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Authors: Charles Williams

Girl Out Back

BOOK: Girl Out Back
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Girl Out Back

by

Charles Williams

1958

“Barney.”

Maybe if I pretended to be asleep she’d stop. She didn’t.

“Barney?”

“What?” I asked.

My name is Barney Godwin. I’ve been around for thirty years, one day at a time. I have an utterly useless education, a happy and industrious set of endocrine glands, good reflexes, and a wife who’s worth two hundred thousand dollars. It’s a living.

“I just wondered if you were asleep,” she said.

Her name is Jessica Roberts McCarran Godwin. She is thirty-four years old and is a prime mover in the Wardlow Women’s Club, Save-the-Trees-on-Minden-Street Division. She is currently an ash blonde, has very lovely, big, blue eyes, and her figure hovers somewhere between voluptuous and overblown, though she can still make voluptuous in ten days on Ry-Krisp and lettuce when she wants. She wears a thin gold chain around her left ankle. This may not blend too well with that Save-the-Trees kick, but it does have an exciting look under sheer nylon.

“Have you cleared it up?” I asked.

“What up?”

“Whether I’m asleep or not.”

“Well! You don’t have to get nasty about it.”

I didn’t say anything. She was probably right; I didn’t have to get nasty about it. I was on the payroll, wasn’t I?

“Isn’t the moonlight pretty?” she asked.

Moonlight slanted in under the honeysuckle about the second floor bedroom window and fell across her bare left leg from pelvis to toe as she elevated it slightly and rotated the ankle into the high-heeled-shoe position or the position-for-taking-cheesecake-photographs. The chain was a thin tracery of gold against gleaming silver. Not bad, I thought. This was Percy Bysshe Godwin, drunk with beauty.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked.

I told her, in my best drunk-with-beauty manner, what I was thinking about. You don’t have to keep hitting Godwin with the cue.

* * *

Violence was gone from the night. She lay with her cheek against the pillow watching me with the languorous well-being of a relaxed cat. Her eyes were quite soft and dreamy in the shadow.

Then she laughed.

“Who do you think you’re kidding?” she asked.

“Kidding?” I reached out on the night table beside the bed for a cigarette.

“You and that little priss.”

So we were going to have one of those what-movie-were-you-seeing? routines. I lighted the cigarette and dropped the match in the tray.

“What little priss?”

“You know who I mean.”

“No,” I said. “But don’t tell me. Let me guess. Maxine? Francine? Maurine? Corinne?”

“You make me sick.”

“Chlorine? Fluorine? Gangrene?”

“Aren’t we cute? A rhyming tom-cat.”

Sometimes a change-up pitch will work. “Shove it,” I said. I’d like to get some sleep.”

“Well . . . !”

“In case it’s escaped your attention I go to work in the mornings. You can lie around in the nest till noon if you want to.”

“Fat chance. That cotton-pickin’ Reba comes tomorrow. She can make
more
noise . . .”

“Well, cheer up. Everybody has a certain amount of tragedy in his life.”

”Let’s don’t get sarcastic”

“Fine with me. Let’s just log a little sack time.”

“You weren’t really thinking about her, were you?

I sighed. “Who?”

“That angel-faced little hypocrite. I know the type; if she thinks she . . .”

“I knew I’d guess it in a minute,” I said. “Just give me a few clues, that’s all. You mean Barbara Renfrew. Am I right?”

“You’re damn right you are.”

“Knock it off, will you?” I said. “You should know, if anybody does, that she’s not even there any more. You made it so tough for her she finally quit and went to work in the bank. Or don’t you remember?”

“And isn’t
that
too bad? So now you never see her more than three or four times a day.”

“Twice,” I said. “That’s as often as they’ll rent us the vault. You should see the way they fixed it up, though. Mirrors, and black sheets . . .”

“Oh, shut up!”

“They just have to be careful, that’s all. Banking is a very sensitive business, and just one hint of commercialized vice. . .”

“Will you, for the love of God, stop it?”

“Why?” I asked. “I thought you wanted to talk about Barbara Renfrew. I’ll tell you what—let’s barbecue some spare-ribs and bring ‘em up here to bed with us and have a picnic while we kick it around for the rest of the night. Would you say her eyes were really blue, or violet?”

“You think it’s funny, do you?”

“No,” I said. At two o”clock in the morning when I was trying to sleep I didn’t think anything was funny.

“Well, no cheap tom-cat is going to make a fool of me in this town. If you think I’m going to have people laughing at me behind my back . . .”

“Show ‘em your real estate,” I said. “Nobody ever laughs at real estate.”

“Laugh! Go ahead! Why don’t you just admit you have nothing but contempt for me? Tell me I’m older than you are, and that I’m fat and stupid . . .”

I was tired of it. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, shut up and go to sleep.”

“Don’t you talk to me that way!”

“Well, stop talking like a fool.”

“A fool, am I? Well, maybe you’re right, at that. I didn’t have any better sense than to marry a cheap tom-cat that was just out for what he could get. . . .”

“All right,” I said. “So you did. So what are you crying about?”

“Oh! So you admit it?”

At that stage of the brain-washing I would have admitted to being a coloratura soprano for an hour’s sleep. “Yes. Just type out the confession and I’ll sign it.”

“You hate me, don’t you?

“If you say so.”

“No! I want to hear what
you
think.”

“I’m not paid to think,” I said. “I’m a gadget. I’m the Little Gem Home Companion, the do-it-himself household appliance with ears. It makes love, and listens to seven hours of crap without rewinding. . . .”

She sat up in fury and swung a hand at my face. I caught her wrist and held it while she struggled, her body a futile writhing of silver and velvet shadow in the moonlight. We’re probably an inspiring sight, I thought. I put my feet on the floor and stood up, pushing her back and away from me. She sprawled on the bed with her face down in the pillow. Neither of us had uttered a word. I stood for a moment feeling the difficulty in breathing because of the tight band across my chest, and then I turned and went out and down the stairs.

I padded barefoot through the hot darkness of the living-room. Going on back to the kitchen, I yanked open the door of the refrigerator, feeling the cold air pour out against my legs and feet as I took out a can of beer. I was dressed only in pajama bottoms, and in the light from the refrigerator I could see the shine of sweat on my arms and torso. The hell with her. She could take her jealous tantrums and her gourd-headed suspicions and erratic emotional pattern and her satin-upholstered bedroom talents and her late husband’s real estate and nuke a package of them. . . .

I slammed the fridge door shut and hit the kitchen light switch to locate the beer opener, savagely punched the can, took a drink of the beer, and then carried it down the short stairway at the back of the room beside the washing machine.

The big basement room, a sort of combination workshop and study, was mine; she rarely came near it except once or twice a month to supervise Reba’s cavalry-charge version of sweeping and tidying up. I clicked on the light. The room ran the full length of the basement. This end was finished in natural mahogany paneling I had put up myself; on the left were the recessed bookshelves with their rows of books, while the two glass-fronted cases on the right held the fly-rods and the three shotguns I owned. A heavy, leather-upholstered chair stood under a reading lamp near the bookshelves, and beyond it was an old couch retired from the living-room during the last redecorating cataclysm.

I was fed up. The old cynical detachment that had carried me through so many of these tirades was beginning to crack, for some reason, and I was losing my temper like a chump. I didn’t understand it. This was Barney Godwin? Being needled by a corn-fed blonde? Why didn’t I just pack and get out? It wasn’t worth it. I finished the beer, turned out the light, and lay down on the couch, staring moodily at the silvery sheen of moonlight beyond the basement windows. It was a long time before I went to sleep.

I awoke to coolness and the faint, gray beginnings of dawn. Even before my eyes opened I was aware that it was someone’s moving inside the room that had waked me, and then something settled softly over my body on the couch. I turned my head drowsily and looked up. She was leaning over me in a sheer nightgown, tucking the sheet about me. Still half asleep and without conscious thought I reached up and put my hand gently against her check. She dropped to her knees beside me.

“Barney,”
she whispered wildly. “Barney, why do I do it?”

My arms tightened around her and for an instant I was caught up again in that old, wonderful, eternal woman-feel of her, the way it had been at first. I held her roughly, almost fiercely, and then I was fully awake and it was gone.
Clumsy, clumsy,
I thought mockingly. There is no room in the higher echelons of industry for impetuous high-school boys. Move over, son; you’re not even on the payroll. I stood a little way apart and watched myself with professional detachment as I went about consolidating the advance position, reflecting at the same time that in courtship the male could suffer no greater handicap than sincerity.

When I left to go downtown at seven thirty she was sleeping peacefully beside the cool freshness of the open bedroom window while a mockingbird erupted with the glittering and showy repertoire of a concert violinist in the magnolia just outside. I whistled as I backed the station wagon out of the drive under the big oaks.

* * *

Wardlow’s business district consisted of one street three blocks long. The highway traffic ran through it, slowed by twenty-five mile-an-hour speed limit signs at the city limits and one traffic light in the center of town where the bank, Headley’s Drug Store, Woolworth’s, and Joey’s Cafe stood on the four corners athwart the intersection of Main and Minden Streets. Most of the residential area lay to the north and west, largely on this end of Minden Street.

There were few cars about this early in the morning. I crossed Main when the light changed and drove on to the store. It was two blocks farther east on Minden, near the railroad tracks. There was little else over here—a fruit-packing shed, Homer Jolinson’s body-and-fender shop, and a used car lot. The store was a long brick building in the center of an otherwise vacant lot that took up most of the block. Around the sides and in front the lot had been covered with white pea gravel for a parking area. I drove around to the right side and parked.

The building had originally housed an automobile showroom and garage. The dealer had given up the ghost during the war years when there were no cars to be had. McCarran bought it for a low figure just before his death of a heart attack in 1952. He was already retired then, having sold his hardware store and farm implement agency the year before because of bad health, but the inactivity bored him so he had opened the small tackle shop in the front of this old building, more for a hobby than anything else. He was fond of hunting and fishing, and the place made a good spot for old cronies to hang out and second-guess the shots they’d missed and the bass that got away. He’d been shrewd enough to see the growing boom in small boats and outboards that had started right after the war, but his health and the fact he already had it made had prevented his doing much about it. He sold a few motors, and that was about it. In two years I’d built it up to where it cleared seven thousand a year.

There were big plate glass windows in front on either side of the door. I unlocked the door and went in. There were no partitions inside except that enclosing the small office on the right about a third of the way back and the motor repair shop at the extreme rear of the building. Up front, next to the windows, were the glass showcases that held fishing tackle and miscellaneous skin-diving equipment. At the left, opposite the showcases, was a counter behind which were the guns, rods, and water-skis. From there on back to the doorway leading into the repair shop the whole floor area was taken up with boats and trailers and the stock of outboard motors we kept on hand.

We didn’t open until eight thirty. I closed the door behind me, leaving it on the spring lock, and went into the office. It was partitioned off from the rest of the floor by varnished plywood panels seven feet high, and there was a window I’d had cut through the outer wall for ventilation. I opened it now, switched on a light because the whole interior was somewhat dim until the big sliding doors on each side had been opened, and sat down at the desk to get out some letters.

I was just signing the last one when I heard tires crunch on the gravel outside. I looked at my watch. It was five minutes to eight, a little early for Otis to be showing up. I shrugged and started pawing through the drawers of the desk for a stamp. Now where was it Barbara used to keep them?  Maybe I d had sense enough to leave them in the same place. . . . I stopped and looked up. Somebody had rattled the front door.

It couldn’t be Otis. He had a key. I stepped out into the showroom. An old station wagon was parked in front of the near show window and a tall girl with tawny hair was just turning away from the door. She walked out to the car and started to get in.

I stepped up front and opened the door. “Hello,” I said. “What can I do for you?”

She turned. I didn’t know her. “Are you open?” she asked.

“Not yet,” I said. “But if it’s important . . .?

“I was supposed to pick up some motors,” she said. It was a nice, throaty voice, down in that end of the contralto range actresses sometimes use for a burlesque sexiness, but there was none of that in it. There was nothing in it, in fact, except indifference, faintly tinged with sullenness. She was supposed to pick up some motors, but if she didn’t it was all right with her.

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