The South |

A World of Flirts

by John Brandon

The name of the lot was COOS AUTO BROKERS and the motto was Good Cars—Good People. Joyce used her weight to open the glass door. A girl who looked about thirteen stood behind the desk. She squinted at a toaster-sized television playing a British movie. The man on the screen crowded up to a woman holding a cup and saucer and said, “Are you quite sure there are no efforts I may make on behalf of your comfort?” Joyce announced that she needed a car immediately, that she was in desperate, pressing need of an automobile. The girl behind the desk said, “Me too,” and summoned someone named Garrett. Joyce asked Garrett to show her the finest specimen on the lot, and he led her to a black Saab station wagon not two years old. The gleam of the wheels made Joyce avert her eyes. “Is this a firm price?” she asked. “Pretty firm,” Garrett agreed. “As firm as any.” He looked like a Navy kid home for a holiday—crew cut, thin sweater. “Do you work on commission?” Joyce asked him. “Not yet, no.” “Why not?” “My employment is probationary.” He pressed a button on the key chain then guided open the driver’s door. The smell of latte foam escaped the car and made Joyce blink. The leather was smoky. The cars passing on the road were very close, mostly incurious pickups. “I want someone who works on commission,” Joyce said. “You can tell the manager that.” Garrett swallowed. “Tell him you won’t buy the car unless he gives me a commission on it.” “I want to get fast-talked in a negotiation.” “I don’t really do that.” “I want you and the other salesmen to mock me after I drive off.” Garrett looked into Joyce's eyes. “Keep me,” he pleaded. “I like you. We like each other.” His politeness was leaving him already. The whole point of politeness, Joyce knew, was that it meant something when you let it fall away. “I came here to be ripped off.” “Why? Why do you want to be ripped off?” Joyce didn’t want to answer this question. She’d gone her whole life without being ripped off, her whole life without buying anything used. “That’s a very personal question,” she said. Garrett lowered himself into the driver’s seat, leaving Joyce standing there. Something was happening with his face, a disturbed amusement, like amusement at the size of the galaxy. “Do you work for Alan?” he said. “I don’t know anyone named Alan.” Garrett explained that he was a stand-up comic. Working at a car dealership was an assignment from his acting teacher. He was supposed to work here until he could comfortably lie to someone’s face. “If you can’t lie,” Alan liked to say, “then show bidniss ain’t yo’ bidniss.” “He’s black?” Joyce asked. “He’s Jewish. Really Jewish.” Joyce set her forearm on the doorframe and it burned her. She kept it there. She had a feeling this car didn’t like her, not like her old Datsun had. “You should come see me at the Red Lion,” Garrett said. “Two weeks ago I opened for a guy who’s been on national television.” “Is this a sales routine? Seeming out of your element?” Garrett laughed with his mouth closed and got out of the Saab. He told Joyce she didn’t need to test drive the car, that it ran tight as whatever simile she liked, that it handled like whatever simile she liked, that the extra space in the back was as handy as any simile she liked. It was a hip car that people his age couldn’t help but look twice at. On the downside, there were burn holes in the upholstery and the stereo tended to warp CDs. The nearest Saab mechanic was in Florence. In Garrett’s wood-paneled closet of an office, Joyce filled out the paperwork. Garrett lit a cigarette and put his feet up on his flimsy desk. He had hung tiny stuffed fish on the walls—fish that looked like bait. Garrett put his cigarette out; the room was too small. “Do you want to go see those carnivorous flowers with me? I’ll tell them about this sale and they’ll give me the afternoon off.” Joyce shook her head. “Those things never move. They’re not carnivorous in the way you think.” Garret tried to maintain a blank expression. He peeked down at his hands, as if his next line were written on them. “They’re as passive as any plant,” Joyce said. “Only they wait for bugs instead of sunlight.”

As a reward for using her credit card a lot, Joyce received a computer. She called the helpline several times but could not find her way onto the Internet. She was supposed to be able to play music with this computer but there were no speakers. She was supposed to be able to make photographs, but she had no camera and no desire to have a camera. She phoned a company called YOUR VERY OWN GEEK that was located in Eugene. The man on the phone said, with a labored patience, that his geeks only serviced businesses, not individuals, that the minimum charge for diagnosis was quite steep, that he would even have to charge her for the drive time. He was about to hang up when Joyce told him she was rich. She told him to name his price and to have a geek at her house by one that afternoon. The geek, who must’ve waited around the corner in his van because he arrived at precisely one o’clock, was not a geek at all. His fingernails weren’t bitten or overly long. He didn’t have the sniffles. He wore an Izod shirt, jeans, and metallic-looking shoes. He was from Mississippi but the only thing Southern about him was his accent—a woman’s accent, a lilt. Joyce pulled out a chair in front of the computer, then she made sure to graze the back of the boy’s head with her breasts. She excused herself and went into the bathroom, treading on piles of clothes. It was a spare bathroom that Joyce used as a hamper, and it was where she went to look at herself. She was flush with what must’ve been her last pulses of beauty, but this had been true for years. Her hair was wispy, her lips the color of chewed bubble gum, her elbows soft, her neck firm, her legs inviting, at least below the knee. She rummaged through a makeup drawer, decided not to use any of it, then returned to the room where the geek was. His name was Ben. He was on the Internet already. He cleared his throat and said he would set Joyce up with e-mail. She also would need a screensaver. They had to wait while something loaded. Joyce sat on the floor, gazing up. Ben was twenty-two and went to junior college for business. She told him she’d never in her life been on the Internet, and he seemed to enjoy hearing this. “How do you think my legs are holding up?” Joyce asked him. She opened a drawer with her toes then reached in with her hand and brought out a bowl of candy. She shook the bowl, as if panning for gold, then held it toward Ben. “I’m diabetic,” he said. “It’s sugar-free. My fiancé’s diabetic.” “Thanks, anyway. I had a big lunch and everything.” Joyce didn’t know what to do with the candy. It had been rejected. She wanted to dump it in Ben’s lap. She noticed he was squinting at her hand. “What?” “You don’t have an engagement ring.” “He bought me that Saab out front. That was my engagement present.” “I love station wagons. I think they’re going to stay in style forever this time.” Joyce was lying about being engaged. She’d never been engaged. She’d been asked, but had never accepted. She’d never given that news to anyone before, until now, the news that she would soon be married. “Jesus, I think these are cough drops.” Joyce put her face in the bowl, then slid the thing under the desk, where it might stay forever. “Why are you in Oregon?” she asked Ben. He paused. “You can be whatever you want to be out here.” “Are you gay or something?” “No.” “Are you some kind of atheist?” “I don’t think I am.” “What way do you want to be then?” “You can be no way if you want.” “You’re confused,” said Joyce. “This is a state of hiking lawyers, just like any other state. That’s what you’ll end up being, at least in spirit.” Ben looked at his watch. His mind was working. He coughed and hit some buttons, nothing to say. Joyce felt mean. She’d always felt mean but lately she couldn’t stop herself from acting on it. “Still loading?” she asked. “This computer’s slow.” Joyce nodded. She watched Ben tap the mouse on the table, watched him scratch his jaw. “What?” she said. “You’re rich, right?” “Never worked a day in my life.” “If money’s no object, you should really get a better computer.” He pulled a pad from his jeans pocket and wrote something down on it, then handed Joyce the whole pad. “Buy this model,” he said. “They’ll sit out here all day explaining everything to you.” “You think I need company?” Sweat appeared on Ben’s forehead. “You think that means anything?” Joyce said. “Tapping those keys? You think it means anything to say, ‘You can be whatever you want to be out here?’” Ben wouldn’t answer.

Joyce dialed her daughter’s number and the recorder picked up. She listened to her daughter’s voice, then she called back and listened to it again. This was probably the only place in the world where her daughter’s voice still existed. Her daughter had been an authority on a therapy called ‘sensory integration’ and had made a good living writing textbooks about it. She’d raised cats. She’d had about a hundred friends. She didn’t have children of her own but had been on the verge of adopting a Korean girl. She’d been a truly strong person, not feisty and impulsive like Joyce. Joyce had gotten pregnant young and had raised her daughter with everything she had, persistently, often by example. What Joyce remembered of her daughter’s funeral was the wind. It wasn’t from Oregon. It was born over some desert, worlds away—heavy and dry, leaving Joyce’s coat crisp, her bones chilled. There had been no searching mist. The sun had been out. People squinted and held down their dresses. This was years ago now. Joyce hadn’t known half the mourners. They’d been a crush of intelligent, light-colored eyes. They’d dressed so well, had removed their jewelry and done what they could to hide their tattoos. It felt like they’d come from another country but knew the customs of Joyce’s land better than she. Everything else in Joyce’s daughter’s home had been shut down, but Joyce still paid the phone bill.

Joyce took a bowl of guacamole and a big spoon up to her computer room. She opened the blinds and saw a barge plowing tranquilly out to sea. A bunch of gulls tussled over something and then decided they didn’t want it. Joyce ate the guacamole in nibbles. She clicked through new screensavers for forty-five minutes without finding one that did anything for her. She would never cry again, would she? It was a talent she’d lost. She’d done everything she’d set out to do in life, which hadn’t been much but had somehow exhausted her. In the surf, a dog chased a tall bird. Whenever the dog got close, the bird, with gawky effort, would get itself into the air and glide farther down the beach, where it would resettle, regain its dignity, and put the dog out of its mind. And here came the dog again.

Joyce put on a long sweater with big, square pockets. She bought some cigarettes and an order of fries and drove her Saab to a public beach. There was no moon, no bonfires. The cigarettes made her dizzy. A raccoon ventured out from the dunes and Joyce tossed it the rest of her fries and watched it drag the carton away with its little fingers. She sat in the damp sand. The waves were almost reaching her feet. She shucked off her pumps and tossed them somewhere behind her. Each time she struck a match to light a new cigarette, the breeze died down for her. “Miss, could you spare one of those?” Joyce was startled. She looked up at a thin, expressionless face. The kid had his hands in his pockets but did not seem cold. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said. Joyce flicked the ash off her cigarette. She rose and held the pack out. “I didn’t mean to sneak up.” He spoke in a genuine, tiresome way. “I’m in the Coast Guard.” He took a puff off his cigarette. He turned to cough and when he faced Joyce again his eyes were glassy. “Don’t smoke,” he said. “What’s your name?” “Dennis.” Joyce nodded, as if that was the answer she’d expected. Dennis drew in a full drag and released it through his nostrils, trying that out. He wore a windbreaker and slacks. He didn’t seem ready to leave. Joyce understood. There was nowhere to go. “If you’re going to sit with me, go ahead,” Joyce said. “And take your shoes off.” Dennis bunched up his cheek. He began removing his shoes and socks in a prescribed way that he must’ve learned from the Coast Guard. “Does littering offend you?” Joyce asked. “We can put the butts in my shoe.” Joyce extinguished her cigarette in the sand and handed it to him. She got a new one going. “Could you kill me in ten seconds?” she asked. “Do they teach you stuff like that?” Dennis looked at her with concern. He pinched his cigarette between his thumb and forefinger. This was the way of holding a cigarette he was settling on. He was a smoker already. “They teach us how to kill bad guys,” he said. “Not beautiful women.” “I see,” said Joyce. She did. This kid was easily less than half Joyce’s age. He was willing to sit next to her in glorified mud, acting like the things Joyce said were normal, taking up smoking. “Don’t you like girls your own age?” “Oh, I like a girl my age,” Dennis said. He stared out at the ocean for a long time. A tugboat groaned. “I like a girl my age too much. She paralyzes me. It’s tough to get out of bed.” “She with someone else?” “I don’t think so,” Dennis said. He told Joyce that he’d been in love with this girl for five months. He said he knew how these things worked. She would agree to go on a date with him because why not and then he would buy her dinner and the food would be good but not great and they’d chitchat about their siblings and drive back home on empty streets and then he’d drop her off and get a peck on the mouth and that would be it. As she was getting out of the car, he would make some pitiful attempt to keep the night going. He would be out sixty bucks and the dream would be dead. It was better to keep his desire untested, untainted. Joyce held up the box of cigarettes and shook it. “I can’t.” “Me neither, my throat’s killing me.” Joyce stood the box in the sand. The wind didn’t blow it over. It was a soft wind, but there was enough of it to carry the mournful barking of a sea lion. Joyce heard them all the time now. They always sounded like they were dying. Joyce examined her hands in what little light there was. She didn’t know where the light was coming from. “Every girl is weakest for money,” she said. “It’s old news and it’s true. If you’re rich, a poor girl won’t do anything to put you off until she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt she can’t stand you.” “I’m not rich.” “Just listen.” Joyce told Dennis to go ahead and make a date with the girl for Friday. She told him she would book a reservation at the fanciest restaurant in Portland. Joyce would give him one of her many dazzling brooches to give the girl. When he presented it to her, he would apologize for being so forward and say something about life being short. They would have a drink before dinner, somewhere other than the restaurant, somewhere with a view, and Dennis would order a whisky the girl had never heard of. On the way up to Portland, he would let the girl listen to whatever music she wanted to. They would be in Joyce’s Saab. After dinner, he would pull the girl’s feet into his lap. He would look her in the eyes and tell her he was taking her to the nicest hotel in town to make love to her. He would sit the girl down in the hotel bar and go check in and get the keys to the suite Joyce will have reserved. Dennis would have a slow nightcap with the girl, saying the staff was preparing the room. He would kiss her gently in the elevator. When he opened the door to the room, the girl would see five hundred flowers. “At dinner order a bottle of wine,” Joyce said. “When they let you taste it, send it back.” Dennis wasn’t looking at Joyce. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He was like a schoolchild that didn’t want to be called on. He didn’t seem surprised. “I’m not afraid of her,” he finally said. “I know,” said Joyce. “I’m not afraid of women.” “Or girls,” Joyce said. “I know.” His face was doing something. Maybe he was smirking. Joyce groped behind her. “I’m in the mood for a smoke again.” She found the cigarettes but they were covered with sand. Dennis slid one from the pack and turned it in front of his lips, blowing it clean. He wasn’t angry. He was okay. “Don’t mention money,” Joyce said. “Not once the whole night.” Dennis handed her the cigarette. “Are you for real? You’re really going to do all that? I don’t want to ask her out and never hear from you again and be high and dry.” “I’m going to do all that and you’re never going to hear from me again. I’ll leave the keys and the money and any information you need on my porch Friday morning—801 Draper Lane.” “801 Draper Lane.” “This is a real girl, right?” Joyce elbowed Dennis. “A breathing human female?” “She’s real. Her name’s Georgia. She’s not from Georgia, though.” “If you chicken out and keep the money I’ll be very hurt. You’ll be stealing from an old lady.” “You’re not an old lady and I’m not a chicken,” Dennis said. “That’s the last thing I am.” He puffed fresh air into his cheeks then let it leak out the corner of his mouth. “Old ladies are crazy, but not the way you are.” “I’ve always been this way.” Dennis raised himself into a crouch. He rubbed his eyes. The wind blew with purpose for a minute, bringing the moans of the sea lion closer, and Dennis waited for it to die down. “Now, why would I be in the Coast Guard if I was rich?” “She knows you’re in the Coast Guard?” “I think she’s seen me with my uniform on.” “Then that’s the part I’m leaving up to you,” Joyce said. “You got to have some part in this plan.”

Joyce neatened her house, dusted, wiped down the mirrors, lined up the tumblers and shot glasses and highball glasses and martini glasses just so. She folded laundry, dumped the rest of the coffee down the sink. She saw she was going to be okay. She’d gotten through it again, and it hadn’t really been a close call. She was not short for this world. In fact, she was weak for it. She went onto her back porch and the salt air was delicious, nourishing. Joyce wanted to be around for the next assassination. She wanted to watch an action movie. To eat wild berries. To turn down another marriage proposal. She wanted the rest of her grief even if it lasted forever, even if it couldn’t make her cry or age her skin. She wanted her boredom and meanness. She was going to keep flirting with the wide world for as long as it would flirt back, even if it never led to love. She loved it all already and always had. There was no place to fall.