Tuesday, May 19, 2009

AMERICAN CRUDE - Chapter 2-c

The following is a rough draft of Chapter 2-c of my post-oil novel entitled AMERICAN CRUDE.

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--Innocent Byproduct

When I reached her tableside she tilted her head sidelong at me in quiet neutrality. With one curious eyebrow arched, she awaited my self-introduction. Her eyes were chestnut.

“Brown velvet hat with a flower on the side?” I asked.

And then she smiled. While not the rapturous smile of adoration I’d hoped for, its glow boosted my ego.

“Mr. Walczak! Thank you for coming. Please join me.”

In response to the uncomfortable temperature I slipped off my jacket and sat down as she packed away the Blackberry. I’ll confess to two acts of stealth-machismo I incorporated into my jacket-shedding gesture. First, I cranked both shoulders back extra hard, keeping them back all through breakfast. And second, I stole another glimpse at her twinkling wedding band. Like the rest of her, it too was real. And at close range I could tell it was an exquisite piece of workmanship with serious money behind it.

The waitress came with menus, and Mystery Lady requested a glass of water be brought for me as well. I protested, but Mystery Lady raised her hand in insistence. “Please,” she said, “this is my treat.” So I conceded, and the waitress set down a clear empty glass which she then filled from her pitcher. As the water and cubes tumbled forth, I caught the pungent aroma of too much chlorine --all too typical of City tap water. Ignoring the smell, I nodded my gratitude and returned my attentions to the menu. The waitress left.

As the swirling cubes in my cloudy water slowed down in their gyrations, I glanced over my menu at my hostess and potential client, and pondered her age --maybe late twenties, and that made me feel old. Yet with one of those accursed face lifts she might’ve been in her forties. But the lack of overdone perfection to her face made me hopeful she had never gone under the knife and merely took very good care of herself. So I finally pegged Mystery Lady as somewhere in her thirties. Then I wondered about “Mr. Mystery.” Was he also in his thirties? Or was he a decrepit old codger far past an acceptable age for someone like her? Did she love him? Or did she marry him for his money? As for her gentle curls peeking out from under the hat, I could tell she was freshly bathed and shampooed that very morning. She didn’t wear the hat to cover bad hair, she wore it to be fashionable!

When it came time to order I tightened up the slipshod jargon of my urban upbringing known as “Philly-speak” and actually sounded half-civilized for a change. After the waitress took our order and left, I said to Mystery Lady with a modest laugh: “I’m embarrassed to say this but I think I forgot your name.”

She said in overt mystery: “You can call me … Mrs. Jones.”

I cracked a wry grin while giving her a knowing glance --that wasn’t her real name! And she knew that I knew, so she grinned back with a shrug. Part of me hoped to catch a tiny hint of flirtation in her grin. But I saw nothing like flirtiness, only a veiled nervousness.

I eventually lifted my glass as I readied to take my first sip. I stifled any betrayal of my revulsion when the now-motionless water revealed foreign particles floating visibly in the oddly colored liquid.

“So, Mrs. Jones,” I said, bracing against the chlorine smell and concentrating on my grammar, “can I ask what kind of tank work you’re in the market for?” I set my lips to the glass and forced the water in.

“Can we hold off talking business ‘til after we’ve eaten?”

I found her request appealing since it’d be easier for me to eat first and turn her down later. Free breakfast with a pretty lady -- what more could a man ask for?

So we talked small talk: the weather, traffic, even sports. We avoided the triple taboo of sex, politics, and religion. We also avoided any talk of our private lives including spouses. I did mention my son which caused her to light up, and I responded to her inner spark by smiling back far more broadly than I intended. When I asked if she had children, she mustered a stilted smile. “No,” shook her head. I changed the subject back to the weather again.

The food arrived and it was great. And her impeccable table manners awed me to the point of distraction. I’d already second guessed her to be made of money. But witnessing her dining conduct made me suspect she was old money. Possibly even “a Main Liner,” which (in Philly-speak) meant she likely hailed from the long narrow strip about fifteen miles in length, laid out in a fairly straight path called “The Main Line.” That platinum ribbon of real estate was the heart of high society in the Philadelphia suburbs, deriving its name from the coveted commuter train that ran through a string of desperately expensive Victorian era streetcar villages on its way into the City. While Philly’s public transit system certainly had other trains, that particular line was forever dubbed the most important line, the “main” line. If not for the presence of that train, none of the houses in those villages would have been worth half what they typically fetched in the market since the closer a house sat to the train, the higher its value. The layout of the Main Line was dictated by that train, its personality was defined by the train, and the poshy residents of the area were so protective of it that they could always be counted on to fight hard to prevent their train from ever being compromised. If Mystery Lady didn’t live there surely she ran with the people who did. If so that made her someone who had absolutely everything and needed absolutely nothing. Yet still she needed my services -- badly enough to offer the inconceivable fee of fifty thousand dollars for them.

What exactly does she have in mind?

I again eyed her wedding band.

Where is “Mr. Mystery” in all of this? Is she hiring me behind his back? Or is he privy to her hiring me and merely looking the other way? Or is he in on it all and going to be very much a part of it? What is … “it”?

Beyond my suspecting the contract had to be illegal, my other unspoken question was: Will it also be immoral? Her failure to hide the ring suggested I likely wouldn’t be subjected to the sexual dalliance of a desperate housewife.

As we chatted I asked for the second time that day (with a little more diplomacy) where she got my home phone number. I was unlisted so it might’ve come from a mutual friend or a prior customer. Not too many people knew my home number and I’d had it for less than a year, so the identity of the reference might help me learn her true name. She merely smiled and said: “I prefer not to be a name-dropper.” Total stonewall. So I smiled right back and let it go.

When the plates were cleared and only the coffee remained, she finally got to the business part of the conversation:

“I have an oil tank in the basement,” she said. “It’s leaking. I need it fixed.”

That’s it? A leaky tank? She wants to get all cloak-and-dagger over a damned oil tank?

Minor repair work required no permits or inspections. So fixing a leak under the table would be in no way illegal as far as my state licensing went. But why all the secrecy? Had the tank been installed by another under-the-table contractor, making it an unregistered or even out-of-code tank? Was the leak contaminating the ground water, but she and her husband wanted to avoid reporting it to the local environmental board? If either possibility turned out to be the case, there was no way I’d touch this job since those fines started in the four-digit range.

“Forgive me but …” and then I dropped down to a whisper, “I don’t understand why a tank repair is worth fifty thousand, cash up front, with a back-end bonus.”

“It’s a bit more complex than that,” she whispered in return. “I hope to secure not just your services. I’m also seeking your … discretion. It’s all about privacy. So the location of my house can never be disclosed by you, nor details about anything in the house.”

I paused in mild intrigue.

“Is your husband a politician or a celebrity?” I asked. “Is that what this is about? He’s famous?”

“No. It’s just that the privacy of that household must remain utterly uncompromised.”

I knew there had to be more than she was letting on. Nobody paid fifty-grand for mere “privacy.”

“Mrs. Jones, what exactly constitutes ‘privacy’?”

“No matter what you see in my house, no matter how bizarre, you cannot ask questions, you cannot divulge to anyone the location of the house, you cannot tell anyone what you saw there, nor that you’d even been there in the first place.”

My happy-meter was nowhere to be found now, and instead my run-like-hell claxon blared full blast. Did her basement perhaps serve as the meeting place for some strange religious cult? A kinky swingers club? A drug ring? A human traffic hub? Fifty grand or not, my license and my son were worth far more than her “privacy.” I defaulted to a blank stare as I struggled over how to exit as gracefully as possible in one minute or less. I even tossed aside my grammar filter and started dropping my consonants again.

“Ya’ know, I gotta’ confess,” I noticed I was involuntarily shaking my head, “only reason I came’s Hal’s Diner’s got th’ best breakfast in town an’ so --”

-- But my cell phone rang. In awkwardness I glanced and saw it was the office number, which meant it was an emergency.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Mystery Lady, “it’s my secretary. I gotta’ take it. But I’ll be quick.” I popped the phone open and turned sideways to answer. “Hello? Steph?”

“Pete,” Stephanie’s voice was quiet but anxious, and I could even hear her committing the rare faux pas of letting her tongue ring click nervously against her teeth. “That guy from the bank called again. He said he couldn’t get you the extension you asked for. So if you don’t pay the entire balance by the end of the day, he’s going to foreclose.”

I sat there frozen, numbly holding the phone to my head while a wave of trauma shuddered through my whole body. And then I imagined the courts taking my son away.

I turned to Mystery Lady and asked: “How soon can you get me the cash?”

-------------------End of Chapter 2-c--------------------