Paul and Veronica
The pane of glass separating Paul from the donuts was schmeared with glaze, distorting the face he came to see, the face of the girl who worked in the donut shop, Veronica, who like the Veronica of the ‘Archie’ comic books made him absentmindedly recite Federico Garcia Lorca poems in his head. Her coal-black hair fell down freely over her silk headband, sometimes touched the buttery sweet glaze of the donut she would dump in a bag and hand over to him, nothing more than a hint of teenage angst altering her expressionless face. He had gained five pounds in the last two months, eating donuts now almost every day of the week. Honey threw herself into a frenzy every time he went inside, pacing with her little legs back and forth, appearing through the spaces of the letters D-O and U, pressing her nose against the window as if attempting to push it over, butt flying into the air with the force of her little barks. She usually waited in the car, but Paul suspected that Honey was aware of his passionate crush on Vernonia the donut girl, and did everything in her power to sabotage the beginnings of courtship.
Honey was unused to female vibes as Paul had never been married once in his 63 years, and his only girlfriends seemed put-off by his various insatiable addictions: coffee, chewing tobacco, and the collecting of old toasters and mediaeval weapons. He had an old toaster that somewhat resembled an insect and was put directly into an oven, and a mace he was so proud of that he often demonstrated it—sometimes in front of such girlfriends, who usually covered their heads, though Paul made sure to inform them that this would be no defense if a mace was coming at you. It was no heartbreak to Paul that no woman had ever suggested marriage, he had little enough time on the planet to begin with.
Today was the day he was going to attempt conversation with the lovely Veronica, who was in a particularly good mood, as Paul could tell from the care she put into folding his bag so that it could easily be carried.
“I’ve got a headache the size of the US income gap,” he said to her, setting his elbow casually on the glass case to his left. With his other hand he held his forehead and winced.
“That’s too bad,” Veronica responded, taking a bite of her own donut that sat on the counter behind her—chocolate glazed.
“About what?” he asked, genuinely confused, “the sorry state of our country or the searing pain in my head?”
“Your head, I mean,” she said, in a tone that implied “obviously”, “the US is fine.” She says this like a doctor standing over a man simultaneously suffering from hemorrhoids and gonorrhea.
He takes a quick look out the window at her rusted Buick Le Sabre, a small stuffed Hello Kitty doll dangling from the rear view mirror and nods.
“Well, I’d better be going,” he says, backing up through the door. He ducks and picks up Honey whose barks immediately change to excessive licking, a nervous habit she acquired after being boarded a few Christmases ago when Paul had flown home to Troy, New York to visit his mother for what would turn out to be the last time. When he came back Honey was licking herself silly, and had lost most of her hair. He had demanded his money back, and when this was refused he accosted the receptionist with paperclips, the only available weapons. The girl covered her head, which, Paul had to admit, was a fairly intelligent option under the circumstances.
“She couldn’t have been more than eighteen anyway, Honey,” Paul says on the way back to his home in his recently waxed white Volkswagen Cabriolet. Honey gulps rapidly, unable to decide whether to stand up or sit down. The car comes to a stop at the towns only stoplight, the raw smell of biodiesel permeating the air around the vehicle, caused by the mysterious gas leak that Paul had as of yet been completely flabbergasted by. If he hadn’t have been wearing his nice clothes (a slightly small and very thin short sleeve black and red plaid shirt and his only pair of Levi’s cutoff’s without a hole in the crotch) to impress Veronica, he would’ve gotten out of the car right then and there to check it out, despite any objections from Honey. Any debate over this was cut short by a Jeep Cherokee pulling up next to him, full of, from what he could tell, stone drunk young men.
“Dude- it’s Jerry Garcia,” one of them says, a finger extending out the window, mouth agape. The others turn to look, turning down the ELO blasting from the speakers and hold a joint moment of silence. Paul rolls his eyes, having been through this before.
“Keep on trucking,” Paul says, and the boys erupt into ‘no ways’ and ‘duuuudes’. He turns into the dirt road leading to his cabin, thinking to himself that he certainly looked better than a hippie/ heroin addict, though he agreed that years of middle age with no wife and poor grooming habits had aged him quicker than he cared to acknowledge. Honey sat tight in the seat as they curved around the loose gravel drive leading to Paul’s cabin, a one story ‘bungalow’, as he called it, built entirely by hand, nestled into the surrounding landscape like a settled stone into clay.
“Stupid kids!” he says, slamming the door behind him. Honey, in one of her gravity-defying moves, jumps up and out of the car as if on springs, running full speed into the lavender patch.
“Mouse, eh?” Paul says, as he lumbers up the steps, wiping his brow with a dirty handkerchief peeking from his front pocket. He reaches into the mailbox, which is actually a 1957 Sears Gold Line toaster, the coils having been removed and replaced with stainless steel, the name Paul stenciled on the side in cascade fashion with black spray paint. He nods as he flips through the mail—not many bills, as he has no phone and no credit cards.
An item of actual interest, underneath True Value catalog, is the antique collector quarterly called Treasures in the Attic. Most of the magazine was filler, he thought, but since he was a contributor his subscription was free, and oftentimes the interviews were enough for him. As he flipped through, there it was, a small picture of the 1948 Kenmore Toastmaster—in green bakelite, the only one missing from his set. The price was next to the picture in bright red letters—$199.99. He couldn’t believe his eyes, and in fact, he closed them tightly and reopened them to ensure that the diesel fumes weren’t causing hallucinations, but it was still there. It was being held in a small antique shop in Sisters, Oregon and would be at the Sisters Antique Faire, along with the sellers ‘vast array of quality and intriguing antiques’—and it was happening this weekend.
“Honey,” Paul said, the dog tilting her head in anticipation of the next words he would say,
“We’re going on a road trip.”
The next morning Paul awoke with an excitement akin to that of a boy on Christmas morning. He smiled. He was lucky, he thought—lucky to be alive. He lumbered out of bed and into the bathroom, where he gave himself a quick shave and a few slaps on the cheek.
Breakfast was pancakes of course, and as the batter hit the buttered up frying pan he waited for Honey’s clicking toenails on the floor, her hot breath on his ankles as she waited desperately for some of that batter to drip onto the floor. He waited, heard nothing.
“Sleeping late, little scamp,” he said to himself, watching the bubbling of the batter in the pan, the crisping of the edges of the cake as it browned. He poured himself a pint of coffee and sat with his pancakes, his knees rubbing up against the bottom of the large oak table where he sat.
“Honey,” he said loudly, whistled through his teeth. Nothing.
“I’ve got treats!” he said, louder, impatiently. His throat began to tighten as he stood up and circled the room, looking for her poof of a tail. The house was not very big, and he searched it in less than ten minutes, the pancakes still steaming. As he threw his hands up in defeat he heard a slight whimper. He brought himself absolutely still and listened again—another whimper. He followed the noise as if hunting a deer, trying his best to step quietly, ending up peering under the old blue velvet couch at a curled up Honey, her eyes gleaming up at him.
“What’d you go hiding for?” he asked, gently reaching around her with his hands to pull her out, holding he against his thick, flannel covered chest.
“Whatsa matter?” he asks, as she whimpers again, her small ears pressed against her head as she shakes a little. A lump forms in Paul’s throat as he looks back under the couch at the scraps of a torn apart toaster, suspects the worst. He stands for a moment, feeling his strong body go a little weak, picturing the green bakelite Kenmore upon the shelf with the others, and then to his memory of Honey as a puppy, when she used to come tearing out of the long grass like a lit firecracker, run circles around him as he walked the kitchen. Honey looked mournfully over at the pancakes, and Paul followed suit.
“I’ll just have to heat them up later,” he says, mock cheerfully, “for now, we have to get to Dr Sarvis’ and figure out what you’ve gotten down that little throat of yours.”
“You know I can’t lose you,” he adds, quietly, as if embarrassed to hear himself admit such a thing out loud.
The morning was still cool and damp as they backed out of the driveway, a large pool of congealed biodiesel where the car had been. Dr Sarvis, a friend of Paul’s, was the only vet he would take Honey to see. All the other, as far as he was concerned, were crooks, and did not genuinely care for animals. Unfortunately, Dr Sarvis’ office was almost thirty miles away, and even more unfortunately, the car sputtered to a stop about halfway there.
“Out of gas,” Paul says dejectedly, “I guess we’ll have to walk.” He pushed his longish gray hair from his forehead and pulls up the jeans that are beginning to go south. Honey remains plastered to the seat, looking more pitiful every time he glances over. She whimpers loudly as he picks her up, tucks her into the crook of his arm and starts walking.
“Don’t worry,” he says to her, “we’ll catch a ride.” They walk along the shoulder of the road and Paul begins pointing out the trees and shrubs, listing out their botanical names. The sun is rising quickly, the morning clouds breaking away, seeming to fall to the sides of the sky.
Paul sticks out his thumb as a line of cars whizzes past, with no response. He shrugs. He tells Honey things were better back in the days when he was GE.
“See, no one has any working class pride anymore, no comradery” he tells her, “not that I can blame them—it’s hard to feel proud when you get treated like a machine.” He puts up his thumb again at a slowly approaching car. It slows down even more, and soon he can hear the tires grinding to a stop ahead on the road, sees the hazard lights turn on. He looks at the back of the car, the rusted out muffler, the ‘Honk if you love manatees’ bumper sticker. Sticking his face into the rolled down window, his heart skips a beat as his eyes fall on Veronica, wearing a Ducks shirt and a pair of black sweat pants.
“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” she asks, eyeing him up.
“Under normal circumstances, I would tell a girl your age to never pick up old, suspicious looking men,” Paul said, and upon seeing her eyebrow raise, he opened the crook of his arm so that Honey’s little body was exposed, “but I’ve got to get to the vet—I think she swallowed part of a toaster or something.”
She unlocks the door and he gets in, immediately accosted by the scent of strawberry air fresher attached to the vent. There are cigarette burns all over the seats, and upon catching him sticking his finger into one she says,
“My step-mom’s old car. She’s a chain smoker. Where am I taking you?”
“To Dr Sarvis’, on Middletown Road, right past the…”
“I know where it is,” she interrupts, turning on the radio.
“So what do you do when you’re not selling donuts to fat old men?” he asks her, turning the air freshener away from himself.
“Whatever,” she says casually, “usually I just hang out.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s what I do too. Today, though I was on my way to an antique show- they have a 1948 Kenmore toaster that I’ve been waiting for all my life.”
“You collect them or something? My dad collects old Playboys.” Honey crawls out to lay on Paul’s leg and sighs, the weight of her little body comforting him.
“You’re going to be fine,” he says to Honey, and he smiles at Veronica.
“Thanks in advance for saving the day—I couldn’t bear to have anything happen to her, not after my mother deserted me for eternal peace.”
“Your mother died? So did mine, when I was thirteen.” She is staring straight ahead now, a pair of red sunglasses over her eyes, both of her hands on the wheel, thin arms connecting to hunched up shoulders.
“Do you get along with your step-mom, or is it one of those classic I-hate-the-new-bitch scenarios?” he asks, already feeling like he is entering unfriendly territory. But her posture softens a little as she thinks, or appears to.
“I don’t hate her, really, although she can’t cook or do anything interesting. I just miss my mom, having someone to talk to who really knows me.”She might have been heading to tears, but a long, drawn out whine from Honey’s throat distracts her. Veronica steps on the gas.
“I think this qualifies as an emergency,” she says, voice unwavering. Paul nods in agreement. Within minutes he can see the turnoff to Dr Sarvis’ coming up on the left. Veronica pulls the wheel sharply and the car careens into the small parking lot, Honey wailing the whole time. She parks the car and begins to get out.
“You coming in?” he asks her, sounding shocked though he intended not to.
“Well, I need to know if she’s going to be okay,” she says, matter-of-factly.
The office is already bustling when the open the door, and Paul rushes to the counter, explaining his predicament to Mary Ann, the receptionist, who is still on her first cup of coffee, and quite aware of Paul’s sometimes less than cooperative manner.
“Mr Gervais,” she says patiently, and takes one look at Honey before raising her hand to her mouth.
“Little Honey!” she squeals, and shouts for Dr Sarvis, who’s reaction, when he makes his way out, is almost identical. Veronica stands resolutely behind Paul as they discuss the possible problems, and Dr Sarvis takes Honey back with him after some time, promising to have her better in no time.
Paul, feeling frenetic, accepts a triangular paper cup of water offered to him by Veronica as she sits next to him, a Dog Fancy magazine in her hand.
“You don’t have to stay,” he says as she stares blankly at the walls, perched on the edge of the seat.
“No, I will,” she said, “I know it’s hard to be alone when someone close to you is sick.”
“Don’t you have friends to meet? Fun teenager things to do?” he asked, in his least patronizing voice.
“I guess, I don’t know. It’s just kind of not interesting, you know? I guess I’m kinda sick of my friends. They’re just so shallow all the time, and all they care about it looking hotter than each other. I’m totally over that.”
“You know I thought you were an idiot at first…but I think I might have misjudged you. Mistrust of other people is one of the finest qualities a person can acquire,” he says, and she nods, smiles.
“Yeah, my step-mom always tells me to smile all the time and be polite, but she just talks shit about everyone behind their back, anyway—why not just tell them to their face?”
“Don’t ever be a politician,” Paul says, laughing.
“Paul.” Dr Sarvis comes into the waiting room, a smile on his face. Paul stands up abruptly, almost stepping on the doctors toes.
“Honey did indeed eat a toaster part, a little spring. We can get it out, luckily, and because you brought her in so quickly it shouldn’t be very difficult surgery. She will have to be kept overnight in order to be operated on tomorrow.”
“Can I be in the room during the procedure?” Paul asks, looking a little pale.
“No, I’m afraid not Paul. You can go see her now if you’d like.”
Veronica drapes an arm over his shoulder, tears coming to eyes as he imagines how terrified Honey must be, how sad she will look on he operating table.
“How about we go to Freindly’s and get some coffee?” Veronica says, breaking him from his reverie. His eyes light up and his brain suddenly remembers that there is a lack of caffeine in his system.
Veronica waits in the car as Paul says goodnight to Honey, pressing her up against his chest as she cries a little bit, and he waits until the sleeping drug has taken effect before he puts her back in her cage atop the fleece doggie bed. He pulls out the same dirty handkerchief to dab at his eyes and leaves, crossing himself absentmindedly. On his way out Dr Sarvis gives him a thumbs up and a pursed lip smile.
“She’ll be just fine Paul,” Mary Ann calls out as the door shuts behind him.
“Are you sure you want to be seen in public with a guy like me? What’ll it to your reputation?” he asks, upon getting back in the car.
“I could care less. I just know that it sucked to be alone when my mom was sick, and I don’t want that to happen to anyone I’m friends with.”
“Oh, we’re friends now?” he says, feeling lighter.
“I guess, I mean now that you’re not leering at me anymore, you don’t seem so repulsive.”
“Thanks, that’s very nice of you.”
“Well, what are friends for?”
They drive off, the muffler sparing against the road, as Honey sleeps in her cage dreaming of pancakes.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED