story will stay right here on the kitchen table, and the evidence all over our unmade bed, until you do.
Jack Garrett has worked in radio in Colorado and New Mexico and performed onstage in New York where he helped start a theatre company. His fiction publications include The Literary Review, The New Orleans Review, Fugue, Natural Bridge, The Portland Review, The Santa Monica Review, Quarter After Eight, The Los Angeles Review, Monkey Bicycle, Witness, and The Superstition Review. He is also an audiobook narrator.