Hereabouts commercial enterprises began interrupting residentials on North Ninth in the sixties, since interrupted themselves by economic uneventfulness. The small frame houses once timid and watchful among Real Estate offices and furniture storages and interior design centers become the solid edifices as business vacancies multiply. Sidewalks are mildewed and grainy from years of rain, borders lost from decay and domestic animal pathways beneath the city's accumulated detritus.
He observes the two story garage apartment, singular in its oversized lot as if bereft of a master house from some dim unremembered catastrophe. There is, of all things, a large garden, maintained by persons unknown. The Fury slowly passes, then makes the block and comes up again even more slowly.
The twin brown garage doors, running the greater length of the front wall, are closed. Illumination from the upstairs window strains through a single draped curtain, washworn and abscess-pink. He parks down the curb a respectful distance and moves carefully upon the grass beside the sidewalk, hands tight in his pockets. Passing the door once, he makes a quick check on neighboring windows for unbidden eyes.
He stops before the door. A glass pane shows a stark varnished wooden stairwell and another door at the top, starkly shadowed from the light bulb dangling from a frayed cord. A place Mac has seen before.
But only in passing by. He would not be able to count the number of times he has traipsed along this sidewalk and paused to peer in. And dutifully moved on.
Tonight is the night.
After two rounds of knocking he hears movement upon the joisted floor. The top door opens and there is a woman. She looks down the stairs with nothing on her face and closes the door again.
Ten minutes of steady knocking produces her once more. When she reaches the bottom of the stairs to unlatch the outer door she does not appear to be angry. "I aint working tonight," she says, trudging back up the stairs.
There is a soiled-clothing odor to the squat carpetings of the living room. Two lamps sit upon very low end tables. The upper regions of the room are distant, dark. Mac eases down onto the couch. The woman goes directly through a curtained doorway. Everything is old in the way anything two generations past is old. A small black and white TV is on, the sound replaced by a nearby portable radio turned low. An uncurtained window opens to the back, away from the street, a black sketch of tree leaves and strangled stars.
"I told you I aint working tonight. I don't know what you're doing here." She stands by the TV, smoking. Annie shows the fat of nervous mindless eating, noted with alarm in the mirror every second or third day and inspiring healthless fasts. She has a robe on; Mac has already caught glimpses of underwear in flaps as she turns. Helpless, she is, female and bountiful, to cover everything constantly.
Her face is of the kind that merits one brief catch in looking through old high school yearbooks before turning the page.
"Yeah, well you know. Just thought I'd stop by. I didn't know exactly which days you. . uh, worked." Mac strains to stay politely conversational, not reaching for his wallet yet, though he feels like he's supposed to. "Been to the Coney Isle lately? Aint seen you there lately."
"Oh, yeah, I have partaken of their fine cuisine numerously lately. Particularly the slip au gratin."
"Huh. I never had that. Listen, did that guy Jimmy Lee ever come over here to see you? I told him about you."
Annie winces, as if summarily presented with a caricaturist's figure of her life. "What's he look like?"
"About my size. Brown-headed. Got a messed up nose."
"Some older than me. A little." Mac looks at her with puzzlement. "How old are you, Annie?"
"Hah. Don't remind me." She remembers one with a knifed nose, but he'd been at least fifty. Maybe fifty-five. She asks for the money. Mac stands up, relieved. "That's a big tip," she says. "Did I imply more than I meant to?"
His glance toward the curtained doorway has a painful timid obviousness.
Annie sighs "I wasn't even going to answer the door." She doesn't move.
They stand off. The DJ's voice cuts into the song. When Mac goes into the pitiful puppy act she tells him to quit.
In the back room there is incense burning in service of the various aforenoted odors. "Look, there's some technical difficulties. You understand that, don't you Mac?" Her voice is almost soft, somewhere in it a schoolteacher's tone. With Mac this seems somehow necessary. "Your mother ever explain to you about girls?"
He looks at her a moment. "Uh, yeah. I got a sister."
"Uh. Different equipment?"
"Yeah, sort of."
"That's sort of the point of why I'm here."
"Why aincha just see your girlfriend?" She watches him, wishes she hadn't said it. "Sore point, huh? Well, I get that one a lot, let me tell you. But I warn you, too much talking and I close shop early, understand?"
She steps past him to cut the lamps and then into the bathroom, leaving the door open. Mac sits still in a chair, hears the flush. When the phone rings she comes back out.
The conversation takes half an hour. Mac manages not to listen by humming softly to himself.
She returns without apology, noticing him there as if he had just appeared. Killing her cigarette she drops her robe on the floor, back turned.
"Put it back on a minute, please." She bends groaning, re-robes. Mac stands. Very edgily he advances to removes the robe himself, then the brassiere. There's a painful, scripted sense to the procedures. She shifts legs impatiently through the ordeal of his pulling the overtight briefs down.
Mac is there a moment, watching, contemplating the ancient vortex itself.
Shortly he notices the string hanging down. He reaches.
"Uh-uh!" Annie slaps his hand away. "I told you." She walks on her knees across the bed, collapsing at the head. He undresses and moves in beside her. She reaches down for him, finds work to be done. "Look. There's going to have to be some arrangements. What do you think you paid for?"
"Uh, the usual."
"Well as I have showed you, there is a temporary impediment. That may not be an impediment for you, and believe you me, there's enough of them who only want it on a day of the red flag, but that aint me. And it costs extra. More than that tip."
"I had to pay my car note."
"Now is that my fault?
"Could you uh, put 'em back on?"
"What? Put what?"
"You know. . .your. . .under--"
"You can't say what ladies wear to cover their pussy?" Mac's face reddens, deeply. She hovers on the edge, but manages not to laugh. "O.K. then." She stands up and dons her apparel unceremoniously. "But it's a rule. You have to do yourself if you can't say that word."
Mac looks for all the world like a child being punished by having his lunch withheld.
The wind comes up outside, spreading gauzelike curtains into the room.
Annie stands and smokes another cigarette while Mac dutifully fulfils her prescription. Finished, he is lying with eyes closed. "Hey boy--don't you dare go to sleep."
"Just getting my breath."
Annie lies down, too lazy to get dressed again. She listens to the radio, still on in the next room. As the wind shifts she can hear the cars down on Louisville.
Anyone observing would have noticed the impish expression arrive on her face. In one quick swing she straddles Mac, hands and knees lifting her torso above him. Her face drops to his, cheek to cheek, lips to ear. Whispers loudly, "Panties! Panties!!"
Mac leaps up, hurriedly wiping himself off with kleenex from the side of the bed, loath to use her sheets. His face burns uncomfortably, helplessly, verging on permanence. He grapples with his belt, finding it hard to turn the doorknob. Annie is by now doubled over, laughing so hard there is no sound and no breathing.