Friday, June 25, 2004

C.A.R.E. (Part II)

As a member of the editorial staff here at Fiction Daze, I'm proud to announce that Wendy has submitted the rest of her story. Or at least the part that's been completed so far — it's an excerpt from a longer story. If you didn't catch the first part, you can read Part I here.

C.A.R.E. (Part II)
By Wendy Fritzke

Spring Fling

Two weeks later was one of the semi-annual “big events” held at the Senior Center, the dinner-dance extravaganza known as the Spring Fling. Hugh had a full load that night. In addition to Mrs. Chen, Miss Gracie, Mr. Jack, and Mr. Turner, he also needed to pick up Mrs. Barrett.

Mrs. Barrett was a retired schoolteacher with a beautiful garden, full of flowers and birds. She still lived in the house where she grew up, just like Hugh, though she did move away for quite awhile and only came back when her parents passed away. Still, Hugh felt she understood his dread at leaving the place where he’d always lived. He felt more at ease with Mrs. Barrett than probably anyone else, other than his mother, of course, and was pleased whenever he saw her name on his ride sheet. Mrs. Barrett was a meteorologist, with a degree from Stanford, before becoming a schoolteacher, which paid a lot more money than telling the weather back in her day, she told him. She told Hugh long stories about how she was drafted out of college to go overseas and tell the weather for the Army during WWII. Hugh had never thought about such a thing before. But it made sense, once she explained it to him, how the weather was an important part of military strategy. Mrs. Barrett was often telling him interesting things he’d never thought of before.

Tonight, she looked very distinguished and elegant, her white hair swept up, with clip-on pearl earrings and a matching choker around her neck. She was wearing a dark red dress with matching jacket that made Hugh look down nervously at his own crumpled khakis and faded sweater. She was carrying an umbrella, since the winds were from the East and the barometric pressure was falling, she explained, as she locked up the house and Hugh escorted her down the steps. Sure signs of rain.

Hugh didn’t have to stay at the Senior Center. He could drop them off, make sure they were safely received by the women standing at the doors, then retreat to the video store or his room for the intervening hours between soup and the final waltz. There was nothing compelling him into that low-ceiling building with its faded linoleum floor and over-loud big band music blaring through cheap speakers. Nothing to force him to face those innumerable strangers, the women at the door, the inevitable food servers, the player of loud records.

But Mrs. Barrett asked for his arm walking to the door. Mr. Jack was right behind, continuing his one-sided argument with Hugh about the merits of pipe tobacco over cigarettes. Hugh hesitated at the door, then went in. He helped Mrs. Barrett with her coat, then became flustered, looking around for a place to deposit the wrap, now that he had it in his hands. He felt the old familiar tightening in his chest and his hands started to dampen the coat.

“I can take that from you,” one of the greeting women was talking to him. He turned and saw a rather pretty, somewhat plump woman in a calico dress smiling at him and holding out her hand. Hugh, with a somewhat dazed expression, handed her the coat. She had light brown hair which had been permed into tiny waves falling to her shoulders. But it was the fitted bodice of her dress that was most distracting him. He blushed and started to turn away. She had taken the coat, but now Hugh saw she was still smiling at him and extending her hand.

“Hi, I’m Ilene,” she said. Hugh noticed she was wearing a silver unicorn around her neck, the single horn pointing diagonally into one breast.

“I’m Hugh. I drive for C.A.R.E.” He motioned vaguely around at his regulars, all struggling with coats and canes. He retrieved Mr. Turner’s metal cane from the lobby floor and handed it to him. Mr. Turner grunted his thanks and started in toward the big room, where long tables covered in white paper tablecloths had been set up along both sides, little vases of silk flowers poking up festively at regular intervals.

“Yes, I’ve heard all about you,” she said, startling Hugh into looking round at her again. To his surprise, she seemed a bit flustered herself, and looked down at the coat she still held in her hands.

“You have?”

“Oh, yeah, Miss Gracie talks about you all the time. And Mrs. Chen. And Mr. Jack. Well, they all do. They just love you. They say you’re the best driver they’ve ever had.” She blushed.

Hugh was silent. A large part of him wished that he was at home watching the evening news with his mother. But then he heard some strange, foreign part of himself speaking, chatting, it seemed, with Ilene.

“Oh, they’re a great bunch of people themselves,” this stranger said with awkward enthusiasm. Then, astonished, Hugh heard him continuing. “Uh, do you need any help here? I mean, can I help you with anything? I don’t have to leave. I usually do. Leave I mean, go home or to the video store or… But I could stay…if you need any help here, that is.”

Ilene smiled at him again. “Yeah, that would be great. Thanks. If you could take the coats from the rest of your guests, then help them get seated, that would be super.”

Hugh felt the acrid burning at the back of his throat start to recede. With great relief, he turned to Mrs. Chen, who was struggling to hold her hat and her purse and remove her heavy black coat at the same time. Hugh took the hat and helped release her arm from the stubborn sleeve. Relief washed over him as she took his arm and he helped her into the dining hall.

“Ilene nice girl, yes?” Mrs. Chen said loudly as they were making their way across the carpeted lobby. “Good girl for Hu-boy.” Hugh looked down at her, feeling himself go red again. She was grinning broadly.

Hugh’s heart gave a small leap, but it wasn’t a leap of fear. It was more like the rush he felt when he went into the store and saw that there was a new Shaw Brothers shipment waiting to be entered into the computer and lovingly shelved. The box held promise of excitement, adventure, escape, and the possibility of a new all-time favorite. He glanced back over his shoulder at Ilene, who was still busy greeting people at the door. She looked over just then and smiled at him again. Hugh quickly turned back around and hurried Mrs. Chen into the hall.

After Hugh had seen each of the regulars safely deposited in a folding chair, he was a bit unsure how to proceed. He could slip away now and come back in a couple of hours for the pick up. Then again, he could stay and eat the mashed potatoes and pork roast. Hang out for a little while longer. As he hesitated, one of the volunteers stopped the music and started an official welcome into a screeching microphone. Hugh slipped out of the hall. He was almost to the door when he heard his name.

“Hugh?” He wheeled around and saw Ilene coming out of a side door, where Hugh assumed she’d been stashing more coats. “Hi. You leaving already?”

“Uh, well, yeah. I mean…I was just going to go out for awhile. I need, um, to go check on something at the, ah, Video Vault. But I’m going to come back. Why? Did you need me to help with something else? Or something?”

“Oh. No. I mean, I was kind of hoping we’d be able to talk a little bit more. Like I said, they’ve told me so much about you. But, it was super to meet you. I’m surprised we never ran into each other before. But I just started helping out here about six months ago, so maybe that’s why. After my nana passed away. She died of a stroke, all of a sudden one afternoon while she was watching TV. I looked after her. I was in the kitchen washing the lunch dishes, when I heard this thud in the living room. I came rushing back in, still carrying the dish towel, but it was too late. She went really peacefully, at least. Just like that.” She snapped her fingers slowly. Her talk finally died out, and the two stood in silence. Ilene staring off, Hugh looking down at his feet and rubbing his palms up and down his pants.

“So, I started working here,” Ilene started up again brightly with a smile, “a few months after that, to help out, you know. I have a lot of experience. And I really enjoy the elderly. They have such fascinating stories to tell, don’t you think?”

She paused again. Hugh’s heart pounded and his ears throbbed, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. “That’s nice,” he finally managed, then breathed a ragged breath. “So, I better get going,” he said and headed to the door again.

“Oh. Well. OK. See you around,” Ilene called after him.

Back in the van, Hugh sat with his hands shaking on the steering wheel for a long time. Then he turned on the radio. The classic rock station was playing “Feels Like the First Time.” He flushed with sudden anger and turned the radio off. Hugh started the car and drove up the street. His head felt like he’d been knocked up side the head with one of those big punching bags they had in the school gym. He wasn’t sure where he was going. He kept hearing Ilene’s voice in his head: “I’m so happy to meet you.…I’ve heard so much about you….You’re the best….” And miserably, his own inane replies: “Great bunch of people” — Stupid. “Don’t have to, uh, leave, that is, if you need anything, I mean…” — Moronic. “Gotta go check on something” — Dumb. And the worst, his idiotic parting remark after she’d told him about her grandmother dying and all: “That’s nice.” That’s nice? What kind of a person says “That’s nice” after hearing about someone dying?” A stupid moron, that’s what kind. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Miserably, Hugh looked around and saw that he was, in fact, parked in front of the Video Vault. He slowly opened the door of the van and went inside. Ralph was helping two teenage kids in baggy jeans at the counter. Hugh wandered over to the Kung Fu section, behind the stacks in the corner. He stared at the vintage poster of Jane Fonda as Barbarella, which Ralph had framed and hung prominently on the back wall. Her breasts were huge, round balls popping out of a tiny top. They made Hugh think of Ilene’s breasts, the soft flesh punctured by the unicorn horn. He imagined that necklace around Jane Fonda’s neck. He stared to reach up and touch the poster, right where the unicorn would press into Barbarella’s tight balloon breasts. Then he stopped, embarrassed, and looked around. He looked at his watch. 6:00. Still another hour at least before things would be done at the Senior Center. Maybe even two.

When the teenagers had gone, he went up to the counter and plopped onto the extra stool behind the counter. “Hey, what’s up?” Ralph asked.

“Nothing,” Hugh replied and stared up at the television, where Ralph was playing Cat Women of the Moon. Waiting to pick up the old people.”

“Oh, right.” Ralph replied, then returned his attention to the video and to eating the pepperoni pizza he had picked up from next door.

Hugh’s head felt like it was splitting apart. One part of him wanted to rush back to the Center and prove he wasn’t such a complete moron. He wanted to look at those breasts again and hear Ilene’s voice say nice things about him. He could say he’d finished what he needed to do and had come back to help out. Maybe dance with Miss Gracie, have coffee with Mr. Jack. He could ask the old people some questions about Ilene, since they obviously knew her well enough to talk about him with her. At this memory, his face flushed again, and he shifted uncomfortably on the vinyl stool, rubbing his wet palms on his wrinkled chinos.

Ralph looked over at him squirming on the stool. “Want some pizza, dude?” he asked, pushing the box toward Hugh.

Hugh took a slice and held it in his hands, staring at it blankly. Yeah, he could do that. That would seem natural enough. But just when he had resolved that this was exactly what he would do, he wavered. The other side of him wanted desperately to never show his face at the Senior Center again. He was mortified. He had run away, yes, but better that, than to stay and continue making a fool out of himself. He wondered if he could go home and get his mother to do the pick up. Would she believe him if he feigned sickness? He was feeling ill. His stomach was churning, his head was pounding, and his face was covered in a dry sweat. She would take his temperature and send him to bed. The image filled him with momentary happiness. But then he may never see Ilene again. He groaned.

“What’s wrong, man? You don’t look so hot,” Ralph asked.

“Nothing. I’m late. Gotta go. Thanks for the pizza.” Hugh put the uneaten slice back in the box and backed awkwardly out from behind the counter. “See ya,” he said and plunged out the door back into the cool night.

Hugh drove the van over to the Senior Center, but just as he was signaling to turn into the parking lot, a new wave of embarrassment swept over him and he kept driving. He drove around the block for 20 minutes, trying to get up the courage to go back inside. Finally, it was 7:00 and he knew he would have to go in soon. He parked the car and walked up to the door with a shaky step, half-hoping, half-dreading that Ilene would still be watching the door.

He didn’t see her through the glass door as he made his way up the sidewalk. He went in. The music was a nearly deafening polka. He stuck his head in the door of the rec hall. The tables had been pushed against the walls, and old people were bobbing madly around the room. He scanned the room for a familiar face. There was Mr. Jack and Mrs. Barrett, sitting in a corner. He went over to them.

“Well, hello there Hubert,” Mrs. Barrett said as he came up to them. Blessedly, the polka music stopped and a more subdued waltz took its place. “Mr. Jack and I have just been enjoying some dessert and coffee. Why don’t you join us?” She gestured to a nearby metal chair, which Hugh pulled over in front of them.

“We’ve just been sharing old war stories,” Mrs. Barrett said, and smiled up at Mr. Jack.

“Did you know, boy, that we were in France at the exact same time?” Mr. Jack exclaimed. “Imagine that.”

“We may have even seen each other in a coffeehouse or passed each other on the street and never knew it,” Mrs. Barrett added.

“Oh, I doubt that,” Mr. Jack said with a twinkle. “I would have made sure to introduce myself to a lovely lady like yourself,” and he raised his coffee cup in a small toast to Mrs. Barrett and her loveliness.

“So, Hubert, what have you been up to this evening? I didn’t see you during dinner,” Mrs. Barrett asked.

“Oh, I had to go run some errands,” Hugh said. His eyes had not stopped scanning the room since he came in, but he saw no sign of Ilene.

“So, I noticed you were talking to that pretty Parsons girl on the way in.”

“Nice girl,” Mr. Jack said. “But she talks a bit too much for my taste.”

“Yeah, I met her. We talked a bit,” Hugh said. “But I had to leave, and she said she wanted to talk to me. You haven’t seen her, have you?”

“Oh dear,” I believe she left after dinner,” said Mrs. Barrett. “She must have only been scheduled for the first shift. What did she want to talk with you about?”

“I don’t know. She didn’t really say she had something specific to talk about. Just that you all had maybe mentioned me to her and she was looking forward to meeting me or something.” Hugh blushed deep red and faltered.

Mrs. Barrett reached over and patted his clammy hand. “Well, I’m sure you’ll run into her again. She’s a very nice girl. She volunteers here at the Center at least once a week, I’d say.”

“There you go, boy. Chin up. Got to keep on fighting, you know. A good woman is worth hunting for. Nothing like a beautiful woman to lighten a man’s heart.” Mr. Jack offered his own encouragement. “Speaking of which, Mrs. Barrett, I believe you promised me another dance?” With this, he hoisted himself to his feet, handed Hugh his cane, and offered Mrs. Barrett his arm.

Hugh watched the old people shuffle about on the floor. Miss Gracie was dancing with, or rather around, Mr. Milberry who was in a wheelchair and therefore not on Hubert’s route— the van not being equipped with a chair lift. Mr. Turner was stiffly leading Mrs. Voeghts in a two-step. Hugh sat and tried to calm himself down. Ilene wasn’t there. That meant that he didn’t have to face her again tonight. That was good. But it also meant that he couldn’t talk to her again. Would maybe never talk to her again. That made him feel ill. How he wished he’d just dropped the regulars off at the door and gone home. He could be watching TV with his mother right now, with nary the blip in his blood pressure, enjoying a bowl of ice cream or maybe some pie. Instead, he was sitting here miserably.

After another waltz, a foxtrot and a final polka hurrah, the dancing was done and the exhausted guests ready to be shuttled home. Hugh was able to learn a bit more about Ilene on the way home without having to embarrass himself again, as Mrs. Chen especially was all too eager to talk. Apparently, Ilene had been her grandmother’s live-in help until she died last year. About the same time my father died, Hugh thought. Since then, she’d been working as a nurse’s aide at one of the retirement homes and volunteering at the Senior Center. She seemed to enjoy talking a lot and had a “chilly disposition.” This last statement puzzled Hugh until Mrs. Barrett clarified. Yes, she did seem to have a “cheery” disposition.

Hugh was greatly encouraged by the information the regulars had provided him about Ilene. Living with your grandmother was even weirder than living with your mom. Wasn’t it? He was certain most people would agree with him on this point. He felt a growing fondness for Ilene, thinking of her difficulties at having to find an apartment on her own, after living with her grandmother for so long. He imagined the suffering she must have endured over having this awkward and difficult task thrust on her by the untimely death of her “nana.” His heart filled with empathy and kinship.

When he got home, he found that he was suddenly quite ravenous. He consumed two huge bowls of Corn Chex, while watching Jay Leno with his mother. The evening was fine. Yes, he was fine. No, nothing very interesting. Hugh found he suddenly had little interest in this nightly ritual of theirs, and he retired to his room as soon as he’d finished eating.

He searched through the stacks of records lining two shelves in his room. Where was it? Where was it? Yes. There. His fingers shook slightly as he eased the vinyl out of its sleeve and positioned the record on the turntable. He moved the needle over the first track and let it fall slowly to the spinning disk. Then he lay back on his bed, arms bent under his head and enjoyed the words to their song:

I would climb any mountain, sail across the stormy sea
If that's what it takes me baby, to show how much you mean to me
And I guess that it's just the woman in you, that brings out the man in me
I know I can't help myself, you're all in the world to me

It feels like the first time, feels like the very first time
It feels like the first time, it feels like the very first time

He fell asleep to a dream of riding a white unicorn over a mountain of soft earth that gave with each hoof fall.

Unicorn Horn Penetration

Hugh had hoped that the previous evening’s torment would be resolved by a good night’s sleep. But it wasn’t to be. He was destined to be miserable, apparently forever. As he woke up, his first thoughts were of Ilene. He wanted to see her again, to smell her, to watch the unicorn on her breast and listen to her talk about anything in the world, for as long as she wanted.

He ate his morning cereal without enthusiasm, helped his mother with the dishes, then tried to distract himself with a Nintendo game until it was time for his shift at the video store. But it was no good. He felt itchy, restless. He pulled on a jacket and told his mother he was going out for a walk before work.

“Are you alright dear?” his mother asked from the kitchen table, where she was clipping coupons. “You don’t seem yourself. Are you upset at something?”

“No, no. Just a bit restless. I’ll see you this afternoon.”

Hugh wandered the streets, musing. I wonder which retirement home she works for, he thought to himself. Maybe, I could volunteer to drive for them or something. They must need volunteers. Maybe I could read to the residents. He determined to get more specific information from the regulars as soon as possible.

Over the next few days, Hugh found that his route took him past the Senior Center more and more frequently. Each time, he slowed and peered through the glass door, hoping to catch a glimpse of Ilene’s curly hair. So far, he’d been unable to bring himself to ask for more information from his regulars, but he would soon. He was getting desperate. His waking moments were filled with fantasies about himself and Ilene — having witty and interesting conversations, watching a movie, taking a walk, going on the C.A.R.E. rounds together. He imagined touching her, and the electricity that shot through his stomach took his breath away.

One afternoon the following week, he picked up Mrs. Barrett for a hair appointment, and found himself driving slowly past the Senior Center. Suddenly, his heart gave a painful leap. He thought he saw a head of wavy brown hair through the glass. Could it be? He pulled into the parking lot.

“Hugh, what are you doing?” Mrs. Barrett cried out. “We’re not going to the Senior Center. I have an appointment at the beauty parlor.”

“Oh, sorry,” Hugh said. “Just got a bit confused for a minute.” He sat dumbly, making no attempts to leave the parking lot.

Mrs. Barrett looked at him carefully for a minute. Then, quite casually, she said, “You know, Hubert, now that we’re here, I was wondering if I might pop inside for a moment. I want to pick up an activities schedule for next month. I won’t be but a minute. I’m sure we have time. Do you mind terribly much?”

“No, that’s fine.” Hugh turned off the car and came around to help her out of the van. Since there was just the two of them, she was sitting up front next to him, which was nice, but the steps were harder to handle.

“Thank you, Hubert, I’m fine,” Mrs. Barrett said as Hugh offered his arm to her. She started up the sidewalk, then turned back to Hugh, who was standing, unmoving next to the van. “You know, on second thought, it would be lovely if you’d help me to the door. My hip is hurting me a bit today.”

Hugh took Mrs. Barrett’s arm and headed up the sidewalk. He was sure he was shaking more than she was as they got closer to the door. When they got inside, Mrs. Barrett thanked him and disappeared down the hallway. But Hugh barely noticed. Ilene was standing up on a chair in front of the big bulletin board on the right, a stapler in one hand, crepe paper flowers in the other. Ilene frightened him more than anything or anyone he’d ever run from in his entire life. More than Mr. Turner. More than strangers. More than finding an apartment and living on his own. Yet here he was, drawn to the place where they’d met, and incredibly happy at finding her there.

“Hugh? Hi!” she said, scrambling down from the chair. Today, she was wearing jeans and a pink t-shirt. Hugh looked hopefully for the unicorn necklace.

“Hi.” Hugh stood rocking back and forth a moment, hesitating, with a nervous grin, staring at Ilene. “Nice job,” he finally said, pointing over to the bulletin board.

Ilene looked around at the green-covered board. “Oh, thanks. Just putting up some new decorations. Help things look fresh. Springy.” Silence fell between them.

“It was nice meeting you—” they started in near unison. Hugh faltered, embarrassed. “—the other night,” Ilene finished, laughing, then looked down, shy and pretty. Hugh’s heart started pounding harder.

“So, what’s it going to be?” Hugh asked, gesturing to the bulletin board.

“Oh, a Spring meadow, I think,” said Ilene, turning back to look at her work. “And look, here, I’ve made a unicorn to add to it,” and she held up a prancing paper unicorn, much like the one Hugh remembered so well. “I love unicorns. Such beautiful creatures, don’t you think? I modeled it after this one,” she said, pulling the necklace out from under her shirt. “I wear it all the time. It’s my good luck charm.” She held the unicorn between two fingers, pressed it lightly to her lips, then let it fall.

“Yeah, beautiful.” Hugh stared at the silver unicorn, imagining where it had just been, under her shirt, touching her lips. He wrenched his eyes away from the charm and back to the paper unicorn Ilene still held in her hands. “Better be careful there. That horn looks awfully sharp. Looks like it could hurt someone,” he said suddenly. Hugh winced to hear the corny joke coming out of his mouth. Oh no. Not again. He was going to end up sounding completely ignorant and ruin this.

“Hmm, I wonder?” Ilene joked back. She playfully stuck her finger onto the end of the paper horn, then pulled it away quickly. “Ouch! You’re right!” she laughed and stuck the finger with the imaginary wound in her mouth, sucking away the imaginary blood.

Hugh was enthralled. She wasn’t wincing at his pathetic attempt at humor. She was laughing and joking and doing something very sexy with her fingers. He wanted to pull the offended finger from her mouth and put it in his own mouth and suck it and lick the wound closed.

Ilene laughed again and climbed back up on the chair. “So, maybe you can help me put this dangerous guy up on the board,” she said to Hugh as she positioned the unicorn among the flowers and the construction paper grass. “How’s that?”

Emboldened by his previous success, Hugh tried again. “Um, maybe a little further to the left. Don’t want that horn getting too close to the sun. That could really be a mess. Sunshine oozing everywhere. Ruin the entire display.” Hugh felt that sunshine oozing throughout his body right now, causing complete havoc.

Ilene giggled. “Hugh, you’re a riot. OK, how about there?” and she slid the creature a few inches to the left, away from the yellow circle at the top of the board.

“Yes, that’s it. Much better.” He was on a roll now, totally confident with no stuttering and almost no sweating.

“Can you hold it for me while I staple it up?” Ilene asked, peering over her shoulder.

“Sure.” Hugh’s heart raced as he moved over to the bulletin board. As he reached out to hold the paper in place, one of his arms brushed Ilene’s breasts. He felt his groin go hot. The sweet musky smell of her filled his nostrils. He looked down and stared hard at the paper flowers to keep himself from turning and burying his head in her thick-smelling warmth.

Ilene stapled the unicorn all around, then put a hand on Hugh’s shoulder and jumped down from the chair. She seemed a bit shaky. “Thank you,” she said, stepping back from the board a pace. “Well, what do you think? How’s it look?”

“It looks wonderful.”

“Yeah, it does.”

They were silent again, tired from the emotional and hormonal surge the stapling had required. They heard a noise down the hall. Mrs. Barrett was slowly making her way back to the foyer.

“Well, it looks like I’ve got to go,” Hugh said. “It was nice talking with you again.”

“Yeah, I’m really glad we ran into each other again,” Ilene responded. She bent down and fumbled in a box on the floor, then pressed a paper flower into Hugh’s hand just as Mrs. Barrett reached them. “A token of my appreciation,” she said, with mock seriousness. “Hi Mrs. Barrett. Look, Hugh has just helped me finish the bulletin board. What do you think?”

“Very lovely, my dear. Quite festive,” Mrs. Barrett replied. “Well, Hugh, shall we go? I’m afraid I might be a bit late if we don’t get going. Goodbye, Ilene. Nice to see you again, dear.”

“Bye,” Hugh said, longing already starting to rise in his chest. He pushed the door open, holding it wide with one arm for Mrs. Barrett to pass. Then he held out his arm for her, the crepe paper treasure in his other hand.

“Ilene is such a sweet girl,” Mrs. Barrett said as they made their way to the van. “How lucky you two ran into each other again.”

Hugh drove Mrs. Barrett to the beauty parlor, then went back out to the van to wait. He felt uncomfortable amidst the hairsprays, hairdryers, and curious, gossiping women inside the shop. Besides, he needed some time alone to think over what had just happened.

He picked the white and green flower up from the dashboard and twirled it in his hand, remembering with a smile her response to his dumb joke. He absently turned the flower in his hands, as he relived those few magical moments. He looked down and his heart stopped, then roared into his ears. She had written something on the back of the flower.

“Call me sometime! 426-9098 ☺”

Hugh was thunderstruck. He sat dazed for a moment, then let out a “Whoo-hoo!”

Never, in his 38 years, had a girl whom he liked willingly given him her number. He stopped and stared at the writing on the back of the flower again, reassuring himself that it was real. Something amazing was happening. She laughed at his jokes. She lived with her grandmother. She had beautiful sweet-smelling breasts. And she had given him her number. His head was humming.

Everything seemed cut in sharp relief. He could see the distinct outline of every leaf, the clear edges of each blade of grass. The world was suddenly crisp, as if it had been out of focus his entire life and only now was the lens adjusted so that he could see clearly.

Putting his newfound confidence to work, Hugh jumped out of the van and marched boldly into the Quik Qurl. He scanned the room for Mrs. Barrett, oblivious for once to the curious eyes upon him. He finally found her, sitting under one of those huge hairdryers that look like space helmets. He rushed toward her, upsetting a cart full of little multi-colored plastic rods. The woman using the rods looked at him with annoyance, then shooed him away with long purple nails when he bent over and started clumsily scooping up the plastic and replacing it in the bin. He hurried on to the hairdryers.

“Mrs. Barrett,” he said with agitated excitement. “Look!” and he thrust the flower in front of her.

Mrs. Barrett looked up, startled. She hadn’t noticed Hugh, what with the noise of the hairdryer and all. She pushed the dryer up from her head awkwardly, to shut the machine off. “Well, now, what’s this?” she asked, taking the flower from Hugh.

“Ilene gave me her number,” Hugh beamed proudly. “She wants me to call her.”

“Hugh, that’s wonderful. Ilene is such a nice girl. When are you going to call?”

“Um, I don’t know.” Hugh’s confidence started to waver a bit. “Maybe tonight?”

Somewhere in the back of his mind, his old demon started whispering. “So, now you actually have to call her,” it said. “What will you say? What if someone else answers the phone? It won’t be the same as it was today. You’ll just end up sounding stupid again.” It droned on and on. Its familiar rhythm reached his inner ear and made him pause for a moment. A blanket of familiar dullness started to cloud the world.

He remembered the sweet, deep smell of Ilene as he stood close to her and the thrill when his arm grazed her breasts. “Not this time,” he said aloud. “She gave me her number. And I will call her. Everything’s different,” he muttered to himself. He could feel himself staring his fear down, the rush of happiness returning, and strengthening his resolve. Felt it in his limbs and his shoulders, as they unhunched and straightened. He was a desirable person. Right now, in this moment, not some fantasy future, a real-life, attractive woman found him attractive.

He looked back at Mrs. Barrett. “Yes, tonight. I will call her tonight.”

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