This is an entry in the SweetWitch-Marsh Alien Feud Settlement Short Story Writing contest. As a courtesy to me, if you cast a vote on this story, please also read SweetWitch's "Forget the Bitch, Gimme a Drink." Besides, her story has catfighting and voyeurism.
With fourteen months still to go until I hit the big Five-O, I had pretty much worked my way through the world of wine, women, and song, and ended up settling on Scotch. At least for a permanent relationship.
I had never really liked songs, at least not in the popular sense. I was more of a classical music guy. Brahms — that's who I liked. Brahms the broody. Brahms, the guy who couldn't bring himself to write a symphony for decades because of the enormous shadow cast by Beethoven, who had been dead for nearly half a century by that point.
Wine I could take or leave. I'd had some nice wines in my life, although normally I associated them with nice meals. But all that crap about delightful chocolate overtones and piquant aftertastes just goes right over my head. And reminds me of my third wife.
Which brings us to women. It's not that I don't enjoy the company of women. I do. But after three marriages, I don't want to be accused of taking some other guy's turn. My first only lasted a few years, until Betsy learned that she'd rather be spending her forever with her thesis adviser than with me. My second actually should have lasted forever, but apparently God had other plans. Instead, after five wonderful years, Catherine was killed in a car accident.
And then there was the third, the only one that I really consider to have been a mistake. I probably married too soon, and definitely not too well. Samantha was interested in spending more money than we made, and figured that my inability to make a career as a writer was simply the result of laziness on my part. It turned out to be more of an antipathy to the sort of nagging pressure that she and her mother were expert at. Once I was on my own, I got good enough to quit my other job and start writing full-time. I've now published four books, the last three on the New York Times bestseller list.
I am a real estate novelist. That's right. Just like the line from "The Piano Man." It's an odd occupation for somebody who doesn't like popular music, but Catherine loved Billy Joel, and it was while we were listening to one of his tapes in the car that I heard the phrase. It stuck with me for years, and when I finally sat down to write, out came this book about Roger Carter and Lizzie Perkins, real estate agents whose open house is ruined by the discovery of a dead body in the basement. With an out-of-town owner and no other prospects of immediate sales, they decide to clear up the mystery themselves in order to remove the cloud over the house. You laugh, but I've done three sequels now, each more successful than the last.
"Andy, you want another?"
I looked down at my empty glass and then at my watch. Eleven-thirty. Probably a little late. I was just about to decline when Pablo spoke again.
"On the house," he said.
I looked up suspiciously. Nobody pours Timdrogglan on the house. Not at a hundred and thirty bucks a bottle. Not when you can charge twenty bucks a glass.
"What's the catch?"
"Girl in the office," he said with a nod toward the back. "Needs a ride home."
"So why me?"
"Even with another Scotch in you, you're a safer driver than any of these meatheads. Besides, she's, uh..."
"She's..." I tried to prompt him.
He glanced at the other guys. This place had attracted its share of seedy Southern rednecks when it had been Murphy's Irish Bar. Whatever prejudice those guys felt hadn't kept them away from Pablo's Irish Bar (a free basket of nachos with every Guinness) for more than a few days.
"Too classy?" I asked. I knew who he was talking about now, simply because you didn't see that many African-Americans at Pablo's. An attractive black woman, sitting at the bar and knocking back glasses of white wine, tends to stand out a little bit.
"Exactly," Pablo grinned.
"All right," I sighed as I stood up. "She's in the office?"
"On the couch. What about the drink?"
"Forget the drink. Just give me the bitch."
His eyebrows shot up.
"For tonight, Pablo. Just forget the drink for tonight. I'll be back here tomorrow."
He smiled. When I was writing, I came in for inspiration. When I was rewriting, I came in for consolation. Particularly these past few weeks, since I had inherited William Tecumseh Sherman as my editor. Not really, of course. The real General Sherman has been dead for a century or so, God be praised. But his modern counterpart, a New York editor whose name I didn't actually know," was busy leaving his own trail of scorched earth in the form of bloody red marks across each chapter of mine as he blithely and inexorably marched to the end of my novel.
In truth, he was very good, certainly better than the previous two editors I'd been assigned. But the comments he made in the drafts, each one tagged with his little "WTS," often came across as arrogant and high-handed. It was a good thing that I had to go through the filter of his employer's e-mail system to correspond with him. He was probably afraid to give me his own e-mail address. Probably with good reason. At that moment, I was awaiting his first cut at Chapter Five, much as General Slocum must have waited for the Northern artillery shells.
Pablo and I walked into the office and found her sleeping on his couch. I pulled the earbuds of her iPod out of her ears, and tried to rouse her. I am a grumpy drunk. This woman was apparently a sleepy drunk. I gave her a quick assessment: five-nine, one-thirty or one-thirty-five, late twenties, silky dark hair, mocha-colored skin, a generous chest that did an excellent job filling out an elegant yellow blouse, and a cute butt packed into a pair of designer blue jeans. My conclusion: I could probably get her into my car in the parking lot of Pablo's, but I hoped to hell she didn't live on the fourth floor of some walk-up.
"Name? Address?" I turned to Pablo. He gave me a piece of paper and jammed a set of keys in my pocket. I hoisted her over my shoulder in a fireman's carry and headed for the door. On the way out, I heard something fall to the ground.
"Wait a minute," Pablo said, "her iPod."
"Keep it," I grumbled, trying to keep my breath even. "I can't stop. I'll leave her a note after I drop her off."
I managed to pour her into my car and yanked out the paper out with her address. Fortunately, it proved to be a single-family home in a quiet neighborhood, so I had little trouble getting her inside onto her couch. There was a blanket at the end of the couch, and I pulled it over her.
I was back in my usual spot the next evening when she returned. She was even harder to miss this time. She banged the door open and strode in, standing there with her hands on her hips like she just dared those rednecks to say anything to her. This time, she wore a red checked blouse and a jeans skirt that showed off a very shapely pair of legs. It was hard to focus on that, though, because the glare she was casting around the room was sufficient to prevent even the sleaziest of men from staring at her for too long.
"Which one of you assholes stole my iPod?" she demanded.
Pablo, in true step-up-to-the-plate fashion, turned around to glare at me, followed by the rest of the guys at the counter and, a few seconds later, the young lady.
Oh, yeah, the note.
I smiled at her as she marched over to tower above me.
"I think that Pablo there has your iPod behind the bar." I directed her attention back to the bar.
He held it up and she marched over to retrieve it. I buried my nose back in the book I was reading. It was a few minutes later that I became conscious that she was once again looming over me at the table.
"Pablo says you carried me home last night," she said apologetically. "I'm sorry I yelled."
"No problem." I gave her my most facile smile and looked back down at where my finger had marked my place in the text.
I looked up to see her hand thrust toward me.
"Andrew Cavanaugh," I said and smiled again, a little more sincerely, giving her a hearty handshake.
"Whatcha reading?" she asked as she sat down across the booth from me.
"Actually," I said, "the Iliad."
"By Homer?" she raised an eyebrow.
I nearly always have a smartass retort, but I managed to bite this one off just before it pushed past my lips.
"Don't say it," she held up a hand. "Ask a stupid question... So what were you going to say?"
"You were going to tell me you were reading the Iliad by... ?"
My smile was very genuine now. Hers was slightly twisted, as if I'd said something very distasteful.
"I was at least hoping for somebody like Carl Hiaasen," she said.
"I'm sure Carl Hiaasen would have done a very good Iliad," I nodded. I'd actually met Carl at a couple of conventions, and it would have been a hysterical book.
"You know, in some cultures, if you save someone's life, you become responsible for it." She flashed me a big grin.
"I really don't think you were in any danger on Pablo's couch," I demurred. "At the worst you might have gotten a couple of fleabites from that mangy hound of his."
Her eyes widened as she absently began scratching at her side.
"Bastard." Her eyes laughed with her.
"So what's a pretty girl like you doing in a... ?" I looked around for an appropriate description of Pablo's Irish Bar.
"Forgetting men," she said. "What are you drinking?"
"The most expensive Scotch in the world. Men in general or one in particular?"
"One in particular. Is it really that good?"
"It is. And it's made at a tiny distillery in Scotland so remote that you have to send your own pack of dogs there to fetch back your supply."
"Pablo sends dogs to Scotland for your Scotch?"
"No, I send them. And then I sell the bottles to Pablo so he can sell it back to me by the glass."
"You're a strange man, Andrew Cavanaugh. What do you do for a living?"
"I'm retired," I lied. "And you?"
"I'm an editor. Why are you frowning like that?"
"Sorry. My last wife was an editor. Please accept my sympathies. There are some good publishers in Atlanta. Which one?"
"Oh, I find it easier to just freelance."
We continued to talk, and by the end of the next hour, it had become apparent to both of us that there was a definite chemistry. Other than the whole editor thing, of course. Unfortunately, it was destined not to go anywhere for the moment. When she invited me back to her place to repay me with a nightcap, I politely declined. Her puzzled disappointment was obvious.
"If it makes you feel any better," I said, "I know I'm going to regret not coming. But I have a flight tomorrow at eight, and I haven't even started packing yet."
"How long will you be gone?"
"A month? Are you serious? What are you doing, touring the world?"
"Just the opposite. I own a small island off the coast of Maine, so I'm spending the month there."
Her eyes lit up, and she reached forward to touch my forearm with the tips of her fingers. The electricity was obvious to both of us.
"Take me with," she said, her voice full of eager promise and excited hope.
"What about your work?" I asked.
"Oh, hell, yes, I've got a big ol' generator and a satellite dish for everything."
"Perfect," she said with a smile.
It sounded perfect to me, too.
"Think you can get on an eight a.m. plane to Boston?" I asked.
"Only one way to find out," she said, snapping open her cell phone.
"I get the feeling that Andrew hasn't brought many black girls up here," Tracy yelled over the roar of the boat's motor. Angus Carson gave her a quick appraisal and then gave me an even longer one.
"Can't say as he's evah brought any gihls up heah," he said slowly. "We all thought he was one of those gay fellahs."
"Angus!" I protested.
"Doesn't seem quite natural, livin' on an island for a month without a woman," Angus continued. "Anne'll be mighty pleased to know you'll be theah with 'im, Miss Scott."
Anne was Angus's wife, and her concern was touching. I had never met her, although I did pay her an exorbitant sum of money to get the place ready for me each year. I only connected with Angus twice a year. The first time would be in Ellsworth, where he would meet me at the rental car office in his 1975 Volvo to bring me to his fishing boat for the ride to the island. The second time would be thirty days later, when he would bring me back. Since I had my own smaller boat docked at the island, my contact with Angus was otherwise limited to seeing him out on the waters. And my conversation with Angus, given his laconic nature, was usually even more limited. But here he was, chatting with Tracy as if she were his long-lost sister who needed to be brought up to speed on twenty years of Down East gossip.
Finally, stunningly, blessedly, we were alone. Our bags were lying in the foyer, the motor of Angus's boat still audible in the distance. Between the foyer and the bedroom, there was a trail of the clothes we'd been wearing all day. My docksiders, Tracy's sneakers. My shorts, Tracy's capris. My polo shirt, Tracy's tank top. My boxers, Tracy's panties and bra.
"Andrew," she murmured, twisting her hands in the clean, white sheets as my kisses, which had started at her ankles, reached the back of her knee and then her thigh.
"Mmmm," I answered. "I love the way you say that."
"Say what?" She laughed, a bright peal of laughter.
"My name," I answered before I resumed kissing. She probably thought I was a whacko, but only Catherine had called me Andrew consistently. To everyone else I was apparently an Andy.
"Oh, honey," she gasped. My tongue was approaching her core, her lips swollen and wet and ready. But I slid off to the side, leaving a trail of soft licks just to the side of the black hair that curled atop her mound. Instead, I traveled the soft valley that lay between that mound and the elegantly muscled leg to its right. The other leg flexed in pleasure, and Tracy wrapped her fingers now in my hair.
"Oh, God, Andrew," she moaned as I made my way up her body, teasing her full left breast with my tongue before taking its dark nipple inside my lips and gently tugging at it with my teeth and tongue. "I want you now."
"Now?" I mumbled. I hadn't gotten away with this little foreplay in twenty years.
"Now, you bastard." She opened her eyes and looked down at me. "I've been wet since I got on the plane."
"I've been hard since last night," I countered.
"That's longer than four hours," she giggled. "You should probably see a doctor."
"Let's give it a little longer and see if it goes down on its own," I said, pushing between her legs and pressing the head of my cock against her.
"Ooh, let's," she agreed, encircling my waist with her hands and pressing her fingers against my butt.
I gently pushed inside her, enjoying the way her mouth opened to accept a sharp intake of breath.
"Andrew, yes," she whispered. "Oh yes, honey, now."
We made love slowly, with a lot of stroking and kissing and licking, and perhaps just the tiniest bit of biting. It seemed to me that both of us took joy as much from each other's pleasure as from our own. When we finally climaxed, it had the sense of being a wave like those we could hear crashing against the rocks below us, a wave that had started far across the sea and slowly built in strength as it grew nearer and nearer.
"Wow," Tracy said softly, brushing a lock of my hair out of my eyes.
"Really," I agreed. I couldn't say anything more. It would have been too much and at the same time not enough. I rolled off and lay on my back, pulling her into my side and letting the rhythmic sounds of her breathing lull me to sleep as well. I awoke once in the middle of the night to find her quietly sucking me, and planting a kiss on the tip when she was finished.
"Thank you, Andrew," she said as she snuggled back into me. "Go back to sleep now."
"I'm starved," Tracy announced early the next morning.
"Starved? How can you be starved? You ate on the plane. You even ate my food."
"Brute!" she whacked me on the chest. "Beast! You lure me onto your plane with promises of peace and quiet. Then you drive me almost to Canada. Then you make me sit next to Grizzly Adams on his boat. And then you assault me as soon as I get in the door. And what do you provide me with for nourishment? Nuts."
"Thank goodness you swallowed," I said, unable to keep from grinning at her.
She blinked at me, and then, as I knew she would, burst into hysterical laughter. I was falling in love.
"Seriously," I said. "Let's head into town, get some breakfast, and do some grocery shopping. Then we'll come back here for all the peace and quiet you can stand."
"Only after you shower." She wrinkled her nose. "I'm not going anywhere with you smelling like a... like a —"
"I smell like you," I protested.
"Exactly," she said. "I'm the only one allowed to smell like me. But just to show you how nice I am, I'll help you clean up."
A few hours later, cleaner and even more sated, we stepped off my boat into the bustling tourist trap of Bar Harbor, Maine. I treated Tracy to breakfast at one of the dives that attracts only locals, and we visited the post office to pick up the carton of books that I'd mailed to myself.
Tracy laughed as I hefted the box off the counter. "My God, you must have been planning on doing nothing but reading."
"Research. I'm actually planning on writing a novel."
"Ooh, a novelist. On a deserted island. How trite," she laughed as we reached the boat. "Home?"
"Without groceries? I could get seriously pummeled about the head and chest again. Besides, I'm gonna need to eat just to keep up with you."
Our first week together was probably as blissful a time as I had experienced since Catherine's death. We worked together, me with my laptop on one side of the kitchen table and her with hers on the other, as if we were playing a high-tech version of Battleship. Me writing a new novel for the entertainment of the masses, and her shredding some poor schmuck's prose. At first, it bothered me when I would hear her clicking her tongue and look up to see her shaking her head at something she was looking at. But by the end of the first day, when I saw the seriousness with which she applied herself, I found myself with a greater appreciation of the job.
For a minute there, I even started to feel fondly toward ol' General Sherman. I remembered in particular one argument that we had had over Chapter One, when he had wanted me to use the word "mendacious" in place of "lying." His argument was that readers liked to be challenged occasionally, and that in any event "mendacious" implies a more evil, less commonplace liar. He pointed out that there were so many liars in my books — lying sellers, lying buyers, lying appraisers, lying real estate agents — that I really needed to use a different word now and then.
I had responded with a flippant e-mail: "Why should I use a five-dollar word when there's perfectly good one-dollar word?"
His replay was immediate: "Because we both hope that your book is not going to be available for one dollar until at least six months after it is published. There are plenty of liars in the world, but the truly mendaciloquent have a gift. I'll leave it up to you. The grammar changes are non-negotiable, but I believe that a writer should choose the vocabulary that best fits his characters."
Jerk. Two hours later, though, I had grudgingly agreed to label the character "mendacious." Now, watching Tracy work, I had a little bit better understanding of the passion with which the General approached his job, and my book.
And then he returned Chapter Five. Tracy was watching my face when the publisher's e-mail popped up on my screen, and when I opened the attachment and saw its impersonation of the Red Sea.
"What happened?" she asked, her eyes widening.
"E-mail from my publisher," I scowled.
"Already? You just got started!"
"No, this is an earlier novel."
She raised an eyebrow.
"The one I'm starting now is my fifth," I explained. "I'm sorry. I should have told you earlier. It's a part of my life I'm very protective of."
Her silence compelled me to continue.
"It's just private."
I was aware that I was sounding rather desperate.
"But that's where I got the money for all of this. I write novels about a pair of real estate agents. I'm Michael Conover."
There was nothing in her eyes. Not a hint of recognition.
"Okay." She nodded and turned back to her own screen.
"You wanna read one, maybe?" I offered after a pause.
"Not if it's something you want to keep private," she said without glancing over.
If she wanted to argue about it, I was ready: our relationship was too new; I hadn't told anyone, ever, other than my agent. But I realized now that my arguments all sounded shallow.
And as it turned out, I didn't need them anyway. There wasn't even a hint of reproach in her voice, as if it were completely up to me whether I shared this or any other part of my life with her. And now that was beginning to bother me. It bothered me that she wasn't upset that I had hid it from her. It bothered me that she wasn't interested in my work. And yes, it bothered me that she appeared never to have heard of me.
My pique didn't last long, however. Tracy was simply too full of life to permit me to sulk, even if she had no idea I was doing it. She fixed dinner that night, gulping from a bottle of wine she was using to prepare risotto. And she had brought some sort of electronic device that allowed her to plug her iPod into a set of speakers. I found that I was delighted to hear the sounds of Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing" filling the tiny house. I was even more delighted that she had decided to cook wearing nothing but a white T-shirt and a leopard-print bikini bottom. Watching her dance in perfect sync with the music as she cooked is still one of my fondest memories of that trip.
Next to the sex, of course. That evening we made love to the Temptations and the Miracles. Tracy was incredible, and the extent to which we could hear the music of each other's bodies was almost scary. Her chocolate overtones were as delicious and her aftertaste as piquant as anything else I have ever sampled.