Please Help (part three)
The glass door lurched itself open, and Milton spent some change on a 7-Up, chugging it down before moving from the hot foyer to the cold inside. It occurred to him now—too late—that maybe the guy’s instruction had been literal. Maybe there’d been a particular car…maybe he hadn’t been getting rid of the phone, but passing it to another of them.
Well, he had got rid of it.
The pints looked almost as costly as the half-gallons. Milton spent long moments leaning into the fogging freezer case, wanting suddenly to know what pleased her. Maybe she would roll her eyes at him if he bought cheap.
On the wall above the checkout line was a TV…and he just caught, glancing up, the dark-haired woman’s face. She had on a red blazer…it was the hairstyle, the bangs, made him look twice. It had to be her, anyway, or what had she been talking about? She was on the news for some reason.
The cashier peered at the carton. “I never had that kind. Is it good?”
It was not the chocolate he thought he’d been taking a flyer on, but peanut butter. A thing you would never expect. “Yeah, hon,” Milton said. Too late, again, for the ice cream. “Listen, what’s that story they had on a minute ago?” They were talking now, he could slip this in normally enough. “That lady, with the guy, getting in the car.”
“Oh, her. She’s supposed to be a witness at that guy’s trial. Not that guy. You know who I mean. She’s been missing for a couple days.”
“You sell papers?”
Well, yeah, it was going to be awkward. Very awkward. The ice cream was melting; he needed to hoof it back to the apartment. The story was not on the front page. So there was no way to rifle through without sitting down. The one he cared about, anyway, would give him the jaw-drop when he handed her peanut butter. But the other one…he made himself think…guy who was having a trial, famous enough the girl had said, “You know who I mean.”
So he ought to know.
“It’s something weird. I’m sorry.”
He’d come up empty, going over all the scuttlebutt he could recall. City officer resigned for some dumb remark, a bad fire, foreign soccer team coming to play at the arena.
Milton had marked the numbers down wrong, or he couldn’t read them. He didn’t think these stupid mechanisms locked up on you, though…so he looked at the nine that might be a four, the one that might be a seven. and tried them both ways.
The apartment door stood wide open, Raising his head, after he’d backed inside mumbling and pulled it shut—white plastic bags swinging, one on each arm—the only person he saw was the one he hated.
“Gals leave already?” He asked it for something to say. The gun was not now anyplace he could see it.
“Better get that stuff in the fridge. What’s weird, buddy?”
“Gals,” Milton asked again, miffed into insistence, “take off?”
The guy got tight next to Milton in the little space between fridge and counter, yanked at a bag…Milton dropped his arm and let him have it…ripped into the cookie package. Mouth full and spewing crumbs, he said something. Milton brushed his shirt, and rather than, “Say again?”, came back without patience: “What’s your name?”
“Steven.” Or maybe Stevens, he was giving his last name. Milton couldn’t tell because the guy had gone to swigging milk from the carton.
“She wanted cereal. You think that’s kind of rude?”
“Go in the other room and stick your head out the window.”
Now, he told himself, I’m being insulted. But then he thought about her.
He went and had a look. He made some noise at it…huffing, grunting, clacking a little, his pocket key ring banging the wall under the sill. A face came round the corner; a hand slipped in lower, supporting her as she leaned.
“No,” she told him, “Get back.”
He caught her, though, touching her above the hips when she landed, steadying her on her feet. And then said, “I don’t know your name. I’m Milton.”
But she crossed to the kitchen, twisting away. He stood for a second wondering if he couldn’t make her like him. She was pouring milk over cornflakes.
“I got ice cream,” Milton said.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)