A LITTLE HELP FROM FRIENDS
When I opened the shoe box I collapsed in helpless laughter. Barbie’s hair was shorn nearly to her pink plastic scalp and she was dressed in black leather. Ken was wearing Barbie’s silver and white disco pants. Sadly, he was missing his head. These remnants of my childhood explained a lot about my present day lack of success with men. How the dolls had wound up with my collection of CD’s I had no idea, but they provided a moment of comic relief during my grim afternoon. After three years I was separating my belongings from Mick’s and moving out.
The car was crammed full for my third and last trip, but I found space for the shoe box. If I was ever tempted to believe I understood the dealings between men and women all I had to do was lift the lid.
I drove to my new home located in northeast Spokane. It was in a neighborhood where old couches were acceptable as lawn furniture and the dress code was a level below casual. It was the neighborhood where I’d grown up.
I’d rented the upper portion of an old house that had been partitioned into three apartments. On the porch a woman who resembled an ancient Lauren Bacall sat smoking. She was my landlady, Wilma McCleary. She squinted at me through a stream of smoke as I came up the steps.
“What the hell do you want?” she demanded.
“I’m Angela Ferreira, your new tenant,” I answered.
She tapped the ash into a coffee can and nodded. “So you are. I’ll get the keys.”
“You already gave me the keys, thanks.”
She shook her head and said, “Getting old is hell.” She placed the cigarette between her bright red lips, took a drag and blew the smoke overhead. “Come on down and join me for a gin and tonic when you’re unpacked.”
“That sounds good.” Over a drink I might tell her about the dolls. She looked like a lady who would appreciate them.
Half an hour later I had placed the last box in the appropriate space in one of my apartment’s three rooms. I washed my hands in the bathroom and pried open the window a few inches to get some air. A portly young man with a rake in his hand was unlocking the side door to the single car garage in the back. I’d need to ask Wilma if there was storage space in the garage. Hopefully her invitation for drinks was sincere and I could do that right now.
I trotted downstairs and knocked on her door. Wilma hollered at me to come in, so I pushed the door and entered her apartment. She handed me a tall glass. Whatever other memory problems she might be having, my new landlady had not forgotten how to make a very tasty gin and tonic. I savored a few sips before I set down my glass to speak.
“I noticed a man going into your garage. Is any storage available there?”
Wilma waved her hand in dismissal. “Oh, that’s just Fred. He has the lower apartment. I let him use the garage in exchange for yard work. You should ask him if there’s a shelf free. Most of the floor space if full of old furniture and such.”
Not trusting myself to speak without laughing I nodded, thinking: Fred and Wilma? When I’d stifled my amusement sufficiently I said, “I’ll ask him about space for a few boxes.”
Wilma replenished her drink and said, “Fred’s a nice boy as long as you’re not looking for a date. He’s not boyfriend material.” Before I could reassure her that dating was not on my agenda, she went on. “He’s one of those slow ones.” She tapped her forehead, accidentally sending a shower of cigarette ash to the carpet. “He can do a little yard work and microwave himself a meal. His brother takes care of his bills, including rent, so I can’t complain.”
“I’ll talk to him tomorrow,” I said. “I’m beat and I need to clean up. Thanks for a great drink.”
Wilma acknowledged my departure with a nod as she worked her lighter under a fresh cigarette.
My bathroom featured a spacious claw foot bathtub that was the main reason I’d rented the apartment. Before I began my soak, I stepped to the window to pull it shut. The young man I now knew was Fred was standing next to the garage talking to a taller guy wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt and pants that showed a lot more of his boxers than I wanted to see. If Fred was indeed “slow” as Wilma had described, this guy seemed an odd companion. On the other hand, who was I to judge anyone’s relationships? I lowered myself into the tub and shut my eyes. I thought about Mick and tears formed behind my eyelids. I knew I was doing the right thing by moving out, but it still hurt.
When I first awoke the next morning I lay in bed looking around the apartment at what needed to be done. It was Sunday, a day when our usual routine had consisted of walking the Centennial Trail followed by coffee, newspapers and unhurried sex. Now I needed to establish a new routine. I pulled on sweats and tennis shoes and tiptoed downstairs. It was six-thirty and I didn’t think Wilma or Fred would be out and about. So it was quite a surprise to see a black-clad figure slip out the door to Fred’s apartment. He was turned away from me, but I caught a glimpse of long blonde hair under a greasy baseball cap before he jogged down the alley and disappeared. It was beginning to look like “slow” Fred had a more active social life than I did.
Later, when I’d completed my walk and finished off my donuts and coffee, I met Fred face to face. I went to his apartment to ask about storage space in the garage. This “nice boy,” as Wilma had described him, appeared to be in his thirties, but had an open, child-like face. He was thick around the waist and moved slowly.
“I don’t think you can put any boxes in there,” he replied to my request.
“It’s only two boxes of camping gear,” I pleaded. “Otherwise I’ll have to keep them in the trunk of my car.”
He shifted from foot to foot. “I guess you can put two boxes in,” he said.
“Thanks, Fred. I’ll go get them.”
I brought my boxes to the garage and Fred unlocked the door. The space was pretty full, but we found a spot along the far wall for my gear. I shook his hand and reminded him that my name was Angela. As we left the garage I could hear him repeating my name over and over.
Following an afternoon of unpacking and arranging my belongings, I joined Wilma on the front porch. I was there to rest my tired feet while she was there to inhale tar and nicotine. She was starting to tell me about the neighbors when an angry voice interrupted.
“Just how do you explain this?” a man shouted as he stomped up the steps waving a piece of paper. He held it close to Wilma’s face and I could see it was a cancelled check.
She rose from her chair and stared him down. “You want to ask that question again—nicely?” she said.
The man dropped his arms and took a deep breath. “Mrs. McCleary, I’m here on behalf of my brother, and it appears he’s been cheated out of some money.”
Wilma shook her head. “Too bad about the money, but what the hell does it have to do with me?”
“I’m Joe Rossi, Fred’s brother. We met last fall. Someone has altered one of Fred’s checks and cashed it. You’re the only one he lets into his apartment.”
“That’s not true,” I spoke up. “When I was heading out early this morning a young man left Fred’s apartment.”
Mr. Rossi frowned and walked away to knock on his brother’s door. Fred answered and broke into a wide smile. “Joey!” he said. Joe stepped inside and the door shut. Wilma and I looked at each other.
“SOB has a lot of nerve, thinking I would steal from Fred,” she muttered.
A few minutes later Joe stepped back out on the porch followed by a chastened-looking Fred. “Fred says there was no one at his apartment this morning, but he can’t remember if the door was locked.”
I was of the opinion that Fred could speak for himself, but I kept quiet while Joe continued. “And he doesn’t know anything about the altered check, do you Fred?”
Fred said, “No,” and blinked rapidly. I was no expert, but I’d spent several summers as a camp counselor to people with mental disabilities. I knew it usually didn’t come naturally for them to lie to other folks like it does to us so-called normal people. Fred’s rapid blinking was a dead giveaway.
“Mr. Rossi, may I have a look at that check?” I asked.
He held it out. The check had been crudely altered. On the payee line it read CASH but other writing was visible beneath. Anyone with half a brain would have refused to cash it.
“It was written to Shop n’ Save,” he explained. Shop n’ Save was a neighborhood store that still survived in spite of the giant grocery chain stores. “Now Fred’s nearly out of food and who knows where the money went. I don’t have time to play detective over a fifty dollar check. Come on, Fred; let’s go get you some groceries.”
As they drove away Wilma said, “The bum never did apologize for accusing me of being a thief.” She flicked her lighter at a fresh cigarette.
“No, he didn’t, but he was upset. You know, I really did see someone leave Fred’s apartment this morning. We should keep an eye on Fred. Between the two of us we should be able to find whoever stole from him.”
“Damn right,” Wilma agreed.
I returned to my apartment and fixed myself a sandwich. I had two texts from Mick. I pressed delete without reading them. I sat by the window and waited until Joe Rossi returned with Fred and the groceries. When he drove away I walked downstairs and knocked on Fred’s door. He opened it cautiously and ran his tongue over his lower lip before saying, “Angela.”
“That’s right, I’m Angela.” I smiled at him. “I’d like to come in.”
“Oh, okay.” He stepped back and I entered and sat down on a small couch.
“I’m glad that you remembered my name. You’re probably good at names. What’s the name of your visitor who was here this morning?”
“Oh, that was…” He stopped and took a step backwards.
“It’s okay. I know you had a friend here.” I kept smiling and waited.
Fred finally nodded agreement. “That was Marty. Marty is a friend.”
“I can be your friend, too.” I stood and said, “Be sure to keep your door locked.”
I walked across the hall to Wilma’s apartment. When she hollered, “Come in!” I wondered how she would respond if I cautioned her to keep her door locked, too.
“We’re making progress,” I told her. “Fred’s visitor this morning was someone he knew named Marty. He says he’s a friend.”
Wilma said, “Probably a money-grabbing friend.”
“I know of some programs for people with disabilities where Fred could make some real friends.”
She squinted at me and said, “You don’t need to be a do-gooder. That boy doesn’t need other slow people. He needs real friends.”
“I’m just trying to help,” I protested.
She stepped closer and put her hands on her hips. “You help yourself. Seems like you could use some friends right now.” Wilma didn’t miss much.
I quickly changed the subject. “I’m going to check out Shop n’ Save. Do you want to come along?”
“Of course I do. Let me get my handbag and a sweater.”
Wilma looked like an old lady dressed in her fluffy sweater and clutching her large purse, but she flirted with the store staff like an ingénue. They all knew her by name and traded witticisms until I felt like I was caught in some kind of time warp cocktail party. At last as we went through the checkout I got a chance to speak.
I asked the clerk, “Does someone named Marty work here?”
He shook his head and replied, “No, sorry,” but the boy bagging our purchases jumped about a foot. When we arrived at the car I mentioned it to Wilma.
“That kid knows something,” she agreed. “He looked like he’d been jabbed in the ass-end with a cattle prod when you mentioned Marty.” I vowed to get back to him to at least send a warning regarding any more pilfering of Fred’s grocery money.
As it approached the Shop n’ Save’s eight o’clock closing time, I returned on foot to confront the boy. I walked to the back entrance of the store and waited. The employees exited, but not the one I wanted to see. It was getting dark and I was wishing I’d worn a warmer jacket. I decided I’d missed him and I could come back another time.
I started the walk home with a lot on my mind. I started to think about the voicemail I’d gotten from Mick asking me to meet him at the bar in the Cathay Inn. I was going to have to tell him that I couldn’t meet him; that I just couldn’t be a cop’s girlfriend any more. I thought of how hard it was to start over. I was thinking about my boring job at the insurance office and wondering if I should try to find something else when I heard the roar of a car engine close behind me.
Instinct took over. I took two steps and vaulted over a low fence. I sat watching in a daze as a car with its lights off sped away. Had someone really just tried to run me down over a fifty dollar check? Or maybe a drunk driver hadn’t noticed me as I walked in the dark. Either way I was left alone in the cold with a sore butt. I was sick of trying to fix someone else’s problems when my own life wasn’t so hot right now. I really needed time to think.
For several days I avoided talking to anyone as much as possible. At work I ate lunch in the park across from the office. I declined to share cocktails with Wilma. I said hello to Fred when we passed each other, but I didn’t offer him any friendly advice. I did become more watchful when walking alone. I saw some trashy-looking kids hanging around Fred, but I tried to stay out of it. I really did.
Then Friday night I heard the tinkle of breaking glass out back. I sat up in bed and peered at the clock. It was one-thirty, so I didn’t think Fred was getting out the lawnmower. I lifted the curtain about an inch and watched as a skinny kid carried an armload of electronics through the side door of the garage. That garage made a pretty good place to stash stolen goods if you didn’t drop them and wake up the neighbors. I knew I had to have a heart-to-heart talk with Fred, and probably Wilma as well but it could wait for morning.
I figured I’d be waking Fred when I arrived at his door before seven, but I could hear voices inside his apartment. They grew in volume until Fred shouted, “I just can’t! Joe will be mad.”
I pushed my way in and two heads turned to look at me. Fred was sitting on the couch, his face red and tearful. A skinny girl with long blonde hair and a greasy baseball cap was perched on the arm of the couch fanning herself with a check. On the previous early morning visit I’d mistaken her for a boy, since I’d only seen her from the back.
“Hi there,” I said to her. “You must be Marty.”
Fred perked up a bit. “Marty is my friend. She will pay me back.”
Sure, I thought, when hell freezes over.
“But Joe says the checks have to be only for food,” Fred told us.
Marty and I stared at each other. “That’s right, Fred,” I said. “Those checks are for your groceries. Maybe Marty can get her friend who works at the store to loan her some of his own money. Then he won’t have to alter your checks and cash them when his boss isn’t looking.”
I reached out to take the check from Marty’s hand and she slapped me. I grabbed her wrist and Fred began to cry. Wilma came stomping through the doorway calling, “What the hell is going on in here?”
“Wilma, meet Marty,” I said. “Marty and her pal are cashing Fred’s grocery checks. They’re probably financing a drug habit. She’s probably involved with the bunch that is using Fred’s access to your garage to provide storage for their stolen goods, too.”
“You bitch!” Marty snarled.
At that moment the bathroom door opened and out stepped the kid we’d spooked at Shop n’ Save a few days earlier. He wasn’t wearing his work clothes but I recognized him. His eyes were glassy and he was pointing a hand gun in our direction. I was thinking I should ask him to relax and put the gun away like they do on television when Wilma stepped in front of me.
“You little twerp! Don’t think you can come into my house and threaten my renters!”
I don’t know what else she meant to say because without so much as a blink the kid shot her. Marty screamed. The boyfriend grabbed her and they fled the apartment. Somehow in the next few minutes I managed to call 911, get Fred quiet and apply pressure to Wilma’s wound until the ambulance arrived. Afterwards I had time to reflect that even though I was a flop at relationships, I could really come through in an emergency situation.
A day later I met Fred and Joe Rossi in the hallway of Holy Family Hospital.
“We brought Wilma yellow flowers,” Fred told me.
“That was very thoughtful,” I said.
Joe Rossi shook my hand and said, “Thanks for looking out for my brother.”
“Thanks, Angela,” Fred echoed.
Wilma’s eyes were closed when I entered her room. She looked old and tired. She opened her eyes and motioned me to a chair.
“I can’t wait to get home and have a smoke,” she said.
“It’ll be nice to have you back.”
“It’s a good thing that SOB couldn’t aim for shit. I’ll be out of here tomorrow.”
“I can pick you up,” I said. “In the meantime I brought you something.” I handed her the Barbie shoebox. “This is how I viewed the whole boyfriend-girlfriend thing when I was a kid.”
She lifted the lid and began to laugh. She didn’t look so old and tired anymore.