Fall 2010, Volume 9

Fiction by R. A. Allen


After a tuna salad and a slice of cheese with a name she couldn't pronounce, Staci put in an hour on her NordicTrack, but she remained restless. A shower did not make her less so. At a loss for what to do next, she did not dress but wandered about her apartment in a pair of flop-flops.

She watched ten minutes of her favorite soap, but this episode had a sneaky doctor character in it that made her uncomfortable, also the actor playing the doctor seemed more like a maintenance man with his hair dyed distinguished silver than a real doctor. Staci clicked TV off and went into the kitchen. She thought about mom's funeral and how dad didn't attend. That was three years ago.

She unloaded the dishwasher.

The living room did not need straightening, but while she was in there, it occurred to her that she should see if anyone—Miss Slinky in particular—was out by the pool. No one ever used the pool area on weekdays because the tenantship of the complex was mostly starter families—working parents of children in day care. A few times, Staci had tried the pool on weekdays, but sitting in the sun-baked stillness surrounded by the staring, empty apartments gave her the willies, gave her a scary-lonely feeling like in one of those movies where someone discovers that all of the people in the world have vanished.

She parted the drapes enough to see the pool area.

Yes, her new neighbor from four units east was down near the shallow end, her ass all comfy on a flame-red beach towel spread over a chaise. She was alone but seemed to be okay with this. She was reading a book, which Staci knew was a lie. Nobody really reads by a pool or at the beach. Books were props for setting an image, like your swimsuit or your hairdo or your sunglasses. The book prop said: See how smart I am. Apparently, Miss Slinky had not figured out that there was no one around to care about her image of aloof smartness

Staci had been sharply curious about the exotic brunette since the moving van had arrived three weeks ago. The newcomer had nice furniture, looked to be around thirty, and did not seem to work day or night. She had a fiftyish boyfriend who picked her up in a breathtaking Mercedes convertible. He always wore a business suit, and, Staci had noted from her bedroom window, he visited three nights a week, like clockwork. He looked familiar, and she thought maybe he'd been on the TV news, that he might be a politician or something.

More often than not, they went out someplace dressy, Miss Slinky in the role of catwalking arm-candy. She had a wardrobe deep in cocktail wear. The boyfriend never spent the entire night. Staci would hear the soft rumble of his car pulling out of the parking lot around 3:00 a.m.

Slinky's boyfriend was one of the things that made Staci curious about her. How does a girl find, and keep, such a boyfriend—obviously rich, obviously dependable, and probably generous? This was the situation that Staci wanted: a steady instead of the flock of dates she currently had.

Last week, one of her fellow models at the Boat Show told her about a Web site called Sugar Babies, where just such boyfriend types met available and attractive girls for long-term relationships. All Staci would have to do, she said, would be upload a good picture and write a few words about herself.

But Staci and computers did not get along.

Miss Slinky was alone down by the pool.

This might be an opportunity.

Staci would go down and extend a welcome-to-the-complex to the new arrival; maybe quench her curiosity; maybe learn how and where Slinky came by her beau. Possibly make a friend. But she doubted this part would happen. No, she could tell by the way Slinky lounged there in the Southern summer sun like she was on a location shoot in a palm grove surrounded by attendants waving those fan things that she was sooo self-centered, most likely one of those ultra-competitive types with a sarcastic mouth.

Staci was about to chicken out, but restlessness and curiosity were driving her like a devil with a pitchfork. And besides, only last week had she not won Nightown's Fourth of July Bikini Contest? She sure had. Our "blonde bombshell" the deejay had called her, and he'd made a complimentary joke about "revolutionary rockets" that Staci laughed at when she figured it out later. Staci McIntyre was the equal of any slinky broad.

She put on a bikini (the winning one), grabbed a towel, and headed down to the pool.

When she pushed through the low gate to the fence that separated the pool area from the complex's grassy courtyard, she thought she detected Miss Slinky's sunglasses turn fractionally in her direction but couldn't be sure. Staci spread her towel over a chaise six feet away, but the brunette remained fiercely absorbed in her book.

Okay. Staci was friendly. Staci could make the first move.


"Oh, hi," the girl said, and gave Staci a neutral smile, a Muzak of smiles.

"I'm Staci. I live in 216."

"Lissa. 212."

"Nice to meet you, Lissa. Aren't you new here?"


"Hope I'm not interrupting you."

"No, I was only reading," said Lissa.

"Which book is that?" Staci asked, cheerily, as she leaned back into the tilt of her chaise.

"It's called The Corrections."

"Is it good? What's it about?"

Lissa closed The Corrections and said, "Just trash."

Lissa placed her book in her lap precisely. Maybe a little too precisely, Staci thought.

But she was here now, so she thought she might as well make the best of it. Staci forged ahead, commenting on the weather, to which Lissa affably agreed that it was hot. She complimented Lissa on her bikini and how well it fit. Lissa responded with a cute story about how the French guy who invented the bikini said that it wasn't a genuine bikini unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring. Staci made a note to remember this one for future use. She warmed toward her new acquaintance a bit.

They discussed this summer's fashion trends.

Lissa asked if there was a decent seamstress anywhere nearby, but Staci, a ready-to-wear shopper, didn't know.

The conversation flatlined. Staci sought to revive it. "So: what do you do, Lissa?"

''I'm a consultant. But I'm on leave of absence."

"A consultant? My, that sounds—"

"What kind of work do you do?"

"Well," Staci said, "I work for the Buttermount Advertising Agency." Lissa was turning the tables on her, information-gathering-wise. Staci did not like to talk so much about her job.

"And what do you do for this advertising agency?"

"Clerical work." This was not exactly true. Her job title was that of a clerical, and they paid her the same as a starting clerical, but her only real connection to the office suites in Hohenlowe Towers was watering the plants twice a week. Mainly, Mr. Buttermount expected her to go out with men clients when they visited from out of town, to make them feel welcome, like a hostess. Staci thought of herself as a hospitality specialist. But this was hard to explain to a stranger, so she said, "You know, filing and stuff," feeling like a dullard.

Lissa looked disappointed. "Oh."

Staci felt obligated to be more interesting. "And I'm a trade show model." This was true—though she decided to leave out the fact that it was part-time. This, along with the gifts the Buttermount clients generally left her, was how she could afford to live in an apartment complex like Bay Breeze Heights.

"You're a booth babe!" said Lissa, with a bright laugh. "I should have known. With tits like those, you had to be either that or a stripper. No offence. I mean … you're very attractive. I'll bet it's sexy fun. Strap heels. Little black dress. Guys trying to concentrate on business and hit on you at the same time."

Staci couldn't tell if Lissa was being catty or not. She tried to steer the conversation back to things about Lissa.

"You say you're a consul—"

"Rough date last night, Staci?"


"Your date last night. Was the guy rough with you?"

"He wasn't— I mean…no. How do you even know I had a date last night?"

"'I can see the parking area from my unit just as well as you can."

"Yes, well, we—"

"So, was he a complete bastard?" Lissa insisted.

"No. What to you mean 'rough'? Why do you say that? He was a perfect gentleman. He took me to a fancy French restaurant that featured hot cuisine and the waiter had a French acc—"


Staci was all turned around. "Beg pardon?" 

"'Haute'. 'Haute' cuisine. Never mind. It's just that you keep rubbing the roof of your mouth with the tip of your tongue."

"I do?"  She was. She was doing it.

"Yes. You keep parting your lips. Then your throat constricts, and I can see the bottom of your tongue."


"You're rubbing the roof of your mouth because it hurts, aren't you? It's called erythema of the palate and it's usually caused by forced oral sex. My boyfriend—the guy with the fancy car—is a dentist. He tells me he sees it all the time."

Staci felt herself flush starting at her hairline and quickly spread down her torso. It was true. Her date last night, an agency client from Des Moines—wherever that was—had been abusive. He'd gotten drunk at the restaurant and, later, he had hurt her; shoved her to the floor, even. He'd flipped a hand full of bills at her on his way out. She didn't like to think about it. God, it was hot out today. She said, "I burned my mouth on some pizza."

"That French restaurant had pizza?"

"At lunch. I microwaved some pizza for lunch and got it too hot." Staci tried not to tongue the roof of her mouth but could not keep from it.

"My mistake," Lissa said. "I'm glad I'm wrong. Some men can be really mean, though"

Staci didn't feel much like talking anymore, but she couldn't just get up and leave. She'd only been sitting there for fifteen minutes. Now she realized that bringing a book to pretend to be interested in was not a bad idea.

"C'mon, honey, I wasn't trying to upset you," said Lissa. "We all know what some men can be like. Now and then you'll get a real son-of-a-bitch and there's nothing you can do but avoid him if he comes round again."

Yes, Staci thought, avoid him. But that might not be possible. What if he came back in town and the agency said go out with him? Mr. Buttermount had said he was a big customer. Maybe she could ask to do real clerical work instead, but computers and copiers and office equipment baffled her. One top of it being her first job, she only had a GED, and the all-female office staff hated her.

Something else was coming into her mind, something that twisted her lower stomach. Till now, she'd believed that the sex part of dating was because she wanted to and, of course the guys always wanted to, and that the cash gifts they left were just another nice thing to do for a girl, like flowers or candy. The money was to buy your own candy or flowers or jewelry or furniture because it was easier for the guy. What did they know about your tastes in such things? It was money that had nothing to do with sex, because if it did, that would make her a prostitute, not just a girl who liked sex and thought of it as a normal, healthy expression of affection. But having sex for money would mean she wasn't so nice. It was complicated. Was her salary for having sex, or just going out? Mr. Buttermount never said "have sex with the client." But was it expected? If it was, that would make everything different.

A girl could approach limits and not go beyond them, couldn't she? Now, thinking about them for the first time, she was unclear on those limits. Did it all depend on the spirit of the gift's giving, or what that gift was? If she went out with the client from Des Moines again—even though she was terrified of him—just to keep her job, did it mean she was a whore?

And what about that "other woman"—her mom would never use the word "whore"—who broke up their family, which led her mom to OD on fentanyl patches three years ago. That woman wasn't a streetwalker, but mom said she slept with dad only for his money. Staci knew she wasn't that kind of person.

For no reason at all, she suddenly was thinking about her high school sweetheart. All these things—her mom, her old boyfriend, whether or not she was a whore—were swirling around fast. Her mouth was sore. It was very hot out today—


—too hot to catch your breath.

"Honey," Lissa was saying, "are you okay?" 

"Fine," Staci wheezed.

"Want some water?" Lissa was waving a plastic water bottle at her, shaking it so that the sloshing liquid inside sparkled like sequins.

"No, I'm fine," Staci said. She wondered what trap Lissa might set next.

"How old are you, Staci?"

"Almost nineteen."

"You're even younger than I thou—"

"How old are you?" said Staci, seizing an opening.

"I'm twenty-nine."

"And you say your boyfriend is a dentist?"

"Actually, he owns a string of dental clinics," Lissa said, undisguised confidence rolling off of her like perfume. "He's like, a dentist-slash-businessman. He owns Wellfleet Family Dentistry."

Wellfleet—this sounded very familiar. Yes, of course, the Buttermount agency handled the Wellfleet advertising. She could remember seeing the posters in the layout artists' workroom and then, later, on the sides of buses. The photo on the posters was of a smiling man (Lissa's boyfriend!), plus a smiling woman, and a smiling teenaged boy and girl. A person would have to assume that this was the Wellfleet family. But the woman/wife/mother in the picture was definitely not Lissa. "Did Doctor Wellfleet get divorced?"

Lissa hesitated and then answered in voice more to herself than to Staci, "No. But he will." And then, "Um, how did you know he was married?"

"I've seen the ads."

"Oh, yeah—those ads."

"Are those their kids in the picture?"

"Well, they're not dentists," said Lissa with a sort of laugh. "They're the reason that he's not quite divorced yet. And of course property settlement reasons."

"Like who gets what?"


"And how much?"

"Yes, Staci," Lissa answered impatiently. "It's the same thing that happens in every divorce."

"It will be painful for the children."

"Nothing I can do about it," Lissa shrugged, adding, "Look, it's not like I'm trying to be a home wrecker."

"I know you're not trying…." Staci said pointedly, without really trying to make a point. It just slipped out. And it did happen in most divorces. The family was just an innocent bystander that gets destroyed, like that term she'd learned on the TV news about wars happening to civilians: collateral damage.

"Collateral damage," Staci murmured.

Lissa a put her water bottle and her book in a beach bag and leaned forward. "I think I've had enough sun." She adjusted her sunglasses and stood up.

"Please don't go. I didn't intend to offend you," she said

"You didn't. Good-bye," Lissa said as she threw her towel over her shoulder."

"Bye," Staci said.

Lissa began to saunter away. Staci felt a rush of panic. She blurted, "Last night … I was as nice to him as I know how to be, and he called me a ditzy cooze!" A half moon of tears filled the bottom of each lens of her sunglasses.

Lissa turned around to face Staci. She pursed her lips to say something but then seemed to change her mind. And with a smile that was different from the smile Lissa had worn for most of their time together, she said, "Good luck, Staci." She then left.

Staci's mind flicked to the deejay she had a date with tonight and then immediately flicked away. She sat rigidly still in the chaise, her fingers curled tightly around the edges of the aluminum armrests, tight enough, almost, to break the skin. But she was not aware of this, or the heat, or the past or the present.

She had questions about the future that only a parent or friend could answer.

But her only friend had just dumped her—a home wrecker, yes, but someone who already seemed to know her, someone who could answer questions.

The empty windows stared down, much like the client from Des Moines.


BIO:  R. A. Allen's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Literary Review, The Barcelona Review #64, Calliope, PANK, Leaf Garden, and elsewhere. Selected for Houghton Mifflin's Best American Mystery Stories 2010. Nominated by LITnIMAGE for Dzanc Books' Best of the Web 2010. He lives in Memphis. More at www.nyqpoets.net/poet/raallen