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Authors: Laura McNeal

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BOOK: Crushed
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Chapter 29

Clyde's Ride

Clyde stood waiting for his ride in front of the apartment building. It was early Saturday evening. The sun had already set, and the sky was pink through the bare tree limbs by the duck pond. It had been a beautiful, warm day—weather-casters called it the warmest November 8 on record—but now, without cloud cover, the temperature was down to the mid-forties, and dropping.

Clyde shivered a little in his work clothes—black slacks, black Nikes, black socks, and a white button-down shirt, neatly pressed. He wasn't wearing a jacket—the country club provided the black jacket and tie he wore while busing tables—and he'd told his mother it was too warm for a parka, a mistake, as it turned out. He had to stamp his feet and blow on his hands to stay warm.

As a dirty yellow Geo approached, Clyde raised his hand to signal the round-faced girl behind the wheel. She pulled over, and Clyde opened the door to high-volume ska music. The girl's name was Manda Will, and when she grinned up at Clyde he could see the wide space between her two front teeth.

“Hey,” Clyde said, but his voice was swallowed by the music.

Manda lived with four other girls in a two-bedroom apartment not far from Clyde's. She was taking a few units at LeMoyne and had two or three part-time jobs, including the one at the country club. When she'd learned how close to her Clyde lived, and that he didn't have a car, she'd offered to give him rides, a dollar each direction. “Cheap,” she'd said, grinning her gap-toothed grin.

The car was warm and the music was okay, once Manda turned it down a little. Clyde was comfortable with Manda, mostly because she never seemed to mind his quietness. She was wearing a white top with a black skirt, shoes, and stockings. It took about ten minutes to reach the country club, during which time they listened to the Jamaican singers and stared out at brick buildings. Everything looked cold and dead at dusk, the traffic lights glowing in the rising clouds of exhaust. When Manda nosed her car into a parking spot near the back entrance, she reached inside the waistband of her skirt and pulled out a cigarette case. “Stay put, okay?” she said when Clyde started to open the door.

“Okay,” Clyde said reluctantly. He knew she hated to smoke alone in the car. He watched her flip open the case and extract a hand-rolled joint. She depressed the dashboard lighter.

“Wanna tootle the flute?” she said. Clyde shook his head no.

A few seconds passed while Manda held the smoke in her lungs. Then she exhaled and said, “How do you do it, Clyde? Without a little reeferization?”

He shrugged. “It's not that bad.”

She gave him a look. “That's where you're wrong, Clyde. It
is
that bad, and then some.”

But it wasn't for Clyde. Bad was thinking about his mother. Bad was having to explain looking up Wickham Hill, Theo Driggs, and Audrey Reed on Bor-Lan's LexisNexis program. Bad was thinking about Wickham calling Audrey his long-stemmed study partner. Good was putting on the black jacket that the manager handed out, delivering the pre-food to the diners, pouring water from crystal pitchers. Dying wasn't on people's minds here. Untouchable girls weren't on people's minds. All the workers wanted was to do their jobs, and afterward count their tips.

“Tonight you're doing my tables just like always, okay?” Manda said.

Clyde nodded. Manda waited tables. Clyde bused them.

Manda squinched one eye as she again drew smoke into her lungs. When, after a few seconds, she exhaled, she said, “You don't talk a lot, do you, Clyde?”

Clyde gave so slight a shrug it might, to Manda, have seemed like a twitch.

She said, “I was telling my roommates about you, how you're the strong, silent type. I think one of them wants to meet you. Should I work on that?”

“No,” Clyde said flatly, and to his surprise, a quick loud laugh flew through Manda's lips.

“You
do
like girls, though, right?” she said.

“Depends on the girl,” Clyde said—a response that Manda also found hilarious. Clyde made a mental note that, once they started serving, he'd better help make sure Manda was taking the right dinners to the right tables.

Chapter 30

Enter Audrey and Wickham

The cab turned onto a familiar tree-lined road that led to the Jemison Country Club, and a man leaned from a window of the gateside kiosk.

Wickham slid a card to the cabdriver, who presented it to the man at the gate, who gave it a glance and waved them through.

“I guess you've been here before?” Wickham said, and Audrey murmured yes. “I like it here,” she said. “My father's a member.”

The cab pulled up in front of a new building that, because of its shake shingle siding, pale yellow window light, and heavy, chiseled beams, made Audrey think of a tinted post-card of an old Adirondack lodge. Her father hadn't had time to take her here for ages, and she wondered if he knew they'd fixed things up so much. She'd have to tell him.

Faint strains of a swing band came from within, and, as her father had always done, Wickham opened the car door, held out his hand, and helped her step out.

Inside, perfectly pruned dwarf citrus trees, fragrant with white blossoms, filled white-enameled tin planters. Black-jacketed waiters and busboys whisked in and out of the dining room, which was much bigger than the old one. When they were seated, Audrey said, “You know what this reminds me of? Old Cary Grant movies. Do you like Cary Grant?”

Wickham said he didn't really know. He'd heard of him, but he'd never actually watched one of his movies. “I know his real name, though.”

“His real name's not Cary Grant?”

“No sirree.”

“Then what is it?” Audrey said.

In a playful voice, Wickham replied, “It'll cost you to find out.”

“Oh yeah? How much?”

“Plenty,” he said, laughing.

Chapter 31

Episode at Table 9

Clyde had used a crumber to clean a white tablecloth and was setting out the china service for coffee when he noticed someone at table 9 who looked a little like Audrey Reed, only older.

Then he saw that the woman didn't just look like Audrey Reed.

She
was
Audrey Reed.

And she was with that new guy from Georgia or wherever, who was all flashed out in a suit and tie. Audrey wore a high-necked red dress that made her look older, and beautiful, and . . . rich. She'd been laughing, but when she stopped and glanced his way, Clyde feared he might need to nod or smile or even speak. But he was wrong. Audrey Reed looked right through him.

Table 9 lay between him and the kitchen. He tucked the crumber into his apron, poured the coffee—one caffeinated, one decaf, though, to be truthful, he wasn't sure now which was which—and then arranged his face into the mask of a person who sees no one he knows. But he had to come back to their table. He had to bring water and bread.

In the kitchen, he looked at his distorted reflection on the rounded side of the steel pitcher.
Hi, I'm Patrick,
he thought.
Or, as the case may be, Patricia.
He made himself pick up the pitcher and a basket of bread. Then he walked stiffly back to table 9.

“. . . is what he said to me, anyhow,” Audrey was saying. She and Wickham fell silent as Clyde poured. He felt Audrey looking at his face. Then she said, “Clyde, right? From Patrice's class?”

Clyde was nodding stiffly. He actually said, “Yup,” but in a voice so low that, thankfully, it couldn't be heard. Then, as a finishing touch, he said, in a croaky blurt, “I work here.”

Clyde felt sweat glazing his neck, and there followed an awkward silence that made him want to disappear. The new boy stared at him for a moment; then, by smiling and leaning back in his chair, he conveyed a sense of gracious superiority. But Audrey looked slightly pained. “Have you two met at school?” the new boy said.

Clyde nodded.

Audrey fingered her glass and seemed to find her footing. “Wickham,” she said, “this is Clyde. Clyde, this is Wickham Hill.” Clyde noticed that she knew Wickham's last name, but not his. No one spoke, so Audrey said, “Clyde's in World Cultures with me.”

Wickham gave Clyde a reserved smile, and another awkward silence developed.

Suddenly Audrey, with false brightness, said, “Clyde's a smart guy. Maybe he knows Cary Grant's real name.”

Clyde's mother loved Cary Grant movies because they always came with a happy ending, and she'd recently read a Cary Grant biography. Clyde hadn't listened very carefully when she read various parts to him. He remembered his real name was a funny one, but he couldn't remember what it was. He shook his head no.

“Yeah, neither do I,” Audrey said. Then, gesturing to Wickham, she added, “But he does, only he won't say except for too high a price.”

Clyde noticed how smoothly handsome Wickham Hill was, and how adoringly Audrey looked at him. Casually Wickham said, “My price is reasonable and”—he smiled at Audrey—“not negotiable.”

“Leach,” Clyde blurted.

Audrey turned, a little surprised. “What?”

“Leach,” Clyde said in his gravelly voice. “Cary Grant's real name. It's something Leach.” It seemed strange that while looking into Audrey's eyes he could think at all, but in fact his faculties seemed suddenly decongested.
“Archie,”
he said. “Archie Leach.”

Audrey looked at Wickham, who gave a confirming nod, but not very happily. The truth was, both Audrey and Wickham seemed a little sorry he'd come up with the answer, and Clyde realized suddenly that they were both looking forward to Audrey paying the reasonable, non-negotiable price, whatever it was.

“I told you he was a smart guy,” Audrey said. Then, after the barest glance toward Clyde: “Maybe I should pay him the price you were asking.”

Wickham drawled, “Not on my watch, Miss Audrey.”

Clyde understood he'd become a prop for their flirtation. “I should go,” he said, glancing toward the kitchen. Audrey, smiling, nodding, and holding Wickham Hill's hand, said it had been good to see him again. As he walked away, Clyde realized it was not just his neck that was moist with sweat. His forehead was damp, too, and his scalp, and even his hair.

Table 9 was one of Manda's tables, so he should have been the one to deliver their beverages (two ginger ales), but he couldn't bear the thought and got someone else to do it.

“How come?” Manda asked.

“No reason,” Clyde said.

Manda glanced back at Audrey Reed and Wickham Hill, who were leaning across the table toward each other while they talked, and said, “Oh, there's a reason, all right.”

For the rest of the night, Clyde felt divided in two. Clyde One poured water and coffee and bused tables while Clyde Two kept tabs on Audrey Reed and Wickham Hill, who ate (slowly, and with much quiet laughter); danced (with surprising ease, receiving approving smiles from the other, older dancers); went into the lounge (where they sat alone and close together on a huge, pillowy sofa); and then left early (hand in hand, with glowing expressions).

It was customary at the end of the night, when all but a few of the club members had gone and the band was still playing, for employees to go out on the dance floor, and some of them did. The members seemed to like it, and though Clyde never danced, he liked watching the cooks and the waitresses and the waiters become dancers. But tonight he wandered out to the terrace, where he stood for a few minutes, alone in the cold, before he heard footsteps behind him.

“Hey,” Manda said.

“Hey.”

“What're you doing?”

He shrugged, and she produced a small stub of one of her reefers. “Good to the last inch,” she said, lighting it carefully. Its acrid odor bloomed in the cold air. After exhaling a lungful of smoke, she said, “I looked him up for you.”

Clyde gave her a look that said
Who?

“The tall number and her baby-faced boy. I talked nice to the kiosk guard, and he said they came in a taxi and that the member's name is Yates.”

“Yates?”

She inhaled, fished her order tickets out, found a neatly printed note, and finally exhaled. “Dr. James Edward Yates, Cypress, South Carolina. Gold Member.” She shrugged and handed him the note. “That makes him a lifer. We're talking big loot.”

Clyde said, “But the kid's last name is Hill.”

Manda shrugged. “Maybe he's a stepson.” She stubbed out the last fraction of her joint, flicked off its black ashy edge, then laid it on her tongue and swallowed it. “Fuh
-reezing
out here,” she said. Slipping her arm through his, she began to guide him back inside. “Wanna dance?” she said.

“I don't dance.”

“Yeah, that's what I thought.” Manda gave his arm a reassuring squeeze. “It's not that hard. Want me to teach you?”

Clyde wanted to, but he also didn't want to. “Maybe next time.”

Manda grinned her gap-toothed grin. “How 'bout right now,” she said, and, taking his hand, led him past the empty tables and out onto the dance floor. Clyde would have enjoyed the dancing more if he had not been aware, as his feet went
step-step-turn, step-step-turn,
that he now knew Wickham's father's full name. And if he did a little more sifting, he'd learn a lot more. He shouldn't do it, but he knew he would.

Chapter 32

What Wickham and Audrey Did

Audrey received her third kiss in the taxi on the way home. Also her fourth, fifth, and sixth. At some point Wickham said, in a whisper, “My mother's working nights now at the hospital.” Then he said, in the same whisper, “Should I tell him to take us to my house?” Audrey, eyes closed, saw the warning flare that meant she had only been seeing Wickham Hill for one week. If Oggy had been home waiting for her, she probably would have said no. But Oggy wasn't at home. Audrey indicated, with the subtlest nod, that yes, the answer was yes.

BOOK: Crushed
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