Joe awoke to the sound of bells. Three in succession. Saint Anne was announcing Lauds.
As he counted the notes, the warmth of his wife’s motionless body lathered his back. He rolled over, lifted the sheets separating him from Maggie, slipped his arm over her waist and rested the palm of his hand just below her navel. He began to stroke the tattoo that, wings outstretched in suspended flight, tipped its beak toward her pelvis.
Twenty years ago, shortly after they decided to marry, she stood in her opened bath robe at the foot of the bed and slowly traced the tattoo with her index finger.
“It’s a ruby-throated hummingbird. A male. I call him Joe,” she said.
The bells of Saint Anne interrupted this remembrance and repeated the same three notes… let us make a joyful noise …
The tattoo’s significance was their secret, an unspoken contract. Their pact had born two children. He had a good job, and provided food, shelter, and comfort. She prepared the meals, saw to the children’s school, arbitrated squabbles, and enforced the family’s code of ethics. But this morning he felt that somewhere along the line, the agreement had been waylaid. This morning he, Joe, wanted to enforce one of its terms.
Maggie moaned, rolled out from beneath his arm onto her right side, and tightened the cool sheet about her.
The bells let loose another pattern of three then a rolling peal that rose and fell in rapid succession filling the silence of the room.
Harden not your heart …
Joe stroked the profile of Maggie’s hip in an attempt at gentle persuasion.
“Joe, the children will be getting up soon. Besides, you’ve got to go north today, don’t you?” she said.
“Mm-hmm. But not for a little while.”
“I got the coffee maker loaded for you. All you have to do is push the button.”
“That’s what I thought I was doing.”
“Cute. Will you be home tonight?” she asked.
He felt her body chill.
“I’m not counting on it. Probably have to take Jacob to dinner.”
“Will you stay at the same hotel?”
“Be careful,” she said, curled herself into a pill bug position and didn’t make another sound.
The appointment wasn’t until three that afternoon but what’s the use of hanging around the house, he thought. He directed his thoughts to the afternoon meeting with Jacob, recreated the pointless sports-talk, the shop gossip about people he didn’t know. He already wanted it to be over. He had felt a desire, almost urgent, to stay at home, make love to Maggie, do something unscripted. But he decided that wasn’t going to happen and got out of bed.
In front of the bathroom mirror, he shook his head and rolled his eyes. The toothpaste in his mouth had a rancid taste of bubble gum. He spit it into the porcelain sink like a pellet from a gun. He showered, shaved and dressed. Fuck the coffee, he thought. There was a truck-stop on the way, just south of the plant. He’d grab brunch and kill some time there.
As he approached the front door to leave, the only sounds in the house were his footsteps. Outside, the air chilled his nostrils, stung them with the acidic scent of dried leaves. Above, the stars cluttered the blackness like platinum piercings.
Hypnotized, he drove north past intermittent openings in the hedge rows that revealed one fallow cornfield after another. The unbroken line in the center of the road dangled endlessly before him. It’s the gaps between the hedge rows, he thought, that break the monotony, that offer anticipation. He’d travelled this road often, early on with his father and later, alone. He remembered his father pointing to the passing fields as they drove along.
“Look ahead of the hedge rows, son. Look for the cornfields. When they open up, scour them for patterns of color out of place, patches whose weaves run against the natural flow of the grain fields, it’ll be a deer every time,” he had told him.
And no sooner did he turn on the radio when a patch of grey-brown in the center of the field to his right caught his eye. It stood like a leafless oak, ivory limbs reaching outward into the morning sky. A fine buck, a six-pointer. He smiled. If his father were there, they’d cheer and high-five each other as they had always done when he was learning the business and accompanying his father to call on clients.
The animal snorted a few white puffs from his black nostrils. Joe reduced his speed only to see it turn, jeté, and disappear through the wood line.
“They’re crazy when they’re rutting,” his father’d say. “With only one thing on their mind they beef up and prepare to fight for it.”
It had happened so quickly, just a few frames on a reel combined into a single still shot but Joe spent the next hour rolling the details over and over in his mind. He had been like that buck once, he thought, but something had happened the past few years. He’d grown tired of his desire to control. Grown tired of being the initiator, he wanted to be initiated, pampered. That morning, he’d wanted Maggie to roll to him, awaken him, impulsively renew their love. To have to take the first step, to invite then be rejected without passion, like an advertisement thrown into the trash bin humiliated him.
At about midday, stomach growling, he pulled into the truck stop, a small one-story restaurant surrounded by gas pumps. The buck and memories of his father had made him forget about the morning failure. He felt good again, loose, sociable. As he walked past the glass windows toward the entrance he caught sight of a waitress behind the counter, tapped on the window and waved. He didn’t know why he did that. He didn’t really know her. Outside of the restaurant he’d never recognize her. Maybe that was it. Maybe it was because there was no investment, there was no risk of failure.
“Hey, what’s up?” he said as he entered.
“Well sugar you’re a sight for sore eyes. Going up to the plant?”
He was sure she didn’t know his name but that was OK. It made him comfortable that she at least recognized his face, remembered where he was going. He grabbed a stool a few places down from two drivers who huddled over their coffee and visually traced the waitress’s body. One of the men called out to her in a voice that mocked the lilting intonation of a minister,
“Honey, be my missionary. Keep me from sin. Been feeling so frustrated, tempted to visit that motel up on route seven. Only you’ve got the power to shield me from that evil.”
“Any soul I save will be my own, Henry. Besides, if I were to assume the missionary position as an act of kindness, you’d not know what to do. Don’t want to be the reason for more frustration. So, drink your coffee.”
She was a slender woman whose honeyed peanut butter skin seemed to warm the chill of her starched white uniform.
She turned to take Joe’s order.
“Giving you a hard time?” he asked.
“Don’t pay any mind, babe, they’re crazy. Get it all the time. What’ll you have?”
When she pulled the order pad from her breast pocket, Joe glimpsed a flash of red outlined in black on her chest.
“Is that a tattoo?”
She ran her fingers over the mark on her chest, turned her back to the two drivers and faced Joe. Then pulled back the lapel to show a tattoo of a red and blue butterfly outlined in black.
“Oh this. This is my butterfly. Always after my nectar. You know what I mean? There was a story to it but the story’s ended. But knowing it’s there makes me feel good.”
“No matter the story, it’s a nice tattoo. My wife’s got one. A hummingbird. Says he’s after her nectar too but I wouldn’t know where to tell him to look. It’s become off limits to me.”
The waitress filled his coffee cup.
“Forgot what’s good for her, huh. Well, don’t take it too seriously, sugar, she’s probably just going through some kind of change.”
The waitress stared at Joe for a moment, winked and smiled.
A few minutes later she brought his order.
“When you want your check, just tap the water glass with your spoon.”
“For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, Peace be within you.”
He’d like to have talked to her more but she’d become busy. So, he signaled for the check.
“Twelve dollars even,” the waitress said.
He pulled out a twenty dollar bill, put it over the check and placed the empty coffee cup on top.
“I do like that butterfly,” he said.
She leaned back against the rear counter, ran her hands down the front of her uniform and put them in her hip pockets.
“Thanks, babe, catch you on the way back?”
“If I don’t catch you first.”
They laughed, he left.
It felt good, he thought, to share a light moment with a woman again. It was well worth the twenty dollars. Maybe, if he had time, he’d stop again on the way back. It’s about using the contacts you make in life, he thought, each one could be another diamond in the rough.
A detour notice at the exit ramp redirected him to route seven. On the way, he passed a group of white bungalows huddled in a clearing surrounded by elm trees. Above the entrance was an unlit neon “Motel” sign with a “No vacancy” notice attached. He wondered if this was the same motel the driver at the stop had mentioned and thought it funny that there’d be no vacancies this time of year.
At any rate, he figured he had enough time to stop by the hotel, freshen up and call home. He’d try again to soften Maggie up, take her back to when there were few invoices to pay and the dinner table was only set for two.
In his room, the red notice light on the phone next to his bed was flashing.
“Honey, it’s Maggie. Listen, a group of us will be going to the gym tonight and I’m not sure what time I’ll get home. The kids are spending the night with friends. So, no one will be here. Just give me a call before you leave the hotel tomorrow. OK?”
When Joe arrived at the plant, Jacob pulled him aside.
“Look Joe, we’re going to have to cancel the dinner tonight. Family obligations, you know.”
“Christ, Jacob, had I known I’d stayed in bed this morning. What’ll I do now?”
“You’ll think of something. That’s why we like you. Do what I do, research the phone book.”
After the meeting, back at the hotel Joe turned on the television then turned it off. Took out the hotel brochure then put it back. Not in the mood to do the gym. Wasn’t tired and felt restless. He stared in the mirror above the desk. “I’m not an old wreck yet,” he thought, “Vintage, that’s what I am, a vintage model.” Maggie wasn’t home. The waitress was probably off shift. The phonebook, he thought and rummaged the chest of drawers until he found it. He searched the entertainment pages. Movie theater stench? No. Bar full of shadows? No. Escort service? Maybe. He’d never done that. Just one listing: Honey Bee Escort Services, “New in town? let us show you around.” Why not, he thought.
He called. A man answered.
“No, we don’t come to your room. You have to come here. We’ve got our own accommodations. We’re located down on route seven. Can’t miss it. There’s a large motel sign out front. When you pull in, stop at the first building to the left. I’ll check you in and you can take it from there.”
Joe felt the excitement of an adventure, a risk. Without risk, he thought, there’s no satisfaction. He remembered the time, as a boy, when he slipped under the large Circus tent in the mall. Once inside, hadn’t the spectacle of acrobats and clowns been worth it?
It was a flat black moonless night. Not a star. Only the soft glow of his headlights reflecting off the asphalt. He wasn’t sure what to expect but decided he’d leave it to his instinct. If something smelled bad, he’d high-tail it out of there.
At the motel, Joe went to the first building, the one with an “Office” sign on the front of the door. He looked through the window and guessed that the thin white-maned man curled over the counter was the night manager.
A chime above the door sounded as he entered.
Into thy hands I commend my spirit …
“Hello? I called before. I may have spoken to you. The man said to make arrangements at the front desk.”
“You’re the one looking for companionship? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Lucky too. There’s only one room available. Bungalow number six. Knock on the door and she’ll explain everything.”
“What do I owe you?”
“That will depend upon what you two agree upon.”
The man wrote Joe’s name in a ledger and gave him a paper tab with a number printed on it.
“Give this to the woman who answers the door.”
Number six was the last bungalow. It was the only one with a light on.
A woman opened the door and leaned against the door frame. She held her unbuttoned voile robe together at the waist. For a moment the two simply looked at each other as if waiting for the other to speak.
“Good evening darlin’,” she said, “what’s your pleasure?”
“I’m looking for companionship,” he said, “the man at the desk said that you were available.”
Joe stretched out his hand offering the woman the numbered stub.
She nodded as she took the paper.
“Well, come in honey. Let’s start to get to know each other.”
She crossed the room past an overstuffed armchair in the corner to a night stand, opened the drawer and put the voucher inside. He followed her in, overwhelmed by the scent of rose-water.
The lamp on the night stand offered enough light to reveal the crisp white sheets of a bed which had been made military style. The top sheet had been partially folded back to form a triangle. There were no pillows. The foot of the bed faced what looked to be a small closet-sized bathroom.
He stopped and took out his wallet. He wanted to get the money question settled right away then forget it, act as if it hadn’t been necessary.
“I’d like to pay you now, if it’s OK. How much do I owe you?”
“Well that’ll depend on what kind of conversation you want, honey. What’ll it be, lollipop, round the world, girlfriend experience. I don’t like kissing but if you want kissing, it’s extra, and I don’t do anal. Any ideas.”
“Actually, to be honest, I’ve never done this before. Why don’t you tell me what we should do.”
The woman smiled, turned her back to him, let loose of her robe, grabbed the corner of the bed sheet and pulled it back to the foot of the bed. She turned around. Her skin was ivory, smooth. Not a mark on it. Like a Botticelli nude he’d seen in a museum.
“Three hundred dollars and we’ll take it as it goes. I’ll lead, OK?”
“Sounds perfect,” he said and gave her the money.
She put the money in the night stand drawer.
“Honey, relax and put your clothes in that chair over there.”
As he took off his clothes he could hear running water. She called to him.
“When you’ve got them off, come in here.”
He entered the bathroom. She was sitting on the toilet seat. A bowel of steaming water was on the radiator heater and a washcloth in her hand.
“Let me have a look, honey.”
His arms to his sides, he looked into the mirror behind her and saw a young boy with curious eyes. He felt a wave of warmth blanket his body as she began lathering his pubic area, stroking his penis. He tried to think of something cold. When he couldn’t, he tried to imagine Maggie washing him.
“Well you’re doing fine, baby. I think we’re ready.”
She took his hand, led him to the bed. He lay on his back, legs outstretched and arms at his side. His muscles relaxed. He surrendered to her and closed his eyes as she placed her face between his thighs and started to lick his penis as if it were a lollipop.
The warm throbbing returned and invaded his entire body. His muscles twitched as he tried to imagine Maggie again. The woman rose and straddled him. He opened his eyes and watched her stare down at him, smiling.
“How are you doin’, honey? Everything OK?”
He squeezed his eyes shut and groaned like a pup whose ears were being stroked. He imagined his finger tracing the waitress’s butterfly on the breast of the woman above him. It began fluttering its wings slowly at first and then rapidly. Swirling waves of darkness rolled buzzing through his mind. He could hear his hoarse voice trying to escape the groans. Then a streak of light pierced his eyelids and a damp chill washed over his loins.
He opened his eyes. The woman was sitting on the edge of the bed looking at the floor.
“If I knew your name I’d have called it,” he lied.
“When you come back, we’ll talk and maybe I’ll tell you my name. Deal, honey?”
“How can I meet you again if I don’t know who to ask for?”
“Just tell Frank that you’re Joe and have a meeting in number six.”
The woman waved to him as he pulled out of the drive in the direction of the hotel. At the hotel he grabbed his things and called Maggie. There was no answer, so he checked out. He wanted to sleep in his own bed.
At home, when he pulled into the drive, everything was dark. He quietly entered the bedroom and whispered Maggie’s name. He ran his hand over the smooth flat sheets of their bed.
Saint Anne was announcing Matins.
O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.
The emptiness of the room made Joe angry. His first thought was to stay sitting on the edge of the bed and wait for Maggie to return. He’d demand that she tell him where she’d been. But he knew she’d lie. He knew that he’d never know where she’d been. She had apparently shifted her center of gravity. The tether holding her in his orbit had snapped. Perhaps, she no longer felt a need to please him and had found her satisfaction elsewhere. He fell back upon the bed, legs together and arms outstretched.
He awoke at five. Maggie still had not returned. He dressed and went to the office. He sat at his desk and closed his eyes. He imagined himself looking into the eyes of the buck he had seen the day before. It seemed to blink at him before disappearing. He’d not let him get away this time, he thought. He called information and got the phone number of the truck stop south of the plant and the number for the motel on route seven. He then wrote a memo to his assistant telling her to plan a Christmas trip for him to the plant up north and to buy a few presents for his client’s secretaries.
Mark Russo, born in Queens, NYC; graduated from the University of Cincinnati; ran a family business for 20 years; graduated from the University of Maine School of Law; practiced Immigration Law for 18 years and has published with Flash Fiction Magazine, New Reader Magazine, 34th Parallel Magazine, Literally Stories, Potato Soup Journal, Spillwords Press, Knot Magazine, MacQueen's Quinterly, South Florida Poetry Journal, Grey Sparrow Journal, Ekphrastic Review and Squawk Back.