His doorbell rang and Buddy peered through the viewer at a woman in the courtyard. She had green eyes and straight black hair, cut sharply like a fifties Keely Smith. He knew her. She did bookkeeping or something for the law partners next door, especially at tax times. He also remembered her from his wife’s yard sale, although that was a couple years ago and the wife was now his ex. She’d bought a jewelry case and a halogen lamp. He could picture her standing on the walk there—her nice legs and the spectator pumps she wore. She’d driven a white VW Bug in those days. But it must have died because later he had noticed her arriving for work in cabs.
He had lent her twenty bucks, in fact. Connie was her name. Last June, maybe, when his garden was at its peak. He’d been out there positioning the sprinkler, first thing in the morning, when a cab swerved up and she was in back. She had rolled down her window and started explaining to him. She was coming in to work early but had ridden the whole way without realizing she’d brought an empty handbag. She showed it to him—a beige clutch. She even undid the clasp and held the bag out the window.
Now she waved a twenty as Buddy opened the door.
“That isn’t necessary, Connie,” he said.
She thanked him with a nod for remembering her name. She said, “Don’t give me any argument.” She came close and tucked the bill into his shirt pocket. “You see here?” she said. “This is already done.”
“Well, I thank you,” Buddy said. He stroked the pocket, smoothing the folded money flat. It was a blue cotton shirt he’d put on an hour earlier when he got home from having his hair cut.
She was still close and wearing wonderful perfume, but he didn’t think he should remark on that. He kept his eyes level and waited as if she were a customer and he a clerk. He said, “So, are you still in the neighborhood? I rarely see you.”
“They haven’t needed me.” She pretended a pout. “Nobody’s needed me.” She stepped back. It was the first week of September, still mild. She wore a fitted navy dress with a white collar and had a red cardigan sweater over her arms. Her large shapely legs were in sheer stackings.
“We have one last problem,” she said. She held up a finger.
He looked at her, his eyebrows lifted.
Her hand fell and she gazed off and spoke as if reading, as if her words were printed over in the sky there to the right. “I have a crush on you,” she said. “Such a crush on you, Buddy. The worst, most ungodly crush.”
“No, you don’t. You couldn’t.”
“The, worst, crush.”
“Well,” Buddy said. “Well dee well-dell-dell.”
He owned the house—a two-story, Lowcountry cottage. It was set on a lane that led into Indian Town and beyond that were the roads and highways into north Pennsylvania. He sat on a divan near a window in the living room now and, in the noon light, looked through some magazines and at a book about birds.
He had a view from this window. Behind the house stood a tall ravine and Buddy could see through its vines and trees to the banks of Likely Lake.
His son had died after an accident there. Three years ago, August. Matthew. When he was two days short of turning twenty-one. His Jet Ski had hit a fishing boat that slid out of an inlet. The August after that, Buddy’s wife left him.
He had stopped going out—what his therapist referred to as “isolating.” He knocked the walls off his son’s bedroom suite and off the room where Ruthie used to sew and he converted the whole upper floor into a studio. He began bringing all his assignments home. He was a draftsman, the senior draftsman at Qualitec, a firm of electromechanical engineers he had worked with for years.
“Beware of getting out of touch,” his therapist had warned. “It happens gradually. It creeps over you by degrees. When you’ re not interacting with people, you start losing the beat. Then blammo. Suddenly, you’re that guy in the yard.”
“I’m who?” asked Buddy.
“The guy with the too-short pants,” said the therapist.
He would dissuade the Connie woman, Buddy told himself now as he poked around in the kitchen. He yanked open a drawer and considered its contents, extracted a vegetable peeler, put it back in its place. He would dissuade her nicely. He didn’t want to make her feel like a bug. “Let her down easy,” he said aloud and both the cats spurted in to study him. Buddy had never learned to tell the cats apart. They were everyday cats, middle sized and yellow. Matt’s girlfriend, Shay, had presented them as kittens, for a birthday present, the same week he died. The cats stayed indoors now and kept dose to Buddy. He called one of them Bruce and the other Bruce’s Brother.
He went into a utility closet off the kitchen now and rolled out a canister vacuum. He liked vacuuming. He liked jobs he could quickly complete. And he wanted things just-so when Elise came over tonight. She had changed things for him in the months since they had met. Everything was different because of her.
One way to go with the Connie woman, he was thinking, would be to parenthetically mention Elise. That might have its effect. Or a stronger method would be to say, “My girlfriend is the jealous type,” or some such.
The cats padded along into the dining area and watched as Buddy positioned the vacuum and unwound its mile of electric cord. “Don’t ever couch a plug like this,” he told them. “It is hot, hot, hot.”
Elise phoned from work around two. She was a group counselor at Cherry Trees, a psychiatric hospital over in the medical park. Buddy saw his therapist in another building on the grounds and he had met Elise there, in fact, in the parking area. It was on a snowy day last February when he’d forgotten and left his fog lights burning. She had used yellow jumper cables to rescue him. Buddy had invited her to go for coffee and the two of them drove off in his black Mercury, zooming along the Old Post Highway to get the car battery juiced.