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Chris Maldonado tried to answer his boss’s question. The manila folder scratched against his fur-lined jacket, the lining soft and fake of course, the jacket tight. An alluring whisper against the fabric. Ms. Timony reclined on her swivel chair, away from her family portraits in silver frames. The back of her short blonde hair glowed.
Back in Catholic school, the nuns told Chris that sunlight came from God. Ms. Timony did look like she was wearing a halo.
Her lipstick burned red.
The whole office burned.
Chris worked as a paralegal for the law firm of Timony, Rice, and Stein. He made coffee for Ms. Timony, fished documents out of law libraries and untidy file folders, and answered the phone, speaking to some disgruntled businessman or housewife. Smooth jazz played on all of the clock radios, drowning the din of traffic on Lexington Avenue. Chris sounded cordial and understanding. He made appointments that Ms. Timony kept.
Chris gave the folder to Ms Timony.
“Of course,” he answered. His adolescent-style mustache twitched. “You’re quite attractive,” said Chris. “You’re always quite attractive.”
Ms. Timony caressed the translucent scarf around her neck. The scarf glittered daisies against her dark-blue suit.
Chris expected a typical workday. After helping Ms. Timony with her files and coffee and clients, he’d leave at five and head to the nearest bar for happy hour.
Ms. Timony opened the folder.
Happy hour. Chris sat at the bar. His gin and tonic glittered underneath the blue overhead light. His brown hair was soft and thinning. Boy George played on the stereo system—a pulsation of 1980s synthetic beats. Chris was getting drunk and listening to a homosexual. He liked the subversion.
"Cigarette,” he told the bartender.
The bartender picked up a smoke and handed it to Chris.
"Gauloise?” Chris asked.
The bartender nodded. “Of course, man.” Chris slipped the cigarette between his lips, before lighting the tip and blinking from the bitter smoke.
I’ll tumble 4 ya…
I’ll tumble 4 ya…
The song sounded idiotic of course—Chris preferred “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?” But he relaxed in the blue light, the alcohol, the cigarettes, and the long, lean women. Everybody drank and smoked. They shared this need to be cool.
Why did Ms. Timony ask that question today? Chris heard the office gossip about Ms. Timony and her husband. Her husband met some loose change in Chicago, according to the story, and he wanted to move to Chicago and experience more pleasure with his loose change. Ms. Timony talked about the notoriously cold Chicago weather. She complained about turning 40 and raising her children and having it all.
Chris didn’t lie to Ms. Timony. She had the delicate beauty of a teenage model from an Eastern European country. The blonde hair and the pink, kissable mouth.
Chris took another drag of his cigarette. His cell phone rang.
“Hello?” he answered.
"Christopher…” said Mother.
“Christopher,” she repeated. “You have to help me.”
She had snaked her way into his abode. “How are you?” Chris asked cordially.
"I hear Marilyn Monroe in my bedroom,” said Mom. “I smell her Chanel No. 5. She’s crying about her suicide.” Mother sighed; her way of crying. “I’m telling her to stop. But she’s inconsolable.”
Chris imagined a school of asps invading this bar. Fangs exposed, expelling yellowish venom. Chris stopped believing in God long ago. God should have stopped crazy women from becoming mothers. Chris imagined the afterlife that the nuns discussed. He imagined rock concerts, mosh pits, Eddie Vedder growling about animals and daughters. Chris had been a Goth. One time, he wanted to be a preppie, deflowering virgins; his dorm at Yale or Harvard. He felt safe in bars. He got drunk and forgot about Jennie Maldonado.
Mother said that her medication gave her brain tumors. “Hats on my head that won’t go away,” she said. “I need to get rid of this hat!”
“Take it off,” Chris said.
Mother laughed girlishly. She was the type of woman that Chris would date.
"I’ll speak to you later,” he said. “Bye.” He lowered the cell phone.
“Girlfriend?” asked the bartender.
Chris shook his head.
“Unfortunately, no,” he said. “She’s not my girlfriend at all.” He continued to smoke. Tasting the bitter tobacco.
Mother liked to say that President Bush was raping her through the TV. Chris returned home after school; and found Mom flung against the brambles surrounding the ranch-style house. Her white dress looked like toilet paper. She was white, frail, and prone.
She stared up. She had sky-blue eyes.
Mary, mother of Jesus…
Mother recited a Hail Mary. The hem of her skirt fluttered in the fresh breeze. She looked so delicate, compared to the houses in the neighborhood; the cars parked on driveways, the kids gamboling on the cul-de-sac.
Full of grace…
“Come here,” said Mrs. Winterhalter. Chris turned to his neighbor. Mrs. Winterhalter wore a sturdy blonde wig. She looked like Dolly Parton—but thinner and weaker.
“Come here, Christopher.”
Chris bolted to Mrs. Winterhalter. She hugged him; Chris felt his heart beat against her flowery sundress.
He smelled baby powder on Mrs. Winterhalter. Mom liked to use baby powder too. Chris followed his neighbor into her little green house. He smelled garlic, tomato paste. Mrs. Winterhalter was probably cooking spaghetti or lasagna.
Chris hugged his neighbor tighter. He continued to feel his heart race. Eventually, he calmed down. He ate dinner with the Winterhalters. The family remained silent, as ambulance light swirled red against the pale kitchen walls.
Chris smelled the fruity perfume on Ms. Diana Pearlstein—another client. Ms. Pearlstein smiled, her olive complexion brightening.
“I like your shirt,” she told Chris.
Chris touched the collar of his dark-green shirt.
“Thanks,” he said. Ms. Pearlstein entered the dim office, as jazz continued to drown out the traffic noise. Chris returned to his desk. His cell phone sat next to his legal pad. The portable radio blared music next to the stained coffee mug.
Chris sat down, raised his hand, and covered his eyes. He shuddered, fearing that the cell phone would ring again. He remembered being a little boy, waiting for his mother to calm down. He cried from the bruises spread like pocks on his body.
That fucking bitch.
Ms. Pearlstein told Ms. Timony that a former business partner stiffed her for $200,000.
"The collectors call me everyday,” said Ms. Pearlstein. “And Mr. Wallace refuses to pay his share. I know that personal feelings shouldn’t mix into business dealings. But I feel used. I feel raped.”
He squelched a need to call Mother.
The appointment ended around noon. Ms. Pearlstein left the office, smiling at Chris again. She entered the darkness of the hallway, as the whiff of her perfume remained. Chris cut off the radio. He called Ms. Timony’s cell-phone number.
Chris liked the distance between his desk and his boss.
“Let’s meet for lunch,” Chris said. “Steak, a couple of drinks. Why the hell not?”
Ms. Timony hummed.
“That’s good,” she said. “I would love some steak. I don’t drink much. But I could use a black Russian.”
“Fine,” said Chris. “Meet you in a few?”
“Yes,” said Ms. Timony. “But you could have come to my office.”
“Yes,” Chris said. “I’ll come.”
Ms. Timony laughed.
“You’re quite attractive,” said Chris.
At the steakhouse, Chris had a small cube cut. Ms. Timony had surf and turf, the grease of the fried shrimp glistening on her lips. Her blonde hair looked darker against the walnut paneling of the restaurant. Chris slipped his mineral water. His cigarette burned in the ashtray.
The restaurant felt like the inside of a freezer. Chris was glad that he wore his jacket.
Ms. Timony smiled, baring white, thin teeth. “Call me Michelle, Chris.”
“Okay,” said Chris. “Michelle. Do you still hate Chicago?”
“I hate Staten Island,” Chris said. “But I have relatives there. In Mariners Bay.”
“My grandmother lived in St. George,” Ms. Timony said. “I have no family in Chicago.” She stuffed more shrimp into her mouth, remaining silent, gray eyes wide and wet.
Chris sighed. The way that his mother sighed.
Mother’s doctor recently called and suggested that Chris commit his mother to the state hospital. “She’s severely schizophrenic,” the doctor said, his high voice like a fluttering breeze. “She needs intensive care.” Chris recognized the medical terms for madness. Some venomous snakes were asps. Others were rattlesnakes and cobras. Chris felt poisoned already. He stared into his boss’s eyes, noticing the regrets and despair that she would never express. He imagined the tears, the screaming matches, and what the children saw and felt.
Chris felt that he loved too much. He wanted to hurt Ms. Timony. All the illusions of sophistication had floated away, leaving the snakes.
“You still want the black Russian?” Chris asked.
Ms. Timony mumbled yes.
“Black Russians relax me.”
Chris nodded in agreement. He grabbed Michelle’s hand. Squeezed the softness, as Michelle batted her eyes.
“I used to be into fetishes.”
Ms. Timony swallowed her food and blushed.
“I like high heels,” she told Chris. “That sort of thing. But I consider leather to be too weird.”
Chris nodded. He shook again, in the tightness of his clothes. He looked down and smiled. Ms. Timony would feel powerful in her degradation. He wanted to make her feel queenly swallowing his cum.
Screaming in pain.
Ms. Timony finished her shrimp. She started to eat her corn.
“You don’t know me at all,” Chris said. “You need to know me, Michelle. Before you decide to like me.”
“I understand,” mumbled Michelle, as she moved her lips toward Chris. They kissed. Chris enjoyed the sweet, alcoholic taste on Michelle’s mouth.
She was beautiful. Chris held Michelle’s chin.
He stared into her eyes. His heart continued to beat and beat hard.
Michelle laughed softly, her voice like heartbeats. Her glacial stare made a connection. Michelle and Chris kissed again.
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