By MICHAEL JOLL
Copyright is held by the author.
HE HAD never done this before, either as a young man or since he had married.
The house he was looking for stood across the street, drab and in need of a more than a lick of paint, in keeping with its location in this run-down part of town. No-one had shovelled the snow from the sidewalk or the porch. A red light glowed through a gap in the curtain covering the window of one of the front rooms. He checked the street number on the front door to make sure. This was the place, no question.
The wooden steps creaked as he mounted them. He took a nervous breath. Why? He wasn’t doing anything illegal. It wasn’t as if he was buying drugs or anything, though the place looked like it could be a crack house. He pushed the doorbell but heard no sound. He hesitated, then lifted the door knocker and let it fall. Inside, a dog barked and a woman yelled at it to shut up.
A moment later a woman opened the door a crack. “Yes?”
“I’m Jack. I called earlier. You’re expecting me.”
“You’d better come in then.” She opened the door wide enough to let him in and shut it behind him. “Frame’s warped,” she said, hitting the door with her shoulder until it clicked shut.
Like the rest of this dump, he wanted to say, but held his tongue. Be nice, Jack. You’re buying, she’s selling. You’re not here to judge, or argue.
The woman let out a chest-rattling cough, gasped for breath and clamped her hand over her mouth. Not surprised, Jack thought. Smoker. Her clothes, the hall, probably the whole house reeked of damp, and stale cigarette smoke clung to grubby carpets and dingy curtains. She pulled a cigarette from a pack in the pocket of her cardigan, lit it and inhaled. The cough died in her throat.
“That’s better,” she said, patting her chest. No ‘Would you mind if I smoke?’ Courtesy had taken the night off.
Jack glanced around. An overcoat and scarf hung from a peg in the hall next to a man’s creased and scuffed leather jacket. He wondered if he was the only man there or whether someone else was already in this flea-pit of a house for the same purpose as he was. He took a good look at the woman. Sixties, he guessed, her skin powdered and wrinkled with a touch of rouge. She dyed her hair. No-one could have red hair that shade, not naturally. He was right: grey roots. Her eyes were sunken, the colour of the smoke she exhaled, and lifeless as she took him in, probably wondering if he had the money to pay for what he wanted: One of her girls.
“You’ll want to look at my girls,” she said, as if reading Jack’s mind. The voice sounded wheezy and harsh, hardened by years of chain smoking, Jack guessed, that had left her throat a biohazard. She didn’t wait for Jack’s reply but turned her back on him and walked away. Jack followed.
“Her girls” were in the front room where the red light burned. He took a quick look at them as the woman stood back. He glanced her way. Was she leering? The dead lizard eyes in her pale face, split by the crimson gash of her thin lips, betrayed nothing. Ash dangled from the end of her cigarette stuck in the corner of her mouth. He returned his gaze for a closer inspection of the girls. Four of the five ignored him as if he wasn’t there. The fifth, however, remained apart from the others, as if somehow she did not wish to associate with them. In an instant he knew: She was the girl he wanted.
Jack turned to the woman. “What’s her name? That one.” He pointed to the pretty little one, honey blond shot with ginger and copper.
“Josie. You like her?”
He took a step closer. Josie didn’t move. She didn’t even turn her head or look his way. His nervousness returned. A shot of adrenaline, or fear, jolted him. He held his breath, undecided. Sharon did not know he was here, in this disgusting house smelling of cigarette smoke and Pine Sol. Seven childless years into their mid-life marriage and Jack needed to scratch his itch. The passion had worn varnish thin, the lustre dulled. Their marriage needed a boost before it petered out into disinterest, boredom and trips to the library instead of to restaurants and shows like they had when they were younger.
But was this the answer? He had never let on to Sharon that he felt stuck in a drifting relationship, that it had been going sideways for months, maybe a couple of years. Could this be the jolt their marriage needed, another female love interest, something that might renew the spark they once had for each other? Or would it drive them further apart? His uncertainty resurfaced. Anxiety churned his stomach. Why had he let the door knocker fall? Why had he not simply turned around after the doorbell failed to ring and go to the pub? Or even home? Sharon would never know he had been here, would never guess at the desperate measures their moribund relationship had driven him to consider, and then take. He could keep secret this visit to this house, not the only one he had kept from her over the past few years. His inner voice told him to leave, now, without going through with it. Don’t risk your marriage, it said. Don’t look back.
Jack took a breath, cast his doubts aside and looked at Josie more closely. He shut his eyes and smelled her, up close, his nose almost touching her. Josie’s aroma did not disappoint. He had known it once before, when he was quite young, still in his teens. For an instant the memory of that all too brief relationship, that affair that had captured his heart then dashed it against the rocks when she had been killed, flooded back. A tear pricked his eye, then the memory vanished, pushed aside by time, and Josie.
Warm. Josie smelled warm, her body heat radiating to him even over the gap separating them. He wanted desperately to reach out and touch her. Still she did not react to him, did not move or even blink. He looked at her eyes. They remained closed. Then he knew. Josie was blind. An unexpected caress now could startle her, frighten her and make her cringe from his touch. He did not want that, not at any price. Later, he told himself, when we know each other better, when we have discovered ourselves and have developed a mutual trust, we can start to build a relationship that involves touching. In a minute or two.
Something drove Jack to ignore his inner voice. He could not resist the temptation. He had to have her, this siren, alluring him, and maybe his marriage, onto the rocks. He drew closer, nuzzling his nose gently against her ear. She reacted to his touch with a faint sound that he could not identify. He wondered why she had not drawn back in fear. The sound had not been fright. Perhaps it had been acceptance. But why? He was a complete stranger, one whom she could not see. Perhaps she trusted him to be gentle, but surely this could not be the first time she had experienced a man’s touch.
With the back of his forefinger he touched the side of Josie’s face, stroking it softly. She nudged closer to him, pressing his hand against her head, willing him to continue caressing her. Though blind, he figured she could surely smell him. And he couldn’t smell that bad, certainly not like the woman who seemed quite happy to take his money without asking questions. For her, and for him, this was business, a cash transaction that did not involve surnames or paperwork.
Josie must have decided that he posed no threat. She leaned her head against him once more.
“Hello, Josie,” he whispered. “My name’s Jack. It’s you I want.” If it drove him and Sharon apart, so be it. He shrugged. That might become inevitable in any case, the way things continued to unfold between them. Perhaps it was a good thing they had no kids. But he knew he could not keep Josie from Sharon for long. Sooner or later he would have to unburden this secret, if not the others. Sharon would have to choose what to do then.
Jack edged closer and brushed his nose against Josie’s, felt her warm breath against his skin. He kissed her, as gently as a monarch settling on milkweed, scared that she would recoil in alarm. Instead, a thin pink tongue touched his lips in return. It was love at first kiss. She was just two weeks old. Their relationship had begun and he knew that, whatever the price, it would be worth every cent.
He turned and stood. “How much is she?”
The woman quoted the same figure she had mentioned over the phone. Decision time. Would Sharon welcome a golden cocker spaniel puppy into their house, or would he be sleeping on the couch?
Jack pulled out his wallet and peeled off the bills.
He could keep Josie a secret for six weeks, until her eyes opened and she was old enough to leave her mother. Then he would have his answer.