Kline was in bed with a woman whose name he didn’t know. He’d met her less than two hours ago but here she was sitting up next to him. He’d left a light on in the kitchen, and some of it seeped through the open bedroom door.
“I need to go,” the woman said. “I’m supposed to bring home McDonald’s.”
Kline didn’t try to make her stay. In fact, he was relieved that she was on her feet, pulling on a pair of panties, shaking out her one-piece denim coverall and stepping into it.
“I’ll walk you out,” he said.
“Stay,” she told him. “I got this.”
Kline had seen her for the first time shortly after he’d left work. He’d stayed late, and around 10 he walked through the unseasonably warm June evening to his car.
He was maybe five miles from home, traveling south on Old Post Road, when his steering wheel began vibrating. A second later, a yellow dashboard light flashed on. The wobbling increased and he was about to pull over and call Triple A, when he noticed the service station just beyond the next intersection.
He’d driven past the place twice a day for the past 18 months but never stopped. It had a look to it. The name on the pumps was Urion, a brand he’d never seen anywhere else. There were always cars parked on the side, sad-looking wrecks that appeared to have been abandoned there. Not a place to pop out your credit card, unless you wanted to wind up on the dark net.
But tonight, among the stores and businesses already closed, this was it. He parked in the front, shut off his car, and walked into the open bay of the garage. A mechanic was stacking tires, and when Kline called, “Excuse me!” she turned and blinked her eyes as if he’d materialized from one of the oil stains. He stopped a distance away and told her the problem.
“I’m about to close up,” she said.
“Could you just take a look?”
She blew out an exasperated breath, looked around as if she was doing something she shouldn’t, then told him to pull the car in. She wasn’t pretty but she was solidly built. Large hands, bruised and grimy, a pair of scuffed brown brogans on her feet. Her coverall looked relatively fresh, and the red stitching above her left breast pocket said “Bert.”
“It’s my ex-wife’s car,” Kline explained. “Day we broke up, she jumped in the Audi and left me with this.”
“Stay behind the line,” the woman said, pointing to a yellow strip of tape on the concrete floor.
Maybe she’s a Bertha, Kline thought as the woman used the hydraulic lift to raise his car, or a Roberta. Or maybe that coverall just belongs to someone else.
“You picked up a roofing nail,” she said, using a ballpoint pen to point out a silver dot on the front left tire.
“Can you fix it?”
“Not tonight I can’t,” she said. “What I can do is put on the doughnut and leave a note for the morning guy.”
She had the tire off and the spare—the “doughnut”—on in minutes. It looked like something from a child’s wagon, well-used and not particularly durable.
“I don’t know,” the woman said. “I don’t like the looks of that thing.”
“You think it’ll get me home?”
The woman asked where he lived, and when he told her, she said there probably wouldn’t be a problem.
“I’m off in five minutes,” she said. “Headed in the same direction. Maybe I should follow.”
At the complex, Kline parked in his numbered slot, one that was well-lit, one that he could see from his kitchen window. He got out of the car and walked around to thank the woman who sat behind the wheel of a battle-scarred Honda Civic. She wondered if she could use his bathroom and although he found the request odd—they’d only left the service station 15 minutes ago—he told her to find a visitor’s slot and follow him.
The apartments had previously been a motel, and Kline’s unit was on the upper floor, reached by a flight of exterior wooden stairs. Once they were inside, he pointed out the bathroom door. “Would you like something to drink?” he asked, and immediately regretted it.
“What do you have?”
Kline told her he had beer and soft drinks and bottled water.
“Not the beer,” she said, and then the bathroom door closed and Kline pictured the worst. He’d read about things like this. Drug addicts rummaging around in your medicine cabinet. A depressed stranger slicing both wrists in your tub.
In the kitchen, he belted back a shot of Gentleman Jack, then found a bottle of beer and a Diet Coke in the refrigerator. The coffee table in his living room was a refinished lobster trap, and he set the soda can and a tumbler of ice on its glass top. When the woman entered the living room, he indicated the leather sofa. “Best seat in the house,” he said, but the truth was he worried that she’d stain the rose-colored velveteen armchair that he’d recently bought.
“I like those little soaps in there,” she said. She opened the Diet Coke but remained standing.
“They’re mostly just for display,” he told her.
“Whoops,” the woman said.
She sipped directly from the can and Kline watched her more closely. She was likely around his age, no older than mid-30s. Her black hair was cut short—probably by somebody who wasn’t in the business—and her skin was ruddy. Most likely, judging from the way she narrowed her eyes when she looked around, she needed glasses. He noted that she’d washed her hands, and wondered what he’d find in the sink and on his beige hand towels once he went in there.
“What you got?” she said, nodding toward the CD storage rack mounted above Kline’s audio system.
He shrugged. “This and that.”
“I’ll put something on,” she said.
The woman held the jewel cases close to her face and studied the titles. She’d never win Miss America, but away from the glare of the service station she seemed more feminine.
“I’m pretty old school,” Kline said. “Still like music I can hold in my hand.”
The woman wasn’t listening. She slipped a disc into the player, and within seconds, Kline recognized it. Toni Braxton.
“Music to fuck by,” the woman said.
Kline laughed nervously.
“I’m not trying to be funny,” she said.
The morning after the woman left, a Saturday, Kline walked into his living room and noticed something wasn’t right. It might have gotten by the average person, but Kline had the perception of a hunting dog. His CD rack, in which the music was arranged by type, showed three vacant slots. It took him only a short time to identify what was missing: two Norah Jones and an autographed Lady Gaga.
He showered and dressed, ate a bowl of oatmeal, then drove to the service station to check on his tire. Some kid in his 20s was there, jeans and a blue work shirt with the Urion crest on back. He had a bad case of acne and slicked red hair like a ventriloquist’s dummy. Told Kline that his tire was plugged and ready to go.
“If I was you,” the kid said, “I wouldn’t trust a temporary fix. I’d go for new rubber all around.”
“I’ll consider it,” Kline said.
“Your funeral,” the kid said.
Kline watched as the car was again lifted, this time knowing enough to remain on the periphery of the work area.
“There was a woman here last night.”
“She borrowed something of mine and I’d like to get it back.”
“You’ll have to take that up with her,” the kid said.
“Can you tell me her name?”
“The woman who works here.”
“Well, she doesn’t exactly work here,” the kid said. “My boss just lets her close up from time to time. We call her ‘Magoo.’”
“Because of that squinty thing she does with her eyes.” He prodded around underneath the car with a screwdriver, then told Kline he should give serious consideration to replacing his exhaust system.
* * *
He was watching an old episode of The World at War when she knocked on his door. She was dressed differently now, knee-length black shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, white tennis sneakers with blue laces.
“I didn’t think you’d mind if I dubbed these,” she said, and held out the three CDs. “OK if I come in?”
He wasn’t wild about seeing her again, but he wanted his music back. He closed the door behind her and took back his property. They stood staring at one another while on the TV, Sir Laurence Olivier said, “His followers could hardly believe their luck. The legal chancellor marched irresistibly into the role of the legal dictator.”
“Got something to drink?” she asked.
They wound up in bed for a second time, Toni Braxton again singing from the living room. The sex was perfunctory and relatively passionless, equivalent—Kline thought—to clearing your throat after several unsuccessful tries.
But now the woman was less in a hurry to leave. She turned on her side and faced him, and he could see her almost smiling in the muted light from the kitchen.
“Tell me an amazing story,” she said.
“I don’t have an amazing story.”
“Everybody has an amazing story. Maybe you just don’t have one yet.”
She nodded, then scooched a bit closer almost as if to confide. “When I was 13, my mother moved us to this crummy rental house in Poughkeepsie. She worked as an exotic dancer in some shithole, and it was the best she could do. It was summer, like now.”
“Technically,” he said, “this is still spring.”
“Can I tell the story?”
“Next door was another falling down place that some guy moved into. Young. Good-looking. I called him ‘Mr. Dragit’ because he had this fucked-up leg he pulled behind him. Souvenir of the war, he said. Worked nights and slept during the day and asked me if I’d cut his grass for 15 bucks. I agreed not because of the money, but because I was in love with him.
“First afternoon, I was mowing by the fence line and I found this key which I stuck in my pocket. Around 7:30, after Mr. Dragit and my mom left for work, I tried the key on his door and it worked. I took my shoes off, went inside, started looking around. Nothing to see, really: some old furniture, a beat-up TV, a refrigerator painted brown … but then something got my attention. The basement door was padlocked shut.”
The woman stopped here and pushed herself up to look at the digital clock on the nightstand.
“I should go,” she said.
“Without telling me what happened?”
“I’ll tell you next time.”
Kline immediately thought, Who said there’s going to be a next time? but he kept that thought to himself.
The new receptionist in Human Resources was named Celeste. Kline saw her for the first time as she sat behind her desk just inside the glass doors beyond the second-floor elevator. She looked nice. Hygienic and sensible. Long brown hair, brushed back, each strand appearing to be the exact same length. Kline noticed her left hand was ringless, so he introduced himself and told her to feel free to visit him on the sixth floor if she had any questions.
He was in the bedroom ironing shirts when the woman came back on Wednesday night. She was dressed in the same clothes she’d worn last time, and carrying a pizza box. “Figured you might want some of this,” she said.
Kline led her to the kitchen and when she flipped the box open, he noticed half the pie already missing. He pictured her fishing it out of a dumpster, maybe finding it on the seat of someone’s unlocked car.
“You got dishes?” she asked.
Kline told her he’d already eaten, then brought a plate and some napkins and got her a Diet Coke.
“Let me at least heat it up a little,” he said.
She told him no, said she liked it cold. He sat across the table and watched her finish two slices, and when she was done Kline rinsed the dish while she wrapped the rest in foil and put it in the refrigerator.
“I’ll put on the Toni Braxton,” she told him.
An hour later, in bed, she said, “Don’t worry. I’m not gonna invade your life.”
His arms were straight at his sides, her head pressed against his right shoulder. “You still want to hear an amazing story?” he said.
“Why not,” she said.
“About two years ago, before my ex-wife was my ex-wife, we were driving home from a party and she told me the marriage was over. Took me by complete surprise. ‘Ask me is there someone else,’ she said. I had no idea what she was talking about. ‘Go on,’ she said. ‘Ask me.’ ‘Is there someone else?’ I said. ‘There must be,’ she said, and then she laughed and told me she’d heard that on TV. I smiled and told her for a moment there she sounded serious. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I am serious. I just wanted to present it in a humorous way.’”
“That’s not amazing,” the woman said, “that’s pathetic.”
“Like yours was so great.”
“I didn’t get to finish,” she said. “Where’d I leave off?”
“Locked basement door.”
“Right,” she said. “Locked basement door.” She turned and draped her arm across Kline’s waist as if she was pulling him in. “After that, I waited a few days, but wound up going back. I couldn’t help myself. And this time I fished a T-shirt out of the hamper, one that smelled like him, and I walked into his bedroom and stretched out on the sheets that he hadn’t even bothered to make up. I got hungry so I went into the kitchen and opened the fridge and found a half-stick of pepperoni. I figured I’d cut myself a slice, not enough to be missed, and while I was looking through the drawers for a knife, I found another key. I looked over at the lock on the basement door, and I figured who knows? Tried it and the lock popped. I pulled the door open and found the light switch, but when I flicked it, nothing happened.
“That’s when I heard something. It was coming from down below and it sounded like somebody tapping a wooden cane on the floor. Scared the living shit out of me. So I real quick closed and locked the basement door, put the key back in the drawer. A second later I was out of there. And it wasn’t until the next morning, when my mother was making scrambled eggs and I saw Mr. Dragit’s van parked in his driveway, that I remembered I left that fucking T-shirt out.”
The woman pushed up, swung her legs over the side of the bed, and stood.
“Where you going?” Kline said.
“Right now?” He sat up and stretched toward the lamp on his nightstand.
“Leave it dark,” she told him.
* * *
By week’s end Kline finally got up the nerve to ask Celeste to dinner, and although she resisted at first“I don’t think it’s a good idea to date fellow employees.”he’d convinced her that it wasn’t so much a date as a business consultation.
On Saturday afternoon, a few hours prior to this “business consultation,” Kline was crossing the mall parking lot on his way into Target to buy socks. Uncertain at first, it took him a moment to recognize her. She was walking toward him, gently swinging a plastic bag by her side. She’d changed into some kind of floral sundress and was wearing sunglasses and flip-flops.
Kline smiled and raised his hand like a schoolboy. He was sure the woman spotted him but she seemed to hesitate and then turn her head.
“Hey!” he said as he lowered his hand and approached her. “How’s it going?!”
The woman stopped, lifted her sunglasses, squinched her face.
“You must have me confused,” she said, and moved past him.
He watched as she moved to the Honda and got in on the passenger side. She said a word or two to the man behind the wheel, a thin guy with a grey crewcut who studied Kline. The woman fixed her seatbelt as the driver continued to stare. A second later, the car pulled away and Kline figured he now knew everything he needed to know.
He had picked Paco’s, a place out by the interstate, inexpensive and unpretentious. He got there at 8:15, the exact time of his reservation, and noticed Celeste had yet to arrive. A waiter showed him to a table and Kline, hoping to look unfazed once she got there, ordered a glass of champagne.
A short partition separated his table from the bar area, and for 18 minutes Kline watched the abject boredom of televised golf play out. He felt the phone inside his jacket pocket vibrate. It was a text, and Kline correctly predicted the message even before he started to read it.
I’m sorry, it said. I know this is last minute, but something doesn’t seem right to me. I’m really, really sorry.
When a waiter asked if he wanted a second glass of champagne, Kline politely refused and instead ordered the shrimp fra diavolo to go.
On the way home, he stopped by the service station to top off his tank. He was surprised to run into the red-haired kid when he went inside to pay.
“I thought Magoo might be on tonight,” Kline said.
“You just missed her,” the kid told him. “Turned in her keys, said she was moving on.”
At the complex, Kline recognized the battered Honda parked in his slot. The inside of the car was dark, and the idea that maybe the man he’d seen earlier was waiting somewhere worried him.
He ran into the building supervisor—a shriveled, nasty woman—as he climbed the outside stairs toward his unit. “Tell your girlfriend I don’t intend to be her personal doorman,” the super said.
“I seen her coming in and out,” the super told him. “I’m not as dumb as I look.”
The woman was seated in the velveteen armchair and still wearing the floral sundress, and she stood up as soon as he closed the front door.
“Sorry about this afternoon,” she said.
“Was that your husband?”
She shrugged. “In a sense.”
Kline looked down at the brown paper bag he almost forgot he was carrying.
“I’ve got food,” he said.
“Put it in the fridge.” She walked over and kissed him, then grabbed the lapels of his jacket and pulled him toward her. “Right now we got business,” she said.
There was something different this time, craving maybe. Exuberance. When they both settled, she was on her back and he was on his side facing her.
“Well, that could wear a girl out,” she said.
“I was hoping you’d come by.”
“Had to. Never finished my story.”
One of them had switched off all the lights in the apartment, and the bedroom was dark. Kline’s eyes had adjusted somewhat, just enough see her silhouette occasionally shift.
“I talked myself into going back the next day,” she told him. “I needed to find out what was down there. So as soon as my mother left for work, the minute I noticed Dragit’s van wasn’t in his driveway, I found a flashlight and a carving knife, and went next door. I unlocked the basement and walked downstairs, and I smelled her before I even saw her.
“She was gagged and duct taped to an old ladderback chair. A girl maybe a few years older than me in a white bra and half-slip and furry slippers. Her eyes went wide when the light hit her and she started struggling, the legs of the chair making that tapping noise I heard the day before. I need to call the police, I thought to myself, but where we lived the police took their time if they ever even showed up at all. I peeled the tape from her mouth and she started babbling in Spanish.
“‘We need to get out of here,’ I told her. “‘Vamos. Right now.’
“I cut her loose and helped her stand and steered her up the stairs from behind. When she got to the landing, she stopped. I wondered why, until she turned and pushed and I went all the way down head first. My flashlight went flying. Same with the knife. I looked up just in time to see the door being closed, and a second later, I heard that padlock being squeezed shut.”
There was silence.
“Then what happened?” Kline asked.
“Nothing,” she said. “That’s the end of the story.”
“It can’t be the end,” he said. “There’s no resolution. There’s no climax.”
“The climax is, mind your own business.”
“That’s not the climax,” he said. “That’s like … I don’t know … the theme.”
“So what’s the climax?”
He grabbed her hand and lay back, and they both stayed like that, looking up toward the ceiling.
“The climax is, you felt around the floor for that knife. It wasn’t easy, it took forever, but you finally found it. Then you waited. Hours went by. But you stayed at the bottom of those dark steps and eventually he came home. Eventually he unlocked that door and went downstairs, and that’s when you struck.
“They found the girl, she told her story, and you were acquitted. Your name was in the news. People gave your mother money and life at that point became a whole lot easier.”
“Congratulations,” the woman said. “Now you have your own amazing story.”
Neither of them moved, and after a few minutes Kline heard her snoring.
He was alone when he woke up sometime around midnight.
“Magoo?” he said.
He got out of bed, switched on the lamp, fumbled into the hallway. The bathroom door was open, the room empty. Kline heard his phone and quickly followed the sound into the kitchen. His jacket was where she’d stripped it off, draped across the back of one of the chairs. He fished the phone from the inside pocket.
“I hope I didn’t wake you up,” Celeste said, but I couldn’t sleep and I wanted to make sure things were good between us.”
“It’s fine,” he said.
“Doesn’t mean we can’t be friends,” she said.
“Of course not.”
“It’s just that I was worried that when we got to work on Monday—”
“I’m going to go now.”
After he cut off the call, Kline walked into the living room, took down the Toni Braxton CD, and put it into the player. He felt an emptiness and remembered that he hadn’t eaten since lunch. Back in the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator and grabbed the shrimp fra diavolo. He took down a dish and was ready to throw the entire thing into the microwave when he looked out his window and noticed the Honda pulling away from his parking slot.
I’ll have this another time, he thought, and returned the plastic domed meal to his refrigerator. He found the two slices of pizza on the bottom shelf, took them to the table, and unwrapped the foil.
He thought about heating them up, but then decided he’d try them cold.