The loins tighten, the belly hollows, the heart strengthens; pleasant indeed are the sensations before a blind date encounter. Her telephone projection by way of a low, husky, strangely deep, and faintly sensuous voice had been that of a lady of poise, charm, and intelligence. Who was she? What was she? I was on my way for a first-time look to see if a second-time look would be worthwhile.
Her response to my suggestion that we meet someplace for coffee and get-acquainted talk had been "I have guests and can't [quoteright'/>leave. Why don't you come over here?"
Some questions rose in my mind. Did she want me on her turf to attack my warm body? Not likely. Did she want to meet the stranger in the security of her own crowd? Very possible. Was her interest too idle to exert any energy? Also very possible.
I found truth in her statement about having company, and that made my unasked questions irrelevant. I also found that a second look at the tall, slender, strikingly attractive lady was definitely in order. I left her place early, thinking it better to save, or perhaps create, a little mystery, and at her door we paused as I let some body language talk for me by gently fingertip-touching her under her chin, saying, "With your permission... I'll call you again."
"I would like for you to." Her eyes held mine steady - straightforward – no false coquetishness. That made the score so lopsided in her favor that I was already thinking ahead to the possibilities of a third look, or more, as I drove back to my apartment.
She had told me that her husband had moved out of the house and filed for divorce a few months earlier. Then we had discussed how we both were coming off twenty-year marriages that just hadn't really worked out, but were not bad enough to spoil hopes for the future.
I received my first clue that she had understated her husband's feelings when I picked her up a week later for our first dinner date.
"Since I'm still new in town and really don't know where to go, I thought I'd take you to that fancy restaurant up on top o' the Hilton. We can have some big juicy steaks while we're watching a full moon rising over Texas and shining across the fabled Rio Grande into the land of manana. How's that grab ya?"
"That would be great." Then she hesitated. "But maybe we should... well... My husband is very well known in this town, and..."
"Are you suggesting discreetness?"
Thoughtfully she said, "I don't think we have to worry, but public gossip might upset him."
While my mouth was saying, "In that ease, let's find a place of quiet seclusion," my mind was divided by a civil war. One side was telling me to forget the whole thing, and the other side kept saying, "To hell with the risk; how old do you want to be, anyway?" My want-to's overran my don't do's. I remembered that celibacy-induced chemical changes in the bloodstream cause one's mind to discount danger, so I chose a path that would probably be just short of peril, I hoped. And besides that, I was leaving for California in four more weeks, anyway.
The dinner was good; the company was grand. Then came the question, where to now? Dancing? Too public. Her place? Not just "no," but "hell, no!" My place? It's the only safe place.
Forbidden fruit flavor added to first-time excitement makes for an intoxicating experience. Flint and steel strike sparks; passion-fed flames soar. And unwary wings might be seared.
That weekend led to another; the space between weekends gives one's satiated senses time to ride imagination back to the starting line. And then we got caught.
That Sunday morning was a pretty one. Bright sunshine, green trees, green lawns. It was a fine time to smell the flowers and savor life, but not to end it. I stopped the car in front of her house and turned for a goodbye kiss, my mind registering on a low level the big white car left-turning the corner in front of us and coming our way. A quick glance at her fear-tautened face, along with her blurted, "That's my husband!" jerked me back to reality. As the truckers say, I "put the pedal to the metal" and fled the scene - with the big white car showing brake lights in my mirrors, and the acceleration-slammed door throwing my lady back into the car seat. Reflexes caused me to turn right to get out of the stopping driver's sight, and those same reflexes saved me in a high-speed, tire-squalling, sliding turn onto a gravel street. Dust marks a trail; I had to get back on pavement, get her back home, and then get out of the area, all the while trusting in blind luck to keep me out of harm's way. So I circled the block, dropped her at her door, and then drove myself home.
It's easy to understand why I kept a wary eye out for big white cars, and gave thanks that a shootout in the famed "Streets of Laredo" hadn't developed. I didn't let myself wonder about license plate numbers remembered.
The moth uses wings and flies to the candle; I used the telephone.
She told me, "Ever since last Monday morning somebody in a blue Chevy has been following me during the day and parking out in front in the street at night."
"Well, I'll be damned. It must be a private eye."
"I guess so. About an hour ago I went out to his car and asked him who he was. And whoever he is, he didn't answer; he just drove off and parked farther down the street."
"Have you called the police yet?"
"Yes. And it didn't do any good. Just like it didn't when I asked the court to enforce the restraining order on my husband, and to make him pay the support payments he owes me."
"Christ, there's got to some way of getting something done!"
"Well, that's just part of the influence that I told you he has in this town. Every one of the friends we used to have is afraid to even talk to me now."
The next weekend she shook her shadow by alternating between buses and taxis to our appointed place, where I waited in the car, engine running, around a street corner from a bus stop. Somewhere during that weekend we found time to make plans for her to help pack my belongings in my car, and then accompany me as far as San Antonio. That was to take place the following Friday night and Saturday morning.
So - the week was moving right along, and on Wednesday night about nine o'clock, while I was engrossed in closing out some of my business paperwork, BAM-BAM-BAM, there came a knocking at my door. I listened a moment, then walked to the safe side, the opening side, of the door, and called, "Who's there?" No answer. After a few seconds, BAM-BAM-BAM! "Who's there?" Again no answer. I thought that the next few seconds took a little longer to pass. "Who's there?" Still no answer.
I decided that it was hopefully some small prankish children playing games, and went back to work.
BAM-BAM-BAM! Head up, heart fast, back to the door. "Who's there?"
No answer. Two steps to the closet, take the shotgun out, thumb one shell in the chamber and one in the magazine, take off the safety, hold the gun right-handed, vertical, barrel down, concealed behind me; move to the door, put my left hand on the doorknob, hesitate and pose to whip the shotgun forward to hip level for firing, turn the doorknob, and jerk the door open. And there, wearing her shawl, stood the elderly Mexican cleaning lady. She wanted to know if she should clean my apartment the next day.
"Si, Senora. Manana esta bien."
I closed the door, unloaded the gun, and said to myself, "I do believe I'll let the paperwork go and have a beer." It took one more before my hands quit shaking.
That night, and the next night, my sleep was light and broken. Friday night was better because I had company after we executed the old rendezvous routine one more time, the last time.
We put off packing the car till Saturday morning, mainly so there would be no shadows to conceal the approach of any interested observers. It was with some relief that, at high noon, we took to the road for the three-hour drive to San Antone'. Each mile marker north through the prairie mesquite lightened the load, but didn't reduce the attention I gave to all the big white cars.
After that night in San Antonio, our last one, my Lady of Laredo boarded a plane for home, while I boarded one for New Orleans. I had planned a few days there, a few days in Dallas, a few more back in San Antonio, and then the long drive to San Francisco.
While I was in Dallas I had occasion to call the apartment manager in Laredo, and at the end of our conversation she said, "Oh, by the way, do you know a man named Matthews?"
That stopped me for a moment. "Yeah, why?"
"You wasn't hardly out of the parking lot last Saturday when a man by that name came lookin' for you."
"Well, I'll be damned. Ah...did you tell him where I am - or where I'm going?"
"Nah, did you want me to?"
"Kitty, I don't want him to know where I am, or where I'm going. In fact, I don't ever want to see or hear from him as long as I live, which I think he wants to have something to say about."
"Yes. Do me a favor, and don't tell anybody anything."
I spent a tense two days in San Antonio before 560 miles of Interstate Highway 10 took me across Texas to the Rio Grande, west of El Paso, and then into the self-styled "Land of Enchantment," New Mexico.
There I breathed deep a sigh, and started humming an old tune called "California, Here I Come..."
Allen J. Pettit
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