Her car told him a great deal. He was opening the driver-side door of his beat-up Subaru wagon when she spoke to his back.
"I'd ask you what you want. But I know what you want."
He had noticed her a few weeks ago. He walked his dog, she ran. He would usually look back when he heard footsteps, checking for other dogs. That day he glanced back and it was her. She was blonde, about thirty-five, with the trim body of an adolescent boy, touched with feminine curves. She had been looking at him, or in his vicinity, at least; and when he looked back her mouth became a grim line.
She had passed him without comment that day, then Bosque, his dog, up ahead, and he had watched her go. She ran strong but not fast. She'd been wearing black silk shorts and a matching tank top over something that covered her arms, a leotard, perhaps, that matched her hair. It was a moment before he noticed that she had left a smell behind, a perfume of some sort. He smiled. He was not good with money. It was a problem he'd solved by living frugally and making enough that he didn't need to be. He didn't have much sense for the "expensive"; that after all was a descriptor, not an attribute. But he recognized rare and therefore precious, and he smiled, thinking of Fitzgerald's great line in Gatsby: "She smelled of money." He'd never smelled it before, but that was it, that perfume.
He had watched her recede in front of them, studying the curves of her legs. She had good definition in her calves and a firm, muscular butt. A woman who took care of herself. And was taken care of, he added. He whistled up Bosque, who was dallying to check a stump. By then, she had disappeared around a bend in the path. A half hour later, she passed them again, returning, coming at them steadily as a beautiful train. He watched her approach, taking quick glances to avoid seeming to stare, looking at the walkers she was passing, the bicycle approaching behind her. It was the way he conducted the walk anyway, alert as a bird for macho dogs, for men who kept their testosterone on a leash, speeding bicycles, children who might not respect the space of a big dog coming toward them. But she spotted him looking and glared, then looked pointedly away, her face stiff and unwelcoming.
He smiled again to himself after she had passed, and he and Bosque continued on their way. He thought about her. She was about Anna's size, five-five, and a little stocky for a woman but strong-looking, solid as a gymnast. And her coloring was similar, though Anna's hair was more of a butterscotch red and her skin the biscuit gold of Lombardy rather than the café au lait of a hard-won tan. She ran with practiced economy. Anna hated running. Anna did aerobics, but she disapproved of running. And Anna was gone. That was what he had learned to call it, "gone." He knew it was as if she had died. For him, at least. Rather it was as if he had died, and Hell was this place so much like where he had been with her. "Gone" was easier to explain. He knew, when he thought about it, the exact moment he had died, sitting on the floor in the kitchen, weeping, a week after she moved out, weeping booze and despair, with Bosque in attendance, his expressive face a bit worried and embarrassed. "Gone" was simpler.
He had seen her, the runner, a half dozen more times before she confronted him in the parking lot. Most of the time, she passed him from behind. Less often, they came face-to-face. He had the sense, which he dismissed, that she was watching him. He knew better, of course. Once he had looked back and seen her coming, just at where the trails parted, and at that moment she had swerved off onto the bicycle trail, and run parallel to them, visible intermittently through the trees. He wondered if it was deliberate, the trial change. He had not looked at her any more intently than at anyone else he met on the trail. As a rule, he did not make eye contact with anyone, to avoid engagements, but there were a few gregarious folk, mostly elders, who insisted on a smile and hello, and he replied, unwilling to be rude, inventing answers that would satisfy them. Rarely he engaged in a conversation with someone, usually about Bosque's lineage. He was a striking dog, a mix of Weimaraner and French Mastiff, purposefully bred by a survivalist he knew from work. The man had cut off the puppies' tails "to make them fiercer." He thought of taking one as a rescue.
That day when she swerved away, he saw her again some time later, coming back on the bicycle trail. Her running gear that day was lime sweats and a matching terry headband. Her hair was close cropped but subtly styled, so that it moved naturally in cadence as her feet struck the gravel. She had been wearing shoes that matched the green of the sweats. He'd smiled to himself as she came parallel to them and ran on, oblivious to them on the other trail. That had been three days ago, a Thursday. He and Bosque walked at pretty much the same time, most days, within an hour or so, usually around four in the afternoon. He worked six to three, to avoid rush hour. On weekends they came out twice, morning and afternoon. She was usually there on the weekdays, and he began to think of her as the pampered wife of a doctor or lawyer, with nothing to do but run, buy things, work out, have her hair done....
On Saturday, the day before she spoke to him, she would pass him twice, and the second time, when he saw her coming back, a half hour after she had run by, he happened to be standing still, waiting for Bosque. She was looking at him. He looked back, watching her approach, curious. She watched him, her face wary and unfriendly. She glanced at the big dog, looked back at him, pointedly looked away as she passed. The next day, Sunday, he was far ahead of her, and she passed him the first time as he was returning, then again later, coming up behind him as he approached the parking lot. So it was that she came to speak to him over the roof of her car a few minutes later when he and the dog arrived. She drove a new BMW 750, a huge car the color of charcoal dust. He turned to face her; she had her elbows on the roof. The windows were tinted just enough that the interior was visible but shadowed and indistinct. The shine was immaculate.
"I don't want anything," he said, watching her expression.
"Sure you do. You want to fuck me."
He was silent for a moment, weighing his options. He might say, "Doesn't everyone?" and see what came of that. Or "Besides that," but that answer could lead to unpleasant complications.
He settled for, "What makes you say that?"
She sneered slightly, not distorting her face, but contempt unmistakable. "It's my job to know," she said.
She looked back toward the trail. There were people visible at some distance: a young couple pushing a runner's baby carriage toward them, two old ladies slowly walking slow old dogs toward the trail. She came around the car and stood in front of him, uncomfortably close, confrontational rather than intimate. "It's my job, Ok? I'm a ...courtesan. A whore," she said fiercely, half under her breath. He could smell the expensive perfume. His car door was open. Bosque was already in the back seat. She was six inches shorter than he was, but practically in his face, her keys in her left hand, one of them gripped like a little knife.
"That's nice, I guess," he said lamely. "But no, that's not what I was thinking."
They stared at each other like adversaries. When he shot a look at Bosque, she took it for surrender and turned and stalked away, back to her car. He watched her go. When she was back at her car door, she nailed him again with a hard look, opened the door, and slipped inside.
He didn't see her again for nearly a week. He didn't change his habits, but they didn't connect. Once, the dark powder BMW was in the lot when he arrived, but somehow they failed to pass. He wondered if she had seen his car, not beside hers but in the lot, and had wondered about him. He saw her Saturday. She passed them and finished her run and then walked back to meet him, a quarter mile from the end of his walk. He stopped when she reached him.
"You stare at me," she said, studying his face.
"Bull. You stare at me."
"Who wouldn't?" he said. Bosque came up to her, ever the socializer, put his chin on her thigh. She rubbed his head without looking at him.
"You know what I mean."
"It's nothing personal," he said.
She grinned then. She looked around, behind each shoulder, as if looking for witnesses to this man. She looked down at the dog.
"You are strange," she said, but it sounded like a compliment.
"Would you like coffee?"
"Arapahoe and 30th?"
She shrugged. What harm? She turned as if to walk with him.
"I've never met a courtesan," he said.
"It's a living. I'm exclusive, independent. I escort high profile men, give them more a good time than a little exotic sex. It's like the geishas. You know, sex wasn't the point with geishas, it was companionship. They were musicians, poets, intelligent."
"Bank presidents. Government people. Movie stars."
"Yes," she said. "I have an MA in psychology. This pays better."
It explained her schedule; it explained the car. It fit with her look: she did not seem pampered, but rather well taken care of. It didn't sound right though, and he was troubled. They walked along.
As they came to the lot she said, "I'm very expensive."
"I'll buy," he said, and he went to his car.
Sitting at a small table outside the juice bar, she said, "What do you do?"
"I'm a writer. I write short stories. I've been writing about you."
That broke through her composure a bit. "About me?"
"I've been inventing you. Prostitution is an interesting direction to take, but it's a little too melodramatic for me."
"What were you making me?"
"A lawyer's wife. Wealthy, educated, bored, looking for something. Pregnant women used to eat clay. It bothered people, but it happened. Theory was, they craved the dirt, but later it was learned that the clay contained calcium."
"Bull," she said, smiling. "I don't crave clay or calcium."
"It's a story."
"My husband's a doctor."
"Does he approve of your vocation?"
"I'm not a prostitute. I just said that to shock you. I hate the way men look at me."
"So they say."
She gave him an angry glance, then laughed. "Ok, I hate it if the men aren't interesting. What do you write?"
"Short stories. Poetry. Computer manuals."
"God and Caesar. Pay the bills."
"Your dog is sweet. What's his name?"
"Bosque." He pronounced it as a single syllable, 'bosk.' "He's part French Mastiff."
"He's sweet. So you work for a computer company."
"It pays the bills. I used to be a teacher."
"What did you teach?"
"Writing. Folklore. Storytelling."
"Oh? Tell me a story."
He looked over at the door. A woman was herding three children inside, with the youngest saying, like a mantra, "I want a Peachy Zingo; I want a Peachy Zingo." Her husband sat in the car, waiting for them. He looked bored, watching his family depart. He looked over at the two of them, disinterested, looked away, pulled up the Sunday paper from his lap.
"Ok. Here's a Swampy Cree story."
Among the people, starvation is a way of life, and the monster that haunts the winter is the cannibal windigo. Cannibals are often women, and so it is with windigoes. Eating human flesh makes them grow large and strong, and when they have become truly windigo they go into the woods, in the dead of winter, and grow stronger, feeding on the hunters and wild game, hoping for a child now and then. They become naked and their hair grows to a long mantle around them. Their flesh freezes and their hearts freeze hard as stone. They harvest the village that was their home, and they eat what little game there is around. They are hard to kill. Arrows bounce off their frozen skin.
So it was, long ago, in the cold of winter, that a widow, the mother of three children, became a windigo and ate them, her children. All day, looking at them, she saw plump geese. That night, she killed the geese. She fled from the village in the night, carrying a bone of her eldest son, and took up her home in the woods. For weeks she raided the village, preying on unsuspecting women, the elderly, and the children, striking secretly, until at last the old ones of the village declared that they were victims of a windigo. By then she was tall as the trees, her eyes red coals and her hair a thick, black blanket. She had begun to take solitary hunters, cutting their throats with her horny nails and tearing off limbs to carry back with her to her cave in the woods.
All winter she preyed on the village, until all were starving, and no one dared enter the woods. A little girl decided, after both her parents were killed, to throw her life away to destroy the windigo and save her village. Steady Runner, her name was, and she slipped into the forest and set a trap, a small trap, to catch a weasel. Weasels are fierce creatures, not much bigger than mice but they hunt rabbits. Her weasel was a tiny one, and she put it in a little bag and went on, into the woods, making noise and offering herself to the windigo.
Soon she heard the sound of a huge creature coming rapidly behind her, crashing through the trees and breathing hard, running. No one had been into the woods for almost a week, and the windigo was very hungry. When it was almost upon her, she raised the bag to her mouth and swallowed the weasel. She could feel it, biting her stomach, struggling to get free, even as the windigo seized her and raised her to its mouth. The monster ate her swiftly, not even aware of the tiny furry animal inside her young body.
A few days later, four hunters, nearly dead of starvation, ventured into the woods. There they found the windigo, dead, a hole eaten through its chest. The weasel had torn through its stomach and gone upward, drawn by the pounding blood, to the windigo's heart. It ate the cold frozen heart to sustain its life and when the windigo fell at last, dead, it ate its way out and fled to the woods.
So the village was saved.
She was staring at him, ignoring the melting purple smoothie, her hand on the straw. She nodded, sipped at the straw, and asked, "Why do they call them Swampy Cree?"
"I don't know. I guess they live in the wetlands of northern Ontario."
"Have you published anything?"
He recited a few titles, issues of magazines she was unlikely to have heard of.
"I don't know your name," she said.
"Thomas Phelan," he said.
"Julienne. Julienne des Croziers."
"Yes, well. It's my husband's name." She finished her drink and got up abruptly. "Bosk will be roasted. I have to go."
He watched her drive away, then he left. The next weekend, they passed each other on the trail again. They smiled; they said hello. When he got back to the cars, she was sitting in hers, still breathing deeply. She looked at him as he approached. She was smiling. She scrubbed Bosque's head with her knuckles.
"Coffee?" he said.
"I don't drink coffee," she said. She stood up. She was wearing the green sweats. "I could have tea, though."
They drove to Starbucks. She was there ahead of him, waiting at a table outside when he arrived. They went inside. He got a double espresso. She ordered her tea. They went back outside to the cabaret tables in the sun, sat apart from the others.
"Tell me about your husband," he said, sipping the hot coffee.
"He does some sort of restorative surgery for athletes. I don't pay much attention." She looked off toward the parking lot, as if the subject bored her. "He's older. He's pretty busy."
"He works on athletes?"
She looked hard at him. "He likes that. Touching men."
He sighed. "What a waste."
Julienne laughed. "It gives me a lot of free time. Are you married?" She looked a challenge at him, her husband disposed of.
"Matilda. She was a lot like you."
"No woman likes to be compared to another woman, even if it's flattering. 'Was'?"
"She died. In an automobile accident, five years ago. October."
"So am I. She was drunk. She wrecked the car."
"God," she breathed.
"Yeah," he said, looking away.
"You loved her very much."
"Yeah. Why don't you get a divorce?"
"Oh, yeah," he said. It was his turn to look at the parking lot.
"I'm wondering," she said, "what you look like at night."
"Depends how late. I was wondering the same thing. About you," he added.
"Around dinner time, at a restaurant like, say, the Hunan Pavilion, over on Freemac."
He grinned. "Easy enough to find out. We could find out tonight, in fact."
"You aren't so expensive."
They parted. He showered and shaved and gave Bosque the run of the back yard for a few hours before the sun set. At seven, he was in the parking lot, watching for the big BMW. She was punctual. She wore a forest green dress, a piece of the fabric fashioned into a choker around her neck. It was sleeved and knee-length, the dress, and she wore long black boots with it, and a black wool shawl against the cold.
They talked about Japan over hot and sour soup. He said he had lived there five years, a long time ago, and he described the bamboo thickets, supposedly full of centipedes, and the snakes along the streams. He told her about the eel-like fish that lived in the ditches and about the harrowing drive up to Nikko. She laughed and smiled and nodded, and told him about a dog who had died while she was at the Douglas County Fair. She had been twelve, and it was her dog, and she came home to find it gone. It died that night at the vet. He told her about going to school in New Mexico. She told him about watching her sister hold down a boy when she was eleven and her sister thirteen, sitting on his loins and struggling to pin him. He was smaller, just her age, and she told him how she had been troubled by the passion in their eyes, the boy's, her sister's, but didn't get it, didn't understand at all till many years later. He explained his dog's name.
"It should be 'Basque,' or 'Boss Kay,' but I thought they both sounded strange, so I compromised.
"I'm not married," she said.
"I decided that a while ago."
"I was. A nice boy, in college. Then a broker. He left me for a pneumatic secretary."
"Pneumatic?" He grinned.
"What is that? Huxley? Brave New World. Such a great image. Like a soft, sucking balloon." They were finishing their main courses: cashew shrimp for him, chicken in black bean sauce for her. She asked for a taste and he fed her from his chopsticks. She held his eyes while she took the bit of shrimp, her lips pursed to nibble like a bird. Then she offered him a bit of the chicken.
"I don't think we gave the 'courtesan' angle enough of a chance," he said before taking the chicken.
She examined his face; he chewed the chicken, swallowed. She looked down at her plate. Carrying a morsel of food to her mouth, she smiled mischievously. "A couple thousand dollars for the whole evening. Out of your price range, huh?" She rasied her eyes.
She examined his face again. Shook her head as she turned her attention back to the food.
"You ever been to Las Vegas?" she said. "Caesar's Palace? That place is so over the top. You know, you're walking along a boutique strip, almost a tunnel, and you come around a corner and there's Michelangelo's David, twenty feet tall. I lingered at a window once to watch people's reactions. Middle-aged women would come upon the statue and stop cold, their mouths open, staring that twelve-inch schlong, lying there so soft and innocent. It isn't even erect!"
"Shut up. This is my story."
She ate a bit of carrot. "Men like to think that women secretly get off on big equipment. Everybody's different. I've known men who drool over big breasts, like the basketballs on Cleopatra's Barge, and I've known butt men who couldn't care less about the breasts, as long as they were female. I knew a woman whose husband was too big; he hurt her. There's a comfortable range, and once you are inside it, size doesn't matter. But that thing. I wanted so bad to kiss it, to play with it with my tongue. I could have climbed its leg, just to taste it. I thought, how could Michelangelo not have?"
She gauged the effect on him. She went on. "What do you think? Did he secretly touch it, when no one was around? I could have kissed Michelangelo, indirectly, if I'd just had a ladder."
"It's a replica."
He raised and lowered his eyebrows eloquently, picking at his food.
"What about you, Thomas? Butt man? That would be my guess. I can feel your eyes peeling off my shorts, after I go by."
"You have a fine body. You remind me of a gymnast I used to watch. Competing, then graduated, then in the Olympics. Then she married her former coach. The last time I saw her she was about thirty, still trim, firm. She walked like a virgin mare, all balance and grace and potential."
"Beautiful. But a comparison again. What did I tell you, Thomas?"
"My name's David."
She stared at him. Then she laughed. "That's cute," she said. "Mine is Mary. Mary Evander." She paused, then stuck out a hand across the table. "Please tamecha." She grinned and batted her eyes, like Streisand being funny.
He smiled. "The courtesan thing just isn't going to work. It doesn't feel right."
"But I was getting into it! I don't get to let my hair down, in my business."
He sipped tea. "You're a lawyer."
"No! I couldn't stand being a lawyer. My husband and I made a killing in the stock market. He had some friends who got him in on a couple of hot IPOs and we made an incredible killing."
"You're in the stock market?"
"No. He had the connections, and he took them with him. But I put my half into apartments and land. Apartments near the campus, land out east. I do some stocks, but that's my cash cow. Real estate."
The waiter had brought the bill. They split it, as she had suggested. Walking toward her car, she stopped and turned to face him.
"No more games, Ok? I'm me now. Not Julienne or Mary. I'm me."
"I'm working on it."
She examined his face. "You are such a strange man," she observed soberly. She leaned into his face to kiss him chastely on the side of his mouth. He was touched. She turned and they continued to walk toward her car. When she put the key in the door, he could not resist the tan topography of her naked back above the wool shawl draped from elbow to elbow. He grazed his knuckles down her spine. She froze, the door still locked but the key inserted. When his knuckles moved back up to her neck she leaned into it, tilting her head backward. He brought his face down to kiss the back of her neck, lost in the illusion. His lips touched her and he murmured, "We could"
"I don't think so," she sighed. Then she composed herself, unlocked the door. With the door open, she put her hand, holding the keys, on the top of the door. The key ring was attached to a little canister. Pepper spray. She studied his face. "I don't know who you are," she said. "Do I?"
After she started the car, she rolled down the passenger-side window. "David?" She leaned down to look up at his face. "Una. Una Boyle."
She watched his face. He did not speak. She smiled. She shook her head and put the car in gear.
He did not see her again for two weeks. Their paths failed to cross. He did not see the BMW either. He became entangled in a conversation, one afternoon, talking to a tough-looking woman with a tight ponytail and sad eyes. She talked to him while her dog, a big German Shepherd on a leash, fussed with Bosque, nose to tail.
"He's such a sweet dog!" she said. "What's his name?"
He told her.
"Bosk," she said, giving the 'o' the sound of 'toast.' She had a good ear. Her dog jumped a bit; maybe Bosque's nose was cold.
"What's that bird?" she said, pointing at a kingfisher poised on a limb above the stream.
"I don't know. Kingfisher," he said.
"They are so beautiful! Don't you think so?"
"Gorgeous," he said.
"I love big dogs," she said, looking at the two dogs circling each other. Bosque was tangled in her dog's leash. "They're so beautiful."
"Yours is nice-looking," he said. They stared at the dogs. Bosque was bored. He extricated him from the leash. He stood up.
"I come here every weekend," she said.
"We try to come when we can." He smiled, then he smiled at the dogs.
She put out her hand. "I'm Marian," she said.
"Mark," he said, shaking her hand.
"Nice to meet you, Mark."
They went their separate ways.
That Sunday, two days later, the BMW was there when he arrived. They met about three quarters of the way out on the trail, coming back. He realized that she must run far past his own turnaround point.
"You!" she said, grinning. She jogged in place, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
"And you," he replied with a smile.
"Where have you been?"
"I started another story."
She stopped running. She stared at him. She looked around, in that way she had, as if to say, "Did you hear that? Do you believe this guy?"
"Sometimes I work on two stories at a time. The other one was a dead end. No big deal."
"No," she laughed. Then she added, "Look, are we talking about what I think we're talking about?"
He looked down trail. Bosque was waiting, a bit impatiently.
"I don't know how this one ends," he said.
She studied the ground. Then she looked up. "You are crazy," she said, and she ran on, toward the parking lot. They finished their walk, out and back. She was at her car when he got back, but it was in a different spot. She stood up when he arrived, walked over to him.
"Smoothie?" she said.
A few minutes later, sitting at their table, they sipped drinks and watched the college kids troop in for this and that. He thought about the woman with three children.
"My name is really Una," she said. "Una Boyle. Really. And the story I told you, the investments, that's the truth. No more stories. What's your real name? Not David."
"Frederick Fowles," he said.
"All right then. You could have called. There aren't that many 'U. Boyles', are there? I would have tried, but all I had was 'David,' and I knew that was a joke." She studied his face. "Are you mad at me, because of the restaurant?"
"Of course not. You are gorgeous, intelligent, charming. Wonderful company."
"Yeah, well of course. But you could still be mad at me. Because...."
"Because you didn't put out? That's silly. You still think"
"I guess. Why not?"
"I don't. Really."
She sipped the drink. The silence lengthened. Finally she said, "Are you gay?"
He grinned. "No, I'm not gay. I'm just not interested."
"You shit. You can't say things like that to women. Didn't your mama...." She was grinning too. But her voice was exasperated.
"It's nothing personal."
"You really had it bad, huh? What was her name, Matilda?"
"You need to snap out of it, you know? Get your life back on track. Can't you"
She flinched, looking puzzled. "Oh, that's such bullshit. Grow up! You can love someone who's gone, and still be happy with someone new, someone different from her."
He took a long pull on the straw, looked her in the eyes and murmured, "Bullshit."
Then she realized what he was doing. "Stop that!" she said. "Talk to me."
"He sat silently. What was there to say? He had let her become human, and now he had to deal with it."
"What? What are you talking about?"
"He tried to explain. He tried to make sense of it. But how could she understand? He knew that a character had to be alive, to have a life of her own, to make her own choices. But how to explain? What could he tell her?"
"You are weirding me out. Stop it." She looked frightened.
He looked at the drink, and then at hers. "He looked at the drink, then at hers. There was nothing more he could say."
Her face was getting red, and her eyes glistened.
"I don't want to play this game any more. Frederick?"
"I'm not Frederick."
"What's your real name, then? Show me some ID!" she said, only half jokingly.
He looked at her, unmoving. "He looked at her, unmoving. She realized that she couldn't force him to tell her anything. That she would never know who he really was"
"Stop it! This is not a story! Talk to me."
"'Stop it,' she said angrily. It was no use."
"Damn you, will you stop this?"
He looked down at his hands, clasped on the table like a praying child's. "He looked down at his hands. He said nothing. When he looked up, after a long time, she was gone. He never saw her again."