5150 Wampaugh St. (short story)

The Dike is stout and hard like a millstone. Urban-orange glow from a street lamp cuts through the darkness and fans out about her like an entourage. Her arms are crossed, her eyes narrowed. She stands like a tank and glowers at two figures talking animatedly, twenty yards away, and strains to catch something of their conversation.
She has short, russet hair tinged with banality. It fits with her sleeveless T-shirt, black jeans and faded high top sneakers. Her eyes are hazel and her complexion fair—features that were enough, eight years previous, to make her passably attractive in high school (where the boys called her cute, but in a familiar, respectful way).
She rubs her thick, bare arms and takes notice of a figure approaching the conversation she’s been watching. Her arms fall to her sides and her hands—with grime-encrusted finger nails—slide into her rear pockets. She fingers a hunting knife with a four-inch blade; a gift of her late mother.
An image of the woman flits through her mind. Pitifully ugly, she was a cancer-eroded career electrician in a naval yard on the East Coast. The Dike had been the product of an incomprehensible boarding-house tryst between the mother and a tall, sallow orphan. The Dike’s meager birthright consisted of an iron will, that steel-bladed knife and a handful of faded memories.
Twenty yards removed from the conversation, she spits, rubs the stuff into the asphalt with her shoe and watches her new girlfriend, Marci, talk with Marci’s ex-girlfriend, Trista. Marci is pale and thin like a china doll. She’s tall with deep brown eyes and fragile features. Sometimes it looks as if she might break from the force of gravity on her long, supple limbs. She is everything the Dike is not and they are madly in love.
Marci is infatuated with the way the Dike carries herself: the young woman fears nothing and is the master of any situation. More than anything, Marci sometimes thinks, it’s the way the Dike sweats; the way she sweats and wipes her perspiration-beaded brow with those sturdy, bare arms. It was that gesture that originally caught Marci’s attention when the Dike changed her oil at Carl’s Garage. From there the situation moved onto a shared drink at a local lesbian hang-out, the Black Hole. Then, from five-drinks-in, straight to Marci’s yielding canopied bed.
Marci loved the way the Dike was rough; she was turned on by the hoarse, passionate sounds the short woman made. More than anything she loved the way the Dike’s sex tasted. It was alkaline, like the top of a 9-volt battery. She loved the strong smells and the way the Dike left the next morning without saying a word. Marci was infatuated and she not only knew it, she liked it. Five months in and still the hunger lingered.
The Dike knew better than to let Marci talk with Trista. She’d met “that talkative bitch” at the Black Hole. Sparks flew instantly. Grating sparks. The kind of sparks that her co-worker Otto made at the shop when grinding down something or other from the rear ends he tore apart everyday. The Dike didn’t do anything with rear ends; she wasn’t allowed. She wasn’t allowed on transmissions, either. And Old Man Carl didn’t let her do a hell of a lot under the hood. She changed oil, water pumps, a head gasket here and there—typical apprentice type work. In a world where knowledge is capital, the Dike was broke.
She knew how to handle a woman though. And this Trista situation was a bad omen; out of her ken. If Marci wanted to hang out with the bitch so bad, maybe they should still be together. And she told Marci that, plenty of times. Marci handled the situation as meekly (though effectively) as she handled ever-pressing men and soon Trista stopped coming around.
Now here she was again—a furtive phone call and a cryptic message about meeting to discuss something important. Marci arranged for a public place. The Dike agreed that the street corner at Madison and Florida would be acceptable; then she insisted on attending. When Marci protested timidly the Dike agreed to a forty-pace compromise.
Now she hears laughter. Forty paces away she stands wondering if it’s the wafting, full-of-life chuckle of Trista, or Marci’s long, soft bellow—and it’s driving her crazy. Suddenly, a dude appears. He looks skinny from forty paces. The Dike can make out his worn combat boots and thin features, even from that distance. He moves into the dim light surrounding the jovial ex-lovers. He walks briskly, the Dike notes, and he isn’t minding his own business: he’s staring at Marci’s ass.
The Dike hears another laugh and this time she’s sure it’s Marci’s. Her face flushes scarlet. She doesn’t like the situation at all; she knew it was a bad compromise letting Marci meet with her ex in the first place. She berates herself for going against her gut instinct and pinches the inside of her arm till a blood blister rises. A vision of Marci and Trista kissing, soft and passionately, glances off the back of her mind.
The Dude smiles; he likes Marci’s form. He’s already late for a date with his on-again-off-again girlfriend at the coffee house up the street. That meeting is going to make him late for band practice, where he’ll likely get drunk—which will make him late for work, yet again tomorrow. His life has begun to feel like one long and confused remiss. His boss hates him, the eviction notice on his front door is into its third week and he has no idea when the police might show up to deliver the boot. Even his band mates resent his apathetic attitude.
But none of that matters right now. If there is one thing that could take his mind off the general malaise of life, it’s a slender girl with flaring hips. And Marci has those hips. The Dude cranes his neck on passing and nearly turns himself around. A smile rides his face. It’s a face that, save for the thin Persian nose, looks just like the movie star, what’s-his-name.
Marci and Trista don’t notice the Dude—which adds another shade of red to the Dike’s face.
They’ve been talking goddamned long enough, she says to herself.
Now they’re so wrapped up they don’t even notice this leering creep. To add insult to her injury, the creep is a guy; another guy violating a girl’s sovereignty with his eyes, because . . . simply because he can. Another of those androcentric, heterosexual licenses that burn the Dike’s ass. First it was Trista getting a flirty laugh, and now the Dude, taking in every inch of Marci’s fine, soft ass.
The Dude puts his hands in his pockets and doubles his pace. He can already see the pouting look—“I’ve-been-waiting-far-too-long, why is it always like this, who’s so much more important than me?”—that’s undoubtedly being prepared for him in the coffee house at the moment. He sees a brief glimpse of something dark from the corner of his eye and then an explosion. A right hook catches him square in the nose.
The Dike thinks for sure she’s broken her hand—she’s done it twice before on other knock out punches. The Dude goes down instinctively to a knee and then sees the blood. He feels woozy and lies down. He can’t tell if he’s still conscious or not, everything is cloudy. The Dike pulls the four-inch blade from her pocket, springs it open and moves it in the direction of his neck.
She doesn’t intend to use the knife, but the symbolic gesture of putting this creep in the kill position—a lustration—is simply the thing to do at the time. She’s listening to her gut again, and her gut never lies. Instinct, intuition, the force (whatever one calls it) has never steered her wrong. Maybe this creep could be the symbolic sacrifice for every other homophobic, ass-leering male out there. But she knows she won’t cut him. As soon as she stepped from the shadows she knew—felt it in her bones—that everything would work out right.
She is in the zone now and things come to her as clearly as the knowledge that she shouldn’t have allowed Marci to meet up with Trista. I’ll deal with that bitch later, she thinks. For now she feels deep in her bones that she needs to make a statement—and the knife is the quickest statement-maker at hand. She puts the blade to his throat and she tells him what a creep he is.
Trista sees most of the scene and is terrified. She won’t be heard from for months. Marci panics and runs home. She cries herself to sleep, but wakes in the morning to a snoring Dike. At that moment she thinks the Dike is even more attractive than when they’d first met. She silently condemns the Dike’s actions as profligate, depraved and beyond what she is willing to tolerate in a girlfriend—but she also finds it a perverse turn-on.
The Dude finds his way to the coffee house. His on-again-off-again girlfriend shrieks and takes him to a hospital. She’s convinced he’s hit on another man’s girlfriend. The Dude says he doesn’t care what she thinks; he wants to go home and have a beer. An Indian doctor named Gupta puts a queer-looking mask on his face. The Dude hates the mask, but has little choice in the matter. Like his on-again-off-again girlfriend, it’s attached whether he likes it or not.

II.

The author looks at the blankness of the paper and her whole mind turns white. Like a giant blizzard, there is nothing—but nothing. The ideas have to come, have to be there somewhere. She’s delved deep into the world of spaghetti Westerns and worked through a passable allegory for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. But by the penultimate page the whole mess has become a log jam. Now all is snowy in her mind; the story won’t finish itself.
Her on-again-off-again boyfriend is the only concrete image her mind will evoke at the moment. His broken nose has been fitted into a ridiculous-looking mask by a quack at an emergency med clinic referred to him by the sub-standard health insurance of his parsimonious employer. She thinks about how ugly the new prosthesis is, which clicks in her mind. He’s ugly now. Everybody’s ugly. Her original intention was to make the story one of polar extremes, the characters would be wholly good or hopelessly bad. But in the end that thinking inevitably twisted up into this miserable obstruction, prohibiting redemption. Everybody fits somewhere into that grey area between the two poles, she reflects, Everybody is Ugly.
Despite the lesson informed by this latest epiphany, she has good reason to stigmatize her on-again-off-again boyfriend as a bad character. He’s notoriously unfaithful, inveterately drunk and always late for work—so much so that he’s grown accustomed to living under the imminent threat of job loss. Now he’s to be homeless again. Fortunately for him, he’s a god on the guitar; he writes music the author can feel. And she knows—she hates it, but she knows—that he hooked her long ago and she’ll never be able to get him out of that mysterious place in the back of her mind. She knows it will be he, inevitably, that will move on and break her heart; hard as she tries, she can’t pre-empt him.
She stares at the blankness in front of her and redoubles her efforts. In this short story—about a guitar player and his girlfriend—she’s determined to work it all out. Her confidence, of late, has been high. She’s produced a novel she’s happy with and followed it with two successful short stories; one published and the other deemed clever by one of her most esteemed professors. But now she’s lost. This allegory has hit a road-block, and what’s more, she can’t get inside the guitar player’s head. It drives her crazy. She’s an omniscient narrator, for Christ’s sake, how can she not know what he’s thinking.
She pictures the broken nose and the thick, coagulated blood smeared about the on-again-off-again boyfriend’s face. She remembers pushing back, that night, against the tingling sensation of her own shock. She remembers his matter-of-fact, typically low-key response to the whole bizarre incident. She remembers his lame story—that he’d been attacked by a marauding Amazon; she’d seen him hit before for his indiscretions with other men’s girlfriends. She doesn’t understand his constant need to lie in such situations. She concentrates again on the story in front of her and moves back several pages, to the three-way Mexican stand off. Why is it called a Mexican stand off, she wonders, and who says no one can win?
Night falls outside, like a blow to the stomach, and she slips into a spasm of imagination. The reverie includes herself and the boyfriend—Casanova he’s called in this place—and an eight-foot Amazon. The Amazon is beautiful, with looks like Daryl Hannah, hands like twenty-dollar steaks, and a screaming switchblade knife. Three sinister shadows—one of them enormous—dance slowly behind them in the dull orange glow of an urban street light. They’re violently triangulated; Casanova ten paces ahead and to her right, the Amazon equally as far, to her left.
She flashes back, without breaking stride in the reverie, to the winter of her freshman year as an undergrad. For three months she had a secret lover, Helen, who reminded her very much of Daryl Hannah. She thought Helen the most beautiful girl in the world. Suddenly Daryl Hannah’s reverie-imbued visage—a topless figure with full, perfectly round and creamy breasts—melts into that of Helen. It’s now a giant Helen standing ten paces away, nearly naked and brandishing the weapon. Helen stares, with sultry eyes, at Casanova.
Casanova returns the gaze, and that smile (the one that means he’s interested) flickers for just an instant. The Author catches it and knows he will end up in bed with her former lover. Casanova breaks the stare, without changing his stand-offish posture or lowering his guard, and turns his attention to her, the Author. She can feel herself weakening. She’s first, she knows this. After she’s vanquished, he’ll move to break the Amazon—but not before they fuck. The Amazon, Giant Helen, seems to understand all of this at some atavistic level, but flies along unmolested—with a sort of lewd glee—ready for the action.
The Author sees that smile flicker again, this time in her direction, and something in her stomach reaches out for him. It’s at that moment she yanks revolvers from either side of her hips—before she falls completely defenseless—aims, steadies her hand, and lets go with two death shots. Helen takes it in the heart and she’s dead instantly. Casanova takes it in the nose. She realizes, as he expires, that for him this has to be the unkindest cut of all. This won’t work, she mutters with a smile, pulls the paper from the typewriter and crushes it into a ball. With a snap of the wrist Casanova, Helen-the-Amazon, and the Dead-aim-Author fly into a burgeoning wastebasket of broken dreams.

III.

The ad is short and direct: one room available in a three-bed. Old house, cheap rent. Gay male preferred. $400/month. 5150 Wampaugh St. The Author notifies her boyfriend immediately. After a month of staying on couches he’s begun to complain bitterly; yet, as usual, he does nothing to rectify the situation. She sets up an appointment with the person named in the ad. The house is in the neighborhood where the boyfriend was attacked. A “marauding Amazon,” the Author thinks and smiles to herself; she can’t help but admire his creativity.
The boyfriend, Casanova as the author has taken to calling him, shows up half an hour late for the appointment; unbeknownst to the Author, he has first month’s rent—cash—in his pocket. By the time he arrives, the Author has made quick friends with the man renting the room. They’ve both moved onto their second beer and the Author has seen the entire house. It’s old, and smells of turpentine and motor oil, but it’s got plenty of room and a wooden charm—plus, the rent is the most reasonable thing she’s seen in years.
Rentor excuses himself to take a call and invites the Author to show Casanova the house. They start with the three large bedrooms up the claustrophobic staircase. Casanova bumps his face—or the soon-to-be-removed face mask—against the low hanging ceiling and hisses an epithet. The upstairs is large—huge by neighborhood standards—and sorely in need of paint. The author thinks it’s perfect for an on-again-off-again bachelor. The room for rent is more than adequate. There is an antique claw-foot tub in the unfinished bathroom. Upon showing it to Casanova, the Author turns, winks and brushes by him with the reticent force of a frisky cat.
In the garage she shows him a 1967 Camaro that sits in the half-life of an unfinished restoration. Casanova examines it lasciviously. The Author spits out all the details given to her by Rentor. The car will be done sometime next year and other renters are never to touch it. In fact, the renters aren’t allowed in the garage.
Casanova moves to the rear and stares admiringly down the side, imagining the car with a fresh powder-coat of black. He opens the narrow garage door to let in more light, and bumps noisily into a rolling cabinet of Snap On tools. Five thousand dollars of tools, collected over five years, the Author spills out mechanically, other renters are never to use the tools—under any circumstances.
Casanova ignores the comment, takes a last look at the car’s interior and heads back inside. He opens the refrigerator on passing, grabs two beers, pops the tops and hands one to the Author. He shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head lightly. Turning, he heads to a door that leads to the basement, the source of flowing music.
Down a rickety and cramped set of stairs he falls on a surprise. The basement, dark and loud, is well painted and ample. The ceiling has been raised, or the floor sunk; whatever the case it’s more than ten feet between them. The music pours out of powerful speakers. Casanova immediately thinks of the potential for band practice. On the far side of the room an unblemished, regulation sized ping pong table sits under the icy-cold glow of professionally installed table-sports lighting.
Casanova moves immediately for the table. He finds professional paddles strapped to the underside, pulls one out and admires it. Rentor appears and moves to the other side.
You Play? He asks.
A little, Casanova says.
The Author sips on her beer and smiles—she knows a few things Rentor doesn’t. She knows that one of Casanova’s foster fathers was an eccentric army man who’d been sent to play against the Chinese under Nixon. He’d obsessively drilled the game into his foster son’s young head. She’d seen Casanova play once at a rec hall in a seedy part of town and he was the essence of grace. The scene had occurred at a vulnerable point in their on-again-off-again relationship and it may have been the moment that endeared him to her forever.
She thought back to that day: a muscular, menacing ethnic man at the far end of the table, shooting death glances between Casanova and the $50-bill sitting on the counter next to a line of empty beer bottles. It had come down to a final game and the tension worked knots in her stomach. She looked to Casanova and he smiled with that give-a-shit attitude that defined him. She knew he was already fifty-dollars short on his rent and wondered about the antithetical merits of sanity and sangfroid.
Both men played Lefty. The sneering opponent let go with a smashing serve that zipped just above the net, impossibly close, and caught the lip of the table; it was very nearly the perfect shot. Casanova dropped fast, got his paddle under the ricocheting ball, and delivered it back across the table; straight to the big man’s waiting left. Back it came, to Casanova’s left, and back again and back again and again and again and again, till they fell into a mechanical rhythm, his left to Casanova’s and back again and back, till Casanova broke the silence.
Are you ready? He asked.
The big man showed obvious annoyance and let out a grunted shriek, but managed to keep the rhythm together: his left to Casanova’s and back and back and back.
Here it comes, Casanova said.
Fuck You, the Big Man spat.
The Author closed her eyes.
You’re going to hit it off the table, far left, Casanova said.
The next return from the big man was a revolution slower than the rest and Casanova’s left hand came up slowly and surely under the ball, goading it, touching it sensuously, caressingly, pulling the ball across the full rubber face of the paddle, before launching it back to Big Man’s left in the vortex of the most vicious spin physically possible.
Big Man saw the spin, adjusted and worked to counteract the move. He put as much antidote on the ball as he was physically capable of mustering with his wide shoulders, and the ball soared back to Casanova. The Author watched as the ball glided magically, majestically even, seemingly levitating; sitting on air and rotating at its own pleasure. It carried and carried and carried, to the far left, so wide of its mark that it hit the wall ten feet away, before falling to the floor with a thin ping. To this day, the Author swears the music stopped at that point—or maybe she just stopped hearing.
While Big Man pulled up his end of the table, lurching it onto its side, splitting it in half, Casanova slyly made his way to the cash—the rest of his rent—grabbed Big Man’s beer, and made his way quickly back to the Author. As they escaped through an emergency exit Big Man began screaming obscenities at the whole world.
By the time the Author snaps out of her daydream Casanova and Rentor are in the middle of a game. Rentor is good, but it’s apparent to the three of them that he can’t compete for real in that utterly refined world of the elite. Casanova makes the decision—one that he may have re-thought in hindsight—to lay a smashing left hander down on Rentor’s side. After having downed a beer, and grabbed another—uninvited—out of the mini-fridge in the corner, the leader of the band thinks it time to establish pecking order in the house (spraying the room as his band mates call it).
The ball slams onto the table and then careens back up, into Rentor’s face. Something of a rabid gay temper flashes in the man’s eyes before he grins. Heavy thudding steps sound on the stairs and Rentor opens his mouth with a broad, thin smile that turns into something the Author interperets as sincerely sinister. Suddenly she doesn’t know if she wants Casanova living in this place.
My roommate’s home, Rentor says tersely, so prepare yourself for your first ping pong butt-fucking.
The roommate overhears the statement and sees the wicked look on Rentor’s face. She moves with squat but rapid strides and works on a domestic beer. At the table she takes the paddle from Rentor, bumps him out of the way, tilts her head back and finishes half the bottle in a single gulp.
Twenty a game? She asks before releasing a hearty burp.
Casanova smiles behind his mask.
Fifty, he says.
Why not make it a hundred?
A hundred it is.
Before the Author knows what’s happening, Roommate drops the ball and smashes a left-handed serve to the unwitting Casanova. He reflexively lurches for the ball, catches it with his waiting left and returns it zinging down the edge of the table: thus begins the game. Casanova has size and reach, but Roommate is so quick it’s scary. In the mind of the Author, she’s emblematic of those short, thick-legged Chinamen that Casanova’s foster father had to play against, all those years ago.
Games go back and forth, back and forth, as does the wagering. They both continue to down beers and the pot grows. Before the third set, the rubber match, Casanova lays $200 on the shelf on the far wall. The Author is appalled. She finds the roommate distasteful and the betting the height of idiocy. Roommate has backed up her end of the betting with the guarantee of first month’s free rent. The mortal opponents trade barbs at intervals. Even in this they seem utterly equal. The Author has never seen Casanova meet his match in a battle of the wits, and secretly she likes it. She thinks she may have detected, for the first time ever, a spot of annoyance—maybe even frustration—on his illustrious veneer.
The combatants lock horns in the first game of the third set and trade smashing overhand lefts. His left back to hers, back to his and so on, until Roommate lets go a stinging straight shot down the line that catches the lip of the table. There’s nothing Casanova can do; he’s lost the first game.
Nice shot, the Author says.
Pretty as that Camaro sitting out in the garage, Casanova adds.
Roommate stops and looks up.
Nobody goes in the garage, she says, ‘cept me. And don’t ever, ever, never touch my tools. Five thousand dollars—
Yeah, yeah, yeah . . . over five years, Casanova finishes her sentence. You gonna serve that ball?
The stairs creak though no steps are heard. A lithe girl with dark hair and interesting hips sashes in. The Author looks at her suspiciously—she likes the looks of this household less with every new face. The new arrival moves shyly to Roommate and they kiss deeply for an awkward amount of time; a kiss that announces her as Roommate’s bitch. Roommate ends the kiss, pulls Girlfriend away and retrieves a hunting knife from her pocket.
Unleashing the blade with pomp she says, I gotta piss.
She stabs the knife into a dart board on the wall behind the table, looks at Casanova, then to the money on the shelf, and says in Girlfriend’s direction, Watch that, I’ll be back.
The Author can’t believe what she’s just seen. There’s no way she’s going to let Casanova stay in this opprobrious den of the bizarre. But she sees a burning intrigue in his eyes and fears he’s taken with the place. She moves to talk with him but he takes the phone from his pocket and punches in a number. With a wink at her he moves to the far corner of the large room.
Roommate’s back in a matter of minutes with a full beer in tow. The Author’s talking with Girlfriend—who she finds to be patently sweet; Rentor sits silently in the corner, nursing a beer (and his wounded ego), waiting for the game to resume. Casanova returns, putting his phone away, goes to the mini-fridge (uninvited) and pulls out two beers. He moves to the stereo unit and turns it past level 9. The tension is off the hook, the house is nearly shaking and the author thinks something will soon explode.
The disc player shuffles and suddenly Mick Jagger is belting out Playing with Fire. Casanova pops the tops, hands one to the Author, takes a long swig, puts his beer down and zips a line-drive left handed shot straight down the table’s edge. Roommate is just able to get her paddle on the ball. Back and forth they go, back and forth. The volleying is vicious—it’s the fastest play Roommate has ever seen.
The games go back and forth, back and forth, till they reach an impasse. They will play a tie-breaker for the third set, for the match, for the $200 and all the face that goes with it. Both players are sweating, and on the verge of drunk. The alcohol only makes them better. Moved to synergistic heights, both of them are making shots they’d not seen attempted before.
Roommate goes up quickly in the final game; she leads by five points at one stretch. Then she gets cocky. She begins making eyes at the Author, coyly at first, but more and more brazenly until it’s obvious. At the other end of the table, Casanova burns a cool stare into Roommate, then shifts his attention to the Author, and back again. Roommate returns the icy gaze, and then looks again at the Author. The Author moves her head back and forth, from the lascivious and increasingly uncomfortable gestures of Roommate, to the blue-flame concentration of her masked boyfriend. His finger taps like the hand of a watch on his paddle; he doesn’t break his stare. Roommate smiles at him and then moves her attention back to the Author, where she drops an exaggerated wink.
I’ve got to go to the bathroom, the Author says, hoping to relieve herself of the situation.
Not till the game’s over, Casanova yells above the music.
But I gotta go, the Author yells, moving for the stairs.
Hold it! Casanova barks.
The Author stops, turns slowly and stares at him. Her head turns at a snail’s pace from Casanova to Roommate and then back again. She doesn’t know whether to be embarrassed or pissed off; her lip curls with an abject combination of the two sensations. Roommate looks from the Author back to Casanova. She feels urgency in the game now, bordering on desperation. They are tied at 21 in the final game of the three-set match. The first to come up with consecutive points will win.
I haven’t been completely honest with you, Roommate says, I’m not left handed. With great circumstance she moves the paddle from her greasy left hand to the grime-encrusted right. From the right side she launches a serve that barely clears the net and glances off the table at an awkward angle. Casanova gets his paddle on it, reaching across his body, but the ball catches the lip of the rubber face, sending the shot high and off the table. Roommate is a point away from victory.
And I haven’t been honest with you, Casanova yells above the music. I’m not left handed either. He returns her smile and grabs the paddle with his right hand, flipping it into a short arc. This time Roommate’s sizzling serve is returned with vigor down the line to her backhand. She returns it handily, but Casanova goes back to the same spot of weakness, then again, and again; each time Roommate’s return becoming less authoritative. Finally he succeeds in smashing through and taking the point.
Girlfriend saunters up to Roommate, over whom she stands a full head taller, and lays a long, sultry kiss on the shorter woman’s lips. Roommate roughly pulls Girlfriend’s head away, by the back of the hair. Girlfriend turns and smiles smartly at Casanova before moving back to her position next to the money.
With the game again tied Casanova launches a burning right handed serve down the line—it’s the fastest thing he’s put down all day—and Roommate just gets her paddle on it. She puts it back on his side of play with a lob and he pauses for a fraction of an instant, smiling. She knows the inevitable slam is imminent. But he doesn’t do it. He zips it back down the line, as if to preserve the volley. The pace picks up and soon they’re madly launching the ball back and forth, back and forth—the Author’s almost getting dizzy watching the action—until Casanova says, Are you ready? Roommate says nothing, she concentrates on the table. Middle of the eyes, Casanova says. Roommate knows this is a ploy and refuses to raise her head to look at him, her concentration stays on the ball. On a particularly weak return Casanova lines the ball up and caresses it ever so smoothly with the back side of his paddle, laying on a king-hell spin.
Come to Daddy, he says.
Roommate knows what’s happening and does everything in her power to reverse the spin on the ball, but it sails hopelessly into a fat lob that bounces squarely in the center of his end. Casanova moves around to the side of the table, just inches from her turf, and lines up on the falling orb; suddenly the little white globe seems incredibly slow and impotent. Roommate backs up, envisioning the oncoming slam. The heel of her dirty high top sneaker catches the concrete floor and she trips slightly, taking her attention from the game. Casanova winds up, and let’s go with a haymaker of a shot and—
Bang! Right between the eyes.
Roommate is slightly stunned—the calm before her temper storms all to hell. She realizes in a rage of confusion that Casanova wasn’t trying to put the ball on the table—he’d set up the shot and sacrificed the point to put the ball smack dab in the middle of her forehead; and it still stings. Her temper flares. Though nothing comes out of her mouth her eyes say everything. They bore into Casanova from ten paces.
Between the raucous sounds of the stereo, the unabated fury in Roommate’s eyes and the pressure on her bladder, the Author is at the acme of discomfort. She’s nervous and sweat shows on her face. Casanova betrays nothing through his prosthetic façade. The building storm breaks in Roommate’s eyes.
Fuck this! she screams. I’m outa here.
She drops her paddle and takes a step for the stairs. At the same instant the Author turns to go.
Stay right there, Casanova yells, pointing his paddle in the Author’s direction.
Simultaneously he throws up a pleading stiff arm in the direction of Roommate. Wait! He yells. Roommate stops and throws him an icy stare, tacitly communicating a charge of imbecility. He smiles and coyly pulls the other two hundred-dollar bills out of his pocket. He walks slowly to the shelf and lays them on top of the rest of the money.
Your advantage, he yells to Roommate, without breaking the smile.
The Author closes her eyes in an amalgam of anguish and disappointment as Casanova resumes his spot. Roommate stands in place for several second and wipes a bead of perspiration from her sweating brow with a bare right arm. She blows a saliva bubble from the tip of her tongue, thinks for a moment and moves to her place at the end of the table. She rolls the ball slowly about the face of her paddle, wipes down the handle, blows on the ball and is into the throes of initiating the game-deciding serve when Casanova puts his hand up. She aborts the serve at the last instant and the ball falls to the table. She rolls her eyes and slams the paddle down as he reaches for his pocket, pulls out his phone and puts it to his ear. He says nothing but a wide smile breaks over his face.
What the fuck! Roommate spits.
Casanova walks to the stereo and kills the music. Ten sets of ears throb in unison. With all eyes on him he moves back to his place at the table, grabs his paddle and acknowledges the wondering stares.
There are two kinds of people in this world, he says to Roommate with a smile. Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You Dig?
Rentor is sitting up in his seat now, a mischievous smile dancing on his face. Girlfriend blows a kiss to Roommate, who looks first to Casanova, to whom she glares eerily, and then to the Author, to whom she makes a semi-lewd gesture with her tongue, before saying, Right between the eyes, bitch, and tapping her forehead.
Roommate fires away a hot right-handed shot, down the line, and Casanova is there a day ahead of time. He sends it zipping back, kissing the very top of the net, giving the ball a slight skip that almost gets by Roommate. She recovers though and sends back a tight shot that Casanova can only play in an orthodox style. The volley picks up and moves past the one-minute mark; singeing shots and rapid-fire returns, right hand to right hand.
Are you ready? Casanova asks with his give-a-shit grin.
Roommate says nothing; she concentrates on the table. Rentor is nearly falling out of his chair. Girlfriend’s face looks ready to explode and the Author’s mouth hangs ajar. Casanova waits for the right shot, one that’s just a little slower than the rest and brings his paddle up delicately, kissing the ball and simultaneously rolling it, ever so gently, across the full face of the paddle. This time he puts a double flicker into the snap of the wrist and Roommate is stunned. She’s never seen the move before and has no idea what to expect. The ball seems to float on air, moving ever so slowly back to her side.
Straight up, Casanova says.
Roommate’s too busy lining up the loping shot, moving back to catch the best angle on the ball, to process the statement. It takes a seeming eternity for it to hit the table again, on her side, but when it does, the ball launches into a preternatural orbit of its own and arcs maddeningly, almost bouncing over her shoulder. It’s all she can do to fall back on her heels and get enough room to make a return. She gets hold of the ball and puts it back in play the best she can.
The ball goes straight up, almost touching the ceiling; it arcs and spins and hangs as long as any of them can remember a ball hanging in mid air. Casanova moves back several paces, takes a running start and jumps up on to his side of the table. Simultaneously, with his full momentum, he takes the widest, most flowing, hard driving swing ever accomplished in the house at 5150 Wampaugh. He connects with the ball at his shoulder height, some five feet above Roommate, and drives it—too fast to be seen—straight at her. It hits her directly in the forehead again. In the surprise of the moment she blinks, feels the stinging pain of the ball, loses her balance and falls backwards into the wall behind her.
Casanova flexes his skinny shoulders and cranes his neck; a vein sticks out in his forehead. He lets go a warrior-like shriek and stares crazily at Girlfriend and then at Roommate.
I don’t want the fucking room, anyway, he screams, hopping down from the table. Let’s go baby, he says, grabs the Author and makes his way to the stairs, sans rent.
Nobody says a word. Rentor, incredulous, follows them up the steps and watches as they leave through the front door and drift down the street into the gathering dusk.

Epilogue
TRANSCRIPT: Central headquarters 4/22, Burglary Investigation. F. Thompson-investigating officer. R. Smith-assist. Phone call to material witness.
Witness: Natasha Winters / Profession: Writer / Address: 444 Burgaw St. 998-7650
2200 hours:
Witness (W): Hello
Officer Thompson (T): Hello, can I speak with Miss Natasha Winters.
(W): Speaking.
(T): My name’s Frank Thompson, I’m with —– Police, Burglary. Do you have a few minutes?
(pause)
(W): Yeah.
(T): I have to notify you at this point that this conversation is being recorded.
(W): Ooookay.
(T): I’ll get right to the point, Miss Winters, there was a burglary at 5150 Wampaugh Street last month, on the 19th, and I’ve been told by several people you were there. Is that true?
(pause)
(T): Miss Winters?
(W): I believe so.
(T): You believe you were there?
(W): I mean, yeah, I was there.
(T): Why were you there?
(W): My boyfriend—he was looking at the room they were renting.
(T): What’s your boyfriend’s name?
(W): (— unintelligible)
(T): Where’s your boyfriend now, Ms. Winters?
(W): Ex.
(T): Excuse me?
(W): Ex-boyfriend.
(T): Uh-huh. Where’s your ex-boyfriend now?
(W): Oregon, last I heard.
(T): When did you split up?
(W): When I found out he took off for Oregon.
(T): When was that?
(W): About a month ago.
(T): Could you put a date on it?
(W): What day did you say we looked at the room?
(T): The 19th Ma’am.
(W): Then we broke up the 20th.
(T): He took off the day after?
(W): Yep.
(T): Have you heard from him?
(W): Not a peep.
(T): Kinda strange, wouldn’t you say; looking at an apartment one day, leaving town the next?
(W): Strange guy.
(T): His boss says he was short of money.
(W): He was a fiscal abortion.
(T): Uh-huh.
(W): Pardon my French.
(T): How do you think he got to Oregon with no money?
(W): He bought a car.
(T): Bought a car?
(W): Yep.
(T): With no money?
(W): That’s what I’m saying.
(T): Excuse me?
(W): What?
(T): What are you saying?
(W): What do you mean?
(T): You said, ‘that’s what I’m saying.’
(W): Yeah.
(T): Yeah, what?
(W): What do you mean, what?
(T): You said, ‘That’s what I’m saying.’
(W): Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.
(T): But what are you saying?
(W): That that’s what I’m saying.
(T): Miss Winters—
(W): Yeah?
(T): Are you on drugs, Miss Winters?
(W): (laugh)
(T): Seriously.
(W): Seriously.
(T): Yes, seriously.
(W): That’s what I’m saying, seriously.
(T): What’s that mean?
(W): laughing.
(T): Miss Winters are you aware that $5,000 of mechanical tools and a 1967 Camaro were stolen out of the garage at 5150 Wampaugh Street, on the 19th of last month, and the time frame overlaps the hour you were there.
(W): silence.
(T): Miss Winters?
(W): Yeah, I’m here.
(T): Were you aware of that, Miss Winters?
(W): Oh my God.
(T): Are you familiar with Grand Theft laws in this state, Miss Winters?
(W): No.
(T): Do you think you could come down here and talk to us in person, Miss Winters?
(W): Am I in trouble?
(T): Not if you don’t know anything.

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One Response to “5150 Wampaugh St. (short story)”

  1. hey shane…..i started reading this but have to go into work…..i’m dying to get home to finish it……great so far!

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