I was disappointed. I was giving this guy free drinks to hear a mediocre soap opera and I wasn't certain how to get out of it. I opted for some tactical rudeness.
"Look, does this have a point? I should be closing up for the night."
Wuju gave me that familiar sad smile. "I'm rambling, huh?"
"Actually, you're perfectly coherent. It's just that I've heard this one before," I said. "Boy meets girl; girl ends up liking someone else better; boy comes and tells sad story to bartender. You're going to have to do better than that if you want any more free drinks."
This time Wuju actually laughed. He reached into his wallet and put a fifty on the bar between us. "Tell you what, Steve," he said, "let me finish. If it turns out that you really have heard this one before, you can keep the fifty."
I'm not a gambling man by nature, but I have sat in on the odd poker game from time to time. Wuju was looking at me with those dark feline eyes; his expression was the same one my little sister gets when she thinks she's holding a winning hand. If I had had any money of my own on the table -- or rather, the bar -- I would've called his bluff on the spot.
I looked at the bill. "It's your money," I told him. "You just bought yourself an audience."
"We'll see," replied Wuju smugly.
Okay, maybe you're wondering where I got the stones to presume this woman was falling for me. Or maybe you're not. In either event, the thought had crossed my mind. Hey, I was a Psych major; the possibility that I was indulging in a little wishful thinking was the first thing to occur to me. Like I said, being of romantic and slightly stupid nature, I'd made that sort of mistake before and I do try to learn from my mistakes after the fifth or seventh time. Except...
Except there were too many little things that kept trying to prove that theory wrong. Too many smoky glances, too many accidental caresses; too many friendly hugs that seemed to get longer and longer each time. The more I tried to convince myself that there was nothing between us, the more impossible it became.
I remember one night, about two-thirty, the pay phone outside our little donut stand rang. This was not at all unusual. In fact, it would've been unusual for it not to ring once or twice a week during our shift.
"It's for you," I said without going anywhere near the ringing phone. No doubt Phil was pulling another all-nighter and was taking a break to call his baby-doll. He'd been calling her at the pay phone ever since Kris, the owner of Haster's Donuts, had given me holy hell for taking a long personal call on the shop phone. Of course, I had received no such call; I had just chivalrously chosen to take the rap for my partner.
The mixer was on the fritz again and Janet was up to her elbows in batter.
"That man!" she grumbled. "He always picks the absolute worst times to call." She dripped batter all over the floor and counter as she rushed to wash her hands off.
"I could go take a message for you," I offered.
"I got it," she said hurrying out the door to the phone. I watched her run around the outside of the building. I loved the way she ran; all long-legged and graceful, like a gazelle with a ponytail.
Actually, I was glad I didn't have to talk to Phil. I had never met or even spoken to the man and was just as happy to keep it that way. The only thing I knew for sure about him was that, according to Janet, I reminded her of him sometimes. In any event, keeping him faceless was a good way of avoiding the trap of deluding myself into believing I was actually competing with him. Like I said, I do try to learn from my mistakes once in a very great while.
I contented myself with cleaning up the mess my partner had made in her frenzy to get to the phone. Once that was done, I returned to the cash register and refilled the creamers and sugar. Even though Phil's very existence made me fundamentally unsure of the concept of fairness in the universe, I wasn't above a little eavesdropping. I had to strain a little to hear her since she was outside and several yards away.
Janet glanced over, saw me at the window and shifted her weight from one leg to the other. "Listen, I left Wuju alone in the kitchen," I heard her say. "I should go before he really makes a mess." She laughed. "I love you too, kiddo."
She hung up and gave the phone a fond look that could've kept an entire castle warm and toasty all winter long.
"What'll it be?" I quipped when she came back and leaned across the counter.
"Give me one of the glazed ones, an orange juice and a cup of coffee."
"Let the bells ring! let the birds sing! Let's all give the substitute a big cheer!
"Let the bells ring! Let the birds sing! For the man after him waits here!"
The Tee Set, "Ma Belle Amie"
So I brought some donuts, OJ and coffee out for both of us and we had our lunch break.
"Plans for tomorrow?" I asked, tomorrow being Friday.
"Day or night?" asked Janet stirring her coffee.
I shrugged. "Either. Both."
"I have to go pick up a birthday present for What's His Name in the morning."
Somewhere along the line, Janet had taken to referring to Phil as What's His Name in my presence. That was odd, of course; most engaged women can't stop talking about their wonderful fiancés. If either of us was to be referring to him as What's His Face, one would think it would've been me. For my part, I tried not to refer to him at all.
"How about this then?" I suggested, "I pick you up at around noon, we go sleep on the beach, and then you buy dinner since it's your turn."
"Last time we slept on the beach, you got a dark gorgeous tan and I wound up looking like a Maine lobster. I'll sleep at home in my own bed, thank you," she scowled. "Dinner sounds like a plan, though. And, since it's my turn to pick, we can rent a couple of videos afterwards."
Movies had been a bit of a problem for us awhile there. I like comedy, action-adventures, sci-fi/fantasy, and horror, with the occasional animated feature thrown in for good measure. Janet favored documentaries, classic old movies, and dramas that usually featured someone dropping dead of LMD (Lingering Movie Disease). Luckily, we finally did find some common ground: We both liked mysteries, and we discovered that we were both die-hard fans of Patrick McGoohan's old Prisoner series. It was an evening of great rejoicing when those showed up on the shelves down at the local Illage Vidiot.
"Videos, huh?" I said. "Since I'm the one with the VCR, I guess that means I'll have to tidy up my lair. Let's see; make my bed, take out the garbage, vacuum the floor if I can find it..."
"Blowtorch your dirty laundry," volunteered Janet.
"...And blowtorch any of my dirty laundry that hasn't escaped yet," I finished. Setting fire to our dirty laundry was a running joke between us. Wash day for me was whenever Janet showed up at my door with her laundry, then we'd go to the laundromat together.
"Are you sure you don't want to go to the beach?" I asked. "I'll wake up and roll you over every half hour."
She laughed. Boy, did I love that laugh. "Thanks, but no thanks," she said. "Pick me up at six, kiddo."
Saying that, she gave me the same warm toasty look she had given the telephone a few minutes earlier and God was in His heaven, the price of borscht went down in Russia, and the Dodgers started winning games again. Except...
Except, the next thing I knew, she was suddenly real interested in the table top between us. "We better get back to work," was all she said.
Actually, business was real slow that week. The City Council had voted down a pay raise for the police, and the cops were staging a sick-out in protest. That cut our business by about two-thirds. We did have one more customer before the pre-dawn rush, however. It was one of our late night / early morning regulars, Arthur Robert Anson -- Art to his friends and customers. Art was a thin balding man, a widower, who ran an all-night magic shop down at Thirty-Fourth and Vine. He was a tall, kindly man who wore thick plastic-rimmed glasses. He was dressed in a gray short-sleeved shirt and green corduroys that were just short enough to reveal that he wore white socks under his brown loafers.
"How's business?" Janet and I asked in near-unison.
Art smiled and shook his head. "All I'm selling is that New Age Garbage these days. No one's interested in real Magic anymore."
Did I mention that Art claimed to be a real wizard?
"I'll have the usual," he said.
"One bear claw..." I started.
"...And one large coffee, black," finished Janet.
Art chuckled. "If you two keep finishing each other's sentences like that, people are gonna start having trouble telling you apart."
"That's what the name tags are for," I said tapping the pin on my shirt. The pin read Haster's Unspeakably Good Donuts and had my first name stamped beneath the slogan.
Art pretended to read our pins. "Tweedledee and Tweedledum," he said.
Janet and I glanced at each other. "I'm not Tweedledum," we said together, and that got all three of us laughing.
"That's it," said Janet finally. "We've gotta get our shifts changed before we start looking alike too."
"I don't know about that," said Art. "If you start looking like him, that would be a tragedy. On the other hand, if he starts looking like you..."
"One of me walking around is plenty," smiled Janet accepting the flattery gracefully.
She was dead wrong about that, of course. If there had been two Janet Blakes, then there would be no problem, I mused to myself. One for me, one for Phil, and the four of us could all live happily ever after. No problem. Except...
Except, of course, I was dead wrong about that. I was also laboring under a misconception about Art: He actually was a real wizard.
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