Authors: Lawrence Block
She felt herself blushing.
“Well,” he said, “thanks a hell of a lot for coming in and helping me out. You’ve saved me a good bit of work and I appreciate it. Any time you feel like dropping in, the office is always open and I can always find something for you to do.”
“Do you want me to go now?”
“Don’t you want to get to sleep? It’s late.”
“I’m not tired.”
“But you’ve got classes tomorrow—”
“I can cut them. I’d like to stay around.”
She grinned. “You just said that the office was always open and there would always be something for me to do.”
“What could you do now?”
“Anything. The office is messy—I could clean it up for you.”
“The janitor does that in the morning.”
“You could find something for me to do. Couldn’t you?”
“I suppose so.” He butted the cigarette he was holding in the ashtray and looked at her again. “Are you sure you don’t want to get to sleep?”
“Cutting classes is a bad habit to get into.”
“Don’t you cut classes?”
“I’ve cut most of my classes since the second semester of my freshman year,” he admitted. “I go to about one class out of every five.”
“That just shows what a bad habit it is. I got into the habit and I’ve been at it ever since:”
They were both smiling now. He stood up and walked out from behind the desk. “Tell you what,” he began. “I guess I’m not going to be able to get rid of you for a while so I might as well make the most of it. Let’s take a run down to the Landmine and grab some coffee.”
“Landmine? What’s that?”
“The Landmark Grill—only place in town that stays open all night. I call it the Landmine.”
“I don’t want to keep you from your work. You’ll be up all night as it is.”
“It’ll only be for a few minutes.”
“Honest,” she said, “when I asked to stick around I didn’t mean to get in the way.”
“You’re not in the way. I need a coffee break anyway, and it’ll give me the chance to run the rest of the copy down to the printer at the same time. Besides, with you around I’ll probably get done quicker than I would otherwise. You already saved me a good half-hour reading proof.”
“All right,” she said. “I’d like some coffee.”
She waited while he scooped up the contents of the OUT box, turned off the lights in the inner office and locked the door. Then he took a soiled trench coat from a hook near the door and put it on. The coat, which looked as though it had been slept in for at least a month, made him look a little more like the stereotype of the average newspaperman. All he needed now was a crushed fedora with a press card stuck in the band. But, she reflected, the beard and crew cut just didn’t fit in with the stereotype.
He flicked a switch and turned off the lights in the outer office but didn’t lock the door, explaining that it was left open twenty-four hours a day in case some staff member got an inspiration and wanted to pound a typewriter. Then they walked down the hallway and down the flight of stairs and through the building and out of the door, with the building seeming even emptier and larger than it had when she first entered it.
His car was parked around the corner, a broken-down blue Chevrolet nine years old with one windshield-wiper missing and one fender badly crushed. He walked around the car and got in on the driver’s side without opening the door for her, but she didn’t feel slighted or ignored. He was treating her as a person, an equal, and that made more sense to her than an outdated code of chivalry. She got into the car and rolled down her window, relaxing into the seat.
“I hope the car starts,” he said, fishing in his pocket for the key.
“Doesn’t it usually start?”
“It always starts. But with a car like this I hate to take anything on faith.”
He fitted the key in the ignition, turned it and pressed the starter button. The engine gave a startled cough, as if it was outraged at being requested to perform at such an absurd hour of the morning, and turned over. Don pulled away from the curb and drove off toward the center of town.
For a few minutes he didn’t say anything, driving slowly and concentrating on his driving. She felt as though she ought to make conversation, but at the same time she felt that making conversation wasn’t necessary with Don. If he had something to say he would say it, and if she had something to say she would say it. The two of them didn’t have to go through the rigmarole that other people went through.
She told herself that she was building sandcastles. She had no right to think that anything existed or would exist between herself and Don. He was just taking her to the Landmine to be decent, in return for the work she was doing. He probably couldn’t waste his time on a freshman girl anyhow, and he certainly wouldn’t waste it on her. Still, she couldn’t help hoping that something might eventually develop between the two of them.
Don pulled the car up in front of an unprepossessing white frame building on the main street of town. “Back in a minute,” he said, and she waited in the car, watching him walk to the side door of the print shop, his long legs covering the ground quickly in determined strides. He unlocked the door and disappeared; moments later he came out, closing the door behind him and returning to the car.
“That takes care of the copy,” he said. “Now let’s get something to eat.”
He started the car again, parking in the lot next door to the Old Landmark Grill. The place was almost empty, with two students whom she vaguely remembered seeing around campus playing chess in a corner booth and another seated at the counter, reading a book and scribbling furiously on a pad of lined note-paper.
The waitress who brought them cups of bitter black coffee and orders of scrambled eggs had permanent circles under her eyes and frizzly black hair. She recognized Don and smiled at him, a tired smile that barely got the corners of her mouth lifted before the smile was over. One of the chess players waved lazily to him and the scribbler at the counter gave him a nod.
“Everybody knows you,” Linda told him.
“I’m regular here,” he said.
“It’s a nice place.”
“It’s a horrible place. But it’s open. The only game in town.”
She looked blank.
“The only game in town,” he repeated. “An ancient joke and also the title of an excellent novel by Charles Einstein. Remember the joke now?”
She told him she didn’t.
“Well, there was this faro player. Ever play faro?”
She shook her head.
“I don’t think anybody ever did. I don’t even know how the devil you play the game, but that’s how the joke goes. There’s this faro player, and he plays at this one game, and it’s crooked. So a friend comes up to him and says, ‘Why do you play here? Don’t you know the game is crooked?’ And the guy gets very indignant and says, ‘Of course I know it. What the hell do you think I am?’ ‘Then why are you here?” the friend asks. And the guy answers, ‘Cause it’s the only game in town.’”
“Oh,” she said.
“And that’s about the only reason in the world to eat here.”
She sipped at her bitter coffee and wrinkled her nose, agreeing with him.
“Clifton,” he said, “is the only college in town.”
“That’s not much of a compliment to it.”
“It’s not much of a school.”
They talked—about the school, about her, about him, about the
, about a good many things. Not much time passed, about twenty minutes or so, and they each had a second and a third cup of the bitter coffee. From the conversation she felt he knew quite a bit about her, but she still knew that she didn’t know him at all. There were so many sides to him, so many aspects. All she really knew was that she wanted to know him better and that she liked him very much.
And that she was attracted to him. Strongly attracted to him.
“Let’s get back,” he said finally. They stood up and he put on his coat and paid the check. They walked outside and it was colder out now, and she walked very close to him, hoping he would put his arm around her. But he didn’t, and again he let her open the door for herself while he walked to his side of the car.
They were sitting in the car and he had the key in the ignition. He was about to turn it when he stopped and turned to her instead. He looked at her—a long, intense look, and she returned his stare without saying a word.
“Linda,” he said. Just her name.
She didn’t say anything.
“Linda—would you like to sleep with me?”
It was very strange, she thought. The question came as a complete surprise, but at the same time she was neither shocked nor startled. She was in fact very calm, and she was not blushing for a change. He continued to look at her and she kept on looking back at him, and for several seconds neither of them said a word.
Then, very softly and very honestly, she said: “I don’t know.”
He waited for her to go on.
“I like you,” she said. “I like you very much and I’m very strongly attracted to you. Is that enough?”
“Enough for what?”
“Enough for me to sleep with you.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s something you have to decide for yourself.”
She nodded, understanding. “I’m glad you asked me this way,” she said. “Just simple and straightforward, without kissing me or anything like that. It makes more sense this way.”
“I don’t like to play games. Back-seat seductions are all right in high school but they get boring after awhile. As well as uncomfortable.” He said the last sentence with a grin, and she returned it.
“I’m … a virgin,” she said. “Does that matter?”
“Not to me. It might to you.”
“I’m not sure whether it does or not. I didn’t plan on waiting until I got married or anything like that, Don. I came here and decided before I got here that the first man I wanted to sleep with would be the first man I would sleep with. I don’t like to play games either.”
“It’s up to you,” he said. “I like you and I want you very much. You’re a very beautiful girl.”
“Do you think so?”
“Of course. You should wear your hair loose, though, and get rid of that pony tail. Your hair is lovely. It shouldn’t be all bound up like that.”
She pulled her pony tail around and removed the rubber band. Then she fluffed her hair back in place.
“Is it better this way?”
“Much,” he said, reaching out a hand to stroke her hair. It was the first time he had touched her since he placed his hands on her shoulders in the office, and now a little shiver went through her.
“Don,” she said, haltingly, “if … if we made love, where would we go?”
“I have an apartment off-campus. I don’t have a roommate and it’s completely private. No one would bother us.”
That was the way she wanted it, of course. No quick tumble in the back seat of a car, no furtive fumbling in a dormitory room where you had to hurry because somebody might come in, where you had to be very quiet because somebody might hear you through the thin walls. It shouldn’t be that way, not the first time. It should be free and easy, with plenty of room and plenty of time.
And he would know what he was doing. He would be sure of himself, very sure, and he would know how to make love to her properly.
“I probably won’t even know what to do,” she said, but she had already decided what she was going to do. “I probably wouldn’t be much good at all, Don. Are you sure you want me?”
He smiled. “You’ll learn.”
“Will you be … gentle with me?”
He pulled her close to him and kissed her twice, first her lips and then the tip of her nose.
“You’ll be gentle,” she said. “I know you will. I … I want you to make love to me, Don. I want it very much.”
He kissed her again, a soft kiss, a gentle kiss. Then he turned the key in the ignition and pushed the starter button and backed the car out of the parking lot. She moved closer to him on the seat and their bodies were touching as he drove, more quickly this time, to the house where he lived.
His apartment was off on the other side of town, a ground-floor apartment in a brick building on Nemo Street. It was small—one room with a private bathroom—and it was only slightly less disordered than the
office. Discarded clothing carpeted the floor and there were books everywhere, overflowing the bookcase and covering the top of the cigarette-scarred dresser. There were empty beer cans piled in an incongruously neat pile in one corner of the room.
She heard him close the door and bolt it and she turned to him. “Here we are,” she said.
He walked to her. He took her in his arms and kissed her, and this time the kiss was not like the gentle pecks in the car. His lips came down on hers like a hawk on a field mouse and he crushed her tight against him so that her breasts were pressed against his chest. He twined his fingers in her long blonde hair and parted her lips with his tongue, exciting her more with the kiss than anything had ever excited her before. She clung to him and returned the kiss, touching his tongue with hers, moving her hands over his back, pulling him close to her.
When they parted he walked to the bathroom and turned on the light. Then he came back and turned off the overhead light so that only the soft, indirect light from the bathroom illuminated the room. He came to her and took each of her hands in one of his and looked into her eyes. She thought that it was clever of him to turn on the bathroom light and she wondered how often he had done it in the past, how many other girls he had made love to in that very room. She pushed the thought out of her mind; she didn’t want to know, not now.
“Now what?” she asked shakily, knowing she shouldn’t be talking or asking questions. “Do you want me to take off my clothes?”
He smiled softly. “Not now,” he said, and his voice was low and husky. “Not the first time. I want to undress you.”
He sat down on the bed and she sat down next to him. He held her close and their mouths fused together, their tongues working. He kicked off his shoes and stretched out on the bed and she followed suit, wondering if whoever lived upstairs would notice the four shoes dropping. Then he took her in his arms and she was taut against him from head to toe and the thought went out of her mind.