Rick Lowe arrived feeling gritty in The City. He’d never flown in an airplane, and vowed that he never would. So he’d endured upright nights in an Amtrak seat, days of microwaved meals manhandled by surly stewards, a malfunctioning iPad and wave after corrosive wave of acid indigestion. Karen had promised to meet him at Union Station in The City but, with Amtrak delays and all, no, she was already in Shipwreck. So Rick bought passage for two hours of renewed railroad torment on the Atlantic Bay Liner.
Karen texted from an Air B&B on Roosevelt Road, and that’s where he met her finally, in a cottage behind a strip of rehabbed brick storefronts. There was a German saying his mother loved to quote: Old we get too soon, and smart too late. Had Rick gotten smart sooner, he’d have bought an abandoned building here and made his fortune.
Karen opened the door without a greeting, a cranky look on her face. What? He was the injured party here. She couldn’t have borrowed a car from her father and picked him up in The City?
He dropped his backpack and suitcase to the floor.
“You said we’d be on the beach.”
“A place on the beach,” Karen said, “is a thousand a week.”
“Even in September?”
“Plus, there’s a hurricane off Hatteras. Haven’t you heard? You don’t want to be on Poke Island during a hurricane, do you?”
“Well, shit, then.”
The apartment was a studio, barely 10 paces across. Rick flung open the refrigerator, which was dark, smelly and barren. “Welcome home, I guess.” He slammed the door. “You been in touch?”
“I texted him.”
“Any coffee in this joint?”
“I’m not your maid. There’s a cafe around the corner. And remember, Rick, they’ve got cameras everywhere.”
Rick left the house to walk to Peace, Love & Coffee, but not before he’d endured Karen’s diatribe about this Penny chick, the barista. Rick was most interested in her description of Penny as a “slutty cheerleader tart.” Rick was a dropout, and his only fond memories of high school involved cheerleaders.
There were hardly any customers in the coffee shop and wow, was this barista hot. Blonde, pale, freckled, skinny, A-cup tits, big brown eyes of a street urchin. She was exactly the kind of babe who had turned him down all his life.
He had to game her. He just had to.
“What’s the cheapest house coffee?”
She delivered a white cup brimming with coffee into his shaking hands. He was riding the natural buzz that a con job always delivered. He loaded that coffee with cream, sugar and cinnamon, turning it into a $7 drink. The barista watched in amusement.
“See,” he said and flashed his most innocent fake smile. “A $2 coffee, turned it into a Combo-cinno.”
“It’s actually $2.25 with tax.”
“Yeah, sorry, I’m a quarter short, I came all the way from California to see my mom. You wouldn’t believe it. I got ripped off in Union Station.”
“Mugged. Wallet, phone. Four Puerto Ricans cornered me in the men’s room. Strangers helped me, though. You got good people living up there in The City. People I don’t even know helped me out with money for a train ticket, plus $2 left over. I ain’t had no lunch, but hey, mom’s got dinner waiting for me.”
Penny dug into the tip jar, fetched a quarter for the cash register. “Eighteen fifty,” she said.
“In the tip jar. I always know exactly. It’s like a weird talent I have.”
“So what do you do for thrills in this town?” he asked.
“Oh, you’re not from here originally?”
“But your mom lives here.”
“Me, I’m really busy, and like I have been so awesomely busy this summer. This job, plus a summer internship I’m just wrapping up.”
“What’s the scam then?”
“Yeah the internship scam.”
“Really, I can’t talk about that.”
“It’s just … confidential for now.”
“Oh hush hush. CIA. The pretty lady is a spy.”
“So you don’t go out or do anything fun at night? You stay home and study your lessons and shit?” He noticed a subtle gulp move down her throat. He was frightening her. He backed away a step. “Hey, I didn’t mean nothing, I’m a stranger, I can’t expect people to trust me in this town.
“It’s not that,” Penny said.
Rick whispered: “The Big C. I won’t have Mom around for very long.”
Penny’s face moved from fear to sympathy. She remembered what she wanted to forget: Her aunt Peggy’s winter of Hell, in which she suffered more from the treatment than the cancer itself, only to die struggling for breath, poor woman, in the first gorgeous days of spring.
“Mom is brave, though,” Rick said. “You wouldn’t believe it. Could be our last…” Fake tears rimmed his eyes. He looked around. He didn’t see any cameras.
“Hey,” he said, “do you think you could find it in that big heart of yours to … you know. Could I use your cellphone to call my mother?”
She stared at him. He let a wounded look settle onto his face. “Those bastards stole mine.”
Penny looked over her shoulder as if she was afraid someone would notice this act of charity. Then she slid her cellphone across the counter.
“Just one call, okay?”
Rick tented his hands as if in prayer. “Thank you. So kind.” He took the phone, turned away as if to insure a semi-private conversation and dialed.
“Mom!” he said, loud enough for Penny to hear.
Into the tiny speaker he heard Karen’s voice say: “Oh fuck you, Rick.” Then she clicked off.
After a teary pause Rick said into the void: “Hey, Mom, I’m sorry I’ll be late for dinner. I’m stuck down in the Warehouse District. I don’t know. Guess I’ll walk. Some nice lady here let me use her phone. Uh huh Uh huh. I’m a little gimpy, from my surgery, but I’ll get there, somehow, don’t worry. Love you, Mom. Bye bye.”
He handed the phone back to Penny.
“She’s such a sweet lady. You are too. She’s got the meatloaf dinner waiting for me, with the cheesy potatoes. She always puts a little ketchup on top before she bakes the meatloaf, you know, a squiggle, a W, like a decoration.”
“I’m surprised she can still cook.”
“You’re a lifesaver. Somebody as pretty as you, not available for dating, I guess. List of boyfriends a mile long.”
Penny scoffed, looked down.
“Yeah, I know, I could win an ugly contest, I know. “
“It’s not that. I’m in college and the semester just started and I’m working too and just so … busy.”
“You have any girlfriends looking for fun? I’m gonna be in town a while. With my mom’s chemo and all.”
“Look. I’m sorry but what is your name?
“Winston,” said Rick. “Like Churchill, you know. Friends call me Winn.”
“I really have to get busy here.”
“I’ve been blown off by plenty of girls, but none as pretty as you.”
She smiled, obligatory. “I really…”
“It’s like only 3 miles to Mom’s, but it would take me an hour to walk there. You wouldn’t sport me to a MyRide, would you? I don’t want the dinner to go cold, and mom …”
Penny shot him a look. He knew he was pushing her limits.
“I’ve got a whole bucket of money, mom’s been holding it for me. And I’ll tell you what, when’s your next shift, I’ll pay you back. With interest. And a tip.”
Penny wondered if she was being conned but it was probably a $5 ride and she’d be rid of this pest and what if he was desperate and really was telling the truth?
“Look, I guess I can do this, but ….” She tapped the MyRide app. For a moment she worried that this guy had done something weird to her phone. But it seemed okay. MyRide answered with its little map. Pickup in 3 minutes. Going to…
Rick gave her an address, quaffed his coffee, bowed like he was Sir Walter Raleigh, and retreated to the big bright windows. A storm had blown up off the Atlantic, and he’d been so intent he hadn’t noticed, the windows beaded with raindrops. He kept his back turned on the gorgeous barista. He knew just how much to push, a student of body and facial language. The word look was the key. When somebody tells says look, you have exhausted their patience. Yes Rick was a student of human nature. And he had rarely met someone who, at some level, wasn’t a sucker for his stories. Oh, the cops called him a con-man, but Rick was really just a pretty damn good story teller.
The MyRide pulled up. Rick ran through the wind-driven rain to get in. The driver was a porky female, none too hygienic. It smelled like wet dog in that humid car.
“Gonna hurricane on us,” the driver said.
“I’m in from California,” he said. “We got earthquakes instead of hurricanes.”
The driver grunted.”Cal-If-Forn-Ya,” she said.
She drove around the corner and Rick asked her to change routes, and directed her to pick up Karen.