The Tale

This is a short story I wrote quite a while ago.

I never liked Stewart. He is Bill’s friend more than mine. I barely know him, Bill brought him so we’d have enough for the card game. Stewart runs some sort of small company, a locksmith’s or plumbing company or something and I bet he must have been a bitch and half to work for. He has a fat cold face and mean eyes. For the game he wore a dark blue shirt with a white collar and white French cuffs, like maybe he was a banker or something.

Because of Stewart and how I don’t like him, but also because I just don’t like questions like that, I wouldn’t have done what Jim did. The game was over and some of the guys had left it was just me, him, Bill, Stewart, and this quiet guy named Rory. Because the game was over, we had switched from beer to Maker’s Mark, which I think made people open up.

Anyway, out of nowhere, Jim asks, “What is the worst thing you ever did?” Jim is the only one still drinking beer. He just asks to the room in general, but Rory pipes up like it was aimed at him.

“The worst thing I ever did was in college. Campus security caught me and my roommate with some dope. Just a little baggie, you know. But my dad was friends with the dean, so I didn’t get in trouble. My roommate got expelled.”

Bill thinks about this. “Was it your fault?”

Rory is a little peeved, as if he wants to be some master criminal. “No, but I still feel bad about it. Why, what did you do?”

“Oh, mine was bad. I’m not telling.” Bill says, shaking his head emphatically.

Stewart grunts, like he’s disgusted that Bill won’t spill. Rory complains, “Hey, I told.”

Bill relents, he was going to all along. “All right, all right. You remember Andrew Jackson.”

Rory asks, “The president?”

“You mean, that German shepherd you used to have,” Jim puts in. He knows Bill pretty well. “Got run over.”

“Yeah, well, guess who ran him over?” We all cluck and hoot at this. Even Stewart pulls a face. Bill puts his hands up in front of him like we’re throwing things at him. “It was an accident, an accident. I backed up without looking. Of course, I didn’t tell Bill Junior any of this. ‘Oh, Billy. Somebody musta hit Andy with a car.’ I didn’t even tell Audrey, so nobody say anything to her.” Audrey is Bill’s wife. I think Bill might have been looking at Stewart when he said this. Stewart has this look, maybe contempt for Bill for not having the grapes to tell his wife.

It goes back to Jim. “Your turn,” Bill says.

Jim takes a thoughtful pull off his beer. “You know, I don’t think I ever done anything really bad.” Everybody makes that little huffing noise you make when someone is chickening out, and Stewart polishes off his scotch.

Rory pushes it. “Come on, this is your game, you started it. What did you do?”

“Well, I don’t know if this counts, but a couple of years ago, I messed up my taxes. Somehow I hadn’t withheld enough and April Fifteenth comes around and I don’t have enough cash.”

“So whatcha do?” Bill prompts him.

“I just invented a car. I just put down that I had this car that I used for work and I had put nineteen thousand six hundred miles or something on it and some other stuff like that. I saved about two grand. It wasn’t worth it, because I sweated it for years. Years. Middle of the night and I’d think, what if I get audited. Nothing ended up happening, and I think the statue of limitations is over now. But man, I worried.”

“I don’t think that counts,” say Bill and Rory nods. Stewart just shrugs; he is pouring himself more of the scotch. “Yeah, tax evasion just isn’t bad enough.”

“Fuck you,” Jim says, but not in a mean way. “I’m not going twice.”

“Come on,” Bill wheedles and Rory chimes in with a “Yeah.”

“All right, all right, all right. But this is bad. Bad. This is back when I was married. I had this thing going on with this girl at work.” We all brighten up at this — I guess everybody like to hear a dirty story — but Stewart looks like he’s interested for the first time. He puts down his drink and leans forward in his chair. He’s trying to not to show it, but you can see that he’s dying to hear this.

Jim gets a little nostalgic. “She was a real nice girl. Uh, Sarah, I think. Sarah wasn’t a slut, she was just a little mixed up and you know. We used to do it at work. You know, find an office or a conference room that no one was using. One day, we did it in the car, for variety. Only the dumb girl… jeez, how could anyone be this dumb? You know what she did? She left her underwear in the car.”

“Busted,” Bill calls out, and Rory nods smugly like he knew this would happen. Stewart’s mean eyes get meaner.

“But the thing is, it wasn’t my car! I take the bus to work, and this guy Norris in the next office always leaves his keys on his desk and he was in some four-hour meeting, so I snagged his keys. After we screwed, Sarah went back to her desk without her panties, and I put the keys back.

“But the thing was, it’s not Norris’s car either, or it’s not just his car. It’s his and his wife’s car. She works for the company too, and they commute in together. Of course, the next day or the day after, she took the car to the mini-wash at lunch to wash it and found the panties under the seat. She went ballistic, stormed back to the office and started screaming at poor Norris, right there in the office in front of everybody, everybody.”

“You see this?” asks Bill.

Rory asks, “What did you do?”

“What did I do? I kept my fucking mouth shut. Sarah was sick or something that day, and she didn’t know whose car it was anyway. But I just watched and I knew what was happening and I sure as shit didn’t say a thing. Oh, man, they both got fired or quit or something. Anyway, they were gone. I heard they got divorced. They were only married like 10 months total.”

Bill and Rory both shake their heads, but Stewart, I was really starting to hate Stewart, because he was looking like he enjoyed the story, just the faintest little smile on his face.

By rights, I should have been the one to go next, but for whatever reason, Jim asked Stewart and so I never got a chance. I don’t know what I would have said, but I’ve done some shit in my time.

Anyway, Jim says, “Stewart, your turn.”

“Mine?” Stewart says.

Now, I’m sure Stewart must have said something before that, sometime during the evening, because he wasn’t the quiet type. He must have said something before, but when he asks “Mine?”, it’s the first thing he said that I remember. His voice is flat, a sort of a scraping noise, like instead of vocal cords he was just running the blade of a knife over a cinder-block.

“Yeah, yours. Your story,” Bill’s trying to goad him, but I can tell he doesn’t need to. The scotch or something is going to make Stewart talk and he knows it and I know it and I’m surprised that Bill doesn’t know it. I try to think of an excuse to leave because I do not want to hear what a piece of work like Stewart thinks is the worst thing he has ever done.

The scraping voice goes on. “The worst thing I’ve ever done. Oh, yeah. Oh yeah. The Tale.” He tastes his scotch, enjoys it. “The Tale.” He looks like he’s daydreaming, and Jim raps his bottle on the table to get the story going.

“In high school, there was this girl. There’s always that girl, right? Every school. Our school it was Jessie Allard. Beautiful girl. Big tits, great ass, legs like… Most girls like that are, I don’t know, cheerleaders, student-government, shit like that. Popular. Jessie always stayed to herself. Three years in the same school, I never saw her talking to anyone else, but like I said, built.” He licks the corner of his mouth as if he is hunting for the last drop of Maker’s Mark.

“Anyway, couple years back, I’m on a business trip to some bum-fuck town in Minnesota. Ass-end of nowhere and I’m checking into the Best Western and who is behind the counter but Jessie Allard, 20 years older but still. Great tits, great ass, great legs.”

I look around the table and everyone is rapt, even Stewart, who is showing a gross relish for the memory. In my own mind, I picture Jessie, working as a night clerk in a wind-scoured Minnesota town, pushing 40 years old. The lonely teen grown into a solitary adult. Stewart was from, where? Florida or something like that. How does a pretty girl migrate north like a goose in April?

“We chit-chat, how ya been, and, I figure, go for it. Turns out, she gets off at midnight, which gives me some time to think, to plan it all out, so when she’s about to punch out, I find her again and ask her to let me buy her a drink at the hotel bar. She gives me some crap about hotel policy, so I put on the total sincere and say, ‘Please, a few moments. I need to talk to you.'” He shrugs modestly. “Middle of the night, middle of nowhere, what she going to do? I mean, she’s got a wedding ring on, but hubby isn’t waiting up until midnight every night for wifey to come home.”

“There’s nobody in the bar except us and the bartender and I lay it out for her. The Tale.” Stewart’s fleshy white hands spread an imaginary banner out in the air over the table and he reads it out again. “The Tale.”

Rory doesn’t get it. “The tale?”

“I got it all planned out. I tell it, I had a big crush on her in high school. ‘Oh, you were so pretty, Oh, you were so sad. I could never work up the nerve to talk to you.'”

I had figured out where this was going from the start and now Bill is starting to get it too. He nods knowingly. He is trying to act like this is the way big-time playboys like him and his buddy Stewart always scam chicks.

“And all this is flattering her, right? So I started laying on a little thicker. Ever since then, I thought about her, dreamed about her, thought about trying to find her. Oh, and this was good: I told her the only reason I didn’t try to find her sooner was that I had this fantasy that I could get rich and impress her. Then, I said, that I had realized I would never be rich and that we would never be together. I told her I had found out where she was working and I come to town just to tell her that I loved her and always would love her and then never see her again. Man, she was just jelly. And I got up and left.”

The guys all just explode. “What?” Jim demands. “You just left?”

“Yeah, I left, because I’m not a fucking idiot like you guys. I told her I would always love her and stood up and went back upstairs to my room and waited. She was the desk clerk. She knew what room I was in.”

Bill closes his eyes in pure envy. “Tell me she didn’t come knock on your door?

“No, she didn’t come knock on my door. She had her own key! She just walked in! She walked in and stood there and didn’t say anything.”

Rory breaks in, anxious. “So you slept with her? You did, right?”

Stewart sighs. “Look, use your head. If I just boinked her, what was going to happen then? Morning time and I say sayanara and fly back to the wife and kids, she’s going to figure out she was scammed. I don’t need some chick calling my house looking for me, yakking with my wife. Fuck no.”

Jim looks like he’s near tears. “So after all this, you didn’t sleep with her?”

Stewart’s getting mad now at how stupid we all are. “No, no, listen, damn it. I just give her the rest of the Tale. I love her, but I cannot leave my children — always say ‘children’ in a situation like this, it’s sound so much more sincere than ‘kids’ — I cannot leave my children even for her and I don’t want to disrespect her by a one-night stand.  Oh and I’m all choked up.”

Jim is actually slapping the table with glee at this point and Rory and Bill are nodding and exchanging grins. Stewart is cheered a little by the appreciation. “Of course, all this time, she hasn’t said a word, just standing there with this kind of dumb look on her face. And at the end, when I tell her, in this real real choked-up whisper that maybe she should go, she just walks over to the phone, calls up hubby, wakes him up, and tells him she has to stay at work for a few more hours and not to worry.”

“Yeah, don’t worry!” Jim says.

“She tells him she loves him, hangs up, undresses, and lies down on the bed.” Stewart nods to himself: the story is over.

Bill chortles. “Oh, man. That is fucked up.”

Jim leans back in his chair. “Brilliant. That is the best story I have ever heard. That really happen?”

Rory is a little subdued. “I don’t know if what he did was so bad. I mean, who did it hurt?”

Bill argues back. “Oh, come on. Just totally scamming a chick out of her pants like that. Cold, totally cold.” He says this like a congratulation, and Jim holds up a beer-bottle in a toast to Stewart’s coldness.

Stewart’s face twists and he slams his glass down, slopping liquor onto the table. “You morons don’t get it, do you?” They all look at each other, baffled. I know what’s coming, so I try to look off into space but I can still see him out of the corner of my eye. Despite how angry he is, his face is still harshly impassive, like the face of a warden witnessing a death sentence being carried out. When he speaks again, the scraping noise in his voice is gone and there’s the choked-up whisper from the hotel room.

“The worst thing? The worst was the tale. That story about the crush, thinking about her for 20 years, wanting just to talk to her one last time? Telling her that tale was the worst, most heartless, most unforgivable thing I could have done, don’t you see that? Don’t you see? It was worst thing, because it was all true, every word.”

Michael Lorton – 2005

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