I’d just returned from a run. As was my habit, I grabbed a chilled Gatorade from the freezer and sat in the canvas chair on our front porch, feet up on the railing, peering past palm fronds which overlapped the nearby San Gabriel mountains, now book-ended by my size ten Reeboks. As I sipped and cooled down, a large, roundish guy in skin-tight, neon red-and-yellow cycling shorts and matching top pedaled feverishly past. Under his likewise yellow helmet, he looked like Humpty-Dumpty. I laughed to myself, wondering if this guy owned a mirror, and if so, how the hell did he see himself in that outfit? But at the same time, there was something oddly familiar about him.
My wife’s Explorer pulled into the driveway. She was tall and svelte, still not showing the three-month-old fetus—our first child—inside of her. “How was your run?” She tousled my hair like a little kid’s before disappearing into the house.
“Good.” As I took another sip and glanced down the block, Humpty-Dumpty approached from the other direction, his heavy legs working more methodically now. It suddenly hit me—Maple Mouth—so as he passed, I yelled from the porch: “Hey, Dick!” He looked over. I waved and yelled: “It’s Mike.” He braked and turned around. I got up and walked off the porch to greet him.
A few years ago, Dick and I had played on the same baseball team. It was sponsored by a local bar, which all of the players and fans frequented. He was the back-up first baseman and lived in the back house next door to where I’d lived before getting married. He had put on a few pounds, but was heavy even back then. He recognized me as I got closer, smiled. We shook hands. He unbuckled his helmet. We reminisced about our good ol’ days as ballplayers, then caught up. He had gotten divorced. And re-married. And re-divorced. Told me all the sordid details of each. That was why we called him Maple Mouth—once tapped his mouth never stopped running. When I finally got a word in, he was surprised to hear that I was still married.
“Come on, dude. You were a hound in those days.” His beefy face smiled, as if it had swallowed secrets from my bachelorhood past.
“I was single then. Now I’m married. Different breeds.”
“Yeah, I guess,” he scoffed, then got serious: “Did you hear about Foxie?”
“My first wife’s sister. Remember? She stayed with us in the back house that summer.”
“Oh, yeah. You mean Helen. What about her?”
“She died of AIDS, man.”
“Yeah. You didn’t hear?”
“No. No. How would I?”
“Bummer. Huh?” He kept talking, as was his habit, but I stopped listening, as was mine. AIDS. She died of AIDS, man. It hit me like a fastball on the helmet. Not that I knew her that well. She was this sexy, twenty-something, bi-sexual hooker who had had to get out of L.A. that summer—something about some john with a knife—so she had stayed with her older sister—Maple Mouth’s first wife—in their little back house in Pasadena until things chilled-out. She already had one scar from a knife—a small, diagonal slash on her cheek from a jealous woman—and was trying to avert another. She was the first (and only) hooker I’d ever met. But aside from her profession, she wasn’t that different than other girls I’d met in bars or at college. Of course, she had this dark side. We talked over the fence mostly. Just for those few weeks that summer. Temporary neighbors mostly. Mostly . . .
It was hot that summer. I was watering the yellowed front lawn of the little house that I rented near the college, when I spotted a pair of red, lace panties on the driveway next door. They looked clean—as if just laundered—so I picked them up, dropped the hose on the lawn, and walked down the driveway to the rear house, where all the blinds and drapes were closed. The stereo was on inside; some English-sounding band sang a love song about a sex dwarf. I knocked. After a brief pause, the stereo lowered and the door opened partially. Foxie peeked out at me, her pretty face betrayed by the small scar on her cheek. I held up the red, lace panties.
“Do these belong to you?”
She smiled sheepishly. “I was looking for those.” When she reached out to take them, she was wearing a black corset, which squeezed her breasts upward and together, as if in offering, and her black, net stockings were gartered. Behind her through the now-opened doorway in the center of the darkened livingroom lit by candles, a naked, bald-headed man knelt on his hands and knees with some sort of saddle strapped to his back. She explained: “I’m working. I’ll stop by later to thank you.” She smiled again—but not sheepishly this time—and slowly closed the door.
“I hear that shit can hide in your system for years, then one day—Wham!—you got AIDS. Are you listening to me, man?” Dick asked.
“What? Oh. Sorry. I was just thinking about your sister-in-law.”
Dick talked some more, but eventually got back on his bike and rode away. His colorful, egg-shaped figure balancing on inch-wide tires reminded me again of that nursery rhyme: Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. I killed off the Gatorade.
Sitting at the dining room table, my wife worked on her shopping list. “Friend of yours?” she asked.
“The guy you were talking to outside.” She looked up from her list. “On the bike.”
“Oh. Sort of. You remember Dick. We used to play ball together. Lived in that little back house on our old block.”
She nodded. “Of course. Who could forget Dick?”
I nodded back.
“The doctor’s office called. They changed my appointment to Wednesday.”
“For the ultra-sound. Remember? You wanted to come with me.”
She wrinkled her brow. “Are you all right?”
“You seem a little distracted.”
My wife left for the market. I grabbed a can of beer from the refrigerator, sat in the tub, and let the steamy water run over my feet as it filled. I sipped the beer. That shit can hide in your system for years. I wondered if Foxie had already been infected that summer. I tried not to think about it. But like Maple Mouth’s mouth, my brain was already tapped and running.
It was pretty late that night when there was a knock on my front door. I was working at my desk in the front room with the stereo on low. When I opened the door, Foxie smiled in at me, wearing a tank top sans bra with cut-off jeans. “I wanted to thank you. You know—for returning my panties.” She smiled sheepishly again, her lips glossy-wet, and held up a bottle of gold 1800 tequila. “Got any mixer?”
I smiled back. “As a matter of fact, I do.”
She came in and we mixed a batch of margaritas in the blender, then sat on the couch in the livingroom, drinking and talking. She seemed to want to talk. I didn’t mind listening, though hers wasn’t the cheeriest of stories. Her step-father had sexually molested her as a teenager, so she had dropped-out of high school and moved out on her own at sixteen. But she liked to read, so was well-spoken and informed on an array of subjects. Her voice was small, her features and frame petite. She shared an apartment in Venice Beach with her lesbian lover. For the most part, she didn’t like men. Just worked for them.
“But you’re okay.” She stared over the salted rim of her mushroom-shaped glass. “You can call me Helen.”
“Thanks.” I tapped my glass with hers. “Helen.” We smiled at each other and drank up. It was soon after midnight and we mixed another batch of margaritas in the kitchen. While the blender blended, Helen leaned against me.
Parked in the driveway, I brought in the groceries from the opened back end of my wife’s SUV. She made dinner. We ate. She was tired and went to bed early. I stayed up to watch a ball game, but fell asleep on the couch. When I woke with a start, the game was over and the nightly news was on. I grabbed the remote from the coffee table and turned off the TV, but just lay there in the darkness.
Helen sat on the couch again, sipping her drink, sun-tanned legs crossed, nipples protruding under her cotton top. It was easy to see why men paid her, sometimes as much as a-thousand-a-night for what she termed “specialty sex.” Her specialty. She wasn’t the type you’d find standing on a street corner. She had a “clientele,” as she called them. I sat down next to her, sipped my drink.
“Where’s your girlfriend tonight?” she asked.
“We broke up.”
I got in bed quietly, so as not to wake my wife. But I just lay there, too. I couldn’t sleep now. I contemplated getting back up. To do what? Inevitably, I would fall off to sleep. I knew that. Just not yet.
She finished her drink.
“I think there’s a little left in the blender.”
“I’m good.” She put the empty glass with a red lipstick mark on the coffee table and turned towards me, pulling her knees up under her on the couch. Her dark eyes were sleepy now, but her lips still glossy-wet. She took the drink from my hand and put it, too, on the coffee table. She leaned closer. She smelled intoxicatingly good. I told her so. She touched my bare bicep with her index finger, the nail of which was long and crimson, and bit her lower lip, while staring back at me.
“Sh-h-h.” She moved her finger to my lips to silence me, then leaned in. But as I closed my eyes and awaited her glossy, wet lips, there was a sudden, startling knock-knock-knock at the front door. We both sat upright.
“Who in the hell?” I got up off the couch without a clue as to who would be knocking at my door at this hour of the night. My ex-girlfriend? The cops? But when I opened the door, it was only Dick on the other side.
“Hey. I just got back from the bar. The ol’ lady’s crashed-out. Saw your light on. Figured you were still up.” Without an invitation, he walked into the room. Spotting a beautiful, sexy woman on my couch, two partially-consumed alcoholic beverages on the coffee table, and calculating in the current hour of the evening, a more intuitive mind might have figured: three’s a crowd. But not Dick. “Hey, Foxie. Oo-o. Margaritas. My favorite. Got another glass? In the kitchen?”
And before I could throw his oblivious ass back out my front door, he was already headed in the other direction and disappeared into the next room. Helen and I looked at each other. The blender blended in the kitchen. She shrugged. Reluctantly, I shrugged, too. From the other side of the wall, Maple Mouth informed us:
“Man, did I kill on the pool table tonight. You guys shoulda’ seen me. Ran the table twice. Couldn’t loose if you shot me. Just one a’ those nights. You know? Everyone was asking: ‘Where the hell’s Mike tonight? Where the hell’s Mike?’ Especially after your ex-girlfriend showed up with some other dude.” He stepped back into the room, head tilted back, drinking from a juice glass with a heavily-salted rim. He lowered his drink and smiled—pleased with himself for some reason—oblivious to the coarse, white salt on the tip of his nose and at the corners of his mouth, like a clown’s make-up. Helen and I cracked-up laughing. Dick hadn’t a goddamn clue.
A few days later, Helen moved back to Venice Beach. I never saw her again. A few weeks later, my future wife moved into the apartment building two doors down. The rest is history. Inadvertent, geographic, fortuitous history. In my case anyway. I looked over at her sleeping peacefully in the dark next to me, our child safely inside of her. In their case, too.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall: Are you listening to me, man?
Yeah, Maple Mouth. Just this once. I’m listening.