May 3, 2011

Another Short Story

"Blind Man's Bluff"
By Terron James

I swore that if I had one more miserable date, I’d never shave my legs again. Bad experiences make the best stories, but I was running out of ink—and a sense of humor.

It was late February and I was standing alone on the sidewalk of Main Street. I have always loved snowstorms where magical white flakes flutter from the heavens. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that kind of day. The snow was the slushy kind that splatters on your coat and soaks through to chill your bones.

Spencer had sounded nice enough on the phone. I had never met him before. Actually, I hadn’t known he existed before he called and asked me out. He was a friend of a friend of a friend, and I was a thirty-four-year-old single mother with two boys in elementary school. My divorce had been four years earlier and I had no need for a job because of alimony payments. Unfortunately, the payments were coming to an end, which was why I was enrolled full-time at school to become an EMT. Most people will never understand the sacrifices single mothers make for their children. It was time for me to become the breadwinner or find a new husband—neither of which sounded very appealing.

I peered through the glaring headlights of oncoming traffic, searching for the scrolling marquee of the State Street bus and questioning my agreement to meet Spencer there. My feet twitched on the wet sidewalk, trying to make the decision my brain couldn’t. Just as they were about to carry me back to the warmth of my townhouse, the bus appeared. A man smiled at me through the window and gave me a thumbs-up. I lifted an eyebrow and waved back, hoping he wasn’t my date, then closed my eyes and took a deep breath before stepping onto the bus. I hesitated only a moment before realizing I would be paying my own toll.

“I saved you a seat!” the same man called from the back.

I forced a smile as I fed two dollars into the payment machine, then slipped down the aisle of the empty bus and sat next to him. “Thanks… Spencer?”

“My pleasure. You must be Angela.”

“You got me.”

“Sorry about this bus thing. My car ran out of gas and my brother had to fill it up for me. He promised it will be waiting for us when we get out of the restaurant so we can drive to the show. To be honest, my brother promised to fill it up last night, but you know how…”

My attention wandered as I evaluated Spencer. He was thirty-nine and had a nice face. He was wearing a polo golf shirt, old faded jeans and white sneakers, but no coat. Not even a jacket.

“…only fair that if he drives it, he fills it up. Uh…everything alright?”

I blinked my eyes and nodded. “Yeah, sorry. You just look familiar.” All too familiar.

Spencer smiled. “You know, I get that all the time. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I spend so much time on the bus, or maybe because six months ago…”

I took another slow breath. It was going to be a long night, but I decided to make the best of it. I would have a night out with free entertainment and adult conversation, then return home with neither hope nor desire for a second date. My children would be in bed, the babysitter watching TV or reading a book on my couch. I hated that couch. It was the only remnant of my failed marriage.

Actually, that’s a lie. In truth, I’ll never be free of my ex-husband. We share the same two perfect, blond-haired, blue-eyed sons. His parents will always be my children’s grandparents, his brothers their uncles. When his new wife has her baby, my boys will have a new sister. Christmas, reunions, family parties—something will always bring us together, but never together. My life has moved beyond him. I have no need for him anymore. I want him to vanish.

But we had been in love, so desperately in love. I used to feel constantly in debt to his kindness, always looking for ways to reciprocate it. Then everything changed. Our boys were born and his hours at the office grew longer. Last-minute conferences. Constant traveling. Now I’m part of the discarded remains of my ex-husband’s search for a better life. In that way, I guess the couch and I were the same. Perhaps that’s why I hated it so much.

There was little substance to my conversation with Spencer during the bus ride, but he roped my attention when he pulled me off the bus in front of Carvers Steaks & Chops. My eyes brightened as I stared at my favorite restaurant in the whole city. Spencer had chosen well. He had obviously done his research.

I thought too soon. He took my hand and led me in the opposite direction—splashing across the street toward the mutated star hovering over Carl’s Jr.

Disappointed as I was, I couldn’t stop the corners of my mouth from curving upward as I shook my head and sighed.

Spencer glanced at me. “Do you eat here much?”

I laughed. “All the time. My boys demand we eat here at least once a week.”

“Good! I hope you’re hungry.”


When we entered the building, Spencer stepped to the cashier and shook his head to dry his damp blond hair. “It’s cold out there!” he shouted.

I flinched as a drop of dirty water—mixed with hair gel—landed in my eye. The fat cashier wiped her greasy face and glanced at me.

Sorry, I mouthed. There was nothing else I could do.

Spencer pulled a bright red wallet from his back pocket. I cringed as he peeled back the velcro strap, then gaped as he handed her a 2 for $4 coupon.

“One for me and one for the nice lady.” He turned and winked at me. “And two free waters.”

After dinner, we walked through the parking lot to a nearby grocery store so Spencer could buy us treats for the show. The slush was still slopping down from the black sky. I was cold, but I said nothing. Spencer, on the other hand…

“It really is cold out here!” he said as he danced around the puddles. “I should have brought a jacket!”

“Want to borrow mine?” I joked.

“Would you mind?”

I peered at him through the muted light of the street lamps. He was serious.

“I guess not,” I said as I removed my coat and handed it to him. As pathetic as it was, I nearly laughed again.

He barely squeezed into it. The ends of the sleeves touched the middle of his forearms and he couldn’t button up the front.

“That’s much better,” he said as he hugged himself and hurried into the store.
Before we got to the candy aisle, I watched for two minutes as he gorged himself on free samples of Doritos. The old lady managing the samples was speechless. She fiddled with her hair net as he emptied bowl after bowl, while I ducked my head when people walked past and thought of the time when I took my son to a birthday party at the park. He had climbed to the top of the playground and pooped down the spiral slide. I had always wished I hadn’t let him eat so many prunes earlier that day. It’s funny how I always realize my mistakes after it’s too late.

Spencer took a brief intermission to grab a bag of Nibs and some Chex Mix, then led me past the free chips again. He shoved another handful into his mouth and without so much as a thank you, walked to the cashier to buy the snacks with food stamps.
I wanted to run away, but he was still wearing my coat.

Spencer’s brother was late. We stood outside for fifteen minutes before his car appeared in the parking lot. My hair stuck to my face, my dress was completely soaked and I clenched my jaw to force my teeth from rattling. I wanted my coat back, but poor Spencer. His face was turning blue and his body was trembling worse than when Muhammad Ali lit the 1996 Olympic torch in Atlanta.

Spencer’s brother hopped out of the rusted Geo Metro, then slid over the hood to open the passenger door for me. I thanked him and climbed inside the car, but not before Spencer. He was already shivering behind the steering wheel with his hands in front of the heater vents.

“You ready?” he asked.

I put on my seatbelt, pulled it tighter than normal, then looked up at him and gave a weak smile. I was afraid that if I spoke, a lot more than just a simple yes would fly out of my mouth. Spencer moved the gearshift and ground the clutch for a good ten seconds, then we finally rattled away. I frowned as I watched his brother trudge to the bus stop.

My stomach lurched when Spencer told me it would only take a half-hour to get to the theater, a drive that would normally take me at least forty-five minutes. I said a silent prayer for more strength than my younger son had during our road trip to Texas the previous year. I don’t think I ever got the smell of his throw-up out of my parents’ van, at least not completely.

Spencer listened to Radio Disney for ten minutes, then spent the other twenty telling me about his divorce three years earlier. I was intrigued to know what caused his divorce, but it was difficult to understand a lot of what he said, mostly because he would shove a handful of Chex Mix into his mouth every time he was about to speak. What I did make out was that he divorced his wife because she had a severe chemical imbalance. He tried to stick out their marriage for their twelve-year-old daughter, but his ex-wife made it too difficult to endure.

I had my doubts that it was all her fault.

Despite Spencer’s speeding, it was the longest drive of my life. I couldn’t imagine how the night could get worse, until we pulled into the high school parking lot and I tried to open my door. It was stuck.

Spencer laughed and gave me a creepy smile. “I flipped on the child-lock. Now you have to let me open the door for you so you know I’m a gentleman.”

My mind reeled. I was stuck in the car with a freak. I reached into my purse for my mace while Spencer got out of the car and strolled around to open the door for me.
I slid out and followed him toward the high school, my hand still fingering the cold metal of my pepper spray. I couldn’t decide whether he was a harmless free spirit or a psychopath.

At the ticket counter, he asked for two tickets to Scarlet Pimpernel and nearly passed out when the lady replied, “That will be twenty dollars.” His face went pale and damp, just like mine after thirty-six hours of labor with my first son.

Spencer reached for his wallet with shaking hands, but I interceded—partly because I felt sorry for him and partly because I couldn’t bear to hear the velcro strap again. I let go of my pepper spray, pulled a twenty from my purse and gave it to the lady. She looked at Spencer with disgust as she handed me two tickets, then I passed one to him.

Spencer’s face had returned to its normal color and the sweat was gone. He took the ticket and headed for the auditorium door like what just happened was a normal thing. Of course, there was no thank you, but he held the door for me.

By that point, my questions disappeared. I stopped wondering what kind of person would do or say the things he did. Spencer had no sense of reality, but I recommitted to enjoy the rest of my night, regardless of him. After all, I had paid for the tickets…and my bus fare…and the coat he was still wearing.

The auditorium sound system was old and whoever was working the soundboard had messed up the balance of voices versus music, but the rest of the performance was outstanding, especially for a high school production. The singing was sublime and the actors were bold and confident. In fact, the only person in the theater who acted even a little bit uncomfortable was the poor girl in front of us. She had been cursed with an unnaturally long torso, which forced her head high above her seat. It was obvious by the way she handled herself that she was self-conscious about her height, but Spencer was oblivious. He kept asking her to duck down, then would laugh like he had just made the world’s funniest joke. I was no longer embarrassed over the actions of my date, but I still felt sympathy for the poor girl. She was probably scarred for life.

At intermission, Spencer pilfered all nearby treats. When anyone near us left, Spencer would stroll past their seats, act like he dropped something, then pocket the unguarded goodies. I admit that, although I didn’t approve of Spencer’s actions, his victims’ responses were hilarious. They would return to their seats and start to sit down, but stop halfway to glance around in confusion. Many of them checked to make sure they had entered the correct row and one girl asked her friends if they had seen her take her licorice to the bathroom.

What little humor remained from intermission was destroyed when the lights dimmed and I realized the tall girl in front of us hadn’t returned for the third act. She had probably locked herself in a bathroom stall and was crying her eyes out, but Spencer didn’t care. He laughed triumphantly, propped his feet up on her empty seat and munched on his spoils.

Looking back, I think part of the reason I enjoyed the show so much was because, as I watched the estranged and flowery actions of the Scarlet Pimpernel, I knew he had nothing on Spencer. If I stood naked in Times Square, surrounded by a hundred pimpernels copying me while I did the chicken dance—even with a live video feed of me on the corner jumbotron—I would be more comfortable than I was with Spencer that night.

When the third act was over, I followed Spencer into the hallway outside the auditorium before I asked for my coat. I wanted to be in a large crowd with enough space to escape if his reaction was too irrational. He denied my request, saying he needed to empty its pockets in his car before he gave it back. I doubted his need for privacy, considering how he strolled around stealing candy in front of everyone in the auditorium, but I didn’t argue.

I shouldn’t have given in and followed him back to the Geo. I should have demanded my coat, then hitched a ride with a complete stranger—but I didn’t. The only smart thing I did was disable the child-lock on the car door before I sat in the passenger seat. I have only just realized how vulnerable I was that night. He never made an attempt to harm me, but I still should have known better.

On the drive home, Spencer asked me to guess what he enjoyed most about being single. Having gone through my own divorce, I had some strong opinions, but I refused to guess. I didn’t want to dig into his twisted little mind and there was no way I was telling him anything about my life. The safety of my children was too important to me.

“Social freedom,” Spencer said. “Complete social freedom. Every day I spent with my ex-wife was miserable because she was always trying to make me act like someone I wasn’t. Since she left, I feel like I have been able to find my true self. I can finally act like a normal person. It’s great!”

He cranked up Radio Disney and sang along at the top of his lungs. My eyes bulged and my eyebrows tried to force themselves into my hairline. I realized his ex-wife had sacrificed at least twelve years of her life trying to help her husband see the blinding beam of true social normalcy, but he wouldn’t look. Spencer said she had a severe chemical imbalance. I believed it. If I had to deal with him for that long, I would have had one, too. My respect for her increased significantly at that moment.
Spencer tried to get directions to my house, but I made him take me to the bus stop where he ‘picked me up.’ He put on the emergency brake and reached for his door handle, but I scrambled out of the car before he even had a chance to say goodnight. He was still wearing my coat, but I didn’t care. All that I had liked about it before was tainted. I didn’t want it back.

I hurried up the sidewalk toward traffic so he couldn’t follow me. When I heard his car rattle away, I glanced back to make sure he was gone, then darted around a corner and disappeared into the neighborhood.

I ran for a few minutes, surged with adrenaline, but it eventually wore off and I slowed to a walk. I continued to glance behind me, but I never saw Spencer or his car again. He had disappeared forever, leaving behind another memory to add to my dating legacy.

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