Several mornings later I
hoofed it back to the employment agency and took what work I could find,
being careful to avoid returning to the hotel where I had encountered Ellison.
I had a nasty case of the blues for the last few days and I couldn't seem
to shake the overwhelming loneliness that had permeated my entire being.
I figured working couldn't make things any worse. I was dispatched to a
landscaping job that would keep me away from people and I would have no
boss hovering over me. I couldn't believe my luck.
As I walked across town to the job site, I caught myself looking over my shoulder several times. I was halfway expecting Ellison Woodrow to come out of an alley with a splitting maul to crack my head like a watermelon, but for some reason I couldn't bring myself to be afraid.
I didn't understand that. I had been quite sure that she had overstepped a boundary of some sort, just showing up at my apartment like that. And how had she known just how pathetic my existence really was? No one could have told her; she must have figured it out on her own. And she had to have been watching me to do it. Normal people didn't do that, did they?
I snorted at that thought. What did I know of normal people anyway? It had been so long since I had been around someone other than myself for any length of time that I didn't remember what it was like. I knew that sometimes I could be a bit…well, protective of myself. But who could blame me? I'd spent so many years being ridiculed and ostracized that I figured I must have a bit of- fuck wings on Santa- social retardation.
But that still didn't explain why I felt bad for the way I'd treated Ellison, even if she was a little bit of a stalker. At least she was a nice one. And her last words to me kept running through my head like a broken record. What had she meant that it didn't have to be like this?
I shook my head of those thoughts as I approached the address on my dispatch papers. I didn't have time to think about it now and it wasn't like I'd ever see her again. This city was too large for that and I had a sneaking suspicion that from now on she would avoid me like the plague.
I somehow managed to make
it through a whole day of work without getting fired. When I picked up
my check at the end of the day, I felt good despite some sore muscles and
a few blisters. On the walk home I decided I'd treat myself to some take-out
from Chan's, a Chinese dive three blocks from my apartment.
I ate my food as I flicked through the stations, finally settling on a news channel. A commentator whose name I couldn't remember was harassing some poor guest on his show about his opinion on Iraq and terrorism. I watched, fascinated, as the guest began sweating and stuttering. The anchor, Ned Delaney as the caption read, was going for his throat now. I cheered him on, cussing happily away at the guest.
When he finally ripped his microphone off and left the set I got so excited that I choked on a piece of egg foo yaung and felt it lodge in my esophagus. My hands flew to my neck and I tried to cough but that only wedged the offending object worse. I couldn't breathe and I was starting to panic. My eyes jerked nervously about the apartment for something to try to do the Heimlich maneuver on myself with but there was nothing. The back of the couch was too wide and the counters wouldn't work.
When things started to get fuzzy around the edges I really got scared. Having no phone, I couldn't call 911 so I staggered out the door and began pounding on the old man's door. I knew he never left that apartment and I was sure I'd heard a phone ringing over there before. If he didn't, at least he could get help.
That was my last thought as everything turned black.
I awoke to an awful pain
in my stomach and still unable to breathe. Grabbing my stomach, I rolled
onto my side, struggling to get air into my burning lungs. When I was finally
able to inhale I coughed several times and relished the flow of oxygen
to my brain.
Slowly I opened my eyes and remembered what had happened. I was lying on the cold cement and the old man was leaning in his doorway squinting down at me in the dim light as he scratched his shirtless belly. I cringed, hoping he hadn't tried mouth-to-mouth on me. My hand made its way to my mouth and slowly wiped.
"Dragon shit fire in hell!"
"Well, yer still breathin'," he grunted in a gravelly voice.
"Thanks… I think." My voice was hoarse and it hurt to talk.
He shrugged. "Hope your gut ain't too sore. Had to call my granddaughter an' ask what to do fer ya. Good thing she was home."
I got to my feet, still clutching at my stomach. "What did you do to me, anyway?"
"Hinlick or whatever it's called. Was afraid you'd upchuck an' I didn't wanna get too close so I used my foot. Shoulda seen that thing fly outta yer mouth!" He cackled and I grinned wryly at him.
"Glad I could entertain you."
"Most excitement I had in weeks. Say, aren't you the loudmouth from next door?"
I rolled my eyes. "That would be me."
He looked me up and down. "Well if you ain't a sailor than you oughtta go teach 'em how ta talk. You got words I don't even know!"
I gave him a genuine smile. I had been worried he'd have choice words to say to me about that, but it didn't seem to bother him at all. I stuck my hand out and he took it.
"Elmer Godfrey. Pleased to meet you."
"Well Elmer, it seems I owe you my life. How can I pay you back?"
"Pshaw, now don't you worry none about that. I'm just glad I don't have no dead body outside my door stinkin' things up! 'Specially one as tall as you."
"At least let me treat you to dinner tomorrow night. It's the least I can do."
He scratched his unshaven chin before answering. "Alright. But you come over here. I don't care much about traipsin' all over the country."
"It's a deal then. I'll see you tomorrow." I had turned to go but stopped. "Hey Elmer?"
"That cussing thing, are you sure it doesn't bother you?"
"Hell no, I done my share of that. Kinda find it funny comin' from a woman like you though." He cackled to himself and closed the door.
"A woman like me?" I asked myself as I went back into my own apartment. "What's that supposed to mean?"
The next day at work, I was
dispatched back to the same job. I thanked my lucky stars and had another
good day. On the way home I stopped at the store, picked up a few things
to make dinner for Elmer with, and headed home. I figured I would cook
him a nice meal and chat with him for a bit since I never saw people going
in and out of his apartment either.
I changed into a pair of clean blue jeans and a T-shirt after preparing the pork chops, corn on the cob and rice. It dawned on me that I hadn't noticed the night before if he still had teeth. Hoping he could eat it, I grimaced and covered the plates with tin foil then headed for the door.
"Stupid shit Swiss cheese brain!"
I banged the metal door with my toe since my hands were full and waited impatiently for Elmer to answer. Several moments went by and he still hadn't acknowledged me so I banged again, worry setting in. Maybe all the excitement the night before had caused him a heart attack.
"Alright already!" I finally heard him yell as he came to the door. "Can't a man take a shit in peace?"
'Charming,' I thought and smiled as he opened the door.
"Hey kid, I thought you were the damned cops the way you were banging. Come on in."
I edged past him and stood there stunned as he shut the door behind me. The walls of his apartment were adorned with medals in nice frames and old pictures that looked like they were from the World War two era. A sofa and a recliner sat against the wall farthest from the kitchen area facing a small TV, and a bookcase stood full on the wall next to the door. The place was tidy and well kept, not a trace of dust anywhere. It was nothing like I had imagined it would be after seeing Elmer.
"You gonna stand there gawking or set those plates on the table so we can eat? I'm starved."
"Sorry," I muttered and made my way to a round two-person table that stood in a corner by the stove.
"Been lookin' forward ta this all damn day. Haven't eaten at all."
"I hope you like it," I commented as I watched him rummage through a drawer for eating utensils.
He stood up with a steak knife and waved it around. "With that foul mouth of yours, can I trust you to keep this in your meat instead of my throat?" he asked with a twinkle in his eyes.
"Har har. I never kill on the first date." I sat down as he returned to the table and chuckled.
"A date huh? Shoulda warned me, I'da dressed better." He indicated his stained chino pants and undershirt. "Mighta even combed my hair."
I chuckled at the shock of white hair standing off his head. "Well then you would've been better looking than me and that's no way to treat a lady is it?" I retorted.
"Lady? The way you talk who could make that mistake?"
I knew he was kidding but the remark stung. He must have sensed it because he reached across the table and took my hand in his own rough one.
"Now I didn't mean nothin' by it." Elmer looked at me thoughtfully before going on. "If you don't mind me askin', why do you talk like that? You're not a sailor are ya?"
I felt better now that I knew he hadn't meant any harm and decided to tell him the truth. "I have Tourette's syndrome. I can't help it when I cuss like that, it's called a vocal tic."
He rubbed his now shaven chin and regarded me with watery gray eyes. "A vocal tic, huh?" He picked up his fork and took a big bite of rice. "How long you had this Tourette's?"
"Since I was a kid." I dug into my own plate and swallowed before I went on. "My parents used to think I was doing it on purpose. They took me to shrinks and spent all kinds of money trying to understand why I acted that way. Even the psychiatrists thought it was some behavior problem. The good thing is that it's not as bad now as it used to be. I used to have this tic in my mouth that made me look like Popeye most of the time." I screwed my face up in the best imitation I could for an example. "I used to catch hell for it as a kid."
My hand went to my mouth as a wave of profanity tried to gush out. Even if he knew I couldn't help it I was still embarrassed that I couldn't go for very long without it happening.
He looked at me sympathetically and smiled. "Oh hell, kid, let it rip! Maybe you can teach an old fart a few lessons before he gets senile."
Just then I felt something sharp and painful making its way up my leg. "Dirty rotten sonofabitchin' bastard! What the-" I jumped up from the table and saw that a fuzzy white thing had surgically implanted itself on my leg.
"There you go, Conner! Meet Jackrabbit!" He slapped his knee and laughed hysterically at my demise.
I kicked my leg in the air to try to remove the cat but all that did was cause me to lose my balance and topple over backward. I finally came to my senses and grabbed it by the scruff of the neck. "Mother fucking, maggot-infested shit on my shoe! That's not a cat," I yelped as I pulled it off my leg. "That's a goddamned razor with legs!"
Elmer had finally made his way to where I lay on the floor and took the cat from my hands before I could throw it. He was laughing so hard I could tell he'd be wetting his pants soon.
I got to my feet, rubbing my leg where the beast had dug in. "Elmer you should warn people about that thing! And why the hell do you call it Jackrabbit? That's a name you give to something that's harmless and nice!"
"I thought I had the ol' gal locked in the bathroom. She must've got out somehow," he gasped, stroking the animal as he put her back in and shut the door. "Sorry about that," he chuckled and sat back down at the table with me. "Want something to drink?"
I think he offered out of guilt more than congeniality but I accepted the peace offering thankfully. We visited for another hour and when his eyes got droopy I told him I had to go. He made me promise we could do it again some time, and I made him promise to keep that spawn of Satan cat away from me.
When I got back to my apartment I changed into my pajamas and cleaned the claw marks on my leg. As I lay down on the couch I looked around at the place. I couldn't help but notice how Spartan and dreary my place was compared to Elmer's and it depressed me. I had a ratty old checker-patterned couch, a thrift store TV and no pictures on the walls. I reminded myself that there was no one to have pictures of anyway; I'd had no family contact in years. A ramshackle old dresser held most of my worldly belongings, which consisted of clothes, a few doctor bills and important papers, and the stuffed Koala my aunt Johnetta had brought me after her trip to Australia when I was six.
I sighed. I hadn't thought of her in years. She had been the only one who had ever believed that my use of obscene language and the faces I made weren't on purpose. On more than one occasion she soothed my hurt feelings when my parents had been too hard on me. When she died after I turned fourteen I felt lost. The last ten years without her had been hard; she'd been the only person who'd ever had any faith in me. Now that she was gone and I had no idea how to fix the hole it left in my heart.
Deciding that train of thought was better left alone, I turned the TV on and channel surfed until I fell asleep.
The weeks went by and the
Indian summer changed to a full on cold fall. It had snowed several times,
but just enough to make things miserable and icy. I had multiple bruises
on my backside and knees from the falls I'd taken as I made my way around
Elmer and I had become good friends. I spent a lot of time with the old man and it had soothed my lonely soul. I had even made friends with Jackrabbit, if you consider hissing instead of clawing to be friendly. And that was only after several more incidences of the rabid fur ball from hell scratching me silly.
Work was going as well as could be expected. Several companies that the employment agency had sent me to had blacklisted me, but on the other hand, at least I hadn't been told not to ever show my face there again. The main jobs that I was sent out to anymore were shoveling snow and cleaning rain gutters. I hated the cold but I didn't let it get to me; at least, for now, I was doing something productive.
Occasionally my mind would wander and I'd find myself thinking of Ellison. I had long since stopped looking over my shoulder for her and had not seen her since the day she had left my apartment; that had been several months before. I didn't know why I bothered with thinking of her. Maybe it had hurt my ego that my stalker didn't find me interesting anymore, or maybe it was because I really liked her. Either way, I didn't have to worry about it because she was long gone.
So I went on with my life, or lack thereof, and slowly those thoughts faded away.