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issue 3


a story by
Barbara Stewart
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This Is Not A Love Story

Don was home long enough to nuke some Chinese and catch the sports highlights before the fighting began. His top floor apartment was an oven. He'd stuck a fan in one of the windows overlooking the street, tied back the curtains that came with the place, but nothing helped. Two voices-a man and a woman-echoed off the coffee shop across the street. Don's sidewalk was a magnet for assholes. He needed an air conditioner.

The old Y on the corner was a safe house. Don had nothing against the women who stumbled from taxis dragging overstuffed trash bags-he'd treated some of them in the ER. It was the occasional tough guy stalking a wife or girlfriend that he could do without. The begging and name-calling, the ridiculous car stereos that shook his windows made him wish he lived somewhere else. The brownstones on his block were newly restored, the rents raised, but the prime apartments were in the heart of the Stockade, on the streets that ended at the river. Marion lived two blocks over on Ferry, in a red brick walkup with a view of Lawrence the Indian.

"Keep it down," Don called, but the couple ignored him. He wondered where the housemother was. Don turned off the set. He dropped into the recliner and kicked off his shoes. In the bathroom he unhooked his plastic nametag, laid it on the toilet tank, then changed out of his scrubs. "Son of a bitch." It was the woman. She sounded like she was sitting on Don's couch.

Don filled a plastic cup and watered the plant Marion had given him as a housewarming gift. Below, the guy had his arms raised like he was waiting for someone to shoot him a basketball. He was tall, probably over six feet. Under the street light his forehead looked corrugated. His long stringy mustaches reminded Don of a catfish. He couldn't see the woman, but the light in the entryway cast her shadow over the grass. The guy had a pint of something between his feet. He picked it up, drained it, and flung the bottle in the bushes. "Hey!" Don called through the screen. "Pick up your trash." The guy looked around then flipped his middle finger at the stars.

"Can you believe these nosy bastards?" he said.

The woman moved from the stairway to squint at the black windows. "We will," she called. She hiked her tube top then planted her hands on her hips. "I don't need someone turning me in. They'll make me leave."

Don heard the guy say "home." He kneaded the woman's shoulders and stroked her hair. His voice splintered on "settled."

"I don't think so," she said, wagging her head like she was hedging with a salesman. "I can't. Not yet."

Don went to the kitchen for the cordless. He set the phone on the sill, then brought a couch cushion to kneel on. He didn't want to miss anything. He knew how these guys could get when things didn't go their way. He expected the argument to turn ugly any second, but the couple started kissing instead. Lip-locked, they formed a D. They reminded Don of the couples in high school who used to make out behind the band room. Don wondered if the guy knew he was being watched, if he was putting on a show. When the guy started bucking his hips, grinding his pelvis against the woman's bare waist, he wanted to tell them to get a room. Don thought the woman was into it, too, until she started swinging her fists. She pulled her head back, but her bottom lip was hooked between his teeth. She tugged his mustache. He let go.

Don hit the TALK button with his thumb and waited for a dial tone. The guy climbed into a Pontiac with a wing and slammed the door. A black cloud shot from the tailpipe. Raising her hand, the woman signaled him to wait. He unrolled the window and she leaned in, one hand on the roof, the other sunk in her back pocket. Don couldn't hear them over the engine. They talked with their hands like the Hispanic women when they came to the emergency room. The woman kicked the door. The car lurched forward, tires squealing. The woman jumped back. "I hope you wrap yourself around a pole!" she shouted.

Don called down to the woman. She was walking toward the bushes. "Do you want me to call the police?" She looked up, and Don reached over and turned on the floor lamp so she could see him.

"No, everything's cool. Thanks." She bent over and collected a couple of cigarette butts, then dropped them in the bottle like coins in a bank. "I'm sorry we bothered you."

Don told her he was a nurse, then offered to take a look at her lip, clean it for her if she wanted, but the woman insisted she was fine and thanked him again.

"Wash it with soap and warm water. If he broke the skin, use antiseptic. Lysterine'll work."

The woman nodded and waved. Don realized she probably thought he was a creep, some pervert getting his kicks. He shut off the light.

That week the emergency room was crazy. Second shift's the busiest, especially after seven, when dinner's over and the pain from a bad tooth or a joint that's been swelling for days seem unbearable. Tuesday, a thirty-four-year-old man had his thumbnail blown off by a cherry bomb; a teen electrocuted himself; an old man out collecting cans for deposit fell off his bike and fractured a rib. The next night, Don fished a chunk of steak from the throat of a dead woman in her fifties. Ten minutes before his shift ended, a man with a knife wound was brought in on a stretcher.

When Don got in on Thursday, the day-shift nurses were prepping an exam room for a trauma case. A forty-two-year-old cab driver had been shot in the chest by his wife. The EMTs brought him through the bay doors. Two pushed the stretcher while a third bagged him. His heart had stopped. Don was ordered to get a trache tube in. They were going to crack open the man's chest. Don unwrapped the clear plastic tube, jerked back the man's head, and secured the tongue with his finger. He held his breath while threading the tube down the man's throat. When it felt like his own lungs would burst, he pulled the tube out, counted to fifteen and tried again. It went down smoothly the second time, and when he ran out of tubing, he blew into the open end. The man's stomach inflated. "Wrong pipe," the doctor said. On the third try, the tube went to his lungs. The doctor split the sternum with an electric saw, cranked apart the ribs with a spreader then wrapped her hands around the silken organ and pumped. She kept at it for six minutes before calling it quits.

Don would have to wait to read in the paper what happened between the man and his wife. Working the ER left him edgy and distracted. Second shift messed him up. When everyone he knew was getting ready for bed, Don was wide-awake wanting to do something. At night he'd try to unwind with a book, but he usually ended up in front of the window. The women at the shelter were night owls, too. He'd watch them on the steps of the old Y, bumming smokes off one another or pooling change to buy a can of potato chips from the gas station around the corner. At least he knew what brought the women to the shelter and could put together endings from scraps of conversation. He felt guilty for eavesdropping, but satisfied, too.

Treating Henry Tucker in the ER Friday night made him feel the same way. They'd gone to high school together, but Henry didn't recognize Don, and Don didn't bother to jog his memory. Over the last ten years, Don had dropped thirty pounds. Gone, too, was the bad acne that had earned him the nickname pizza face his junior year. Except for a bald spot on the top of his head, Henry was the same, still small and wiry, the kind of guy who was at home under the hood of a car. At Mohonasen High, Henry's fingernails were permanently rimmed with grease. Now it was redwood stain, the type used to seal porches and decks.

Henry told the admitting nurse he'd eaten a handful of Tylenol for a killer headache, and now his stomach hurt. When Don wrapped the blood pressure cuff around his arm, Henry said it might have been more like two fists worth. To scare him, Don explained how a stomach pump worked before he gave him a dose of ipecac. While Don waited with a steel basin, Henry took out his wallet and showed him a creased photo of his wife. The woman was wearing a lobster bib, wielding a giant crab claw like a sword. Behind her hung a fishing net with plastic seagulls and Styrofoam buoys. "I took this in Maine," he said. The woman had short dark hair and stylish glasses. Something about her reminded him of Marion. She looked smart but fun, like someone who reads a lot but likes to get drunk and sing karaoke.

"How long you been married?"

"Eight years. We've been separated fourteen months. I think I need that now." Henry reached for the basin. When he finished, he tapped his foot on the exam table step and smiled weakly while Don examined the contents of his stomach.

"Chili dog with onions?" Don said.

"You're good."

"You should chew your food better." He placed the basin on the counter behind him. The doctor would want to have a look.

"I called Carolyn. That's my wife. She said I'd better get to the hospital. She didn't even offer me a ride."

Henry's story was typical. He didn't want to end his life. He wanted it back. Don had never loved anyone enough to want to hurt himself or someone else. Maybe that was good. All of his break-ups had been run-of-the-mill-a few tears and late night phone calls, the empty promise to stay friends. The hollowness he'd experience after a separation wasn't really longing, just a rift in his habits, like losing his cable when he forgot to pay the bill. All his old buddies had gotten married and they seemed miserable. They used to get together on payday and bitch about their wives. Then they started having kids. Now they were lucky if they got together once a year for Super Bowl Sunday. Don had no intention of getting hitched anytime soon. After Becky moved to Texas, he decided he didn't want a full-time relationship and found Marion who felt the same.

Home from work, Don changed into slacks and walked to the ATM. After Henry disappeared from the examining room, he'd promised himself a drink. It was muggy out. The temperature above the bank read 80. When he got to the Van Dyke, his sport shirt was soaked. He considered turning around, going to the gas station for a six-pack, but the poster out front said Bobby King was playing tonight. He'd come with the idea that Marion would be parked at the bar with a scotch and soda, waiting to dance. He wanted her to go home with him tonight.

The Van Dyke was packed. Don slipped through the crowd and ordered a beer from a woman in a tux shirt. While he waited, he scanned the drinkers at the bar. Most of them were older men in expensive summer suits, flashing gold watches and big bills. There were a couple of girls clearly underage, but no Marion. When he didn't see her, he felt stupid and underdressed.

She never confessed her age, but Marion was at least fifty, maybe even older than Don's mother. She'd taught ballroom dancing for twenty years, then sold her studio when she inherited a bunch of properties. Now she monitored her investments year-round, except for August when the Saratoga racetrack was open.

As Don handed his empty glass over the bar, someone behind him tapped his shoulder. "How's my guy." Marion smiled and ran her finger behind his ear. The bartender returned with another beer, and Marion took a twenty from her purse. She ordered a scotch and soda, then led Don to a table in the shadows where a man was seated with his chair turned to accommodate his legs. The band upstairs was cooking. The couples around them snatched up their drinks and headed for the staircase. Marion introduced the man as Bill, an old friend from the Paramount. Bill was definitely old, but probably closer to Marion's age than Don.

"Good to meet you," Don said.

"How do you two know each other?" Bill said.

Marion swirled her drink. "We met at the track."

"Summer job?"

"No. I'm a nurse."

"Really? Where?"

"The ER. St. Claire's"

Don knew Marion had other "companions," as she referred to them, but it was awkward meeting one of them. He felt like he was being interviewed before a date. He'd stay for little while, then excuse himself and go home, maybe order a pizza if it wasn't too late.

"It's exciting work." Marion leaned forward and rested her chin on her fist.

"Sometimes," Don said, grateful he had something to entertain them with while he finished his beer. "This week was pretty crazy. Did you hear about that woman who shot her husband?"

"I did," Bill said. "She was waiting for him in the garage when he finished his shift. After she shot him, she went in and told the dispatcher to call an ambulance."

Marion sipped her drink. "Was he one of yours?"

Don nodded. "He was gone before we got to him."

Marion downed her drink and set the glass down hard. "If I'd been smart, I would've shot my husband," she laughed, then reached for her purse.

Bill cinched his eyebrows. Pulling out a fifty, he told Marion to order the next round on him. Marion pushed back her chair and went to the bar, leaving the bill on the table.

Bill leaned in and motioned for Don to do the same. "You know she's been married four times?" he said. "I was the third."

Don didn't know what to say. Bill's long ears, the hammocks under his eyes, made Don uncomfortable, sad almost.

"I have to go soon, anyway," Don said. He had no intention of competing with Bill. There was nothing at stake.

Bill leaned back and pocketed the fifty. "You're not the only guy she sees," he said, straightening his belt. Don scanned the bar for a familiar face. He needed an out.

"Of course," Bill went on, "If you don't mind dippin' your stick with the rest of us." He shook his head, then laughed.

Don raised his hands for him to stop. If Bill was younger, he would've decked him right there. "I didn't know you were Marion's husband," he said.

"Ex-husband," Bill corrected.

Marion returned with a waitress, who cleared the empties and put down fresh napkins. Marion slid into her chair and put her elbows on the table. "Sorry it took so long. What did I miss?"

"Don and I are old buddies," Bill said. "We were gonna leave you here. Go to a real bar and shoot some pool."

Marion ignored this and suggested they move upstairs. Don agreed. Bill shrugged. On the second level, they found a table on the edge of the dance floor. While the musicians tuned up for the second set, Bobby King told a couple of jokes, then sat down behind the drum kit. Don asked Marion if she knew the song they played.

"How Insensitive," she whispered. "Wes Montgomery." A grin split her face and Don thought of the rib spreader.

"What an appropriate song, Marion. Dance?" Bill stood up and offered her his hand. Marion promised Don the next song then let Bill steer her through the throng of dancers. On the floor they moved like extensions of one another, like the couples in the competition Marion took him to see. Their backs were straight, their hips and legs doing all the work. Don was a lousy dancer. Marion was teaching him, but he was stiff, his signals exaggerated. His attention to his feet made conversation impossible. Bill and Marion spoke, their mouths point and counterpoint like their hips.

The song had a tight, quick tempo the dancers maneuvered with tricky footwork. Next to Bill and Marion, though, a younger couple kissed and swayed in a rhythm only vaguely connected to the music. The man pressed his hips into the woman and the woman rolled her head back, exposing her neck. When the man bumped into Marion, Bill guided her across the floor to an open space. Everything about Bill suggested a practiced ease-the way he pardoned the man with a nod; the way he'd handled Don.

When the song ended, they returned to the table. Bill excused himself and went to the men's room. Don asked Marion to leave with him.

"Why not?" she said. She kissed his cheek, and Don wondered if she would've left with Bill if he'd asked first.

The two of them were standing when Bill came back. Marion picked up her purse and Bill frowned. "It's getting late," Marion said. "Don offered to walk me home."

"You live around here?" Bill asked Don.

"Over on Union."

"Why don't you stay?" he asked Marion. "We can get some breakfast."

"It's getting late," Marion said again.

"When did you get to be an early bird?" Bill hooked his arm around her waist. "We use to stay out till dawn."

"Are you okay to drive? You want us to call you a cab?" Don liked the way she said "us," the way it voided Bill's power on the dance floor.

Bill waved her off. He said there was a woman downstairs he knew. He'd go have a drink with her. Don knew it was a lie and felt embarrassed for him as he left with Marion's hand in his.

The heat in Don's apartment was unbearable. He turned the fan on high and aimed it at the couch. Marion poured a drink, then sat with her legs crossed in front of the breeze.

Bent over, his hands on the sill, Don watched the women at the shelter tease a man on his way home. He paused to flirt before moving on.

"Am I going to have to buy you an air-conditioner?" Marion said.

"It's not that bad," Don said.

"Not bad? Come here."

"It's cooler over here," he said, hoping she'd come to him.

She sipped her drink and he wished for something, he wasn't sure what. Don knew that if he didn't turn his mood around, she would leave and go home. Or to Bill's. It didn't matter.

A burst of laughter erupted from the women on the steps. Don felt sure they never laughed like that with their husbands and boyfriends. Except for Marion, none of his girlfriends had ever laughed like that with him.

"Don?" Marion said. She uncrossed her legs and leaned forward. "Is something wrong?" When he didn't answer, she moved behind him and petted his head.

"I'm fine," he said. "Tired."

"Me, too," she said. He knew it was an excuse. She wanted to be entertained. She examined the plant she'd given him then asked if he'd mind if she called it a night.

"No," he said. He didn't want her to leave, but now he'd have a reason to be angry with her. Right then he decided he never wanted to see her again. He didn't know why, but he knew he would've felt the same if she'd left with Bill. Marion rinsed her glass and put it in the sink. She hooked her purse over her shoulder and held out her arms for Don to kiss her goodnight. She pressed her lips against his, then stepped back. He wanted to pull her to him, to respond in some way, like Bill on the dance floor or the guy outside his window the other night. He didn't know which.

From the window he watched her go down the steps. "Fuck you!" His voice echoed off the coffee shop. A car backfired in the street. Marion looked around, hugged her purse and walked faster. Don raised the screen and pitched the stupid plant out the window. The pot was plastic. It bounced, ejecting the dirt plug, then rolled off the curb into the street. When Marion turned the corner, the housemother at the shelter came out and announced curfew. The residents finished their cigarettes and went inside, leaving the housemother on the steps with a woman Don didn't recognize. He watched the housemother rub the woman's back and wondered if it was her first night at the shelter, if she'd recently left her husband. It didn't matter. They'd end up together again. They always did.

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