The Two of Them
By Catherine Curan
Fiction, Vol. 13, #1&2, 1995
For about a week or so the two of them had been house-sitting for a business associate of his who had gotten himself into a bit of trouble and was “taking some time off” in the hospital. The house was a little brick building in Queens Village, not a bad place, and it was well stocked, but they were bored with it. On that particular morning, a Saturday, they decided to go to IHOP on Broadway and 232nd in the Bronx. Long Island had plenty of pancake houses of its own and their was no particular reason for them to head back to the Bronx, but it was what they felt like doing at the time. Four or five cats and a six foot tank of piranhas were to be tended and kept away from one another, but he was of the opinion that if it came down to it the fish could hold their own. What the hell, it might even be interesting to see how things turned out. So at 7:30, after staying up all night, they left cats and fish to fend for themselves. She drove.
She felt the impulse to apply some lipstick after getting on the Cross Island and did not bother to pull over to do so. Her face, if she had happened to notice it, was the color of pulp paper, and dark crescents showed under her eyes. She had a model’s mouth, with full pouty lips that had talked her out of many tickets. Her thick black hair was stylish enough, but she had failed to wash off her makeup from the day before. This morning her eyes looked more gray than blue, without a trace of brightness, like the sky on an overcast day. This morning was clear enough, but she had seen better ones and put on her sunglasses against the glare.
He sat next to her with his hands in his lap, wondering why the car seemed so small. She had tossed her pocketbook on the floor by his feet and he wanted to move it but there was nowhere to go. The bag was rectangular with a thick buff-colored handle and a two inch gold lock with initials etched into it. Suspended from the zipper, the lock intrigued him, and he reached down to pick it up but changed his mind when he noticed the handle. It seemed to be moving, creeping closer to his foot. Something brushed against his leg, and he started, but it was only a fold of his coat. He would ask her to put the bag in the back seat for him. She would do that, she was right there. But what if it touched her? He did not like the way it looked. Except he remembered that when he had bought the bag it had sat quietly in a box on the seat beside him. He had been driving, and that had been fine. That had been a very good day. Except now it was looking so sinister, with that thick handle right next to his foot, and where could he go? He could not get out. There was not even a back seat, which at one time had convinced him to buy this tiny sports car, with room enough for just the two of them.
When they reached the Major Deegan she turned to him and he tensed, afraid she would ask about the pocketbook. He need not have been afraid, she did not ask him to hand it to her, but was only sharing her happiness. She loved the Major D, and her wide pouty mouth was smiling. Traces of last night’s red lipstick showed at the corners of her lips. He smiled too and would have said something if he had remembered what there was to say. She had not asked him to hand her the pocketbook, so he was safe, he was OK. Instead of speaking to her he closed his eyes, feeling reassured by the immobile head rest behind him. Too fast, that was how she was driving, and he felt it. They were going too fast. He pressed his feet to the floor, away from the pocketbook, trying to remember when it was they had started, and if it should be over by now. They had started when…last night? They had started way before that, before they stopped feeding the fish, before they had even been to that house; they had started in the Bronx, and that had been in high school, a long time ago. He could not remember when that was; how could he remember when that had been? No. The firmness of the head rest with its too-stiff pillow was the only thing he could focus on and he reached both arms up to feel it. He sat like that until they arrived at the restaurant.
There was one space in the parking lot when she pulled in. Slowing down was bad enough, but the crowded lot made her think that there might be a line. She would sooner keep driving than wait around for anything. “Why did we come here?” she asked, getting out of the car.
It took him a moment or so, until after the alarm’s blip, to answer her because his head was still not very clear. “You wanted pancakes.”
“Yeah, I said I wanted pancakes but I didn’t say I wanted to come to the Bronx. You wanted to come here.”
“The Cross Bronx Expressway,” he said, which made no sense, but he had seen the yellow street signs when he was looking out the window. She waited for him to think what it was he really wanted to say, and fixed her eyes on him to let him know she expected something. They stood with the car between them and he felt the lightness leaving his head. It’s evaporating in the sunlight through the strands of my hair, he though, and that seemed satisfactory because his mind became clear. “Why are we standing out here? We don’t even know what the line’s like.”
She nodded at this and they joined hands on the way inside.
When they came in, three black children were scattered around the vestibule. Their mother sat on one of the benches, holding a toddler who was wearing a striped hat with a tassel. The toddler squealed at his new audience. He didn’t seem to notice, but she gave the children a vague smile. Both of the girls looked her up and down uneasily and came to rest on the bench beside their mother. The elder girl was arguing with her younger brother, who had declared that he was going to order chocolate chip pancakes and drink a whole jar of syrup. “You can’t do that,” said the girl.
“Momma won’t let you do that,” added the other sister, shaking her head knowingly.
“What do you wanna do that for anyway?” continued the older sister. “That’s no good for you. That’s no good.”
“No good,” repeated the younger girl, snuggling closer to her mother and throwing a guarded glance at the two strangers. The woman was just then wondering if she had remembered to lock the car, and he was no help, fooling with the knobs on the cigarette machine where the boy had been standing when they first came in. Since then the boy had drifted over to the other bench and was swinging his feet energetically.
“Charlie, will you please come sit over here with us?” his mother asked in mellow tones with just enough of a hint of underlying strength. The woman thought: how nice, she’s making room for us so we can sit on the other bench; what a sweet and thoughtful woman. But the mother did not meet her eye when she looked across to share a smile. Before she could say thanks or even sit down to show appreciation for the gesture, a table freed up and the family disappeared inside.
It was all very strange to her, seeing those children. Not that she, or either one of them, had anything against cute little black kids from the Bronx—hell, the two of them lived in the Bronx themselves, didn’t they? It was just that they never thought much about those kinds of things and were not really disposed to notice their surroundings on that particular Saturday anyway. Which was what they would have said if anyone had come around asking. She actually liked children a lot and would have said something complimentary if the mother had not turned away. It was all very strange, it gave her a strange vibe, but she did not let it trouble her for long. She was feeling herself back on the road.
If he had really still been tripping he might have turned to the hostess who seated them and said “Striped hat” which was the thing that had made an impression on him, but he was leveling off after his encounter with the sunshine outside. “We like IHOP for their never ending pots of coffee,” he said after the waitress had brought one.
“Isn’t it unending pots of coffee?” she asked, reaching for his cup. She did not think he was in any condition to be pouring hot coffee. Not when he had been sitting like that in the car holding his head.
“Unendable cups of coffee pot…thanks,” he said when she handed him the cup. She was surprised when he did not rattle it against the saucer but sipped with a steady hand.
A while later, poking at the remains of chocolate chip pancakes on his plate, he said to her, “We’re giving it up, Mar.”
She had finished eating long before he had and felt overfull. The meal had brought her back down completely and she was thinking of the drive they had ahead of them. She no longer felt like driving back to Queens Village, she did not want to go back there. It would be nice to take a trip, maybe, go somewhere new. The could stop by the apartment, grab a few things, and really hit the road. If they could leave the fish and cats for a couple of hours, they could leave them for a couple of days. Vinny wouldn’t be out of the hospital all that soon. Why should they rush back to his place? “You say something, Ly?”
He smiled at the light way she was taking what he had just said. He had thought maybe she would be mad because giving up dealing would mean certain cutbacks until he got on his feet in a new line of business. It would mean that he couldn’t buy her a new leather pocketbook every week. “I promise you will not go back to buying cheap-ass knock offs on Canal Street.” He was laughing uncertainly, like an actor ad-libbing after a long moment of silence on stage.
“Um-hmmm,” she said, thinking that he was definitely not making sense today and that he should have listened to her last night when she told him to take it easy. Good thing she never got that out of control. She could always get them back OK when he was not paying attention. Her mind had jumped back and she was on the expressway, there were three cars in front of her, and one on the right, she could slow down and try to change lanes, but she was boxed in from the back, too, and they were all slowing down…almost to a crawl now, and she was driving stick…
“…real job, you know what I mean? It’s like we do things…like we left that house, didn’t even lock the frigging door. It’s outta control. It’s what we’ve been talking about.”
It was too late for her to ask him to repeat what he had said, although his mind was fairly clear by then and he may have been able to. But she hated to make him backtrack because then she would have to admit that she had missed what he had said. She prided herself on being the one to read the maps, to drive them home, not to miss what he said. She always kept her mind clear, even when he was saying weird things like “Cross Bronx Expressway” out of context. When they used to ride the D train, before he had the car, she was always the one who watched, who read the subway map and paid attention when he would have slept through their stop.
She could always find their way back when they used to go out too late. It did not occur to her that it had been quite a long time since they had been out much anywhere beyond bars and IHOP. She was only thinking that lately she had been the one to kick his friends out when they stayed too late. They hung around watching porn and eating take-out and doing nothing, just talking a big game. “Lately” was a good word—it contracted or expanded, it could signify a few weeks, or a month, maybe two, when she was not so sure. “Lately” had expanded farther than she had guessed, but one thing she was sure of and could repeat to herself: she was the one who knew when it was time to tell everyone to call it a night and go home.
Except that it was long past time and he had been the only one who understood it, just now on the way over here. Dark syrups, in purples and deep maple brown, had caught her attention; they were like mystical fluids from a magician’s shelf, and she wanted to taste them again. The two of them could have sat like that for hours—and they had done so before, at the same IHOP on other Saturdays—her staring at the syrups and him drinking coffee from the bottomless pot, but on that particular Saturday something had to get solved and he knew this. It might have been the sunshine or the cats left alone with a six foot tank of unfed fish, or the faded purple bruise along the edge of her cheek from when she had fallen or maybe he had struck her at home, or might have been the car she nearly hit coming off the Major Deegan—it could have been the children, but that would have been expecting too much—or it might have been the right coming together of many things, but the important thing was: he knew.
The past few days at Vinny’s place and after what had happened, they had tapped at the idea, sounding out walls within themselves to see if what they had built was solid. Now, today, sitting in the second booth in the smoking section at IHOP, he was scared; they had only themselves, only the two of them, for a wrecking crew. But the sureness came to him hard and flat, like a fixed thing he could file away in his mind and return to later. Once he understood he felt sure that she must, that he could impart knowledge to her. He wanted to hand her the hard flat understanding and say, “Hold this,” ; she might feel it and comprehend. But she was only staring at the syrups, intrigued by their darkness: raspberry, boysenberry, blueberry, in dark jars. And she wanted to taste them again.
The two of them went outside and stood under the IHOP sign with their hands in their pockets wondering why they had driven out here. Sure that he had left the house without money, she had paid the check. He would probably have been calling her to pick him up if she had not already been with him. And what was the number out in Queens Village? She could not remember it. She was so tired; he had been talking nonsense to her all day. What was it about IHOP that made him think they could get clear? It was like that morning the two of them lingered over their coffee and decided it was about time—they would set everything straight and start a real business, open a restaurant. What had he said? “A hamburger place, or a bar and grill, yeah, with sports on a couple of big screen TVs. You could make the drinks and I could cook.” They were all excited about it, and when they got home they had made a few drinks, just for practice, and thought that as bartenders they’d both be pretty good. A little later on they had forgotten why they started making drinks in the first place, and that had been the end of that plan.
She looked at him standing next to her and knew that if he wanted to get out, first their would be one big push, an increase to keep them in the black while they were getting on their feet. She looked at him standing next to her, kind of stooped, poking at the ground with one booted foot, and thought how it would be for the two of them if they got mixed up in something they shouldn’t, like Vinny had. But it wasn’t going to happen; he wasn’t going to end up in Long Island Jewish with six cracked ribs and both legs broken. They were just going to chill for a while, like they’d been doing. Why was he talking nonsense to her today?
She did not want to drive back to Vinny’s place yet, either. There would be those damn fish, and the cats all running around crazy from being cooped up all the time. She was tired of the stink of those cats, the whole frigging house smelled bad. Besides, it was boring; no one fun ever came by. If she could check her messages she could see if anyone had called this morning, maybe one of their friends. But he was forever losing his, replacing it and losing the new one, and this morning even she had forgotten her phone.
He, too, was thinking of phone calls he needed to make, to people who would be pissed off and people who would maybe help him out. He would start tomorrow or the next day, as soon as he could. She would still have the car, they would pay it off. He could get himself a job in downtown Manhattan, or something like that. His brother worked in Manhattan, on Water Street near Wall; he could maybe fix him up. He would give him a call, if he could find the number. It had been a while since they had talked. But he would get to it. First he needed a little time to think.
At least he had done one thing, he had worked it out with her. Or he had started to work it out with her, and they would talk more about it later. She had said she would, after they got home. She had said she did not want to talk to him about anything serious in an IHOP where other people might be listening. At least the implication was that other people might be listening. She was thinking of that time they were bar-hopping along Broadway, which was the last time she had listened to the El roar by so close; she had stood in the street and screamed under it, just for fun. He was thinking he would get started as soon as they were out of Vinny’s place, as soon as he could.
He turned towards her when he was ready to go and she smiled. The two of them got in the car and drove back, as they had driven there, in silence.