Chapter 9 – An Agreement
When they awoke, Angel’s bruises were yellowing. The swelling in her face had gone down noticeably, and she was starting to look more like herself. Tommy stared at her in fascination. Before his eyes was the evidence of yet another one of her claims. She was healing at an incredible rate.
“You look better,” he commented.
“This was the worst,” she mumbled. “It’s taking a little longer than usual.”
Rubbing her eyes tentatively, she sat up, cleared her head, and stood by the couch. He followed her example and rose to his feet, awaiting her next command.
“Thanks for helping me,” she offered almost sullenly.
“What are you going to do next?”
“I got paid last Friday, but my rent was due. Then I bought some groceries I can no longer eat. There wasn’t much money left over, and I haven’t had time to build up my reserves. I hadn’t been in town long before you met me. I’m getting low on funds, but I’m not going back to my job. The chauvinist who runs the place won’t let me serve drinks looking like this. I don’t want people gawking at me and asking questions, anyway.”
Tommy listened patiently. He could see where her narrative was leading.
“I’ll just follow my circuit to Joplin, check into a shelter for battered women, and look for a job once my face is presentable. My jaw is still healing, but it won’t be long before I can get back to my mission.”
He lowered his head, and his hands hung down by his sides. Though he had little reason other than a few exchanges to expect better, and though she had never misled him, his imagination had been stimulated simply by knowing her. The prospect of losing what he did not rightfully own provoked him to sadness and disappointment. She had grown distant again, and his protective instinct was aroused.
“The coat you draped over me could have my toxin on it,” she reasoned, “and I don’t know how long it takes for the stuff to break down. I’ll get it washed for you before you leave. I owe you that much. I need to clean the rags I used on the tub, anyway. There’s a laundromat a couple of blocks from here.”
“No need to rush,” he disagreed impulsively. “I need to take care of some things. I can come back for it later. Do you need me to run any errands?”
A cynical smile preceded her answer.
“I’ll be alright. Don’t try to insinuate your way into my life.”
Aggravated by what he considered the unnecessary harshness of this response, he saluted brusquely and opened the door to leave.
“Wait, Tommy. You haven’t had anything to eat. Help yourself to the food in my refrigerator. You might as well. I can’t eat it.”
“No thanks. I know where to get what I need.”
Once outdoors, he foraged according to old habits. With discriminating taste, he selected his breakfast from a dumpster after steering away from two others. His meal showed great promise of staying down, but he was still hungry. There were still a couple of reliable stops he could make before picking up his check. Nobody would be by to open up the bar before early afternoon, and the meal he had consumed would at least fuel his journey on foot.
He arrived to a reception markedly different than what he had anticipated. The few fellow employees who were present avoided him by pretending to be busier than they were. By itself, this did not bother him. Their speech, just shy of abusive on most occasions, was normally an irritant, their modicum of restraint motivated more by fear than respect. That was it. Today, they were inordinately skittish, afraid of provoking him. If he blew up, great damage could be visited on property and limb. Something bad was coming, something with which they did not wish to be associated.
Suspiciously, Tommy entered the shabby office in the back. His boss was sorting through some bills and receipts and did not look up from the desk where he sat. The exaggerated air of importance he exuded during this mundane task was annoying. It conveyed an inappropriate rationale for what he was about to do. It was his tell, and he had treated other employees like this in the past.
“We’re gonna have to let you go, Tommy.”
There was still no eye contact.
“You and who else, Rick?”
This pointed use of his employer’s nickname was calculated to strip away any possibility of pretense. The man was deflecting responsibility, and he should not be allowed to get away with it. He bristled at the challenge and finally looked up.
“What you want me to say, Two-Tone?”
“Just that it was your decision. I’ll respect you more if you own it.”
A bead of sweat appeared on the bar owner’s otherwise impassive face. In consideration of his immediate safety, he felt possessed by a need to choose his next words carefully. Thinking of nothing, he remained mute.
“Was it the quality of my work, boss?”
“What’d you expect, anyway? Business is down. You make the customers nervous.”
“Same old same old,” Tommy snorted. “You haven’t got it in you to come up with anything original, do you? Just give me my pay, and you won’t see me again.”
“That’s the thing. There isn’t any pay.”
The hulk was growing angry, and he loomed over the desk.
“You mean you’re going to stiff me for my last two weeks of work.”
The smaller man squirmed but held to his untenable position. Greed had won out over common sense.
“You can’t prove I ever hired you. No paperwork, no records or tax withholdings. Go peacefully, kid. You break any bones or bust up my place, the police won’t have any trouble finding someone with your description.”
Tommy leaned over and slapped a massive hand on each shoulder. He felt his adversary tremble as he slowly clamped down.
“Have you ever considered that you might be pushing me past a line where I don’t care what happens?”
The trembling turned to outright convulsion, and he relaxed his grip.
“You haven’t reached it yet,” he laughed derisively. “Keep your money. You must need it more than I do.”
Leaving the premises, he encountered not one caustic remark. The ambience of the seedy room was almost reverential. As there was nowhere he needed to be by any particular deadline, his peregrinations for the rest of that day were to be undirected. A couple of dumpsters bore the brunt of his disappointment, and the gleanings did little to satisfy his appetite.
When he returned to Angel’s apartment early that evening, he knocked with more than a little trepidation. He heard movement on the other side as she got up and unlocked the door. It opened on a face of contrition. She lowered her eyes.
“I knew it was you by the sound of your steps in the hall. Come on in. I’m sorry for what I said before you left. It was rude, and you deserved better.”
“Don’t worry about it. I just came by for my jacket.”
“It’s on the table. Are you sure you can’t sit down and talk for awhile?”
There was nothing he wanted more. Baffled by the change in her demeanor, he took a seat next to her on the couch. She resumed what she had been doing before he knocked. Needle and thread in hand, she was repairing the tear in her coat. She must have done this previously with the rip in her orange “hunting” shirt, and this was probably a recurring task given her avocation. Tommy was perplexed by the domesticity of this scene. Incongruous with what he had witnessed the previous night, it revealed another facet in her character that had remained hidden until now.
“Why the change?”
“When you left this morning, something left with you.”
“But I left something behind, too, and I don’t mean my jacket.”
“Hush. I’m not done yet. It took me a few hours to figure out what it was.”
“You make me feel safe. Nobody else does.”
“Well, you make me feel accepted, but it’s more than that. Something I can’t explain surrounds us when we’re together.”
Pondering these concessions, they sat without speaking for a few minutes.
“I decided long ago that I can’t afford to need anyone,” she continued, “but I was vulnerable with you last night. This morning, I was ashamed of that. You were being helpful, and I pushed you away with my words to keep you from getting too close.”
He found that he was growing accustomed to the alteration in her diction.
“Angel, what do you want?”
“For right now, you can read to me if you’re willing. My book is on the table. You know the story.”
He got up and brought The Divine Comedy back to where she was sitting.
“Where do I start?”
“There’s a bookmark at the beginning of the correct Canto – Twenty-Seven, I think.”
“Hey, you’re making progress. You’re almost out.”
With the confidence of a child, she leaned against him. For all she had suffered, there was an air of purity about this young woman. Her fingers worked the needle and thread as he read aloud to her from The Purgatorio. For the moment, he was content, but he could not trust this emotional state given his personal history. Wrestling with doubts of her own, Angel squirmed and shifted her weight when he had completed the canto.
“Where is this heading, Tommy?”
“Paradise. You told me you’ve read it before.”
“No, I mean this.”
“I don’t know,” he answered resolutely. “I wasn’t thinking of ‘this’ going anywhere in particular. I’m not even sure what ‘this’ is. All I know is I want to be around you. That’s as close as I’ve ever come to making plans.”
“Are you offering to be my assistant?” she asked sadly. “Could you watch from a distance?”
“Could you walk away and come back later?”
“Not after what I saw last night.”
“Then what are our options?”
“I have to believe this isn’t the best that two intelligent people can come up with, Angel.”
“But what about my purpose? I can’t ignore my responsibility.”
As his stomach knotted up, an idea began germinating out of his frustration. There was nothing to lose, and all gambles were acceptable. He put forth his proposal.
“How about an agreement? You have to heal before doing any more hunting, right?”
She nodded cautiously.
“It’s a big universe. There could be options neither one of us has considered. Who knows? Maybe there really is a way into paradise. If we don’t find it by the time you’re better, you can tap out. Until then, I want to go where you go. I’ll do whatever I can to help you. After last night, I can’t stay in town, anyway.”
His throat was catching, and he took a hard swallow.
“I know I can’t force you into this, and I won’t try. I don’t want to become what you’re fighting.”
Her eyes were sympathetic almost to the point of pity.
“We can’t get physically involved.”
“That goes without saying.”
“And I can quit whenever I want?”
“Yes – no obligations you don’t want to make.”
“Then what happens to you if I opt out?”
“Nothing much different than what’s happened before – not that I wouldn’t be sad. I’m willing to risk that.”
“Why? I mean, why for someone as toxic as I am?”
Her meaning was more than physiological. He thought for a minute and smiled to himself.
“You mentioned your purpose, your calling. I didn’t have one – nothing that drove me beyond filling my stomach and occasionally sticking up for someone else. I do now, and it’s you.”
Her face betrayed no emotion, but she was touched by his confession. Stirred by opposing desires, she returned to her original question.
“But where is this heading, Tommy?”
He regarded her with tranquil resignation.
“Based on where you were planning to go next, I’d say south.”
The man unaccustomed to long term decisions had jumped over a proverbial cliff. In contradiction to the course of his past, he had made a decision to honor an open-ended commitment with no guarantee of reward. She, for her part, vacillated as her resolve slowly weakened. Against what she considered her better judgment, she was gravitating toward his proposal.
“There’s something else I need to say. Before you agree to anything, you should know you’re not the only one without money. I just lost my job.”
“Yeah? How come?”
“The usual. My boss must’ve gotten tired of looking at me. He wouldn’t even pay what he owed me – threatened to call the police if I gave him any trouble.”
She became worried.
“No, but I let him think I would before I left. Angel, my rent’s due, and I haven’t been paid. I have no money and no job. After what that oral surgeon did, the police might be looking for me. I might as well leave before I get evicted – or arrested.”
“How much stuff do you have?”
“It fits in one suitcase. Once I go back to gather it, I could be packed in less than half an hour.”
She sighed and rested the back of her head on his expansive chest.
“Look at you. You’re enormous. How am I going to feed you? Better read me that next Canto. Then you can lay waste to the refrigerator as long as you stay out of the baby food.”
“So you did a little shopping.”
“Yes I did,” she asserted in mock defiance. “Right after I went to the laundromat. Don’t worry. I wiped the inside of the washing machine I used with bleach. I always do.”
“Get any funny looks?”
Without further negotiation, they thus entered an environment of desperation and mysterious presence in which the impossible seemed likely. Hope and uncertainty wrestled fiercely as these entangled souls settled into they knew not what. The next few hours were to pass amicably. Reading and conversing together on the couch, the chimera and the Naga child harbored forbidden and unspoken dreams of normality.