My mother, a kick-ass Catholic, made a deal with me. If I kept my virginity until I got married, she’d give me two thousand dollars. We came to this agreement when I was seven, before my hormones went crazy, and when two grand was serious money. Still, an agreement is an agreement and I’m not the most popular person walking the face. Physically, I’m best described as “plain”, and when friends try to fix me up on blind dates my biggest attribute is “she’ll listen to every word you have to say.”
So fast forward to last week when my mom leaves town with Floriano, a guy who came to the house to wallpaper the kitchen. He was there less than half the day and never even completed the job. Mom left a note which read: I have found my soul mate. There’s chili in the freezer. We were left with a permanent reminder of her departure: a kitchen half papered with pineapples and palm trees, half with strutting roosters. The point is this. As far as my personal purity goes, all bets are off.
I thought I had the perfect guy. Colin. He works the midnight-to-eight shift as a watchman over at the wire factory, but he claims his true calling is optometry. He isn’t actively perusing the profession because according to Colin laser surgery will soon make glasses as useless as the keypunch machine. I never told him about the agreement I had with my mother because frankly, I didn’t think it was anybody else’s business. I just said I didn’t want to rush things.
“Marcie, you’re twenty years old,” he’d tell me. “People get brain cancer younger than that. It’s like you put things off and the next thing you know…”
This is where Colin would drag his thumb across his neck as if he were being beheaded by some terrorist.
By then I’d been seeing the guy for like eleven weeks. It wasn’t as if he was going home frustrated. We did stuff. We just didn’t do… you know. The thing.
Last night marked the seventh day since my mother’s departure. Me and Colin were in the playroom downstairs. We’d just got done watching Survivor, and the sight of emaciated, bikini-clad girls trying to make fire had gotten to him. He’d been all over me since the “Immunity Challenge”, unbuttoning buttons, unclasping clasps.
Looks like this is your lucky night, I remember thinking, but I’m not sure which one of us I’d meant.
“Can I tell you something, Marcie?” he wetly whispered in my ear. “At this point in our relationship I consider us married.”
His hand started creeping up the inside of my leg which is exactly where I stopped it. I hadn’t been guy-talked by Colin up until this point, but here it was. The little head saying what the big head knew wasn’t true. I sat up on the couch and started putting myself back together.
“What?” he said, as if he didn’t have a clue.
“Don’t bullshit me, Colin,” I told him.
“I’m not,” he protested.
“I don’t need Mother Goose.”
“Fuck it, then,” he said, all pissed off. He stood, drained his bottle of Molson. “In case you’re not aware, a male has needs that go directly to the bone.”
“Nice choice of words.”
“I’m serious, Marcie. I can’t do this no more.”
We stared at each other. Silence. Finally he blew air out his nose, shook his head, unsnapped the top of his jeans.
“Okay,” he said, returning to the couch. “You win.”
As he put his hand on the back of my head and started pulling me toward him, I realised I wouldn’t see him again after tonight.
It’s only me and my dad since my brother joined the Air Force. Since then, my father insists I call him “Phil”. Marcie and Phil. Truth be told, Phil is to parenting what Hitler was to hay rides. He lost his job as stock manager at Tile ‘n’ Such right after Christmas, and has been collecting unemployment since. When I suggest he get off his ass and look for work, Phil has a stock answer.
“I’m in specialty floor coverings,” he goes, “and specialty floor coverings is the hill I’ll die on.”
Give Phil credit. A few years ago he was a stoned alcoholic, but he went into recovery and turned all that drinking energy toward physical fitness. For the four months he’s been out of work, he hasn’t missed a day on his elliptical machine. Lost fifteen pounds along with a wife. Open his bedroom door, day or night, and chances are there he’ll be. Doing his non-impact cardiovascular routine, writhing like a snake in hot butter, one of his Classic Hits of the 80s CDs playing on the Bose. I estimate he could have walked to San Francisco and back by now, but with the exception of his Friday evening Pilates class I can’t even get him out of the house.
Phil knows nothing about the deal. The morning after I broke up with Colin, he asked me how it was going.
“We broke up,” I tell him.
Phil is spooning steaming oatmeal into a bowl and sprinkling wheat germ on top. He’s wearing his standard uniform—sneakers, bicycle shorts, and a glistening coat of sweat. He seldom wears a shirt these days, even on cold mornings.
“His loss,” Phil says, eating his glop over the sink. “Plus I think you’d be better off with somebody with a lower body mass index.”
I don’t even want to know he’s talking about, so I take a package of white powdered mini-doughnuts from the bread drawer and pour myself some coffee.
“Chemicals and caffeine,” Phil informs me. “Not exactly what you need to kick the day’s butt.”
I sit at the table and decide to change the subject.
“Any word from Mom?” I ask.
“She’ll be back,” Phil says without anywhere near as much confidence as he had when he told me the same thing yesterday.
“You really think?”
“I know the woman,” he tells me. “This is an experiment for her. Like dyeing her hair red. She’ll come to her senses and be back here tomorrow, the next day tops.”
“And everything will be like it was?”
“One thing at a time,” he says, spinning a riff on the A.A. motto.
I lose half a mini-doughnut into my coffee, but drink it anyway. Eventually Phil finishes his oatmeal, rinses the bowl and spoon, drops them in the drain board. He walks past the table, stops just in front of me, smiles, pats his tight stomach.
“Not bad for a guy almost fifty,” he says. He walks toward his room and in a moment I hear him on the elliptical, going nowhere, but getting there fast.
At work I talk to my girl Rita during break. We’re both waitresses at this place called The Beef Locker, a huge restaurant so filthy that the roaches eat next door. The “break room”, as it’s generously called, is nothing more than a large janitor’s closet with some folding chairs, an empty cable spool tipped on its side, and a People magazine from 2008. After two and a half hours the lunch crush is finally over, and I’ve been dying for a cigarette since before it started.
Other than me and my mom, Rita is the only one who knows about the deal. She thinks it’s the stupidest thing she’s ever heard. “Man does not live by hand jobs alone,” she’s often said.
I tell her about Colin and she expresses condolences and informs me on what I should do next. She’s Italian, so I listen.
“Rid yourself of the burden,” she goes.
“How do I do that?”
Rita blows what appears to be an unbelievable volume of smoke out her nostrils. “My brother Frank.”
Her brother Frank is a thirty-eight-year-old ex-priest who was defrocked after he got caught selling marijuana to a bunch of eighth graders during a field trip to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Since that time, he’s moved back home and taken a job hanging drywall.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Come on, Mars,” she says. “He could use the experience.” When I continue to hesitate, she points out the fact that as a former priest without much—if any—sexual experience, he’s probably cleaner than the average thirteen-year-old.
“Hey, trust me,” she says. “It’s just like getting a shot of Novocain. A little pinch and then your whole body goes numb.”
I light a second cigarette off my first.
“Give him my number,” I say.
I do some food shopping and get home after six. Phil’s car is still in the driveway, which surprises me, because it’s Friday. Pilates. For a second I picture him dead, heart exploded, lying next to that damn elliptical like a hamster after running the wheel too long.
But he’s fine. Well, relatively. He’s sitting at the kitchen table, his wardrobe unchanged since this morning, a bottle of gin, a melting tray with ice cubes, and an almost empty glass by his elbow. There’s an open letter in front of him and he’s been crying.
“Are you all right?” I ask.
“Your mother’s gone,” he sobs.
“Yeah, I know.”
“For good,” he blubbers as he pushes the letter across the table.
I put the grocery bags on the counter, open the letter, read. She and Floriano are in Brazil and she wants her stuff sent down. All her clothes, everything. She also wants to borrow five thousand dollars.
“Well this doesn’t look good,” I say.
“Neither does this,” Phil whimpers, and he holds up my mother’s gold wedding band. “She shoved it in with the letter.”
Phil slops some more booze into his glass.
“Now what?” he goes.
I sit down across from him, grab his hands.
“Now this,” I tell him. “You get up Monday, you look for a job, Monday afternoon you come home with one.”
He ignores this. “I don’t know what happened to us,” he says. “Wait. I do know. We lost our speciality.”
“Specialness. Whatever the word is.”
It hits me then. Like a bag of manure dropped out a second storey window. My parents were not always the pair of self-centered, compulsive auto wrecks I’ve grown up with. At one time they actually liked each other. Loved maybe.
“I can’t do anything without her,” he says.
“Believe me,” I tell him, “if you can work out on that elliptical all day without going batshit, you can do anything.”
“I don’t feel so good,” he goes.
I pull my hands free, stand up, grab the gin bottle and Phil’s glass.
“I’m going to be pouring these down the sink,” I tell him. “You should get up, take a shower, get ready for dinner.”
“Okay,” he snuffles, as obedient as a rowdy teenager who’s just been tasered.
“And Phil?” I call just as he’s about to stagger from the kitchen. “Put a shirt on.”
I hear the phone as I’m putting away the groceries, but I let it ring through. It’s Rita’s brother Frank who leaves the following message: Marcie? It’s Frank Romano. I was thinking you might want to go out for a grinder or something. Give me a yell.
Sorry, Frank. No grinders. I’m going to have to do this according to nature. Maybe it’ll never happen, maybe it’ll happen tomorrow afternoon. I don’t know much, but I know I want what they once had. Speciality.
For some reason this whole thing reminds me of Lent. When I was a kid, I gave up candy for six and a half weeks, and then Easter came, and I wanted the good stuff.
I figure I’ve got time. Not to make a value judgment for anybody else, but starting now I’m looking for the solid chocolate. After going this long, the last thing I want is those fucking pink jelly beans. You know. The ones buried at the bottom of the basket under all that phony plastic grass.
Z.Z. Boone lives in Connecticut with novelist Tricia Bauer and their daughter, Lia. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College (Vermont,) and teaches fiction at Western Connecticut State University. His fiction was most reently seen in the New Ohio Review, and is upcoming in wordriver.