20050217

Quiet, Sexy Nights Alone


Dad wouldn’t stop whistling meaningless jazz, and Mom had put on her lipstick nearly a full centimeter away from her mouth. For the millionth time, Nicky wished he was born an orphan. But his parents definitely seemed more nervous than usual today.

“Where are we going?” he asked, not really caring. The Rent-A-Car had tinted windows.

“Look for yourself, ‘cause we’re heeeeere,” said Dad, turning a simple sentence into seventeen different notes, a drum solo, and change. “Your mother and I have errands to run. Get out, kiddo.”

“Just give the babysitter this briefcase, and mind your manners,” said Mom. She handed him a black leather attaché, and Dad un-popped the child safety locks on the pink sedan. Nicky got out of the car glumly, and found himself on a greasy urban street, probably downtown somewhere.

“It’s apartment 12G,” said Mom through the window. Nicky scanned the building on whose stoop he was standing. Not a single pane of glass was unbroken.

“When are you guys gonna pick me up?” asked Nicky, turning back around, tears in his eyes. But Mom and Dad were already halfway down the block. Dad ran the stop sign with a screeching left, and then they were gone. Nicky examined the briefcase, but it was sealed with a 6-digit combination. It was heavy, but nothing clinked when he jounced it. A mystery. He wiped his nose on his sleeve, and then he went inside.

There was a pile of beer bottles in the entryway up to Nicky’s knees. In a dark corner, several mangy cats were guarding an impressive nest of empty pizza boxes, old diapers, and crisp, unopened complimentary newspapers. These weren’t petting cats, and since he wasn’t an avid reader, Nicky didn’t stop to dicker. He ran up all twelve flights of stairs, trying to ignore almost everything.

Apartment 12G was the furthest from the street and had the auspicious distinction of smelling the strongest of urine of any apartment on its floor. Nicky knocked timidly, and then – when he thought he heard a gunshot – he knocked harder.

It was a man who answered the door, which was surprising. Invariably, Nicky’s babysitters were unmarried middle-aged women, often with disturbingly amorous attachments to loathsome animals. Nicky was usually expected to watch television with them and listen to pathetic stories about adventuresome Uncles and Brothers. If Nicky could fake passing out early enough, they usually left him alone. They were crazy, but harmless.

This man looked neither.

“What the hell are you selling?” he asked. He was much taller than Dad, twenty years older, and had dead brown eyes that had pushed themselves on an ocean of wrinkles into crevices near his grey temples. He wore a Hawaiian shirt, cut-off shorts, and expensive sandals. He was holding a baseball bat, but didn’t have a baseball. Maybe he was some sort of baseball babysitter. Maybe he would teach Nicky how to play catch like the tough boys at school.

“I’m Nicholas Ruffalo, sir,” said Nicky. He held out the attaché like it was the chalice at Church.

“Oh yeah,” said the man, “Ruffalo.” He put the baseball bat in an umbrella stand and took the briefcase by the handles. He undid the combination lock with smooth, practiced strokes, flopped open the top, squinted at the ceiling, and then closed it again.

“Come in, Nicholas,” he said, smiling. He had the cleanest, whitest teeth Nicky had ever seen. “I’m Mr. Jeffries.”

Nicky put his hands in his pockets and shuffled inside.

The room was astoundingly well-furnished, and there was classical piano music playing from mounted speakers at the top corners. Inside, it didn’t smell like pee at all. The den had couches, divans, a Turkish rug, and wood-paneled floors. A gleaming chrome kitchen sparkled off to one side, and a door which probably led to a bedroom was tucked behind a reed-thin lamp. There was no television set, and the curtains were drawn. All of the room’s light came from covered fixtures, and all of the chairs looked comfortably overstuffed. The walls were decorated with vivid pictures of fox hunts and the Wild West.

“Have a seat, Nicholas,” said Mr. Jeffries, “I’ll be with you in a moment.”

Nicky sat down in the middle of the most prominent sofa and resisted the urge to put his feet on the coffee table, where there were flickering handmade candles and stacked tomes on architecture. Mr. Jeffries went into his kitchen where there was something cooking on the burner. It smelled good. Pasta.

“Are you hungry?” asked Mr. Jeffries. “I was just about to eat dinner.”

“No, I’m okay,” said Nicky.

“Have some spaghetti,” he said, “I made it from scratch. I always make too much, anyway.”

“It smells really good,” said Nicky.

“Just sit tight. I’ll make you a bowl and you can have some milk and fresh garlic bread to go with it. Unless you’d rather have wine?”

“No, thank you,” said Nicky. “Just milk, please.”

Mr. Jeffries was an excellent cook. Nicky ate two helpings while Mr. Jeffries just nibbled, watching him. The pasta sauce was spicy, which was strange, but it was so delicious that Nicky was tempted to pick up his bowl and lick out the leavings. The only spaghetti Mom ever made tasted like runny ketchup. And the noodles always made a soggy mash whenever you tried to twist them onto your fork, like they had boiled together into one, tasteless chunk. Mr. Jeffries used a spoon when he twirled his spaghetti to form it like clay on a potter’s wheel. He also used his bread to soak up the sauce. Nicky thought this was genius, and wished he hadn’t gobbled his garlic bread first.

“So tell me about yourself, Nicky,” said Mr. Jeffries when they were done. He had poured himself a small glass of wine, but he had yet to take a sip.

“What do you want to know?”

“Well, lots of things,” said Mr. Jeffries, “I’m a good friend of your parents, and I’m very interested in you. I’ve heard so much.”

“If you’re a friend of my parents, how come I’ve never seen you before?” asked Nicky. He immediately regretted it. It seemed like a snotty thing to say. “I mean, my parents don’t really hang out with other people very much. They keep to themselves. They barely talk to me, even.”

“We went to college together,” said Mr. Jeffries. Nicky knew he was lying, but he didn’t press the issue.

“Tell me Nicky,” said Mr. Jeffries, leaning forward. His eyes weren’t completely dead, after all. There were traces of sidereal cling film that made his retinas dance in the candlelight. “Are you a good boy? You’re not in school yet, are you?

“It hasn’t started back up, if that’s what you mean,” said Nicky. “I start fourth grade in the fall.”

“Do you make your momma proud?”

“I guess so.”

“Tell me – what sort of trouble do you like to get into?”

“I don’t like getting in trouble,” said Nicky.

“Do you like staying up late and breaking dishes in the hallway?”

“No, I’ve never done that.”

“Do you like cutting off the velvet kitchen drapes and wearing them around your neck like you were a Roman emperor?”

“No…”

“Do you capture mice from the garden and then put them in the oven to watch them run around the coils until they melt, their boiling bodies inflating their white fur coats like flesh marshmallows?”

“No, I DON’T like doing that at all.”

“You light fires, don’t you?”

“No...”

“You rearrange furniture in the middle of the night so that when Mommy and Daddy wake up in the morning they trip on footstools on the way to get their cup of coffee.”

“No!”

“You steal candy bars and firecrackers from grocery stores…”

“No…”

“…and then sell them to younger kids for their birthday money.”

“I DO NOT!”

“You paint on the walls. You carve your name into antiques. You never go to bed. You wake up too early. You won’t eat your peas. You constantly beg for the newest, most expensive toy. You can’t dress yourself, you never flush, and you never, ever say ‘thank you.’”

“No! No! No! No! NO! NO! NO!”

Nicky had stood up, and his fists were clenched behind his back. Mr. Jeffries stared hard at him, frowning, his eyes flipping back and forth like the shuttlecock of a loom. Finally, he leaned all the way back in his chair and crossed his legs. He bit a knuckle. He rubbed his temples.

“I see,” he said. He abruptly got up and drained his glass of wine. He stumbled a bit on the fringe of his own rug, and then he stomped heavily across the room to the single, closed door.

“Back in a tic,” said Mr. Jeffries, wrenching the door open and then slamming it behind him.

Nicky knew he had somehow offended Mr. Jeffries after his nice homemade meal, but he couldn’t for the life of him figure out HOW. It was all true: Nicky tried desperately to be a good kid – to stay out of the way, to be seen and not heard, to listen, to mind, and to know that no meant no. Not that it ever did anything – his parents were still forever irritated by him – but he knew that he did everything in his power to make sure that they had no good reason.

Nicky was almost about to take his chances waiting outside on the curb when Mr. Jeffries came back in. He was carrying a white sheet in one hand and a paper sack in the other, and he had put on a pair of black leather gloves. Without saying anything, he spread the sheet over the couch Nicky was sitting on, pausing to let Nicky scoot out of the way. The sheet draped over the back with a spectral flutter and reached all the way to the floor in front.

Mr. Jeffries sat back down in his chair and stared. He motioned with one gloved hand. Nicky sat on the sheet, liking the way it billowed under his overalls. The paper bag in Mr. Jeffries lap only sagged in one place, but whatever was in it looked heavy.

“So you’re a good kid,” said Mr. Jeffries. “That doesn’t make any difference at all.”

“What doesn’t make any difference?” asked Nicky.

“You’re smart, too. I can already tell. I should have done you as soon as you walked in – but I’ve never had ANYBODY call me sir before. Especially not a kid.”

“Did I do something wrong?” asked Nicky.

Mr. Jeffries fumed.

“I handle a very specific niche market and I have a reputation to worry about. I’m a professional. This shouldn’t be a problem. The money’s all there, and that means it’s justified. There’s even fifteen grand extra. You must be a right little bastard, and I just can’t see it. I’ve done this thirty times now, and each time it’s been EASIER for the love of Pete. I hate kids, and I hate them even more now that I’ve seen what yellow little hearts they have.”

Mr. Jeffries put the sack on the ground between them and pulled out a revolver. He pointed it at Nicky and started to sniffle. Nicky pretty much stopped breathing.

“Usually, I can tell in the first thirty seconds – but kid, I have no IDEA why your parents want you dead. If you were mine, I’d be ecstatic. I bet you don’t even talk in movie theaters.”

Nicky shook his head violently.

“But you aren’t mine, and that’s that. Bad luck, buckaroo,” said Mr. Jeffries. He fired. Funny: if it had been his second hit or even his eighteenth, he might have hesitated -- maybe even tried to cut a deal. But it was his thirty-first. And he had acquired expensive tastes.

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