Authors: Fletcher Flora
OUCHANT ON THE FLOOR
, belly down and her chin cupped in her hands, Maggie was watching television. On her face was a small frown of the most intense concentration — two vertical lines running parallel between her brows and her short nose. Her lips moved silently, forming the shapes of words, and she appeared to be repeating the words that were coming miraculously through her set all the way from Kansas City, and this was, in fact, exactly what she was doing.
Repeating things in this way was a habit of hers that gave her some sort of secret satisfaction. It was often disconcerting to people when they first became aware of it and were unused to it.
Lying there on the floor where she had been for twenty full minutes since seven o’clock, fixed and utterly still except for the slight movement of her lips and the barely perceptible movement of her breasts in breathing, she was so absorbed in what she heard and saw that she was even unaware of being a little cold because of being completely naked.
This was also a habit of hers around home, being naked, which was also disconcerting to people when she occasionally opened the door to them before remembering.
On the twenty-one inch screen, Brad was teaching algebra in black and white. He was talking about something called a quadratic equation, and Maggie had a vague notion that this was a way of solving problems that she had been exposed to at some time or other in the past, but now she knew nothing about it of any significance, and it did not matter in the least that she didn’t, for she was only watching and listening because it was Brad she was seeing and hearing.
She wished that he could see her too, exactly as she was, just for the fun of watching his reaction in the box with his blackboard and his silly piece of chalk. This struck her as being a very entertaining speculation — what Brad would do if he could suddenly see her as she was, with nothing on at all. She smiled a little and kept thinking about it, but all this while, although she was not conscious of a single thing he said, her lips kept forming exactly the shape of every word.
After a bit, tiring of speculation, she again became conscious of the words, their meaning as nearly as she could grasp it, and she admired him tremendously for what he knew that she didn’t. Mostly, however, she admired him for looking so handsome and talking so cleverly, with just the merest tone of condescension for his unseen students. As a matter of fact, relative to her feeling in these matters, admiration was by no means the proper word for it. Whatever the word was, the feeling had something itchy in it.
Behind her, on a tousled bed pulled down into the room from a compartment in the wall, Buddy Jensen stirred and grunted and rose on one elbow.
He was a stocky young man with swarthy skin, thick shoulders and a dark sullen face that was given a cast of ferocity by black brows and thick curly hair, also black, that grew rather low on his forehead and always needed combing. His body matching Maggie’s in its present condition, was hard and powerful. It was the body of an athlete, though this was a kind of natural deception since he abhorred exercise of all sorts — physical and mental alike.
He had met Maggie about a year ago in another town, where she had been at loose ends, restless and bored but living fairly comfortably on the wages and fringe benefits of a temporary job as a waitress in a fancy bar, and there had been between them almost immediately a kind of dark combustion. Buddy had also been in comfortable circumstances at the time, thanks to a careless gentleman, slightly drunk and very lucky, who had been in a poker game that Buddy had been kibitzing in the back room of a cigar store. The gentleman had also been indiscreet, which was where his luck ended, and he had wakened later in an alley behind the cigar store, by which way he had left the game, with a splitting head and an empty wallet. The almost two thousand dollars that had been in the wallet were by that time in Buddy’s pocket, although Buddy was the only one who knew it. Not even Maggie ever knew it, although she helped spend the money.
Buddy’s parents were reasonably prosperous folk who had disowned him after paying off his third bad check, and he was himself at loose ends at this time. He had been going to college when the third bad check was written, but he was now unemployed and unoccupied and wondering what to do with himself. He was, in fact, wondering if it was worth while doing anything at all at the time he met Maggie. She had given him a sort of illicit purpose, justification for a bad life, and she had become, in fact, his only reason for wishing to live in a world that was generally threatening and inhospitable. Consequently, when she had decided later in the summer to leave town and enroll in college, without apparent logic from his point of view, he had quite naturally followed her to the town in which they now were, and had himself even enrolled in college again to keep her company. To finance all this, he robbed a filling station.
Now, having just awakened, he rubbed his eyes, scratched his scalp and looked foggily around the room to see where Maggie was and where the man’s voice was coming from.
After a few moments he located the lighted television screen, Brad in black and white and, finally, Maggie on the floor before it. He rubbed and scratched again, rearing a little higher on his elbow.
A faint flush came into his dark cheeks, adding to his look of ferocity. The flush was incited partly by the sight of Brad on television and partly by the sight of Maggie on the floor, each part for different reasons.
“What the hell are you doing down there on the floor?” he demanded.
She did not answer or turn her head. Her lips kept forming the shapes of words.
“You’ll catch your death of cold,” he told her.
Brad in the box, telling a funny anecdote all the while, kept writing numbers and letters on the blackboard with chalk, and there on the board all at once, as simple as could be, was the answer to everything, the whole problem, and Maggie was exorbitantly proud of Brad for getting the answer, even though she couldn’t see how, or why anyone would want to. Her lips formed the shape of the answer slowly, with pleasure, as if it had taste and the taste was good.
“You’d better answer if you know what’s good for you,” Buddy said.
“Shut up,” she answered, her voice carrying no inflection whatever.
His flush deepened and his heavy brows drew together over his nose, but he was quiet just the same, lying propped on his elbow and watching the finish of the algebra lesson. The lesson was already finished, as a matter of fact, and now in the last minute or two Brad was merely being clever about making the assignment. He faded away with his last word, and the theme came up, and credits began to appear on the screen one after another.
Still Maggie did not move. She continued couchant, belly down and chin cupped, apparently intending to remain in that position until the next lesson next Saturday. It was not a position, to say the least, that was calculated to alleviate the mixed emotions of Buddy behind her, scorned and contemptuously silenced. He was obviously brooding over this summary treatment, for when he spoke again it was with ominous truculence.
“What the hell did you mean,” he said, “telling me to shut up?”
“What I meant was plain enough,” she retorted. “Do you have to have the simplest thing explained to you in detail?”
“You’d better be careful how you talk to me, that’s all.”
“Oh, God! I’m utterly terrified.”
“What’s the matter with you? Are you crazy or something?” he demanded, his voice carrying a note of honest puzzlement.
“Maybe I am. I must be crazy to have anything to do with you.”
“That’s not the way you talked last night.”
“Well, don’t let it confuse you. What I said and did last night don’t necessarily mean anything this morning.”
“I ought to give you a good beating, that’s what I ought to do.”
“What you ought to do is get dressed and get out of here. I can’t stand you first thing in the morning,” she told him flatly, still not deigning to look around at him.
“Come here and I’ll show you how to stand me.”
“No, thank you. I prefer to stay here.”
“Why do you want to keep on lying there on the floor?”
“Just because I want to, that’s why.”
“You can’t go on lying there all day,” he pointed out.
“I can if I choose. I may do it.”
“Maybe you think if you lie there long enough your precious Professor Cannon will come back on television.”
“If I lie here long enough, that’s exactly what he’ll do. Next Saturday morning.”
“He’s about the worst creep there is. I don’t understand what you see in him.”
“Of course you don’t. You’re too stupid.”
“You’re a hell of a one to talk about being stupid,” he snorted. “You didn’t have the least idea what he was talking about.”
“That’s all right. He gave me some other ideas that were a lot more interesting.”
“You better not get any ideas about trying any funny business with him, I can tell you that.”
“You can’t imagine how grateful I am for your advice. What would you do if I did?”
“Don’t worry. I’d stop it one way or another.”
She rolled over then and sat up, hugging her knees and staring at him angrily over the tops.
“Would you really? Just try it. Perhaps you’d like to have the truth known in a certain place about a certain hit-and-run accident. Manslaughter, I think they call it. I wonder how much time they give you in prison for something like that.”
“Don’t try to threaten me. You’ll never tell,” he muttered, his glance wary and savage.
“Don’t be too sure. I will if you cause me any trouble.”
“If you did, I’d kill you.”
“Talk, talk! You always talk big. In my opinion, in spite of looking like a hoodlum, you’re nothing but a coward.”
“You’ll see. Just try any funny business with old Cannon, and you’ll see.”
She bared her teeth in a tigerish little smile, at the same time studying him with an air of judicious detachment. The truth was, she had a kind of soft spot for him in her heart. As nearly soft, that is, as she could come to softness. As nearly in her heart, that is, as she could come to having a heart.
He was interesting and sometimes exciting, and she would have liked to keep him around for times when he was wanted. But if it became necessary to send him away or eliminate him somehow, it was nothing that would give her any sense of enduring loss or even the least regret.
She did not feel quite so easy about him, however, as she pretended. He was lazy and a little dull, surely, but there was a depth of darkness in him out of the common — a kind of disturbing mutation that made him a very dangerous young man. In short, to draw a comparison, he was quite a lot like her.
“I had to see him yesterday after classes because I’m flunking trig,” she said. “We had a nice talk, and then I kissed him. He’s much more fun to kiss than you are.”
“You know what I think? I think you’re a damn liar.”
“Think as you please. It couldn’t matter less to me.”
“Do you imagine a man like him would pay serious attention to someone like you? You’ll only make a fool of yourself.”
“You’re the fool if you think so,” she responded.
“What have you got to gain?”
“You might be surprised. Anyhow, did it ever occur to you that I might be in love with him? He’s handsome and very intelligent, and I’ll bet he’s better in bed than you could ever be even if you took professional lessons.”
“Oh, God, what a laugh! You talking about love!” A sneer wreathed his tight lips.
“You think it’s funny? Maybe you don’t know me as well as you think. Just because it’s impossible to fall in love with an ugly clown like you doesn’t mean it’s impossible with someone else.”
“You’re about as capable of love as a copperhead. Not that it makes any difference to me. I like you that way.”
“Well, haven’t you become suddenly profound! It’s amazing how someone who can barely read and write should possess such wisdom.”
“Oh, go to hell. Pretty soon you’ll be talking some drivel about marriage or something.”
“Perhaps I will. I’m considering it.”
“With old Cannon? You’ve really lost your marbles, haven’t you, Maggie? He’s got a wife, in case you didn’t know, and his wife, they tell me, has a million bucks.”
“That’s true. He would probably be reluctant to give up so much money. It’s a problem.” She appeared to ponder that a moment.
“You won’t solve it with algebra or trigonometry, either. It’s an interesting problem though, I admit. How do you lose a wife without losing her money?”
“Never mind. I’m considering that, too.”
“Nuts.” He sat up all at once, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. “Stop talking like a fool and come here.”
“No. I don’t want to.”
“Because I’m tired of you. You bore me. I wish you’d go away.”
“If you don’t come here, I’ll come there.”
“Come ahead,” she snapped. “It won’t do you any good.”
“If you touch me, I’ll scratch your eyes out.”
He got up and walked across the littered room and sat down beside her and facing her. She continued to hug her knees, turning her head deliberately away.
“Oh, come off, Maggie,” he said. “Why do you want to act like such a bitch?”
“Is that how I’m acting? It doesn’t matter. If you don’t like it, you can go somewhere else. Do you always just keep staying and staying where you’re not wanted?”
“I was wanted last night,” he reminded her.
“That was last night. It’s simply impossible to get it through your head that things are not constantly the same.”
“You look charming the way you are.”
“Do I? You don’t,” she said. “You look rather absurd.”
He was silent for a few seconds, the flush of anger deep and ugly in his dark cheeks. For a moment, watching him warily from the corners of her eyes, she thought that he was going to hit her, which was something he had done before in anger.
The thought sent a little shiver of aberrant excitement through her folded body held steady by the clasp of her arms around her knees. He was dark and ugly and exciting in anger, and he often did blindly exciting things, although sometimes painful.