Maureen’s building was old, but well maintained. The carpeted hall was clean with cream colored walls trimmed in dark oak. A lingering scent of lemon oil polish and cleaning agents muted the usual cooking odors of an apartment hall. I read the brass plates on dark doors and stopped at 210.
She opened the door silently. Behind her a softly lit living room with expensive brushed leather furniture. An upright piano gleamed. She led me to a small table in clean and roomy kitchen. Light soul music played. She poured beers into frosted glasses.
"Nice place, the temp business must be good to you."
"Yes, it is," soft eyes gave a non-answer. She gave vague and bland answers to the usual getting-to-know-you chatter. I heard the promise in her voice and I saw the sweep of ivory skin from a baby blue cashmere to matching willing eyes in her glowing face. Those eyes said everything I wanted to hear that night and every night after.
The prelude was conversation over sipped beers and music “easy like Sunday morning”. Later, a series of soft sighs, muted wonder, and unfolding desire tossed until early light curled through curtains around closed blinds. I knew when to leave without her saying so.
The city changed in the few blocks I walked to my car. The change was stark. Orderly shrubs and spotless sidewalks became cracked, bumpy walkways edged by scrawny bushes that trapped blowing trash. Doorways and dark corners became more shadowy and sinister.
I quick-stepped to the Aspen. Maureen had given me another slip of paper with an address where I was to meet her brother and paint crew. I had a couple of hours to kill so I went back to the hotel to change clothes and grab some nervous shut-eye.
In the light of day the goon squad from the previous evening turned out to be some old pensioners riding the vinyl while waiting for the local saloon to open. A TV whirred a test pattern while the old boys passed around Tribune sections. They looked at each other and me grinning knowingly.
The place was not all that intimidating in morning light. In my room I sat in a shaky cloth upholstered chair and nodded.
I found the paint crew. They were gathered outside a large house. They were easy to spot with their white paint-stained overalls. They were listening to a well-dressed young man as he laid out a work plan. I joined them.
"Get the front room done so I can show the old lady what we're planning to do. Make it look nice. No mess, clean up right away. I'm back at 2:00."
Some of the men held coffee cups. They all smoked.
"Put out the heaters before you go in that house." He thrust his hand to me, a black onyx ring on his little finger. "Maureen sent you, right?"
I wobbled at the end of the strong shake, "Yes, she did."
"You're the type. Here's what I'm going to need from you. Some days you work with the crew here. Other days, like the rest of this week, you drive for me." He yelled to one of the men, "Hey, Kenny, come here. Here’s your new guy.'
Kenny nodded and went back to the house a dirty short towel hung from the back of his coveralls.
“Kenny’s like that, a man of few words. You’ll only be with them a day or two. You’ll be driving most days.”
In the Aspen? I thought. I couldn’t see the guy dressed the way he was in that car.
“Naw, I got a Caddy for wheels. My regular guy’s laid up for a week or so. You need temp work. I need a guy. Looks like a happy marriage of convenience. You can handle the wheel? Right?” His biting Chi accent hurled snapped words by me like a flurry of head bound fastballs.
“I can handle the assignment. I drove a cab in DC.” That probably meant nothing to him, but if you can make money with a cab in DC, you have serious driving chops. He seemed to like my answer.
“Walters, I’m Tommy.” Walters was OK. Any more Kennys, Tommys and Dannys around we might have enough boys for a tree fort. These Irish.
I spotted the car. Hard to miss as it gleamed with that deep sheen of a weekly wax. I parked my car “around the corner” per Tommy. I settled into the plush appointed seat and messed with a variety of controls to get everything just right. We made rounds, mostly bars some with Gentlemen Only signs. Each stop about fifteen minutes. Conversation in the car was limited to directions from the backseat where Tommy fumbled with manila folders as we drove. The car was equipped with a phone. Tommy cradled the thing and yammered on it between stops. Bits of his conversations floated to the front, but I tried to not listen.
A big shined up car like Tommy’s has a certain power on the streets. Other drivers give way. You park anywhere like a delivery van. At the stops I read the newspaper during the wait.
Tommy had the same coloring as Maureen, but the resemblance ended there. His face was chiseled hawk handsome. A jutting jaw and long curly hair combed back. He projected intensity, but was soft-spoken. I was grateful as in my sleep-shortened state I would have been bothered - I didn't want to spend the day with a guy who looked like the woman I slept with the night before.
The first week was all driving, no painting.
Every night, except Saturday, I slipped in the back door at Maureen’s.
I got to know the lobby lizards better. They were nice guys. They caught on fast to me. When I hustled out at night a couple of the red-skinned coots would render unsolicited advice followed by a chorus of hacked cackles: "Bring flowers." "Always say you're sorry." "You don't think you were the first, do you?"
The old boys grew on me. I liked our morning ritual. I listened and took their advice. At Maureen’s I was sorry for something nightly. The rheumy old guys were making the place a little more tolerable. "Stay adrift of Gus." My morning shuteye progressed to the bed, but in clothes, on top of the spread, one eye on the door.
I brought her flowers. I bought a dozen from a street vendor outside of the Greek's. The vendor was a middle-aged white woman dressed hippie style: round glasses, long hair parted in the middle and a flower print frock. She smiled pleasantly and said "God bless you."
Maureen laughed at the gesture. She placed them in a vase on the piano. The blessing from the hippie woman did not extend to the roses as the flowers weren't there the next night. But I was – night after night. Except for Saturdays and Sundays afternoons, those were for family she said.
Each night was a contest to find parking then walk through the doomed-world neighborhood two blocks away. I tried to walk fast and look broke. The next morning was a slightly less terrorizing repeat. "You'd walk through hell to get there, wouldn't you," said one of the coots.
In the realm of the transient, the second time you do something you've done that thing forever. I was now a regular. Sundays I rode the vinyl with the coots sharing take-out from the Greek's and the Tribune Sunday. I caught up on sleep, this City of Broad Shoulders was wearing me out.
That second Sunday I spotted a Process ad in the classifieds. The carefully worded ad was placed in the Personals and crafted to appeal to the target client. The ads were written to entice the adventurous with a price tag that would weed out the unwanted. I remembered that the benefactor said the Midwest guy was a Kraut, Heinrich or something. Ironic, as the benefactor was Jewish.
I sat in the room propped up against the creaking headboard with the rock hard pillow for support. I was in a stare-down with a pigeon on the speckled window ledge. The fucker was watching me eat Ritz crackers dipped in peanut butter while I read An American Tragedy. The damn bird won. To get rid of him I worked the window open and dropped a handful of crackers to the ground. He gave a little victory dance and fluttered to the alley to claim his tribute. I watched the pigeon action through grime-streaked glass and thought: I heard Tommy ask for a Heinrich on that car phone a few times.