USE AND ABUSE
by Serena Alibhai
"Bloodsuckers," I said to young Charles, who tightly hung on to my hand. "That's what they are. Don't touch. "
He wrinkled his nose tightly in an effort to push up his glasses. "What genus?"
God, I didn't even know its species. But Charles was looking up at me, a mouth full of popcorn and face full of adoration. "Chronosapius," I said, making it up after noticing the African pavilion's sign, "African Chronicles".
We were at the zoo, and in an effort to hasten relations with a single forty-year old widow named Ester, I offered to take out her nephew. Charles walked, with his double-breasted coat, as if he were a grown man, Napoleon-like, only he didn't wear one of those long boat-like hats.
He and I walked through the zoo as if we were old colleagues, finally catching up on our lives after absensure. He looked around, suggested where to go, even strolled with his hands held behind his back, seemingly enjoying our silences. But the fact was, he was only a kid, and I was babysitting with hopes of a kiss one day as payment. I had agreed.
Where along my history had I forgot that critical lesson of keeping my big mouth shut? Maybe I was just getting desperate. It had been years since I had a date. And Ester had just moved into town. She possessed the attractiveness of things unknown and mysterious. I assumed she saw the same in me, but before I wore off as a novelty, I had to get in there – for as long as I could manage to stay, and with minimal tears and rage near the end, because for me, that was how things ended with most women.
"Lets go see the lions," Charles suggested. A fluff of cotton candy, probably from the East Indian family walking by, had landed and stuck on the top of his head. I looked at the pink puff, watching it wave in the wind.
"Okay, just the lions, and then we have to go," I said, gently pushing his back. "Your aunty Ester is expecting you back soon. "
"Do you know what's for dinner?"
My mind wandered into a short reverie. I imagined what was for dessert. Delicious.
"Walter?" Charles tugged at my corduroy jacket. "I hope it's Shepard's pie with caramel pudding for dessert," he said. I nodded.
"You sound like you love your aunty Ester's cooking," I said. The female lion lay like a Queen on a slope, with the male underneath, pacing. "Is she a good cook?"
"Yes," Charles said. He smiled at me, and turned back to the lions. The cotton candy flew off of his head. "She's excellent. Especially at the cook-offs. "
"What are the cook-offs?"
"When we get family reunions, in the summer, we do barbecues, and Aunty Ester always makes this special coca-cola chicken for the kids and beer-chicken for the adults,"
"She puts cola and beer on the chicken?"
"No," Charles laughed. A male lion tried to climb the slope, until the female roared a warning. The maned lion descended, with what looked like a pout.
"She stands whole chickens on top of open cans of cola and beer inside the grill. Then she throws away the cans. They're burnt anyways, she showed me. "
For a moment, I wished I was on my recliner or sitting on the can, not the zoo, thinking about what Ester would cook for me. I could almost smell the barbecue, the spices roasting, the salt, the garlic, the pepper and the ice-cold beer she'd bring me. Greek salad. No. Potato Salad. Or no. Better yet, roasted potatoes on the side. With corn and fresh biscuits. Fresh butter. I should have married back when everyone else was doing it. Now I was hungry.
"Are you done?" I asked Charles. He had struck up a friendship with a boy next to him and they were laughing about the lions. The male was still trying to ascend. The female still insisted that he stay right where he was – below her.
"Look at the big lion," Charles said, pointing. "He looks like he's grumbling!"
"Oh, yes," I said, "look at that. " I looked at my wristwatch. It was only two-thirty and dinner was at five, but this Zoo trip was getting exhausting. A five-year-old girl wailed, trailing behind her parents. She held a half-eaten candy apple in one hand and a doll with matted hair in the other.
Charles wanted to see the tigers next. There were supposed to be two, but there was only one visible, and Charles was disappointed.
"Don't worry," I said, "I'm sure the other one hasn't died or anything. "
Charles nodded, agreeing with me. "You know, my Aunty Ester said you were really nice. "
My ears perked up upon hearing her name. She had such a great body, I was sure she didn't even wear girdles under her dresses. She probably took care of her body –eating fruits and vegetables and drinking herbal tea. Ester was unquestionably, a classy lady.
"What did she say about me?" I said. I wanted my tone to sound cool, even for this eight-year old kid.
"She said that you were nice to talk to and really smart," he said.
I wasn't that smart, but what she didn't know wouldn't hurt the woman. This was good, I thought. "What else?"
"That you'd could walk me to school every morning and after school, walk me back since you don't have a job anymore," he said. "That tiger just licked herself!" he said, giggling.
"Yeah, okay," I said. "What else did she say?"
"She said that you were probably responsible since you owned your own house and car. "
House and car? First off, I wanted to tell him, that was no reason to be interested in someone. And besides that, I didn't even own my attached duplex. Who was this blasted kid and where did he and his aunt get their information from?
"And she and my mother are always so happy when they talk about you at night. The laugh so much, they are so happy. They say that you have to pay! You have to pay on your head! They laugh and laugh. They really like you," he said, stuffing a handful of popcorn into his mouth.
So Ester and her sister were making fun of my hairpiece. A low blow to say the least. It was women who caused the premature balding in the first place, causing all kinds of worries and stresses on our part, and now these very women were making fun behind my back. It made me wonder what kind of insensitive creatures I was dealing with. I was a human being too. Just like them. I deserved a little respect. Not backtalk and underhanded jokes. Respect. I turned back to Charles. He pushed up his glasses, leaving a fingerprint on the left lens.
"What did your Aunty Ester think of the flowers I sent her last week?" I asked, deflated.
"Those red ones?"
"No. They weren't red. They were yellow. Carnations. "
"Oh. The yellow ones came after the red ones. The yellow ones tipped over and fell. We had to throw them away. "
"Because they fell?"
"No. Because after they fell no one picked them up," he said, his eyeballs looking to the left, remembering. "And then the Lucy ripped them up. So we had to throw them away. "
I kept my anger inside. No wonder there were no carnations visible when he got Charles in the morning. The dog had desecrated them. What was wrong with these ladies? Maybe Ester wasn't what the woman with everything. It figured. Too good to be true. It always seemed to work out like that.
I finally got Charles out of the zoo after another pavilion. We arrived at Ester's at four o'clock.
She answered the door in a summer dress. There was no question; this woman had curves in all the right places. She bent down to hug her nephew.
"Walter," she whispered, leading her into the kitchen, "I hope he wasn't too much of a handful. He's usually okay, but he's still an eight year old. "
"He was the best," I replied, ruffling Charles' hair, and watching him run off to his mother, who sat in the family room with the remote and a bowl of popcorn.
A vase of red roses, as plump as fists, stood tall next to her. She waved, I waved back. Ester and I walked into the kitchen. She turned to pick up a napkin that fell on the kitchen floor. I'd forgive Ester for making a joke of my toupee. That dress tugged at all the right places. I was losing my mind; I imagined how it would be to squeeze that butt of hers. To nuzzle against her neck, to smell her perfume up close – the scent mingled in with her own body scent.
"Where'd you get the roses?" I asked.
"The ones in the vase. In the family room. "
"Oh. Those. "
"They were a present from my sister's current flame," she said. "Since her divorce, men have been trying to get in," she pulled the air with her fingers, pinching quotation marks, "but she's got Charles to worry about, and she doesn't want to get hurt again, so those flowers just sort of slipped by somehow. "
My eyes zoomed in on her lips. I loved how she pronounced 'slipped': with so much 's'. The sound could have borderlined on scratching fingernails across a chalkboard – that's how slithery her 's''s were. But that was Ester. As woman as she wanted to be. And the good news was that the flowers weren't for her.
"Are we still on for dessert and drinks at the Deco Bar after dinner?" I asked.
"Oh," she said, turning around. "I wanted to tell you-"
"We've already got reservations," I said, moving closer to her.
"Do you?" she asked. "Well, I really want to go, and we can still go," she said, "there's just one thing. "
"Name it. " Her breasts were staring right at me. I wished we were alone.
"I actually," she whispered, pointing towards the family room, "told my sister that I'd help her clean her garage after dinner. "
"Oh, why didn't you say anything in the morning?"
"That’s the thing! I forgot. I'm totally embarrassed. She just mentioned it. But listen I was thinking, dinner won't be ready for another hour, and while I make this – ", she pointed to the counter filled with washed, unchopped vegetables, "- salad, maybe we could take a rain check? It's just that the garage has got to be cleared up by tonight, since I want to park my car in the garage tomorrow, it's going to snow, and –"
I interrupted, pressing my hand on her shoulder. "I've got an idea. I'll just clean it right now, before dinner. Then we can go out after. "
"Walter, it's a real mess. I can't ask you to come here and –"
"Take me there. No problem," I said, looking into her eyes. She smiled. I couldn't wait to be alone with this woman.
The garage was not a garage. It was a room filled to the brim with about one thousand plastic bags filled with about, oh, lets estimate, about half a million glass bottles, cans and plastic bottles. There was gardening equipment (rakes, hoes, shovels and a lawnmower), crates of used books, toys and so many other miscellaneous items, that it was a wonder that even their one Japanese car could fit. I spent two hours cleaning that garage, trying to make room for a second car in that triple-car garage.
At seven o'clock, Ester stuck her head out into the garage from inside the house. "Walter," she urged, "Leave that garage alone! We forgot you were out here, can you believe that?"
"No," I said.
"Get in here, dinner's been ready for ages. "
"Okay," I said. I looked down at my hands. They were covered with soot. My face was itchy, but I couldn't scratch.
It took ten minutes to wash all the dirt from under my fingernails, and as I stood cleaning in the kitchen, Charles sniffed and let me know that I smelled badly. I ate on the counter, Ester and her sister apologized. The kid was right. The food was great.
That night, Ester and I decided that we were too tired to go out. "Rain check?" I asked, before I left her home.
"Of course, Walter," she said. "Thanks again for doing what you did out there," she sighed. "In the garage. "
Charles walked me out along with his aunt.
"It was nothing," I said. I turned to walk to my car.
"Oh, Walter," Charles called. I looked back and squinted my eyes. "I was wondering," he said, "there's a new amusement park that just opened. Would you take me?"
"Sure," I said.
"That's so nice of you, Walter!" Ester exclaimed.
She smiled and shut the door. Walking to my car, I realized that I'd let my lights on. My battery was dead. I looked back to the house. The lights in the main floor of the house shut off. They must be getting ready for bed, I thought.
I tried my car again and sighed when the engine sputtered.
It wasn't a long walk home, it only took me about half an hour. But then again, my pace was slow.