“The Pros of a Matchstick” — Installment VII – 2 June 2014
Here’s lucky number seven, a little past the halfway point of the entire novella. Is it intriguing thus far, or at least interesting?
“So. Linwood. Tell me precisely how you knew I would be at that restaurant tonight.” Linwood studied her face for a beat, but it gave away nothing.
“What makes you think I knew you’d be there? Maybe it was… serendipitous.”
Arlotta laughed. “Serendipitous? In New York? Nothing here is as random as all that. Try again, buddy.”
Linwood chuckled at the inaccuracy of Arlotta’s statement. “I overheard you this mornin’ on the train, talkin’ to somebody on your cell phone,” he replied without hesitation. “I remembered where you said you were goin’ and what time you’d be there. It came wit’ the job, I guess—a sort of eavesdroppin’ skill I picked up. I’m still new to it all, so I can’t fully control it yet.”
Arlotta scoffed. “Some superpower. How long you been a cabbie?”
“A little over six months.”
“Is it as scary as I think it is?”
“Scarier, probably.” Linwood merged onto Varick Street. “Case-in-point. You remember those two old ladies on the train this mornin’? The twins I gave my seat to.”
Arlotta thought for a few beats. “Vaguely.”
“Picked them up earlier. Weirdest fare ever. What would you call that?”
“Well, that might have been serendipitous. This is a set-up if ever there was one.” Linwood laughed. “Sounds more interesting than what I do, that’s for sure,” Arlotta said. “I’m an interior decorator.”
“Really. I’ve heard of it, but I can’t say I’m exactly certain of what an interior decorator actually does.”
Arlotta laughed. “In a nutshell I draw up contracts with clients to decorate their homes, their offices. I pick out fabrics, furniture, art. Stuff like that. Sometimes I have to wine and dine a client before I can get them to sign the damn contract. That’s what my business partner and I were doing at Renduto’s what you happened to show up.”
“You get him to sign?”
Arlotta put her head in her hands. “No, not tonight. And after three weeks I’m tired of chasing his fat commission of a carrot.” She looked up at Linwood again with a start. “How’d you know he was the client, and not she?”
“Not too sound overtly sexist but, beyond the fact that the title interior decorator sounds tailor-made to be held by a woman, I don’t know too many guys named Sandy,” Linwood said. “Eavesdropping,” they said at once after a pause. “Yeah. Sorry about that,” he said with a laugh.
Linwood let a few blocks pass by. “So,” he began, “about what you said on the train this mornin’. You were right, I was starin’ at you.”
“At my tits, you mean.” Arlotta shot him a glance.
“At all of you is what I meant,” Linwood answered. They came to a red at Canal Street.
Arllotta laughed again, watching the traffic cross in front of them. “I should have asked if you wanted to see ’em,” she replied. She turned to him again, and flashed him a smile. “How old are you, Linwood?”
“I’m twenty-three,” he replied.
“Twenty-three. I gotta tell you, you’re an interesting twenty-three-year-old.” The light turned green.
“I try,” he said. “Becomin’ a cabbie saw to that. What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Who old are you? You aren’t so old that it’s rude to ask. Are you?”
Arlotta smiled. “I’m thirty-one, nosy.” She searched the front seat of the cab, examined the dark meter, held the radio receiver, inspected the strange scratches all over the dashboard, and spotted Linwood’s canvas backpack on the floor underneath his legs. “I bet that your backpack is the same as my purse—it’ll say more about you than you ever would. Would it be okay if… I took a peek inside?”
Linwood glanced at her face again, then laughed. “Yeah, okay. Go grab it.” A split second afterward he remembered the pistol was still underneath the seat behind it.
Arlotta reached down under Linwood’s legs and pulled the backpack free. She opened it in silence and shifted around the items inside, pulling out the spiral notebook. She didn’t open it or ask what it was, only held it up for Linwood to explain.
“It’s a kinda journal I keep. It’s okay, you can look inside it.” Arlotta opened the front over and read the first few scribblings Linwood had made. “Does this mean I get to go through your purse?” he asked with a smirk.
“I don’t think so, cowboy,” Arlotta answered bluntly. “Sat. 7 May. 1:14 a.m.,” she read aloud. “Drunk suit, wailing b/c of boss.” She flipped a few pages ahead. “Wed. 15 July. 4:28 p.m. Couple, two women. Arguing re: choice of bar to go to.” A few more pages. “Mon. 4 Sept. 7:30 p.m. Woman, two kids. Headed home from Central Park. What, are you tracking your fares and women on the subway?”
“Only the interestin’ ones.”
“Interesting,” she echoed. “I wonder what you’ll write about me.” Arlotta replaced the notebook and went into the depths of the bag again. She came up with the small silver case of matches. “May I?” she asked. Linwood nodded and she found them inside. “Matches outside of a kitchen usually mean cigarettes. Mind if I ask for one?”
“Not at all,” Linwood replied. She searched the bag again but he pulled two out of the pocket on the front of his hoodie. Arlotta laughed and took one. “They stay on my person at all times. I’m a true addict.” Arlotta pulled one of the matches from the case. “Where’s the box to strike ’em on?”
Linwood smiled. “No need. They’re strike-anywhere matches.” They came to another red light, this one at Houston. He took the matchstick from her and struck it on a thumbnail. He held it awkwardly though, and burned himself with the flame. He let out a mild curse an hunted the matchstick down to make sure it went out.
Arlotta giggles. “I guess these explain all those scratch marks on the dash,” she said. “Strike anywhere, huh? Let me try.” Arlotta pulled another from the case, cinched up the hem of her dress like a winch—confirming to Linwood she wasn’t wearing any panties—and struck it on a copper-colored thigh. She first lit the surprised Linwood’s cigarette with it, then her own. Linwood lowered the windows and she flicked the spent matchstick outside.
“Man. You’re a pro, lady.”
“I try.” The light changed. “So. You smoke, too? Pot, I mean.”
“Yeah, I smoke ganja. You?”
“I don’t personally, but as long as it doesn’t burn in my house I don’t have a problem with it.”
“Good to know.” Linwood flicked ash from his cigarette out of the window.
“Why’s that good to know?”
“Don’t know. Just is. Maybe it means that you’re a decent, acceptin’ kinda person.”
Arlotta took a drag from the cigarette. “Maybe, maybe not.” A few more blocks went by and they crossed 14th Street.
“How far are you from Penn Station? Just curious, is all,” Linwood added.
“Not far, three blocks away.”
“Still, walkin’ the streets this time of night? I’m a worrier, Arlotta.” They both chuckled. “Nah, I”ll be okay,” she said. “Let you in on a secret—I keep a stun gun in my purse. Been doin’ a good job so far.”
“How many times you had to use it?” Linwood asked.
“Three.” She thought for a moment. “Once outside of Christopher Street Station, twice inside the same parking garage close to Washington Square.”
“Jesus. Maybe you should stay outta the Village,” Linwood teased.
“Please,” Arlotta replied. “These fuckers know not to mess with me and Betty Boop.” They both laughed again. “What about you?”
“Yeah, I’ve been held up twice. The first time… Was—” Linwood stopped himself, shocked at the ease with which he was about to tell this total stranger something he had never said to anyone else.
“Yeah? ‘The first time’?”
Linwood hesitated. “Two months after I started drivin’ for Colminetti’s I dropped off a fare at Central Park. ‘stead of gettin’ out he stuck a syringe in my neck and threatened to kill me. Before he could do that my friend came on the radio lookin’ for me and scared him off, somehow. I was held up for the second time earlier today. This time some crazy motherfucker on his way to murder his girlfriend decided to try me instead.”
My God,” Arlotta breathed. “Were—are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. Everythin’ checked out okay. The damnedest thing is this’s the first time I ever told that to anybody. Never even told it to my buddy Jamieson, and he was the one that saved my life.”
“Well, I’m sure you had a reason not to do it. I imagine you were scared shitless.”
Linwood gave her a smile. “Yeah. But I wonder why I had to tell you that.”
A few more beats of silence passed before Arlotta spoke up. “You weren’t kidding when you said this job was dangerous, were you? Say no more. I’ve seen that nasty taxi show before.”
Linwood laughed. “It’s like that sometimes. I’ve had people spout outrageous things back there, I’ve had people have sex back there. I’ve had people break down back there. I’m the cheapest shrink in the city, no bullshit.”
Arlotta laughed. The cab crossed 23rd Street, ten blocks out from Penn Station.
“Do you have a boyfriend or anythin’?” Linwood asked flatly. Arlotta looked up, expecting that question.
“What if I did? Or a husband?”
Linwood thought about both questions. “Well, I’d have to wonder if I should cut our fantastic conversation short. It would be a tough call.”
“So what do you think?”
“I think there’s a fifty-fifty chance you got one or the other—either you do or you don’t. But I’m seventy-thirty that if you do he ain’t within twenty blocks of your place.”
26th Street passed by, then 27th. “Kinda cocksure, Linwood. You’re sure about that?”
“”Sure, I’m sure. And you’re not sportin’ that telltale shackle tan. I know. I’ve checked twice already.”
“Shackle tan? Astute, and a charmer.” She spent the last two blocks studying Linwood’s face as he drove.
They came to the busy electrified entrance beneath Madison Square Garden and Linwood brought the cab to a stop, but he didn’t put it in park and Arlotta didn’t make any move to get out. Thirty seconds of impasse passed before she spoke.
“I’m on West 31st between Dyer and Tenth, a couple blocks north of the park.”
“Perfect,” Linwood said. “I think I can spare an hour.”
Linwood and Arlotta lay next to one another on the rough tan carpet in her dark living room, afterglow in full pulsating effect. Silence thundered through the entire apartment, marred only by the rain that had begun to fall in sheets against the windows. without a sound Arlotta reached into Linwood’s Rangers hoodie rumpled on the floor above her head, pulled out the pack of cigarettes and the match case, and lit one. Linwood rolled onto his side and rested his head in a hand, watching her smoke. The scent of their lovemaking diffused into the darkness, and after three drags on the cigarette it still overpowered the burning tobacco.
With effort Linwood turned his attention away from Arlotta and scanned the living room in detail for the first time. Various articles of their clothing lay like lumpy islands piled across the floor in the dark. A sofa and a loveseat, both untouched, stood sentinel on either side of them. Her sweater dress was thrown across the simple wooden coffee table between the chairs, and her charm bracelet lay beside it. A small overstuffed bookcase stood against the wall opposite the front door. Three picture frames hung on the adjacent wall, the images contained within obscured in the far darkness. Two large windows took up most of the space on the wall opposite. The curtains were wide open, and the blinds were as well. Yellow light from the street five stories below still made it inside and the blinds sliced it into ribbons on the floor. A small table stood against the fourth wall, next to the door, and a large unpainted ceramic elephant rested on top of it.
Linwood rolled over and crawled to the coffee table, searching for and finding the ashtray underneath Arlotta’s dress. He brought it back to her, she ashed the cigarette, and she gave it to him. Linwood sat cross-legged and took a drag as Arlotta moved onto her back to stretch. Linwood watched her lithe body move, the brown outline still tactile and soft on his chest, his lips, his fingertips. His eyes traced it—from her toenails, freshly painted, to her pubis, neatly trimmed; from her taut, flat stomach to the wide, chocolate-brown areolas on both of her firm, full breasts. Her hair fanned itself out on the floor and framed her face. Just then a flash of lightning photographed the entire living room, and a second later a huge peal of thunder shattered the still scene. Linwood crushed out the cigarette and stood to get dressed, pulling off the spent condom as he did so.
“Recovered that quickly? I pulled out my best stuff for you, too.” Arlotta rose as well, but made no moves to get dressed. “I figured you wouldn’t be able to move for at least thirty minutes.”
Linwood chuckled. “Funny stuff, lady.” He put on his jockeys, then sat on the loveseat to put his socks back on. “Jesus, you’re beautiful,” he said, looking up at her. He walked over to his pants rumpled on the floor. “I don’t get it. Women mess wit’ guys heads all the time, and it never seems to get them where they wanna go,” he said as he put them on. He stood and pocketed the cigarettes, the matchcase, the condom. Then he picked up the bracelet, turning it in the sallow light from the post far below them. “Guys check girls out all the time, and four times outta five they get ignored. Imagine if everybody’d cut the games and just talk to each other, really converse. There’d be a lot more fulfilled people in the world. ya know?”
Arlotta put her hands on her hips an walked over to Linwood, stopping when her breasts met his diaphragm. “Sex is the only game that guys and girls play against one another. It’s been that way since men have been hunters an women have been gatherers, and it’ll stay that way till the sun burns out.” Another huge thunderclap rattled the windows. Arlotta took a step back and looked up at Linwood.
He wrapped an arm around Arlotta’s shoulder, the other around her waist. His fingertips ran down her spine, he caressed her hips and her ass, he took in the scent of the skin just below her right ear. And he kissed her. Arlotta responded, pressing her naked body into his, her arms bronzed tendrils around his slight waist. The kiss, a nascent understanding leveled between the two, filled the dark apartment with a profound attraction, a oneness. and then it ended. Linwood put the bracelet on Arlotta’s right wrist, and held out his left palm, upturned.
“What’s this?” Arlotta asked through a chuckle. She looked down at Linwood’s palm, then up at Linwood again. He reached into the right pocket of his jeans and produced a black permanent marker.
“If you want me to tell ya what I wrote about you in my notebook, I’m gonna needta be able to find you again, right?” Linwood held out the marker for Arlotta, and she took it. Without a word she wrote her number on his palm, capped the marker, and returned it to his pocket. He put on his shoes and his hoodie, and went to the door.
“Be careful out there, Linwood.”
“Always.” He opened the door and a beat later was gone.