A new concern came with each ring of the telephone as I waited for him to answer.
What if this is too soon to call?
What if he thinks I’m weird and clingy?
What if he actually has a girlfriend and she’s there with him?
Before I could decide to save my pride and hang up – he likely had call waiting anyway, and the phone bill was in my name – the shrill ringing was replaced by a gentle tenor.
“Hello?” He didn’t sound to have been woken up.
Still, I found myself apologizing instantly. “Hey. I’m… sorry to call this late.”
“It’s ten o’clock.”
“Yeah, I know,” I answered. “But that’s late for some people, and I didn’t know if you went to bed early, or if you lived with someone who went to bed early, or if they worked nights and were still sleeping right now, or if maybe you changed your mind about telling me to call anytime...” I took a breath. “This is Laura, by the way.”
He laughed very softly, a pleased laugh. “Yeah, I know.”
“I uh… I just, uh…”
Wow. Never before had I found myself in such a bind. Here I was, needing someone else. Not only needing them, but feeling nervous and tongue tied and wanting to excuse myself. Good thing Dad wasn’t here to witness my patheticness. He would not be proud.
“Sorry,” I mumbled again, feeling like a total loser. A floundering, flaky, and surely irritating-
“Why? I’m glad you called.” His voice was soft and slightly muffled as though he might be talking very close to the receiver. Perhaps he was in a darkened room that insisted on a hushed tone, or maybe he had a roommate that was sleeping. “I was hoping you would.”
My pacing and silent berating paused. “Really?”
Again, he chuckled, and my heart sped a little at the gruff sound. “Why else would I give you my number?”
“Good point.” A small amount of my confidence returned. “Well, I need... something. You’re not busy, are you?”
“Not anymore. What’s up?”
My pacing had brought me into the bathroom where I switched on the heat lamp near the shower. A dull, yellow glow fell across my face, adding a sallowness to my features. Tiny shoulders pulled back and down in perfect posture; rumpled hair hung down my back in spite of being pulled into a high ponytail; wide, hazel eyes stared back at me in earnest, wanting to know what the future would bring.
I looked ragged and tired; my voice came out hungry. “I need help.”
With concern, he responded before I could explain. “Why? What happened?”
“Nothing new – just that whole financial issue…” Though he couldn’t see my motion of dismissal, I shrugged. “It’s a little more serious than I let on.”
“Ninety thousand serious.”
There was a longer pause then, during which I started to second guess my phone call. Doubting myself, my sense of direction, and my intelligence, I let my explanation gush out in unintelligible babble. “Look, I’m not asking for your money, or anything. I can take care of myself. I just need a little advice. Which is why I’m calling – I have this jewelry I need to sell. It used to be my mother’s but she’s dead now, anyway. She doesn’t need it… She…”
My voice cracked.
Aside from the sudden realization that I sounded like a total nerd, I felt a tad guilty for unloading on him this way. What was I doing calling him to talk about my dead mother and her precious jewelry when I hardly knew the guy? Furthermore, what was I doing thinking he wanted to help after only two (okay, three), encounters?
“I shouldn’t have called,” I hurried on before he could conclude that I was nuts. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m sure you have better things to do than listen to my problems.”
“Laura, stop,” he told me in a pained hush. His tone was soft, a comfort. It soothed my nerves. “Don’t apologize.”
I whispered, “Alright,” and swallowed, reaching for some composure. “That was probably too much information, huh?”
Was it a smile in his voice? “Not at all. Let’s meet somewhere.”
It was a good point. Why not? “Name the place.”
It might have been expected that I would brush my teeth and comb my hair, but changing my clothes three times for a boy wasn’t usually my style. Still, I tried on the skinny jeans some salesgirl had told me were all the rage, even though I secretly hated how short they made me look. Then I changed them, opting for my more traditional boot-legged choice, and added a pink shirt made with an interesting mix of fabrics. The front and sleeves were cotton while the back was entirely satin. I stared in the mirror for a long time, wondering if it looked like I was trying too hard.
By the time I was ready to leave, Catrina was still sleeping too soundly to ask any annoying questions. I left her a note taped to the outside of my door in case she worried. And with my favorite black, down-filled coat with its inner pocket stuffed with money that was the last allowance I would ever see, I headed downstairs where Mason would be waiting.
Cold night air rushed down my neck as I escaped the front doors. Nightlife and traffic greeted me with sounds of voices and horns and the static of tires over wet pavement. Bright lights of the city glinted throughout New York during its quietest hour. And my stomach wrapped in nerves to see him waiting under a street light, just feet away, bundled in wool pea-coat and a plaid scarf - very nineteen twenties mafia.
When I stepped forward, he grinned but said absolutely nothing.
I felt self conscience. “What?”
Mason shook his head, eyes twinkling with some unknown secret. “Just didn’t think you’d be missing me so quickly.”
“Like I made up all that shit about the money and my mother so I could see you?” I asked, unable to keep the incredulity out of my voice.
He laughed. “You know you did.”
We started walking, Mason leading. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and hunched my shoulders a little against the cold trying to invade my clothes. “I wish they were all lies,” I muttered, partly to myself, partly to the darkness.
Partly to Mason who gave a sideways glance as we stepped into the street. It wasn’t until we were safe on the next sidewalk that he said, “Should I be armed?”
I laughed. “With like, a gun?”
“Well, you keep talking about these guys and the money you owe them.” He grimaced mockingly. “I’m just wondering if I should have brought my Gat.”
“You have one?”
“Naw, I’m kidding,” he told me, grinning. “I’m more of a sword and board kind of guy. But it’s a bit inconspicuous. Even for New York.”
“Hmm,” I pretended to study him. “I think you could make it work.”
“You think?” He held my gaze for a second longer than would have alluded to friendship.
Glancing away, I changed the subject. “So, where are we going?”
“Well, that depends,” he told me with a serious tone, still staring straight ahead at where the street lights waned.
Without realizing, I began to walk a bit closer to Mason for protection, and he didn’t judge my not-so-covert show of vulnerability. All around were barred store windows, stray pets, and people who wouldn’t make eye contact. Feeling unsafe was a prerequisite for entering this part of town.
“On what?” I asked.
“On how you feel about underground pool halls.”
“I wouldn’t know – I’ve never seen one.” Except the exaggerated, late-night television versions where people get strangled in the bathrooms because they didn’t pay their debts.
Mason must have taken my shivering for fear. He bumped my shoulder lightly. “It’s actually a really cool place. They make an amazing hot, buttered rum.”
Someone had my number.
Just around the corner, we came to an open doorway through which a cornucopia of merriment spilled forth. Laughter and music were only interrupted by clinking glasses, tidbits of conversation, and the intermittent chimes of billiards balls crashing together. We entered under the pale, purple lights and down a staircase. I followed Mason through a doorway leading into a large room where the people were as mismatched as the furniture.
Right away someone recognized Mason. A guy with bright red hair and pasty skin sauntered over. “Hey Man. No laptop?”
“Not tonight,” Mason answered.
“Huh.” The guy looked me up and down. “Didn’t take you for the dating type.”
Before Mason could answer, another couple of guys called out their greetings. I felt like a pathetic tag-along. Obviously everyone knew who he was, especially the girls. Their appreciative glances didn’t escape my notice as Mason led me toward a cluster of overstuffed sofas at the back of the room.
From here, the music was a little less loud, the company a little more sparse. Very few had chosen this quiet corner over the dart boards and video game machines lining two of the walls.
“Here?” I pointed at a brown microfiber with a rip down one arm.
Mason took off his jacket and tossed it on the couch like he owned the place. He was wearing long sleeves under a dark t-shirt that read Lullaby in jagged, silver letters across the front. “Is this okay?”
I couldn’t tell him how I really felt, that it didn’t matter if we were roasting hotdogs over the flames of an alleyway trash can as long as I got to be in his presence. Instead, I shrugged as coolly as possible and took a seat. “Fine by me.”
“Cool. I’ll go get drinks, and when I get back you can let me in on your mysterious life,” he joked, stepping away toward the bar. It was more of a threat than a promise since I wasn’t used to letting people in.
At the bar, Mason joked with the bartender. I attempted to train my focus on the groups of people around me (couples flirting, several loners concentrating on their game of pool, a group of suits in the corner watching a widescreen television), but it was hard to pull my attention away from Mason’s profile. And I wasn’t the only one.
Girls were appraising him, flashing their best smiles and stupid cleavage. Okay, I was a little jealous about the cleavage. Still, he ignored them. He had the repose of someone who didn’t care and never needed to try.
By the time he returned with our drinks, I had changed position three times in attempt to look relaxed.
“Is there something wrong with that sofa?” he asked.
Except for the obvious? “No, it’s fine,” I answered as the cushion seemed to give away beneath me. I felt like I was sinking. “A little soft…”
“Well let’s move.”
Realizing he must have been watching me, and wondering what other embarrassing things I had done (had I scraped the plaque off my front teeth or picked my nose?), I followed him to another sofa. This one was even farther in the corner, forest green, and quite comfortable. It sat kitty-corner to a semi-matching loveseat.
I took the couch. Mason fell into the loveseat so that if not for the chairs’ arms in our way, we would have been sitting side by side.
Seeming to assess me, he handed over one of two coffee mugs. “So, what’s the story here? How could your roommate possibly owe someone ninety thousand dollars? And why is it suddenly your problem?”
Biding my time in answering, I took a drink of the steamy beverage that tasted of warm sugar and butter. “Wow, you weren’t kidding about this drink.”
“Don’t change the subject.”
I sighed. The alcohol had an immediate, numbing, welcome effect as it soaked through me. “My roommate, the little one with brown hair – her name is Sarah, by the way – well, she has a bit of a drug problem.”
“Ahh…” By his look, Mason needed no further explanation.
“So, she’s racked up this bill with the wrong people.”
“The ones who broke in?”
I nodded. “Those are the ones.”
“And why don’t you just call the cops?”
I scowled. “Seriously? People who have ninety grand worth of coke are usually rule-breakers. If we ran to the police, we’d probably have to keep running for the rest of our lives. You should know that. You’re the one who hangs out in - places like this...”
He laughed at my judgmental indiscretion. “Places like this, huh? Were you born with a silver spoon in your mouth, or what?” When I refused to meet his gaze, he sobered. “You were! Then why not just get the money from your parents?”
Parents. Plural. “Well, that’s basically what I’m doing,” I whispered, thinking about the jewelry.
“Ah, I’m sorry.” Mason shook his head, irritated with himself. “I’m such an ass sometimes.”
“It’s alright that I’m an ass?” He grinned at me. “You’re okay with that?”
I couldn’t help but smile in response to his coy and confident nature. Snuggling back into the sofa and sipping my buttered rum, I glanced at him furtively and bartered. “As long as you help me out.”
Mason chose that moment to drink the rest of his rum, never taking his eyes away from my face as he did so. The moment was calm and somehow restless. Calm because there wasn’t a negative thought in the entire room. Restless because my future was reliant on whatever information he could give me about the world of black-market pawn shops.
After setting his cup down, he leaned back slowly and put his boots on the table, one balanced on top of the other. Whatever non-platonic thoughts he had were evident in the softness of his response. “And how exactly can I help you out?”
My cheeks brightened. “Alright, well, here’s the thing. I have this necklace that used to belong to my mom. It’s the only thing I own that’s worth anything. If I can sell it, I would be able to pay these guys.”
“And you thought I could help you because...”
Honesty – a virtue? “Because you’re the only person I know with connections.”
“Connections.” The word fell flat. “Like, criminal connections?”
I shrugged admittance.
“Because I used to be in prison, you figured I might know a guy? Like I could call in a favor?”
With a grimace, I admitted, “Yeah, basically.”
He seemed to be waiting for more of an explanation, so I babbled on about how diamonds have serial numbers and how these particular diamonds are registered under my Dad’s name. “It’s not like I can just visit any pawn shop and walk out with a suitcase full of money. And even if they would be willing to buy them, I don’t want my dad finding out.”
“I figured your dad would be the first person you’d tell about all of this.”
I sighed deeply. “If he knew anything, he’d send a swat team to rescue me. And that would leave Cat and Sarah at the mercy of these thugs.”
Someone turned on the sound system then. A cheerful acoustic number began to play lightly in the background. Hand drums accompanied deadpan lyrics.
Mason leaned forward, following my lead as I set my cup on the table next to his. “You know this song?”
He must have noticed my interest pique. “It sounds familiar.”
“I think it’s about going crazy.”
“No wonder I like it so much.”
He laughed. “You’re into music?”
“On a song by song basis.”
Mason offered to get us refills and headed back to the bar. I was already feeling quite warm, my tongue was feeling loose. More alcohol - especially after the wine from earlier - might be a bad idea. I would drink slow.
Later, after finishing our drinks, we decided to embark on a game of pool and found an open table in the center of the room where everyone would be witness to my clumsy game. But if I was worried that Mason would show me up, I shouldn’t have been. He was worse than me. After ten minutes, it was still undecided who would be stripes and who would be solids.
“Is this your first time?” I asked him, laughing.
“You know...” he answered sheepishly, “That would make this less embarrassing. But no, I’ve actually played a lot these last months. I think you just make me nervous.” He grabbed the chalk and touched up the tip of his pool stick as though that was going to make all the difference.
Truth was, I loved that I could affect him. Though I wished it could be a different effect.“I make you nervous?”
“Yeah.” He took a shot and missed horribly. Rolled his eyes. “Look at you.”
I glanced down at my boots, my jeans. I was still wearing my coat; my hair was in a bun directly on top of my head. With a pair of glasses, I would look like a snobby librarian. “What about me?”
Mason laughed. “I’m not talking about your clothes. It’s the way you hold yourself. Like nobody can hide from you. You see it all. And you’re not worried about breaking hearts. You’re honest.”
A fault by many standards.
“It’s your turn.” Mason re-chalked.
I rested my stick in the webbing of my left hand. Took a chancy shot. A ball found its way into the corner pocket. I gloated. “Ha! Solids,” I called, reaching for the chalk.
Mason handed it to me, letting our hands touch for a second too long. “You just lost.”
His knowing smile warmed me more than the alcohol. “What?”
“That was the eight ball,” he laughed.
For a split second, I thought about throwing a tantrum. I never lost. But breaking my stick over my knee would probably make things worse. Plus, I was trying to save money, not spend it. “What was in those drinks?” I asked by way of passing the blame for my loss.
Mason took my stick and set it gently on the table.
“It was the alcohol,” I insisted, following him from the bar.
“Uh-huh,” he agreed.
We walked the stretch of street back to my apartment. I wished he would hold my hand. At my front doors, he fixed my collar and smiled. “I’ll see what I can do about finding a buyer,” he told me in a serious tone.
“You think you can?”
“Well, I’m not making any promises.” He shrugged and leaned slightly closer so that I could smell his brand of soap. “But I’ll try and figure something out. I owe you,” he added.
Mason’s suspicious comment followed me all the way upstairs where my note was still secured to the outside of my door.
I owe you…
Why would he say that?
Sarah’s cookies were on a plate in the kitchen. I ate them to stave off a hangover and found my way to my computer. Blame the alcohol or my basic weakness – but whatever the reason, I decided to get on the game.
I wanted to know if Smith had sent me mail.
I wanted to know if he was on to talk to.
I second guessed thinking we couldn’t be friends.