Issue 160, Winter 2001
I am sitting in the back of a SMART bus, on my way to Royal Oak, sweating. In my purse is a newspaper-to hide behind, as in bad movies-and three large navel oranges to sustain me through my stakeout. I'm not sure why I'm following Freddy, but lately I've been dreaming of lathes: shiny yellow Nova X3000s with adjustable headstocks. In the dreams I'm leaning naked over an X3000 in the middle of a huge meadow, and mannequins that seem to be made of maple or maybe birch are scattered around the vast grassy field, standing at attention like overgrown clothespins. It's a strangely menacing dream-I fear that one of the mannequins will bank me with its clublike arms (which sounds silly but is in fact terrifying)--and when I wake I feel a buzz of panic and relief surrounded, inexplicably, by traces of nostalgia.
Freddy kissed my cheek this morning at 8:45-stubble, Ivory soap, stale incense-and I caught the 9:03 from Woodward Avenue to downtown Royal Oak. Now the bus heaves to a stop at the corner of Eleven Mile Road and Troy, leaving me standing on the sidewalk feeling distinctly guilty but also strangely exhilarated. It's good to be outside in the sun instead of bent over a lathe, turning endless heads and arms and legs. I know Freddy is working the small downtown area and, as I hurry toward William Street, I see him: coming out of a hip secondhand store called Rebop, hauling the dummy case with both hands. I settle onto a sidewalk bench, unfold the newspaper and peer over the top of the business section. Freddy, obviously sweating in his dingy pinstripe suit, lugs the heavy black case down the crowded sidewalk. He does not look like a man with a guilt-wracked conscience. He does not look particularly happy or graceful, as he pauses in front of Noir Leather, a fetish-wear shop, mops his brow with the sleeve of his suit coat, then trundles the heavy case into the store.
Freddy's not entirely comfortable as a salesman. He tries to look businesslike-his suit is endearingly earnest, almost Mormon in its single-breasted seriousness-but his tie-dyed tie gives him away. And then there's his hair: he does his best to knot it back in a ponytail, but invariably small strands escape and vault toward the sky, giving him a frazzled, angelic air.
In an attempt to make his job feel less predatory, Freddy's developed a sales philosophy based on what he calls “the confessional approach. “ During the course of his pitch he shares something slightly personal with the potential buyer—he confesses a weakness or fear, or affirms a mutual dislike.
Freddy's theory is that this builds intimacy and trust, and leads to increased sales for our company and a dearer conscience for himself. So far his theory—the part about increased sales—is unproved.
I have the newspaper spread across my knees and am vigorously peeling the orange when I notice Freddy across the street, his hand raised to block the sun, squinting at me. A warm shock of guilt rises to my cheeks; I look quickly away.
When he's halfway across the street I glance up, feign a surprised expression, and wave.
“Hey!” I shout. “What are you doing here?”
Freddy clambers up the curb, the dummy case knocking against his knee. “I thought that was you. Weird-from across the street you looked sort of like my mother. I mean, your hair, the way it's sort of flippy today, or maybe those sunglasses . . ..” He shakes his head to clear the image. “Wow. For a second it was fairly disturbing.”
“I needed some tools from Farritor' s-a new veiner,” I explain. “It was sort of an emergency.”
He nods thoughtfully, tapping his foot impatiently on the pavement, a sound that sets me on edge. Have I disrupted something? Freddy's been acting strange lately, overly moody and pensive, very un-Freddylike. On Tuesday he hastily terminated a telephone call when I wandered into the office, and when I asked about the call he said, “Nothing! Nothing-a new client, hopefully.” My thoughts immediately flashed back to the incident last March, triggering pangs of doubt and regret.
And then on Wednesday Freddy brought home a magnificent bouquet of purple tulips. This sent tiny sparks shooting through me, which I later realized were warning flares. When I asked about the tulips, he shrugged. “They looked sort of lonely. I don't know. They made me happy.” He kissed me on the forehead distractedly. “You make me happy.”
Now he slumps down next to me on the bench and tugs at his tie. “You know what the woman in Nair Leather just told me? We prefer mannequins that look like people.” He wipes a glaze of sweat from his upper lip, and I notice that his cheeks and forehead are dotted with pale pink blotches, the prelude to a full-blown nervous rash. “She was wearing a latex leotard. Can you imagine, on a day like today? It distracted me, I think. It threw me off my pitch.”
“How about this: I'll buy you lunch,” I suggest. “Anything you want. We'll go to that Ethiopian place I hate.”
“Actually, there's this meeting-it's sort of semi-important.
But it's good that you're here, Judith. It's fate, even though you think that's stupid.” Freddy takes a red bandanna from his pocket, blots his forehead and stands up. He checks his watch. Then he does something troubling: he takes the bandanna back out of his pocket and blots his forehead again.
“Hey, whoa,” I say, pulling him down to the bench and loosening his tie-dyed tie. “Take a breath. You look a little wobbly, Fred.”
“Yes, I don't feel great,” he says uneasily. “In fact, I've been feeling extremely shitty this past week. Maybe you've noticed.”
I nod cautiously. (The incident from last March replays in my head: Freddy frozen on the sofa, shirtless, watching Oprah interview a small, wrinkled man; the ribbons of diffuse sunlight on our apartment wall; the faint sweet smell of marijuana.) “Listen: I could use a drink.” He checks his watch again, and sighs. “Can I buy you a drink? We'll have a drink, and talk.”