Free Books, Free Love
by Alan Carl Nicoll
Copyright 2017 by Alan Carl Nicoll, All Rights Reserved
Le Petite Boulangerie was indeed rather small, a bakery that served breakfast, with only three tables and a counter seating four, so popular that they had added another three tables on the sidewalk under a bright green-and-white striped awning. It was after ten when Janice and Leon arrived, and the street tables had been closed down, stacked along the store front. The door was open, however, so they walked in.
The customers, three or four, were grouped around a couple of display cases holding the remnants of the morning’s pastries, cakes, and breadstuffs. Lingering smells of baking, layers of different smells. They sat down at a prepared table.
A bright-eyed Chicana came to them and said, “Ms. McCready?” Handing them menus.
Very pretty, very young, she looked to Janice. Very red lipstick, discreet earrings with green stones, bangly bracelets on the left wrist, French waitress uniform, new-looking black pumps. No stockings. Janice saw all this in a quick look, then she said, “Um, Luz?”
“Yes! I’m so pleased to see you here, I loved your English class, you remembered me, too, this is so cool, you remember, I remember, you played that song by that black chick, what was it, ‘Rotten Fruit’ or ‘Forbidden Fruit’ or what was it called, ‘Hanging Fruit’?”
“That’s right, it was Billie Holiday wasn’t it, very sad.”
“Yes. Luz, this is Leon, my friend.”
“Hello.” He was studying the menu, ignoring the hottie, bless him. But he seemed tense, too. Embarrassed to be seen with grandma.
“So, Luz, you’re working here,” she said, remembering a skinny, smart, thirteen-year-old in chestnut pony tail and braces. Braces?
“Yes, but I’m going to Bakersfield College. Ms. McCready—”
“Well, okay. You’ll always be Ms. McCready to me, but I’m gonna be a doctor, can you believe it?”
“I can believe it very well.”
Luz held her head, rocking it side to side. “So many years of school!” She smiled then, and Janice thought of her own lipstick. “But what will you have? We close at eleven, so it’ll have to be quick.”
Janice ordered a mushroom, tomato, and shallot croissant, Leon a ham and cheese croissant, both having coffee. Luz bounced away, back with ice water, and away again.
“The energy of youth,” Janice said. “She’s pretty, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” he said slowly. “You’ve been known to be rather energetic at times.”
“Stop smirking.” She wished he would grope her, but knew it would be seen.
“You too, Ms. McCready. So what was that song she was talking about?”
“The strange fruit of the title is the body of a black man hanging in a tree.”
“Mmm. Lynching? What grade was this?”
“So, thirteen-year-olds. I’m surprised they’d let you—”
“They didn’t!” Janice felt an old anger rising. “You see, it made them cry. Very controversial. Parents up in arms, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria, a protest at the School Board, the all-white school board, of course—”
“I remember this!” he said. “It was on the news, what, three years ago? Hell, I saw you on TV, I bet.”
“Yes, it made the local news. Not national that I ever heard. I wasn’t disciplined, but I was prohibited from teaching the song. The ACLU and the union wanted to fight them, but, to my everlasting shame, I turned them down and took early retirement.” She felt tears starting. “The children were just wonderful, but the death threats scared me. I really had that class, Leon. They would have done anything for me. One boy…”
She took a tissue from her purse and blotted the tears away, then gazed out the window at the concrete landscape of downtown Bakersfield. Very durable stuff, concrete. “Those were the best days of my career, and the worst, of course.” She looked at him, feeling foolish, and many other things. Proud. Background conversations hummed.
Luz brought their orders, asked if they wanted anything else, last chance, then bustled off again. The hot croissants, hers sprinkled with Romano or something, smelled heavenly, and Janice was surprised that her appetite was strong. The plates were attractively garnished with cherry tomatoes and Romaine lettuce.
“Tell me more,” Leon said as he attacked his croissant with a fork.
Janice took a bite, savored, rolled her eyes, and said, “Why do I ever eat anywhere else?” A clatter as dishes were bused.
“It is good. Tell me about your ‘one boy.’”
“Crespin C. Carlson,” she said with a smile. “A very intense, serious boy, white, skinny as can be, loves Shakespeare, very bright mind. He came to my house one Saturday with a potted plant as a gift—this was after all the fuss, I was no longer his teacher or I wouldn’t have accepted it, but it was a poor thing…anyway, we had a lovely talk, I fed him something or other. He told me that he’d been a thoughtless racist, but that song had woken him up—” she grinned “—Woken him from his dogmatic slumbers, he said, it’s a quote, I don’t remember whose. But he wasn’t a racist any more, that’s what he said. I killed the plant within six months, I’m hell on plants, and Corky was eating the leaves. She’s my cat.”
“And how many cats do you have?” He sipped coffee.
“One! I’m not one of those cat ladies you hear about.”
“Are you busy after…uh, I guess this is brunch.”
She shrugged. “No. What did you have in mind?”
“I’m guessing you’re not into sports.”
“Miniature golf is beyond me.” Three customers filed out, carrying small boxes and bags.
“And I’m guessing it’s a bit early for bed.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Umm…” she said.
He raised an eyebrow back, looking in her eyes. His were blue.
She looked up, then back at him, smile gone. Sighed. “Let’s talk first.”
“We are talking.”
She let him spear a cherry tomato from her plate. “Talk talk.”
“Ooh, talk talk. How does that differ from talk again? I forget.”
“Ah. Of course, you want to know my intentions. About us. Completely dishonorable.”
“Leon. I’m a one-man woman. What are you?”
“I’m not a one-man man.”
Spacing the words out with little pauses, she said, “Are you seeing anyone else?”
He smirked. Winked, reminding her of Carlos. “No.”
You’ll dump me, though, she thought. Well, maybe I’ll dump—
“I see wheels turning behind those eyes.”
“I was wrong. I’m a fool.”
“What? You seem to me a most unfoolish woman. What were you wrong about?”
Luz was putting the chairs up on the other tables.
“We need to go.” She stood up.
As they were leaving, Luz came to Janice and hugged her. “Can I come see you some time?”
“Of course, any time. I’ll give you my number.”
Her eyes glistening, Luz said, “I can look it up. You’re so awesome!”
Outside, Janice and Leon stood together under the awning. Impulsively, Janice said, “Come see my books.”
“What, no etchings? She’s right, you know. You are awesome.”
Janice snorted. “Please.”
“What? You were so good last night, this morning, I can’t get over it. It turns me on all over again, just thinking about it.”
Janice smiled and thought she was blushing. “Well, I was very…stimulated. You are…catnip.” Her body wanted him; it amazed her.
She drove them to her place. The cramped quarters astonished him, but this didn’t slow them down. Afterwards, Janice was ready to bustle about, cleaning up, and Leon wanted to snuggle, doze, watch television. It was one of their differences, she realized, and there were others. Sex energized her but made him languorous. She put on a ridiculous, filmy, short jacket or robe that covered the top half of her ass, something Carlos had given her to wear while she was busy about the house so he could watch her and enjoy the titillation. She hoped that Leon might like seeing her, with her sagging, wrinkled flesh—she was kidding herself, she knew. But he was watching her from the nest of the leather sofa, his eyes smoldering, deliciously naked, she went to him and kissed his mouth, dust rag in hand, and his hand holding, squeezing her left buttock, petting it. Kneeling on the floor, half lying on top of him, she looked into his face, toyed with his hair, as she said, “Silly boy, what are you doing her with old Granny Jan?”
“Feeling your butt.”
“Why not Luz?”
His eyes slid away from her then, a door closing shut. Shut up, you old fool. She remembered an old line from somewhere: “What you think of me is none of my business.” What was that supposed to mean?
She kissed his nose, stood up, and resumed dusting. Could there be a more important question in a relationship? She shrugged it away. He knows I’m old, why do I rub his nose in it? Stop it!
He surprised her then by saying, “Luz scares the living shit out of me.”
She stopped and stood looking at him, mouth open, heart pounding.
He turned his back to her, facing the back of the sofa.
Since he was naked, she did not dress either. Instead, she looked through her CDs for the Billie Holiday, noted which track was “Strange Fruit,” then put it in the player and shut it off. Then she sat in the leather recliner and picked up her current reading, Erving Goffman’s Stigma, an old book about “the management of spoiled identity.” She had gotten it in the hope of being able to better help some of the people who called her, but it had proved dull, and she held it in her lap, unopened. She was confused, ashamed, and anxious by turns, but mostly confused. He was afraid of Luz? She waited for him and studied his attractive, muscular backside.
After twenty minutes he sat up and faced her. He glanced at her, then away again, and said, “I didn’t want to tell you that. I know we’re not exactly a matched set.” He gestured around the room. “You live in a hollow mountain made of books. The last book I read was War and Peace in college. I never finished either one. I do reread The Stranger occasionally for…” He waved the thought away. “Don’t try to pry me open. I’m here now.”
“Okay. You’re here now, and I’m glad. I’m very glad we met.”
“Good. Come sit over here.”
She went to him and they hugged and kissed a brief hello. His arm went around her shoulders.
He said, “I see your cat. I think she’s dead.”
Janice laughed. “No, just too lazy to get up and be petted. Corky!”
The gray lump lifted a head, looked at her, then slowly closed her eyes.
“See?” She laughed again. “No food, no catnip, not even a bit of string, so no reason to get up.”
“My kind of cat. Not sitting all over you.”
“Want something to drink? Coffee, pie, after-sex mint?”
“No, I’m good.”
“Indeed you are. I guess you won’t be interested in my books.”
“Chess, computers, golf…” he extended a finger for each.
“There you go. And no TV.”
“I download, watch on my computer.”
“Ah. A Mac person, and I’m a Windows dork. We do all right in bed.”
“Ahem. Yes.” She was smirking.
“How about music?”
“Classical, mostly twentieth century,” she said. “Opera, ballet sometimes, Broadway musicals.”
“Just as I thought, you’re an intellectual.” He looked at her. “I bet you studied ‘cello.”
She pursed her lips. “Very close. Violin. Easier to carry and more cheerful.” Forty years ago.
“This is cute,” he said, plucking at the fabric of her top. “Sexy and convenient.”
“There’s a theory I read somewhere, what makes clothes sexy is the convenient entry points for hands.”
“Ah, how intellectual.” He slipped a hand into the open front and explored. “This little thing is all entry points.” His penis was halfway up.
Janice cleared her throat but said nothing, not believing that he was really interested in going further. Unsure, also, of what she wanted right now. She could accommodate him, if he wished, and gladly. She close her eyes, but his hand was already gone.
He left fifteen minutes later—she went with him to the car—he kissed her right there on the street, and she watched him pedal off. He’d said he’d call her, and she believed him.
She sat in the recliner and thought about Leon. He hadn’t picked up on any of the leads she’d given him. He hadn’t asked about “Strange Fruit,” though it was possible that he was familiar with it. He hadn’t looked at her books—he was dismissive of books in general—and he virtually dismissed her major interests. Called her an “intellectual”—guilty as charged, if there was any guilt. Apparently he did not consider himself one, despite hit technical job and his chess.
Sex, and amusing companionship, or at least banter over meals…but there was something more. At the library book discussion he had not only held his own against “the intellectual,” he had also impressed her, hadn’t he? Perhaps not so much with insight as with wit.
“Don’t pry me open,” he’d said. Did he know—didn’t he know—that prying him open was exactly what she wanted when they—weren’t. If I can’t pry him open, what will we talk about? How can I love him?
Well, okay, she wouldn’t pry him open. Did that include things like, “How was work, honey?” or “Ever have borscht?”
He loves the banter we do, that’s obvious enough. Is that what the future looks like, banter and bed? Could be worse. She could insist—all he’d have to do was ask—that she watch television with him.
Of course, she had “guilty pleasures” (dear Roger Ebert), stupid stuff like Laurel and Hardy…she was only partly intellectual.
Leon, Leon, haven’t you heard Le Sacre du Printemps?
Well, now she was sneering at him. Let him be, you fool! You snob. And how many times have you watched Forbidden Planet?
Okay. Life is simple. Let Leon be Leon, and enjoy him for what he is, you lucky fool.
She snuggled into the recliner and was soon asleep.