“Is he upset about the limo?” Catherine’s lovely telephone voice asked with an obvious hint of fear.
“No no!” Mrs. Valera assured her. “He is a perfect gentleman. And I have already arranged for Kyle to drive him back to his vehicle after Kyle is done with his chores. He is being very patient.”
“James warned me this would happen,” Catherine said sadly.
“Warned what would happen, Senora?”
“Spot shortages on fuel deliveries. I didn’t think it would start this soon. Oh God, I wish James was here!”
And then there was a long pause.
“Mrs. Valera, he saved my life!”
“Mr. Walczak. I might very well have died last night if he hadn’t been there. But he saved me. Please be as good to him as you can.”
“Muy bien! Absolutely! I know you are not a woman prone to exaggeration. So if you say this happened, then he now has a place of honor in this household.”
In the next long pause, my sense of godhood reached a crescendo. My ego was so strung out on self-adulation I might have been downright dangerous at that moment.
“Mrs. Valera,” Catherine’s voice changed in pitch and she spoke very slowly now. “What do you think of Mr. Walczak?”
“Well,” Mrs. Valera seemed to be choosing her words carefully. “I regret I have not seen his workmanship, so I cannot comment on his skill as a worker, or his diligence in reporting for work. But Kyle said he helped with the chores in the barn this morning. And he seems quite agreeable, and if your husband chose him, then I think that alone means he is trustworthy. Did not your husband choose him?”
“Yes, he did,” Catherine said. “But his quality as a worker isn’t what I was asking you about. Mrs. Valera … what do you think of Mr. Walczak … as a man?”
I had to grab hold of the podium at that moment. My breathing grew very short and intense as I listened through the long silence of Mrs. Valera’s pause. My aspirations toward godhood vanished and actual terror gripped me now. Out in the kitchen I heard Mrs. Valera close the door to the kitchen office before continuing to speak.
“I have some opinions, Senora.” Mrs. Valera finally said. “Are you prepared to hear them?”
“Yes,” Catherine said. My terror mounted.
“First, I think he is a gentleman. That is always a requirement and he fulfills that very nicely.”
So far, so good.
“Second, I automatically have much respect for a fine Polish man. And I know you Americans seem to think Polish people are somehow inferior. In fact when I first came to America almost thirty years ago and I heard about how Americans tell Polish jokes, I was shocked. We do not look down upon the Polish in Europe. Europeans regard the Polish as a very noble race of hard work and honesty. And they have many intellectual and scientific accomplishments as well. So I think Americans should be ashamed at the way they have so cruelly defamed such a fine nation as Poland without warrant.”
That warmed my heart.
“I recall you told me that a few years ago,” Catherine said. “But you also said there was some other nationality in Europe that almost all Europeans looked down upon -- what nationality was that again?”
“The Irish,” Mrs. Valera sighed in sadness.
I laughed! My ex-wife Mary Kelly was 100% Irish from the neighborhoods of Northeast Philly, and toward the end of our marriage she began angrily calling me a “dumb Pollock” right to my face. Part of the divorce settlement included the stipulation that she never call me that again -- either to my face or behind my back -- because the judge deemed it would most assuredly be permanently harmful to Jason on many levels, especially considering he shared my ethnicity, my last name, and even my genes. But in spite of MK’s complying with that veritable gag order, I’m sure she never stopped thinking those words about me. Yet now Mrs. Valera’s information proved a sweet sweet revenge to my ears.
Mrs. Valera continued:
“I have more opinions if you want, Senora. Not all of them are good.”
“Please go ahead.” And now my terror slowly began coming back again.
“He is a blue collar man. So this prompts me to caution you: your friends and family will not accept him. You will have to choose between him and them. And while they might warm up to him eventually, their acceptance of him will never be complete. There will always be a wall between him and them, a great gulf that divides him from ever becoming one of them.”
The truth of that declaration was in no way lost upon me. I knew it from the start, and Doctor Tuxedo’s treatment of me the night before was a mere foretaste of what I would surely be in for if Catherine chose to pursue letting me into her world.
“Regardless of what other people might feel, do you think James would approve?” Catherine asked sheepishly.
“Well, Senora,” Mrs. Valera said, “if you had asked me that a year ago, I might have said ‘No, he would not approve.’ However, I have a different opinion now. And here I need to explain why. And if you will forgive me, Senora, I cannot explain it without first confessing to eavesdropping on a conversation between you and Colonel Warren.”
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Valera. It’s impossible to work in someone’s private home without sometimes overhearing things. Which conversation are you referring to?”
“It was about a month before Colonel Warren died. He knew he was dying. And he was telling you that after he was gone he wanted you to marry again. But, he said, he did not want you to marry a man of wealth and prestige. He urged you instead to seek out a man of honesty who was accustomed to hard work -- a man with no fear of living a life of unending physical labor -- a man who accomplished things with his hands and his back, not his smile and his vocabulary. Do you recall that conversation, Mrs. Warren?”
Catherine did not answer right away. I then heard her sniff back a tear before whispering her strained reply: “Yes.”
“Well, Senora, I think you have found such a man.”
Another a very long pause happened. Misty lay down at my feet and plopped her head upon my shoes again.
After that interminable pause, Mrs. Valera continued:
“Have you seen Misty’s reaction to this man?”
“She seems to like him.”
“More than that! She follows him everywhere. And last I saw her, she was lying beneath the table in the break room where Mr. Walczak was finishing breakfast, with her head upon his feet.”
“I do not kid, Mrs. Warren. And Kyle told me that even Apollo has taken to Mr. Walczak. Do you recall I once told you about my father back in Spain?” Mrs. Valera said, and now I finally knew why I couldn’t place her accent: I had never heard the accent of a true Spaniard before.
“I think you said he was a dog trainer,” Catherine said.
“Yes. But not just any dog trainer. He trained hunting dogs for the Spanish nobility. And even the royal family bought his dogs as their personal pets. My father knew the heart and mind of a dog like few other people did. And if he were alive today to see this behavior in Misty, he would marvel. Now my mother, on the other hand (God rest her soul), was very mystical in her outlook. And if she were alive to see this, she would say Misty’s devotion to Mr. Walczak is a sign from Heaven that Mr. Walczak is meant to be here, but not as a plumber. She would say he is meant to be here to take Colonel Warren’s place. But that is only what my mother would think. My father was far less mystical in his outlook and more scientific about most matters. So if my father were here to see this, he would say that the only reason Misty has so thoroughly cast her heart and her loyalties toward Mr. Walczak is because Misty sensed from the first moment she met him that you yourself had already cast your own heart toward him, and so now Misty is merely following your example.”
As another long pause of silence unfolded, I glanced down at Misty’s head resting upon my feet. She looked up with sad eyes then plopped her head back down again.
I stood there stunned. And strangely I did not launch into the self-aggrandizing, god-hood fantasy again. This time, I was faced with having to consider interacting with Catherine in a real life relationship of real dating and real phone calls and real misunderstandings and real arguments and real make-ups and real first-time meetings with real friends and real family. And that thought simultaneously electrified me and terrified me.
“I need to hang up now,” Catherine said. “Please treat Mr. Walczak with the highest respect. And of course, I don’t have to tell you not to mention any of this to him.”
“Si, Senora. Meanwhile, Kyle does not usually finish his chores until after lunch. Shall I serve lunch to Mr. Walczak in the dining room instead of the servants break room?”
“Yes, but only if he’s comfortable with that.”
“And if he does eat in the dining room, do me a favor: seat him in James’ chair at the head of the table and let me know if Misty follows him. I used to get so annoyed at that dog and all the hair she left all over the house. I stopped arguing with James about it years ago: she was his dog and went with him wherever he went and that was that. But now I just wish …. Let me know if that happens when he eats lunch. I would love so much to see that for myself, but for now I’m just counting on you to tell me if it happens.”
“Si, Senora! I can’t wait for lunch then!”
They ended the call and hung up. The dial tone kicked in. I heard Mrs. Valera open the office door again and rush into the main kitchen. I slowly hung up as well and walked in a daze over to the window that overlooked the back of the property with its paddocks, orchards and the tall cliff. Misty shadowed me all the way and assumed her preferred position of lying at my feet with her head upon my shoes.
I stood there pondering the very notion of becoming lord over this stately manor. Of having that ravishing woman adoringly lean against my side in both public and private. Of providing my son with a bedroom upstairs fit enough for any European crowned prince. I literally stopped breathing for several long moments.
And then my breathless mystification was interrupted by the chiming of a beautiful doorbell. I could tell by the genuineness of its musical tones reverberating with acoustical clarity through the house that this doorbell had actual bells in it and wasn’t merely a digital recording. Misty jumped up, standing taught with her tail straight up, letting off one loud bark.
“Misty! Hush!” I whispered. And she dropped her aggressive stance and sidled up alongside me in her formal “heel” position. I patted her head. “Good girl.” I next imagined taking Misty for morning walks every day through the vast acreage out back. And I imagined Jason joining us on those morning strolls during the weekends when he came to visit. Jason will like Misty, I thought to myself. And then I further imagined that when Jason was old enough for the courts to let him choose between his parents, he would surely choose to come and live with Catherine and me. I recalled how Catherine’s eyes lit up when I first mentioned my son to her. Catherine will like Jason. And he’ll definitely like Catherine. I had not yet called her “Catherine” out loud, and the idea of my addressing her by her first name -- and of having the full right to do so -- caused a slow smile to unfold. I once again stopped breathing.
I heard Mrs. Valera answer the front door.
“Good morning, Doctor Bradley,” Mrs. Valera’s voice came. I groaned and rolled my eyes. Misty sensed my annoyance and started to growl. “Shhh! Misty, hush!” I said. She obeyed and I sat back down at the table again, clutching Misty’s head with both hands as I stroked her ears with my thumbs.
“Good morning, Mrs. Valera, I came to retrieve my car. But before I drive off, I needed to ask: is Mr. Wall-chack still here?” I grimaced at his mangling of my name, especially since I’d witnessed Catherine’s introduction of me followed by his own on-the-money pronunciation when he gave me the dead-fish handshake. His failure to pronounce it correctly this time around at first struck me as deliberate insult. Only later did I realize the truth was he had been reading my name repeatedly that morning, both on a computer screen and on printout sheets. And so his constant reading of the letter “W” as well as the other difficult letterings of my name was likely part of what corrupted his pronunciation there with Mrs. Valera. Misty sensed my further annoyance and she growled again. I hushed her again.
“Yes,” Mrs. Valera’s voice replied. “He’s in the break room. Come in.”
I heard their two sets of footsteps walking through the house, getting closer. And then the two of them entered the break room. Doctor Tuxedo wore over a thousand dollars worth of weekend casual wear -- from the Shetland sweater tied by its sleeves around his shoulders, to his designer jeans, to his leather boat shoes.
“Hey, Pete,” Doctor Tuxedo smiled, “how’s it goin’ man?”
“Hello, Keith,” I tried not to clench my teeth. I mostly succeeded. “You’re here to get the Jag? Mighty sweet-lookin’ride ya’ got there. I envy you!”
“Thanks, Pete! I’ll be trading up soon. You wanna buy it?”
“Nah, Keith. I’m not lookin’ to buy another car this year. Maybe another time.”
He turned to Mrs. Valera. “Mrs. Valera, I need to speak with Mr. Wall-chack alone if you don’t mind.”
“I have to walk to town right now and I will be back later. Before I go, can I get you something to eat or drink?”
“No thank you,” Doctor Tuxedo smiled. “I’ll be leaving shortly.”
She nodded and left.
Doctor Tuxedo sat down across from me. Misty let off another growl.
“Shhh, Misty!” I whispered. She stopped again.
“I’m very impressed,” he began, “with how much Misty actually obeys you. Follows you around. Like maybe you’ve been here before and she’s perhaps gotten to know you over the course of time.”
I didn’t like the unmistakable insinuation. I paused before answering, and in the silence we both heard Mrs. Valera leave the house via the front door.
“I have a way with animals,” I finally said.
“I guess you do. But … a few other things have likewise … ‘impressed’ me.” And from here onward he kept haphazardly looking left and right, up and down, but never directly into my eyes as he grinned in a carefree manner all through his speech. With a whimsical gesturing of his hands he oh-so casually spilled forth his not-so-subtle accusations, even tossing in the occasional and insipid laugh at times. “First of all, Catherine’s injury … I asked her what happened, and she merely said ‘I fell.’ And regrettably, my many hard years of schooling to become a doctor also included the sad and distasteful and obligatory training on how to spot domestic abuse in my patients. And one of the most common … lies … that a chronic victim of domestic abuse will offer when asked about their injuries, is the transparently false claim of ‘I fell.’”
I knew exactly where he was so smarmily going with this. But I said nothing. I just sat there, my eyes darkening and narrowing as I held back my desire to punch that grin off his whimsical face as he continued with his carefree tone of voice.
“I asked her where she fell, and she wouldn’t say. I asked her what she fell upon and she wouldn’t say. I asked her if you had anything to do with it, and she still wouldn’t say. So, now I’m kinda faced with whether or not I should obey the laws of the State of Pennsylvania and file a form called a dee-vee-one-nine-seven form with which I would then report in writing to local social services and local law enforcement authorities my suspicion that Catherine is emotionally and psychologically impaired to such an extent that she is now trapped in an ongoing and physically abusive relationship with …” and now he finally looked me in the eye as he paused and said: “… someone.”
With my eyes still narrowed, my respiration slightly increased and Misty started growling again. I didn’t shush her this time.
“And so she might be in need of intervention. Of course,” he returned to his smiling and whimsical eye rolling and hand gesturing. “Even though I’m not a psychologist, my opinion would still carry a lot of weight seeing as how she recently lost her husband. And then there’s the circumstantial evidence of such unexplainable things like your supposedly coming here last night to perform an emergency oil tank repair, and yet instead of arriving here in your work vehicle with all the appropriate tools of your trade, she picked you up at a diner in her contracted chauffer limousine.”
I started tipping my head forward with my eyes narrowing upon him even further. Misty stood up from the floor and her growling grew more intense. I could feel myself perspiring and I’m sure Misty could smell the raging presence of testosterone building in my sweat.
“And then there’s the odd matter of the even more disturbing and distasteful possibility that she might actually be paying you cash for your … ‘services’ … to the tune of twenty-thousand dollars per encounter.”
My eyes widened, my respiration became somewhat audible, and my sweat became visible. I felt one bead sliding down my forehead. He seemed to increase his mirthfulness now that he could see just how effective he was at getting to me. Misty started to intermix barks into her growls now. I again did not shush her.
“Now that would make you a very high-priced prostitute, and therefore you would be subject to criminal prosecution under Pennsylvania laws against sexual solicitation. And that kind of an arrest on your heretofore non-existent criminal record wouldn’t look too good in family court when it comes time for the judge to revisit the custody rights concerning your 9-year-old child.”
I exploded into a standing position, causing my chair to flip backward and topple over as I shouted: “YOU STAY AWAY FROM MY SON!” Misty charged forward with ferocious barkings and Doctor Tuxedo leaped up from his own chair in terror and backed himself against the wall. Misty stood at his feet, the hair on her back standing straight up, and her barkings now replaced with low guttural growls.
“MISTY!” I shouted, again invoking Captain Warren’s voice. “HEEL!”
She instantly obeyed and came back to my side again, but her respiration was also very loud, the fur on her back did not go down, and her angry gaze never left Doctor Tuxedo.
“All right!” I hissed at him. “What is it you really want?”
He un-pinned himself from the wall and tried to regain his former smugness. But in spite of his try at bravado, he was visibly shaking. He had a slight but detectable tremble in his voice as he spoke: “I am of the opinion that Catherine is very confused right now. She just lost her husband, she’s lonely, and not thinking clearly. And even though her association with you can be construed as a relationship of two consenting adults, it is for her own good that it needs to end. And I must therefore -- not merely as her doctor, but also as a good friend of her late husband’s -- do whatever I can to get you the fuck out of her life. That includes not just oil tank repairs, but even phone calls and e-mails. I am declaring all of Glicksville a no-fly zone for you from here onward, and Catherine especially is to remain off limits. Even if she calls you and begs you to come over, you are unequivocally to say no to her every single time. And if you think I don’t have ways of finding out if any phone calls or e-mails ever again happen between the two of you, you’re dumber than you look.” He then pointed at Misty. “Now you keep that mongrel away from me. One little scrape of its teeth against my skin, and I will have it put down, and I will also have you arrested for ordering the dog to attack me. The DA plays racket ball with me every month. I’m sure he’ll see it my way.”
I took a moment to think through this. I ran my fingers through my hair and closed my eyes.
Part of me wanted to call his bluff and take the chance he would never want to risk infuriating Catherine by publicly humiliating her via the despicable maneuver of setting into motion those kinds of legal proceedings. But I also knew what kind of man he was: a stark raving control freak. Maybe he didn’t have the balls to get the police involved, but maybe he did. And even if he chose not to go that route, it was obvious he had access to the right kind of people capable of getting any information he desired about me, and possibly wreaking havoc upon any corner of my life he so chose. And now that my explosive display of emotion a moment earlier had already tipped my hand to him that Jason was my one weak spot, he would surely apply as much pressure to that weak spot as his money and influence would afford him. The only thing that gave me hope was the possibility that Catherine was hip to just how much of a bastard Doctor Tuxedo was.
He suddenly added:
“I think you’re taking just a little too much of my valuable time here this morning. So let me make things as clear as possible: Catherine has no desire to hang out with convicted drug dealers such as yourself.”
I shot my head back up at him in shock.
“Okay,” he shrugged. “So maybe you haven’t been convicted yet. But the Glicksville chief of police can very easily get a conviction off of just one gram of cocaine found either on your person or in your vehicle. So I advise you to keep your person and your vehicle as far away from his jurisdiction as possible.”
That was all he needed to say. Even if such a conviction were overturned, I’d never see Jason again before his eighteenth birthday. And Catherine might not want to be associated with me after such a scandal, even if she knew the truth of what Doctor Tuxedo had done. It was better to lose just Catherine than to lose both her and Jason at the same time, not to mention my reputation and possibly even my freedom.
Before giving in to him, his slandering of Catherine was the one thing I couldn’t let go.
“All right, fine. I leave here today and never come back into her life again. But there’s just one thing you need to get straight in your head before I go: you’ve got Mrs. Warren all wrong,” I shook my head, wanting so much to call her by her first name but knowing better that to do that now. “Nothing happened like what you’re implying. She’s a decent woman. And even though I know you won’t believe me: I really did come here last night to fix an oil tank. And she really did fall. And it really was the fall that caused the injury. And that’s all I can say because she made me promise not to say anything more.”
He paused and squinted at me, mulling over in his mind the veracity of what I had just said. Then he quite surprisingly smiled with an odd twinkle in his narrowing eyes. He shook his finger at me and said with overt mischief: “She made a pass at you, didn’t she! She startled you with her sexual advances, in a panic you pushed her away, she fell, and now she’s too embarrassed to --”
“--Oh you sick sorry bastard!” I threw up my arms in exasperation. “You only see what you wanna see! I fixed an oil tank! Replaced a broken valve! But in your twisted mind--”
“--If you really did fix an oil tank, show me the tank and I’ll believe you. Show me the broken old valve that got discarded. Show me the shiny new valve that only just got popped out of its factory sealed bubble-packaging last night and is now newly installed on this mythical oil tank I keep hearing about. Show me and make a believer out of me.”
I became deathly quiet and felt the blood drain out of my face. He now had me, but not for the reasons he believed. He started to gloat in his victory and darkly declared: “I want you gone. Now.”
“There’s a stable hand named Kyle who works for the Warren household. Kyle’s doing chores in the barn right now and he’s already agreed to give me a lift when he’s done. So I’ll be gone before the end of the day and won’t be back. Is that good enough for you?”
He turned to the door and left.
-------------------End of Chapter 17--------------------