UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
ZACHARY AMENDT

Shy Exhibitionist

I

        In her right hand Aurelia carried three new outfits from Bergdorf’s. In her left was a slog of fruits and melons. That strange muscle in her forearm was burning from the

strain, the same way it felt after babysitting her niece, who liked to be carried everywhere in the crook of her arm. It was a simple shopping trip and she shouldn’t have put on high heels. The bags were flimsy. She had to stop every twenty yards to change her grip.

         Had she been unencumbered, she wouldn’t have looked twice at him, there in the 8th Ave underground corridor, the handsome young man scribbling on a portable desk, with coins strewn on a dishcloth underneath him, and next to it a placard: Donations to Continue the Work.

         She paused and looked over at his writing. Mostly illegible. Lots of words crossed out. No apparent continuity of thought.

         “May I read some of that?” she ventured.

         “Not a chance,” he said. “How close is your house?”

         “My apartment’s a few blocks over. Why?”

         “You look like you could use some help.”

         She looked down at her bags. “I’ll manage. Thanks, though.”

         “There’s a bar close to here, The Clover Club,” he said.

         “I know of it.”

         “Can you be there at seven?”

         “Meet me in the back room, next to the fireplace,” she said. “I get cold easily.”

+

        He loved this city, its promenades and coarsenesses, its velvet ropes and putative cultural airs. After drinks she took him to dinner and they looked out at the foot traffic, investment bankers, insurance men, all walking like Harry S Truman, hurriedly, sour with cologne, the tails of their coats rumpled.

         “Matthew, why make up stories?” she asked. “You think one day the magic letter will just arrive?”

         “Or the magic girl.”

         “She already has,” Aurelia said.

         He smiled at her from behind his scotch.

         “Are you looking for work?” she asked.

         “What, sit in front of a computer? Write reports, read reports? Clock in and out? No thanks,” he said.

         She thought his hatred for work was maybe the frustration of not being able to find work. Jobs were scarce – if you had one, you held onto it. Nobody had any money, and yet everywhere the papers said things were in a state of recovery.

         “What are your politics?” she asked.

         “My politics are way too the right.”

         “I don’t know much about these things,” she said. “Clothes and how girls think … now that I know well.”

         “Girls,” he said. “They all treat me like an amusement. As if I need rescuing.”

         Later Aurelia sent him a text: I just met you, but I think I love you strenuously.

         He replied, This love business is hogwash.

         She was a Long Island socialite: her picture was in the lesser gossip magazines. Wife material. In the weeks following they got together often. They went to bars his heroes frequented. He drank heavily, she knew, but never around her. He retired early on Saturday nights for Sunday morning Mass. But lately he’d had a beef with repentance – he hadn’t been to confession in some time.

         “I’m not sorry for anything I’ve done,” he explained.

         “I know the feeling,” Aurelia said, emitting a little sigh. “Isn’t sin exhilarating?”

II

        They escaped Manhattan on a Thursday and drove to Fire Island. On the causeway they talked about golf and riptides. A hurricane was on its way, and the beaches were empty. They trudged up into the dunes. She carried a quilt and a basket filled with cheeses and cans of beer.

         “Do you like these sandals?” she asked.

         “You look like Jesus of Nazareth,” he said.

         They made love and drank coconut water out of small boxes. Aurelia talked endlessly about how much he would like her parents, how hip they were, how honestly they had made their money.

         Her father resembled Gerald Ford. Her mother had no likeness. For supper they had laid out all the good china and silverware. Doubtlessly they expected someone more West End. Matthew guessed how the night would go: they would inquire about his social and business connections, and his replies would reveal his low strata, and they would politely – that is to say, underhandedly – reproach him.

         It was as he had guessed. Absent of any real interest or care, they asked the usual how-you-met questions. Her old man brought a wine from the cellar that he claimed was from a great vintage. Matthew had a glass and opened up a little. He loosened. He made small jokes.

         “Aurelia says you write. What is it, grants? News articles?” He clicked his tongue. “Tough way to make a living.”

         “I get a few bucks here and there. You’d be surprised at how in-demand we are. Most people in companies like yours are illiterates. The insurance business needs good, swift copy. The right luck, the right projects … I could shoot right to the top, join all of you in those rarefied airs.”

         Aurelia’s father cast off his linen napkin onto the dessert plate. “If you want the top office you’ve got to have principles.”

         “I have principles,” Matthew said.

         “Not from the looks of it.”

         “Then I’ll share one with you. In my writing, I try not to give human traits to inanimate objects.”

         “Inanimate objects …”

         “People like you, for instance,” Matthew said.

III

        They drove back into the city. For miles nothing was said.

         “That flag by the school.” Aurelia pointed at it. “Why is it at half-staff?”

         “No reason,” Matthew said. “Some politician. Probably a Democrat.”

         “Look, I got you something,” she said, fishing about in her purse. “As an apology for tonight.”

         It landed like an anvil in his lap.

         “This is a ‘96 Dom Perignon,” he said. “Where’d you find this?”

         “In the kitchen pantry, next to the multivitamins.”

         He blew her a kiss. “You’re a gem.”

         “Courtesy of Mom and Dad,” she said.

A native of Southern California, Zachary Amendt worked as a bureau chief for City News Service, Inc., the nation's largest regional news wire service. Last year he authored a short novel, Onset of Trembling, which is awaiting publication in the bottom shelf of his writing desk.







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