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The Laughing Lady


Victor Allen

Smashwords Edition

Copyright ©2016


Victor Allen's Smashwords Author Page

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The Laughing Lady (Bookends II)


Victor Allen

Copyright © 2014

All Rights Reserved

I might never have found myself in this spot if three things hadn’t happened: If I hadn’t heard the woman screaming behind my house last night; if she hadn’t worn that dress; and if I hadn't known her a long time ago.

So I'll tell you the second thing first, the first thing second, and the third thing last.

I noticed her, of course the very pretty, very dark-haired lady who supervised the little Sub Shop in our store while I was concealed away in the sporting goods department. Curiously enough, I don't recall speaking to her for the first couple of years I worked at the big box store. It was sort of like if an empty cab drove up, out I would step. I was that invisible.

It was common enough to hear her laugh ring through the workplace. Some of it was, I supposed, PR for the customers, some of it real. Since I didn't know her name I simply thought of her as The Laughing Lady. We passed each other on our assorted errands, not speaking or acknowledging each other. She was just one of a hundred other people drudging away in obscurity.

Until she wore that dress.

Our normal work uniform was a T-shirt, blue jeans and a baseball cap with the company logo on it. But one day, as I sat out front on the employee's bench taking my break, she walked up from the parking lot. Gone the way of an honest evangelist were the hat and the blue jeans and kicks, in their places a Victoria Falls of shining black hair, a simple, black, tiered peasant skirt that stopped an unassuming inch above the knee, and a pair of high-heeled sandals (I wouldn't have believed it possible but, yes, there really is such a thing). Her blouse was an eye-burning, multi-colored palette of diagonal stripes that formed a bodice that crossed her bosom like a double set of bandoleers. I suppose there's a haute couture name for such a contrivance, but I didn't -and don't- know it. What I did know was that I could never look at her the same way again. We didn't speak even then, and she swept by me like a freshly born spring wind as I scooped my clattering jaw up from the ground, sadly pondering that I would have to bandage it later where it had scraped on the sidewalk.

Had she never spoken to me, all might have been well -at least for a while. Some notes will always come due- but speak to me she finally did a few days later. What she said doesn't really matter because -as threadbare and cliché as it sounds- the moment I turned and full-on looked her in the eyes for the very first time, that was it. In one stumbling instant I wondered how I could have passed by this woman year after year and not noticed she was breathtakingly gorgeous, a troubled white rose fretting in a thicket of wire grass. There was a thing indefinable, and bewitching, and provocative in those deep-green, all but brown eyes, and it took me but a moment to mark it.

She had the eyes of a little girl.

She was lithe and cream-skinned, maybe ninety-five pounds soaking wet and wearing a beach towel and a gold chain, as if her preferred breakfast was comprised of a carrot slice and three kelp strands. But the willowy look suited her. Trim ladies didn't fool me. I once had a similarly trim girlfriend many years ago. We worked third shift at a hosiery mill and one summer morning after work, we decided to go to a local water park. When she came out of her house sporting a bikini fashioned from three eye patches and a couple of hanks of twine, buddy, my cap snapped. So I knew what might be decorously concealed beneath the sedate jeans and loose smock of my little sandwich maker. I spent many a moment trying to get a look at her without her catching me (which really wasn't difficult, since she hardly ever glanced my way). I had seen those legs. It was hard to believe those pins wrapped in blue denim had been rolling for better than four decades.

Though her pale skin hinted at Celtic or Gallic roots, her dark eyes and hair, and almost Roman nose told a different tale; a story of a bloodline further east. A bit of the Wallachian or Moldavian in her, a thin trickle of Romany blood from centuries past.

I was smitten -badly smitten- for no good reason I could dope out or discern. At least not then. Charisma is a word you hear, but until you have firsthand knowledge of it, you can't really know what it means. And when God doled out her share, she got it paid to her in spades. She was like a queen bee, but instead of drones it was an unpromising mix of fifty know-nothing duds and ten watt bulbs buzzing around her every day. Of course, my opinion was a little colored. I was more attracted to her than any woman I had ever known, and this from a man who has known the company of a wide and varied array of ladies over many years. I'll not tell you how old I am, but the candles on my birthday cake look like the firebombing of Dresden, the Great Chicago Fire, or the eruption of Krakatoa. I thought with better than half a century churning in my wake, such things as crushes were long past me. Still, I knew if she came into the store barefoot, wearing a bulky flannel nightgown, with her hair rolled up in beer cans, I would have turned to look. You know, there is nothing more beautiful in God's Creation than a woman in the moonlight, and I would be lying if I didn't admit that only a man who was a fool wouldn't wonder what it would be like to look down and see her face in that moonlight, her eyes closed, lips partway open, that ink-black hair untidy, tousled across her brow and forehead. And I'm no fool.

She fascinated me, but getting her to talk about herself was like giving CPR to a corpse, or trying to teach color to the blind. She was outgoing, but always left aside the best of herself for someone else. It was a sad recognition that I was never going to be that someone else. I was never going to be her fair-haired boy; she was never going to have eyes for me.

We were, I guess, friends, but always a little distant. She may not have even realized it, but there was always some barrier between us: a cart, a counter, even something as inconsequential as a clipboard or a piece of paper, but always there. And that bothered me. I didn't know then why she seemed always a little afraid of me. It was ever down there, buried so deep you could barely see it, skulking beneath the sparkle; that mistrust in her eyes from some previous, great hurt that had become a slothful, unevictable squatter.

Since I worked only part time I would once in a while, only half teasing, hit her up to let me come to work in the sandwich shop full time. The last time I did that, she looked up at me, eyes bright and coy, and said: “If you had to work for me, you wouldn’t like me anymore.”

I’d like you less,” I answered, “for letting me starve to death.”

But that was okay. I didn't want to not like her.

And I liked her very much. Some things just stick with you, small sketches that seem trivial to most, but mark the beholder deeply. Like the time she came out of the store shaking out that mane of coffee-black hair. She caught me looking at her and, in saving my soul from perdition by telling the truth, she gave it a little extra flip, knowing I was watching. But that was just her, and just me. Dark haired women have always monkey-hammered my brain into hot oatmeal. Even if I just acted normal I would be fool enough, but she rocketed me into full-metal moron territory. I would think of the times I heard her laugh carrying through the store, and wonder who it was that caused it, and think: if only I could make her laugh like that. But we did laugh now and again and my best times with her were when she would smile, the lines crinkling up at the corners of her eyes and the bridge of her nose, and I knew we had shared a genuine chuckle.

Of course, we were both sinners and saints in this thing. I tried not to be up her ass all the time, as my dear, departed mother was fond of saying, but sometimes I just couldn't resist speaking to her. And that could be a problem. Most times she was lively and laughing, but when she did lose it, she lost her shit completely. More often than I want to confess, I’d say something that would set her off to the point that if I were to go running through the store on fire, she would sprint after me with a pack of hot dogs and a bag of marshmallows, and those watching would acclaim her actions. There were other moments she was so sweet that honey would have seemed vinegar in her mouth. But I suppose it’s fair to say that about all women, isn’t it? If they weren’t dynamite and blasting caps, gunpowder and matches, we wouldn’t love them so, would we? If I was a writery sort of fellow, I might have written down all these things I could never say to her out loud. But I'm not, so I never did. Until now.

Even so, events pile up, and the thing that started the train wreck for fair was when we had to attend some mandatory work function. Who could have guessed that something that started off so well would end so badly?

At a pleasant enough lunch, we sat at a table supplemented with one of those stylishly trendy kiosks that let you order from the table without need of a server, as if the passably fashionable sit-down restaurant we had walked into had somehow unluckily devolved into Jack in the Box before we even got settled. She asked me if I wanted to use it.

If I'm going to pay ten dollars for a hamburger,” I said, “I'm not going to order it from a clown's head.”

And that, I guess, was the last smile I ever got out of her.

After lunch we ended up sharing an elevator. It struck me again how tiny she was, standing there by the lighted panel. She told me she didn’t like elevators and when I asked her why, she said she was “afraid of the drop.” A peculiar thing, but not so curious that it should have made a sudden chill raise goose pimples on my arms.

Which brings me to the first thing.

I heard it last night, the woman screaming behind my house. I sat upstairs at my computer, finally contriving to let it all out, pecking out this very thing you're reading now, when I heard the scream drift through the open window above my back porch. I stopped abruptly, listening, my hackles raised, not quite believing what I had heard. A screaming woman is not a reassuring or usual sound and I was taken aback by the inconsistency of the thing. Such a sound didn't fit my world view, where women were at home or at work, being watched over and cared for by husbands or fathers, not beaten and raped and killed by predators. And it was that cognitive dissonance – that belief that what I was hearing was incompatible with what should be- that made me stop typing, move my chair back, and listen.

The scream came again a few seconds later. It seemed to have moved a little from left to right, coming from somewhere in the one hundred-yard-deep woods that set apart my back yard from the fields of the next door neighbor. It was just loud enough to be upsetting -not so far away that it would be useless to try to render aid, and not so close that I could have seen what was happening and helped. It seemed to be… baiting me.

I got up from my desk, chilled, and walked across the creaking boards of the next room to the open window above the back porch, looking out into the darkness of a moonless night. I could see nothing save the hulking trees in the woods, fat and lazy with summer growth, the stars pulsing dimly in the humid murk above their crowns. The scream came again as I leaned my palms against the window sill, straining to hear. The sound had moved again, now coming again from my left, but no closer. And this time I sensed something a little off key. Yes, it sounded like a woman screaming, but not exactly. And a screaming woman would likely not be moving back and forth and voicing those screams at precise, eight to ten second intervals. Still, it was a close enough thing that I grabbed my cell phone, walked downstairs and outside into my back yard, and called the police. I would never forgive myself if, after everything, it actually was a woman screaming for her life.

I waited a harrowing ten minutes for the police to show up, listening to the screams track back and forth every few seconds, but unable to see anything. Sometimes the screams moved away, sometimes they came so close that I believed they were coming right from the edge of the woods that came up onto the cleared lawn of my back yard, the maker slyly hidden just inside the tree line. Then they would move off again.

Finally, with no sign of the police after ten minutes, I could stand it no more. I waded into the woods, exhibiting as little good sense as I usually did. As a young man, when I normally wandered around like a gasoline-soaked scarecrow looking for a spark, fist fights and gun-play were a weekly feature and I wouldn't have thought twice about such a foolhardy effort. But I wasn't a young man anymore, and still I rushed blindly into what might have been real danger. I carried no flashlight, no arms, bumbling through the blackberry thorns and poison oak hither and thither, wearing nothing for protection but a pair of navy-blue sweat pants.

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