The next evening was Rood Boyz practice, and band leader Caleb was in rare form. We had another gig next week, at a slightly higher-profile venue, and Caleb was being extremely picky. He made us go over the bridge for “Pressure Drop” about two dozen times, and everybody was in a sour mood by the time practice broke up.
When I got home, I really didn’t feel like talking to Janet. On the other hand, I didn’t really feel like spending my Friday evening following Malcolm around while he demonstrated that he was a better person than I. Johnny B was trying to get people together to go out to a screening of The Warriors at the Laurelhurst Theater. That sounded like a lot more fun than fending off cops and drug dealers down in Oldtown.
Reluctantly, I picked up my phone and called Janet. She picked up on the first ring. “Oh, thank God it’s you Carlos! I’ve been so worried! I thought that maybe something had happened to you!”
“Nothing has happened to me,” I said. “That’s why I’m calling. This whole thing with Malcolm is a bust. He hasn’t done anything more sinister than handing out sandwiches to street people. I’ve got drug dealers and cops hassling me while I’m trying to ‘keep an eye’ on your boyfriend. No more. I’m through with this mess.”
“Oh, no!” she said. “Oh, no no no! Something big’s going to happen, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to happen tomorrow.”
“Well, you seem to know more about it than anyone else,” I said. “Why don’t you deal with it?”
“Because I’m so scared!” she wailed. “I’m depending on you, Carlos! Please!”
That gave me pause. I thought I was getting over my little crush on her, but I suppose that thought may be a little premature. Okay, one more damn time and that’s it, I thought, suspecting that I would probably do it as many more damn times as she asked me to. I sighed, knowing that she still had me wrapped around her finger.
“Okay, I’ll do it one more time,” I said. “But there are two conditions.”
“Oh, sure, whatever you want! I’ll do it” she said.
“Okay, good,” I said. “First: you have to come with me this time.”
“Oh, sure, sure,” she said. “I’d be glad to come with you. I’ve actually felt bad about letting you do all the work.”
“Great. Here’s the second: after tomorrow, I’m done spying on him. He hasn’t done anything but ride his bike and hand out stuff in homeless camps.”
She took a long, ragged breath. “Okay, yeah, sure,” she said. “I think one more night is all it’s going to take, anyway. Tomorrow night.”
“What makes you so sure something is going to happen tomorrow?” I asked.
“B-because tomorrow’s my birthday,” she said, her voice thick with tears. “H-he doesn’t want to get together, and he w-won’t say w-w-why!”
“Oh, happy birthday,” I said reflexively. “How old are you?” Then I winced again. I should know better than to ask that question to any female over the age of twelve, but my mouth seemed to be on autopilot.
“I’ll be thirty,” she said. “The big three-oh.” She didn’t sound too happy about it.
“Really?” I said. “I would never have guessed.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked. “Do you think I look old or something?”
“No, no,” I said. “Just the opposite. I had you pegged at twenty-five, twenty-six, tops.” Which was true; I was surprised that she was thirty.
“Oh, thanks!” she said. “You really are a sweet guy, Carlos.”
Yeah, that and five bucks will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks, I thought. “So, you’re having a big-time birthday,” I said. “And Mr. Greene has decided he’s got other things to do.”
“Uh-huh,” she sniffed.
“Look, why are you still even dealing with this?” I asked. “I mean, he’s treating you like this, why not just dump him?”
She started to say something, but broke down sobbing. After a few moments, she pulled herself together. “J-Jesus, I really don’t know anymore,” she said. “I mean, deep down, I know it’s over between me and him. But I still kinda care about him – sort of. I still think he’s in some sort of trouble. I think he needs help, Carlos. You’re his friend . . . we’re his friends. We need to help him.”
“What if he doesn’t want any help?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know! I just feel like he’s gotten into something and he’s way over his head!”
“What makes you think that?” I asked. “Yeah, he’s treating you like crap. And it sure doesn’t make sense to me that any guy would do anything other than treat you like a queen, but that doesn’t mean he’s gotten into some sort of ‘trouble.’”
“I can’t tell you for sure,” she said. “Look, I know it must sound crazy to you. Hell, it sounds pretty crazy to me. But it’s not just that he’s been acting like a jerk to me. I’m not so egotistical to think that someone who screws me over has something wrong with them. I may be a princess sometimes, but I’m not that much of a princess.”
“Hey, I wasn’t saying that,” I interjected, even though that’s exactly what I’d been thinking.
“It’s just lot of little things put together. The aloofness, the broken dates. He goes around muttering to himself. Sometimes chuckling, but he’ll never say why when I ask him what he’s laughing about. Sometimes praying.”
“Praying?” I asked. “You’ve got to be kidding me! Malcolm Greene is definitely not the praying type.”
“I don’t know, it’s some Buddhist stuff,” she said. “Sometimes, he’ll just keep muttering the same snatch of prayer or mantra over and over. It reminds me of my uncle.”
“Your uncle’s a Buddhist?”
“My uncle’s an asshole. He’s a hard-shell Baptist, but he loves to play the ponies. And he’s horrible at it, too. Loses tons of money and it drives my poor aunt crazy. When he really loses a bundle at the track, she can tell because he wanders around the house muttering the Lord’s Prayer and the twenty-third Psalm under his breath. And that’s pretty much what Malcolm’s been doing, especially after he disappears for a day or two. I think that’s what scares me the most.”
“Yeah, that sounds pretty freaky,” I said. “No wonder you’ve been so worried.” Actually, I wasn’t that surprised. Malcolm had always been a little weird – like that thing with the chemtrails. Smart people are always a little bit weird, and it’s not unusual that the really smart ones turn out to be monumentally quirky. I line from a Stephen King story jumped to mind: There’s a whammy on bright girls and boys. If the bright ones have a twisted fiber, it shows. If they don’t, you can figure them out as easily as square roots. I didn’t see much point in sharing any of these musings with Janet, though.
“Look, we do this thing tomorrow night,” I said. “If nothing happens, all good. If something happens, we’ll deal with it. Personally, my money’s on ‘nothing happens.’”
“God, I hope you’re right, Carlos.”
The next evening, I got off work and hit the drive-thru at Burgerville, then drove downtown to pick up Janet. She was on the corner of Pioneer Courthouse Square by the Starbucks. I pulled right up next to her, but she didn’t see me. She kept looking at her phone and occasionally glancing up the street in the direction I had come from. I looked her straight in the face, but she still didn’t see me. Finally, I hit the horn. It made a stately-sounding blip and she finally looked down. She recognized me and her face broke into a sunny grin. I leaned over and opened the passenger side door.
“Oh, I didn’t recognize you,” she said. “Is this new? I thought you drove a Honda or something.”
“I borrowed this from my auntie,” I said. “I’d be a pretty shitty spy if I drove around spying in my own car.”
“You’re not a spy,” she said.
“Yeah, OK, I guess so.”
“Look, it doesn’t really matter,” I said. “He’s maybe gonna go out and deliver baloney sandwiches to the homeless, and probably go straight home. You’ll see.”
“And he’d rather do that than celebrate my thirtieth birthday with me?”
“Well, if he doesn’t want to spend as much time with you as possible, then he’s a lot dumber than I’d thought.”
It was good enough for her to give my shoulder a squeeze and say, “You’re a good guy, Carlos.”
“Just speakin’ truth,” I said. She beamed. I was really smooth tonight.
I crossed over Burnside into Oldtown and wound up in the weird tangle of streets by the train station. I had figured this out earlier, and was able to get a good parking spot with a full view of the entrance to Gimme Shelter. I checked the time: Malcolm would be done with his shift in ten minutes.
“Hey,” I said. “I don’t know if you’re hungry or anything, but I picked up some Burgerville on the way over.” I reached into the back seat and came up with the big white sack. “I got cheeseburgers, fries and milkshakes. Maybe it’s not the fancy feast you’d wanted – but happy birthday!” I hoisted a shake in salute.
“You’re right,” she admitted. “This wasn’t what I’d hope for, as far as birthdays go. But it beats sitting home alone. Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“Of course not,” I said. I tensed – this sort of preface usually led to something awkward.
“Have you ever been married?”
“I dunno,” she said. “I was just curious. You’re, like forty, right?
“Twelve years older. Not that big a deal, don’t you think?”
“Nope,” I said. “People get way too hung up on age. It’s just a number, after all. And the older I get, the less important it seems. It’s how you act that matters, not the number on your driver’s license. What do you think? Especially now that you’ve hit the big three-oh?”
“I think you’re right,” she said. “People have been asking me about turning thirty, and it just gets tiresome. I think it’s different for women, though. My mom claimed to be ‘twenty-nine and holding’ until she was at least fifty.”
“Ugh, yeah. The way our society emphasizes youth and appearance, especially for women. It’s utter bullshit, in my opinion. Makes me glad I was born with a dick.” Oops, I thought – might have gone too far with that last one.
Janet threw her head back and laughed. “Y’know, sometimes I wish I had been born with a dick.”
“You seem to be doing pretty well with your original equipment, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“I don’t, not at all,” she said. “You know, Carlos, I think that once all this is over, you and I might, y’know, try to spend some time together. If you’d like to.”
“Of course I’d like to. But, uh, what about Malcolm? What if this turns out to be some sort of big misunderstanding?” I was pretty sure it was – at least I certainly hoped so.
“It doesn’t matter,” she sighed. “I hope it’s all a big misunderstanding, too. In fact, you’re right: it probably is. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s been acting like a big-time jerk to me. If he’s got something going on – money problems, legal troubles, whatever – he should be able to talk to me about it.”
“Yeah, of course,” I said. “It’s all about trust, right?”
“Right. And I feel I can trust you, Carlos.”
Part of me was ready to make a play for her right then and there. If I leaned in for a kiss, I would probably get it. Still, it didn’t feel right. Plus, I was fairly certain that if I did get Janet in a lip-lock, at that exact moment Malcolm would come out the door and spot us right away. Anything that was developing between me and Janet, it needed to go on hold until this evening – and the uncertainty about Malcolm – was well and truly finished.
I glanced at the clock on the dashboard: it read twenty past seven. “That’s weird,” I said.
“It’s getting late. Usually, he’s out the door a few minutes past seven. Ten minutes tops.”
“Maybe he left already,” she suggested. “Maybe he left early . . .” She pulled out her phone, gave it a quick glance, frowned and put it away.
“Everything OK?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s just . . .”
“I just thought that maybe, y’know, he was planning a surprise for my birthday. That he was gonna text me to meet him somewhere at the last minute or something.”
Uh-huh, I thought. Of course, she still has feelings for him. What was I thinking? She wasn’t flirting with me at all. I should have known better. Well, at least I hadn’t made an ass of myself by making a move on her.
“Look, we can hang out for another ten, fifteen minutes, but after that . . .”
“Wait!” she said, grabbing my arm. “Is that him?” she pointed at the alley between Gimme Shelter and the adult bookstore next door. A figure was emerging, pushing a bike. I recognized the bike: it was Malcolm’s ten speed, a sky-blue Fuji that probably cost more than my car. At first, I thought that someone had ganked it – it took me a moment to realize that it was Malcolm was pushing it.
He wasn’t in his normal outfit – he looked more like a ninja. Dark jeans, black combat boots and a black hoodie, with the hood pulled up and the drawstring pulled tight. I might not have recognized him if it weren’t for the bike. A moment’s scrutiny said this was Malcolm – the build and the gait as he pushed the bike were unmistakable.
“That’s weird,” I said.
“Have you ever seen him dressed like that?”
“No,” she said. “He always wears that Army jacket. Everywhere. Even when we went out someplace ‘fancy.”
“Might be nothing,” I said. “Maybe the jacket is in the wash or something.” I looked over at her. She looked over at me. Something was off and we both knew it.