Almost Perfect

Fiction
Holly Monacelli


I see it and I think Pella. A tiny gold chain with a blob of topaz every quarter inch or so. It sparkles like hell and really the only problem, as far as I can see, is the one of the links near the latch is busted. I try and put the clasp on a different link and it works fine. People are so quick to trash everything.

I hop on the bus because I have a date. I need time to get ready; otherwise I’d just walk like I usually do. Pella seems like pretty high maintenance. She’s one of those women that you can’t tell her age. Either she looks real good for sixty-five or she’s lived a hard forty years. Her eyeshadow gets stuck in the folds above her eyes and her lipstick, some bright tomato color, is a lot darker on her bottom lip than the top. But, Pella, well, she’s all right. You get to be my age and you start thinking a lot of people look all right. I’m not the man I was when Miriam married me.

So I come home and start scrubbing the kitchen floor because, just from the little I’ve seen of Pella at the diner, I can tell she’d be a neatnik. When I’d picked up her plate to pass through the window to the washer guys, there wasn’t any toast crumbs in the leftover egg yolk and no evidence that she’d mixed the home fries with the eggs. You see a lot of that. No, Pella’s plate was all compartmentalized, just like it had been the past three times she’d been in.

That smell of pinecones and lemons just about kills me. Whoever decided that’d be the universal smell of clean? The Arizona ice tea bottle in the center of the kitchen table looks empty and I remember right away that it needs the flowers I picked up the day before yesterday. They’re not in the best condition anymore, but they sure were pretty when I got them. Probably thrown angrily in the trash by some spoiled girl whose boyfriend tried to buy them for her to make up for kissing someone else. Pretty nice roses, red ones and only a little shriveled. That’s the only
flower guys ever think to buy. I used to buy Miriam rhododendrons.

Only part of the stuff I’ve got in my apartment is the thrown away stuff. A lot of it I got myself, from flea markets or my mom before she passed or occasionally even a big department store. I don’t like those kind of stores too much, though. They don’t really want you to test out merchandise before you buy it. But, how else do they expect you to know what you want?

Pella knocks and I freeze. I haven’t gotten everything in order yet. The candles aren’t lit, the record’s not on, and I didn’t splash on the aftershave. When you work in a diner the size of a rich person’s bathroom, you gotta have aftershave. Otherwise, you smell like a fried egg with a side of bacon, no matter what you do. “You smell like a greasy pig,” Miriam used to tell me. “But you’re my pig.”

She pounds a little harder as I stand there, straightening my shirt and making a final glance around the place.

“Hello, Fred,” she says in her low voice. It’s kind of sexy, really, and if I closed my eyes I could think she was some young sex kitten in her 20s.

“Why, hello, Pella.” I move in to kiss her on the cheek because it seems all right when your girl is over your place for the first time.

“You smell very nice,” she says and crinkles her nose. “May I come in?” she asks, though she doesn’t wait for me to say it’s okay.

“Of course,” I say to her back. Strike two.

I see my place through her eyes. Shabby. Worn. Too many trinkets. Stains on the carpet. What can I do? I thought the tapestry I had picked up a couple months back drew attention from the other stuff. It’s bright red with just a splash of navy and the only thing wrong with it was the bottom was torn. Just like if a cat had gotten his way with it.

After a few glasses of wine, one that I’d especially splurged on, we sit down for dinner. I’d tried to make chicken, the kind the diner wouldn’t serve, though most everything in my kitchen I’ve taken from there. So, there it is, chicken cordon bleu. And Pella, she eats it like it’s filet mignon. “It’s very moist, for chicken, Fred. Very moist,” she says and smiles. I feel like kissing her, but decide to wait until she wipes off the grease from her lipstick-smudged lips.

We look at each other from across the table. I reach my hand over to take hers across the table, but about halfway, I stop. Pella asks what I’m doing, so I say, “Can you gimme the potatoes, please?” which we both know is pretty silly since they’re closer to my side in the first place.

I don’t know if I imagine her foot rubbing up against my calf or if that is actually what she’s doing. After my cat Rogie died, I felt like one of them amputees that still feel their limb, the “phantom limb” they call it. Sometimes I still feel Rogie, even though it’s been awhile.

I get up to put on some music because I really can’t stand the way people’s mouths sound when they’re eating. It drives me crazy when I’m at work. Especially the ones that bite on their forks. That makes my teeth hurt. I throw on one of my old Sinatra albums, about the only one without a scratch. Sometimes over at those used record stores, you can pick up classics real cheap. This one, though, this one I had bought myself back in the day.

Striding across the room, I grab another bottle of wine. The cheap kind, like I normally drink. Miriam taught me that trick: serve them the good stuff first and by the time you roll out the junk, they won’t care. We have a couple glasses and Frank’s still singing and I feel like dancing, so I take Pella’s hand.

“Oh, Fred,” she says, swaying against me, her head on my shoulder. “This is nice.” And it is. We dance, but it’s almost like we’re standing still. Probably only me and her could tell we’re dancing.

I wonder for just a second if Pella has been married before. We’ve never talked about it. I saw pictures of her kids, or at least they looked like they could be, in her wallet when she went to the bathroom the last time she was in the diner. And I wonder if Miriam’s dancing with someone upstairs right now. I hope she is, and then at that exact moment, I know she’s not.

Pella tells me about her day and how it’s hard to be retired and she worries she’s getting less sharp because she doesn’t talk to many people during the day. “I like the sound of your voice calling out ‘two eggs, over medium, with a side of moo juice’. I didn’t know people talked like that,” she says, sitting beside me on the couch, both our weights making it sink even more in the middle.

“I didn’t know you were paying attention,” I say. “Maybe I would’ve said ‘two eggs, over medium, with a side of moo juice for the cutie in the front stool.” I lean over and kiss her, figuring now’s as good a time as any.

We neck like a couple of high school kids for a long time. She kisses pretty good. Better than her lips look like she’d do. I don’t whisper anything corny in her ear, because I can’t think of anything to say. I stick my tongue in there instead.

She pulls away suddenly.

“Sorry,” I say, moving away.

“Can I ask you something, Fred?” she says.

“Shoot.” I say, cool as a cucumber, but I feel the sweat starting. Good thing I didn’t wear the light blue shirt.

“My sister, she lives over by the university. And she says she sees you sometimes.” She settles back on the couch cushion and her hair sort of fans out over it, like a wild peacock.

“Sees me? How does she even know me?” I ask.

“We’ve been in the diner together before, Fred,” she says, her cheeks flushed now. “But she says, she says that, uh, that she sees you going through things. You know, other people’s things. Or at least she thought someone like you was, you know, shuffling through things.” She looks down.

I don’t answer right away. “Now, why would anyone do a thing like that, Pella? Unless they’re homeless or something.”

“Well, my sister’s a little off, so…” Her voice gets quiet.

We finish the bottle of wine and Pella says she better get going. “You are a wonderful host, Fred,” she says and kisses my cheek on her way out.

People thought it was kind of strange that I was retired and Miriam wasn’t. But she loved her job and I didn’t. I guess that’s the difference between working on the line and saving lives. “Oh, I don’t save lives,” Miriam would tell me, “I change bedpans.” But I knew better. So we came to the decision mutually. I would retire and be the homemaker and she would continue to bring home the money until she could retire with a good pension. I thought I’d hate staying at home, thought it’d make me feel useless. But I got into it. I really did. Sounds corny, but it made me love her even more.

When Miriam first started over at the big hospital, she was so nervous. I snuck over there right after work—it was when I was on first shift and I got off at 3:30. Took me a bus ride and a transfer to get over there. The people at the desk gave me a hard time because I don’t think they knew who Miriam was yet. Finally, we got it straightened out. She was on the cardiac floor. Where people recover after having heart attacks, this nice candystriper kid told me.

So I went up the elevator to seven and just started walking those scary halls. Scary with quiet, scary with clean, scary with nothingness. And in room 706 (which I played many a time in the lottery even though Miriam said it was a waste of a perfectly good dollar) there was my honey. She’d had her left hand on her hip, her head leaned in towards this poor old guy who looked liked he weighed about 100 pounds soaking wet. She was delicately sponging off his forehead and talking in low tones. I couldn’t hear what she was saying. I didn’t need to. It was the first time I saw with my own two eyes; I knew she was saving his life. Just like she’d saved mine all those years ago.

The diner’s dead. It’ll be like that for a couple more hours, until after midnight when the kids start strolling in, hungry after hours of drinking at one of the bars nearby. What a life, drinking all night and going to college all day. Parents probably paying for their brains to get bigger. Before my old man left, he said to me, “All’s you got is what’s in your head, kid. And that ain’t real much.”

That’s when I see this woman come in with a much younger-looking guy. They sit at a big booth in the back. Usually a couple coming in and hogging a whole big table pisses me off, but since no one’s here, I let it slide. But I do take my time heading over with their waters and menus.

The woman smiles at me and says, “Hello, again, Fred.”

“Uh, hello,” I say, setting down the drinks a little louder than necessary.

“You remember me?” she asks, taking a long sip from her water.

“No, can’t say that I do,” I say, looking from her face to her man’s.

“Pella’s sister. Bonnie,” she says and sticks out her hand for me to take.

“Oh, of course! I’m sorry, Bonnie,” I say and grip her hand tight. It’s hard to say if I really see Pella in her face or if I imagine it because now I know they’re related. She’s just so much younger than Pella. But, this lady definitely wears her lipstick like Pella, that’s for sure.

She introduces me to her ‘colleague’ and I know straight out she’s having an affair. He seems a little loopy and apologizes as they were just at a ‘faculty event’. “Looks pretty dead in here,” he says, his beady eyes darting around the diner.

“Yeah. Off-peak right now,” I say. “Pretty soon the kids will stumble in.”

“Off-peak, huh? When’s on-peak?” he asks, then starts laughing too loud into his corduroy sports coat.

“Jack,” Bonnie says and I see her hand disappear under the table. Probably to give his leg a good squeeze. Miriam and I used to do that to each other. One squeeze was ‘stop talking, you’re embarrassing me.’ Two was ‘let’s get out of here.’

“Maybe that’s when he picks through the garbage, Bon, during off-peak hours.” He starts flipping through the menu. “You serve beer here?”

“You don’t need anything else to drink anyway,” Bonnie says, rolling her eyes at me.

I tell them I’ll give them a few minutes to decide.

“What are the specials today, Ted?” the guy asks, even though there’s a colored sheet of paper right in front of his damn menu that lists them all. We don’t change them too much. Today’s specials will be Tuesday’s, too.

“They’re right–”

“Can I be sure that everything’s fresh?” he says.

“Yeah, pal. It’s all fresh here. Pick everything myself,” I say.

“From the trash?” he asks.

“Jack!” Bonnie says and squeezes his arm hard.

“I don’t know what your beef is, pal. But I don’t like it.” I look at Bonnie and say, “What is his problem?”

“Bonnie is worried about her sister, is what my problem is.” His voice is gravelly and slurred. “The family is a little concerned about the likes of you. Going through trash, talking to dead wives,” he snorts. “Get over it!” he says, ignoring Bonnie’s commands for him to shut up. “I have to piss,” he says and scoots out of the booth.

He passes me and I want to punch him. Hard. Right in the face. So he’ll fall and hit his head against the floor, like a pumpkin falling off a slow-moving truck. I imagine blood all over one side of his face, dripping on the floor. Wonder if there’s blood coming from the back of his head, too.

“Please don’t mind him,” Bonnie says to me. “He gets like this when he’s had too much.”

I just stand there and watch Bonnie walk to the bathroom in back and then lead Jack outside to the parking lot. I try to make my heart stop pounding so goddam fast. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. I’m sorry, Miriam, I say, over and over again as I smash one plate after another on the speckled linoleum floor. Some pieces are under the big refrigerator, others in the middle of the kitchen. I stand there for a long time, waiting for Miriam to answer.

Pella wants to treat me to dinner at her favorite restaurant. We had sex last night and I think that’s why. I try not to think of her sister and Jack and the mess in the diner because it makes me feel a little kooky. Sort of like when Miriam first passed.

I don’t know what to wear and feel strange that Pella has to come and pick me up. I knew I should have bought that used pick-up when I had the chance. “Don’t worry, Fred,” she tells me on the phone before coming over, “it’s not a dressy place. Nice, but not dressy.”

She shows up and looks dressy. She’s wearing an aquamarine-colored dress, I think that’s the color. It was light blue and had a mess of sparkles all over it. Then her shoes, jeez, I don’t know how she crammed all those corns into those bitty straps. I worry when I see her that my gray slacks and peach button-down aren’t enough for this nice, but not dressy, restaurant she has in mind.

“Fred,” she says, breezing past me in the door, the smell of some flowery perfume blowing after, “you look smashing.” She smiles her real big smile and I try not to be repulsed by the chunk of lipstick on her left canine. She had the perfume on last night, too. Even more of it. We were making out on her bed and I kept thinking of high school. Maxine Rosenberg’s house, her parents’ bed. Me a scrawny 15-year-old trying to look like I knew exactly what I was doing, her a scared virgin just waiting to get it over with. As I was thrusting into her, I kept thinking this should be the best moment of my life. But I couldn’t get past Maxine’s face. Twisted up in pain, asking, “Do…you…love…me, Fred?”

“Thanks, Pella. You look rather smashing yourself,” I say. “Do you want a drink before we go, or should we just head out?”

“I just have to tell you, Fred, because I know you’re not the kind of guy who likes to discuss such things, that last night was absolutely wonderful. And I hope that you aren’t scared off,” she says and chuckles, looking at another stain on my carpet. “What with the way you ran out this morning, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. So I was quite happy you called this afternoon, Fred.”

“Had to catch the bus.”

“What?” she says, her eyes squinting behind the big glasses she wears sometimes. They’re tinted the same kind of blue like her dress.

“Had to catch the bus this morning. They don’t run very regular on weekends. You miss one, and you never really know when the next one will come around.” I felt a little strange, too. Pella is the first woman I been with since Miriam got called. Never really thought about my performance too much with Miriam, think we just got used to each other. She loved when I would rub the tips of my fingers against the side of her face, though. That was the thing she loved the most.

On the way to the restaurant Pella holds her left hand on the wheel and her right hand on my hand. We are whizzing out of my neighborhood so quickly and suddenly nothing looks familiar.

“Where are we going, Pella?” I ask and take my hand from hers, so I can run it through my hair. It needs to be cut because when it’s long, it’s just plain unruly.

“You’ll see,” she says in this little-girl whisper that turns me on. I wink and nod. It’s not the best time to remember the feel of her thighs wrapped around mine and the way her hands kept tracing my shoulder blades. In my head, I’d talked to Miriam. There was a jumble of thoughts turning over and over, like my socks in the dryer. I love you, I hope you’re doing this, too, you better not be doing this, too. But all that came out was, oh no, oh no, oh yes.

The place is definitely worth the wait. And, just as Pella promised, it’s nice but not dressy. It’s cozy. The walls are like logs and I feel like we’re on the inside of a cabin or a ski lodge. There’s a big fire burning and it smells like autumn. Pella’s not sure what she thinks of the bearskin rug, but it’s a gem.

After a bite of her venison, Pella asks, “What is going on in that head of yours, Fred? I never knew anyone so pensive, like you.” She smiles in a way that makes me think pensive must be a good thing.

“I have something for you,” I say and dig into my pants pocket for the necklace. It’s a little warm when I hand it to her.

“Oh, Fred! I absolutely adore it! I never knew you were such a romantic. And my birthstone and everything! This is just too much!” She smiles and I think she, at that exact moment, is beautiful. “Can you help me?” she says and turns around in her chair so her back is facing me.

I hook the clasp on a link and it falls on her neck just fine. No one will ever know it was once broken and headed for the trash.
pencil

“I’m originally from Detroit and currently reside in Boston, where I work as a copywriter for an educational travel company. My most recent story can be found in the Berkeley Fiction Review (Spring 2003), and I’ve also written for Time Out Boston.” E-mail: hollymonacelli[at]hotmail.com