Katya, unfazed, sits on their couch, while Lew slams the kitchen cupboard doors one after another, loudly, deliberately.
He’s trying to get her attention, she imagines, waiting for her to scurry in and ask what's wrong, but she isn’t going to nibble, not after thirty-seven years of marriage, not after being a fish on a hook once too often.
Closing her eyes, Katya imagines standing on a sunny beach at the water's edge with tiny waves nipping at her toes. Suddenly, a clamor of metal erupts. Katya jolts upright and looks toward the kitchen. He must have pulled the silverware drawer out too far. After a few moments, she hears the singular clink of odd pieces of flatware being returned to their molded spots. Well, Katya thinks, that should keep him quiet for a while. She settles back into the sofa and closes her eyes again.
Her two o'clock appointment had phoned yesterday calling on a line with static and background traffic noise. He seemed in a rush, asking if he could come around in the morning, at eight, if you can imagine that! He even tried to bribe her with muffins. What was it about men, always trying to arrange you into their schedules?
"Kay!" Lew yells.
Katya opens her eyes. "Yes dear."
"Where's the damn sugar?"
Sugar. So that's what all this clatter is about. The measly sugar which she never uses. And swearing besides.
"Kay, did you hear me?"
After an unhurried pause, she answers. "On the counter, near the pot."
Lew lumbers into the living room. "That's the first place I looked. It's not there.”
"Maybe you took the bowl into the garage, and stop calling me Kay. I'm Katya, especially when people are over.”
His gaze darts around the room. "What people?"
Katya ignores him. "I have a reading in five minutes," she tells him. "I need to study.”
Her husband pats his chest pockets, then feels his legs. What’s he looking for - his car keys? Is he about to leave? That was the problem with having strangers visit their home. She never knew if she’d need protection.
“Lew, you promised to stay.”
Lew turns away. "A half hour. That's it, Kay. I have to finish up on the Noonan's garage.”
"Katya. It's Katya," she reminds him.
He waves his hand as if he’s heard enough and trudges back into the kitchen.
She reaches for her business cards and pulls one out. The red block letters read:
KATYA - HAND READER
She admires her name - KATYA, mysterious yet tasteful, and so much better than boring "Kay". It sounds gypsy, not that she’s ever known one. But she can imagine a dark-haired woman dancing in the night around a crackling fire, the flames casting light and shadows around her spinning form. KATYA, a woman with chains of gold around her neck and wrists and ankles, who seduces the swarthy men with her curling hands and body turns. Of course, Kay is nothing of the sort. Not at fifty-eight, not with anemic frizzy hair that’s falling out in clumps. She sighs deeply and glances around the living room.
Everything is in order. Swatches of tapestry dress the sofa arms. Odd scarves - some lace, others translucent - veil the lamps and shroud the tabletops. A line of smoke from the sparkler-stick incense snakes up in the corner and fills the room with a sweet thick haze.
She checks herself in the panel mirror one last time. The long coral top hangs loosely from her shoulders, skimming her breasts and nicely avoiding the contact of any bulges below. Its matching skirt, thick with tiny pleats, touches the floor. Nothing these days is short enough for her five-foot frame. Still, there are advantages. She doesn't need to bother with stockings, just an old pair of slide-on slippers will do. She then goes into the kitchen to put on a pot of tea. Lew, hunched at the kitchen table, sips his coffee.
"So you found the sugar," she says.
He shifts a glance at her. "No.”
"Well, if you can't find the bowl, why not just get more from the bag.”
He turns and peers out the window.
She really doesn’t have the time for this but she marches over to the cupboard and while on tippy-toe, surveys the shelves. She moves the flour, honey, the bottles of oil and vinegar from one side to another. "Oh," she says, "I guess we're out.”
Katya shuts the cupboard door and decides, again, not to give it another thought.
She grabs the kettle and fills it with tap water. Then she remembers - the sugar bowl is on the sideboard, in the dining room with the teacups. She had put it there the night before for her visit today. But Lew is almost finished with his coffee and it hardly seems the best time to let him know. Have him steep with the tea, she decides, and she turns on the burner.
Lew straightens up in his chair. "Someone’s coming.”
Katya sidles up behind him, lightly resting her hand on his shoulder and stoops down to get a better look.
The car, white and glimmering, has a rack on top. It enters the driveway slowly.
"What kind of car is that?" Katya asks Lew.
"Yep. Full of air bags too.”
The car stops. After a moment, the door opens. A young man gets out. He’s a young girl's dream - blue-black hair, thick and longish that tapers over his collar. He’s wearing a dark-brown leather jacket with khaki pants.
The man squints into the sun, then slips off his coat and puts it into the car through the driver's window. Eyeing the house, he strolls toward it.
"You get the door.” Katya says and she rushes from the kitchen not waiting for a response.
From the other side of the wall, Katya hears a knocking, then the skid of Lew's chair and his slow heavy step. The deadbolt clicks, the door creaks open.
"I'm looking for Katya," the young man says. "Is this the right place?"
"The one and only," Lew says. "Come in. I'm Mr. Katya.”
Finally Lew says her name, but hardly in the way she expects.
"Pleased to meet you. My wife..."
Katya considers this her cue. Standing as tall as possible, she makes an entrance. The man turns.
He’s even more handsome close up. His light blue shirt, buttoned down at the collar, is ironed. Knifelike creases run down his arms to the folded-back cuffs. He has an olive coloring that glows.
Katya extends both her hands and wraps them around the hand he offers. His grip is solid and warm; his skin, supple and smooth. College educated, most likely, with a clean job, she assumes, in an office where there are no temperature extremes, and with a girlfriend or mother or wife who does the dishes.
She lets go of his hand.
"I'm making some tea," she says. "It should only take a minute, then we'll begin.”
"Fine," he says, smiling with teeth as even and white as piano keys.
Katya can’t ever remember seeing a man so perfect, except for maybe Cary Grant. But he was in the movies, not live and in color right in her kitchen. She brushes a few strands of hair away from her face and peeks down at her feet, fearing her bare stubby toes might be poking out.
"Beautiful day for a ride," Lew says.
"So how was the drive?"
"No problem. Thruway was clear."
"Coming from Buffalo?"
Lew leans against the counter and folds his arms. "That should've taken about an hour and a half."
Austin glances at his watch. "A little under, maybe."
The kettle whistles. "Excuse me," Katya says as she patters between the two men. She turns off the gas.
"Yep, they finally finished that construction after the exit," Lew says. "Bridge work. Took'em two years. You're lucky you missed that."
"Mmm," Austin agrees.
Katya stretches, reaching for the teapot in the cupboard above.
"Here, let me get that for you," she hears the young man say as he comes up close behind.
His hand lightly touches the small of her back while his extended arm rises up beside hers. It’s almost like they’re dancing, ballet dancing and for a moment she thinks of leaning back, feigning a fall to see if he'd catch her. Such a notion!
Instead she withdraws her arm and turns slightly. "Thank you."
He smiles again, a broad-faced smile, not just with his mouth but also with his eyes, glimmering and dark. He hands her the pot.
"You happy with the Volvo?" Lew says. "I hear they can be expensive to fix."
Austin steps away from her. "I haven't had any problems so far."
"Lucky for you. Tune-ups alone can run a hundred and fifty."
"Let's see," Katya says loudly, "I have regular tea, of course, but maybe you'd like some herbal--"
"Aren't those the cars that have electrical problems?" Lew interrupts.
"Excuse me, dear, but I was asking the nice man about what kind of tea he'd like," and she pulls out a drawer lined with colorful boxes. "There's rose hips, chamomile, lemon zing, sass-"
"Maybe he'd like coffee," Lew cuts in again. "Men don't drink, what'd you call it...lemon zing?"
Katya wants to shake her husband, send him to his room, do whatever it takes to stop him from being his usual bad-humored, rude self.
She takes a deep breath and focuses on Austin. "Would you prefer coffee?" she asks evenly.
Austin's eyes flit between the couple. "Regular tea sounds fine. Thank you. Thank you both."
Katya grips the handle of the pot and steadies the hot side with a padded glove. Turning toward Austin, she asks, “Shall we get started?”
"Sure," Austin says.
Katya pivots around and advances toward the living room.
“It’s nice meeting you,” she overhears Austin saying to Lew.
As Katya leans her shoulder into the kitchen door, the young man rushes over, reaches around her and pushes the door open. Such a gentleman, she thinks, so refreshing, so pleasant.
Katya slips through the doorway. "By the way," she calls back to Lew, "the sugar's on the buffet."
Austin brushes past her. "What a great view!"
Like most of the homes in the area, their living room faces the water. Where other towns have a small square and monument right smack in the center, Susquadaga has its lake.
The mid-afternoon sun is casting a honey glow on the town. Small white houses, much like theirs, run along the curving road that winds around the water. And trees, hundreds of them, some pine, some still bare from the winter, gather in clumps, rising and falling with the rolling hills. The lake, slate gray and still, without a ripple or wave, seems so peaceful. And the ducks are back, sailing over and around the water, up and down and turning, and for a moment it feels as if she and the young man are cradled in spring.
Katya nods to the chair that faces the window. "You can sit here," and she puts the pot down on the table. “I’ll get the cups.” She steps over to the dining room where she stops for a moment and contemplates the teacups. She decides on the only two that match - the Royal Albert pair with roses. Perfect for her nicely mannered man. The cups rattle as she makes her way back to the table and eases into her seat.
“Can I pour you some tea?” she asks.
“Yes, but allow me,” he says.
Katya can’t remember the last time someone actually did something for her without her having to ask. She sits back in her chair and watches as he does the honors. He has a natural upward curl to his lips that makes him seem everlastingly serene, and she can only remember children as having such long feathery lashes. Sunlight caresses her back, warming her inside and out, and for the first time in months she feels toasty.
“Shall I get the cream and sugar?” she asks.
“Well, not for me.”
Katya flutters. Already they have something in common.
She reaches out across the table. "Let’s begin with your left hand.”
Austin nests his curled hand into hers. Gently she strokes his palm. With each sweep, his warm dry hand opens wider.
“You see,” she begins to say, “your hands are like road maps, with lines and mounts and valleys..." And she tells him about the gypsies and the planets and the elements. She presses and pokes, first feeling his left hand, then his right. The more she speaks, the more she forgets about how odd she looks, or how old, or fat. She even forgets about her husband.
Lew stands at the kitchen table with his hands in his pockets, staring out the back window. He had summed up Austin the minute he saw him - a know-it-all-pretty-boy-rich kid, who never worked an honest day in his life. No coke ovens, or orange dust up his ass, that was for sure. Lew’s seen plenty like him, the president’s son, the vice-president’s nephew, slumming it at the plant during the summers, getting the clean jobs. Fussed-over pretty boys who were always skipped to the front of the line, given the larger piece of the pie.
And that Volvo! How Lew hates foreign cars with their fool symbols and cheap interiors. A real car is a Caddy - a car with legroom, back support; a car that floats on air, drives like silk.
Lew’s mouth feels dry and bitter from the unsweetened coffee. He looks at the clock. They’ve been yammering for twenty minutes. Time’s up. He pushes open the kitchen door just wide enough to catch Kay’s eyes. "I need to talk to you," he calls out.
Kay smiles at lover boy, “Will you excuse me a minute,” and she gets up from the table and walks toward Lew.
Lew opens the door wider as his wife enters the kitchen.
After the door swings shut, she turns to Lew, "What is it?"
Lew grabs her arm and pulls her close. "Listen," he says in a low raspy voice, "I found a dead baby--”
Lew jerks his chin toward the living room. "In that guy’s car,” he murmurs, “wrapped up in a towel on the back seat."
Kay cranes her neck back to look at him straight on. "What are you saying?"
"I was just checking out how they mounted the air bags and there it was."
"There what was?"
"The baby, well not exactly the baby, but an arm. I saw an arm."
"An arm!" Katya coughs out with her hand over her mouth.
"So I opened the door. I figured it had to be a doll or something."
Kay seems to waver. Lew leans into her, steadying her with his arm. "Anyway, I pulled the corner of the towel around to check it, and... there it was." Lew draws her nearer and places his lips to her ear. "You've got to get rid of him. Act like nothing's happened. Then we'll decide what to do."
Kay looks at her husband. “But--”
"That's my girl." Lew squeezes her tight then loosens his grip. “I need to write down the license number. As soon as I take it down I'll go into the dining room. That's when you'll know to get him to leave. Understand?"
Kay stands motionless and Lew wonders if he needs to shake her.
“Kay, are you listening?”
She nods and straightens her spine. “Yes,” she exhales quietly.
Lew opens the kitchen door and Kay passes through.
Austin is leaning back in his chair, looking closely at his palms. "I think I found something," he says.
A shiver passes through Katya. Lew has found something too.
"See," the young man says, and points to a spot.
Katya hunches over him. It’s a star, tiny but perfectly formed with a center and six off-shooting lines, and it’s in the oddest place - on the Plain of Mars, right in the middle of the hand.
"That’s interesting," she says not wanting to upset him. "Stars are fortuitous, a very good sign. Money, fame, fortune. Yes, and lucky too. The whole nine yards, I'd say.”
Was she talking too fast? Was she making any sense? How many times has she watched police shows where the murderer or rapist or devil-worshiper was like the guy next door? Just like her guy here.
The young man beams.
She glances down at him, trying to find something she may have overlooked, some telltale sign. Maybe a tattoo, or pierced hole somewhere, or blood flecks on his shirt or pant cuffs or socks.
But all she sees is a neatly pressed man. And she wonders if he is perhaps too clean - the kind of man who leads an obsessive life, who, at the slightest provocation, could fly into a rage if something was out of place.
Katya takes a deep choppy breath.
"Aren't you going to sit back down?" he asks. "Yes, of course," she says and she slides into her chair.
The man moves his hands across the table.
Katya doesn’t want to touch them. Where have these hands been? Wrapped around the baby's neck, shaking the child senseless?
"Is anything wrong?" he asks.
Beads of sweat drip down her sides. The man stares at her, waiting. She must say something.
She blots her cheeks with the back of her hand. "I seem to be getting a hot fla--" and she stops. Lew’s coughing in the dining room.
"Where's that sugar?" he finally calls out.
"Excuse me, won't you?" Katya says, and she pushes her chair from the table. As she stands up, the table rocks, and his empty tea cup tips over on its side.
She rushes over to Lew and whispers, "Did you get it?" "Yes," he says quietly, then adds in a normal tone, "I see the sugar now."
Katya returns to the table and stands beside the young man’s chair. Looking out at the lake, she says, "I'm afraid time's up."
He peers up at her, then reels around and shifts his eyes at Lew. "Oh...okay. How much do I owe you?"
Katya flusters. She doesn’t want to fiddle for change or touch his money. “Whatever you think is fine.”
He reaches for his wallet, fishes out a twenty-dollar bill and places it on the table.
"I'll walk you out," Lew tells him from across the room.
Austin pushes his chair away from the table and rises. "Thank you," he says to Katya, extending his hand. She skims her hand through his, barely touching.
"This way," Lew says.
The two men leave the room.
Katya collapses into the couch. She remembers the oddest thing - the feeling she had as a young girl, leaving the movie theater in the afternoon, with the sun blinding her eyes and her wondering what was real and what was fake. She glances around her living room and all its familiarity dims.
Lew leads Austin through the kitchen and out the back door. They walk silently to the car.
Dead Babies. Lew’s heard about them regularly on the six o'clock news while he sits in front of the TV with his metal tray and nightly baked potato. News stories of babies discarded - some left in oven-hot cars, others strapped in watery back seats; the rest, plastic-wrapped and thrown in dumpsters. Babies baked, drowned, suffocated. All of them dead.
Lew looks down at the man's brown shoes. Leather tassels bounce from side to side with each step.
Rat-stinking murderers. That's what Lew thinks of baby killers. Just like this kid Austin. He could fit the profile. After all baby killers look normal. He’s seen it for himself, once the paper bags were taken off and the cameras got a clear shot. Fresh-cut hair, scrubbed faces, straight teeth, just like they’ve come from Sunday service.
Austin opens his car door and slides in.
Lew steps back. "Have a nice drive."
Austin leans forward. "Sure thing," he says and he rears out of the driveway in choppy fits and starts. From the perch of the main road, Austin casts a wave in Lew’s direction.
"Ciao," Lew says to himself and he watches the car charge down the speckled road that’s part-sun, part-shade. At the corner, the brake lights flash twice before the car veers out of sight.
Good riddance, Lew thinks, and he glimpses at his watch. He figures five minutes to wash up and ten minutes to get to the motel - that will give him just enough time.
Of course he'll have to tell Kay he made up the dead-baby story. And maybe he did go a bit too far. But she had promised to be done in half an hour and she was nowhere close. Besides she had made him angry. First the sugar, then the kid, not to mention all that garbage about Venus and Mars.
Lew saunters to the house. He has to come up with a good reason. Maybe he could say it was a joke. After all he was a funny guy. He steps into the kitchen.
"Is that you?" Kay calls out.
"The one and only," Lew answers as he enters the living room.
Kay’s sitting on the couch, slumped over. "Is he gone?"
"Like ticker tape."
Kay dabs her eyes with a corner of her shawl. "How can we be sure he won't come back?"
Lew reaches into his pocket, pulls out a handkerchief and sits next to his wife. "Here use this," he says, offering his hanky.
Kay takes it and blows her nose.
"Listen, Kay, about that kid--"
"Was it a little boy or a little girl?” she asks between gasps of breaths.
“Was there blood?”
“No, no blood. Listen Kay--”
“Then why was it in a towel?”
“You said the poor thing was wrapped up in a towel.”
“Well, that’s what I said but--”
“Were there bruises?”
“No bruises, no blood, no nothing.”
There. Lew was halfway, just two more words - no baby.
She gazes at him wide-eyed, her eyes filling up again and for a moment Lew sees her thirty years younger. Her face blushed and round. A thick tear collects in the corner of her eye and falls down her cheek. She leans into him, resting her head on his chest. A tingling sensation ripples inside him.
“Well, maybe it was an accident,” she says, sniffling. ”Maybe the little angel died of crib death or swallowed something or was sick with a fever.” His wife, all wrinkled and damp, looks into his face. “That’s possible, right?”
Lew circles his arm around her shoulder and presses her close. She collapses into him and runs her arms along his waist, nestling her face under his chin.
He’s forgotten how she feels, so warm, so soft. And her touch brings back memories of a different time. The pavilion down at the lake, the yellow lights, the slow dance.
“Lew,” she says, “do you think it could have been an accident?”
An accident, Lew thinks, yes of course. A verbal accident, that’s what the lie was, nothing more, nothing less. An oral kink, a blurb. Something that simply fell off the shelf. No one’s fault, no damage done.
She lifts her head and speaks into his ear. “Are you listening?”
And he is, sort of, but not to her words so much as to her rhythms - her breath, heart, pulse; eavesdropping like some thief who breaks in and hears the dripping faucet, the ticking clock of an empty house. “Sh,” he tells her.
Lew can’t remember the last time he’s held her.
“Yes, that must be it,” she says aloud. “Of course, what other reason could there be?”
Her hair smells flowery like roses.
“He couldn’t have done such a thing on purpose,” she continues.
But Lew isn’t paying much attention. He tilts his head and presses his lips to her forehead, then to the bridge of her nose. Suddenly she sits upright.
Lew reaches for her, wanting to tow her in, wanting to bring her back but she slips away.
She steps over to the window and sighs. “He seemed like such a nice boy.”
Nice boy? What planet was Kay on? Couldn’t she see how the kid was playing up to her like some kiss-ass Casanova - opening doors, grabbing her, and all the time grinning like some goon.
Lew slaps his hands on his lap. “Kay, nice boys drive around with dirty laundry and baseball mitts in their backseats. Not dead babies!”
“Yes, of course,” she says quietly not bothering to turn around. The light from the window makes her appear small and round-shouldered.
Lew rests his elbows on his knees and considers the braided rug with its winding circles. Somehow he got sidetracked, made a left turn. Is it too late to go back? He rubs his face.
When he looks back up Kay is in front of him. She kneels down and drapes her arms on his folded legs.
"You're right," she says. “And not just about him but about everything.”
“You know, about having strange people come to the house."
Could it be that Kay is finally coming around to his way of thinking - to forget this mystic stuff and get on with real life?
"Yeah, it's like I've been telling you, but you never listen. There's just too many screwballs loose."
Kay blinks. "I should've listened to you."
He draws her in again. She doesn’t resist. "Everything is going to be fine," he tells her.
He closes his eyes, strokes her back and tightens her between his legs.
She speaks into his ear. “Should I call 911 or do you want to?”
A jolt goes through him. His eyes pop open.
“And I suppose they’ll be wanting the license number.”
The license number! He hadn’t bothered writing anything down. He loosens his grip and leans back. "Now Kay, settle down a minute. Maybe phoning wouldn’t be such a good idea. Everyone in town with a scanner will pick up the dispatch when they send a car over. He’s still out there, you know. No telling what he might do if he finds out we’re the ones who blew him in.” Lew shakes his head. “This can’t be handled over the phone.”
“I suppose so,” Kay says as she rises to her feet. “I’ll wash my face then we’ll leave.”
Lew jumps up. “No, definitely not,” he blurts out. “You shouldn’t be involved. Besides what more could you tell them?”
“Well, I could tell them about his hands.”
“His lines, you know, and my impressions.”
Lew feels an argument coming on. “I don’t think they’d be interested.”
“You mean they’d think I was crazy.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But that’s what you meant,” she says tearfully.
“I just think we should stick with...the facts. There’s no reason for you to get involved. I’ll handle it.”
Kay drops onto the couch. "I do seem to have a headache."
"All the more reason for you to stay home."
"But what if he comes back?"
Lew feels the room closing in on him. Suddenly, the air is too thick to breathe.
"No way, that kid's gone for good," Lew reassures her. "He took off like a bullet when I told him I was a retired FBI agent."
"Well, I had to tell him something. You know, to make him think twice about messing with us."
Kay shakes her head. "But an FBI agent - really, Lew."
"It worked. The minute I told him, he got in his car and took off. In fact, he was so nervous he almost flooded the damn thing.”
Kay gazes at her husband. “When do you think you’ll get back?”
Lew eyes his watch and figures in the time. "Shouldn’t take me more than an hour.”
"And what about the Noonans?"
“The Noonans . . . of course, well, I’ll have to call them and cancel.”
His wife shivers in the corner of the couch and tightens the shawl around her.
“You’ll be all right?” he asks sheepishly.
Her face sags, and for a brief moment Lew considers staying home. “I’ll get you a blanket,” he says, sidestepping into the dining room. “Put your feet up."
He opens the bottom drawer, pulls out a blanket and goes back to cover his wife.
“I’ll call you from the station,” he says, tucking her in. “I won’t be long.” He then stretches over, plucks the telephone from a small table and places it on the floor beside her.
Kay lays the back of her hand along her forehead, nods silently, then closes her eyes.
Lew turns to leave. “I’ll lock up.”
Driving north on Route 60, past the vineyards and the trailer parks, Lew wonders what went wrong. His intention to tell Kay the truth was there but somehow it got waylaid. It must have been her tears. What was it about a woman crying that made you want to say anything, do anything? He couldn't kick her while she was down. He did the right thing, the only thing under the circumstances. Besides, maybe she learned a lesson, got a wake-up call.
Anyway, he’d make it up to her somehow.
Lew rolls down the car window. Fresh spring air swirls around him, blowing his hair onto his forehead. He makes a mental note to comb his hair in the motel parking lot. Then he twists off his wedding ring and drops it into his left breast pocket.
|©2002 Linda A. Lavid|
|Linda A. Lavid hails from Buffalo, New York
where lake effect, snow and writing fuse between tedium and
glints of inspiration. She has had the following short stories published in books, anthologies and on-line:"A
Father's Love" in Life Stories: Casework in the
First Person, edited by Jessica Heriot and Eileen Blinger; "The
License Plate" in The Southern Cross Review,
edited by Frank Thomas Smith; "A Star is Born" in Over Coffee, edited by Cynthia Willerth;
"Highwire" in Wilmington Blues, edited by
Jennifer McGuirt. She is working on a mystery novel, Hattie