A sunny Sunday. afternoon. One o'clock. He telephoned, as he said he would, and asked, "Are we still on for three?"
"Yes, indeedy," said Maury, summoning an accent he'd heard on country music radio. "Now you come prepared to talk, you hear?"
As Maury, grinning, laid the telephone in its cradle, Muriel picked up the paper from the motel suite's desk, flipped to the back, and frowned. "Maury, do you suppose there's an etiquette for this that we're not aware of?"
"Read it," he said, beginning to empty the suite of clues. He set the typewriter in the closet, tucked Muriel's notebooks and novels into the desk drawer.
Up and down the newspaper's columns she cast her eye, stopping at boldface heads: "Large Uncut," "Young Surfer Boy Wanted," "Petite Feminine TV," "Spanking," "This Stud's For You!"
On the coffee table, Maury fanned out road maps with ring-shaped stains.
They had considered "Dog Wanted by Stern Master--Alpo's Waiting" and "Well-Trained Passive Desires Your Toughest Jobs." They chose: "DERRICK . . . Massage, conversations, etc. Handsome, responsive . . ." They liked "conversation.' They ignored "etc."
Maury worried that they were actually doing this. One minute it had been a stray, silly notion they tossed around, sitting around on a rainy night, asking each other, "What do you suppose would happen if we got one of these characters over here to do just what his advertisement--on the surface--said he did?" Next thing they knew, they were dialing Derrick's number. "Why do we get ourselves into situations like this?" he asked.
"Time on our hands."
Muriel stood sideways before the full-length mirror. She eyed her reflection: wide hips pulling at the too-tight black dress, gray hairs (now that she'd hit 40) taking over auburn. The harlequin eyeglasses, she acceded sadly, suited her.
Maury took his mirror straight on. He squared his shoulders, straightened his tweed lapels, checked the half-Windsor into which he'd hitched the tie he thought best suited to what they'd decided he'd call himself--a manufacturer and vendor of sheepskin car seat covers, visiting the city for a little fun. He stroked his black beard (Which added 10 years to his 26), brushed the stray mustache off his upper lip, essayed an ironically raised eyebrow.
Ten minutes to three. Muriel closed the bedroom door Maury opened it. Muriel closed it. Keystone Kops. "Damn it," said Muriel, "that double bed is suggestive. Leave the door closed."
Maury: "An open door is beyond reproach."
"You've got your sheepskin gig," she said. "But we still haven't decided who I'm supposed to be."
Grabbing a washcloth to buff his wing tips, Maury said, "Let him guess. It's all gonna be catch-as-catch-can, nondirective anyway."
"I'm afraid I'll get the giggles. I wish we'd never thought of it. I wish I were going to sit and work my crossword puzzles."
"It's no different from when you were a kid and played 'Let's Pretend.' I pretend I'm a sheepskin seat-cover mogul, and you pretend whatever, and he walks up the steps, thinking he's got to render some form of sexual service. He rings the buzzer, walks in. It'll follow its own trajectory--first he chats, then . . ." Maury planted himself once more before the mirror, took his chin in his hands, and pulled his head forward and to the side. Vertebrae cracked. "My neck," he said. "It really is stiff."
"You aren't really going to ask him to rub your neck, Maury?"
"Don't worry about it, Mur. Worry about what we'll do--what will we do?--if he doesn't show up."
"We'll eat all this," she said, pointing a painted fingernail toward the kitchen table. Assorted tea cookies circled a red paper plate. Pringles lay like shingles on a second plate. Between plates was a bowl of sour cream mixed with Lipton's onion soup mix. And at each of three places, Maury had folded a gingham check paper napkin, set a red Paper cup and a red plastic fork and spoon.
Five minutes to, "Surely he'll not stand us up," she said as she walked into the bedroom to examine once more the envelope into which they'd placed two tens and a five "Maury, what if he doesn't like smokers?"
"I don't think he has much of a choice. I mean, after all . . ." He lit an unfiltered Camel.
"That's right. Isn't that what his job is about? Hasn't he forfeited his right to expectation?"
False footfalls from the stairwell. Car doors slammed shut outside. At each creak or door shutting, Muriel fled to the bedroom, where they had agreed she'd position herself until Maury had their guest inside.
All at once, there he was, the new face at the open door. Half-moon in a ten-cent sky. Weak chin.
"Hi, are you, uh, Derrick?" Maury registered a figure no bigger than a poorly fed eighth-grader, faded blue jeans, a heavy, hooded pullover jacket, and over Derrick's shoulder, an aqua day pack.
"Yes, I am."
In his newly acquired country voice, Maury asked, "Would yew l'ak some coffee? Maxwell House. Or cranberry juice?" Maury nudged the guest from front door to kitchen. "Come here to the fridge," Maury ordered more than invited, "and take a look, while I go get Muriel."
"Muriel?" asked Derrick.
"Muriel," repeated Maury. Turning down the hall, he guessed at the widening of Derrick's eyes at the mention of her name, guessed at Derrick's fleet glance into the living room, guessed at the grimace corollary to the mind's question, "What the hell is going on here?"
Gripping Muriel from behind by her elbows, Maury pushed her--as if she were a wheelbarrow--to where Derrick stood, framed by the refrigerator. "This is Muriel!" Maury said it as if proffering the one person about whom Derrick had always said, "I'd give anything to meet her."
Muriel put out her hand. "How do you do," she said.
Derrick's hand went out. "Hi, hi, hi. Nice to meet you." Muriel, noting his hand's coolness, gazed into the eyes. They gave back nothing.
"Have a seat!" Maury pulled out a chair. Derrick sat. His eyes traveled about the table.
Maury took the chair across from Derrick and made a quick study: innocuously pale, a dark brown forelock like Woody Woodpecker's. And beneath the forelock--which had been more sculpted than combed grew more than just a few gray hairs.
So this is "handsome," this pale face scrubbed of all expression, thought Muriel, asking melodically, "Cranberry juice?" while she tossed ice cubes into a red paper cup. It seemed to her that the face awaited transmission of a signal to its assembly of features, some nod from the neurons that would order: "Now, smile!" Or, "Appear sympathetic."
"Cranberry juice would be great. My sinuses have gone berserk," Derrick said. He drew out a handkerchief and dipped his nose into it. "This is cute," he said, nodding toward the wallpaper of climbing roses, "like a little apartment. Is it a by-the-month kind of place?"
"We're just visiting," said Muriel firmly and turned to him with the juice.
"Taking a break. Gotta get away." Maury rocked his chair onto its back legs, rubbed his shirted stomach, grinned. "That old day-in, day-out. Pringles?"
"No, no." Derrick's face was buried again in his hanky. "When the weather changes, it just really gets to me." He blew his nose.
"Whaddya take? For those sinuses?"
"Tylenol Sinus Medication--TSM."
"Whadda we use, Muriel?"
"Antihistamines hop me up." Derrick shuddered, from the shoulders down.
"Hop you up, huh, hear that Muriel? Hop him up?"
Muriel replied, "Tammy Faye Bakker takes Allerest."
Derrick smiled, the first indication of any expression. "That's good to know. My sinuses are horrible."
A second, or was it the third reference to sinuses? On our time, thought Maury. His sinuses. There had been other ads, other possibilities.
"6', 150 lbs, to slowly lick your big bare feet and/or armpits. More than one guy also OK."
With one glance, the six-foot lust merchant would have quickly sized up whose feet he'd be licking. Muriel (shoe size six) wouldn't have stood a chance.
For all her trouble--her cookies and coffee--she'd have had to forgo the cool study Derrick directed across her upper body. With Maury about as promising as the onion dip, Derrick's mind had obviously struck the only other available option: Muriel.
Peeved by the guest's disdain, Maury wondered if distaste for the customer was part of the etiquette, the protocol. He wouldn't permit it. "Do you mind if I smoke?"
"Well, uh . . . normally it doesn't bother me. But with my sinuses, I am extra sensitive."
"It won't bother you," said Maury, striking a kitchen match on his leather sole. "The window's open."
It was. To stem an oncoming fit of giggles, Muriel looked out the window and recited lines of poetry to herself. But recitation didn't work. She excused herself, rushed to the bathroom, and turned on the water. She laughed.
"Gone out yet?" Derrick asked Maury. "To the clubs?"
"We don't really know what there is to offer. Coming to a new place, it's hard to tell about."
"I just thought, maybe, you, you like to go out?" Derrick looked Maury full in the eyes.
Muriel came back into the room and settled at the table. She laid her hand on Maury's. "It's just so nice, Maury, to have Derrick here." She turned to Derrick. "I hope your nose is better."
"So," Maury declared, puffing a slow streamer of smoke, "you must have to read a lot?"
"Read?" In bushy underbrush, a small woods animal--a chipmunk perhaps?--believes himself successfully hidden from hunters. He has burrowed, half-asleep, waiting for them to pass through. Then he hears the hunter's footstep next to his den, hears the rifle cock. Which is the picture that emerged in Muriel's mind when Derrick, his voice rising a good half octave, said "Read?"
"Yeah," Maury exhaled a vast factory's issue of smoke. "In your line of work--conversation." Derrick paled. "I'd think you'd have to keep up on current events. Time. Newsweek."
"U.S. News & World Report, and fashion, political ideas, movie stars," added Muriel, looking toward Derrick hopefully. But his thin lips had set.
"And how many conversations do you do per day?" asked Muriel.
"I try to schedule at least one a day."
"And what do people like to talk about?" Muriel was on a roll.
"Well, you read my ad." Derrick looked to Maury, who offered only a blank face, then to Muriel, who trilled.
"Yes, and we thought it was such a nice ad. So clever. Such an interesting, an innovative idea, your business, conversation. I said to Maury, when he offered to call and invite you over, "How sweet of you, Maury, how very thoughtful, to find someone for us to chat with."
"My ad is a little more friendly than most of the men who advertise."
"So, tell me," said Muriel, "what do most of your customers like to talk about?"
"Normally," he said, "it's a lot more 'friendly.'"
"Oh, really." She leaned forward, gestured toward the cookies. "More friendly than this?"
"Gee, I can't guess, do you mind if I ask," said Maury, "how old you are?"
"No, I'm 32."
"No, no, really? Gee, I wouldn't have said that. Would you, Muriel?"
"No, no. Did you go to college?"
"Yes, and actually now I'm back in school."
"And what do you study?"
"It's dry, huh, marketing?" Maury cracked his big knuckles.
"Dry to me is sinuses." Derrick's first try at humor.
Maury, suddenly feigning zest and interest in all things entrepreneurial, coquettishly inquired, "So, you want to go into advertising?" Maybe they could discuss an innovative campaign for his imaginary sheepskins. "Yeah, media promotions. I work for a television station."
"So whaddya do? Sell advertising?"
"No. Just technical work."
Muriel eyed Maury with a little competitive disdain. "I love television," she said, lifting her eyebrows.
"Yeah, but I have an interview tomorrow at another TV station." Derrick seemed a bit defensive.
"I'm just hopin' my sinuses are gonna be unfogged by then. I'm keepin' my fingers crossed." He grinned broadly.
Maury rallied. "Damn right!" His fist, pounding the table, made cookies jump off the paper plate. "In an interview situation. you've gotta be right there, 'cuz that"s what an employer looks for!"
Something had clicked inside Derrick. "TV is such an image job," he said. "It all has to do with what you're presenting to the community. And you have to have a really good working relationship with the community. Do a lot of charity work. That sort of thing."
Muriel knew what Maury wanted: dialogue, eye contact, ideas and opinions. "But what you really want to be is a TV announcer, right?" she queried brightly.
"No. I see it as a high-pressure job."
"Nowadays everything has streamlined. And if you make one mistake," Derrick snapped his fingers, "the FCC will be right there to pull your license."
"Oh, if you say the F word?"
This time it was Maury who winced. In her disgust at his career counseling, Muriel was attempting to spice up the conversation. Derrick was, after all, nothing more than a prostitute. Mere mention of the F word scattered blood on a shark-filled sea. At the slightest hint, Derrick could whip some horrific toy out of that bag of his and start waving it. The tete-a-tete could easily disintegrate. That runny nose could mean only one thing--cocaine. Unpredictability. Hopped up as he probably was--how else could one face these visits?--he was capable of anything.
"Yes, like if you say the F word. There are nine words you're not supposed to say."
Our boy was irony-proof.
Maury couldn't resist. He took his thick neck in his hands, twisted his head to the right--crack--then to the left--crack. Nothing. Not a word from Derrick, no "Say, could that neck of yours use a hand?"
Muriel asked Derrick, his face now leached of any expression, "Can you suggest a local radio station that you think we'd enjoy listening to?"
"Do you like new-age music?"
"What," asked Maury, "is 'new age'?"
"It's peaceful music. It's sort of like jazz, soft jazz."
"Like elevator music?"
"Yeah, but it's got a little bit more texture to it. It's very restful, very calming."
"Wouldn't be good for me," said Maury. "That's part of my problem. I get rested too easily."
"Not me," said Derrick. "In fact, I'm going to a seminar tonight on meditation."
"Oh really," said Maury, spiritedly. "What kind of meditation?"
"Zen. I'm just interested because I need some serenity in my life."
"Serenity, huh?" Maury took a hard pull on his Camel. "My idea of meditation is to just sit and be quiet. She likes to talk."
"That's part of why you were called." Muriel moved forward flirtatiously.
"It wouldn't be so bad if she just wanted to talk. But she wants response. My idea of meditating is to sit down in front of the television."
"No, no. Meditation is when you look inside," Derrick purred. "Centering on what is within, not on the TV."
"These are good oatmeal cookies. Have one?" Maury held out the plate.
"I'm trying to watch eating that sort of stuff." Derrick held up his hand, traffic-cop style. "I'm watching my weight. You hit your 30s and you start sagging. I'm going to start back to the gym. I'm going to get rid of my love handles."
He pushed up the cuff of his pullover, looked at his wristwatch. "May I use the bathroom?" He addressed the question to Muriel, who looked to Maury, as if for the answer.
"Yes," said Maury, rising from the table, pointing down the hall. "It's right there."
The bathroom door closed. "What do you think's in that pack?" Muriel asked. Maury put his finger to his lips.
Sixty, ninety seconds passed. "What's he doing?" hissed Muriel.
Maury shook his head, again put his finger to his lips. He waited to hear the toilet flush. He figured he mustn't tell her. Mustn't touch his nose, mustn't whisper, in her ear, what he suspected.
Derrick emerged again into the kitchen. The toilet had not flushed.
"So, what have you guys done since you've been here?" A lively tone replaced the worn-down voice in which Derrick had asked to use the bathroom. His eyes sparkled.
Jacked, Maury recognized. High. Little tootski on the sly. Right there in the bathroom, opening up that dratted day pack, he took out his tiny vial. Thrilling at those two yokels out there chomping oatmeal cookies.
Maury pushed himself up from the table. "Let's look in the fridge. It's packed. We knew we had someone coming over . . ."
"Yes, we've always had company on Sundays!"
Maury, with alarm, heard himself sing out, "Always company on Sundays, so we just stocked up."
"We've had company on Sundays for years!" Muriel warbled, the light of the fridge pouring out onto her face.
Maury realized they'd acquired a contact high.
"You know what we've got, we've got potato chips!" Maury grinned, out of control.
"Oh, no, no thanks. I just ate a little while ago, and I'm going to be going to dinner very soon."
"And we've got dip. Muriel, honey, which dips did you get?"
"I don't know. I didn't have my glasses on. Couldn't read the packages." She was talking double-time.
"We've got vegetable dip, and herb 'n' dill, and this avocado dip."
"My goodness, you guys should throw a party or something." He appeared incandescent. Glittering.
"No. We're shy. Too shy."
"She's even shier than I am, if you can believe it." Maury beetled his black eyebrows. "I'm just not a real talker, socially. Around people I feel comfortable with, I don't mind so much talking."
I bet you'd like us to throw a party, Muriel thought. I'd get to play queen bee to a whole hive of we-deliver-sex types. I'd just sit here at the kitchen table and produce cash while the worker bees wiggled around. The hairy armpits bee. The sweaty feet bee. Master bee. Slave bee. Alpo bee. Little stingers all trussed up in leather. He'll go back to his buzzing hive and go into some dance telling one and all where there's easy money to be made. She felt dizzy.
Maury leaned back. "Yeah, you don't know how good you've got it until you leave. I'm home, all year, turning 'em out, and I get to thinking, 'Gotta get away.' Then I get away and I kinda miss it. We turn out a real good product, in our factory.
"The way it works, for the back seat and front seat we use real sheepskin, on the sides we have a really fine acrylic, so you can't really tell that it's not sheepskin, but I venture to say that actually it's about 38 percent acrylic."
Maury could see it. Stranger things had happened. Get Derrick up there to the ranch, give him a big ol' yellow sheepdog all his own, get him up early on those gauzy mountain mornings to the sharp bleats of woolly ewes ready to drop their foals or whatever it was sheep dropped. Let this sad, thwarted, underfed urchin, placenta glistening on his forearms, just once cradle a newborn lamb. Let him feel its heart thump against his own chest. He'd look up at me from under the brim of his seed cap, his eyes brimming tears, and say, "Ah, shucks." No man could remain unchanged by that. Derrick was still a virgin to some things, wasn't he?
Maury slapped the table and smiled. "Say, Derrick, do you have sheepskin seat covers?"
"No, I want to get some. To protect my leather upholstery."
"You got leather seats. Oooh. What do you drive?"
"A BMW, oooh. Brand-new?"
"Eighty-four. That's a nice car, a really nice car."
Maury got a steely look in his eye. Muriel knew: his liberal moorings were slipping.
It was too late. The idea of this little joker zipping from one trysting place to the next in his '84 BMW! Hell, he'd worked his whole life with those damned sheep, never laid a hand on 'em other than to check the depth of their fleece. Ruined his neck doing that, day after day. And what did he have to show for it? Some beat-up little camper that in a real pinch sleeps two. Flyblown and speckled with salmon scales. And Muriel's derelict harlequin eyeglasses cluttering the dashboard.
Derrick spotted the book of crossword puzzles Muriel had left on the counter. He asked, "Do you do crossword puzzles?"
"Yes." It was a yearning "yes," and thinking at last she had discovered what they had in common, she asked, "Do you do them?"
"No." He told them that he didn't like puzzles, not any kind. His mother liked them. They infuriated him. His mother did them. Had books, stacks of books of puzzles, and tore and ripped them out of newspapers, not bothering to see if she'd torn something out that "you would like to read." He pointed at himself, at the opening in his white hooded jacket, when he said "you." He went on angrily, his lip twitching. "There's a certain type of mind who likes that sort of thing. Likes puzzles. She also does jigsaw puzzles. She always sets those up on the holidays. Out on a card table."
"See, Muriel." Maury looked at her. She was wringing her hands. "Here's another guy who doesn't like word games."
She gave a weak smile.
Maury turned to Derrick. "Doesn't it bother you here, all the weird people? You must run into some real weirdos doing this kind of work, huh?"
"Most of the time I just leave the address of where I'm going with my roommate. Tell him when to expect me back. That's the most you can do."
Most you can do? Good God. The most you could do would be to leave this line of work entirely. Go out. Get a decent job. Sling some burgers. The worst thing you'd come home smelling of would be a little grease, for Christ's sake.
"Tell me," said Derrick, "are you two related?"
"More or less." Maury fluttered a hand.
"Everybody," said Muriel shakily, "is related."
He looked to one and then the other of them, back and forth, as if tracking a tennis match. At precisely the same moment, as if their minds were one murky room in which the light switch had just been snapped on, both Maury and Muriel recognized that even then, Derrick was waiting for what he thought he had been called for to happen.
Maury decided to give it to him. He took his neck in his hands, twisted his head. Cartilage popped.
Muriel finished the sentence. "Your ad said you do massage? Would you give Maury a little neck rub?"
"No, no, I have a dinner date in just a few minutes, then my meditation class." He started to rise from the table.
"Oh," said Muriel.
She went to the bedroom, plucked the envelope off the dresser top, walked back into the kitchen, handed the envelope to Maury. He lifted the flap. "Seems about right to me, Mur." Holding out the envelope, Maury turned to Derrick and said, "So, what's the most interesting conversation you've ever had?"
"Oh, definitely this one. Definitely."
Maury grinned as he handed over the envelope.
His glance devoid of pretense that anything but the bills interested him, Derrick put in one hand. "Ten, twenty, twenty-five," counting aloud, he flipped through the three bills. "Why, that's very generous," he smiled. "Thank you."
He was on his feet, moving to the door. Host and hostess seeing him on his way. Maury wanted to etch a picture onto the unblemished surface that was Derrick's mind: the two of them, he and Muriel, standing in the doorway, smiling. Waving good-bye.
Derrick had other ideas.
Before Maury could pull Muriel aside, Derrick grabbed her and wrapped her into a full-on bear hug.
Muriel disappeared from Maury's sight. My God, she thought, he's trying to see if I'm wired for sound.
Derrick was suddenly larger than he had seemed at the table, and she much smaller. All Maury could see of her as Derrick embraced her were her eyes and forehead above his shoulder.
Maury had never seen her eyes that way before.
"Maury," she asked, when the door was closed behind their guest, "what do you suppose was in that pack?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Slug Signorino.