AN HONEST WOMAN
By eight o’clock, the rains had arrived in lazy, side-sweeping sheets, battering Jeb’s windows. The sky was black now, but lightning turned it amethyst and smoky each time it cracked overhead. Jeb had showered, put on a clean shirt, combed his hair with pomade, shaved, slapped his jowls with cologne. His dinner had been a boiled chicken drumstick, a small can of sauerkraut, a few tart early-summer cherries. Through the concert of the storm, nothing from the girl’s house had been audible at the basement window. Jeb’s own radio now reported downed power lines, flooding on the interstate. Fallen branches had forced some roads to close. It wasn’t safe to drive over the bridge, they said. The nephew called to convey a message to the girl: “Tell her I’m stuck. I can’t come tonight.”
“What a shame,” Jeb said. “I’ll tell her.” In the living room, he tidied a pile of clipped coupons on the end table by the couch, set out the bottle of Kenny May. From the kitchen cabinet he chose two crystal-cut tumblers, licked the rims of both, and set them next to the whiskey. He tuned the radio to easy listening.
A few minutes past eight, his front buzzer rang. The girl was there in black rubber boots and a glossy yellow raincoat, its hood hovering stiffly over her darkened face.
“Is he here yet?” was how she greeted Jeb.
“Welcome, welcome,” Jeb said, holding the door open. The girl stepped inside and took off her raincoat. Water dripped all over the floor. Jeb took a step back. The girl’s dress was disappointing—not quite a housedress but pastel, floral, cheap cotton, with short sleeves. He happily noted the appearance of earrings—small silver hearts. She smelled of coconuts, of fruity cocktails, tropical breezes, white-sand beaches. He took her raincoat and hung it on the rack by the door.
“I guess I should take these off, too,” the girl said, and bent over to loosen her foot from her boot. When she lost her balance, Jeb caught her forearm in his hand. She hardly seemed to notice. Jeb blushed at the sensuousness of her flesh—soft around the bone, like the arm of a baby. He tried not to squeeze her too tightly. When she righted herself, he let go. Then she bent and balanced and pulled the other boot off, giving the old man a glimpse of her hanging cleavage.
“I’m sorry to report that my nephew is running late,” Jeb said, locking the front door. “He has been detained due to the rain.” He inhaled the smell of her, searching his mind for the words. “Piña colada,” he exclaimed, waggling a finger. “Your perfume. Am I right?”
“It’s only moisturizer,” the girl said, straightening her dress. “How late will he be?”
“Just a few minutes,” Jeb said. “He says we shouldn’t wait on him.”
It was dim inside the house. Only small flame-shaped bulbs glowed faintly in the sconces in the front hall. Jeb showed her into the living room. The ceiling lamp there gave off a sputtering, weak light. Jeb’s eyes were two black shadows when he stood under it. His face looked like a skull. “Come sit,” he said, coaxing the girl with a hand at the small of her back. She allowed him that, to be hospitable, it seemed. She was thicker than she looked, Jeb thought. Strong but small, like a bulldog puppy. Tough bitch, he said to himself. “Kick back a bit.”
The girl sat on the couch, holding the hem of her dress down as she crossed her legs. “Your house is just like mine, only in reverse,” she said.
Jeb went to the end table, picked up the Kenny May, and poured them each a few fingers of whiskey. “I don’t have any ice, I’m afraid,” he said, holding a glass out to the girl. Outside, the storm churned. Over the love song on the radio they could hear twigs and branches snapping, the rush of the wind through the leaves, rain splashing against the house.
“To new neighbors, new friends,” Jeb said.
They raised their glasses and drank. The girl made a face and sniffed her whiskey. Jeb looked out the window, grinning. He was well aware that when he felt jubilant he acted strangely. He could seem too eager, too effusive. He could disclose too much. He tried to hold himself upright, rigid, but he couldn’t keep himself from speaking what was on his mind. “Pump and dump. You’re familiar with the expression?” he asked. “That’s what my nephew calls it. That’s what he likes to do. The storm may have saved you from that humiliation. Thank God for Mother Nature.”
“Jesus,” the girl said, snorting. Men never ceased to amaze her—sly dogs, all of them, nasty creatures. “Christ,” she said. She drank more whiskey. “The kid just asked me out for a drink. I’m no whore.”
Jeb bent at the waist, lowered his head. “I guess your enthusiasm had him fooled,” he said, and winked. Then he straightened himself again and tried to keep from smiling.
The girl tapped her fingernails against her glass and let herself sink back against the old plaid couch. Its springs had been flattened over the decades. The upholstery smelled of Jeb—bitter, like dry rot, and slightly chemical. The rough fabric of the cushions scratched the girl’s arms. She closed her eyes and sipped her drink. She was tired. It was hard work to get her house in order, and she was doing it by herself now. She was glad to have the distraction, away from her thoughts, the cold jabs each time she longed for Trevor’s hand to touch her, his lips to kiss her neck, her cheeks, her thighs. Sinking deeper into the couch, she thought that if Trevor were to come back she’d let him do whatever he wanted. Maybe she’d even let herself get pregnant. But the idea was like a bad taste in her mouth. She made a sour face.
Jeb watched her diaphragm rise and fall under the thin fabric of her dress. She seemed edgy, irritated, her eyes twisted and barbed.
“I’m sorry, dear. Did I offend you?” he asked.
The girl looked straight up at him. “You’re trying to get to me, aren’t you?” she said. Jeb’s eyes darted back and forth between her crossed, luminous knees and the rumbling windowpane. “I see your game. You’re trying to shame me for being young and pretty. You want to make me apologize for all the other girls who didn’t like you. You just can’t stand that I’m right next door reminding you of all that. That’s it, isn’t it? Pump and dump,” she scoffed. “Nothing you say can hurt me. See if you can do it. I dare you.” She chuckled and sipped her whiskey, then placed the glass on the coffee table.
“You never know with young women these days,” Jeb said. “It’s a rough, wild world out there, and girls, women”—he knew the distinction was an important one to make for the girl to feel respected—“they just give themselves away for free. It breaks my heart. Low self-esteem, they call it.” He clucked his tongue, shook his head, then brought his hand to his chest. “I’m sorry,” he said, speaking softly, as though he were about to cry. He stooped forward over the coffee table, picked up the girl’s glass, and moved it to a coaster.
“But I haven’t done anything,” the girl maintained, rolling her eyes. “There’s nothing to get upset about. Jesus. I already told you, I see your game. You’re trying to get me to cry on your shoulder, make me out to be the screwed-up one, as though that’s why I’m not willing to sleep with you. I wasn’t born yesterday, you know.”
When Jeb was excited, his heart fluttered. “Like a pigeon in a burlap sack,” he’d told the doctor.
“And what do you mean ‘for free’?” the girl went on. “You think it’s better to sell yourself? What is it with you men—you always see everything as this and that? Like everything is for sale.”
“Pardon?” Jeb said.
“Give and take. Like life is some bank account you’re trying to fill up. And like every girl’s a whore.”
“My dear, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“No kidding,” the girl said. She pursed her lips tight, wrinkling her chin. Jeb thought she looked rather ugly that way. She held her breath. She seemed somehow to be on the verge of combusting. Beneath the coffee table, her bare foot was jiggling like a bobblehead. A bolt of lightning cracked and flashed. “Is your nephew coming, you think?” she asked, her voice suddenly soft and innocent.
“No,” Jeb said.
“Oh,” she said.