Literary Orphans

Voice Check
by Tim Millas

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I only met Peter because we both happened to be in Big Apple News. You could get every New York paper there, but that was just the first aisle of the store. Further in were office supplies, art supplies, toys for kids between day of birth and age ten, balloons and decorations and anything else you’d need to get your party on, and two aisles that were totally greeting cards, covering every milestone in human life.

I was there to buy an ink cartridge for my printer. I knew exactly where to find it. But when I reached that aisle, I didn’t stop. I drifted past it.

Why? That’s easy. Waiting at my apartment around the corner was another nothing job, a press release I had to write for the launch of an “ergonomic” toothbrush; more of the grunt work Randy kept dumping on me, when it was beyond obvious I was ready for more strategic things.

I reminded myself that two of my so-called BFFs had birthdays in April. Why not buy the cards early?

I drifted to the first card aisle. All Birthdays but too crowded. So on to the next one, which had everything else from Happy Anniversary to Blank (even a few Valentine cards, priced way down since it was March). There was nobody here except a big older guy by the Anniversary cards.

I stopped at Blank. I could write my own message, and the images on these were usually better. But not today. My eyes kept sliding until they came back to the old guy.

He hadn’t found anything either. But unlike me, he seemed to pick up every card. He studied every image like an art critic and read every word, the corner of his mouth twitching up hopefully, then sagging as he set the card back on the shelf. I could hear him breath, an ocean sound I liked, waves coming and going.

I drifted toward his end of the aisle, to Sympathy and Get Well, which put me close. I bent over to grab a card, making my short skirt even shorter. This didn’t make him look.

No problem. I knew that I’d get him to notice me. In that time of my life the impulse to make a guy notice me would strike at least once a week. And not necessarily because I needed to hook up.

Sometimes I just needed someone to confirm that I exist.

GET WELL AND BE QUICK ABOUT IT! So said a card in a hanging display high above me. “Hey, you’re tall? Can you reach that for me?”

He lifted his head, glanced my way without looking at me.

I pointed. “That orange one? Real subtle, I know.” Following the line of my arm, he got the card and gave it to me. “Thanks.”

“My pleasure.” This reinforced his oldness: a man-child my age would have said “No worries” and stared at my chest. And moved on since I wasn’t a D-cup.

BECAUSE I’M LOST WITHOUT YOU, was my card’s payoff line. I spat some air and stuck it on a low shelf. He put his card back, too.

“Wow. They’re all pretty stupid?”

He shrugged. Older man of few words. I’d see his type in restaurants, sitting opposite the wife, mouth shut as if after thirty years there was nothing left to say. But then a chick waitress comes over and suddenly he can talk.

So I tried again. “For your wedding anniversary?”

“Thirty-two years.”

“Congratulations. That’s awesome. Gives me hope.” Hand touching chest where my heart would be.

“Really,” he said—no more than that—but the way he said it warmed me up. His eyes brushed over me for the first time.

“These cards really suck,” I said. “I mean I write for a living and I can’t believe people got paid for this?”

“Well, I’m no writer. But none of these sound like me talking to my wife.”

“Get a blank one? Say it in your own words.”

“No, when I say I’m no writer I mean, I can’t write. Other talents I have. Anything to do with biochemistry, I’m your man. I can make you a beautiful Shaker chair. Can speak on my feet, too—just not on a page.”

He stopped then, as if surprised he’d told me that.

“Hey, you got a smartphone right? Record yourself talking then write it out. I do that when I’m, like, stuck?”

And now he really looked at me. “You know, I’ve tried that. But I can’t forget I’m writing something, and can’t get a word out. Good idea, though.”

That’s when I decided I was going to sleep with him. Unlike Randy, he could actually recognize a chick might have a good idea. He looked you in the eye without leering at you, loved his wife yet was honest about his trouble expressing it. He was just what I needed: a good man. Even if (or maybe because) getting him would make him bad.

“I’ve got an idea,” I said. “We—oh, sorry,” I stuck out my hand: “I’m LeeLee Goffert. Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, too. I’m Peter Funai.”

As he shook my hand I checked him out. This old guy I’d just chosen wasn’t hot. Closer to ugly. Tall but with a gut that jutted more than his junk, long raw ears, eyebrows like caterpillars, hair all gray—OK, he got points for having hair and not dying it, but it was way too short. The blue of his eyes seemed faded. His lips had wrinkles.

“Funai. That sounds…Japanese?”

“No. Amalfi Coast.”

And I was all warmed up again. It was his voice. Not exactly deep but with this depth to it, rich like the tone you get from pressing the pedal on a piano. No man-child in my social circle sounded like that.

“I’m Bronx? Originally. Now I’m Manhattan.”

And did he see a Manhattan chick, young, super-thin, dressed tight, breasts small but perky, tattoo of a QR code on my right arm, steel ring through one nostril, black eyes and eyebrows under bleached hair? Or did he see that I wasn’t young enough anymore to be called a chick, and no matter how much I starved myself my ass would always be a tad wide, and a second chin would flash when I laughed, and though I wasn’t dying to be married I wondered what was wrong with me that I wasn’t and if sizing up my boobs might jumpstart my love life and career too?

Peter’s expression didn’t change. Yet I sensed that he saw it all. And knew that I was hitting on him. And was pondering how he felt about that.

“Well, Peter, here’s my idea. I’m going to show you how to write a perfect anniversary message to your wife.”

“Oh…no. You don’t have to do that.”

Blushing a little when he said this. So he was flattered; and guilty about it.

“It’s nice of you—really—but I don’t want to take your time. Don’t you have to get back to work?”

“No worries. My job, we take long lunches and then work till midnight? And this’ll take twenty minutes over at Starbucks.”

“Look, LeeLee, you’re a very nice young lady—”

“Young lady? I’m, like, almost thirty-three, excuse me?”

“Well I’m almost twice that, so’s my wife. I don’t see you relating to the old folks stuff we might say to each other.”

“Are you kidding, I’m in PR? I could help George Bush write a condolence card to Osama Bin Laden’s widow? This is what I do.” I piled on the italics to amuse him, but his smile was half a wince. So I said: “I want you to find any cards with a phrase, even a word that you like. Then find a blank card with a picture that really says—what’s your wife’s name?”

“Margaret.”

“OK, that says Margaret. You got a pen?—no problem, they’ll give us one at Starbucks. Go on, pick some cards.”

Peter made that ocean sound. He was thinking. He must be a scientist. When confronted by the unexpected, he would study, assess, decide, roll with it.

“All right, let’s see…” He picked up a card and started to read it again.

“No, don’t overthink it. Just grab the ones you remember. Go with your instincts.”

“Yes sir”—but friendly, like he got a kick from me bossing him. He grabbed seven or eight cards. I worried that he’d take forever with the Blanks but he picked one right away. Black and white shot of a washing line with two stuffed toys hanging from it, Teddy bear and smaller chick bear, each held by a clothespin clipped to one ear.

“Awesome,” I said. “Let’s go.”

He paid for them in cash. (My last man-child, Josh, would’ve charged them; he charged everything, even a coffee.) When we were on Third Avenue, I grabbed his arm. “This way to Starbucks.” I pulled him left, and then made like I spontaneously changed my mind and yanked him right: “No, I know a better place.”

“Wait, LeeLee.” He stopped, slipping free of me. I didn’t have to ask him why he stopped. I said “Come on” and walked north, not looking back. A few seconds later, he caught up. Walked with me to Seventy-Fourth and then across the street.

“This is perfect. It’s late enough, they’ll let us have coffee at a table? We need to spread these out.”

I led him into a restaurant called, very creatively, Third. Small bar and 20 tables inside, and because today was warm they had opened up the front and put a few tables on the street. Three cougars were still drinking wine at one of them.

“Oh, sure, Margaret and I have been here. Good steak frite. Nice bar. Not that we ever sit at the bar.”

“Yeah, it’s kind of a mixed crowd.” Meaning the bar was a chick and man-child scene and the tables for old couples and cougars.

I didn’t wait to be seated. They knew me here. “This one’s good.” A table set back from the open front, so we felt the air but sat in shade.

“Sure, fine.” The waiter had just come in from the cougars and I waved him over. Shaved head, killer body, dead affect.

“Evan, we need caffeine. This is Peter, a client of mine so treat him good.”

“Oh, I know Evan,” Peter said.

Evan didn’t say anything to indicate that he knew either of us or had seen us here with other people. His lack of acknowledgement was his comment.

Peter ordered black coffee, I asked for double espresso, “and a pen that writes. We have work to do.”

Evan nodded, then turned his head at the sound of the cougar calling him: “Evan, where’s that check?”

He hurried off. But for a second she stared at Peter and me. Her face and clothes were tighter than mine, but that voice sounded like it was coming through thirty years of nicotine and clueless men.

Then we got our coffees and pen. “OK, let’s see the cards.” Peter spread them out. From my skirt pocket I produced a notepad. “Now find something you like.”

He sipped coffee, stalling, then picked a Hallmark card with a lame drawing of a cradle with a heart in it. “I hated this picture, but it made me think…‘Babyheart.’”

Babyheart?

“OK, a quick voice check here? How does ‘Babyheart’ sound like you? Orher?”

“Well…Margaret takes care of babies—she’s a pediatrician—but I always tell her she’s my baby. And my heart.”

“Great! Good start. Keep going.”

He grabbed one of those too cute Shoebox cards—two peas in a pod, smiley faces on the peas. “Not the stupid picture. That. ‘Side by side.’”

“‘Side by side.’ You’re rolling.”

“And this.” Peter held another card to my face, his thumb by the words he wanted.

“‘Such sweet joys?’”

“Yes, but write it as ‘such are the sweet joys.’”

“Good, Peter—that’s the whole point. You see words you like, but then you enhance them.”

“What do you think of this?” This card showed a blank movie screen. On the opposite side of the page was a slot where you could stick a photo. “‘On every screen, all I see is you.’ You think that’s stupid?”

“No, I think you’re in love.” Which made me want to kiss him. “But make it bigger. Like, ‘All I am is you?’”

“Or, ‘the best of all I am or will be ever is you’? Oh, God, I can’t write.”

“No, you’re good,” I said, writing it down. “Anyway it’s a process.”

Peter stared at the cards, but didn’t pick anything. “Now I’m stuck.”

“Tell me more about Margaret. What’s her thing?”

“She’s a pediatrician because she loves kids. Our son and granddaughters are on the west coast. But she gets kids every day at work.”

“What else?”

“She’s practical. Like the Brits say, she just gets on with it. I’m the one with mood swings. Whenever I get really down she says, ‘We’ve had more than our share.’ Meaning, good things, good times, so I shouldn’t complain.”

“What color is her lingerie?”

Slow down, I thought. But I have to say this didn’t make Peter’s mood swing. His eyes just narrowed. “That’s pretty personal, LeeLee.”

“Well, I’m your image consultant? We have to get personal!” I looked back, and won the stare-down. “So? Black or white or pink?”

“She doesn’t wear anything.” A firecracker laugh burst from him. Then for the first time he looked around to see if anyone could hear us. “She hates underwear.”

“No way. Her name is Margaret and she hates underwear?”

“God’s truth.”

“Wow. Commando Margaret.”

He looked confused.

“Oh—going commando—that’s when you don’t do underwear. But why wouldn’t she? I think lingerie is sexy.” I was a pink thong and strapless chick myself, which he’d see soon enough.

“My God. She would kill me if she heard me say this—”

“Chill, Peter.” I patted his arm. “I’m like your lawyer? It’s all confidential.”

“She…says it’s sexier without. ‘Makes it easier for you to get me naked,’ she says.”

“Fabulous! So how about this: ‘Happy times and hot times, we’ve had more than our share, and more to come’?”

Hot times?”

“Peter, come on—no matter how long a woman’s been married she wants to feel sexy—wants her husband to tell her she’s sexy.”

He licked his lips—embarrassed, excited, maybe both. “All right. Write it down.”

“Just did. Anything else?”

He studied each card again. All he needed was a microscope. “You’d probably call this corny, but…‘You make my life so good?’”

“Let’s give it a tweak: ‘You make life good.’”

“I like that. Less is more. You’re a thinker.”

That made me blush. Maybe he was flattering me but he looked so Peter the Scientist when he said it.

“Uh, could you tell my boss that?” Then I waved the Randy topic away. “OK. Do you think you’re ready?”

“Ready?”

“To write your anniversary message to Margaret.”

“I think I need more coffee.”

“No you don’t. It’s all there.” I tore out a blank page and put it in front of him.

He peered at my notebook, open to the phrases we’d collected. His lids sank a little (sweet lashes, I suddenly noticed) but he didn’t close his eyes. Then without stopping he wrote some lines of small, neatly printed words.

He thrust it at me, knuckles bumping my palm: “How about this?”

 

My Babyheart,

No words can ever capture what sweet joy it is to live every day side by side with you. The best of all I am or ever will be, is you. Happy times, hot times, we’ve had more than our share, with many more to come. Margaret, you make life good. Please be mine forever. Happy anniversary!

With all my love, always,

Your Peter

 

“Peter. And you say you’re not a writer?”

“Pretty good?”

“You killed it. One thing.” I took the pen—deliberately touching him—crossed out “capture” and wrote “say.”

Yes. Even better!”

“I wouldn’t change another word. You did it, Peter. I think Margaret will be very happy.”

“Thank you, LeeLee. You’re amazing.” He put out his hand, and when I took it I kissed his cheek, letting my breast encounter his arm. He didn’t flinch. “I can’t believe I just wrote that. You really helped me. How can I repay you?”

“Oh, buy me another drink.”

He summoned Evan. I liked how he did it, just raised his arm and Evan was there.

“More coffee?”

“Actually, I could go for a glass of wine, you, Lee?”

“Let’s celebrate? I’ll have a glass of champagne.”

“Good idea. Me too.”

“And what are we celebrating?” Even Evan couldn’t hide a trace of smirk.

Peter shut him right down: “My thirty-second wedding anniversary.” Evan muttered “Congratulations” and got us our champagne.

I toasted Peter and Margaret. He toasted my good work. He took a modest sip, which I noticed only after downing most of mine. “Oh, those bubbles. Right to my head.”

“Will you be able to work after this?”

“Drink with clients and still be able to work? It’s in my job description.”

“So…is your PR company near here?”

“No, my apartment is.” Not caring how this sounded. We were at that moment when I could be honest about offering him wild sex, and even though writing the card had made him love his wife more than ever, he could be honest about wanting it. “My boss lets me work from home a lot.”

Peter nodded. “Sometimes you think better at home than you do at the office, or in my case, the lab. I never had that when I was working full time. That’s great for you.” He took another sip and then saw my face. “No?”

“No, sure, it’s great. And just as great for my stupid boss. He can keep me grinding like a pasta machine without me even being around to complain.”

Oops. No whining. Guaranteed sex kill. I was going to fuck her but I couldn’t listen to her.

So I said: “Thanks to you, I’m not getting any work done—and I really do thank you. This is the funnest afternoon I’ve had in a while.”

“It has been fun…But your boss—he doesn’t recognize you?”

“Not as a thinker. To him I’m a pair of hands.” I finished my champagne, waved to Evan, who saw me but was taking someone else’s check. “Meanwhile I can offer so much, strategically. I know strategic is a cliché, but there really is a difference between strategic and tactical? So I’ll give Randy—that’s stupid boss—I give him great ideas and they go nowhere and then somebody says them with two words changed and they’re great ideas. Hello? They’re my ideas.”

Peter studied me so hard I blinked. “Maybe he just doesn’t see you, LeeLee. He’s seeing a stereotype—like that tattoo. Or your nose thing—”

“No. Half the office is pierced. ”

“Well then—listen—is that really your voice?”

Maybe it was the champagne—or that I had already mentally undressed for him—but what he said felt like a punch to my throat.

“Is this really my voice?”

“How you talk, I mean. That up way you talk.”

“This voice just taught you how to write.”

I know that, LeeLee. But you speak with that uptilt, that valley thing. Hello. Whatever.

So that’s what my scientist had been doing all this while. Labeling me like a specimen.If there’d been a drop left in my glass, I would’ve thrown it in his face.

“It’s what makes you sound younger than you are. That’s all I mean.” My silence must’ve given him a clue, because he started talking faster: “A million girls in this city talk like that but none of them could do what you just did for me—you’re so smart, that’s really all I mean—”

“No, that isn’t my voice. This is my voice.”

The voice was a monotone: hard, deeper than his, like I was channeling the cougar and all her nicotine.

“This is my real voice. The only reason I spoke in that voice?”—I uptilted for a second, then shut it back down—“is I know it turns on old fools like you. So I thought I’d experiment on you. See if I could get you to the point of cheating on the woman you love so much. Worked, didn’t it? But, no, this is the real me. End of experiment.”

Peter, master of the unexpected, took this in with a faint twitch of his chin. He knew he wasn’t going to get laid now. But he didn’t look—or let himself look—shocked or disappointed. Only a little relieved.

“LeeLee…”

“Write your card.” I grabbed my notebook and walked away as Evan approached with two more glasses of champagne.

I did glance back once, after crossing the street. Peter was handing Evan cash for the drinks. But his face was turned toward me and I could still hear his ocean sound in my head.

Back home, I knocked out the press release, then wrote my letter of resignation—explaining that I’d been given no opportunities to achieve my potential—and emailed both to Randy. Before long he called me. I answered the phone with the same voice that terminated Peter. It took Randy a second to recognize me, and more than a few to absorb what I was saying and how I was saying it, but to his credit he didn’t hang up. He asked me to come into the office tomorrow to talk about it, and I said OK.

Later I went out again, down to Second, to this deli where the young Croatian who sliced meat for my sandwiches was about to get off work. He barely spoke English but his body was eloquent, and sometimes when I really needed it I’d get him to come up to my place. So he did, and we did, and at least for that hour before the rest of my life, I didn’t have to talk.

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Tim Millas lives with Susan and Clare in New York, Florida, and Maine. His stories have appeared in Amarillo Bay, The Battered Suitcase, Confrontation, Eclectica, Exquisite Corpse, Gargoyle, Unlikely Stories, and many others. You can reach him at t.millas@att.net.

 

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–Art by Simona Capriana