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A Certain Ageby Tama Janowitz
She had an urge to tap his head with a spoon. It might wake him out of his trance. She could visualize the yellowish brains trickling over his glasses frames, such mild yolk--and the other passengers on the jitney to the Hamptons would no doubt quickly whip croissants out of their weekend luggage and come to dip the corners in the soft stuff, hoping to taste so much money.
"Florence . . . !" Charlie said. "How are . . . you?"
She grabbed the seat next to his.
"I would normally . . . drive," he said.
"You usually drive to the Hamptons on the weekend?" Florence asked.
He nodded. "Only my car is in the garage."
"Being fixed," Florence said. Maybe having so much money had made him sluggish, softened his brain, like the last Emperor of China. He seemed to be cocooned in something. He seemed swaddled, a great distance away, though she was right beside him. The traffic chugged forward and died to a halt. The air was gray and thick with exhaust. Here there were no trees, only old factories and warehouses, like rusted shipwrecks jutting from cement. If there was already so much traffic, it would be midnight before the bus got to the Hamptons.
"Not . . . exactly," Charlie said. "You see, a few . . . weeks ago, I left it . . . parked in front of that new restaurant, Derek and Trevor's . . ."
"And somebody . . . hit it?" Whatever he had was catching. She was speaking slowly too.
"No . . . it's a convertible, you see, and the roof was closed. When I got into the car, I thought, Something stinks, and next to me, on the passenger's seat, some idiot had thrown a fish head."
"Why would they do such a thing?"
"I can only assume . . . because I parked in front of someone's yard, and I know there have been a lot of local complaints in Bridgehampton that Derek and Trevor opened a restaurant there. I threw the fish head onto the sidewalk. Well, it was so warm and sunny I opened the roof . . . and this is sort of . . . complicated . . . however . . . a few days later I noticed . . . there was a terrible smell . . . and I cleaned out the car . . . but the smell didn't go away. And after another week I tried to clean it again. I put the roof up . . . because I was going into the city and--"
"Weird," Florence said. "And you really don't think it was some girl or something?"
He either didn't like her question or, having begun, couldn't stop before he had finished his story. "And when I put up the roof . . . I found wedged down in the back part where the roof goes when it's open . . . there was another fish head . . . and by now it was crawling with maggots. And the company can't get the smell out . . . they've replaced the seats, and had it cleaned, but they can't seem to get rid of the smell."
"Ugh. How creepy!" She gave his hand a squeeze. It was soft and rubbery, and next to her hand, with its long graceful fingers, his looked like a child's. This seemed somewhat sad, the reverse of one of those children who age prematurely. "You're sure it wasn't someone who knew you?"
"Oh, God, I don't know," he said. "This weekend I'm just going to go out and buy another car." Then, changing the subject, he said brightly, "Hey! A friend of mine just gave me a picture he took of me--a portrait. He's a well-known fashion photographer.
"I'd love to see," she said.
"Yes?" He was cute when he smiled. His whole face cracked open, as if sealed under the layers of skin was a trapped baby allowed out only on special occasions. "The picture's kind of artistic, if you know what I mean--I'm naked." He pronounced both "artistic" and "naked" as if they came with quotation marks around them.
He opened a manila envelope and handed the photograph to her. In the picture he was seated nude on a stool, looking as if he might topple off, balanced only by his two skinny legs, spread far apart, feet clinging to the rungs. On his face was an expression of such supreme self-pride that Florence knew it could only be related to the appendage dangling between his legs. The bus was heavily air-conditioned. She reached for a sweater and put it on while she thought of what to say
"It's awfully hard to see in this light," she said. She was shocked, which she supposed was the point. He seemed so prissy, then to start flashing naked pictures of himself. Maybe it was a little test, to see how she would respond. She fumbled in her pocketbook for the remains of a Swiss dark chocolate nut bar she had been nibbling throughout the day. "Very nice!" The words came out slightly patronizingly, but he didn't seem to notice.
"I thought . . . he did a good job. My friend is very talented, as a photographer . . . I don't know what I'll do with it, though. Frame it, I guess, and hang it in the bedroom." He turned to her and whispered in a confidential voice, "You were right . . . I think it was this girl I was going out with who put the fish heads in my car. She knew I had just gotten a brand-new SAAB convertible."
"She must have been heartbroken," Florence said. "That you broke up with her--and that was all she could think of doing, to get revenge. But it wasn't funny! It wasn't very nice!"
"No . . ." said Charlie thoughtfully. "You know, I don't think I've ever really spent much time talking to you. This is great, that we're getting a chance to talk."
"I think so too," she said, giving his arm, padded beneath a robin's-egg-blue cotton sweater, a quick stroke. Though she appeared aloof, she was an oddly affectionate person--it was as if touch was the only way she could reassure herself that anyone else existed. The cool blond looks were blended in a boyishly jock physicality, more California than New York.
The bus held forty or fifty passengers and was completely full. The travelers, with their pinched, ferocious expressions and their too brightly glittering eyes, projected an aura of paranoia mixed with anxiety that permeated the bus. The hostess, a surly overweight young woman in her mid-twenties, stumped up and down the aisle delivering plastic bottles of mineral water and cups; she was probably a local from Long Island, hired for the season. She had the sour expression of a camp counselor devoting herself to a summer's worth of sadistic activities. And yet Florence always felt calmer heading east. The Western migration had not been the right journey for her mother, nor for her. All her life she had felt rootless. But her mother, after marrying, had gotten trapped, preserved in the amber sun of Southern California. She had always encouraged Florence to go back East, to marry rich, to return to spawn like a reintroduced salmon. And though her mother was no longer alive, she had managed, somehow, to imprint this on Florence--or perhaps it went deeper, imprinted on her strands of DNA like a celestial map carved on an ancient Aztec necklace.
"Would you like to do something?" Charlie said. "Tomorrow night, maybe?"
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