Lightning Page 14


Nearly every night, from about six o'clock until two in the morning, she hung around the comedy clubs-the Improv, the Comedy Store, and all their imitators-angling for a six-minute, unpaid shot on the stage, making contacts (or hoping to make them), competing with a horde of young comics for the coveted exposure.


She worked days to pay the rent, moving from job to job, some of them decidedly peculiar. Among other things she had worn a chicken suit and sung songs and waited tables in a weird “theme” pizza parlor, and she'd been a picket-line stand-in for a few Writers Guild West members who were required by their union to participate in a strike action but who preferred to pay someone a hundred bucks a day to carry a placard for them and sign their names on the duty roster.


Though they lived just ninety minutes apart, Laura and Thelma got together only two or three times a year, usually just for a long lunch or dinner, because they led busy lives. But regardless of the time between visits, they were instantly comfortable with each other and quick to share their most intimate thoughts and experiences. “The McIlroy-Caswell bond,” Thelma once said, “is stronger than being blood brothers, stronger than the Mafia covenant, stronger than the bond between Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, and those two are close.”


Now, after she listened to Laura's story, Thelma said, “So what's your problem, Shane? Sounds to me like some big, shy of a guy has a crush on you. Lots of women would swoon over this.”


“Is that what it is, though? An innocent crush?”


“What else?”


“I don't know. But it ... makes me uneasy.”


“Uneasy? These toads are all cute little things, aren't they? None of them is a snarling toad? None of them is holding a bloody butcher knife? Or a little ceramic chainsaw?”


“No.”


“He hasn't sent you any beheaded toads, has he?”


“No. but-”


“Shane, the last few years have been calm, though of course you've had a pretty eventful life. It's understandable that you'd expect this guy to be Charles Manson's brother. But it's almost a sure bet he's just what he appears to be-a guy who admires you from afar, is maybe a little shy, and has a streak of romance in him about eighteen inches wide. How's your sex life?”


“I don't have any,” Laura said.


“Why not? You're not a virgin. There was that guy last year-”


“Well, you know that didn't work out.”


“Nobody since?”


“No. What do you think-I'm promiscuous?”


“Sheesh! Kiddo, two lovers in twenty-two years would not make you promiscuous even by the pope's definition. Unbend a little. Relax. Stop being a worrier. Flow with this, see where it goes. He might just turn out to be Prince Charming.”


“Well . . . maybe I will. I guess you're right.”


“But, Shane?”


“Yeah?”


“Just for luck, from now on you better carry a .357 Magnum.”


“Very funny.”


“Funny is my business.”


During the following three days Laura received two more toads, and by Saturday morning, the twenty-second, she was equally confused, angry, and afraid. Surely no secret admirer would string the game out so long. Each new toad seemed to be mocking rather than honoring her. There was a quality of obsession in the giver's relentlessness.


She spent much of Friday night in a chair by the big living-room window, sitting in the dark. Through the half-open drapes, she had a view of the apartment building's covered veranda and the area in front of her own door. If he came during the night, she intended to confront him in the act. By three-thirty in the morning he had not arrived, and she dozed off. When she woke in the morning, no package was on the doorstep.


After she showered and ate a quick breakfast, she went down the outside stairs and around to the back of the building where she kept her car in the covered stall assigned to her. She intended to go to the library to do some research work, and it looked like a good day for being indoors. The winter sky was gray and low, and the air had a prestorm heaviness that filled her with foreboding-a feeling that intensified when she found another box on the dashboard of her locked Chevy. She wanted to scream in frustration.


Instead she sat behind the wheel and opened the package. The other figurines had been inexpensive, no more than ten or fifteen dollars each, some probably as cheap as three bucks, but the newest was an exquisite miniature porcelain that surely cost at least fifty dollars. However she was less interested in the toad than in the box in which it had come. It was not plain, as before, but imprinted with the name of a gift shop-Collectibles-in the South Coast Plaza shopping mall.


Laura drove directly to the mall, arrived fifteen minutes before Collectibles opened, waited on a bench in the promenade, and was first through the shop's door when it was unlocked. The store's owner and manager was a petite, gray-haired woman named Eugenia Farvor. “Yes, we handle this line,” she said after listening to Laura's succinct explanation and examining the porcelain toad, “and in fact I sold it myself just yesterday to the young man.” “Do you know his name?” “I'm sorry, no.” “What did he look like?”


“I remember him well because of his size. Very tall. Six five, I'd say. And very broad in the shoulders. He was quite well dressed. A gray pinstripe suit, blue and gray striped tie. I admired the suit, in fact, and he said it wasn't easy finding clothes to fit him.” “Did he pay cash?”


“Mmmmm . . . no, I believe he used a credit card.” “Would you still have the charge slip?” “Oh, yes, we usually run a day or two behind in organizing them and transferring them to the master ticket for deposit.” Mrs. Farvor led Laura past glass display cases filled with porcelains, Lalique and Waterford crystal, Wedgwood plates, Hummel figurines, and other expensive items, to the cramped office at the back of the store. Then she suddenly had second thoughts about sharing her customer's identity. “If his intentions are innocent, if he's just an admirer of yours-and I must say there seemed no harm in him; he seemed quite nice-then I'll be spoiling everything for him. He'll want to be revealing himself to you according to his own plan.”


Laura tried hard to charm the woman and win her sympathy. She could not recall ever having spoken more eloquently or with such feeling; usually she was not as good at vocalizing her feelings as she was at putting them down in print. Genuine tears sprang to her assistance, surprising her even more than they did Eugenia


Farvor.


From the MasterCard charge slip, she obtained his name- Daniel Packard-and his telephone number. She went directly from the gift shop to a public telephone in the mall and looked him up. There were two Daniel Packards in the book, but the one with that number lived on Newport Avenue in Tustin.


When she returned to the mall parking lot, a cold drizzle was falling. She turned up her coat collar, but she had neither a hat nor an umbrella. By the time she got to her car, her hair was wet, and she was chilled. She shivered all the way from Costa Mesa to North Tustin.


She figured there was a good chance he would be at home. If he was a student, he would not be in class on Saturday. If he worked an ordinary nine-to-five job, he would probably not be at the office, either. And the weather ruled out many of the usual weekend pastimes for outdoor-oriented southern Californians.


His address was an apartment complex of two-story, Spanish-style buildings, eight of them, in a garden setting. For a few minutes she hurried from building to building on winding walkways under dripping palms and coral trees, looking for his apartment. By the time she found it-a first-floor, end unit in the building farthest from the street-her hair was soaked. Her chill had deepened. Discomfort dulled her fear and sharpened her anger, so she rang his bell without hesitation.


He evidently did not peek through the fisheye security lens, for when he opened the door and saw her, he looked stunned. He was maybe five years older than she, and he was a big man indeed, fully six feet five, two hundred and forty pounds, all muscle. He was wearing jeans and a pale-blue T-shirt smeared with grease and spotted with another oily substance; his well-developed arms were formidable. His face was shadowed by beard stubble and smudged with more grease, and his hands were black.


Carefully staying back from the door, beyond his reach, Laura simply said, “Why?”


“Because . . .” He shifted from one foot to the other, almost too big for the doorway in which he stood. “Because ...”


“I'm waiting.”


He wiped one grease-covered hand through his close-cropped hair and seemed oblivious of the resultant mess. His eyes shifted away from her; he looked out at the rain-lashed courtyard as he spoke. “How . . . how'd you find out it was me?”


“That's not important. What's important is that I don't know you, I've never seen you before, and yet I've got a toad menagerie that you've sent me, you come around in the middle of the night to leave them on my doorstep, you break into my car to leave them on the dashboard, and it's been going on for weeks, so don't you think it's time I knew what this is all about?”


Still not looking at her, he flushed and said, “Well, sure, but I didn't . . . wasn't ready . . . didn't think the time was right.”


“The time was right a week ago!”


“Ummmm.”


“So tell me. Why?”


Looking down at his greasy hands, he said quietly, “Well, see ...”


“Yes?”


“I love you.”


She stared at him, incredulous. He finally looked at her. She said, “You love me? But you don't even know me. How can you love a person you've never met?”


He looked away from her, rubbed his filthy hand through his hair again, and shrugged. “I don't know, but there it is, and I ... uh ... well, ummmm, I have this feeling, see, this feeling that I've got to spend the rest of my life with you.”


With cold rainwater trickling from her wet hair down the nape of her neck and along the curve of her spine, with her day at the library shot-how could she concentrate on research after this insane scene?-and with more than a little disappointment that her secret admirer had turned out to be this dirty, sweaty, inarticulate lummox, Laura said, “Listen, Mr. Packard, I don't want you sending me any more toads.”


“Well, see, I really want to send them.”


“But I don't want to receive them. And tomorrow I'll mail back the ones you've sent me. No, today. I'll mail them back today.”


He met her eyes again, blinked in surprise, and said, “I thought you liked toads.”


With growing anger, she said, “I do like toads. I love toads. I think toads are the cutest things in creation. Right now I even wish I were a toad, but I don't want your toads. Understand?”


"Ummmm.


“Don't harass me, Packard. Maybe some women surrender to your weird mix of heavy-handed romance' and sweaty macho charm, but I'm not one of them, and I can protect myself, don't think I can't. I'm a lot tougher than I look, and I've dealt with worse than you.”


She turned away from him, walked out from under the veranda into the rain, returned to her car, and drove back to Irvine. She shook all the way home, not only because she was wet and chilled but because she was in the grip of anger. The nerve of him!


At her apartment she undressed, bundled up in a quilted robe, and brewed a pot of coffee with which to ward off the chills.


She had just taken her first sip of coffee when the phone rang. She answered it in the kitchen. It was Packard.


Speaking so rapidly that he ran his sentences together in long gushes, he said, “Please don't hang up on me, you're right, I'm stupid about these things, an idiot, but give me just one minute to explain myself, I was fixing the dishwasher when you came, that's why I was such a mess, greasy and sweaty, had to pull it from under the counter myself, the landlord would have fixed it, but going through management takes a week, and I'm good with my hands, I can fix anything, it was a rainy day, nothing else to do, so why not fix it myself, I never figured you to show up. My name's Daniel Packard, but you know that already, I'm twenty-eight, I was in the army until ”73, graduated from the University of California at Irvine with a degree in business just three years ago, work as a stockbroker now, but I take a couple night courses at the university, which is how I came across your story about the toad in the campus literary magazine, it was terrific, I loved it, a great story, really, so I went to the library and searched through back issues to find everything else you'd written, and I read it all, and a lot of it was good, damned good, not all of it, but a lot. I fell in love with you somewhere along the way, with the person I knew from her writing, because the writing was so beautiful and so real. One evening I was sitting there in the library reading one of your stories-they won't let anyone check out back issues of the literary magazine, they have them in binders, and you have to read them in the library-and this librarian was passing behind my chair, and she leaned over and asked if I liked the story, I said I did, and she said, 'Well, the author's right over there, if you want to tell her it's good,' and there you were just three tables away with a stack of books, doing research, scowling, making notes, and you were gorgeous. See, I knew you would be beautiful inside because your stories are beautiful, the sentiment in them is beautiful, but it never occurred to me that you'd be beautiful outside, too, and there was no way I could approach you because I've always been tongue-tied and stumble-footed around beautiful women, maybe because my mother was beautiful but cold and forbidding, so now maybe I think all beautiful women will reject me the way my mother did-a little half-baked analysis there-but it sure would've been a lot easier for me if you'd been ugly or at least plain looking. Because of your story I thought I'd use the toads, that whole secret admirer bit with the gifts, as a way to soften you up, and I planned to reveal myself after the third or fourth toad, I really did, but I kept delaying because I didn't want to be rejected, I guess, and I knew it was getting crazy, toad after toad after toad, but I just couldn't stop it and forget you, yet I wasn't able to face you, either, and that's it. I never meant you any harm, I sure didn't mean to upset you, can you forgive me, I hope you can.“ He stopped at last, exhausted. She said, ”Well."


He said, “So will you go out with me?” Surprised by her own response, she said, “Yes.” “Dinner and a movie?” “All right.”


“Tonight? Pick you up at six?” “Okay.”

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